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Bill Gates on The Verge: Can GMOs end hunger in Africa?

Elizabeth Lopatto a reporter who writes about tech, money, and human behavior. She joined The Verge in 2014 as science editor. Previously, she was a reporter at Bloomberg.

Depending on who you ask, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are the solution to malnutrition and hunger in the developing world, or a threat to food sovereignty. Take Uganda, for example; Ugandans eat, on average, a pound of bananas daily — more than any other population. But this crucial source of food has been threatened by a bacterial wilt disease, which turns the banana plant’s sap into ooze, wilts the leaves, rots the fruit, and eventually destroys the crop.

Guest editor Bill Gates

Can GMOs end hunger in Africa?

By Elizabeth Lopatto

We're excited to have Bill Gates as our guest editor in February. Throughout the month, Bill will be sharing his vision of how technology will revolutionize life for the world's poor by 2030 by narrating episodes of the Big Future, our animated explainer series. In addition, we'll be publishing a series of features exploring the improvements in banking, health, farming, and education that will enable that revolution. And while the topics reflect the bets Bill and his wife Melinda are making with their foundation, they've asked us for nothing less than fully independent Verge journalism, which we're more than happy to deliver. Turns out Bill Gates is a pretty confident guy.

Nilay Patel, Editor-in-Chief

Depending on who you ask, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are the solution to malnutrition and hunger in the developing world, or a threat to food sovereignty. Take Uganda, for example. Ugandans eat, on average, a pound of bananas daily — more than any other population. But this crucial resource has been threatened by a bacterial wilt disease, which turns the banana plant’s sap into ooze, wilts the leaves, rots the fruit, and eventually destroys the crop.

Banana wilt was first seen in Uganda in 2001, and neither pesticides nor chemicals have stopped it. Farmers tried to control the wilt’s spread by torching infected plants and disinfecting tools, but the disease cut Ugandan banana yields by as much as half from 2001 to 2004. In the country’s central region, wilt hit 80 percent of plants, and sometimes knocked out whole fields, according to a report from The Guardian.

So scientists at Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) — which receives funding from the Gates Foundation — created a genetically modified banana by inserting a green pepper gene into the banana’s genome. The new gene seems to trigger a process that kills infected cells and saves the plant. NARO wants to give the seeds away for free, but no regulation exists around GMOs in Uganda, and Uganda is obligated to take a cautionary approach to GMO technology, as signer of 2000’s Cartagena protocol. The Ugandan government is considering passing a law that would allow the introduction of GMOs, including the bacteria-resistant banana, but some food scientists worry it may open the door to corporate exploitation by multinational companies like Monsanto down the line.

Gates Gif 1 growing

This year, the Gates Foundation’s annual letter points to innovations in farming as a revolution that will transform the lives of the poor over the next 15 years, particularly in Africa. Food is a fundamental human right; nonetheless, people are starving. The UN’s World Food Programme estimates over 800 million individuals, or one in nine people on the planet, struggle to find enough food to eat on a regular basis. In places like Sub-Saharan Africa, hunger is a tremendous problem — and an ironic one. The region is home to abundant arable land; 70 percent of the population there farms. But the prevalence of hunger there is also the highest in the world — one in five people are undernourished. Chronic malnutrition has stunted the growth of 40 percent of children under the age of five, according to UNICEF. That’s 25 million kids.

A new generation of highly productive crops, Gates suggests, are part of the solution to address global hunger — seeds that are drought-resistant, disease-resistant, productive, and nutritious could benefit farmers. Some of the crops can be bred through traditional methods, but Gates thinks many African countries will adopt GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. GMOs are an accelerated version of the traditional methods of plant breeding which require raising several generations of plants, improving their yield or drought-tolerance properties over years if not decades. But genetic information lets scientists tweak specific genes — a much faster process. It also expands the range of possible alterations, since genes from one species can be inserted into another.

The first American GMO crop was the Flavr Savr tomato, created by California company Calgene and green-lit by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1994. The modified tomatoes didn’t get squishy as quickly as regular tomatoes. Though Flavr Savr tomatoes are no longer sold — turns out, it’s more economical to ship green tomatoes — genetic modifications caught on and proved more successful in other foods. More than 90 percent of soybeans and 80 percent of corn sold in the US today are GMOs created by companies like Monsanto, Cargill, and Dupont. GMO seeds are often more expensive than conventionally bred varieties, a concern voiced by some opponents of Uganda’s bill.

GMOs have been widely touted as a solution to hunger and malnutrition: engineering for specific traits, like the wilt-resistant banana in Uganda, they could make farmers less vulnerable to crop loss. "GMO-derived seeds will provide far better productivity, better drought tolerance, salinity tolerance, and if the safety is proven, then the African countries will be among the biggest beneficiaries," Bill Gates told The Verge.

(The Gates Foundation Asset Trust, which manages the foundation's assets, has previously held shares of Monsanto. The trust hasn't held shares of Monsanto "for a few years" says Alex Reid, a foundation spokesperson, who adds that the trust is managed separately and doesn't get input into what the foundation funds. The trust's 990 tax form lists all holdings at the end of the fiscal year — you can see the most recent one here.)

The Gates Foundation suggests that by using better fertilizer and more productive crops such as GMOs, African farmers could "theoretically double their yields." (The average yield per acre in Africa is one-fifth of that in the US.) "With the right investments," the Gates letter goes on, it may be possible for farmers on the continent to "increase productivity by 50 percent overall." The Foundation believes so strongly in the promise of farming that in 2013 it spent 22 percent of its $1.8 billion global development expenditure on agriculture. But even if GMO crops yield more produce, will that translate to less hunger?

Gates farming plane

Lowered production is an issue, certainly. Once, Africa was a major food exporter, sending out coffee, cocoa, and spices — but the price of commodities dropped in the 1980s, and imports have outpaced exports. Food production has mostly been stagnant since then, while consumption has grown, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Today, African countries spend $35 billion to $40 billion a year on imported food. Relying heavily on imports raises the price of regionally produced food, contributing to a cycle of poverty.

Increasing production, however, may be a red herring: according to the World Food Programme, the planet actually produces enough food to feed everyone alive more than 2,000 calories a day. But global funding priorities remain "heavily focused on increasing agricultural production," according to a 2013 report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. "The perception that there is a supply-side problem is, however, questionable," the report reads. "Hunger and malnutrition are mainly related to a lack of purchasing power and/or the inability of the rural poor to be self-sufficient. Meeting the food security challenges is primarily about the empowerment of the poor and their food sovereignty." In other words: the primary problem isn’t technology, it’s distribution.

the planet produces enough food to feed everyone alive more than 2,000 calories a day

Poverty exacerbates the issue: in some developing countries, farmers can’t afford the seeds they plant to feed their families; some are too poor to even feed themselves well, limiting their ability to work, earn more money, or invest in their own farms. "In a lot of famines, you have food leaving the famine areas, because buying power has collapsed," says Gawain Kripke, the director of policy and research at Oxfam America. (Oxfam America has previously received funding from the Gates Foundation.) "It’s not supply or availability of food. There’s just no buying power."

Farmers in Africa are also politically weak, says Kripke. As a result, countries’ policies favor urban consumers in budget allocations. That makes it difficult for farmers to lobby for the changes they’d need to create a functioning agricultural supply chain.

The stance is supported by the UN’s FAO, which says, in a 2014 report, that the keys to progress in nutrition include "sustained political commitment to food security at the highest level," as well as policies that give a voice to politically weak groups. The Gates Foundation donated $12 million to the FAO last year.

But even assuming the technology makes it to the needy, farmers don’t necessarily have a reason to grow more food than they can eat themselves. Without basic infrastructure like markets, storage, and trade agreements, there’s little they can do with the extra produce. Of the 54 states within the African Union, only 10 have allocated at least a tenth of their public investments to agriculture — that is, to infrastructure, irrigation, research, and development. Without markets, international trade, places to store surplus harvests, and irrigation, it’s hard to encourage farmers to invest in growing more than they need.

About 30 percent of crops produced in Africa are lost after harvest, says Agnes Kalibata, the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, an agricultural organization founded with funds from the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation in 2006. Her group hopes to change that.

Farming gif 3

Before heading up AGRA, Kalibata was the minister of Rwanda’s Agriculture and Animal Resources. Between 2004 and 2014, Rwanda more than doubled its crop production by increasing agriculture investment from 3.5 percent to 7.2 percent of government expenditures. That investment reduced poverty by almost a third, according to AGRA’s statistics.

Using the lessons Kalibata learned in Rwanda, AGRA is trying to promote policy changes, including increased government investment, across the continent. "One policy breakthrough in one country could be a big breakthrough for everyone," she says. In 2013, the Gates Foundation awarded the group $4 million for policy change and about $23 million for education and technology.

AGRA advocates for basic, but wide-reaching structural changes: for instance, Africa has no continent-wide regulations on grades, standards, weights, or measures — all of which complicate trade. There are also no strong regulations on how food should be stored in warehouses, which may mean losses for farmers if the storehouses aren’t up to grade. Customs procedures are often cumbersome, and vary widely — which drive up the cost of transactions.

"All the infrastructure we take for granted in a modern agricultural supply chain doesn’t exist [in Africa]," says Oxfam America’s Kripke. "So where do you start? Seeds? Roads?"

Africa has no continent-wide regulations on grades, standards, weights, or measures — all of which complicate trade

Roads are a safe bet, according to International Food Policy Research Institute. In fact, they’re one of the best investments governments can make. Not only do they get seeds and other agricultural products and technology into an area, roads are crucial for trade. Without access to roads, farmers tend to buy seeds at high prices and sell produce at lower ones, which exposes them to more risk from food price fluctuations. Sometimes, farmers are unable to sell their crops at all. And when that happens, farmers become apathetic about adopting new technology: what’s the point of increasing yield if most of it will rot, anyway?

Infrastructure investment has a proven impact: the introduction of roads in 15 rural villages in Ethiopia increased consumption by households by about 16 percent, while lowering poverty about 7 percent, according to a 2008 IFPRI study.

More roads may also mean more information: currently agricultural extension programs — which help train farmers and educate them about the marketplace — can be tough for farmers to reach. That’s particularly true for about half of African farmers: women, who are less able to travel because of familial responsibilities or the hazards of the road. "Gender is a pretty big concern," says Kripke. "Especially women farmers have trouble," AGRA’s Kalibata says. And farm education is an area where women especially stand to gain, says Calestous Juma, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Juma also serves as the director of Agricultural Innovation in the Africa Project, which the Gates Foundation funds.

Gates Farming gif 4

All these factors come into play in Uganda. In this sub-Saharan nation of 37 million, bananas are essential — about 75 percent of farmers grow them there. The country depends on agriculture for 23 percent of its gross domestic product.

But like other countries in the region, Uganda suffers from a dearth of infrastructure. Though the country is only slightly smaller than the UK, it has only 2,028 miles (3,264 km) of paved roads, compared to the UK’s 245,068 miles (394,428 km). That makes trade and transit quite difficult, especially since 85 percent of Uganda’s 36 million people live in rural areas. A quarter of the population is below the poverty line. As a result, almost 40 percent of children there are undernourished, according to the US government’s Feed the Future initiative.

Can the genetically modified bananas have a positive impact for millions of Ugandans?

Uganda’s wilt-resistant banana is the best possible scenario for GMO adoption, in some respects. The strain was created by local scientists and, because it’s being distributed for free, won’t lead to capital from farmers flowing out of the country. But some activists are concerned that the banana GMO will open the door to other crops with pernicious consequences. "Farmers have been told that the GMOs are almost the same as non-GMOs," Ellady Muyambi, an environmental scientist at the Uganda Network on Toxic Free Malaria, told NPR. "But they would have to go to a company to buy the seeds. Many farmers can’t afford expensive seeds. They would have no rights."

Hunger in Uganda is a bigger issue than the impact of one GMO law: evidence suggests that improving farmer education programs and infrastructure investment can have a bigger impact than increasing productivity alone. Without infrastructure — roads, granaries, markets, irrigation — and policy changes, more food won’t eliminate hunger. And while GMOs like the wilt-resistant banana may save critical crops, it’s not clear they can ensure food security in hungry communities.

And Uganda has bigger problems on the horizon. According to the Brookings Institute, Uganda should expect inflation in 2015 — the result of government borrowing, a depletion of foreign currency reserves, and cutbacks on essential supplies — that will "widen the income gap" and "reverse the gains made in poverty reduction." In other words: the economic situation in Uganda is set to reduce the purchasing power of the impoverished. If the Brookings Institute is right, that means hunger, with or without genetically modified bananas.

Update 12:36PM ET: This story has been updated with information about the investments of the Gates Trust, which funds the Gates Foundation. Correction 2PM ET: This story was updated to remove an erroneous figure on the Gates Foundation spending in agriculture — 22 percent of the foundation global development budget was spent on agriculture in 2013.

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