Africa Needs Soil ‘Revolution,’ Howard Buffett Says

Howard G. Buffett, chairman of Buffett Farms Inc.
Howard G. Buffett, chairman of president of Buffett Farms Inc. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

A “Brown Revolution” to improve soil quality is more important to African agriculture than new seeds and fertilizers, said Howard Buffett, who may succeed his father, Warren Buffett, as chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Africans who farm plots of less than 3 acres (1.2 hectares) will need tailored solutions that may be different from the “Green Revolution” that boosted crop yields in Asia, Howard Buffett, 55, said today in a speech at the World Food Prize conference in Des Moines, Iowa.

“Food security is complicated, agriculture is complicated,” said Buffett, who illustrated his speech with anecdotes and photographs from interviews with African farmers. “Simply distributing seeds and fertilizer, if that’s the plan, will fail long term.”

Buffett, a Berkshire director since 1993, is an ambassador against hunger for the United Nations’ World Food Program and runs the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which aids subsistence farming. Today, the foundation announced $13 million in grants over four years to small farmers in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Global food costs are at their highest level since August 2008, when rising expenses for grain and other staples triggered unrest in countries such as Mexico and Egypt. Prices have risen 15 percent since June, according to UN data.

Today, a commodity gauge including energy, gold, industrial metals and crops reached the highest level since 2008. Last week, the U.S. government cut its crop-production forecasts.

‘Pretty Scary Thing’

Fluctuations in the cost of staples are “a pretty scary thing” to poorer populations that spend almost all of their income on food, Buffett said in an interview after his speech. A stronger agriculture infrastructure will protect against higher prices, he said.

“You have to start with the basics,” including agricultural education, literacy and investment in roads and storage necessary to bring farm goods to market, he said. Then, farmers will be integrated into the global market as poor countries become more self-sufficient and are able to export cash crops, he said.

‘Protracted’ Food Crisis

Twenty-two countries from Angola to Haiti are in a “protracted” food crisis because of natural disasters, wars and flawed governance, the United Nations said last week. The number of hungry people in the world will fall this year to an estimated 925 million from a record 1.02 billion undernourished people in 2009, the first decline in 15 years, the UN said in September.

Howard is the second of Warren Buffett’s three children and the only one with a position on the Berkshire board.

Warren Buffett has committed more than 99 percent of his wealth to charity and in June publicly challenged billionaires to give away half their money. Most of Buffett’s fortune, estimated by Forbes magazine at about $45 billion, will go to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The billionaire also funds charities run by his children and one named after his deceased first wife.

Warren Buffett, after building Berkshire through four decades as chairman and chief executive officer, has made succession plans for after his retirement or death. The company board, which includes Howard Buffett, will split the 80-year-old CEO’s duties among more than one manager. Warren Buffett said in 2006 that his son, a farmer and author, would safeguard Berkshire as non-executive chairman.

Successors will take charge of a $200-billion company where composition and culture is largely the expression of just one person. Warren Buffett, Berkshire’s largest shareholder, plans takeovers, selects investments and oversees CEOs who run the company’s more than 70 subsidiaries. Berkshire hasn’t publicly said who will fill the role of CEO and manage investments.


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