The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has announced that it is providing $120 million in grants to help small farmers in the developing world produce more food.
The announcement came in billionnaire-philanthropist Bill Gates' address October 15th to the World Food Prize symposium in Iowa, just ahead of Friday's World Food Day observance. In his first major speech on agricultural development, Gates said Africa had been left behind in the 20th century's great improvements in agricultural production.
Poor farmers are the solution, not the problem
But he said there is no reason for so many farmers in Africa to be hungry.
"Poor farmers are not a problem to be solved," he said. "They are the solution, the best answer for a world that is fighting hunger and poverty and trying to feed a growing population. If farmers can get what they need to feed their families and sell their surplus, hundreds of millions of the poorest people can build themselves a better life."
The grants will go to promote small farmers' access to better food crops such as higher yielding sorghum and millet and pest-resistant, nutrient-rich sweet potatoes. They will help African governments support school meal programs and connect them with local farmers.
Focus on food policy
But they also go beyond the farmers themselves. One $15 million grant supports think tanks, universities, and public research centers to develop the government policies that affect farmers' lives.
Akin Adesima is vice president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the group receiving that $15 million grant. He says that since the 1980s, major donors outside the continent have set African agricultural policies.
"They were not home-grown," he says. "They were not locally relevant. And what was being prescribed was one size fits all. What we are talking about today is that we want to put the African institutions and governments in the driving seat of setting policies."
Decries environmental groups' "ideological wedge" tactics
In his speech, Bill Gates criticized some environmental groups for driving what he called an ideological wedge between groups fighting world hunger.
"They've tried to restrict the potential use of biotechnology in sub-Saharan Africa," Gates said, "without regard to how much hunger and poverty might be reduced by it or what the farmers themselves might want."
The Microsoft founder and philanthropist said the Gates Foundation is supporting conventional and biotech breeding methods to produce crops that will withstand drought, floods, and disease.
Competing visions of the future
Environmental groups came out against Gates's statement. Many oppose the Western, industrialized system of agriculture that relies heavily on purchased seeds and fertilizers. Spokeswoman Márta Vetier from the European arm of the environmental group Greenpeace said farmers should rely on their own seed.
"In Africa we know that there are many local varieties, as all over the world as well," she says. "It's true that with industrial agriculture we are losing these varieties and this is a process that should be stopped. Greenpeace believes the future really lies in locally developed seeds and seed varieties that the people can grow."
Biotechnology is a small part of the Gates Foundation's $1.4 billion agricultural development portfolio. In this, his first public foray into agriculture policy, Gates said improving African agriculture must be guided by small farmers, adapted to local circumstances, and sustainable both economically and environmentally. But his support for biotech is the aspect that will likely draw the most controversy. It remains to be seen what techniques African farmers will embrace as they deal with a growing population and a changing climate.