The Flip-Side: What Bill Gates Doesn't Know About GMOs

The Pesticide Action Network explores the side of the story Gates left out last week.

scientist with green plants
(Photo: Buena Vista Images/Getty Images)

Editor's note: This story was contributed by The Pesticide Action Network, an outside organization.

If you assume that Bill Gates is so well informed about all his philanthropic targets that you take his word at face value, you would be in good company, but you might be terribly wrong. Organizations well versed in the agricultural issues facing developing nations are saying his annual letter, released last week, is completely mistaken when it asserts that a lack of support for GMO crop development is responsible, in part, for allowing world hunger to endure. We interviewed Heather Pilatic, Ph.D., co-director of the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), to show us the other, important side of the story.

TakePart: In the introduction to his letter, Bill Gates cites the Green Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, saying scientists created new seed varieties for rice, wheat, and maize, and that this resulted in increased crop yield and a decrease in extreme poverty around the world. Do you agree that this is a model to use moving forward?

Heather Pilatic: The Green Revolution is a story that some people like to tell, but it has little basis in historical fact. Take the Green Revolution’s origins in 1940s Mexico, for instance. It was not really about feeding the world; Mexico was a food exporter at the time. Rather, the aims included stabilizing restive rural populations in our neighbor to the south, and making friends with a government that at the time was selling supplies to the World War II Axis powers and confiscating oil fields held by Standard Oil (a funding source for the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the key architects of the Green Revolution).

We can also learn from India, the Green Revolution’s next stop after Mexico. India embraced the Green Revolution model of chemical-intensive agriculture. Now it is the world’s second biggest rice grower with surplus grain in government warehouses. Yet India has more starving people than sub-Saharan Africa—at more than 200 million, that’s nearly a quarter of its population. History shows that a narrow focus on increasing crop yield through chemical-seed packages reduces neither hunger nor poverty.

So no, we do not agree that the Green Revolution offers a promising model for addressing poverty. 

TakePart: Bill Gates is urging that more money be donated to agricultural innovation, including crop GMOs, because "one in seven people will continue living needlessly on the edge of starvation." Of course, this argument worries all of us. Will you explain PANNA's perspective?

Heather Pilatic: We could not agree with Gates more on the first point. Investment in agriculture in the developing world is enormously efficient and more impactful on the ground than investment in just about any other sector. It is also true that more people than ever before are going hungry, needlessly. We have enough food to go around now.  We disagree with Gates on two points—one scientific and one political. 

First, the science. Most of the rest of the world's experts agree that GMOs are not what the world's poor need to feed themselves. The science simply doesn't bear this claim out. Our staff scientist was a lead author in the most comprehensive analysis of global agriculture ever undertaken, the UN & World Bank's International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (the IAASTD). After four years and with the input of over 400 experts, and reams of evidence, the IAASTD concluded that the developing world's best bet for feeding itself in the 21st century was explicitly not the kind of chemically intensive farming that accompanies GMO seeds. Rather, these experts found that smaller scale, farmer-driven, knowledge-intensive, ecological agriculture is one of the most promising ways forward for the developing world in particular.  The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has reported that ecological farming can double food production within 10 years. This is the kind of agriculture we should be investing in.

Second, the political—and this cuts two ways. We must finally recognize that hunger is a problem of poverty and access to resources, especially land, not agricultural yield. The solution to world hunger is a political one: stop kicking farmers off their land and dumping product on the world market that puts them out of business; protect farmers’ rights to save and exchange seed; kick the bankers out of food-crop commodities speculation, they're playing roulette with our food system; write fair trade policies; listen to the world's poor, they know what they need...in short, democratize food and farming if you want to address hunger.  

Finally, here in the U.S., kick the farm lobby out of Congress and the pesticide industry out of our federal regulatory agencies (EPA & USDA). Together, these two special interests have a chokehold on U.S. farm, aid and trade policy, and dominate our agricultural research agenda in ways that make it possible for a smart man like Bill Gates to believe and prosyletize on behalf of an approach to agriculture that A, the rest of the world knows is defunct; and B, has failed—after 14 years of commercialization and billions of dollars in public research funding—to deliver on a single one of its promises to the public. 

TakePart: Gates says that resistance to these technologies is causing people in developing countries to suffer the brunt of the repercussions to climate change (i.e. crop destruction from droughts and floods), when they "had nothing to do with climate change happening." Tell us your take on that.

Heather Pilatic: It is absolutely true that the people who had nothing to do with creating climate change are and will remain on the front lines. This fact is one of our generation's greatest injustices and we have to face that. The notion that global resistance to GMO technologies is causing the developing world to bear the brunt of climate change is a form of political blackmail. It is so far-fetched and ideologically inflected that we have a hard time believing that Gates truly believes that talking point. 

TakePart: What is the best way to protect high-yield crops from disease?

Heather Pilatic: The best insurance against pests and disease is healthy soil and integrated pest management—a whole-farm approach. You need a diverse and resilient ecosystem both below and above ground to get good yields and protect crops. In practice, that means rotating crops, building soil organic matter, and creating spaces for beneficial insects like bees and natural pest controllers, like bats (who eat insects) and owls (who eat rodents). 

In contrast to these tried-and-true farming practices, "Green Revolution"-style agriculture undermines soil fertility and accelerates the pesticide treadmill. It is the opposite of the kind of knowledge—intensive, ecological agriculture described by the IAASTD. The fact that the Gates foundation has spent ten times as much on GM technologies ($214 million since 2005) as they have allocated for soil research ($20 million) indicates a profound misalignment of priorities—agronomically speaking. 

TakePart: What forms of agricultural innovation do you support?

Heather Pilatic: The human kind—also known as "agroecology." Agricultural innovation that works in real life cannot come from chemistry labs. Farmers on the ground, who know the land, pest and weather patterns in their areas, are some of the best agricultural innovators we have. Agroecology is the biologically-based, farmer-informed science behind the kind of sustainable agricultural innovation that developing nations in particular desperately need, especially under climate change. 

Whatever we call it, agricultural innovation in the 21st century should be aiming at building the resilience that comes with increased biodiversity and strengthened farmer-to-farmer knowledge networks, at systems that use water efficiently, and at solutions that are practical and affordable. Insofar as ag biotech relies upon ever-more chemically intensive methods, the "innovations" it pursues will be too expensive for farmers and the land alike. 

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