Howard Graham Buffett serving meals in Sierra Leone in 2007. He spends up to 200 days a year on the road, doing foundation work. (Jeannie O’Donnell / The Howard G. Buffett Foundation)
Howard, Warren Buffett’s farmer son, is one man, a rich one man, working in all 54 African countries developing sustainable farming on the continent with the biggest problems in hunger, poverty, soil, infrastructure, economics and politics. Howard’s dad is bridge buddies with Bill Gates who is also saving Africa. There is hope in 2016 that the Bern fires up the base like Teddy Roosevelt and FDR, while the well informed Buffett Gates partnership puts their money where it’s needed – like not in Panama.
“USAID and others have been at this for decades,” he said. “By now, according to projections, we should have ended hunger. So my point is, what we’re doing isn’t working.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Buffett told me. “I’m a farmer. I know what I can get from improved seed. I know what I get from fertilizer. They’re huge. But technology can’t build organic matter. It can’t create topsoil. It can’t magically protect water quality. It’s a quick fix, and Africa needs a long-term solution.”
Instead of a green revolution for Africa, Buffett favors what he calls a “brown revolution,” or, to quote the distinguished agricultural ecologist Sir Gordon Conway, a “doubly green revolution”—a focus on environmentally sustainable agriculture that minimizes erosion, preserves and regenerates soil, and makes the land more resilient, while also increasing yields. In contrast to the green revolution, the brown revolution is a tortoise-like approach: Its impact is gradual. Over the past decade, patiently, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to identify and promote practical, low-cost methods of conservation farming—cover crops, no-till farming, locally bred seed varieties—that improve African soil quality and crop yields without chemical fertilizers and costly imported seeds. “If you take a place like Africa,” Buffett told me, “where they have the most degraded soils in the world, very limited nutrients, ground that is farmed to death—literally to the point where you have to move on and farm another piece of ground—and all you’re doing is throwing on synthetic fertilizer, it’s like trying to put an oxygen mask on a cadaver and expecting it’s going to start breathing again.”
The foundation owns and operates four research farms—4,400 acres in Decatur, 1,000 acres in Nebraska, 3,900 acres in the high desert of southeast Arizona, and the farm in South Africa, spanning 9,200 acres—where scientists from Texas A&M, Penn State, and Purdue are conducting experiments on how best to grow crops in places with little water and poor soil. In South Africa, the foundation is testing 14 different cover crops—among them cowpea, lablab, and pigeon pea—to learn which ones best reduce erosion and improve soil fertility. In Arizona, the foundation replicates the conditions faced by poor African farmers: drought, little or no fertilizer, oxen tilling the land. Tests are under way to measure the precise relationship between water and crop yields. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/05/how-warren-buffetts-son-would-feed-the-world/476385/
Established in 1999, his Howard G. Buffett Foundation’s (HGBF) primary mission is to improve the standard of living and quality of life for the world’s most impoverished and marginalized populations. It apparently spends $50 million a year on various programs around the world, particularly in Africa.
Not surprisingly one of his biggest projects is improving lives of poor farmers, themselves often starving. His goal is to help teach them methods that they can afford to implement after his programs end. He also insists they learn accounting.
This is apparently in contrast to the approach used by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the organization to which his father has pledged more than $30 billion, which relies more heavily on introducing technology to third world farming. “He’s really pushing a system that is similar to what we have outside this door in America,” explained Howard to Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes, “I told him that we have got to stop doing it like we did.”
“Your father gives money to Gates. You come out and say it’s all wrong. Is this sibling rivalry?” asked Stahl. Gates and Buffett, the country’s two richest men, have become good friends, often playing bridge, celebrating birthdays and traveling together on vacations. Howard responded that Bill, who they call brother Bill, is the smartest guy in the world besides his dad, but pointed out that he understands agriculture quite well and had used a similar approach unsuccessfully when first starting to give away money.
Some details about Howard that Stahl didn’t cover include the fact that Buffett’s son is a writer of more than half a dozen books; sits on the board of Sloan Implement, a privately owned distributor of John Deere agricultural equipment; and also previously served on the boards of food processor Archer Daniels ADM +0.74% Midland; Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc, the largest Coca-Cola bottler in the world; and ConAgra Foods. He has also traveled to more than 95 countries documenting the food and conservation challenges. In 2005, he received the Will Owen Jones Distinguished Journalist of the Year Award, and in 2007, he was appointed a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Against Hunger on behalf of the World Food Programme. In 2011, he received the World Ecology Award.
It could be a long time before Howard succeeds his father – “He won’t leave until he’s buried in the ground,” Howard told Stahl – and even longer before anyone knows if he proves to be a decent successor. Still he’s certainly proven himself to be a worthy scion of an admirable man, one who has his feet firmly planted in the earth.