The title of Howard G. Buffett’s new book Forty Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World derives from his experience as a farmer. Buffett is the son of the superinvestor Warren Buffet, and he’s the CEO of a philanthropic foundation that bears his name. But he’s also a lifelong farmer, one familiar with the saying that each farmer can expect to have 40 growing seasons in a lifetime, which means 40 opportunities to improve their harvest. And it’s not just farmers who know there’s a clock running on their efforts. “We all need to recognize that we only have a fixed amount of time to affect change,” says Howard G. Buffett. “And that should drive a different mindset than if you think you have all the time in the world.”
Or as Buffett’s father Warren put it: “Another way of saying this is, ‘don’t save up sex for old age.’”
Forty Chances tells the story of HGB’s—as the family calls him—globe-spanning adventures in philanthropy. And his goals are ambitious—he wants to invest more than $3 billion, in an effort to end global hunger and poverty for the world’s nearly one billion impoverished people by 2045. He’s decided to focus much of his effort on farming in the developing world, believing—rightly, I’d say—that the best way to deal with poverty is to change the lives of the hundreds of millions of subsistence farmers in the poorest nations on the planet. “It’s a pretty well proven fact that nothing works better at bringing people out of poverty than investment in rural areas,” says HGB. “You can’t have success any other way.”
For HGB, that’s meant promoting a lesser-known cause, even in farming: soil conservation. Healthy soils are a prerequisite for productive farms, but 1.5 billion people—a fifth of the global population—live on degraded land, and in many parts of the world it’s getting worse, the land sick and overused. “You have to fix the soil,” he says. And that will mean reducing the sort of slash-and-burn agriculture that is still too common in much of the developing world. (Perhaps the worst soil erosion is in the desperately poor African nation of Madagascar, where satellite images show red soil bleeding into the Indian Ocean like a wound.) HGB also believes that land reform could be a major spur for soil conservation, with the idea that farmers who own their own land—too uncommon in much of the world—will raise crops with an eye toward the long-term health of the soil. “You need a much more market-based approach,” he says.
He would like to see that balanced with foreign-aid reform—HGB notes that too often, experts want to make agriculture in developing nations look like farming in rich countries. “It’s not going to happen like that,” says HGB. “You need to take into account local differences, local culture.” Forty Chances is divided up into 40 stories of HGB’s time traveling the world as a farmer, photographer and philanthropist, with tales of VIPs like Eva Longoria and Tony Blair taking turns in the cockpit of HGB’s combine. (Longoria handled it better.) But what’s worth taking away from the book is HGB’s insistence than philanthropy needs a radical reinvention—and that the best philanthropists will put themselves out of business, as soon as possible.