Bill Gates on Innovation in Agriculture

Editor’s Note:  About two-thirds of the world’s poor work in agriculture and we all must eat.  Because of his concise summary of this industry critical to all, we reproduce part of Bill Gates’ annual letter.  A second part will soon follow. 

Throughout my careers in software and philanthropy—and in each of my annual letters—a recurring theme has been that innovation is the key to improving the world. When innovators work on urgent problems and deliver solutions to people in need, the results can be magical.

Right now, just over 1 billion people—about 15 percent of the people in the world—live in extreme poverty. On most days, they worry about whether their family will have enough food to eat. There is irony in this, since most of them live and work on farms. The problem is that their farms, which tend to be just a couple acres in size, don’t produce enough food for a family to live on.

Fifteen percent of the world in extreme poverty actually represents a big improvement. Fifty years ago, about 40 percent of the global population was poor. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, in what is called the “Green Revolution,” Norman Borlaug and other researchers created new seed varieties for rice, wheat, and maize (corn) that helped many farmers vastly improve their yields. In some places, like East Asia, food intake went up by as much as 50 percent. Globally, the price of wheat dropped by two-thirds. These changes saved countless lives and helped nations develop.

We have the ability to accelerate this historic progress. We can be more innovative about delivering solutions that already exist to the farmers who need them. Knowledge about managing soil and tools like drip irrigation can help poor farmers grow more food today. We can also discover new approaches and create new tools to fundamentally transform farmers’ lives. But we won’t advance if we don’t continue to fund agricultural innovation, and I am very worried about where those funds will come from in the current economic and political climate.

The world faces a clear choice. If we invest relatively modest amounts, many more poor farmers will be able to feed their families. If we don’t, one in seven people will continue living needlessly on the edge of starvation. My annual letter this year is an argument for making the choice to keep on helping extremely poor people build self-sufficiency.

My concern is not only about farming; it applies to all the areas of global development and global health in which we work. Using the latest tools—seeds, vaccines, AIDS drugs, and contraceptives, for example—we have made impressive progress. However, if we don’t make these success stories widely known, we won’t generate the funding commitments needed to maintain progress and save lives. At stake are the future prospects of one billion human beings.

Innovation in Agriculture

The private market does a great job of innovating in many areas, particularly for people who have money. The focus of Melinda’s and my foundation is to encourage innovation in the areas where there is less profit opportunity but where the impact for those in need is very high. That is why we have devoted almost $2 billion to helping poor farm families, most of which are led by women, boost their productivity while preserving the land for future generations. Those funds are invested in many areas of innovation, ranging from sustainable land management, to better ways to educate farmers, to connecting farmers to functioning markets.

We do all these things with one goal in mind—helping people like Christina Mwinjipe, a farmer I met last year in Tanzania. Christina supports her family by farming cassava, a staple crop that provides a basic diet for more than 500 million people worldwide. (When dried to a powder, cassava is known as tapioca.) In the past two years, Christina’s crop has been invaded by two cassava diseases. The leaves of some of her plants are curled and withered, and covered in the white flies that carry mosaic disease. The roots of other plants are rotted by brown streak disease. Because of these diseases, she is depleting her savings to buy cassava to feed her three children. Her oldest son just passed his examinations to enter secondary school, but she doesn’t know where she’ll find the money to pay his fees. She is not sure what she will do about food when her savings run out.

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.

For Christina and other small farmers—and for hundreds of millions of extremely poor people living in slums in big cities—getting food is the most pressing daily concern. And food is strongly connected to another constant worry: basic health. The lack of adequate nutrition is a key reason why poor children so often die of diseases like diarrhea that richer and better-fed children are able to fight off. Poor nutrition in childhood also prevents the development of both the brain and the body, severely and irreversibly limiting children’s ability to grow, learn, and become healthy, productive adults. Ultimately, there is very little in Christina’s life—or her children’s lives—that doesn’t depend on her cassava crop.

Despite the rich world’s distance from farming, food-related issues are important for all of us. In the 1960s and 1970s, when I was in high school, people worried that we simply couldn’t grow enough food to feed everyone in the world. A popular book that came out in 1968, The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich, began with the statement: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…” Fortunately, due in large part to the Green Revolution, this dire prediction was wrong.

But the world’s success in warding off famine led to complacency. Over time, governments in both developed and developing countries focused less on agriculture. Agricultural aid fell from 17 percent of all aid from rich countries in 1987 to just 4 percent in 2006. In the past 10 years, the demand for food has gone up because of population growth and economic development—as people get richer, they tend to eat more meat, which indirectly raises demand for grain. Supply growth has not kept up, leading to higher prices. Meanwhile, the threat of climate change is becoming clearer. Preliminary studies show that the rise in global temperature alone could reduce the productivity of the main crops by over 25 percent. Climate change will also increase the number of droughts and floods that can wipe out an entire season of crops. More and more people are raising familiar alarms about whether the world will be able to support itself in the future, as the population heads toward a projected 9.3 billion by 2050.

I believe these new dire predictions can be wrong, too. We can help poor farmers sustainably increase their productivity so they can feed themselves and their families. By doing so, they will contribute to global food security. But that will happen only if we prioritize agricultural innovation.

READ PART II IN OUR NEXT POST or find the whole annual letter at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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