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Bill Gates Warns Climate Change Threatens Food Security, Finds It ‘Ironic’ People Oppose His ‘Solution’: Genetic Modification

By Joe Romm  

"Bill Gates Warns Climate Change Threatens Food Security, Finds It ‘Ironic’ People Oppose His ‘Solution’: Genetic Modification"

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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 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”:

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37 Responses to Bill Gates Warns Climate Change Threatens Food Security, Finds It ‘Ironic’ People Oppose His ‘Solution’: Genetic Modification

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Biochar is a Key Technology to reach low carbon dioxide atmospheric concentration targets.

    Bill Gates can contact me anytime and we start some biochar or community project.

    Genetical modified crops do not grow without water, or to much water. Also they do not grow when vulnerable to UVB/UVC radiation. Also the agriculture approach requires biochar fertilizer.

    Complex problems require simple solution and biochar is one of them. Biochar is not a silver bullet but part of the puzzle.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Bill is a true egghead- though Paul Allen deserves the credit for Microsoft’s software inventions.

    Like Wall Street banks and billionaire fund managers, he forgot how he made his money, and is now seduced by the easy kind (fossil fuel investments).

    It’s better to just ignore him, because he is also quite stubborn, and not inclined to admit that GM in Africa and geoengineering in the Arctic are terrible ideas. Fellow eggheads like Myhrvold encourage this tunnel vision through faux “genius” brainstorming in Microsoft executive offices, instead of serious analysis. They think that because they’re this wealthy, that they know what’s best for everyone. So did the people at Versailles.

    It’s tough to step around someone this powerful, but the people at Google are much hipper to what’s going on, and more likely to help us move in the right direction.

  3. fj says:

    Really believe that Bill Gates is well-intentioned but he should stop this looking for advanced “geeky” solutions much simpler solved with many existing common sense methods and technologies often at disruptively low costs and environmental footprints.

  4. EDpeak says:

    Ok, in two blurbs:

    1) Genetic “modification” = what used to be called Genetic Engineering + Corporate Eurphemistic greenwashing.

    2) Genetic Engineering = Corporations Will OWN organisms, life, and life-giving food

    +

    Unknown health, allergic, and environmental consequences

    +

    Secrecy (to protect their “investment”) preventing oversight of above

    +

    Another part of Government regulation will be captured by industry it “regulates” only this being a case where we eat, inject, put into our bodies, what is to be regulated

    +

    Questionable effectiveness

    + Corporate Capitalist growth imperative means all of the above will only grow larger and worse over time: meeting next quarter’s profit goals means a larger and larger percent of our food will be taken over and OWNED by them.

    If you like how drug companies “own” the trials that are supposed to show effectiveness and safety and prevent researchers from publishing (or anyone even finding out, for years) about dangers, you’ll LOVE doing this to our food supply.

  5. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Firstly. Monsanto want to own all the seeds in the world. They want a situation where you plant a crop, you pay Monsanto.

    Secondly. The hype over increased yields does not seem to add up in the longer term.

    Finally. We are going to be in a time of rapid changes, some of the problems will be utterly unexpected. We have a huge problem of massive mono cultures, genetically modified seed exacerbates that problem. A single gene line covering millions of acres, if that becomes vulnerable our entire crop of an essential staple could be vulnerable.

    I know; I do carry on about mono culture. But it is not resiliant. Efficient in economic terms, possibly, but vulnerable.

  6. Solar Jim says:

    No surprise here, except that even Mr. Gates is alarmed at the developing affects of massive climate contamination by western style (fuels of war) development.

    His foundation has a long history with the notorious, anti-ecologically sound, family-farmer-suing Monsanto. I hear he has even considered investing in tar sands and supports the failed scheme of atomic fission.

    • Speedy says:

      In what way is fission failed? It’s the world second largest source of CO2-free electricity after hydro. It’s by far the safest way of generating electricty. And it’s the only CO2-free energy source capable of scaling enogh to facilitate lagre CO2 reductions without resorting to luddism.

      Nuclear is not an option for fighting climate change, it’s a necessity!

      Anti-nukes and climate deniers are just the same, putting ideology before science.

      • kermit says:

        Umm… safest? I don’t hate nuclear as a concept, but Chernobyl and Fukushima demonstrate that it’s hardly the safest means of power generation. Of are you worried about wind spillage when a wind turbine fails?

    • Bill Woods says:

      “I hear [Gates] has even considered investing in tar sands”

      Wrong billionaire.

      Warren Buffett’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC is among U.S. and Canadian railroads that stand to benefit from the Obama administration’s decision to reject TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL oil pipeline permit.

      With modest expansion, railroads can handle all new oil produced in western Canada through 2030, according to an analysis of the Keystone proposal by the U.S. State Department.

      The rail option, though costlier, would lessen the environmental impact, such as a loss of wetlands and agricultural productivity, compared to the pipeline, according to the State Department analysis. Greenhouse gas emissions, however, would be worse.”

      http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2012/01/25/bloomberg_articlesLY20WE6K50Z001-LY9XE.DTL

  7. Zach says:

    Gates is a not-so-prescient technocrat, but I don’t see how he’s horribly wrong here when it comes to his letter and what the Gates Foundation is doing. His foundation is and has been focused on combatting poverty and public health problems. He’s using it to mitigate the effects of global warming that are already happening and are already inevitable from the last few decades of high CO2. It’s right that price is a huge issue with GM crops, but overcoming that issue is why Gates is involved in the first place.

    I don’t agree with his assessments of various forms of alternative energy and doubt heavy investments in nuclear will pan out, but, in practice, I’d probably do the same thing if I were heading a similarly funded organization with the same raison d’être. No matter what we do to reduce emissions, some degree of mitigation will be necessary and it’ll disproportionately hit the poor.

  8. richard pauli says:

    I’m confused. Does this mean that Bill G understands AGW science?

    Or is he just selling us adaptation strategies? Hmm… maybe we could find an answer by looking at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation investments in coal and oil energy – totally over 6 Billion dollars.

    Perhaps he understands finance too well. Science, I am not so sure.

  9. One of the ugliest realities of climate change is that it is destroying the ability of the world’s poor to feed themselves through traditional farming.

    What was already a difficult task has been impossible in many regions as the water cycle is getting scrambled. Ancient farming knowledge about what to plan, when to plant it, and when the rains will come is being made useless.

    That means more and more of the planet will literally depend on large scale agribiz to get food. It will take massive water distribution schemes and GPS/Satellite aided farming with GMO crops to overcome the climate chaos.

    Big Ag knows this. Why do anything to stop climate change when it is driving your little competitors out of biz and forcing everyone to your “market”?

    At least Gates cares enough about the plight of the world’s poor to even mention them and the fact that climate change is going to hammer them so much harder than tubbies in SUVs.

    I do wish he would direct his talents, money and connections towards cutting off the CO2 supply though. That is the only thing that will solve the problem.

  10. Paul Revere says:

    …”cost-effective emissions reduction strategies today or in renewable energy technologies that are rapidly moving down the cost curve…”

    So in a couple years the whole world, led by the Chinese and the Indians, will doing cost-effective things. Who needs global agreements and treaties to force this?

  11. Ziyu says:

    GMOs, hooray. Now we can ensure that our food supply is under the thumb of giant corporations that sue for every perceived threat to their power. GMOs are definitely a step backwards to the way things should be going in poor countries: more democratization. It’d be much better if individuals or organizations just did selective breeding experiments and open sourced that.

  12. John Tucker says:

    There is no good reason to apprehensively fear GM. Besides much worse things than crops are modified.

    Im surprised to see so much disdain for bill gates. He has helped so many in life or death situations. Just the HIV programs he has helped are worthy of respect and praise,

    Certainly everyone that doesn’t agree with you is not deranged or a bad person.

    • kermit says:

      Were you paying attention in the software world as he acquired dominance? He is ruthlessly competitive, and many companies were lost on his way to power. I agree that with his current charity he and his wife have done much good. But I fear that he has not lost his competitiveness, his ego, his belief that he understands all subjects better than others. When the world wide web was first developed from the internet, he dismissed its importance, and Microsoft had difficulty catching up to its competitors and nearly lost its status. His software is complex, large, and impossible for its users to modify.

      I fear that his “solutions” for global warming will be similar:
      1. Centralized and not distributed.
      2. Overlooking very important information, while dismissing any suggestion that he doesn’t understand it better than the experts.
      3. Controlling “intellectual property” when solutions need to be freely shared in emergencies.

      I believe he wants to win at being charitable, which has been good for hungry and sick people in Africa, but which may not provide good answers for this more complex problem.

    • John Tucker says:

      I dont even care about Microsoft. I use only open source products anyway. If that was the only thing on his resume (like S. Jobs) id be far past him.

      The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation has prevented over 100000 people in India ALONE from acquiring AIDS and treated countless others.

      He didn’t close doors or pull proprietary garbage in that. They deserve respect and gratitude.

  13. BillD says:

    I’m a professional ecologist and see climate change as the biggest threat to human populations, ecosystems and wildlife. There’s no way to develop crops that do will do well during droughts and floods. That being said, I favor judicial use of GMO crops and would like to see nuclear power as part of the alternative to fossil fuels. Using technology to offset the effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere seems likely to be risky and ineffective.

  14. Raul M. says:

    Not sure that the sand bag way will keep the dams working well. You know those huge water reservoirs upstream of the nuke plants. Not fixing the situational forces is different than just blaming the grunts when something goes terribly wrong.

  15. Geoff Beacon says:

    Taking the meanings from economics of inferior and luxury, we can say that as income rises people switch from inferior foods to luxury foods. One problem for the poor comes when luxury foods use inferior foods as the raw material or compete for the resources that used in the production of inferior foods. If the poor have incomes that cannot compete they may not be able to afford even inferior foods.

    It’s the poor that starve.

    The irony is that the “western diet” with a surfeit of luxury foods such as beef, lamb, cheese is unhealthier than diets with more inferior foods such as grains, pulses and vegetables.

    The conversion to the unhealthier western diet consumes enormous quantities of the “inferior” foods. The production of many luxury foods such as beef and lamb is also terrible for the climate. (See http://nobeef.org.uk)

    We, the affluent, starve the poor and ruin the climate.

  16. Joan Savage says:

    Joan Savage says:
    January 27, 2012 at 8:34 am

    Microsoft became successful in part due getting dominance in markets, even though other products were better written and better liked by quite a few computer users. I’m worried that the Gates Foundation will similarly sculpt the conversation about response to climate change, not with the best solution, but with the most promoted, most distributed, idea.

    Many GMO seeds are proprietary strains that yield only one crop, and either don’t produce a second generation crop that stays true to type or don’t reproduce a second generation at all. Some GMO strains are exceptions to that, but it is common for the seed supplier to retain intellectual property rights and sue a farmer that has any of the GMO material in a second crop, even if by accidental cross pollination.

    A few large seed suppliers with research labs presently control the technology of modifying GMO strains. This puts farmers at the mercy of the suppliers. This is not unlike the dynamic between a few large energy suppliers and those who prefer distributed energy sources.

    We have to be very wary of ANY solution that puts control in the hands of a few. It is neither wise as emergency response nor good for democratic process.

  17. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe Romm wrote: “Bill Gates is one very confused billionaire philanthropist.”

    Not really. Anyone familiar with his history in the IT industry knows that Bill Gates is one very crafty, cunning, and arguably unscrupulous billionaire profiteer, who uses “philanthropy” as readily as monopoly to promote his financial investments.

    Such as, nuclear power.

    Such as, genetically engineered food.

    Bill Gates certainly does write, and say, “confusing” things. But it’s not because he is “confused”. It’s because he wants to confuse others.

  18. Ramez Naam says:

    I think your off-base in your view of Gates and GMOs. Gates has called for a net zero carbon emissions world.

    I think he very much underestimates the potential of solar and wind and the advances in the pipe for energy storage that will make them viable. Yet those are fields that don’t need his help to succeed. I’m pleased to see his investment in nuclear R&D.

    But since you mention GMOs in the subject of this post: Gates is one of the leaders in funding GMOs that increase nutrition and could increase crop yields and which are being developed outside of industry, in the non-profit world, for free licensing in the developing world.

    For instance, Golden Rice is in testing in the Philippines now. And the Gates Foundation is one of the prime funders of the C4 Rice Initiative, which, by upgrading the photosynthesis in rice to the form used in corn and sugarcane, could increase yields of the world’s most common staple crop by 50%.

    Gates agrees on the world’s problems. He proposes different solutions than you do, but his are also complementary to yours. It strikes me as counterproductive to demonize that. The world’s problems are big enough that we need as many approaches and as much energy put into solving them as possible.

    • seakat says:

      “The ‘Golden Rice’ – An Exercise in How Not to Do Science”

      http://www.i-sis.org.uk/rice.php

      • Ramez Naam says:

        I’m afraid that I-SIS page is in error in at least one important way. It argues that the patent coverage of Golden Rice make it not viable for utilization in the developing world. Yet all patent holders (including Monsanto and Golden Rice’s main developer, Syngenta) have waved any right to compensation when Golden Rice is distributed to farmers who earn less than $10,000 per year, which means the entirety of the developing world.

        Would a diet with more leafy greens and carrots offer an alternative way to address vitamin A deficiency? Yes. But it’s not happening. Golden rice offers a way to save millions of lives per year by improving nutrition in the staple people already eat.

        Other projects such as C4 rice (and related, C4 wheat) offer a way to increase food yields per acre by 50% or more. As world food demand is expected to grow 70% by 2050, and we can’t viably increase cropland by 70% without deforesting most of the planet, we need to boost yields.

        At this point, it’s environmentally irresponsible to oppose GMOs in a blanket way. They need to be regulated and improved upon, but they offer vital capabilities in increasing food yields to meet demand, increasing nutrition, and reducing the use of the worst pesticides. They are, on the whole, a very pro-environment technology, as has recently been determined by the US National Academy of Sciences, the European Commission, and other bodies.

        best,
        Ramez Naam

  19. Mike#22 says:

    The idea that we just GMO our way around drought and heat is attractive but so far unrealized. Crops which have been selected for or modified for reliable drought tolerance are better at coping with drought, but the trade off is reduced yields in all conditions–drought or not. Same with heat tolerance. Better year to year reliability, decreased yields, overall average performance versus regular crops, about the same. Meanwhile, it gets hotter.

    One has to wonder who is advising Mr. Gates.

  20. John Tucker says:

    Did he say it would “solve” climate change at any point? No.

    He is trying to keep people from starving.

    This isnt about competing with your fantasy energy future.

    People cant eat solar cells and windmills.

  21. Richard L says:

    did anyone else notice the food index follows a similar trend as the price of oil over the same time period? In the 80′s oil dropped and stayed low for many years, only to rebound in the 2000s…. Now, climate effects on crop production coupled with peak oil do not bode well for food costs.

  22. David B. Benson says:

    Bill Gates does not understand biology.

  23. Raul M. says:

    It’s ok
    Any day now,
    Some really smart scientists (who are disrespected professionally and personally by those in power) will discover that there is no way that they can get humanity to not disrespect nature past.
    And the grunts will find out that there is no way that we will be able to clean up after ourselves faster than we and our friends mess things up.
    So being able to clean up natures seizures, convulsions, hot flashes in addition to our own messes so that we don’t end up as ants who try to rebuild the nest day after day as some troll comes around to destroy it who then lays the poisons around for the ants. You do know that ants are bad cause they bite and have poison.
    Anyway, learning that there logic errors…

  24. Jan says:

    No one who willingly invests in Monsanto is “well intentioned.” These GM seeds which are bound to their toxic herbicides which are now failing and causing superweeds and toxicity of our waterways cannot be saved by farmers who are bound to technology agreements. Their prices are exhorbitant for farmers and in India have resulted in over 250,000 farmer suicides besides dead livestock. Their contamination is global. They have also taken the livelihoods of farmers through transgenic contamination for which Monsanto has stated they are not liable for. Monsanto is an outright evil company using GMOs clearly as a profit making scam and Bill Gates is then no better than they are.

    Monsanto is also exacerbating climate change in deforesting huge swaths of land in Argentina, Paraguay, etc., in order to plant GM soy and corn used to feed cattle, not people. We do not need GMOs to feed the world. With one billion plus hungry people on this planet even WITH them, it is proof positive they are not in this to save peoples’ lives or “feed” them but to keep them in control. Lack of access to food is the main driver of hunger in this world. That and lack of access to food sovereignty (sustainable agriculture) in developing nations. Bill Gates is an accomplice in a world wide monoculture/environmental crisis and what one day could become a monoculture famine. I give him no credit for this.

    Monsanto is already being sued for biopiracy in India as they are stealing traits from drought tolerant crops and claiming them as their own through patents. Patenting nature is also not the move of any company looking to feed anything but their own bank accounts and they are now using climate change as their reason for pushing these seeds in countries where farmers do not want them. Global resistance to GMOS is vociferous because they are a danger to our planet and our health. Bill Gates can play ignorant on this all he wishes. Those who know about this will not be silent in allowing him, Monsanto and other companies pushing these dangerous seeds on the world and now using climate change to do it.

  25. Max says:

    Joe- Since you yourself have highlighted the connection between food insecurity, drought and climate change I think it is incumbent upon you to address in greater detail the potential that GM crops have for addressing these challenges. Just saying that this is not a blog about genetic modification is inadequate. I also think that you should expand your sources for information about GM agriculture beyond the Union of Concerned Scientists. How about talking to Pam Ronald at UCDavis-rice researcher and author with her husband, an organic farmer, of Tomorrow’s Table about the compatibility of GM and organic agriculture. Or how about Richard Sayre, Gates-funded scientist who is working to improve the yield of cassava. Of course GM is no cure-all but I find it distressing, from reading some of the comments on this blog, how reflexively anti-GM so many readers seem to be. The same people who are knowledgeable about the science of climate change seem to be relatively close-minded when it comes to examining the science of GM agriculture.
    Max Moehs PhD Plant Genetics

    • Joe Romm says:

      I may at some point, but absent an understanding of climate science and aggressive mitigation, GM is mostly rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

  26. Conspiracy2Riot says:

    There ARE no technical fixes in the sense that we in the developed world want them.

    ANY solution that is based on increasing consumption, depletion of non renewable resources or resources that will renew less quickly than we consume them is a dead end.

    Those that believe Wind/Solar/Biofuel and GeoEngineering will save us, think again. We must transition, and quickly, to a non fossil fuel burning, non globalized living situation.

    Or don’t and see what happens. You’ll never get the energy you want from alternative ‘green’ sources that STILL require mining and manufacturing to produce a product.

    The debate is being framed around ‘how can we continue to increase consumption ‘ when consumption is precisely the problem.

  27. Judith says:

    Mr. Gates thinks only people in rich nations oppose GMO? Oh really?
    Haitian farmers didn’t and don’t want GMO seed “charity” and proved it when they refused it. Navdanya (a network of seed keepers spread over 16 states in India) don’t want GMO seeds but rather depend upon their 65 community seed banks. Hungarian and Egyptian farmers don’t want GMO. And yes I, someone who grows food and eats in the United States, do not want GMO – not corn, not beets, not soy, not cotton, not alfalfa. I’m really offended that in a year or two there will be no alfalfa that will not be able to be certifiably GMO free and therefore dairy will no longer be able to be GMO free. Gates is operating on hubris if he thinks this “new technology” is better than thousands of years of seed saving – our legacy – wherever we live – from the ancestors. As Vandana Shiva has said “the seed is the source of life – the embodiment of our cultural and biological diversity”. What makes Mr. Gates think he and “new technology” know better than the seed? Hubris. Has Mr. Gates ever gardened or farmed – tended a compost pile or tended bees or pruned a fruit tree or sowed or saved a seed – in his life? His education and knowledge about life – and the source of life- as well as what the world’s farmers need – is fundamentally lacking that he has not.