Bill Gates on Innovation in Agriculture, Part 2

Editor’s Note:  Bill Gates’ annual letter about the work of his Foundation gives insights about agriculture in developing countries that are useful to impact investors with an interest in agriculture.  Part I was reprinted on February 9.  Read Part 2 below or read the entire letter at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  

Given the central role that food plays in human welfare and national stability, 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. This includes $1.5 billion spent by countries, $1.2 billion by private companies, and $300 million by an agency called the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Even though the CGIAR money is only 10 percent of the spending, it is critical because it focuses on the needs of poor countries. Very little of the country and private spending goes toward the priorities of small farmers in Africa or South Asia.

This shortage of funds for research is particularly worrying because of the increasing prevalence of plant diseases, such as those destroying Christina Mwinjipe’s cassava plants. Just like humans, plants get attacked by viruses, bacteria, and fungi. They also have to defend themselves against insects or animals, but unlike humans they can’t run away from their predators. Plants have developed sophisticated systems for defending themselves that we are just starting to understand. One amazing discovery is that in some species when one plant is attacked it gives off a scent that tells other plants to focus their energy on defending themselves rather than on growing.

“We can help poor farmers sustainably increase their productivity so they can feed themselves and their families.  But that will only happen if we prioritize agricultural innovation.”
– Bill Gates

Because farmers plant seeds that give them the highest yields, the diversity of crop varieties in fields is quite limited. This creates a perfect opportunity for disease to spread. A famous example of this is the potato blight that spread across Europe in the 1840s and led to mass starvation in Ireland. Less well known is the southern corn leaf blight that swept through the United States in the early 1970s. Fortunately, in that case, the United States had sufficient strategic reserves to avert a crisis.

Norman Borlaug, Nobel Prize winner and father of the Green Revolution, first got involved in plant science after he heard a professor give a speech entitled “These Shifty Little Enemies That Destroy Our Food Crops.” The Rockefeller Foundation enticed Borlaug to move to Mexico, where he created new varieties of wheat that were resistant to a fungus called wheat stem rust. It was only after he got there that he figured out additional strategies to increase wheat productivity. Borlaug was always concerned that new forms of wheat rust would emerge. Unfortunately, he was proven right in 1999 when a new and extremely virulent wheat rust called Ug99 was found in Uganda. Though Ug99 is still mostly in Africa, it has jumped the Red Sea and is now being found in Iran and Yemen, on its way toward India.

The response to Ug99 started slowly, but great work by a collection of experts, including researchers in Ethiopia and Kenya, has led to new varieties with some level of resistance. A huge effort is being undertaken to make sure that the new resistant varieties are adopted broadly before the disease moves into Asia or the Americas.

Another area where scientists need to do a lot more study is the effects of climate change on agricultural productivity. It looks like there may be varieties of rice and other crops that can deal with the higher temperatures and weather variations better than today’s plants. Some plant varieties actually benefit from the increased CO2 levels, although there is no clear data on how significant this will be. Early greenhouse studies were very promising, but field studies have shown much smaller effects. The world must invest in a variety of techniques to help poor farmers deal with weather impacts better than they can today.

For example, when I was in India in March I met with about 20 rice farmers who had recently switched to a new rice seed called Swarna-Sub1, which is both very productive and can survive in flooded fields. Their rice fields get flooded every three to four years, and in past flood years they ended up with almost no food to eat. Now, these farmers can feed their families no matter the weather. Currently, 4 million tons of rice are lost to flooding every year in Bangladesh and India. But as farmers in the region adopt Swarna-Sub1, they will grow enough extra rice to feed 30 million people.

Fortunately, there are reasons to believe that the chronic underfunding of research in agriculture is starting to change—and that there will be more breakthroughs like Swarna-Sub1. One approach that looks promising is innovative partnerships with private companies where the companies donate proprietary assets in which they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as their expertise, to help make appropriate varieties available royalty-free to poor farmers. Other key partners are rapidly growing countries like Brazil and China, which bring not only new resources but also deep experience in helping poor farmers at home. Brazil is a leader in soybeans, cassava, and tropical soils. China is a leader in rice and farmer education. This year the foundation entered into model agreements to work with both countries.

There is also an extremely important revolution—based on understanding plant genes—taking place in the plant sciences. The tools that enable this revolution were created to help cure human diseases. The field of agriculture is just now in the process of figuring out how to take advantage of these tools, but it’s clear that they will greatly accelerate the pace of plant research. It is hard to overstate how valuable it is to have all the incredible tools that are used for human disease to study plants.

Historically, increasing the productivity of a crop meant finding two seed variants, each with some desirable and undesirable characteristics, and crossing them until you get a combination with mostly the good characteristics of the two parents. This required actually growing tens of thousands of plants to see how they develop in different growing conditions over time—for example, when water is plentiful and when it is not.

Now the process is quite different. Imagine the analogy of a large public library with rooms full of books. We used to have to use the card catalogue and browse through the books to find the information we needed. Now we know the precise page that contains the piece of information we need. In the same way, we can find out precisely which plant contains what gene conferring a specific characteristic. This will make plant breeding happen at a much faster clip. The private sector has moved the fastest to use new approaches, but academic groups, including a Chinese group called BGI that has more sequencing capability than any other group in the world, are catching up.

When I was in Tanzania meeting Christina Mwinjipe, I also met Dr. Joseph Ndunguru, a plant scientist leading a project to fight the mosaic and brown streak diseases that are attacking Christina’s cassava crop. Dr. Ndunguru is part of a new generation of African scientists building up the capacity to do innovative science in Africa. Dr. Ndunguru was offered a high-paying job in South Africa, but he chose to keep working for the Tanzanian national program. I asked him why, and he replied that the work he was doing with the national program was the best way he could connect state-of-the-art science with the needs of the local farmers.

When I talk about innovation, it can be abstract for some people. But the direct link between the challenges Christina faces when her crop is destroyed and the solutions that Dr. Ndunguru is working on every day makes it very concrete. Disease-resistant cassava is an answer to Christina’s prayers, and I look forward to the day when Dr. Ndunguru’s work is done and I can go back to Tanzania and see Christina’s field thick with healthy cassava plants. That is why I say that innovation has been and will continue to be the key to improving the world.

Read Mr. Gate’s entire annual letter at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

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