If African farmers and the world’s hungry are to climb out of their misery and become more productive citizens, technology must pave the way, says Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates.

Speaking to the World Food Prize’s Norman Borlaug Symposium in Des Moines, IA, last week, Gates said Borlaug, universally recognized as the father of the Green Revolution, made a difference by using technology to increase food production. Borlaug died Sept. 12 at age 95.

“In the middle of the 20th century, experts predicted famine and starvation, but they turned out to be wrong – because they did not predict Norman Borlaug,” Gates said.

Gates said Borlaug “not only showed humanity how to get more food from the earth – he proved that farming has the power to lift up the lives of the poor.”

Although Borlaug is credited with saving the lives of 1 billion people from starvation, the continent of Africa largely has missed out on the effects of the Green Revolution, most experts agree.

“Africa is the only place where per-capita cereal yields have been flat over the last 25 years,” Gates noted. He said the average farmer in sub-Saharan Africa yields just over ½ ton/acre of cereal, while an Indian farmer gets twice that; a Chinese farmer, four times that; and an American farmer; five times that.

“The technology and new approaches that are transforming agriculture in other parts of the world can be applied in new ways, and help Africa flourish, too,” said Gates, whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is committing $120 million to programs aimed at helping eliminate hunger in Africa.

He said the food crisis has forced hunger higher on the world’s agenda. “From NGOs to the G8 to African heads of state – there's a rush of new commitment,” he said. “But there is also trouble. This global effort to help small farmers is endangered by an ideological wedge that threatens to split the movement in two.”

On one side is a technological approach that increases productivity. On the other is an environmental approach that promotes sustainability and has tried to limit the use of new technology in Africa and other impoverished regions, he said.

“Productivity or sustainability – they say you have to choose. It’s a false choice, and it’s dangerous for the field. It blocks important advances. It breeds hostility among people who need to work together. The fact is, we need both productivity and sustainability – and there is no reason we can’t have both.”

Meanwhile, Elanco President Jeff Simmons told the same group that as the world grapples with the challenge of producing enough food, we can’t lose sight of the solution – technology.

He cited examples of scientists such as Borlaug who used technology to largely eradicate famine in many parts of Asia and Latin America during the 20th century. "It is distressing to see that even though technology has a lengthy and proven track record in reducing hunger, some small but vocal minorities want to restrict access to the methods that can free millions from chronic hunger," Simmons noted.

"The world has the technology – either available or well advanced in the research pipeline – to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology. While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions and pay more for food produced by the so-called 'organic' methods, the 1 billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot."

Earlier this year, Simmons authored "Food Economics & Consumer Choice," a paper that delves extensively into technology's role in addressing world hunger. The paper is available at www.elanco.com.
-- Forrest Laws, Farm Press