Bill Gates Sets His Sights On Small Farms

Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates has had lots to say on technology, and a growing amount to say on malaria and other health problems in Africa. But last week, he made his first major address on agriculture, a field in which he has been quietly building up his investments.

Gates spoke at the 2009 World Food Prize, an award created two decades ago to honor work like that of Nobel laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug. This year, the award went to Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, an Ethiopia native and now a professor at Purdue University who was recognized for developing drought-resistant hybrids of sorghum, a key grain in sub-Saharan Africa.

That’s important work, to be sure, but there is much more to be done to achieve food security in the Third World. So Gates, through his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced that he is awarding $120 million to nine institutions around the world for agricultural research aimed at helping small farms grow more food. Just as with Borlaug’s work, not everybody is going to like the projects that Gates is sponsoring because they involve some tinkering with plant biology to improve yields. But when Gates starts targeting money at an issue, it pays to pay attention.

Gates says in his address, which I’ve excerpted below, that productivity and sustainability are not incompatible. For the full video, and a transcript, go to the Web site of the Gates Foundation.

Trading 401(k)s For Goat Cheese

What happens when the Slow Food movement collides with the need to invest differently? Maybe this: A movement called Slow Money, which aims to get people to invest money where their mouth is–and ought to be. It was started by a former venture capitalist, and it’s profiled in today’s Wall Street Journal. Here’s what the paper has to say:

The crux of the movement is persuading investors to put some of their assets into businesses they can see, smell and even taste — to measure growth not by the flashing numbers on a stock ticker, but by the slow ripening of a tomato.

Watermelon juice, renewable energy?

Every farmer, even the organic ones among us, grows an ugly watermelon from time to time. Now, researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s South Central Agricultural Research Laboratory are saying those misshapen melons may have a higher calling as renewable energy.

No, I’m not making this up. The USDA-ARS team says the juice from these watermelons could be fermented and turned into ethanol. Read all about it here. Makes you wonder how they are just now discovering this, or are they just having fun with fermentation?

Dan Barber Talks Tomato Blight

Dan Barber, the pro-organics chef and co-owner of the restaurants Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, has a lengthy and interesting op-ed piece in The New York Times on the tomato blight that is devastating Northeast farms.

Farms like the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, the snazzy organic mecca created out of the Rockefeller estate in Westchester county. Barber says the farm lost half of its field tomatoes in just three days. But rather than dwell on the losses there, or the culpability of the plant breeding operations that appear to have sent diseased plants to the big-box stores, Barber focuses on what fans of local food like us should be learning from the crisis.

For starters, Barber says, we should be buying plants started locally. For once, I did something right in the garden: I got most of my tomato plants from the Essex County Master Gardeners sale; the rest re-seeded themselves from last year. But local plants didn’t help a former co-worker of mine, who lost all of her Shaker heirloom Large Reds, as well as the bulk of her tomato crop.

Barber also insists that university extension services have to do a better job of alerting growers to problems, particularly the home gardeners who have been an unwitting vector for this year’s disease, and who have lost their grandparents’ knowledge of plants and their pathogens. He wants in-person education and not email alerts, a view that strikes me as impractical on the home gardener level.

More technology, not less, would have helped a lot, I think . Rutgers’ Agricultural Experiment Station posted detailed warnings on the blight as early as July 2 and sponsored a Webinar with lots of information. Trouble was, you had to know about the Ag station’s Web site to find it. The information never made it into the New Jersey papers, which have been raining reporters for the last year.  (The Times‘ first story was July 17.) But imagine what might have happened had the university or gardening groups had effective blogs, social networking sites and email lists to reach home growers. And I stress the word effective: A search for “blight” on the Web site of the Master Gardeners of Essex county astoundingly comes up empty.

Still, I can’t quibble with Barber’s last point: That we’ve got to stop viewing all science as the enemy of good food.

… in our feverish pursuit of what’s old, we can marginalize the development of what could be new.  That includes the development of plants with natural resistance to blight and other diseases — plants like the Mountain Magic tomato, an experimental variety from Cornell that the Stone Barns Center is testing in a field trial. So far there’s been no evidence of disease in these plants, while more than 70 percent of the heirloom varieties of tomatoes have succumbed to the pathogen.

U.K. Study Slaps Organic Food

Brace yourselves: You’re going to see a flood of stories in news outlets major and minor today about a new U.K. study of organic food. Why? Because it found that organic food is no healthier than conventionally produced food.

Yes, I don’t like it one bit. But I can’t just waive it away either. The study was conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a century-old institution that won a $1 million prize from Bill Gates’ foundation earlier this year for its work in epidemiology.

The study isn’t without its flaws, however. The LSHTM did what is known in the research trade as a “literature review”. It gathered up all of the studies done on organic food over the last 50 years–some 50,000 papers in all. It examined their conclusions, and then drew its own. It did not not go back and review the data collected for each study and determine whether it had been gathered and analyzed correctly. It did not rule on whether the reviewing criteria were correct. There are already many critics of its approach and methodology, as you can see in this article from the Guardian of London.

The researchers seem in a way to have understood all this and they left a wide opening for future research. Alan Dangour, one of the report’s authors, had this to say:

Research in this area would benefit from greater scientific rigour and a better understanding of the various factors that determine the nutrient content of foodstuffs.

In the meantime, I’m not changing my shopping.

One Monsanto Booster Gets USDA Post, Another In Line?

I’m just catching up to two bits of bothersome news about food safety in the U.S. The Organic Consumers Association has put out an alert that Michael Taylor, a former lobbyist for Monsanto, has been named a senior advisor to the Food and Drug Administration Commissioner on food safety. Monsanto, of course, is the company that has been doing the most to push genetically modified food onto our tables.

Bad enough, but now there’s a story in Grist that Pennsylvania’s former secretary of agriculture, a man who tried to keep consumers from knowing their milk had been produced with growth hormones, may be named under-secretary of agriculture for food safety. In 2007, you may recall, Dennis Wolff–a dairy farmer by trade–tried to ban the use of the words “rbGH-free” on rbGH-free milk sold in Pennsylvania. (The growth hormone was a Monsanto product at the time and has since been sold to Eli Lilly.) Pennsylvania consumers had better sense and took their case to their governor, who overruled Wolff’s decision.

If you would like to tell the White House that Wolff is not the kind of person you want watching out for the safety of your food, you can sign the petition created by the OCA here.

The Secret Fruit Decoder Ring

Nope, not organic

Nope, not organic

When you get to know a farmer, you get the opportunity to ask him or her all sorts of questions about how the fruits and vegetables you are eating were grown. But what if you don’t get to meet your produce’s maker? How do you know that that nice-looking broccoli under the “Organic Broccoli” sign really is organic? What if it had been grown with pesticides? What if it was really genetically modified broccoli?

The answer to all these questions lies the code–the code in that little sticker stuck on your produce.

Eight years ago, produce marketing groups from around the globe got together to create the International Federation for Produce Standards. It took over the task of standardizing the price look-up codes (or PLUs) that supermarkets had begun introducing a decade earlier. The IFPS has assigned more than 1,300 price codes, and once you know how the codes are created, you can tell how the produce was grown.

Here’s how.  All codes begin with four digits: 4805 would be for a vine-ripe tomato. If the tomato in question is organic, the IFPS tacks a 9 in front, or 94805.  If somebody had monkeyed with the tomato’s genes, its sticker would have to begin with an 8, which is used to designate genetically engineered produce. (You can pause your reading here to look for and toss any vine-ripe tomatoes in your fridge bearing the sticker 84805.)

Alas, this system isn’t perfect. The IFPS is concerned with accurate pricing, not policing. It wants its members to be able to ring up the right price for organic apples every time, and not send them by the cash register as cheaper conventional fruit. But I can’t find any evidence that it has the time or resources to nab a wholesaler who is tagging pesticided produce as organic or failing to flag GMO garbage as such.

In the end, as Michael Pollan has said, you have to shake the hand that feeds you.