Economics & Finance
October Fri 23, 2009
Bill Gates may be the world's richest person--and also the most generous, as measured by amount of philanthropy--but we shouldn't assume this makes him the most perspicacious. His intentions are admirable, to be sure. After spending years and billions of dollars on international health issues, particularly those of developing countries, Gates announced last week that his multibillion-dollar foundation will now focus on agriculture, because raising the productivity of poor farmers will have a "massive impact" on hunger.
Gates' announcement coincides with another report on hunger from the United Nations, this time from the World Food Programme, which posited that the global economic crisis has increased world hunger to a level that has left more than a billion undernourished. "It is unacceptable in the 21st century that almost one in six of the world's population is now going hungry," said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Programme. "We know what is needed to meet urgent hunger needs--we just need the resources and the international commitment to do the job."
This is hypocrisy of the vilest sort. In fact, U.N. agencies, programs and policies themselves have prevented farmers in the developing world from obtaining the tools they need to become more productive. That gets us back to Bill Gates and his big plans: His choice last year of former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to head a new group intended to achieve a "green revolution" in African agriculture, the Alliance for a Green Revolution--established with an initial $150 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation--was incomprehensible. If past performance is any indication, the only things likely to become greener are the numbered bank accounts of Annan and his cronies.
Lest anyone forget, Annan's tenure as secretary general of the U.N. was marked by unprecedented corruption (including the Iraq Oil-for-Food debacle), incompetence and profligacy. The organization lacked any semblance of accountability and was (and is) populated by sleazy second-raters chosen for positions under a kind of nationality-based affirmative action scheme--such as Jacques Diouf, director-general of the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization; and Jorgen Schlundt, head of the World Health Organization department concerned with food safety, zoonoses (diseases that spread from animals to humans) and infectious diseases.
How ironically appropriate were Annan's remarks in assuming his new position: "Africa should rely on African solutions--local labor, seeds and markets--without seeking imported biotech 'magic bullets' or the promise of more open foreign markets." He assured his listeners, "We are not embarking on a major genetically modified exercise."
Although "genetically modified" products could alleviate famine, water shortages and disease for millions, and even lead to the development of edible vaccines incorporated into fruits and vegetables, Annan's technophobia is no surprise. During his tenure at the U.N., a virtual alphabet soup of agencies and programs--WHO, UNEP, FAO, UNIDO, CBD, to name just a few--conducted a relentless, pointless and cynical war on biotechnology, also known as genetic engineering or genetic modification. The outcome--unscientific, highly politicized and excessive regulation of biotechnology--has prevented critical advances in agricultural and pharmaceutical research and development and has been especially catastrophic for poor nations.
The U.N.'s attitude toward plants that have been genetically improved to conserve water--a commodity which is, of course, critical for agriculture--is illustrative. Development of these plants is being hampered by over-regulation--including by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the FAO/WHO U.N. agency that sets international food standards; and by the onerous, unscientific Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which regulates field trials under the aegis of the U.N.'s Convention on Biological Diversity (the "Biodiversity Treaty").
In spite of the scientific consensus that the new techniques of genetic engineering are essentially extensions, or refinements, of conventional (but less precise and less predictable) techniques of genetic modification, both U.N. entities have established requirements for the products of genetic engineering (whether plants or food derived from them) that no conventionally modified product could meet.
The U.N.'s periodic warnings of dire, impending shortages of water belie its actions, which not only exacerbate water shortages and are harmful to health, but will also thwart the organization's own overblown Millennium Development Goals. The most ambitious objective, "to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger" by 2015, certainly cannot be accomplished without innovative technology--which, in turn, cannot be developed when bans and excessive regulatory barriers impede innovation.
Like much else that transpires within its agencies and programs, the U.N. regularly defies scientific consensus and common sense, instead pandering to extremists and, not coincidentally, adopting policies that expand its own scope and responsibilities. The result is vastly inflated research and development costs, less innovation and diminished exploitation of superior techniques and products that could offer more crop for the drop.
"Helping the poorest smallholder farmers grow more crops and get them to market is the world's single most powerful lever for reducing hunger," Gates said last week as he announced $120 million in grants for agricultural research and development. Kofi Annan possesses neither the judgment to recognize the right lever nor the political courage to push it. If Gates is to have any hope of achieving his laudable goals, he should do what we all do in the face of a software glitch--reboot. Or more precisely, give Annan the boot.
First published in Forbes. com
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