Gates, Rockefeller Foundation Turn to Feeding Africa Bill Gates and the Rockefeller Foundation announced Tuesday that they are joining forces to help reduce hunger in Africa. Guests explore how agriculture production in the region might benefit.
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Gates, Rockefeller Foundation Turn to Feeding Africa

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Gates, Rockefeller Foundation Turn to Feeding Africa

Gates, Rockefeller Foundation Turn to Feeding Africa

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A green revolution is coming to the plains of Africa. Yesterday Bill and Melinda Gates and the Rockefeller Foundation announced an ambitious plan to reduce hunger and poverty with an initial investment of $150 million. They hope to lead a transformation of African agriculture in the 21st century just as the first green revolution did in India in the 20th.

In South Asia, the productivity of farmland increased sharply, but there were social and environmental costs. Some farmers did much better than others. The crops, the land, and the weather are all different in Africa, and sponsors say they hope to benefit from the mistakes of the first green revolution.

Later on in the program, Pride of Baghdad, an allegory about the war in Iraq through the eyes of the lions at the Baghdad Zoo. And after 14 in a row, the Atlanta Braves run of divisional championships is finally over.

But first, the green revolution in Africa. If you have questions about how this plan will work or how it might not, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

We begin with NPR science correspondent Dan Charles, who's also the author of Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food. He's with us here in Studio 3A. Dan, thanks very much for coming in.

DAN CHARLES: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And Africa is obviously an enormous place. How do these foundations hope to transform agriculture there with $150 million?

CHARLES: Africa is an enormous place, and it's been tried before. There have been bigger programs than this. There have been smaller programs than this.

Well, the plan is - and one thing that's important I think to understand is this is being billed more as an economic development plan than a fight hunger plan. The idea is most Africans, particularly most poor Africans, live on the land. They depend on farming for their income. And so the Gates Foundation is kind of following the lead of their partner, the Rockefeller Foundation, which has for many, many years been very heavily involved in agriculture around the world - green revolution - heavy emphasis on science, technology and capital.

So there's sort of three points of emphasis in this program. They're going to initially put a lot of money into creating better crop varieties: new seeds, crop breeding. People often tell the story of the green revolution in Asia as a story of new lines of rice and wheat.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CHARLES: The second part of it is fertilizer. Fertilizer fueled the green revolution in Asia. They want to find a way to get fertilizer to farmers more quickly, more cheaply, more efficiently. And the third part's maybe the most interesting and that is finding ways for farmers to sell their harvest for better prices because, you know, it's a very isolated - these are isolated villages. It's hard to get things to them, but farmers also have problems getting their harvests sold. If, you know, you do a wonderfully successfully project somewhere and the farmer gets a bumper harvest, what does the farmer do? He has to take it to the village market. There's so much - he's selling so much, or she is, that she can't get rid of it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CHARLES: Prices fall. Worse off than when they started. So there's a lot of interest in ways of selling the harvest, getting rid of it.

CONAN: There are also - as you say, the problems are not just getting more out of land, which is difficult enough, but then getting that product to a market. This involves infrastructure. This involves roads. This involves transportation. There's much more involved than just a better seed.

CHARLES: Right, and you're not going to do that for the amount of money they have on hand. They're not going to get into road building. They do have some innovative ideas. They say often it's the information about where to get your harvest or sort of the information about where you might be able to sell it for a better price that's maybe not that far away. So they have these interesting projects that the Rockefeller Foundation has already set up in Kenya and Malawi where there's cell phone links between villages where you can learn what the prices are in villages where you might be able to sell your crop.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. As you look at this - again, this has been tried before - what are some of the lessons of that green revolution in South Asia that are applicable to the situation in Africa? And give us an idea of the many things that are going to be very different.

CHARLES: Well, you know, it might be interesting to start with the differences. Asia, first of all, there was a big focus on irrigated areas. That matters because with irrigation you have some, you know, certainty that your crop will grow. In Africa you don't have the big irrigated areas. You have to rely on rainfall. Farmers know that, and they can't be sure they'll get a crop at all, so they might be less willing to spend money upfront.

Africa also has a tremendous variety of crops that are grown. It's not just the big, wide fields of wheat and rice. It's little valleys and isolated areas where they might be growing a bunch of, you know, they might be having sweet potatoes, cassava, bananas, all kinds of different things.

Lessons learned from Asia. You know, there's lots. And, you know, I think one lesson that people, you know, want to avoid probably is some of the environmental impacts of the heavy reliance - some of the irrigation projects turned out to be bad. Some of the unrestricted access to pesticides turned into a big environmental problem. There are some social costs, you know, involved in - these are - they're talking about a revolution, and revolutions are not always a pretty picture.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CHARLES: There's social unrest. There's wrenching change in many cases.

CONAN: Winners and losers.


CONAN: Yeah. Joining us now is Gary Toenniessen. He's director of food security at the Rockefeller Foundation and interim president of the Alliance of a Green Revolution in Africa. He's with us from our bureau in New York City. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. GARY TOENNIESSEN (Director of Food Security, Rockefeller Foundation): Very pleased to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: Congratulations on your new project. This does seem like a massive undertaking. To begin with, when we talk about Africa, are we talking about all of Africa?

Mr. TOENNIESSEN: Well, we're going to start by examining all of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and we'll probably wind up choosing somewhere between 12 and 20 countries that this program will be focused in. Some of the countries are simply too small to have agricultural research systems. Other countries are undergoing civil strife of one form or another where you really can't mount an effective program. And there are a few countries where the governments are just simply not receptive to this type of a program.

CONAN: So they don't want you there.

Mr. TOENNIESSEN: Well, they're - they might want us there, but they're not willing to make the commitments that we feel are necessary by governments in order to make this successful.

CONAN: There are also situations in Africa where governance is a problem. Corruption is a terrible problem.

Mr. TOENNIESSEN: That's correct. And if there's total corruption in a country, that's probably not a country that we would choose to work in.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. The Rockefeller Foundation was one of the big philanthropy groups - excuse me, I'm having trouble speaking today - invested in agricultural programs in India going back to, I guess, the 1940s. That program, as we mentioned, has had its critics on issues like overproduction and the heavy use of pesticides. Are those going to be lessons learned?

Mr. TOENNIESSEN: Those were certainly lessons learned. The foundation, we like to think, actually led the green revolution in Asia, particularly in India and Pakistan. We did learn that with success that you can have overuse of pesticides, and we've been working for many years actually to try to reduce some of the environmental problems associated with the green revolution. And we've also learned quite a bit about the social-economic impacts.

I think most people would agree that the technologies used in the green revolution were relatively scale neutral. And by that I mean that small farmers as well as larger farmers - and a larger farm in India is about two hectares, so it's still not very large - but whatever the scale, if they had irrigation and they had access to fertilizer, they were able to utilize the technology.

Those farmers that were not - or did not benefit from the technology were those that did not adopt the technology. And in fact the price of rice and wheat dropped due to the increase in production. They did not increase their own production and therefore received a lower income. So, yes, there were some losers in the green evolution. We've learned some of those lessons, and we'll try to select crops and target farmers to try to minimize those types of effects in Africa.

CONAN: We want to get listeners involved in the conversation. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is And let's begin with Adam. Adam's calling us from Portland, Oregon.

ADAM (Caller): Hi, my question is a two-part, and it involves environmental impacts. One of them is concerns about bio-shift from engineered foods. In other words, if we have engineered foods being genetically designed for these environments that are found in Africa, any concerns about having some of those genes shift to other foods, especially since this - a project of this scale hasn't been done before?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ADAM: And the other half of the question is any thought to going organic as opposed to heavy - pesticide-heavy, fertilizer based on petroleum bi-products?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Gary Toenniessen?

Mr. TOENNIESSEN: Yes, let me answer the second one first. Most farmers in Africa are organic farmers today - not by choice. They just simply don't have access to fertilizer and they don't have access to any of the pesticides or other inputs. And even when they're accessible, they can't afford them. So most of them are currently producing without those types of inputs.

Unfortunately, they're depleting the nutrients, the natural nutrients, in their soil as a result of that. So in Africa today the biggest environment problem really is a continuing depletion of soil nutrients and loss of organic matter in the soil.

We're very supportive of organic farming as an alternative for farmers that enables them to make an increased profit, and a lot of the research we've been supporting in Africa is really more organic than it is input-oriented. It's something called integrated soil fertility management. It often does require very judicious use of fertilizers in order to bring in nutrients that are clearly missing from the soil. But we've learned a lot from research on organic agriculture, and we'll try to incorporate that into the work that's going to be done as part of this alliance.

CONAN: And I'm afraid we're running up onto a time problem, so Adam's question about genetic engineering we'll defer until we come back from the break. Adam, thanks very much for the call.

ADAM: Thank you.

CONAN: And we'll return to you, Gary Toenniessen, for more on that when we do come back from the break. We're discussing new plans to launch a green revolution in Africa. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today about a new plan from the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations to reduce hunger and poverty in Africa. They hope to spur a green revolution for the continent.

Our guests are NPR science correspondent Dan Charles, also Gary Toenniessen, interim president of AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, and director of food security at the Rockefeller Foundation. Of course you're welcome to join us - 800-989-8255. E-mail is And, Gary, Adam said - the second half of Adam's question, that regarding genetic engineering.

Mr. TOENNIESSEN: Yes. Well, both foundations do support research on genetic engineering of crops, so we're not opposed to that technology. But this particular program in Africa will not include genetic engineering. The main reason for that is that biotechnology in general involves a new set of tools that allow you to do plant breeding, conventional plant breeding, a little bit more efficiently, a couple of things that you couldn't do with traditional techniques. But you have to have a strong conventional breeding program first before biotechnology can be applied.

So at least in this first five-year effort, we're going to be focusing on developing the capacity of African scientists, African plant breeders, and focus on using conventional plant-breeding techniques because we think they have a tremendous amount to offer in developing the kinds of varieties we need.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TOENNIESSEN: If you think about it, Africa today produces on average about one ton per hectare. If they were able to produce two tons per hectare, they would be exporting food. And conventional breeding can easily move crops from a potential of one to two tons per hectare. So that's going to be the focus. Maybe somewhere down the line we might consider using biotechnology, but at this point it's conventional breeding. And when we do use biotechnology, we'll incorporate all of the bio-safety procedures that could and should be utilized.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Monoah(ph) - I'm hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - in Kansas City.

MONOAH (Caller): It's Monoah.

CONAN: Monoah, please go ahead. I apologize for that.

MONOAH: Yeah, one of the things that I want to - points I want to make is, you know, regardless of how much Africans are able to produce - I, myself, was born in Kenya. And one of the phenomenons of (unintelligible) in African agriculture is one day we have pretty good rains - it rains and farmers, you know, put their inputs in there - that we have a surplus of food.

And so unless the West opens their markets to African produce to be sold in the West, mainly in America and in Europe, that every year Africans lose that incentive to grow because 80 percent of their population live in rural areas. They are farmers. And you cannot have any people producing agricultural produce to sell to themselves. That's ridiculous.

So these efforts have to be included with the idea that some of that produce has to be sold to elsewhere in the world, otherwise it's going to be a failure. It's never going to work because the more you produce, the less a market you have. Because if you produce two times - like the gentleman was saying...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MONOAH: ...once you produce two times, who are you going to sell it to?

CONAN: Yeah, that's a - Dan Charles, let me put that to you. Politically - this is a political decision. It's about tariffs and agreements.

Mr. CHARLES: Right. You know, a lot of people understand or remember hearing about trade talks that collapsed recently. There was - a lot of economists will agree with the caller. It's the West sort of promised the African countries that they would reduce barriers that are currently obstructing exports of food from African countries, and that didn't happen.

This is one thing that economists, agricultural economists at places like the World Bank, very mainstream establishment places, have been calling for and saying this is an absolutely important thing to do - not just the tariffs but also the farm subsidies in Europe and the United States, which essentially encourage the production of more agricultural commodities here, driving down world prices, which makes it less economic for farmers in Africa to get better prices for their crops.

CONAN: Mm-hmm, and does - is any part of the project, Gary Toenniessen, devoted to this problem of what do you do with the exports when you have them?

Mr. TOENNIESSEN: Yes it is, although I wouldn't call them exports. What I would call it is surplus production. And the focus of this program is really on staple food crops, not on the traditional export crops like coffee and tea or cotton. It's on the staple food crops. And when the farmers do produce a surplus, what we're going to try to help them to do is to convert that surplus into value-added products.

A classic example that's worked in many locations is to convert, say, surplus grain into animal feed, which you then feed to two or three dairy cattle, produce milk, and sell the milk at an increased price, or at a good price, that the farmers can make money with.

So what we're hoping is that you will see a transition from a kind of a subsistence farming system, in which these farmers produce only staple crops, to much more of a commercial farm in which they produce enough food to feed themselves but also a surplus that they can either sell, either locally or through this kind of a market-information system that Dan was talking about -perhaps at a neighboring city or in a neighboring country - but also just simply convert that surplus into a value-added product like milk.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MONOAH: Neal, I have one last comment.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MONOAH: Unless also the infrastructure that you talked about earlier, unless that infrastructure is fixed - I've seen this time and again that people produce, let's say, tomatoes, for example. And this (unintelligible) could be the heavy rains in June or July, and if it continues to rain, that produce will just rot in the farms. So it becomes difficult when you work with science on one side and the government doesn't improve on their infrastructure on the other.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MONOAH: That, you know, it can become self-defeating for these organizations to go to Africa and put their money there. At the end of the day, the produce will not reach the markets.

CONAN: Monoah, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MONOAH: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Eric Holt-Gimenez is executive director of Food First, a think-tank that studies food development. He's with us now from his office in Oakland, California. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. ERIC HOLT-GIMENEZ (Executive Director, Food First): Thank you. Good afternoon.

CONAN: In your view, is this program going to - how much will this new program help?

Mr. HOLT-GIMENEZ: Well, first let me say that, you know, many of us who follow food and development issues welcome the renewed interest in agriculture, particularly in small holders to the AGRA program, and also the recognition that markets. And there are other aspects of the AGRA food system need to be addressed when we're addressing agricultural development for small holders.

I would say we're looking at this with a very jaundiced eye because nonetheless we're not convinced that another green revolution is what's necessary for Africa. In fact the green revolution may be an idea who's time has come and gone. I think that unless we revisit a number of the errors, failures, and the damage, frankly, caused by the green revolution to small-holder production in the world and some of the structural disincentives which have already been mentioned and we also look much more closely at the existing alternatives which have been successful around the world, I'm not sure whether this type of initiative will be able to achieve the very noble goals that it set out for itself.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. In terms of some of those problems that you were talking about, surely increased - if you could increase food production by 50 percent, as the - per hectare, as Gary Toenniessen was telling us earlier today, that would be beneficial. Why is this not beneficial?

Mr. HOLT-GIMENEZ: Well, it depends. I mean beneficial for whom? You know the green revolution was very successful at increasing yields, at least temporarily. But at the same time they were increasing yields in places like the Punjab, for example, one of its great success stories, people were dying of hunger because they couldn't afford to buy the food. I mean people are hungry because they're poor, and the problem with a lot of these technological approaches is that the technologies favor those who tend to have more resources, even when they're initially directed at smaller farmers.

And so over time resources concentrate, land concentrates, and in fact small farmers get pushed out of the picture and join the ranks of the hungry rather than the other way around.


Mr. HOLT-GIMENEZ: So I think that there's, you know, quite a lot of thinking to be done about how not to repeat, you know, this sort of dichotomy where you raise production but people go hungrier.

CONAN: Yeah. I wanted to give Gary Toenniessen a chance to respond to some of your criticisms.

Mr. TOENNIESSEN: Well, this is a very common criticism, and it's basically is the glass half full or is it half empty. Those farmers in the Punjab in India were very poor hungry farmers prior to the green revolution. And it isn't just the Punjab; it is throughout the irrigated areas of India that farmers have benefited from the green revolution.

As I indicated before, there are a number of regions in Asia, particularly the rain-fed non irrigated areas where the new technologies, the new seeds, were not adopted by farmer because they weren't appropriate. I might add that we've been spending a lot of time and effort - the international community, Rockefeller Foundation included - in trying to develop new varieties for those marginal areas.

But to criticize the green revolution because it only benefited 60 percent of the farmers in India and not 100 percent I think is not really fair. We're recognizing that we need to target those farmers that are resource poor, and are doing that in both Asia and Africa as well. In Africa we're trying to help the farmers that do have access to resources but also remain quite poor.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. This is Amanda. Amanda's calling us from Ottawa, Illinois.

AMANDA (CALLER): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. And this might go along too with what the other caller was saying. When you talk about displacing farmers, some projects that were done in Africa through USAID, particularly in Malawi, didn't just displace some farmers, they displaced large numbers of farmers and those farmers were women.

And I'm wondering what controls you've put into place to avoid the mistakes that were made in the past with assumptions that farming is done by men and how you will do outreach to women in areas where they don't traditionally communicate well with men who are not family members?

CONAN: Gary Toenniessen?

Mr. TOENNIESSEN: Yeah, well, most of the farmers in Africa are women. And over the last decade or two, plant breeders have developed a number of new tools. Not just the tools of genetics, but also tools of assessing the traits that are important. And this involves what's called participatory plant breeding, where you actually involve the farmers in the selection of the new varieties or even in the early stages of screening various traits within breeding lines in order to select those that the farmers are interested in.

And when you're dealing with women farmers, they're actually much more astute than most men farmers, because they're looking at these varieties not just from a production standpoint but also from a consumption standpoint. What is their nutritional value? How long are they going to take to cook? How do they taste? Is my family going to eat this? Will the stalks and will the straw be suitable for thatching the roof of our house or for other uses that they make of it.

So by involving all farmers, but woman farmers in particular, in this participatory plant breeding process, we have developed new tools that make sure that their interests are addressed. I might add that in Africa we also have a significant number of women plant breeders who are involved in this project. And they too have a better understanding of what the needs are of women farmers because most of them actually grew up on farms and had that experience.

CONAN: Amanda, thanks very much.

AMANDA: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking today about a green revolution for Africa. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


DAN CHARLES: One of the things that's interesting I think is this kind of big picture development. Whenever the Gates Foundation does something, it's got such a large amount of money that people kind of sit up and take notice. It was already the biggest foundation in America before it just doubled its size with the promised gift from Warren Buffett.

And the fact that they're now sort of stepping into agriculture is interesting because it seems to signal something that people say was already happening. That agriculture is kind of moving back into fashion, and agricultural development as a strategy in Africa was moving back into fashion.

Through most of the ‘90s there was a big emphasis on health and education, figuring that if that human capital was improved, the innovation and the growth would sort of happen by itself. But it seems that people are sort of, you know, at least if this program is a signal, they're moving back toward the idea of technology and, you know, building and providing things in research.

CONAN: Eric Holt-Gimenez, let me ask you about that. You sort of welcome the new attention on agriculture, yet as our caller Amanda pointed out, sometimes that does come with cultural assumptions that don't always trade well.

Mr. HOLT-GIMENEZ: Well, I think it's also coming with some political assumptions, which don't really take into account the current political and economic context of Africa. I mean the global south, countries of Africa included, went through severe structural adjustment policies pressed on them by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank throughout the '80s and ‘90s.

Basically they had to privatize and they had to pare back all of their public services. So services like agricultural extension and practically agricultural ministries just were hollowed out and practically disappeared. So the type of green revolution approach in which you rely upon expert-led development and then extensionists, you know, fell apart throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.

And so to revive the same type of approach, which will necessarily depend on a well functioning institutional infrastructure for agriculture in order to provide the extension services, I think is really out of context and that's part of the problem. And yes, we thought about building up human capital and social capital and whatnot, but all the while these - both the economies and the institutions, the public institutions in these countries, were being destroyed through structural adjustment.

CONAN: I don't mean to cut you off, I just wanted to give - we're running out of time and I wanted to give Gary Toenniessen the last 30-40 seconds to respond to that.

Mr. TOENNIESSEN: Well, those points are certainly right. But we have observed that as well, and so we're putting considerable effort into developing private sector delivery systems for the improved seeds. The public sector still can do the breeding and the production of the varieties, but we're promoting local African seed companies and then little retailers, little Agways that can be established throughout the rural areas of Africa.

Basically we're trying to convert the little (unintelligible) that are already there into people that sell seeds and fertilizer and little pumps and other farm equipment. And we've had success with that. The Rockefeller foundation has been working on this for 10 years in Africa, and that's what the Gates foundation saw that they want to become involved with.

CONAN: Gary Toenniessen, thank you very much for your time. We'd also like to thank Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of Food First. And NPR's science correspondent Dan Charles, who was with us here in the studio. Thanks to you all. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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