Gates explains why GMOs may actually be the best hope to end hunger

Bill Gates believes African nations will begin to adopt genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to help fight mass starvation.   

There are more than 800 million people – one in nine – across the world without enough food to eat on a regular basis, according to the UN World Food Programme.  In the United States, 17.5 million households – one in seven – were described as "food insecure," according to figures published by

It's possible African farmers could "theoretically double their yields" by using better fertilizer, GMOs and other more productive crops, the Gates Foundation believes.  In its annual letter, the Gates Foundation writes:

In the next 15 years, however, innovations in farming will erase these brutal ironies. The world has already developed better fertilizer and crops that are more productive, nutritious, and drought- and disease-resistant; with access to these and other existing technologies, African farmers could theoretically double their yields. With greater productivity, farmers will also grow a greater variety of food, and they'll be able to sell their surpluses to supplement their family's diet with vegetables, eggs, milk, and meat. With the right investments, we can deliver innovation and information to enough farmers in Africa to increase productivity by 50 percent for the continent overall.

The apparent plug of GMO technology has drawn some criticism.  Some critics point to the fact that several years ago the Gates Foundation held shares of Monsanto -- a top GMO producer.  While that investment was sold off, critics say some ties may linger.  Others are purely critical on the premise arguing that GMOs hold too much unpredictability and risk to be embraced.

Flavr Savr tomato
The first GMO was Calgene's Flavr Savr tomato, seen here with its inventor, plant physiologist Athanasios Theologis.  The special genetically modified crop received FDA approval for human consumption in 1994.  Calgene was eventually bought by Monsanto. [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

But Bill Gates isn't buying these criticism.  He reaffirmed his support of crop genetic engineering in a recent interview with The Verge.  He states to the site:

GMO-derived seeds will provide far better productivity, better drought tolerance, salinity tolerance, and if the safety is proven, then the African countries will be among the biggest beneficiaries.

Bill Gates
Renowned philantropist and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates says it's wrong for affluent nations to seek to ban GMO use in poorer countries. [Image Source: AP]

In an interview with Quartz, he further elaborates that while he supports rigorous safety standards, more hypothetical arguments from comfortably entitled regions shouldn't stymie third world access to agricultural technology.  He comments:

It’s important that the poor countries that have the toughest time feeding their people have a process, just like they have for medicines. In terms of injecting people and taking drugs, they’ve done a good job making sure that those things are tested and go through a regulatory approval process. The same type of thing should be true for new food products, no matter what technique is used to create them. There should be an open-mindedness, and if they can specifically prove their safety and benefits, foods should be approved, just like they are in middle-income countries.

Middle-income countries are the biggest users of GMOs. Places like Brazil. Small farmers have gotten soy beans and cotton and things like that. But we’re trying to get African agriculture up to high productivity—it’s about a third of rich-world productivity right now—and we need the full range of scientific innovation, with really good safety checking, to work on behalf of the poor.

The use of genetically modified bananas in Uganda, for example, could have a major impact on millions of the country’s residents.  The GMO strain is wilt-resistant, was created locally, and the seeds are being distributed for free – allowing farmers to grow crops that are less vulnerable to potential crop loss.  The seeds have proven to be more drought tolerant, along with providing more productivity and more salt tolerant. 

Genetically altered bananas designed to offer more vitamin A [Image Source: Queensland University of Technology]

While raising crop yields may be the difference between life and death in the third world, in the developed world the debate over GMOs is raging with nosiy voices on all sides.  Corporate food companies are ramping up the propaganda machine, continuing to promote GMOs as "safe."

The public, meanwhile has mixed reactions with some reacting with increasing alarm to the rise in GMOs and others opting to ignore the controversy.  A recent Pew Research Center survey noted that only 37 percent of US adults believe it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, despite 88 percent of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) believing it is safe. 

Some on both sides of the topic are finding common ground, though, regarding the need to create a genuine public dialogue about GMOs and other science policy issues.  It will likely take easy-to-understand, legitimate facts to convince the public broadly of the safety of controversial or seemingly exotic scientific methods -- such as genetically modified crops.

While the political and economic debate over the safety of GMOs rages in the developed world, some -- including gates -- believe that the it would be wise to consider lab-created foods as a viable stop-gap to help end third world hunger.

Sources: Gates Foundation [2015 annual letter], The Verge, Quartz

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