The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is following in the footsteps of the Rockefeller Foundation by fomenting a Green Revolution for the 21st century. The first Green Revolution blossomed from Rockefeller Foundation funding for plant breeding in Mexico in the 1940s. At that time, Mexico could not feed itself and was importing half of its wheat supplies. The Rockefeller Foundation hired young plant breeder Norman Borlaug to see what could be done to boost the productivity of poor Mexican farmers. Backed by $100,000 in annual funding from the foundation, Borlaug and his colleagues flourished. They created highly productive dwarf wheat varieties enabling Mexico to become self-sufficient in grains by 1956. By 1965, Mexican wheat yields rose 400 percent over their 1950 level.
In 1952, the Rockefeller Foundation began funding a similar effort to boost the productivity of poor Indian farmers. In the mid-1960s, India was importing grains to avert looming famines. The dwarf wheat varieties developed by Borlaug and his colleagues were again decisive in winning the battle against hunger on the subcontinent. Indian wheat production grew from 12.3 million tons in 1965 to 20 million tons in 1970 and the country was self-sufficient in grains by 1974. Green Revolution food production in Asia grew much faster than its population did, increasing calorie availability per person by nearly 30 percent and making wheat and rice cheaper. The Green Revolution prevented the deaths by starvation of perhaps a billion people. In terms of human well-being the Rockefeller Foundation's modest investment in agricultural research arguably paid the biggest dividend in history.
Unfortunately, the Green Revolution did not extend to the entire planet. Sub-Saharan Africa remained largely untouched. As a consequence, average per capita food production in Africa has declined by 12 percent since 1980.
Enter the Gates Foundation. In September 2006, the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations announced a joint $150 million effort to create an Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Last week, the Gates Foundation upped its ante on boosting production by another $306 million. About half of these new grants will fund efforts to improve seeds and soils in Africa. The Gates Foundation has clearly identified the right target. "For the poorest people, GDP [gross domestic product] growth originating in agriculture is about four times more effective in raising incomes of extremely poor people than GDP growth originating outside the sector," according the World Bank's World Development Report 2008. But why did the Green Revolution not take off in Africa?
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has noted, "Poor infrastructure, high transport costs, limited investment in irrigation, and pricing and marketing policies that penalized farmers made the Green Revolution technologies too expensive or inappropriate for much of Africa." This list is basically an international bureaucracy's euphemism for saying that government corruption and mismanagement has kept African farmers poor. "Poor infrastructure" means that governments built no roads over which seeds, fertilizers and pesticides could be shipped cheaply to farmers. And conversely, without good roads, farmers can't get their crops to market.
For example, Uganda has just 58 miles of paved roads per million citizens, Mozambique just 87 miles . By contrast, the United States has 8,000. In addition, African governments have a history of imposing price controls on food crops ,which discourage farmers from growing more than they need for their families. Africa has not been alone in pursuing this destructive policy. In the 1960s, India paid its farmers 40 percent less than the world price for their grain. Green revolutionary Borlaug managed to persuade the Indian government to drop grain price controls. Restored market incentives persuaded Indian farmers to rapidly adopt new high yield crop varieties.
Interestingly, modern crop technologies fostered by the Gates Foundation might enable poor farmers to outflank, in part, these corrupt and stupid government policies. For example, seeds that contain traits like pest-resistance and drought-resistance could reduce farmers' dependence on government subsidized pesticides and irrigation systems. In fact, the Gates Foundation has provided nearly $40 million to researchers to develop drought resistant corn varieties for Africa. In addition, the foundation is funding low-cost drip irrigation systems designed by International Development Enterprises that can reduce the cost of irrigation from about $6,000 per acre to about $37.
About half of the $306 million in agricultural grants announced last week will go to the African Soil Health Program which aims to work with 4.1 million small-scale African farmers and regenerate 6.3 million hectares of farm land through better soil management practices. For the time being, AGRA supports only conventional crop breeding and does not fund the development of new varieties by means of genetic engineering. Rich countries have poured almost $600 billion in foreign aid into Africa over the past four decades. Result? Zero increase in per capita incomes. Is the Gates Foundation now pouring in good money after bad? Let's hope not.
The Gates Foundations' new Green Revolution has already provoked resistance from anti-globalization and anti-technology activists. For example, the California-based Food First/Institute for Food Development and Policy held a conference in Mali in November opposing the new Green Revolution. Food First peddled the now standard activist line that the first Green Revolution was a colossal mistake that primarily helped rich farmers become richer.
Like many such fables there is a grain of much exaggerated truth to the claim. Small farmers were slower to adopt Green Revolution techniques but most of them eventually did. Furthermore, higher farm incomes boosted demand for other goods and services, which in turn stimulated the rural nonfarm economy. Real per capita incomes doubled in Asia between 1970 and 1995. By doubling farm yields, tens of millions of acres of forests and wetlands were spared the plow and hundreds of millions of lives saved from starvation. The Green Revolution was not perfect, but critics ignore how bad poverty and hunger would have been without it.
In The Seattle Times, Food First executive director Eric Holt-Gimenez denounced the Gates Foundation's efforts to foster an African Green Revolution. "It's a corporate strategy for colonizing Africa's food and agriculture systems, which thus far have resisted," he said. Considering that today some 200 million Africans subsist on the thin edge of starvation, Africa's food and agricultural systems should be so lucky as to be colonized by new Green Revolution agricultural research and technologies.
Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.