At a forum of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Rome today, Microsoft founder Bill Gates pressed the need for genetically modified seeds in the developing world, and the need for a "digital revolution" to meet the needs of the world's farmers. Gates' claims that genetically modified crops double or triple smaller farmers' yields have been challenged by recent research.
Agence France-Presse reports:
Microsoft founder Bill Gates on Thursday called for a "digital revolution" to alleviate world hunger by increasing agricultural productivity through satellites and genetically-engineered seed varieties.
"We have to think hard about how to start taking advantage of the digital revolution that is driving innovation including in farming," the U.S. billionaire philanthropist said in a speech at the UN rural poverty agency IFAD in Rome.
"If you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture. We believe that it's possible for small farmers to double and in some cases even triple their yields in the next 20 years while preserving the land," Gates said. [...]
Another key development is the use of satellite technology developed by defence departments to document data about individual fields, as well as information videos of farmers discussing best practices to help others. [...]
Gates also defended the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the developing world and large-scale farm land investments by foreign states in the developing world -- both highly controversial issues in the aid community.
AFP adds that Gates announced $200 million (150 million euros) in new grants from his foundation to finance research on a new type of drought-resistant maize.
The Associated Press notes that Gates' plan is looking for more accountability with countries receiving aid, saying they should provide "report cards" to show what they've accomplished with the aid.
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As John Vidal reported for the Guardian, the claims that genetically modified seeds can increase gains have been challenged by research:
Genetic engineering has failed to increase the yield of any food crop but has vastly increased the use of chemicals and the growth of "superweeds", according to a report by 20 Indian, south-east Asian, African and Latin American food and conservation groups representing millions of people.
And a 2009 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that genetically modified seeds failed to increase yields in U.S. crops:
Despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields.
"The biotech industry has spent billions on research and public relations hype, but genetically engineered food and feed crops haven't enabled American farmers to grow significantly more crops per acre of land," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a biologist in the UCS Food and Environment Program and author of the report. "In comparison, traditional breeding continues to deliver better results."
Ronnie Cummins, International Director of the Organic Consumers Association, told Common Dreams:
“Bill Gates may be a smart guy in terms of computer programming, and an expert on how to become a billionaire, but he obviously knows nothing about agriculture other than what Monsanto and the biotech industry have told him. Eighteen years after the introduction of the first genetically engineered crops, there is no evidence, including data from the pro-biotech USDA, that these energy and chemical-intensive crops increase yield, improve nutrition, or provide greater yields under adverse weather conditions of drought or heavily rains. On the contrary hundreds of studies, including those by peer-reviewed scientists and the U.N.’s FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) indicate that organic crops provide significantly higher levels of vitamins, nutrients, and cancer-fighting anti-oxidants; that organic crops have significantly higher yields during periods of drought and torrential rain; and that agro-ecological or organic farms produce 2-10 times great yields than industrial-scale chemical and GMO farms. In others words, not only can organic farming and ranching feed the world, but in fact it is the only way that we will ever be able to feed the world.”
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Recent reports also show Gates behind climate engineering efforts, as he is among other wealthy individuals financially backing scientists to lobby governments to push geoengineering, raising concerns that this small group may have a large impact on further decisions on geoengineering.