May 17, 2010 3:16:04 am
Bill Gates has been at the forefront of two big innovations in the nonprofit sector,ever since the worlds richest man stepped away from Microsofts day-to-day operations and began focusing on development issues. The first transformation he oversaw,simultaneously with Bill Clinton,was the professionalisation of nonprofit development work over the past decade. Thats resulted in a more pragmatic,non-ideological approach to world poverty. The second departure from standard thinking was in thinking like a successful,risk-taking entrepreneur: rather than focusing on dozens of different small projects in the traditional manner of large,grant-making trusts,his foundation picked individual ideas that would provide the most bang for their buck: mosquito nets and,increasingly,research into genetically modified agriculture. Both these welcome approaches lie behind his recent statements on Walk the Talk that,for agriculture in India,innovation is very,very important. Agricultural innovation,including transgenic food was the only way in which poorer countries could ensure that they fed their expanding populations without straining resources or ruining their environment.
Many with power over Indian farmers continue to ignore this. These include lobbies for the big pesticide companies; neo-Luddite environmentalists who fetishise organic production; and Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh,who defied his cabinet colleagues and scientific opinion on Bt brinjal. Here,as in the expansion of irrigation,the lack of attention to what farmers know will improve their profitability and productivity continues to be the central obstruction to supersizing agricultural growth.
The Gates Foundations approach to research into transgenic foods is instructive. He explained at Davos that they are both partnering large companies,nudging them towards developing new strains,as well as growing scientific expertise in some African countries. When these parallel paths result in new seeds,the foundation intends to let each country decide on the risks and benefits. Again,in India,Gates emphasised the need for a proper regulatory authority for all forms of agri-innovation. This is something in which India has been let down by its environment minister; rather than allowing an independent body to develop,he preferred to subvert the institutions through personal diktats. No replacement body appears ready,further slowing down innovation. If we are to ensure that agricultural productivity soars,freeing rural manpower for more productive work,reducing hunger,and keeping food prices steady in the face of increasing demand,such bottlenecks cant be possible. As Gates says,we need to use science in the right way.
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