Bill Gates bets a billion on ag research (video)

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Worth more than $40 billion, Microsoft founder Bill Gates could buy the world a Big Mac. But he’s more interested in helping fund a new green revolution, and he’s telling the world it should be “greener than the first.”

Speaking at the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, Gates outlined his vision in his first major address on agriculture, calling governments, researchers, environmentalists and others to “set aside old visions and join forces” to help millions of farmers. He also announced a $120 million package of agriculture-related grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to nine institutions around the world.

“Environmentalists are standing in the way of feeding humanity through their opposition to biotechnology, farm chemicals and nitrogen fertilizer,” Gates said.

Dennis T. Avery, director of the Center for Global Food Issues and a former agriculture analyst for the U.S. Department of State, said, “Gates could have said with equal truth that the same environmentalists, by demanding organic-only farming, are risking the future of the planet’s wildlife. The world will need more than twice as much food by 2050 to feed a peak population of 8 billion affluent humans and their pets. Gates believes we should get that additional food from higher yields on the 37 percent of the earth’s land area we already farm, not by threatening massive numbers of wildlife species by clearing more land for low-yield crops.”

Avery further said, “Gates has thus delivered the most important speech on food and the world’s future since Dr. Norman Borlaug accepted his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.”

The Gates Foundation has infused $1.4 billion into agricultural development in Africa and South Asia over the past three years. He argues that the “ideological wedge” between groups who disregard environmental concerns and groups who discount productivity gains could thwart major breakthroughs that are within reach.

“It’s a false choice, and it’s dangerous for the field,” Gates said. “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.”


With his visibility, personal wealth and commitment to combating disease and hunger, Bill Gates could become modern agriculture’s greatest proponent. His belief that the future of feeding humanity lies in judicious use of agricultural technology is a logical conclusion from a great mind that helped speed the world toward the information age.

Gates and his philanthropic efforts, however, are not without critics. Some argue Gates should address the underlying roots of poverty, rather than just focusing on technological fixes for specific problems. Others are concerned over Gates’ funding for development of new genetically engineered seeds.

But his investments have already produced results. Three years ago the Gates Foundation partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to create the Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA). Based in Kenya, AGRA is designed to help increase productivity of small farms in the poorest regions of the world, and that effort has boosted yields of wheat and rice in Latin America and Asia and relieved widespread famine.

As an advocate for the use of technology in agriculture, Gates can help mute the claims of those who believe organic-only farming can provide all the food needed — if only humanity became vegetarian.

Gates’ speech at last week’s World Food Prize Symposium gives hope that the anti-agriculture activists that have been so visible in recent months are only generating a lot of heat and not much light. — Greg Henderson, Drovers editor



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