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the Gauntlet

Ideology starving the hungry

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A false ideological wedge propagated by environmentalists threatens global efforts to help small farmers increase productivity and end the world food crisis, Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and the Gates Foundation, said to the World Food Prize forum late last week.

According to the United Nations, as of today, one in six people do not have access to sufficient food to be healthy. In fact, 1.09 billion people do not have enough to eat -- this is more than the populations of the United States, Canada and the European Union combined. As a consequence of rising food prices, sadly, the number of people suffering from hunger continues to grow.

Undeniably, this global food shortage is a troubling crisis that must be addressed expeditiously. However, even with the Gates Foundation giving $1.4 billion and countless countries across the world donating billions of dollars in foreign aid, this unjustifiably horrid problem cannot seem to be solved with money alone.

In many cases, food aid exacerbates the global food crisis. This occurs because the massive influx of food destroys local food markets by putting extreme downward pressure on prices, leaving growers in a position where they can no longer earn a profit on their small crops. This forces many farmers to abandon their operations in hopes of finding more profitable opportunities elsewhere. Consequently, less and less people have farm knowledge and in turn, the situation leads to an increasing dependency on foreign aid.

"Farmers need training and access to markets, not just new seeds," said Gates. As such, more of the money must also be used to help train local small growers the essentials of agriculture, empowering them to successfully manage their farms as opposed to direct food aid.

However, even with proper training, growers still need technology to help them produce more with fewer inputs. Gates said, "This global effort to help small farmers is endangered by an ideological wedge that threatens to split the movement in two. On one side is a technological approach that increases productivity. On the other side is an environmental approach that promotes sustainability. It's a false choice, and it's dangerous for the field."

Gates is correct; the solution to the world food crisis is not a binary choice between sustainability and productivity. Instead it should be a marriage of the two concepts. "The next Green Revolution has to be greener than the first," Gates said. "It must be guided by small-holder farmers, adapted to local circumstances and sustainable for the economy and the environment."

Sure it would be great if everyone had an ample supply of champagne, foie gras and caviar, but that option is currently unavailable. We live in a world where people hold unlimited wants yet face limited and often scarce supply. As a result, we must use every productivity-enhancing tool available to us to help maximize the use of the available scarce resources.

If we as humanitarians truly want to end world hunger, we have no choice other than to consider alternative agricultural options. If this means employing the use of seed traits and other agricultural technologies, then so be it.

The environmental movement has done an important and great job at reminding us of the importance of sustainable agriculture. However, when there are over a billion people starving, those strategies currently extolled by the environmental movement can be viewed as nothing less than a luxury.

Yes, we must absolutely be cognizant of environmental factors, but those starving to death need solutions today. Gates is right on the mark when he states that the dichotomy between productivity and sustainability is false, especially when we see tools such as seed traits merging both ideas.

Seed traits and other agricultural technologies certainly are not champagne, foie gras and caviar, but they are practical and efficacious solutions that can dramatically alleviate world hunger while being environmentally sustainable.

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