Howard Buffett, the oldest son of Omaha billionaire investor Warren Buffett, gave the keynote address at a World Food Prize event in Des Moines on Wednesday. Buffett heads a foundation which sponsors agricultural projects in 40 countries, including many in Africa.
Buffett, who grows corn on a farm in Illinois, says he’s seen first-hand how the use of modern hybrid seeds in Africa is leading to dramatic cuts in yields and hardship for many farmers and their families.
“We will not be organic farmers, no way, but we want to take the success from each system and merge them together to achieve the best results,” he says. “I believe that combining biological farming techniques and new technology will provide the most dynamic and successful systems.”
He says hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizers need to be a part of the equation, but he says technology alone won’t solve the world’s hunger crisis. “Solutions have to be context-specific,” Buffett says. “We’ve failed at a lot of things, including our foundation, including decisions that I’ve made. We’ve failed because at times we’ve assumed what works here at home, what works in Asia, will work in Africa or Central America. It’s the wrong assumption to make.”
He adds, “We need to be smarter than that.” During a recent trip to the western African nation of Liberia, a farmer showed Buffett how hybrid seeds used on the same land in back-to-back growing seasons produced significantly smaller, inferior ears of corn, not realizing the soil was depleted of nutrients and unaware of the benefits of crop rotation.
That farmer’s plan was to clear still more land to plant more of the hybrid corn in hopes of feeding his family and making a living.