Fertilizer. It’s not the most scintillating of conversation starters, not something one would bring up to impress a young lady on a first date, perhaps. It’s not the first thing one would think of when sitting down to a fancy meal in one of Dallas’ finest restaurants. And one would be foolish to believe fertilizer would concern a mother shopping for blue jeans or tee-shirts for her children.
But perhaps it should be. Bill Gates believes so.
Yeah, that Bill Gates, the one responsible for the computer system that we alternately praise and curse, depending on which version we have at the moment and how familiar we are with how it works. That Bill Gates, the one with more money than Croesus and considered by some to be one of, if not the, most important figures in recent history.
Bill Gates extols the value of fertilizer.
“A few billion people would have to die if we hadn’t come up with fertilizer,” he told CBS’ Charlie Rose Sunday night on “60 Minutes.”
The conversation turned briefly to fertilizer, following a comment by Mr. Gates’ wife, Melinda. A partial transcript of the conversation:
Melinda Gates: But the great thing is Bill will go read an entire book about fertilizer. And I can tell you even without three kids in the house, I’m not going to read a book about fertilizer.
Charlie Rose: So what is it about a book about fertilizer? I mean seriously?
Bill Gates: Well, fertilizers are very interesting.
Bill Gates: We couldn’t feed — (a few) billion people would have to die if we hadn’t come up with fertilizer.
That puts fertilizers in a more interesting light than most folks would think. Gates also thinks agriculture is very interesting and a topic that gets far less attention than something as important as providing food deserves. In his annual letter he called on the United States and other developed nations to take agricultural research more seriously.
In that letter he wrote:
“Farming is a great example of something critical to the poor that gets very little attention in rich countries. Back in the 19th century, the majority of people in the United States worked in agriculture. Now less than 2 percent of the workforce is involved in farming, and less than 15 percent of U.S. consumer spending goes to food. Farming issues rarely make the news. The exceptions are when food is contaminated, when government subsidies are being debated, or when there is a famine like the current one in the Horn of Africa.”
He added that food-related issues remain important and that new challenges are emerging that test the gains made by the “Green Revolution,” that prevented the dire predictions of widespread starvation proposed in the 1960s and 1970s.
Over the past decade, demand for food and food prices have risen. Gates said climate change threatens food production. And many developing nations already face consistent food shortages.
Those challenges, too, can be met, he said. But achieving food-production goals will demand more focus on agriculture research. “…it is shocking—not to mention short-sighted and potentially dangerous—how little money is spent on agricultural research. In total, only $3 billion per year is spent on researching the seven most important crops.”
That’s not enough.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donates significant amounts of money to help poor people around the world, but to accomplish the goals of empowering those people to feed and clothe themselves, they need tools to improve food production. That means learning how to grow more on fewer acres. That means research—including studies on fertilizer.