Buffett: New approach needed on hunger in Africa

OMAHA, Neb. — Philanthropist Howard Buffett will be talking to a room full of people who believe in the power of hybrid seeds and fertilizer today when he releases his new report on fighting hunger in Africa at the World Food Prize symposium.

The event was established, after all, by an Iowa native who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to increase food production in developing nations with the use of hybrid crops. Norman Borlaug, who died in 2009, was known as the father of the "Green Revolution."

But Buffett says no one solution can help the several hundred million struggling farmers across Africa. He hopes to convince aid groups that a variety of approaches are needed and more attention must be given to soil conditions.

Buffett said he's seen how important soil differences can be on land he farms in Illinois, Nebraska and South Africa. Africa has hundreds of soil types in 54 countries. While fertilizer and better seeds might help in some places, most small farmers in Africa can't afford that, so aid groups also need to offer other solutions, such as teaching farmers to use cover crops and no-till techniques, he said.

"People want to make agriculture simple," Buffett said. "It's not."


The event Borlaug founded draws agriculture officials from around the world each year to talk about what can be done to fight hunger.

Buffett, one of this year's keynote speakers, acknowledged his message about the complexity of Africa's problems isn't entirely new, but he hopes his famous last name and decade of experience at his foundation will help it get attention. And it doesn't hurt that his foundation is in the process of giving away $1 billion of the fortune earned by his father, Warren Buffett.

"A 'Green Revolution' really won't work for the majority of African farmers," Buffett said, referring to Borlaug's work with hybrids. "We need a brown revolution," focusing on soil types.

He noted two previous reports, one in 2004 commissioned by the United Nations and one in 2008 from the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology, support his view that multiple approaches and improving soil quality were keys to fighting hunger in Africa.

His interest in helping farmers there runs deep, partly because of his own background as a farmer and the amount of time he's spent in the developing world. Buffett has visited more than 95 countries to document the challenges of preserving fragile resources as a photographer. And he travels regularly with his philanthropy.

Farm Journal Agricultural Foundation Chairman Andrew Weber said he's impressed with the hands-on way Buffett approaches his philanthropy.

"He travels extensively, rolls up his sleeves and gets in the middle of the action — and he thoroughly knows his subject matter," said Weber, who went to Afghanistan with Buffett in the spring. "There's no window dressing here — for a guy with the last name of Buffett, I'd call him a blue-collar philanthropist."

Buffett said he knows some groups may resist his message because they believe the best way to help poor farmers is by teaching them Western farming methods that rely on expensive fertilizer, hybrid seeds, irrigation and other technology. That's the model the "Green Revolution" used in Mexico, India and other countries.


Buffett said he's not against using irrigation, fertilizers, hybrid seeds and other technology in Africa, but those expensive measures don't always work in poor countries.

"We need to change the debate about how to help African farmers," he said.

He hopes to at least influence a few key players, and his name has helped open doors with at least one other major charity focused on fighting hunger. His father is giving the bulk of his roughly $41 billion Berkshire Hathaway fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation over time.

"I've been really encouraged by some of the conversations I've had with folks at the Gates Foundation," Buffett said.

This week's conference in Des Moines, Iowa, also will honor the former presidents of Brazil and Ghana, who successfully halved the number of people in their countries suffering from hunger and poverty.

Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, who was Brazil's president from 2003 to 2010, and John Agyekum Kufuor, who served as Ghana's president from 2001 to 2009, will share this year's $250,000 World Food Prize.

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