While the World Summit on Food Security in Rome in November did not achieve all it should, it shined a welcome spotlight on small farmers who make up the vast majority of hungry and poor people in the world. Coming on the heels of a commitment by the G20 to invest $22 billion in developing-country agriculture, the summit provided reason to be optimistic that after decades of neglect, we’ll start investing in the single best strategy to reduce global hunger and poverty.
At the same time, I am worried that as momentum builds behind agricultural development as a long-term alternative to food aid, a growing ideological divide may cause the world to squander a real opportunity to fight hunger and poverty.
The global movement to help small farmers is increasingly divided into two camps. On one side is a technological approach focused on improving productivity. On the other side is an environmental approach that promotes sustainability. Productivity or sustainability – they say you have to choose.
A recent Time Magazine article "Different Shades of Green in Africa," for example, pits the idea of organic development to help African farmers against the heavy input approach being promoted by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in African (AGRA) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, calling it "a battle between two very different agricultural philosophies."
As I said during my speech at the World Food Prize in October, this is a false choice that is dangerous for the field of agricultural development.
At a time of rising population and climate change, we need both organic solutions that promote sustainability and the technological approaches that increase productivity – and there is no reason we can’t have them both.
Many environmental advocates highlight the excesses of the original Green Revolution. They have a point. The Green Revolution increased yields dramatically in many poor countries in the second half of the 20th century, but it also led to over-irrigation and over-fertilization. The next Green Revolution has to be greener than the first.
Some have tried to restrict the spread of biotechnology regardless of its potential to increase productivity. They act as if there is no emergency, even though there are already 1 billion hungry people in the world, and climate change is going to make conditions harsher in the future. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that developing countries will have to boost their yields by half to meet the challenge of global hunger. We simply won’t be able to meet that goal without using all the scientific tools at our disposal.
Of course, new technologies must be proven safe for farmers, consumers, and the environment before they’re adopted. That’s why countries should have a strong regulatory infrastructure guided by experts with access to the latest science-based information.
I have seen proof that agricultural science can make people’s lives better. This summer, I attended a roundtable discussion in New Delhi with scientists who developed a new variety of rice called Swarna-sub1. The amazing thing about Swarna-sub1 is that it can survive underwater for more than two weeks, which means it could revolutionize life for millions of farmers in flood-prone areas of India. The researchers used a fascinating technique called marker assisted selection to introduce a single allele, a version of a gene, into an existing rice variety to make it flood tolerant.
I also met with representatives from local NGOs, seed companies, and the government of India to talk about their plans for delivering new seeds to farmers. The government’s goal is to have more than 5 million hectares planted with Swarna-sub1 in just five years.
The tendentious debate pitting productivity against sustainability doesn’t just threaten important scientific advances. It also obscures another crucial lesson from the first Green Revolution: that developing more productive seeds is just one element of an effective strategy. In addition to new seeds, farmers also need training, access to new markets, and organizations to represent their interests. Governments need better data so they can devise sound agricultural policies. By placing so much emphasis on just one link in a very long agricultural value chain, we distract ourselves from a goal we can all agree on: helping small farmers and their families.
Success requires progress on many fronts. African countries must lead the way by spending more on agriculture. Donor countries must do a better job of listening so they can understand what poor countries really need. They should explain more clearly how the money they’re pledging will be spent. I am optimistic that these obstacles can be cleared away and that the world can tap into the opportunity offered by agricultural development. That’s why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed more than $1.4 billion to initiatives that support small farmers.
However, if the field doesn’t move past this counterproductive debate, hungry and poor people will suffer. We have a choice: We can let our disagreements get in the way of real progress, or we can agree to help more than a billion people live healthier, happier lives.