This much is clear today -- Bill Gates doesn't waste his time dreaming small dreams. The man who revolutionized personal computing announced at Davos this morning that he intends to spread the so-called Green Revolution to Africa and South Asia. It's a praiseworthy ambition, no doubt. The Green Revolution of the 1960's and 70's introduced much of the world to modern agriculture and saved the lives of millions in the process. The Gates Foundation has dedicated an enormous sum -- more than $300 million -- to finding solutions to the design problems plaguing agriculture in the developing world: pioneering soil revitalization, boosting the quality and productivity of everything from dairy cows to coffee beans, and creating new crops strains that can thrive in the harsh environments found in those regions.
But Bill Gates is still a tech guy, right? And so, as is the practice in the tech world, let's add a healthy dose of skepticism to what amounts to an otherwise breathtaking new product launch. The history of biotech agriculture -- which is how the ag world talks about Gates' new R&D work -- is one replete with misadventures. For brevity's sake I'll cherry pick a few. In his excellent book 1968, Mark Kurlansky humorously details a strain of high-yield rice that the U.S. tried and failed to impose upon Mekong Delta farmers. Less funny is the high-investment crops that have driven the farmers of India's cotton belt to despair; I've written about that here.
Most well known is probably the story of Golden Rice, the love child of a daffodil and a grain of rice. Unveiled in 2000, beta-carotene-rich Golden Rice was mistakenly proclaimed the biotech miracle that would save the eyesight of millions of the world's children.
You'll notice that children are still going blind all over the world. What went wrong? For one thing, scientists over-promised. We see this so often in biotech. For every anti-GM activist claiming that the Flavr-Savr tomato will cause us to grow horns there's a researcher praising it as the end to world hunger. After extensive testing, Golden Rice couldn't live up to the hype. But the new grain ran into another problem, one that's intimately familiar to Gates: patent rights. From lab to field, Golden Rice was found to have stepped on 70 patents held by dozens of different corporations. (Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1980 that lab-created living organisms were patentable, biotech entrepreneurs have rushed to pin a patent application on everything that moves.) Golden Rice has yet to go into production.
In this new endeavor, Gates is relying on so many of the same players from that first iteration of the Green Revolution. The Rockefeller Foundation is both a Gates partner and the original sponsor of the research which led to Golden Rice. It was a rice variety from the International Rice Research Institute which served as the base plant for the golden grain; under this new grant, it's the same IRRI that will lead the research on a stress-resistant rice plants.
But the new player is of course Gates himself, the brain behind arguably the most world-changing software ever unleashed. If you follow software development, you're familiar with the incredible volume and quality of public critique that greets important new product launches. (I can remember scanning blogs dedicated to what was then code-named "Longhorn" years before its eventual release as "Windows Vista" in 2007.) No detail is too small to pick apart. Every supposed improvement is worthy of dissection. In the end, the software benefits. Gates' Green Revolution 2.0 is exciting. It could save millions of lives! But a launch this important calls for at least as much poking and prodding as that of a new operating system.