It’s easy to demonize genetically modified crops. After all, we don’t exactly know what their long-term health effects are, and they have the nasty habit of cross-pollinating with non-GMO crops. When new stories come out about advances in the field, many people react with anger and fear. But the Gates Foundation (and Bill Gates himself) has long supported the use of GMO foods to increase crop yields and nutrition in the developing world. And now the foundation has joined the Monsanto Fund and the Howard Buffett Foundation in giving $11.9 million to the Virus Resistant Cassava For Africa (VIRCA) project, which is developing cassava varieties that can resist deadly viruses. Is it possible, then, that Gates can use GMO technology for good?
Cassava is a staple food crop for over 200 million sub-Saharan Africans. The crop has a natural tolerance for droughts, and it can survive on marginal lands, making it a perfect food for poor farmers at the whim of the elements. But over one-third of Africa’s harvest is lost each year to disease, including Cassava Mosaic Disease and Cassava Brown Streak Disease—a problem that leaves millions on the brink of famine. By using gene silencing in transgenic cassava plants, the VIRCA project hopes to create resistance to both of these diseases.
This isn’t the Gates Foundation’s first foray into GMO crops; the foundation has also invested in so-called "golden rice" that cuts down on vitamin A deficiency in children.
Genetically modified plants are a hot-button issue—even more so in Europe than the United States. And Gates’s partners don’t have the best reputation. Unsurprisingly, the foundation has received plenty of criticism, especially for its work with Monsanto and Cargill. One Guardian article opined: "The fact is that Cargill is a faceless agri-giant that controls most of the world’s food commodities and Monsanto has been blundering around poor Asian countries… Does Gates know it is in danger of being caught up in their reputations, or does the foundation actually share their corporate vision of farming and intend to work with them more in future?"
And former Grist food writer Tom Philpott notes that GMO crops haven’t been proven to increase yields. He urges Gates to turn away from biotech labs and focus on "the field, where the best research on organic ag is being done. Indeed, one of the great benefits of organic farming is its long-term focus on soil health—and healthy soils can increase productivity over time without massive ecological externalities."
It’s possible that the critics are correct; high-tech solutions aren’t always the best way to fix a problem. But it doesn’t look like the Gates Foundation is giving up on GMO crops anytime soon—and neither is Monsanto or Cargill. We have little choice now but to watch and wait to see what happens with one of the biggest agricultural experiments ever. Here’s hoping it ends in more food for everyone—and not in disaster.