Buffett: New approach needed on hunger in Africa

The world needs to focus on the needs of African farmers and not impose on them what works on American farms if a solution to hunger in sub-Sarahan African is to be realized, Howard Buffett said Wednesday at the World Food Prize symposium in Des Moines, Iowa.

Buffett said he does not oppose technology and what it can do to increase crop yields, but that genetically modified seeds are only one part of the system. Instead, he said, a variety of approaches are needed and more attention must be given to soil conditions.

"There are over 500 million small-scale farmers in Africa who don't know how to plant properly, they cannot access them, oftentimes they cannot afford them, they may not even know what they need," Buffett said.

He said using bio-tech seeds requires special training. He also said farmers frequently see the results and sacrifice crop diversity. "That crop diversity is critical to the survival of many of those farm families," he said.

He said simply putting synthetic fertilizer on depleted soil is not enough.

"It's amazing that we continue to hear technology is the solution and that's it's the closest thing to a silver bullet," he said. "It's a very important contributor, but if viewed as the single solution we're never going to succeed."

He said success is not possible without a biological-based, sustainable soil management plan, education and training, and serious, long-term commitment from government, fertilizer and seeds will not reduce hunger.

"You can't just distribute seeds and walk away and expect things to work. It's just not that simple," Buffett said.

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.

The World Food Prize was founded by Norman Borlaug, an Iowa native who won the Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to reduce hunger with the use of genetically modified crops. Borlaug, who died in 2009, was known at the father of the "Green Revolution."

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

Buffett 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. 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.

But he was critical of the lack of attention governments have given to the reports and the lack of progress being made in the fight against 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.

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 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.