When Bill Gates speaks, the world tends to listen. The second-richest man on the planet is treated like a god when he opens his mouth. He’s still chairman of Microsoft. The billions of dollars of donations he has made through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have captured the attention of the World Health Organization and set the agenda for vaccine development and inoculation over the past decade. Now, through sheer wealth-driven clout, his plan to reduce world hunger has found a rapt audience in the United Nations’ food agencies.
Gates descended on Rome, home of three UN food agencies, in February like a rumpled angel. In a speech at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (disclosure: my wife is an employee), and at a related media event, two themes emerged: technology and big business.
His talk was peppered with phrases and references to “yield,” “global productivity target” and “digital agriculture.” He mentioned some of the biggest food processing corporations, among them Procter & Gamble and Nestlé, and seemed enthusiastic about their potential role in the food development chain. “I’m a huge believer in the private sector and drawing them in,” he told the dazzled crowd.
But I was left wondering whether Gates’s agenda would contribute to the public good or the good of big business. Philanthrocapitalism, as it has been dubbed, has a dark side. Relying on genetically modified (GM) crops and chemicals to push up output per acre may help Monsanto (which was one of the stocks in the Gates Foundation’s investment portfolio), Syngenta and other tech-driven food biggies, but won’t necessarily support those who need the most help—poor smallholder farmers and underdeveloped countries. Making them part of Big Ag’s global supply chain might not help either.