Commentary: Brother billionaires

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Two mega-billionaires are better than one.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates (left) and Mexican billionaire and telecom tycoon Carlos Slim: Tag teaming agricultural productivity. That could have been the headline for an historic news conference earlier this week at the launch of Mexico’s new International Center for Improvement of Corn and Wheat in the city of Texcoco, about 15 miles north of Mexico City. Interestingly, Texcoco was formerly an ancient Aztec stronghold where some of the earliest varieties of maize were first cultivated.

The two men in question are Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman and head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Carlos Slim, a Mexican tycoon, chairman of telecom giant Telmex, the richest man on the planet according to Forbes—with a net worth of nearly $70 billion (versus “only” $61 billion for Gates)—and founder of his own eponymous charity, Fundacion Carlos Slim.

Slim, though hardly a household name in the United States, has a remarkable track record. Unlike Gates, who rode a world-changing wave of software innovation, Slim amassed his fortune the old-fashioned way: One multi-million dollar takeover at a time. Through shrewd and aggressive investments in communications, technology, retailing and finance, he now controls or has a major stake in more than 200 companies employing nearly a quarter-million people.

As a philanthropist, Slim may also be the only person on Earth to equal Bill Gates’ impact. Through his foundation, he has put some 165,000 young people through college, provided bricks and mortar, equipment and staffing for hundreds of rural schools and has invested a reported $10 billion in his Carso Institute for Health, which is focused on improving health care services for Mexico’s neediest people.

Remarkable resumes aside, the news value of Gates and Slim teaming up, however, is that the pair intend to fund new seed and crop breeding research to sustainably increase global production of corn and wheat. That may sound overly ambitious, but what would the reaction have been back in the 1970s had Gates announced publicly that he intended to revolutionize the way information is handled around the world?

It would be a mistake to underestimate the eventual impact of the pair’s investment in the Mexican research center—which, incidentally, was one of the primary institutions responsible for the crop yield improvements collectively called the Green Revolution. Over the years, researchers there used the center’s extensive array of native corn and wheat genes from around the world to cross-breed low-cost, improved varieties that could tolerate harsh growing conditions, such as drought.

Taking GMOs off the hit list

But talk about burying the lead to the story.

You had to read far down in the gushing news reports about the event to uncover the fact that this initiative will not be another Green Revolution—at least not one using conventional hybridization techniques, as happened 50 years ago. The $25 million initial investment Gates and Slim are making to the Mexican center will fund construction of a new cluster of biotechnology labs.

That addition will include hothouses with “high-efficiency air filters and a water treatment plant to prevent pollen and genetically modified material from escaping to the outdoors,” according to a statement by the Gates Foundation.

In a quaint turn of phrase, Thomas Lumpkin, the director of the International Center, opined that “genetic splicing is joining cross-pollination as one of the tools in the toolbox.”

Try selling that line to the anti-GMO forces Stateside.

While Lumpkin claimed that hybridization represents “a sort of genetic modification,” albeit by selective planting and breeding, he acknowledged that the center hasn’t shipped any genetically engineered seeds yet, and that some countries might have concerns.

“We want to facilitate the movement of those (genetic) traits to the countries of the developing world that request them, that want them,” he said. “Nothing is being pushed, nothing is being forced, and CIMMYT will not profit.”

For his part, Gates told reporters that, “There are legitimate issues, but solvable issues” regarding genetically modified crops. One of those solutions, he said, could include distributing GM crops that are patented but require no royalty payments.

If that happens it would represent a monumental change in the current status of nearly all commercially available GM seeds and a way to defuse what activists typically roll out as one of their strongest arguments (other than the peril of Frankenfoods) to demonize genetic engineering.

Ultimately, the value of this joint venture, if a modern business tactic apply to a non-profit, is twofold.

First of all with the combined clout of Gates and Slim, nobody—but nobody—can pretend to ignore the import of what these two hope to accomplish in regard to, arguably, the world’s biggest future challenge: food security. When you can write checks with nine zeroes, the world pays attention.

Second, the Gates Foundation has scrupulously adhered to a strong scientific rationale for virtually all of its investments, whether in agriculture, health care or education. Agree or disagree, for example, with the foundation’s support of online educational tools and private charter schools, the bottom line for anyone who gets a grant from Gates is always the same: Deliver results.

That’s important, because so far, activists have been able to advance a fairly compelling argument that biotech has been deployed solely to fatten the coffers of agri-business. If this Mexican initiative succeeds in producing GM varieties of wheat and corn that demonstrate bona fide improvements in yield, that argument will be quashed once and for all.

And that would be a good thing, seeing as how even with billionaires funding the cause, the odds of global agriculture successfully feeding another three or four billion people by mid-century remain awfully long. Lowering those odds will take a lot more than big bucks to move the needle.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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SD  |  March, 07, 2013 at 10:45 AM

It's quite shocking that there are no comments to this story! If this goes as planned, it certainly could improve life for the most impoverished people in the world. And hopefully it will enable them to support, or at the least feed, themselves. Also, it is especially great to read of the philanthropic work of a very wealthy person from Mexico. Not to ignore the efforts of Bill Gates, but we hear about his work all the time.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  March, 14, 2013 at 08:38 AM

Thank you for your comments!

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