Bill Gates has called for greater investment in engineered crops that can adapt to climate change and resist agricultural pests, in an effort to solve world hunger.
In the latest annual Goalkeepers Report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates says the global hunger crisis is so immense that food aid cannot fully address the problem.
What’s also needed, he argues, are innovations in farming technology that can help to reverse the crisis.
Gates points in particular to a breakthrough he calls ‘magic seeds’ – including maize that has been bred to be more resistant to hotter, drier climates, and rice that requires three fewer weeks in the field.
These innovations will allow agricultural productivity to increase despite the changing climate, he argues.
However, he claims that the research and development budget for new innovations like magic seeds is still much too small compared to spending on food aid.
‘It’s good that people want to prevent their fellow human beings from starving when conflicts like Ukraine interrupt the food supply, but we also have to recognise that those crises are symptoms of a deeper problem,’ Gates says in the report.
‘Many countries don’t grow enough yet, and climate change is making farming even harder. That challenge can’t be solved with donations. It requires innovation.’
Doris Muia, 45, compares a cob of the recycled maize seed corn with the larger cobs of the hybrid, climate resistant maize seed crop in Machakos, Kenya on March 2, 2021. Climate change is having a significant impact upon smallholder, African farmers in the form of irregular rains and drought.
Graph comparing the amount of food aid with the R&D budget for new innovations like magic seeds
Bill Gates (pictured) says the global hunger crisis is so immense that food aid cannot fully address the problem
WHAT ARE GENE-EDITED CROPS AND HOW ARE THEY DIFFERENT TO GM PLANTS?
Gene editing promises to produce ‘super-crops’ by altering or cutting out genes that naturally occur in plants.
Unlike genetically modified (GM) plants, gene-edited (GE) crops contain no ‘foreign’ DNA from other species.
GE crops are produced using CRISPR, a new tool for making precise edits in DNA.
Scientists use a specialised protein to make tiny changes to the plant’s DNA that could occur naturally or through selective breeding.
GM crops have had foreign genes added to their DNA – a process that often cannot happen naturally.
The US, Brazil, Canada and Argentina have indicated they will exempt GE crops that do not contain foreign DNA from GM regulations.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest private foundation in the world and is best known for its work on global health, including vaccines.
It began in its current form in 2000, after Gates left his CEO position at Microsoft, the tech giant he co-founded.
The foundation has invested heavily in farming technology, including a type of corn seeds that thrive at higher temperatures and in drier conditions, known as DroughtTEGO.
The seeds were first developed under a program of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, to which the Gates Foundation has given $131 million since 2008.
Since then, the foundation has spent $1.5 billion on grants focused on agriculture in Africa, according to Candid, a nonprofit that researches philanthropic giving.
Gates points to the potential of predictive modelling – using artificial intelligence to process the genome sequences of crops along with environmental data and conjure up a data-based vision of what farms will need to look like in the future.
‘From this computer model, researchers can identify the optimal plant variety for a particular place. Or they can do the reverse: pinpoint the optimal place to grow a specific crop,’ he explains.
The technology is still in its early stages, but similar predictive models – which anticipate where farms might be hit by an invasive species or crop disease, for example – have already seen huge results.
Doris Muia, 45, with corn from her latest harvest of hybrid, climate resistant corn seed in Machakos, Kenya on March 2, 2021.
Maize accounts for about 30 per cent of all the calories people in sub Saharan Africa eat. It’s an incredibly important crop, but also a sensitive one. When temperatures exceed 30°C (86°F), the growing process starts breaking down; pollination and photosynthesis slow. Every additional degree above 30°C per day cuts crop yield by at least 1 per cent
The foundation’s spending on agricultural development is why Gates’ view on how countries should respond to food insecurity has taken on heightened importance in a year when a record 345 million people around the world are acutely hungry.
The World Food Program said in July that tally represents an increase of 25 per cent from before Russia invaded Ukraine in February and a 150 per cent jump from before the pandemic struck in the spring of 2020.
However, in assigning technology a pre-eminent role in addressing the world’s food crisis, Gates puts himself at odds with critics who say his ideas conflict with worldwide efforts to protect the environment.
They note that such seeds generally need pesticides and fossil fuel-based fertilisers to grow.
Critics also contend that Gates’ approach doesn’t address the urgency of the crisis.
Developing ‘magic seeds’ takes years and won’t immediately deliver relief to countries currently enduring widespread suffering because they rely on food imports or are experiencing historic droughts.
It’s a debate that could intensify international pressure to meet the shared goals for global prosperity and peace, known as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, ahead of a 2030 deadline.
The 17 goals include ending poverty and hunger, battling climate change, providing access to clean water, working toward gender equality and reducing economic inequality.
Bill Gates pledges $20bn to his charitable foundation to help solve the world’s ‘big problems’
Bill Gates has pledged to donate $20billion to his charitable foundation so it can increase its annual spending and help solve the world’s ‘big problems’ and ‘reduce suffering’.
In the face of global setbacks including the pandemic, the war on Ukraine and the devastating impact of climate change, Gates said he was making the donation to ‘help meet urgent global needs’.
Gates, who set up the Gates Foundation with his now ex-wife Melinda in 2000, said he plans to give ‘virtually all of his wealth’ to the foundation – a move that he said will make him drop off of the list of the world’s richest people.
‘I have an obligation to return my resources to society in ways that have the greatest impact for reducing suffering and improving lives,’ Gates said. ‘And I hope others in positions of great wealth and privilege will step up in this moment too.’
The $20 billion donation, combined with longtime board member and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett’s $3.1 billion gift last month, brings The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s endowment to approximately $70 billion, making it one of the largest, if not the largest in the world, depending on daily stock valuations.
The Gates Foundation plans to raise its annual budget by 50 per cent over pre-pandemic levels to about $9 billion by 2026.