Thursday, February 19, 2009

Is Bill Gates a Menace to Poor Farmers?

Note: I wrote this essay for the Breakthrough Institute Blog. This first appeared here. The Breakthrough Institute, founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, is a progressive think tank focusing on environmental issues.

Question: What is the "greatest threat to farmers in the developing world"? Is it (a) grinding poverty, or (b) global warming, or (c) low farm productivity, or (d) drought?

Well, according to noted environmentalist icon, Vandana Shiva, it is none of the above. Addressing a recent conference of the Slow Food Movement in San Francisco, Shiva claimed that the "greatest threat to farmers in the developing world" was none other than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Yes, Microsoft founder Bill Gates' Gates Foundation. The reason for such ire? Apparently, it is because the Gates Foundation has committed the sin of attempting to fight poverty in Africa through technological transformation. Through the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the Gates Foundation has sought to increase agricultural productivity in Africa through technology. This, some environmentalists believe in their infinite wisdom, represents the "greatest threat to farmers in the developing world"

The Green Revolution

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, there took place a transformation in agriculture in many developing countries in Asia and Latin America (but largely bypassed Africa). New High Yielding Varieties (HYV) of seeds suited for local conditions were developed, and these, accompanied by other technological and infrastructural inputs like chemical fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation systems, yielded huge increases in food production, thereby staving off the Malthusian specter of widespread famine caused by a growing population outstripping food supply.

Good or Bad?

For many years the Green Revolution was seen as a spectacular success by much of the world. One of its pioneers, the American scientist Norman Borlaug, became a household name in many developing countries and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize (though he remains largely unknown in his own country).

In recent decades, the Green Revolution has come under increasing criticism from environmentalists for its heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Some environmentalists go so far as to describe the Green Revolution as an unmitigated disaster.

I feel that the environmentalist critique of the Green Revolution is unduly harsh. For all its faults, the Green Revolution was largely successful in staving off widespread hunger and famine in many parts of the world. Perhaps the Green Revolution was a victim of its own success. It has been so successful that an entire generation has grown up for whom large-scale famine is unthinkable, almost unimaginable, and who are hence not able to fully appreciate what the Green Revolution has achieved.

Environmentalists who call for reversing the Green Revolution and reverting to the the "purity" of traditional agricultural technologies and traditional economic systems are guilty of severely downplaying the human cost of putting brakes on development and progress.

Consider the following.

  • In the last sixty years, India's population has grown three-fold. Fortunately, thanks to the Green Revolution, food production has more than kept pace, growing four-fold.
  • It has been estimated that had the Green Revolution not occurred and high-yield farming not been introduced, India would have had to farm an additional 100 million acres of virgin land (an area the size of California) just to keep pace with its growing population. Thus the Green Revolution was responsible for preventing an environmental disaster of massive proportions.

  • To give some idea of the sheer desperation and humiliation associated with large scale food shortages in pre Green Revolution India, here is a quote from Indian agriculture minister C. Subramaniam, during a food crisis in the 1960s:
    As a last resort, I told my officials and experts to identify the nearest food carrying ships on the ocean throughout the world. I said we would identify the nearest ships carrying wheat to other countries and appeal to the US President to divert it to India if other countries could wait for another six to eight weeks.

The Answer Lies in Leapfrog Technologies

I consider the Green Revolution a positive development, one of mankind's greatest achievements. However, I do realize that it has indeed been accompanied by certain harmful side effects, such as increased use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and greater need for irrigation systems.

In Africa (which has remained largely untouched by the Green Revolution until now), the solution does not lie in blindly adopting of 1960s era chemical and energy intensive agriculture. Nor does redemption lie in completely repudiating the Green Revolution. What is needed in Africa is Green Revolution 2.0: a new Green Revolution driven by new and innovative leapfrog technologies that avoid some of the worst negative side-effects of Green Revolution 1.0, but still increases farm yields very substantially, using seeds and other inputs that are economically competitive.

One leapfrog technology that could play a prominent role in Africa's Green Revolution 2.0 is Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). It may be possible to use GMO technology to leapfrog over the chemical and energy intensive agriculture of Green Revolution 1.0 and usher in a much more environmentally friendly Green Revolution 2.0 in Africa.

Developing countries are particularly receptive to leapfrog technologies. Here new technologies don't have to compete against established technologies with their preexisting infrastructure. Perhaps the most prominent example of a leapfrog technology being adopted in developing countries is cell-phone technology. Millions of people in developing countries have gone from no-phone technology directly to cell-phone technology, leapfrogging over land-line-phone technology. Similarly, millions have gone from pen-and-paper technology to computer technology, completely leapfrogging over typewriter technology, not only in developing countries, but also in some developed countries like Japan.

Opportunity for America

It is American investment and innovation over many years in the emerging technologies of yesterday (which are the mainstream technologies of today) be it in agriculture, or computers, or aviation, that has given the United States an economic and technological lead in today's world.

Similarly, American in investment and innovation in emerging technologies today - technologies that are likely to become tomorrow's leapfrog technologies in many parts of the developing world - will ensure that American technological leadership in the world remains intact, and these new technologies will serve as engines of economic growth for the coming decades, in America and across the world.