Bill Gates on agricultural biotechnology

Bill Gates has been doing some reading on farming. On his blog, he’s recommending the book “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food” by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak.

“By the year 2050, Earth’s population will double. If we continue with current farming practices, vast amounts of wilderness will be lost, millions of birds and billions of insects will die, and the public will lose billions of dollars as a consequence of environmental degradation. Clearly, there must be a better way to meet the need for increased food production.

Written as part memoir, part instruction, and part contemplation, Tomorrow’s Table argues that a judicious blend of two important strands of agriculture–genetic engineering and organic farming–is key to helping feed the world’s growing population in an ecologically balanced manner. Pamela Ronald, a geneticist, and her husband, Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer, take the reader inside their lives for roughly a year, allowing us to look over their shoulders so that we can see what geneticists and organic farmers actually do.”

Is it true that we cannot afford to feed ourselves with natural, sustainable methods? What if we all grew at least part of our own food in our plots and yards? It really is as simple as sticking a seed in the ground and waiting for good stuff – if you learn some basic principles of growing food from your parents, friends and fellow gardeners. Do we really need to choose between eating engineered crops and environmental degradation? Is everyone just too busy to have time to water a garden plot? I don’t have any idea of what the real answers are. I’m just wondering….

11 Comments. Leave new

  • Hi Kathy,
    I just discovered your blog and I love it. thanks so much!

  • "Is it true that we cannot afford to feed ourselves with natural, sustainable methods?"

    Judging by my experience, I would say yes and no. Here's why:

    Most ventures that people describe as "sustainable" really aren't in the larger sense of the word. They're not closed systems. That is, even though they might be using organic methods, they're still importing seeds, mulch, organic fertilizer, water, and more from outside sources. Also, they're very likely importing more of their food than they're eating. This almost necessitates large agribusinesses to fill that extremely large void.

    The problem is with how the farming business developed. Herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, GMOs, and the like made them much more profitable. But, different plants need different herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers in different amounts and at different times. This means you can't have a large three sisters (corn, beans, and squash intermixed) operation, even though it's much better from a sustainability perspective. Also, such an operation couldn't be harvested mechanically… you'd have to hire a lot of extra hands to harvest.

    Most small organic farmers have continued with this practice of growing large patches or rows of a single crop. This has two major disadvantages. First, if you have a pest or disease that targets a specific plant, it's going to be very easy for it to spread to the entire crop if they're all planted together. Further, it's a suboptimal use of space and resources. In nature, plants have adapted to grow in close proximity to each other. Some of shallow roots, some have deep roots, some have single thick roots, some have thin net-like roots, etc. Plants with different root systems can be grown in close proximity because they're getting water and nutrients from different parts of the soil. Not so with the typical garden: all plants of a genus have the same kind of roots, and thus have to compete with each other for resources.

    Further, in natural systems, plants have adapted so that the shortest plants are most frost hardy, and thus are able to put on growth and reproduce sooner in spring than larger bushes and trees. In general, the bigger a plant, the later in the year it starts putting on growth and reproducing. The smaller plants can complete the process before the bigger plants shade them out.

    This is the "yes" part of my "yes and no." I think as people begin to recognize how nature does it, and as they start copying nature, they'll find that they can grow a much larger percentage of their own food… and in some cases, all of it. But part of that also involves changing our diets, because wheat is something that has to be grown in large monocultural patches to be worthwhile. If we can get over our love of bread, it might just be doable.

    There's been quite a bit of work on this alternative to conventional gardening in Australia and the UK (they've even a lot of success with it in the arid Middle East). I was happy to find another soul here in the states that's working on it. His site is here:

    I've also written pretty extensively on the subject. It may be considered shameless self-promotion, but you can click my name for more…

  • Yes and no is a BIG help 🙂 Don't we need more definitive answers?

    Thanks for your links Matt. Good stuff.

    "How should we feed ourselves" can be a pretty serious question.

    I had fun reading Micheal Pollen's last book "Food Rules" (nothing I can argue with here) and I always like to give a link to his website.

  • This is amazing to read about. I'll look more into this.

  • Well, we won't be able to feed ourselves for much longer on the old "Green Revolution" methods, since our stocks of petroleum are about to get much more expensive and rare, and it takes about 10 calories of hydrocarbons for every 1 calorie of food currently consumed in the system built upon industrial agriculture. And since genetic engineering so far hasn't been able to make the gigantic leaps in productivity predicted since the 1970s, especially when you remove all those petroleum-based inputs like fertilizer and herbicide to help them along, then the answer had better be "yes, we can feed ourselves using organic methods." Or else we're in serious trouble…

    I think the biggest challenge is re-envisioning our society, but amazing changes have been occurring within the last few years. 🙂

  • GMO's may decimate our ability to feed ourselves in the future.

    I know this is lame, but I saw a documentary last year on GMO's and I can't remember it's name! However, scientists (not Monsanto's) are finding that once GMO's cross pollinate with other open pollinated plants (for instance, corn) subsequent generations of the resulting plants become 3/4 LESS productive. Plus, since we can't stop the wind….eventually (possibly many, many years from now….or sooner) there may be no plants left that haven't crossed with GMO's…meaning totally global starvation.

    This is if that documentary was correct….and I have a background in science and research, so it seemed valid though I am no expert. In fact, I'd love it if this doesn't turn out to be true!

    So, 'buckle your seatbelts'….it may be a stormy ride into the future. 🙂

  • Could it be that Gert was refering to the documentary called "the future of food?" You can find it on Lots about GMO's.
    Matt, you seem very well versed in this subject. I'm looking forward to reading more…

  • This idea that somehow we have to choose between feeding the world or organic and non-GMO food is totally absurd.

    For years now companies like Monsanto have been trying to prove that GM techniques are somehow indispensable for food production, and don't have anything credible to offer. Without any significant exceptions all of the claims of increased productivity, pest resistance and so on of GM crops has been refuted.

    In addition food companies have been completely unable to produce new plant varieties that in any way benefit the consumer or environment. There is no reason to believe GM technologies can offer any special benefit over conventional breeding techniques.

    Having said this, conventional plant breeding is seriously underfunded when compared to GM. In particular virtually no research is being done into 'Luther Burbank', traditional, plant breeding. This is a very serious situation.

    In addition GMOs are not going away. The genie is out of the bottle, and the risks are only going to get more serious. These techniques are getting much cheaper to perform, even to the point it's possible for many people to do them in their own homes and gardens, without any regulatory oversight.

    The long term solution to feeding the world is a complete rethink on how we look at food. We have to move away from covering a state like Iowa with monoculture corn, then using it to feed factory meat farms and make other processed foods. This is just too inefficient and energy intensive.

    Instead we need to raise meat on a smaller scale in a more natural way, meaning it will be much less available, more expensive and taste different.

    We need to put more emphasis on eating locally produced grains, fruits and vegetables, with some of it coming from our own gardens. By doing this, there will be plenty of food to feed the world.

  • hahahahha… ofcourse Mr. Gates is going to read about "food".

    He is getting into the massive "Green Revolution" project in Africa with his other "big" friends!!


    Dr. Shiva stressed that there are very clear lessons that Africa can learn from India's problematic Green Revolution experience. She challenged the new Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), stating that the Green Revolution, coupled with trade liberalization, would negatively impact both farmers and agro-biodiversity on the African continent. She claimed that this initiative, funded by the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations, "[I]s a strategy for dispossessing Africa of food sovereignty and bio-diversity." Why are so many of India's farmers committing suicide even as rice and wheat are being stockpiled in national storage facilities?


  • Meredith (above) was right. Contemporary large-scale agriculture presupposes the availability of massive amounts of not only hydrocarbons but also calories/btu's to power industrialized growing. Both are going to be in short supply. Local, small-scale non-GMO agriculture will grow and dominate … the only question being the stability of the society during and after the transition. Current events seem to indicate that, for example, our societies are as stable as the ground underfoot.
    Be careful Kathy … this thread can get ya mightily depressed if you are not one of those cheerful positive people.

  • Very good article, thanks for that. Can I share one that provides helpful resources to find jobs in the biotechnology sector? May be of interest.


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