Why Gates is confused about food security

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Bill Gates is one very confused billionaire philanthropist. He gets climate change and food security, but not opponents to techno-fixes.

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Food prices on the rise

 

Bill Gates is one very confused billionaire philanthropist.

He understands global warming is a big problem — indeed, his 2012 Foundation Letter even frets about the  grave threat it poses to food security.  But he just doesn’t want to do very much now to stop it from happening (see Pro-geoengineering Bill Gates disses efficiency, “cute” solar, deployment — still doesn’t know how he got rich).

He love technofixes like geoengineering and, as we’ll see, genetically modified food.   Rather than investing in cost-effective emissions reduction strategies today or in renewable energy technologies that are rapidly moving down the cost curve, he explains that the reason he invests so much in nuclear R&D is “The good news about nuclear is that there has hardly been any innovation.”  Seriously!

His Letter includes the ominous chart at the top, and he warns of the dire consequences of climate change:

Meanwhile, the threat of climate change is becoming clearer. Preliminary studies show that the rise in global temperature alone could reduce the productivity of the main crops by over 25 percent. Climate change will also increase the number of droughts and floods that can wipe out an entire season of crops. More and more people are raising familiar alarms about whether the world will be able to support itself in the future, as the population heads toward a projected 9.3 billion by 2050.

Strong stuff.

And yet, as the AP reported this week, the wealthiest of all Americans gets very prickly if you don’t wholeheartedly endorse his techno-fix adaptation-centric approach  to dealing with this oncoming disaster:

 

Bill Gates has a terse response to criticism that the high-tech solutions he advocates for world hunger are too expensive or bad for the environment:Countries can embrace modern seed technology and genetic modification or their citizens will starve….

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent about $2 billion in the past five years to fight poverty and hunger in Africa and Asia, and much of that money has gone toward improving agricultural productivity.Gates doesn’t apologize for his endorsement of modern agriculture or sidestep criticism of genetic modification. He told The Associated Press that he finds it ironic that most people who oppose genetic engineering in plant breeding live in rich nations that he believes are responsible for global climate change that will lead to more starvation and malnutrition for the poor.

Resistance to new technology is “again hurting the people who had nothing to do with climate change happening,” Gates said.

The real irony is that most people who diss  efficiency and renewables and aggressive greenhouse gas mitigation, like Gates, live in rich nations that are responsible for global climate change that will lead to more starvation and malnutrition for the poor.

Where is the story that says, “countries to embrace  existing technology to reduce emissions or their citizens will starve” or  resistance to aggressive low carbon technology deployment is “again hurting the people who had nothing to do with climate change happening”?

This is not a blog on genetic modification, so I’ll just quote the AP story:

Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the Washington-based Center for Food Safety, said everyone wants to see things get better for hungry people, but genetically modified plants are more likely to make their developers rich than feed the poor. The seed is too expensive and has a high failure rate, he said. Better ways to increase yields would be increasing the fertility of soil by adding organic matter or combining plants growing in the same field to combat pests, he said.

The biggest problem with those alternatives, Freese said, is the same one that Gates cited in high-tech research: A lack of money for development.

I will say that while  you can make drought tolerant crops, I seriously doubt that you can make Dust-Bowl-tolerant crops — and so without mitigation, Gates’ efforts will likely  have only a marginal impact on reducing the utterly preventable catastrophe (see “Nature Publishes My Piece on Dust-Bowlification and the Grave Threat It Poses to Food Security“).

I applaud Gates for warning people about the threat that climate change poses to  billions of people.  Here’s another chart his Letter has  on who will be harmed most by rising food prices:
The poor spend a high percentage of their income on food
But the fact is, as Oxfam and others have made clear, global warming is poised to make food vastly more expensive, which will be devastating to the world’s poor  know matter how much money Gates dumps into GM crops — see Oxfam Predicts Climate Change will Help Double Food Prices by 2030: “We Are Turning Abundance into Scarcity”:

Joe Romm is editor of Climate Progress, part of the Centre for American Progress network. Article is reproduced with permission.

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4 Comments
  1. Glad to see someone noticing how Bill Gates, for all his genuine philanthropy, is fixated on big technical fixes.
    I think that Gates might be an example of someone with an awful lot more money than sense.
    Gates is a great advocate of “clean energy”.
    Yet with his company Terra Power, and its Travelling Wave Nuclear Reactor, (TWR) Gates is advocating a very dodgy version of “clean energy”.
    These “small modular nuclear reactors” run on depleted uranium, and they do produce nuclear wastes, even if in smaller quantities than “conventional” nuclear reactors.
    Gates seems completely unaware of the aspects of security – the security needed to protect a whole heap of little nuclear reactors, and all the transport of fuel to, and wastes from, them.
    These small reactors are touted as a way to “free up uranium” for conventional nuclear reactors. Apparently Gates think all is fine with a continuing nuclear industry.
    With the safety, security aspects come COSTS.
    Then there is also TIME. As a solution to climate change and energy needs, the TWRs are optimistically predicted by Gates to start operating in 15 years. 5o years or never, more likely.
    What a pity Gates can’t open his mind and his wallet to a complex variety of energy conservation measures, and renewable energy methods!

  2. Martin Nicholson 8 years ago

    I think the author has forgotten why Bill Gates is the world’s wealthiest technocrat. Some technologies work better than others and he can pick them. Windows outdid IBM’s OS2. Gates believes nuclear fission will outdo most renewable energy solutions. He believes that genetic modification of food with outdo organic processes.

    I know who I would put my money on.

  3. Gates might believe that. It doesn’t make it true.
    Financial success in one area of technology, doesn’t mean real understanding of another area.
    The nuclear power issue is fraught with many considerations and concerns – about environment, health, perpetual toxic waste disposal, weapons proliferation, economics, politics. Bill Gates’ money does not automatically qualify him to grasp all this.

    • Martin Nicholson 8 years ago

      Christina, I can assure you that Bill Gates is well aware of all the issues you raised. Perhaps study his nuclear project called Terrapower.

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