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The world's poor can best be served by adopting the best of both worlds

Every so often I go through old notes and emails – just to make sure I’m not missing something. My latest search turned up the text of a speech given by Bill Gates at the World Food Prize's Norman Borlaug Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2009.

Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft Corp., and one of the world’s wealthiest individuals, spoke about the efforts of the Bill and Melinda Gates to help the world’s small farmers become more productive and thus increase the output from their small holdings.

Since then, Gates and his wife have continued their “work,” as he called it, with the multi-billionaire recently purchasing a 5 percent ownership stake in Deere and Co. He and his Foundation have also poured millions more dollars into programs aimed at helping small farmers, particularly in Africa.

I’m sure I wrote something about the speech at the time, but reading back through the text I was struck by a few paragraphs near the beginning of the presentation. Gates' words are even more important today given some recent developments in world agriculture.

“When we started our foundation, we agreed that our giving should be guided by our belief that all lives have equal value – that every person deserves the chance to live a healthy and productive life,” he said. “Over time, our search for the greatest leverage brought us to the most compelling challenge in development: how do you help people who live on less than a dollar a day?”

The answer is in the work they do, he noted. Three-fourths of the world’s poorest people get their food and income by farming small plots of land. So if you can make small-holder farming more productive and more profitable, you can have a massive impact on hunger and nutrition and poverty.

Gate said the problem then – as now – was that an ideological wedge threatens to split the movement to help small farmers in two: On one side is a technological approach that increases productivity; on the other, an environmental approach that promotes sustainability.

“Productivity or sustainability – they say you have to choose,” he said. “It’s a false choice, and it’s dangerous for the field. It blocks important advances. It breeds hostility among people who need to work together. And it makes it hard to launch a comprehensive program to help poor farmers.

“The fact is, we need both productivity and sustainability – and there is no reason we can’t have both.”

Those are important words – then and now. 

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