Post from Des Moines: New Faces and New Ideas at the World Food Prize Symposium

Courtesy of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Courtesy of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Yesterday I was sitting on the second floor of the Downtown Marriot in Des Moines at the World Food Prize Symposium, wedged between a representative of the Catholic Relief Service and a 4-H student who got invited to attend after he won a world-hunger essay-contest (his mother drove him from Chicago that morning).

A journalist who has attended these meetings for nearly 10 years told me that in past years there were rarely 100 people in the room; now there were over 500—with Bill Gates about to take the podium for his first public statement about agriculture—and 900 people would pack into a luncheon later in the day to hear the CEO of PepsiCo describe how her company can help feed the world.

The enthusiastic turnout—and the number of new faces in the room—aren’t the only things that makes this year’s World Food Prize Symposium different from the past. In the tone of the day’s two keynote speeches—by Gates and Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs—there was the acknowledgement that the agricultural approach that worked in the past will not thrive in the future. Consider that this year’s World Food Prize laureate—Gebisa Ejeta—is being honored for his work on sorghum (widely considered an “orphan” or neglected crop) and drought-tolerance (a crop trait that will absorb more attention as climate change destabilizes water supplies).

Among the points made by Gates that resonated most with me was his assertion that “helping the poorest small-holder farmers grow more crops and get them to market is the world’s single most powerful lever for reducing hunger and poverty.” He noted that he and his wife got interested in agriculture by the roundabout path of first being interested in population, which led them to an interest in public health issues, which ultimately lead them to an interest in food as the starting point for improving people’s lives. Yes, food is the starting point for reducing poverty and hunger. But it’s also an important starting point for addressing climate change and women’s rights and other global concerns (points echoed in Sachs’ speech), which should mean more attention on the global stage at a time when international investment in agriculture is near an all time low.

Gates also emphasized that “more productive seeds”—the central element of the Green Revolution—is “just one element of an overall strategy” for his foundation. “We make investments across the value chain,” he said. That point in particular made me smile, since today, when I speak on a panel discussing whether we are using the right measures to assess agricultural progress, I plan to poke fun at Worldwatch’s long time reliance on a graph of world grain production as the ultimate metric of agricultural progress. Global hunger has ballooned even as our global food supply has increased, so clearly it’s about more than just grain production or grain yields, and about more than just seeds, which have garnered the vast majority of international attention in efforts to reduce hunger. But it’s in the neglected area of soils, irrigation systems and agricultural infrastructure where investments will have the most rapidly payoff.

“Many environmental voices have highlighted that there were excesses in the Green Revolution,” said Gates. “Too much irrigation or fertilizer, consolidation of farms.” The next Green Revolution, he said, must accommodate these concerns, and “must be guided by the needs of smallholder farmers, adapted to local circumstances and sustainable for the economy and the environment. We don’t want to create short term gains that have long term costs.”

Some of these epiphanies may not sound that new. But remember the World Food Prize symposium is a coming together not just of agricultural scientists, but also all the major funders of agricultural work—from the CEOs of every major agribusiness firm (Gates said these firms needed to go out of their way to buy from small farmers around the world), to high level staff at USAID and the World Bank, to representatives of the world’s philanthropic foundations. And this year for the first time, there are more economists and ecologists and food security advocates and relief groups and members of the intelligence community represented. (The Community Food Security Coalition held a parallel meeting earlier this week that Worldwatch cosponsored.)

After he pointed to his foundation’s investments in no-till farming, rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation, and biological nitrogen fixation, Gates took to task what he felt was a “false” dichotomy between productivity and sustainability. “They say you have to choose,” he said. “I believe we can have both.”

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