Analyzing the Greater Good of the Gates Foundation’s BREAD Program with the NSF
Earlier this week the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it was collaborating with the National Science Foundation in a $48 million partnership which will fund “research on ways to make crops resistant to drought, disease and pests; and improve soil quality and tackle a wide range of problems that limit agricultural productivity in Africa and other poor corners of the world.” [Seattle Times]
This is how it will work: Funding will be awarded to recipients based on the NSF’s thorough peer-review process and be made available to qualifying scientists from around the world, particularly those from developing countries.
The program is known as BREAD – Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development.
Research projects might focus on the use of nanotechnology to deliver tiny amounts of fertilizer without causing environmental damage, better approaches to livestock breeding or use of remote sensors to monitor crops.
Research on genetically modified plants or animals could be included in the program.
Critics claim the partnership fails to promote innovation at the grass-roots level within Africa and instead relies on importing knowledge from the outside.
“Why doesn’t the Gates Foundation offer money to grass-roots African organizations and villagers to fund their own ‘solutions’ rather than expecting that imported ideas, dreamed up by people who have never farmed for a living, will work?” questions Philip Bereano, emeritus professor of technology and public policy at the University of Washington.
Bereano makes a good point, but I wonder if his thinking is a bit myopic.
First of all, agricultural technology as a result of research has been known to show great potential in addressing sustainable farming issues, especially in developing countries and particularly during these times of limited supplies which have caused great concern. Further research into the potential good such practices may bring could be encouraged at the grass-roots level, but I wonder if at this point the area of study may benefit more from those with a scientific research background who can then later pass their knowledge down to the intended beneficiaries. In this case, I do see the value of scientific study and the need to fund it on a worldwide basis before reaching the grass-roots arena – I also like the fact that the program is encouraging scientists from developing nations to apply for funding.
I do have some advice (or rather reminders) to the scientists who are funded through this program: As they conduct their research, remember to consult with local farmers who can give firsthand information about the conditions they are working in and the problems they are facing. Go out into the field, see firsthand what environment you are working with, talk to your intended beneficiaries. (I would be surprised if researchers had no intentions of doing any of this in the first place.) I absolutely agree with Bereano that local farmers should be encouraged to participate as well, but I am not keen on completely dismissing the importance of funding scientific research at the higher education level.
Says Bereano: “People are hungry for one reason only — they are too poor to buy food.” Until the underlying social and economic conditions responsible for poverty are addressed, “the likelihood is that the NSF/Gates program will make some folks here feel good but not feed many folks over there.”
Again he has a point, but it seems quite narrow-minded.
The Gates Foundation alone will not solve world hunger and simply funding research without other outreach programming has the risk to be useless, especially if countries don’t adopt or accept the final products in the first place. This is where government involvement comes in. Governments need to be educated on the issue of food development and open to the idea of allowing (controversial) technology and research to play a role in increasing and maintaining crop production. There is evidence that this is already happening.
In addition, local farmers need to be shown the benefits of these new applications which in turn, will inspire them to lobby their governments to allow the use of such methods, especially those that may be deemed controversial but effective. In summary, the research that results from the BREAD program does have the potential to feed many people in need, but those people need to be involved in some way, too, and I would be surprised if those running the BREAD program haven’t considered this already.
Still, it’s worth repeating. My advice to the BREAD funding recipients is to involve the local farmers who are the intended beneficiaries. Learn from their experiences. When your research is complete, be prepared to present it to parties who may not want to embrace your innovations immediately. Learn how to market your practices and products and address your critics. Then, be prepared to pass your knowledge down to the grassroots level because these are the people who will be implementing your recommended practices and discovered technology. If you don’t get them on board, your research will be a complete loss.