In the conventional wisdom, Billl Gates has gone from geek, to megalomaniac software mogul bent on world domination, to a man so rich he can SAVE THE WORLD WITH HIS MONEY!
I cannot argue with his decision to dedicate his life to making things better through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but sometimes trying to make things better makes things worse. And that’s if your intentions are pure to start with. Mix in a partner who might have other motives, and well, you see where this is going….
This Grist article by Tom Laskawy discusses a recent venture by the Gates Foundation that sounds great on its face. The goal: to feed Africa. The method: GMO seed technology from DuPont’s biotechnology arm, Pioneer Hi-Bred.
Laskawy quotes a DesMoines Register news item, which mentions that DuPont rival Monsanto is involved in a simliar venture:
Pioneer Hi-Bred is joining with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help scientists in Africa develop genetically engineered corn varieties that would allow poor farmers increase their yields with less fertilizer.
The aim of the project is to increase corn yields by 50 percent over the average now reached by African varieties, said Paul Schickler, president of Pioneer, a Johnston-based unit of DuPont.
… Pioneer’s arch-rival Monsanto Co. is two years into a similar project with the Gates foundation to develop drought-tolerant corn that is to be made available to small-scale farmers in eastern and southern Africa.
Both Pioneer and Monsanto have agreed to make the seeds available royalty-free to small-scale farmers.
Lawkawy is skeptical. And the not-so-fine print shows he has reason to be:
As for Pioneer, they will first use advanced conventional breeding techniques to improve yields, and then add their genetically engineered genes later. The conventional version should be ready by 2014. The transgenic version? Eventually.
From his years as CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates knows well the name for this kind of product: vaporware. It’s hard not to think that Monsanto, Dupont and their ilk are turning into the Bernie Madoff of agriculture. Convince gullible foundations along with the federal government to send billions in research dollars their way based on a promise of magically awesome results. Sometime down the road, of course.
And of course the irony here is that a non-GMO solution exists, the development of seed varieties by local, African researchers such as the Nigeria National Variety Release Committee, who “developed the [improved] varieties through conventional plant breeding by tapping naturally-available traits.”
Wouldn’t it be simpler, and cheaper, wonders Laskawy, to just spend some foundation money (most likely a fraction of what goes to DuPont) on getting locally adapted seeds into local farmers’ hands?
Note: You can find a good summary of objections to Gates’ faith in GMO technology here.