Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why the Gates Foundation worries me

When it comes to philanthropy, few can top Bill Gates. He's donated so much of his money to various educational and health-related causes over the years that he's no longer the richest man in America. Good for him. Seriously. I think it's great that he is using his wealth to better the planet. What worries me is the credo his foundation seems to operate under, which could be summed up as technology uberalis. The foundation believes in using high-tech solutions for things like eliminating malaria in Africa, or, more recently, advocating for industrial farming practices in developing nations in order to produce enough food to feed everyone.

The Gates Foundation, along with the Rockefeller Foundation, wants to launch a new Green Revolution in Africa. While the Green Revolution had measurable benefits in a number of countries, its success relied primarily on industrial farming methods: use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers to boost gain.

Enter the UN report I posted a few days ago, which is referenced again in this report from Humanosphere, that proves low-tech farming is both more productive and better for farmers and land.

Still not convinced? Even if you think industrial methods are the best way to increase yields, all those pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers do enormous damage to the soil, rendering it less fertile over time. The runoff from all these industrial inputs contaminates water supplies. Most important, industrial farming relies on petroleum to create all those (say it with me) pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers.

Uh, Mr. Gates? Petroleum is not a renewable resource (I don't have time to address the global warming implications of using a petroleum-based farming system here, but you can fill in the blanks yourself).

What worries me is that America's biggest philanthropist is so seduced by the lure of technology that he's willing to ignore or downplay low-tech methods that have a proven track record of success. I get it that low-tech isn't sexy. But if you really want to feed more people, and low-tech methods work better and are healthier for the farmers, the soil, the water, the people who eat the food, and, ultimately, the planet, you need to wean yourself away from the glitz and glamour of high-tech.

Gates has a penchant for reaching for the brass ring high-tech solution. In 2005 I read an article in The New Yorker about the Gates' Foundation work to eliminate malaria in Africa. Turns out one of the most effective methods is mosquito nets (very low-tech, and they've been around for thousands of years in one form or another). But Gates wanted to focus his efforts on finding a vaccine, because that would allow him to use science and high-tech to further his philanthropic agenda.

I'm not questioning Gates' sincere desire to feed the hungry, or make malaria a thing of the past. I do question, and object to, his slavish devotion to The Next Big Thing, the cool new technology, the sexy science, while ignoring proven low-tech, low-cost methods. I get that Gates, one of the best-known representatives of high-tech, wants to use the technology that made his fortune to right some of the world's biggest wrongs. His motivations are admirable, but it's his money that will make the difference, not necessarily the technology he champions. After all, what's important here is feeding people, or curing malaria. Let's not lose sight of that.

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