Bill Gates: Innovation is Key to Helping Poor Farmers

Bill Gates Addressing Health Ministers at Meeting on Polio Organized by the Gates Foundation

“I’ve never been a farmer,” Bill Gates confessed at The Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security. “Until recently, I rarely set foot on a farm.”

Yet, through the Gates Foundation, he is one of the world’s most powerful advocates for poor farmers and he is helping them gain access to technology that will help them grow their way to self-sufficiency.

Right now, the average farmer in sub-Saharan Africa produces just over a ton of cereal per acre, Gates explained at the event. An American farmer? Seven times that. The difference? The American farmer has tools and techniques that an African farmer does not – including access to genetically modified seeds.

The Gates Foundation funds the International Rice Research Institute’s Stress Tolerant Rice for Africa and South Asia (STRASA) project. Through this project, farmers are gaining access to advances in agricultural biotechnology and are helping to develop high-yield rice varieties with tolerance for droughts, floods, and saltwater.

“One farmer told me he planted this new variety [Swarna Sub 1] next to the old one he used to plant,” Gates explained. “When the rains flooded his fields for 10 days, the old variety was totally destroyed, while the new rice yielded more than 3 tons a hectare. That’s twice the yield that farmers get from the old rice variety without floods.”

A record 15.4 million farmers in 29 countries are using biotech crops – and the trend continues to grow. Ninety percent of these (over 14 million) are resource-poor farmers in developing countries and farmers have earned higher incomes in every country where biotech crops are grown. Read BIO’s FAQs about biotech crops.

Helping poor farmers access the latest technology, grow more crops, and get their surplus to market is, quite possibly, the most effective way to reduce global poverty and hunger.

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Face of a “Giant Agribusiness”

The Huffington Post ran on May 13 a very articulate piece authored by Minnesota corn farmer Noah Hultgren: 

According to some, I am a giant agribusiness — the worst kind of factory farmer.

What qualifies me for this dubious distinction? Nothing except that, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures, my farm falls in the biggest six percent of U.S. farms. And these farms account for the bulk of federal farm policy support.

It sounds pretty damning, which is why it is the top talking point used by opponents of farm policy looking to dismantle a system, they say, is too tilted to agribusinesses and oppresses small, family farms.

But there’s a lot more to this story than a 10-second sound bite would let on. For example, the USDA considers anyone with sales of more than $1,000 to be a farm, so that six percent figure is a little misleading.

The weekend grower on the side of the road selling tomatoes from her garden would be a farmer in the government’s eyes. Ditto for the young retiree trying his hand at wine-making.

Ironically, my business is probably more in line with what most of us consider a farm. It is family-run. It was passed down to me from my father and grandfather. It is a full-time effort to support my wife and kids.

And, in order to make it my livelihood, it has sales exceeding $500,000.

Again, that figure can be spun to sound really bad, since most people don’t know the difference between revenue and profit. But remember, the $500,000 represents gross sales, not how much money the farm or farmer is making.

A farmer may produce half-a-million dollars worth of goods but might have to spend just as much to grow the crop, making it a break-even proposition and sometimes a losing one.

Seems odd to call these farms corporate titans, especially when you consider that the Small Business Administration classifies most businesses as “small” if their gross sales are under $7 million a year.

How much profit could a “giant corporate farm” like mine hope to generate? The USDA puts profit margins in agriculture at 10 to 15 percent.

So under favorable circumstances — Mother Nature cooperates, market prices are fair, oil doesn’t spike and you don’t run into any problems like equipment breaking down and needing expensive repairs — that $500,000 in sales could generate between $50,000 and $75,000 in profit a year, according to the USDA’s estimates.

No corporate executive in his or her right mind would get into such a risky business with such little profit upside. That’s why 97 percent of U.S. farms are still owned by families, not by corporations like Cargill, or ADM, or Kraft.

I recognize that some may construe this article as a complaint about farm profits or an attack on smaller farm operations, but that is not my intent.

Farm prices are way up right now and near an all-time high — and as a result, federal spending is way down. And I know that if America is going to meet tomorrow’s food and fiber needs it will take farms of all shapes and sizes.

Smaller, organic growers are part of this puzzle, as are larger, conventional operations like mine, which supply more than three-quarters of our country’s food and fiber.

As Secretary of State Clinton said this weekend, “We must redouble our commitment to sustainable agriculture and food security.”

She’s right. If this nation is going to keep pace with an exploding global population, and if it’s going to do it in a sustainable way, then responsible farmers of all sizes have to come together in supporting and encouraging technology and best management practices.

In addition, America needs to urge the next generation to to get involved in farming, despite the low profit margins and risk, to replace aging growers who are retiring.

Our farmers and ranchers are a thin green line standing between a prosperous nation and a hungry world. It’s time to refocus on holding all parts of this thin green line instead of tearing it apart with manipulated numbers and disingenuous spin.

Ag Biotechnology Playing Bigger Role in Food Output

CNBC published an online article on April 26 about technology’s role in meeting global food demand. 

Industries of all stripes typically look to technology to improve safety and cost efficiency. With both global food prices and concerns about food safety on the rise, technology is playing a more important role in the economics of the world’s food supply.

Agricultural biotechnology is gaining traction worldwide as a method for improving crop yields. And thanks to new federal regulations dealing with food safety, information technology is becoming an increasingly important part of the equation.

Traits for Sustainability

Amid a rising global population, increasing the availability and sustainability of crops is a challenge for the farming industry. 

In 1960, on average one farmer fed 26 people per year. Now, a farmer feeds about 155 people per year,” says Jack Boyne, a spokesman for Bayer’s CropScience unit. “The fact that the farming industry has risen to this challenge gives us room for optimism. But we know there will be 3 billion more people on this planet by 2050, and it’s no sure thing that that trend will continue.”

 That’s why governments are embracing agricultural biotechnology, particularly insect-resistance traits and herbicide tolerance for crops, to help farmers improve their crop yields while keeping costs low.

On average, about 35 percent of the global crop production is reduced by diseases and pests,” says Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, executive vice president, food and agriculture, at the Biotechnology Industry Organization. “Through the adoption of insect resistance, you reduce that damage caused to the crops. Through herbicide tolerance being incorporated into the plant, farmers can kill weeds more easily and still have a healthy crop.”

A new development involves incorporating drought tolerance into plants, a crucial issue for many regions in the world where water is in short supply. Drought-tolerant corn developed by Monsanto in collaboration with Germany’s BASF is awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

 The analogy is that instead of the corn gulping water it takes sips of water, and it still produces at the same yield potential as corn that has the normal amount of water that’s needed conventionally,” Lauritsen says.

 Along with industry giants such as Monsanto, Bayer CropScience, and Syngenta, some smaller companies are leading the way in new agricultural biotechnology methods.

Arcadia Biosciences has been working technology that helps plants use nitrogen more efficiently, enabling farmers to use less nitrogen fertilizer — cutting costs and reducing the environmental impact — while generating the same yield.

Lauritsen notes that as of 2007, biotechnology has improved soybean yields by 30 percent per acre worldwide, while corn and canola yields increased 7.6 percent and 8.5 percent per acre, respectively. From 1996 to 2008, biotech crops have produced $52 billion of farm-level economic benefits, according to PG Economics, an agricultural industry consultant.

 Much of the concern regarding the world’s food supply involves developing nations. While biotechnology has largely been adopted by developed Western countries, albeit with a fair amount of controversy, it is beginning to gain traction in the rest of the world.

 Lauritsen points to golden rice as an example, which is being touted as a solution to some childhood health problems in developing regions. Beta carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A, is created naturally in the stalks and leaves of the rice plant, but not in the grain. With so-called golden rice, the beta carotene is expressed in the grain itself. It’s expected to be introduced in the Philippines in 2013.

There’s a lot of optimism that this will do a lot to help prevent blindness,” Lauritsen says. “It’s estimated that there are 6,000 deaths per day globally due to vitamin A deficiency, so that is really looked upon as a real potential.”

Earth Day 2011: Five Ways Biotechnology is Earth-Friendly

As the world celebrates Earth Day 2011, the biotech industry is doing its part to make the food we eat and the products we consume more environmentally sustainable – from reducing carbon dioxide emissions to preserving endangered species. Here are five ways that biotech is making farming earth-friendly.

1.       Protecting Soil, Air and Water:  Farmers have found that the use of biotech crops can reduce the need for plowing to control weeds. No-till agriculture, in limited use prior to 1996, has enabled farmers to shift to simpler, more effective methods means of control since biotech crops are able to tolerate herbicides with low environmental impact. This has led to improved soil health and water retention, reduced pesticide runoff, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

For one year alone, fuel savings combined with biotech crop-related carbon sequestration eliminated nearly 39 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions in 2009 – equivalent to removing 7.8 million cars from the road in one year. Watch a video about American farmers.

2.       Conserving the Environment:  Biotechnology can help produce environmentally friendly farm animals. Animals and their feeds have been improved through biotechnology to reduce animal wastes, minimizing their impact on the environment. Watch a video about genetically engineered animals.

3.       Preserving Endangered Species:  Today’s reproductive and cloning techniques offer the possibility of preserving the genetics of endangered species. In addition, studies of endangered animals can also result in increased genetic diversity which can result in healthier populations of the species. Watch a video about endangered species.

4.       Promoting Energy Security:  Biotechnology is at the heart of biofuels. Biofuels are made from everything from corn to soybeans to sugar beets to wood and grasses – even algae. They are also cleaner burning than petroleum-based fuels and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent or more! Learn more about the potential of algae.

5.       Saving Plants from Disease and Pests:  Biotechnology is helping food plants resist disease and pests. For example, a genetically enhanced papaya literally helped save the Hawaiian papaya industry for farmers who suffered devastating losses from the ringspot virus – there was no other effective treatment. Learn more about the biotech papaya.

To learn more about how biotech is making farming earth-friendly, download BIO’s 2011 Earth Day fact sheet!

Keep Biotech “Risks” In Perspective

The StarPheonix ran a commentary authored by Saskatoon-based farmer and agrologist Kevin Hursh about the perceived “risks” of biotech foods:

A good scientist will never say there is zero risk, only that risk is minimal or negligible. Unfortunately, that isn’t good enough for consumers when it comes to the food supply.  It’s now been 15 years since the introduction of genetically modified crops. A lot of consumers don’t even realize that GM crops have been part of their diet for more than a decade. If you ask them, they’d prefer not to have any GM crops because it sounds scary.

Worldwide, the main GM crops are corn, soybeans and cotton. So far, herbicide tolerance and insect resistance have been the traits commercialized. Both have been a boon to production while helping to preserve the environment.

We’re just at the cusp of GM traits that will more directly benefit consumers – drought tolerance, special food quality attributes and nitrogen use efficiency. Those benefits may never be realized if the consumers of the world grow more risk averse.  There are 100 million farmers growing GM crops, most of them in developing nations, but major opposition to the technology still exists, particularly within Europe.

After 15 years of growing GM crops, there is not a single credible health concern. The term genetic modification is actually a misnomer. We’ve been doing that for centuries through various plant breeding methods. The new technology is better described as genetic engineering. If anything, it provides more precise control over the outcome.

The technology is intensely regulated. Approval of new traits requires exhaustive research. Is the risk zero? No, but it’s extremely low and the risk isn’t zero under conventional plant breeding methods either.

Affluent Canadians, Americans and Europeans can afford to reject technology. In fact, many reject all aspects of intensive agriculture. Go ahead and buy organic vegetables and free range chickens if it makes you feel better.

But we can’t feed the world without the continuing application of biotechnology. There will be seven billion people on the planet by the end of this year and nine billion by 2050. World food production is falling behind the growth in demand.

Throw in climate change or at least climate variability. Add in the fact that we want to reduce the use of pesticides. We don’t want to take more land out of its natural habitat, but we pave over good farmland every day to expand our cities. And many nations are running out of the water they need for irrigation.

We can accept biotechnology as a tool to improve yields, food quality and the nutrient utilization or crops. Or we can let the food supply become ever more precarious and expensive and deal with the ramifications of starving people.  Let’s choose the path with the lower risk.”

Debating Technology’s Role in Alleviating Hunger

The blog Plenty to Think About focuses on the issues surrounding global food production and world hunger. Although the blog is sponsored by Elanco, its purpose is to serve as an online forum where many voices can share their perspectives on what it will take to feed more than 9 billion people by 2050. 

By 2050, the world will need to produce 100 percent more food, and according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 70 percent of the increased production must come from efficiency-enhancing agricultural technologies,” says Jeff Simmons, President, Elanco Animal Health. 

The white paper, “Making Safe, Affordable And Abundant Food a Global Reality” addresses how highly efficient food production can help alleviate hunger and exposes consumer perceptions about technology use.

This easy-to-read report explains technology’s role in increasing agricultural production around the globe, and how we can better grow more food crops for more people in more enivonmentally sustainable ways. 

Technology defined:
1. Practices – Doing it better
2. Products – Using new, innovative tools and technologies
3. Genetics – To enhance desired traits in plants and animals

We must call a truce to the debate about the role of technology in the sustainable production of safe, affordable and abundant food if we are to protect the Three Rights:

1. Ensuring the human right of all people around the world to have access to affordable food. 

2. Protecting all consumers’ rights to spend their food budget on the widest variety of food choices.

3. Creating a sustainable global food production system, which is environmentally right.

The challenge of world hunger is complex and multifaceted. Allowing the entire food chain access to safe, efficiency-enhancing technologies is an essential component of a comprehensive solution to the challenge – both locally and globally. In addition, protecting the right to choose these technologies can make the dream of safe, affordable and abundant food a reality worldwide.

For more information, visit www.plentytothinkabout.com.

Frequently Asked Questions about Biotech Foods, Safety and Labeling

Since the first biotech crop was commercialized in 1996, questions have been raised about why farmers are adopting biotechnology (it’s more sustainable, more environmentally friendly and less costly) whether or not biotech crops are as safe as conventional crops (they are), and why foods derived from biotech crops don’t require special labels.  

As the use of agricultural biotechnology increases globally, people need information about food production that is truthful, so they can form opinions based on facts, not fear.  Here are some common questions that some people have about foods derived from biotechnology:

1.      Is biotechnology less safe than other plant breeding techniques?

No.  Biotechnology is safe.  It is a refinement of breeding techniques that have been used to improve plants for thousands of years.  Biotechnology is simply a more precise science, so scientists are able to isolate a specific gene to make exact changes to a crop (for example, to make a corn plant resistant to the corn borer insect.)

Scientists around the world agree that the risks associated with crop plants developed using biotechnology are the same as those for similar varieties developed using traditional breeding methods.

2.      Are foods derived from biotechnology as safe to eat as foods produced using conventional crops? 

Yes.  Federal regulatory agencies ensure the safety of biotechnology foods, and biotech plants and foods are among the most tested in history. 

The ultimate scientific authorities recognized in this country, such as the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science[1], the American Dietetic Association[2], the American Medical Association[3], the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization[4] and the World Health Organization[5] have concluded that foods with biotech-derived ingredients pose no more risk to people than any other foods.  

Biotech crops have been cultivated for more than 15 years, and foods derived from agricultural biotechnology have been eaten by billions of people without a single documented health problem.  This is a remarkable food safety record, but not surprising, given the pre-market scrutiny and testing of biotech crops and foods. 

3.      Are crops developed using biotechnology safe for the environment?

Yes.  Extensive scientific evaluation worldwide has not found any examples of ecological damage from biotechnology crops. In fact, the National Research Council[6] has documented that, in addition to their safety, biotech crops contribute positively to farm sustainability in the United States, due to their environmental benefits and economic benefits to farmers. 

Current crops designed to resist pests and tolerate herbicides have already cut chemical usage on farms significantly.  Herbicide-tolerance promotes practices like no-tillage farming that reduce soil erosion, prevent water loss, and even limit release of greenhouse gases.

To ensure that a new plant is safe for the environment, extensive field-testing is conducted under USDA and EPA oversight.

4.      Are the products of agricultural biotechnology regulated?

Yes.  Biotechnology products in the United States are regulated according to the 1986 Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology.  Under the Coordinated Framework, agricultural biotechnology products are regulated by three agencies:

–   U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the interstate movement and field-testing of biotechnology-derived plants “regulated articles” to ensure that the environment is protected. A petition for “nonregulated status” must be granted by the USDA prior to commercial growth and sale of any bioengineered crop.

–   The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for ensuring that pest-resistant biotech varieties are safe to grow and consume. It regulates environmental exposure to these crops to ensure there are no adverse effects to the environment or any beneficial, non-targeted insects and other organisms.

–   The Food and Drug Administration imposes on foods developed through biotechnology the same regulatory requirements FDA uses to safeguard all foods in the marketplace. The FDA has both premarket and postmarket authority to regulate the safety and labeling of all foods and animal feed.

5.      Do foods produced using biotechnology require special labeling?

No.  The FDA’s evaluation of a biotechnology food focuses on its characteristics, not the method used to develop it. A new biotechnology food that is “substantially equivalent” (meaning it has the same chemical composition and nutritional value to conventional varieties) does not require a special label.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulations state that requiring the labeling of foods that are indistinguishable from foods produced through traditional methods would mislead consumers by falsely implying differences where none exist.  

According to the 2010 Consumer Survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), consumer satisfaction with current information on food labels remains high.  Only 18 percent of consumers supported additional info on food labels, with only three percent supporting the labeling of biotech foods[7]

6.      Do most foods contain biotech ingredients? 

 More and more farmers in the United States and around the world are turning to biotechnology so they can grow plants that yield more per acre and are resistant to diseases and insect pests while reducing production costs and contributing to more environmentally friendly farming practices. 

–   In the United States, the majority of all the corn (86 percent), soybeans (93 percent) and cotton (93 percent) are grown using biotechnology[8]

   In 2010, biotech crop area globally grew ten percent to reach 366 million acres[9].

–   In the United States, more than 165 million acres of biotech crops were planted in 2010, up from 158 million acres in 2009[10].  The primary biotech crops grown in the United States are corn, cotton, and soybeans, but also canola, squash, papaya, alfalfa, and sugarbeet. 

–   A record 15.4 million farmers in 29 countries are using agricultural biotechnology.  Ninety percent (14.4 million) of these are resource-poor farmers in developing countries[11].

7.      Do biotech foods cause allergies?  

 To date, no allergic reactions have been attributed to any food product of biotechnology.  Every crop produced through biotechnology is screened in advance for its potential to cause allergic reactions, and none have demonstrated any potential to be allergenic.

In fact, advanced techniques are being used to remove allergens from certain foods. Hypoallergenic rice and soybeans have already been developed, and researchers are at work on wheat. The removal of allergens from foods will open up a broader range of products for those with food allergies to enjoy.

8.      Do farmers use more pesticides when they grow biotech crops? 

No.  In fact, biotech crops have helped reduce pesticide spraying (1996-2008) by 352 million kg (a decrease of 8.4 percent), and as a result, decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on the area planted of biotech crops by 16.3 percent[12]

In addition, herbicide tolerant biotech crops have led to the adoption of no/reduced tillage production systems.  This has reduced soil erosion and improved soil moisture levels.

9.      Do biotech crops “contaminate” other crops? 

No.  The fact is, nature has used pollen to carry genes between plants for hundreds of millions of years. 

In recent years, some growers (usually of organic crops) have sought to distinguish their produce from conventional agricultural harvests by claiming there are no biotech derived materials present, even though the USDA organic standard allows for substantial material of biotech or conventional origin to be present in organic harvests as long as the organic grower did not knowingly plant biotech derived seed:

“As long as an organic operation has not used excluded methods and takes reasonable  steps to avoid contact with the products of excluded methods as detailed in their  approved organic system plan, the unintentional presence of the products of excluded methods will not affect the status of the organic operation.”[13]

Not one organically certified farm has lost its USDA certification due to the presence of unintended plant DNA (from either conventional or biotech varieties) since the beginning of the Federal National Organic Program.  

10.  Can agriculture biotechnology help feed a growing global population?

Yes. Agricultural biotechnology can be a key element in the fight against hunger and malnutrition in the developing world.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, feeding a world population of 9.1 billion in 2050 will require raising overall food production by 70 percent (nearly 100 percent in developing countries)[14]. To meet this challenge, farmers will need to find ways to grow more food more sustainably.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, along with the Royal Society of London, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the Mexican Academy of Sciences and the Third World Academy of Sciences issued a report discussing the role of biotechnology in meeting global food needs. It concluded: 

“GM technology, coupled with important developments in other areas, should be used to increase the production of main food staples, improve the efficiency of production, reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and provide access to food for small-scale farmers.”[15]

Biotechnology has already helped increase food and feed production.  For example, biotechnology traits have added 74 million tonnes and 79.7 million tonnes respectively to global production of soybeans and corn since its introduction in 1996.[16] 

In the United States alone, corn yield has increased 36 percent, soybean yield has increased
12 percent, and cotton yield has increased about 31 percent since 1995, in part due to biotechnology.[17]

High-level government officials and ag policy experts agree on agricultural biotechnology’s contribution to increasing agricultural productivity:

 We need to do a better job of working with scientists and farmers and political leaders to make sure there is a consistent message that comes from this country about the importance of biotechnology as a strategy for meeting world demand.”
– U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, February 24, 2011

 “We believe that biotechnology has a critical role to play in increasing agricultural productivity, particularly in light of climate change. We also believe it can help to improve the nutritional value of staple foods.”
– U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, October 16, 2009

“I became a scientist because one of my goals was to develop disease-resistant crops that require fewer chemical inputs than non-resistant crops – disease-resistance that didn’t need a chemical treatment.  When that solution came through biotechnology, I considered it a sustainable outcome.  Others define ‘sustainability’ as not involving biotechnology.  We disagree.” 
Dr. Roger Beachy, NIFA Director and USDA Chief Scientist, February 18, 2010

“New technologies – like biotechnology, conservation tillage, drip irrigation, integrated pest management, and new multiple-cropping practices – have improved the efficiency and productivity of agricultural resources over the last decade. Around the world some 14 million small and resource poor farmers in the developing world have already benefited from biotechnology crops.”
Jose Fernandez, Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of State, January 21, 2011

“Biotech is going to be absolutely critical…what we haven’t done is shown people how different modern biotechnology can make farming.”
– Nina Fedoroff, Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State and to the Administrator of USAID, February 12, 2010


[1] Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects, National Academies Press (2004), wherein the National Research Council of the National Academies concluded that genetic engineering “…poses no unique health risks that cannot also arise from conventional breeding and other genetic alteration methods…” http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=10977

[2] J.Am.Diet Assoc. 2006; 106:285-293.

[5] FAO/WHO 2000.  Safety aspects of genetically modified foods of plant origin; http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/ec_june2000/en/index.html

[6] Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, National Academies Press (2010), wherein the National Research Council of the National Academies concluded that “…crops with traits that provide resistance to some herbicides and to specific insect pests have benefited adopting farmers by reducing crop losses to insect damage, by increasing flexibility in time management, and by facilitating the use of more environmentally friendly pesticides and tillage practices.”  http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12804

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.