Take Bill Gates’ word on GMOs with a pinch of salt

Philanthropist Bill Gates. FILE PHOTO | NMG

“Every piece of bread I’ve ever eaten is…GMO wheat…”

This statement made by Bill Gates at the University of Nairobi last week is probably the clearest hint yet that his trip to Kenya was to exploit the opportunity of positioning himself for a huge business opportunity. 

The Kenyan government recently lifted a 10-year ban on cultivation and importation of genetically modified crops to address food insecurity and it is not a coincidence that the Microsoft co-founder decided to drop by.

On his first trip to Africa since the Covid-19 pandemic began, Gates met local leaders, including President William Ruto. He also spent time visiting primary healthcare centres, medical and agricultural research institutes, and smallholder farms to find ways of partnering in areas of mutual interest and in addressing hunger, disease, gender inequality, and poverty. 

Gates has been involved in several good initiatives through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation around the world. In fact, on his last visit, he announced $ 7 billion in investments in agriculture, health, gender equality and other critical areas in Africa. Kenya has been a such beneficiary.

This is why when the American philanthropist gathers a group of young African scholars at a public university, they listen. 

There are a lot of assertions made by Gates in his speech at the University of Nairobi that would fail a fact-checker scale but I will restrict this to the GMO gaffe.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ranks wheat as the third among US field crops in planted acreage, production, and gross farm receipts, behind corn and soybeans.  

What ought to raise the antenna of any Kenyan who was inspired by Bill’s assertion is that USDA reports that “wheat sowings lost ground to coarse grains and oil seeds due to technological innovations that improved production prospects for corn and soybeans.”

Farmers in the US grow wheat mainly for human food use and this is where it gets interesting.

No GMO wheat is commercially grown in the US because, apparently, food processors in Europe and US are very much aware of the consumers’ reactions to products containing genetically modified wheat. 

In fact, it wasn’t until October 2020 that Argentina approved the world’s first genetically engineered wheat for cultivation and consumption.

Of course, they have increased production massively since then, with other nations like Nigeria having approved the importation of wheat from Argentina.

Either Bill has been growing his own genetically modified wheat since childhood or he lied to the men and women in Kenya who showed up or logged online to listen to his speech. To what end would Gates, one of the world’s wealthiest, lie brazenly in the public?

Gates has been a great partner to Africa in addressing challenges, but it is important to remember that he may get a thing or two wrong, like his prophecy on the effects Covid-19 would have on Africa.

Benard Aloo, MA International Studies student at the University of Nairobi

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