In his first annual letter on the doings at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates devotes a page to his foundation’s efforts to boost agriculture in Africa.
Like the software wizard he once was, Gates identifies a problem and conjures up a solution. The problem is that African food production has stagnated while population has grown; the solution is to develop “new seeds” and make available “other inputs like fertilizer” so that farmers can “increase … output significantly.”
That, in a nutshell, is what happened in the U.S., Western Europe, and to a lesser extent India over the past half-century with the rise of industrial agriculture. Gates wants to repackage it for Africa, in what he calls a “new Green Revolution.”
The document never considers the complex history of agriculture in Africa; nor does it mull the social and ecological effects of industrial-style agriculture in the West and India. Are we still so enamored of our food system that we feel compelled to export it to Africa?
A more robust vision for that continent’s food future is laid out by the United Nation’s Conference on Trade and Development and U.N. Environmental Program. Called “Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa” [PDF], the report emerged in 2008 with the support of more than a dozen civil-society organizations throughout Africa.
The report concludes that organic and near-organic agriculture is ideally suited for millions of marginalized smallholder farmers in Africa — and build food security and soil fertility in unison.
The model of development that Gates favors — essentially moving in the direction of nearly post-agricultural Western societies — may be a relic of an era of cheap fossil energy and low awareness of ecological costs. Other ways of progress exist — and I wish our most influential and best-funded foundation would explore them.