To fight poverty, take up GMOs, Microsoft boss tells African govts

Saturday February 9 2013


In his latest assessment of global anti-poverty efforts, the Microsoft chairman says the international community should renew its efforts to reduce infant and maternal death rates and that it’s time Africa embraced genetically modified seeds.

Kevin J Kelley spoke to the American business magnate and philanthropist Bill Gates about his ideas on cutting poverty levels and saving lives in the developing world, as well as his concerns about the millennium goals.


In your latest assessment on anti-poverty campaigns you say, ‘human knowledge is increasing,’ and you cite as an example, the ‘creation of new seeds that allow poor farmers to be more productive.’ That presumably includes GM seeds, which your foundation has supported. What’s your advice to African states such as Kenya that oppose the use of GM crops?

Many great things have been done using conventional breeding techniques. For example, we can now introduce Vitamin A into a product and develop disease-resistant crops through conventional breeding.

The key issue is that each time somebody comes up with a GM seed, it should be viewed like a new vaccine or drug. You wouldn’t want to say they’re all automatically good or bad. And when you consider the risks with a vaccine injected into a child’s arm versus the food you eat, it’s much higher for the vaccine.

So what should be done about the GMO debate which is emerging as a political hot potato?

There is a need to create a system of review for new seeds, including GMOs, that is open-minded and considers if the benefits outweigh the problems.

One key benefit of GMOs in Africa is that they reduce the need for pesticides, which is why a lot of the anti-GMO work is funded by the pesticide industry.

To prevent starvation and ensure higher agricultural productivity, it’s a good idea not to ban an entire technique, particularly among people who will want better seeds in order to continue farming in areas affected by climate change. I can’t imagine why anybody would say we only want to use crops that can’t handle heat.

A GM cassava that’s not subject to mealy bug disease has emerged. It’s hard to understand how anybody can paint a negative picture about that when productivity is high. We fund a lot of seed activity, and any tool that can improve nutrition and incomes of smallholders, who are mostly women in Africa — we’re going to look at that. Our view is to be pragmatic in considering how we can reduce starvation.

With regard to projects in Ethiopia that you highlight in your assessment, to what degree do you consider a country’s governance in deciding where to donate funds? Ethiopia has been criticised by some human-rights monitors.

If you look for perfect governance, you probably wouldn’t fund anything in the world. The US has pretty imperfect governance and, yes, we fund projects in the US.

We don’t provide vaccines to a country based on its political system. We support primary health care independent of politics. Our assistance does not take the form of governmental budget support. In Ethiopia, we don’t fund projects through the government but NGOs.

You put emphasis on the importance of having reliable measurements in assessing the comparative success of anti-poverty programmes. Reliable statistics can be hard to come by in some African countries. Does the foundation fund efforts to improve information-gathering in Africa?

We fund efforts in that area. There’s satellite mapping in Nigeria, for example, so we can find out where settlements are. We use visual-recognition software that lets us see how many children are likely to be living there. That helps us tell how many polio doses might be needed and whether the vaccines are getting to all the children in a particular area.

We have also done soil-mapping in Africa that tells us about the quality of soil. And we fund the Revenue Watch Institute, an NGO that monitors how governments are spending their money.

You say you have two concerns with regard to the MDGs when the 2015 target date arrives. One is whether there will be adequate funding for whatever is put in place next, and the other is achieving broad consensus on what goals should be set for the period after 2015. What do you think should be done as a sequel to the MDGs?

The core of what we should do is update the MDGs. We should commit in the 2015-2030 period to dramatic improvements in each of the eight goals.

For example, child mortality by 2015 will almost certainly be below six million a year. It’s about 6.9 million now. And the goal of getting to three million by 2030 is achievable. You’ll have to make dramatic gains on malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea. For maternal mortality, we should assess which countries did well and help spread those practices.

We need to consider carefully how many goals to add. People are pushing for their cause — whether it’s a particular disease, human rights or inequities — to become MDG number nine. But how many do you want to add? Potentially you could write a list of all the ills of mankind.
I’m kind of in the conservative camp with regard to the breadth of what we should take on next. We want to keep up the momentum, the level of donor co-ordination, the ability to compare countries on key metrics and all other factors that the MDGs have been phenomenally successful at creating.

How about climate change? You suggest that there may not be enough consensus on the matter to make it a new millennium goal.

Climate change is a huge problem, and it’s important to get the world working at avoiding it. But it’s different from childhood death rates [in terms of developing consensus].

The best way to avoid climate change is through research and invention. I wouldn’t want to use the same big UN consensus process in trying to address that issue.

Carbon dioxide emissions occur primarily in the US, China and other rich countries, and we should get them to agree on an approach.