Bill Gates Is Not an Expert on Hunger in Africa
The tire fire that Elon Musk seems to be making out of his new toy, Twitter, is leading some to call for an overdue, society-wide jettisoning of the whole “if he’s a billionaire, that means he’s a genius” myth.Here’s a hope that that critical lens will extend not just to Elon “don’t make me mad or I won’t fly you to Mars” Musk but also to, can we say, Bill Gates, who, while he doesn’t talk about other planets, has some pretty grandiose ideas about this one.
Fifty organizations, organized by Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa and Community Alliance for Global Justice, have issued an open letter to Gates, in response to two high-profile media stories: an AP piece headlined “Bill Gates: Technological Innovation Would Help Solve Hunger” (9/13/22) and a Q&A in the New York Times by David Wallace-Wells (9/13/22) that opened with the question of the very definition of progress: “Are things getting better? Fast enough? For whom?” and asserting that “those questions are, in a somewhat singular way, tied symbolically to Bill Gates.”
In their letter, these global groups—focused on food sovereignty and justice—take non-symbolic issue with Gates’ premises, and those of the outlets megaphoning him and his deep, world-saving thoughts.
First and last, Gates acknowledges that the world makes enough food to feed everyone, but then goes on to suggest responses to hunger based on low productivity, rather than equitable access.
He stresses fertilizer, which the groups note, makes farmers and importing nations dependent on volatile international markets and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, while multiple groups in Africa are already developing biofertilizers with neither of those issues.
Gates tells Times readers, “The Green Revolution was one of the greatest things that ever happened. Then we lost track.” These on the ground groups beg to differ: Those changes did increase some crop yields in some places, but numbers of hungry people didn’t markedly go down, or access to food markedly increase, while a number of new problems were introduced.
AP says the quiet part loud with a lead that tells us: Gates believes that the global hunger crisis is so immense that food aid cannot fully address the problem. What’s also needed, Gates argues, are the kinds of innovations in farming technology that he has long funded.
Presumably “Squillionnaire Says What He Does Is Good, By Gosh” was deemed too overt.
But AP wants us to know about the “breakthrough” Gates calls “magic seeds”—i.e., those bioengineered to resist climate change. Climate-resistant seeds, the letter writers note, are already being developed by African farmers and traded in informal seed markets. Gates even points a finger at over-investments in maize and rice, as opposed to locally adapted cereals like sorghum. Except his foundation has itself reportedly focused on maize and rice and restricted crop innovation.
Finally, the groups address Gates’ obnoxious dismissal of critics of his approach as “singing Kumbaya”: “If there’s some non-innovation solution, you know, like singing Kumbaya, I’ll put money behind it. But if you don’t have those seeds, the numbers just don’t work,” our putative boy-hero says. Adding preemptively, “If somebody says we’re ignoring some solution, I don’t think they’re looking at what we’re doing.”
The open letter notes respectfully that there are “many tangible ongoing proposals and projects that work to boost productivity and food security.” That it is Gates’ “preferred high-tech solutions, including genetic engineering, new breeding technologies, and now digital agriculture, that have in fact consistently failed to reduce hunger or increase food access as promised,” and in some cases actually contribute to the biophysical processes driving the problem. That Africa, despite having the lowest costs of labor and land, is a net exporter is not, as Gates says, a “tragedy,” but a predictable and predicted result of the fact that costs of land and labor are socially and politically produced: “Africa is in fact highly productive; it’s just that the profits are realized elsewhere.”
At the end of AP‘s piece, the outlet does the thing elite media do where they fake rhetorical balance in order to tell you what to think:
Through his giving, investments and public speaking, Gates has held the spotlight in recent years, especially on the topics of vaccines and climate change. But he has also been the subject of conspiracy theories that play off his role as a developer of new technologies and his place among the highest echelons of the wealthy and powerful.
The word “but” makes it sound like a fight: between holding a spotlight (because you’re wealthy and powerful) or else being subject to presumably inherently ignorant critical conjecture (because you’re wealthy and powerful). Not to mention this anonymously directed “spotlight”—that media have nothing to do with, or no power to control.Wait, before you go…
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