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Speaking at World Food Prize event in Des Moines, the founder of Microsoft calls for a 'new Green Revolution' and announces that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will give $120 million in new agriculture grants.

Rod Swoboda

October 30, 2009

19 Min Read

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in a speech today at the World Food Prize symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, urged a renewal of the Green Revolution to help solve world hunger and help farmers in the poorest nations.


Gates is putting some of his fortune toward solving a problem that has confounded scientists and governments for decades—reducing global hunger.

During the past three years, his foundation has committed $1.4 billion toward agricultural development—funding projects ranging from plant breeding research for higher yields to helping African farmers find new markets for their crops and assisting farmers in India to manage soil and water resources better.

In another significant announcement, the Gates Foundation is requiring independent analyses of the projects being funded to verify which ones work and which ones do not. The overall approach the foundation is taking is that investments in agriculture need to be across the entire agricultural value chain. Speaking at the 2009 World Food Prize symposium in Des Moines,  Bill Gates told the audience about the need to help the world's impoverished people through agriculture. "Three quarters of the world's poorest people get their food and income by farming small plots of land," he says. "If we can make those small farmers more productive and have more profit, we can make a dramatic positive impact on hunger, nutrition and poverty."


Calls for a new version of the "Green Revolution"


Gates points out that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recently estimated that developing countries will need $83 billion in agricultural investment to ensure there are sufficient global food supplies by the middle of this century. Today, one sixth of the world's children go to bed hungry every night. "That shouldn't be happening in the world today," he says.


Gates' talk in Des Moines was his first major speech on agriculture, and it was his first appearance before the annual World Food Prize event, a gathering of over 700 people, mostly food and agricultural scientists, economists and policy makers from all over the world in Des Moines. The World Food Prize Foundation is headquartered in Des Moines.


After his speech, Gates was joined on the stage by the 2009 World Food Prize laureate, Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, a renowned Ethiopian sorghum researcher now at Purdue University who was honored for his work to develop hybrids resistant to drought and the Striga weed—advances credited with increasing food security for hundreds of millions of Africans.


Gates is calling for scientists, governments, foundations, farmer groups, environmentalists and others to set aside old divisions and join forces to help millions of the world's poorest farming families boost their yields and incomes so they can lift themselves out of hunger and poverty. Gates says the effort must be guided by the farmers themselves, adapted to local circumstances, and be sustainable for the economy and the environment.


New Green Revolution must be "greener than the first one"


He says if people and organizations involved in fighting world hunger can set aside their differences, they could produce a new version of the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s that dramatically boosted food production in India and some other countries. "Helping the poorest small-holder farmers grow more crops and get them to market is the world's single most powerful lever for reducing hunger and poverty," he says.


Gates is also calling for the new Green Revolution to be "greener than the first," a reference to criticisms by environmentalists. The World Food Prize was established in 1986 by the late Norman Borlaug, the Iowa native and plant scientist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in boosting grain yields and bringing about the Green Revolution. Environmentalists have frequently attacked that achievement, however, because of the pollution caused by fertilizers and pesticides that were used with the high- yielding crops.


Agricultural development fits into the Gates Foundation's twin goals of improving global health and lifting people out of poverty. Gates says he and his wife's interest in helping solve the world's problems of poverty, hunger and disease stems from "the fact that in our world today, some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to ourselves—this can't be true but if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving."


New projects unveiled, grants totaling $120 million


Gates explained the foundation's vision, which includes investments in the development and use of better seeds, training, market access and policies that support small farmers. Gates also announced nine new Gates Foundation grants totaling $120 million for Africa that illustrate the range of efforts necessary to empower millions of small farmers to grow enough to build better, healthier lives. The new grants are on top of the $1.4 billion his foundation has committed to ag development projects in south Asia and Africa over the last three years.


The foundation's new grants include funding for research on legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil, higher yielding varieties of sorghum and millet, and new varieties of sweet potatoes that resist pests and have a higher vitamin content.


Other projects funded by these new grants will help the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa support African governments in developing policies that serve small farmers; help get information to farmers by radio and cell phone; support school feeding programs; provide training and resources that African governments can draw on as they regulate biotechnologies; and help women farmers in India manage their land and water resources sustainably.


More than 1 billion people suffer from chronic hunger


Gates says the world should draw inspiration from the agricultural transformation in Latin America and Asia during the 1960s to 1980s--the Green Revolution which averted famine, saved hundreds of millions of lives, and fueled widespread economic development.


But Gates also warns that as scientists, governments and others strive to repeat the successes of the original Green Revolution, they should be careful not to repeat its mistakes, such as the overuse of fertilizer and irrigation. "The next Green Revolution has to be greener than the first. It must be guided by small-holder farmers, adapted to local circumstances, and be sustainable for the economy and the environment," he says.


According to the World Bank, three-quarters of the 1 billion people who live in extreme poverty depend on agriculture for a living. More than 1 billion people suffer from chronic hunger in the developing world. In the world's poorest areas, small farmers frequently face harsh conditions, including depleted soils, pests, drought, diseases and lack of water. "Even if they manage to grow a surplus, they often lack a reliable market where they can sell it," notes Gates.


Despite big problems, there are reasons for optimism


Despite these challenges, there are reasons for optimism in the fight against hunger, he emphasizes. After two decades of neglect, the world's attention is once again focused on agricultural development. The G20 group of leading donor and developing nations recently made a three-year, $22 billion pledge to help solve global hunger by supporting small farmers in the developing world.


"It's a great thing that donor nations are focusing on this issue," he adds. "But we need them to spell out clearly what the $22 billion means—how much is old money, how much is new, how soon can they spend it, when will they do more?"


While Gates believes that major breakthroughs in the fight against hunger and poverty are now within reach, he cautions that progress toward alleviating global hunger is "endangered by an ideological wedge that threatens to split the movement in two." On one side, he says, there are groups that support technological solutions to increase agricultural productivity without proper regard to environmental and sustainability concerns. On the other, there are those who react negatively to any emphasis on productivity.


Agriculture needs both productivity and sustainability


"You don't have to choose between productivity and sustainability. That's a false choice, and it's dangerous," says Gates. "It blocks important advances. It breeds hostility among people who need to work together. And it makes it hard to launch a comprehensive program to help poor farmers. The fact is, we need both productivity and sustainability—and there is no reason we can't have both."


In the question and answer period after his talk, Gates was asked whether his foundation supported the use of biotechnology or do they support systems that use conventional breeding of crops? He said it's time for people and organizations to forget the politics of genetically modified crops. The Gates Foundation funds projects that use some biotechnology and also funds some projects that do not use biotech.


How does Gates feel about using biotech crops?


"It is best for the people and countries to choose the type of technology to use that serves them and their particular conditions best," says Gates. "Our foundation looks at it from the standpoint of the people we are trying to help. Is the technology effective to meet their needs? Is it economically feasible for them? Is it environmentally friendly?"


Gates is knowledgeable and very conversant on agricultural issues, as well as hunger and poverty issues worldwide. For example, he talked about drought tolerant corn hybrids that are now being developed for use in Africa.


Gates says he and his wife's foundation is supporting research on crops that can withstand weather extremes such as drought and flooding so poor farmers can adapt to climate change. It is also supporting a ground-breaking effort with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to buy food from small farmers in the developing world and use that food for food aid.


WFP has already purchased 17,000 metric tons of food from small farmers through the program, linking many of these farmers to markets for the first time. Historically, food has been bought from the larger, wealthier nations and given to hungry people through food aid programs. But that is changing, which is good because this change creates market opportunities that help the smaller farmers in the poor and developing nations, says Gates.


Farming has the power to lift up the lives of the poor


The Gates foundation isn't an advocate of any particular scientific method. "Of course, these technologies must be subject to rigorous scientific review to ensure they are safe and effective. It's the responsibility of governments, farmers and citizens—informed by excellent science to choose the best and safest way to help feed their countries," says Gates.


Gates paid tribute to Dr. Norman Borlaug, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his pioneering work in expanding agricultural production in the developing world, who died on September 12 of this year at age 95. "Norman Borlaug's passing is cause for sadness, but his life should make us optimistic," says Gates. "He not only showed humanity how to get more food from the earth. He proved that farming has the power to lift up the lives of the poor. It's a lesson the world is thankfully re-learning today."

About the Author(s)

Rod Swoboda

Rod Swoboda is a former editor of Wallaces Farmer and is now retired.

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