As it has come to dominate the agenda for reshaping African agriculture over the years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been very careful not to associate itself too closely with patent-protected biotechnology as a panacea for African farmers.

True, the foundation named 25-year Monsanto veteran Rob Horsch to the position of “senior program officer, focusing on improving crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Yet its flagship program for African ag, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), explicitly distances itself from GMOs. “AGRA does not fund the development of GMOs,” the organization’s Web site states.

But AGRA — co-funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, proud sponsor of the original Green Revolution — is just part of what Gates does around African ag. What precisely is the foundation getting up to over there? Is it pushing GMOs on African smallholder farms?

[I have a call into the foundation to ask directly about the role GMOs play in its efforts. I’ll report on the response.]

It has been surprisingly hard to say. Until now.

In a speech at the World Food Prize gathering last week (see video below), Bill Gates himself chided the critics of GMOs — and shed some sunshine on the foundation leadership’s philosophy on ag development. At one point, he declared, “some of our grants [in Africa] do include transgenic approaches, because we believe they have the potential to address farmers’ challenges more efficiently than conventional techniques.”

Gates’ speech seems like a significant event to me — the World Food Prize website describes it as his “first major address on agriculture.” One of the major knocks on the foundation’s Africa efforts is the lack of democratic accountability and transparency. Since the foundation’s careful message management makes it hard to figure out precisely what it’s getting up to, I’m glad to see its leading light airing his views freely.

Gates opened with a standard-issue awestruck paean to Norman Borluag, recently deceased architect of the original Green Revolution. Gates delivered a rather unnuanced assessment of Borlaug’s legacy. Gates declared: “He [Borlaug] proved that farming has the power to lift up the lives of the poor.”

Really? To be sure, Borlaug’s “dwarf” hybrid seed varieties, when coupled with the heavy fertilizer and pesticide doses they need to thrive, dramatically increased yields in the places where the Green Revolution took root — the main success story being India.

But higher yields drive down crop prices — and increased use of imported inputs requires the taking on of debt. Rather than boosting the fortunes of most farmers in its purview, the Green Revolution drove hundreds of thousands into ruin. The survivors consolidated land holdings. The big got bigger and the poor tended to leave the land — too many of them ending up as excess labor in urban slum zones.

Maybe Gates didn’t mean that Borlaug’s efforts improved the lives of farmers, but rather the lives of non-farming urban dwellers. As he later says in the speech, also in the context of Borluag’s legacy, “better farming can end hunger and poverty and lift whole countries out of poverty.”

To be sure, many people were predicting famine for India in the 1960s, and the availability of cheap grain engendered by the Green Revolution no doubt forestalled widespread starvation. But it’s demonstrably wrong to claim that the Green Revolution ended hunger and poverty in India.

Indeed, hunger rates remain appalling in India — site of the Green Revolution’s greatest putative success. From a 2008 report by the International Food Policy Research Institute:

According to the 2008 Global Hunger Index, India ranks 66 out of 88 nations (developing countries and countries in transition). Despite years of robust economic growth, India scored worse than nearly 25 Sub-Saharan African countries and all of South Asia, except Bangladesh.[Emphasis added.]

The bit about India faring worse than “nearly 25 Sub-Saharan African countries” is particularly noteworthy, given that the Gates Foundation is explicitly spearheading a “new Green Revolution for Africa.” Of course, the original Green Revolution in India lies in shambles – the water table has been tapped near dry by massive irrigation projects in the zones where the Borlaug program took hold, and the remaining farmers there are struggling mightily with crushing debt loads and heightened pesticide-related cancer rates.

To be fair, Gates did point to “excesses” of the first Green Revolution, naming “too much irrigation and fertilizer” as examples. He vowed to avoid those mistakes in Africa. He insisted, more than once, that ecological sustainability was critical to the foundation’s project. Yet he repeatedly emphasized that increasing gross production–the Borlaug project of squeezing as much yield out of a piece of land as possible — was the key.

And that led him to the most fiery moment of his speech (if this dour man’s demeanor can ever be described as “fiery”): the part where he denounced unnamed “environmentalists” who are somehow blocking GMO seeds from entering Africa.

“This global effort to help small farmers is endangered by an ideological wedge that threatens to split the movement in two,” Gates declared. He decried what he called a “false choice” between a “technological” approach geared to boosting productivity and an “environmental” one geared to sustainability. “We can have both,” he said.

He went on: “Some people insist on an ideal vision of the environment which is divorced from people and their circumstances. They have tried to restrict the spread of biotechnology into sub-Saharan Africa without regard to how much hunger and poverty might be reduced by it, or what the farmers themselves might want.”

The Gates Foundation, by contrast, isn’t so demure. In an apparent reference to this project with GMO seed giant Monsanto, Gates allowed that “one of our [unnamed] private-sector partners” is working on a genetically modified drought-tolerant corn variety for African farmers. The seeds will be available to farmers royalty-free — meaning that farmers will pay market price for the seeds themselves, but not pay the hefty biotech premium Monsanto normally slaps on top. It’s unclear whether seed-saving will be allowed under the arrangement.

According to the above-linked press release, the magic seeds are expected to come online in 2018. Gates emphasized repeatedly that as climate change proceeds apace, greater and greater swaths of Africa will face persistent drought conditions. In pushing for drought-tolerant seeds, Gates is swinging for the fences — looking for a single big solution to feed Africa’s drought-stricken areas.

For me, this deal raises questions that cut to the heart of the Bill Gates approach to African ag.

First of all, it can’t be noted often enough that a) GM agriculture’s much-hyped ability to boost yields, taken as a given by Gates, has thus far proven purely spectral; b) there’s serious evidence, despite a paucity of cash for critical research and heavy-handed control of research by seed companies, that GMOs cause health problems; and c) GMOs have so far proven quite proficient at generating unintended ecological consequences, such as the rise of “superweeds.”

There’s no room for any of that in Gates’ discourse.

Further, I absolutely agree with Bill Gates that there’s no zero-sum tradeoff between productivity and sustainability. But I urge him to tear his gaze away from the biotech lab and train it toward the field, where the best research on organic ag is being done. Indeed, one of the great benefits of organic farming is its long-term focus on soil health — and healthy soils can increase productivity over time without massive ecological externalities.

Here’s a summary of a 2005 paper published in Bioscience comparing yields of organic and conventional corn. The 22-year study compared yields of corn and soy for the following systems: 1) conventional chemical-based agriculture; 2) organic ag using manure for soil fertility; and 3) organic ag using “green manure” (nitrogen-fixing cover crops) for fertility. From the summary, here’s the key nugget of the study:

“First and foremost, we found that corn and soybean yields were the same across the three systems,” said [researcher David] Pimentel, who noted that although organic corn yields were about one-third lower during the first four years of the study, over time the organic systems produced higher yields, especially under drought conditions. The reason was that wind and water erosion degraded the soil on the conventional farm while the soil on the organic farms steadily improved in organic matter, moisture, microbial activity and other soil quality indicators. [Emphasis added.]

Note well the “especially under drought conditions” bit. Here is a technology for “drought-tolerant” corn that’s ready right now — no need to wait until 2018. It doesn’t rely on the benevolence of Monsanto to waive a technology fee; and there are no questions about seed-saving. It asks no one to accept a drop in long-term productivity as the price paid for sustainability. And not only does it help farmers adapt to climate change with its drought-tolerant qualities, but it helps mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon. From the summary:

The fact that organic agriculture systems also absorb and retain significant amounts of carbon in the soil has implications for global warming, Pimentel said, pointing out that soil carbon in the organic systems increased by 15 to 28 percent, the equivalent of taking about 3,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per hectare out of the air.

Moreover, in a 2008 paper (PDF), the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) endorsed organic ag as a way to boost food security and improve farmer livelihoods in Africa. Concluded the FAO:

Organic agriculture can increase agricultural productivity and can raise incomes with low-cost, locally available and appropriate technologies, without causing environmental damage. Furthermore, evidence shows that organic agriculture can build up natural resources, strengthen communities and improve human capacity, thus improving food security by addressing many different causal factors simultaneously … Organic and near-organic agricultural methods and technologies are ideally suited for many poor, marginalized smallholder farmers in Africa, as they require minimal or no external inputs, use locally and naturally available materials to produce high-quality products, and encourage a whole systemic approach to farming that is more diverse and resistant to stress. [Emphasis added.]

Gates cash could go a long way in dispersing the skills and (relatively low-cost) equipment needed for effective organic farming in Africa. Why not, for example, fund a dramatic expansion of the Soil, Food, and Healthy Communities project that’s proving so successful in Malawi?

So where’s the Gates cash, and the fiery speech from the foundation’s leader defending organic ag from its critics? Now, it’s true that the Gates Foundation does fund research into alternative, low-input agriculture. Just this past spring, the foundation awarded $1.3 million to World Watch to study such techniques for improving ag productivity in Africa.

But let’s look at funding levels. The above-mentioned Monsanto GMO corn project got $42 million from Gates — and an additional $5 million from the Howard Buffet Foundation, run by the son of investor/insurance magnate Warren Buffet. The Worldwatch grant is loose change in comparison. (When I get a Gates official on the phone, i’ll ask about other organic-style programs they’re funding.)

Given the pro-high-technology thrust of Gates’ speech, this imbalance is hardly surprising. As I took in the video of Gates’ speech and heard him go on about the “needs of small farmers” and the critical role of biotech in serving those needs, I couldn’t help but think of him as a kind of unelected agriculture commissioner for the African continent. And I wondered how many African farms will survive the embrace of the great software magnate.