Ag research vital: Gates

03 Jun, 2013 04:00 AM
Bill Gates addresses the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Bill Gates addresses the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

WHEN backing global biotechnology crop research and development to feed the world’s poor, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates puts his money where his mouth is.

Ignoring controversial headlines, Mr Gates is focused on delivering new plant varieties that can overcome challenging growing conditions and produce more nutritious foods.

And those foods may deliver genuine health and medical benefits for the world’s poorest countries, through research programs governed by strong regulatory regimes.

The Microsoft founder made his $67 billion fortune delivering a revolution in personal access to computer technology throughout the modern world.

He has now shifted gear and dedicated more than half of his personal fortune to philanthropy work which includes strengthening connections between improved agricultural production systems and genuine health and social outcomes.

Since its inception in 1994, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given $26 billion towards aid programs like those currently being run in 100 countries, including Australia.

That work has reportedly saved an estimated six million lives by finding smart solutions to overcome health threats and nutritional shortages, confronting some of the world’s poorest nations like Africa.

The Foundation’s financial contribution even outstrips aid dollars provided by some of the world’s most developed countries.

Last week, Mr Gates spoke about the practical mechanics of his philanthropy work at the National Press Club in Canberra before about 600 delegates.

He said Australia had an “excellent record” in global health and agricultural research and development (R&D), with many other discoveries in the pipeline for curing diseases like malaria and polio.

And there’s a new drought resistant sorghum variety on the way he said, with “magical” seeds that can survive and grow “even when there's very little water”.

Mr Gates said health and agriculture partnerships between Australian groups and his Foundation were “very, very strong”.

But he said there were still opportunities to do more and deliver outcomes in this region and to the poorest countries worldwide and “show the strong leadership that people hope for and expect of Australia”.

Asked by Fairfax Agricultural Media why he supported genetically modified (GM) crops as a tool for overcoming Third World poverty and starvation, Mr Gates said that technology was only part of the Foundation’s agricultural research programs.

He referred to the high profile “counter revelation” on GM crops made by UK-based environmental activist Mark Lynas at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this year.

Mr Lynas declared the GM debate was over and apologised for having spent several years “ripping up GM crops” and helping to start the anti-GM movement in the mid 1990s to demonise a technology that delivers health and environmental benefits.

Mr Gates said thinking about health and medicines, and the way vaccines and drugs are created using genetic techniques, was the way to shed greater light on the GM debate.

He said regulatory regimes, likes those in the US and Australia, ensured drugs and vaccines were reviewed ahead of any public release so any potential ill-effects were considered.

“Likewise, as we create new crops, we should have a regulator review process to make sure they're beneficial,” he said.

“Now, in the case of GMOs there've been almost no cases of negative side effects - but it doesn't mean we shouldn't apply the same sort of rich review we do for medicines before we put them out there.

“To deny ourselves that tool, particularly on behalf of people who starve to death, seems inappropriate.”

Mr Gates spoke about his Foundation’s work in Australia using biotechnology to develop bananas that contain “extra vitamins” and produce plants with drought resistant traits.

“Those crops will save lots and lots of lives,” he said.

“They will make a huge difference for poor world farmers.”

Mr Gates said his Foundation also funded increased regulatory capacity in Africa so those countries could make “rational decisions” on what GM crops to allow or disallow.

“Rich countries can afford to pay extra for food, two, three times as much, but poor countries should have their own regulatory excellence and ability to make decisions just as they do for medicines,” he said.

Mr Gates said the Foundation's early work focused mostly on health programs, but they realised poor agricultural productivity only served to increase child health risks.

He said children needed both bulk nutrition and micronutrients to ensure their brains developed properly.

“Not only does that protect them from disease, it also is critical to when they do get a school experience, are they able to learn?” he said.

“You really have to couple agricultural and nutrition policies together with health and educational policies for countries to become self-sufficient.”

Of the world’s population currently estimated at seven billion, Mr Gates said one billion people were “chronically hungry”.

But in Southeast Asia the poverty rate has diminished against a climbing agricultural productivity trend.

“This is due to an agricultural productivity increase called the green revolution where staple crops like wheat, rice and maize have significantly increased productivity,” he said.

However, Mr Gates lamented that Africa’s poverty rate had remained unchanged as its agricultural productivity rate stayed low.

“What we need to do is we need to raise productivity still in a number of Asian countries, not China so much, but a number of agri-systems still need this and in Africa,” he said.

“It is possible with new seeds to double or triple these productivities.

“If this is done, we can take over 400 million (people) out of poverty.”

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Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
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John Newton
3/06/2013 8:46:08 AM

'And there’s a new drought resistant sorghum variety on the way he said, with “magical” seeds that can survive and grow “even when there's very little water”'. Yet another empty promise from the biotech industry: everything is 'on the way' or 'being developed' or 'just around the corner.' I am saddened that a basically decent bloke like Gates is pouring his money into this outmoded and ancient technology that is doing bugger all for the planet. what is really weird is it'as not like the big biotechs are short of a quid.
3/06/2013 7:30:12 PM

Sometimes money can't buy common sense! No-one minds philanthropy for health outcomes but show me the good that biotech has offered to the third world - nothing but famine and increasing suicide rates!
Bob Phelps
3/06/2013 9:37:50 PM

The UN’s Prof. Olivier de Schutter confirms there is enough good food for all. But 30% is wasted and food is traded where it’s most profitable, not where it’s needed. Gates’ project, biofortification to add a key nutrient to poor diets dominated by a staple food of banana, cassava or polished rice, will fail to bring good health. It will also delay food justice for the world’s poor, malnourished and starving people – affordable local diets of fresh foods and vegetables rich in all the micronutrients needed to ensure the health of all people, everywhere.
3/06/2013 11:50:22 PM

I do not believe this guy. He is all mouth and puts money into some projects for a tax dodge. Believe me - I contacted his group and they just feed me off.
Valentine Dyall
4/06/2013 12:26:06 AM

John Newton is quite right: we don't want an "ancient technology" like GM. Much better to have something modern, like "organic", fresh from (oh dear) ancient Mesopotamia. Quite good enough to feed a tenth of today's global population, the richest among them, and keep them in fine fettle. Bugger the rest. Lead the way, John
4/06/2013 1:13:38 PM

There seems to be a real shortage of compassion in the anti-GM brigade - no worries about the poor in the slums of Uganda cities with children going blind because the only staple food they can afford, bananas, lacks enough Vitamin A. Putting this vitamin A genes into their bananas will not overcome all of the nutrition problems but it would be a great complementary advance - might lead to fewer kids going blind in the next 20 years. It is hard to understand why people with GM technology hang-ups like Bob Phelps cannot see this type of good happening - no compassion?
4/06/2013 6:52:47 PM

Excellent call Bill, as farmers we all need to address productivity bottle necks. Great effort Bill and thanks for your vision.
Peter Briant
5/06/2013 7:08:43 PM

@ John Newton You are right about these biotech guys. They talk a lot but we never see any real proof.
Peter Briant
5/06/2013 7:12:12 PM

@ Beyondtheblackstump This guy has a lot to say but I have tried to help third-world countries where his mob are and his people just fob me off from a computer which is probably in the US. These people are all talk an zero action.
5/06/2013 10:10:53 PM

@Humphrey And Big Biotech is all about compassion. If you think Monsanto gives a damn about the poor and their vitamin deficiencies then more fool you. This is all about patents on staple crops to further rob the poor. Most famines in Africa are caused by civil unrest and political incompetence. Not from a lack of suitable bananas.
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