Gates Urges Support for Innovation in Agriculture

The launch of Bill Gates’ 2012 Annual Letter, released yesterday, has seen the Microsoft founder and philanthropist address audiences across the world on the importance of tackling poverty. One of his primary concerns in his 2012 letter is agriculture, and the crucial role it plays in international development.

Currently, over 1 billion people – about 15 percent of the world – are hungry. Smallholder farmers are unable to produce enough food to feed their families and lack the support to work themselves out of poverty. In his letter, Gates highlights the responsibility developed countries have to not only invest in agricultural aid, but in agricultural research. Between 1987 and 2006, agricultural aid fell from rich countries from 17 percent to just 4 percent.

At the same time, demand for food is increasing because of population growth and economic development, with the world’s population set to hit 9 billion in 2050. Supply growth has not kept up, leading to higher food prices and climate change threatens farmers’ ability to produce enough food to meet the growing demand.

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Agricultural innovation, Gates argues, is a vital way forward. During the ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s, new seed varieties for rice, wheat, and maize were developed that helped many farmers greatly improve their yields. In some places, such as East Asia, food intake went up by as much as 50 percent. Globally, the price of wheat dropped by two-thirds. The same process can happen again:

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.

He also stated that agricultural research is ‘chronically underfunded’.  Climate change is becoming an increasing threat; 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. Increased investment in agricultural research can unveil new seed varieties that can survive extreme weather conditions, as well as combat plant diseases that destroy crops.

Click here to read Bill Gate’s 2012 Annual Letter letter in full. Follow the debate on Twitter with the hashtag #BillsLetter.