Bill Gates takes on expanding crop production

by Morton Sosland
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Maybe it does take someone like Bill Gates to convince executives of grain-based foods of the threat to global well-being posed by worsening hunger. The need for understanding the implications of hunger and addressing solutions is particularly urgent in a crop year like the present where wheat supply-demand statistics as well as price movements would make anyone focused solely on the present ask how there’s anything to worry about. After all, the U.S. wheat supply for 2009-10 is within a hair’s breadth of 3 billion bushels, while both domestic use and exports are down. The net result is a projected rise in the U.S. wheat carryover to the largest of the first decade of the 21st century. The global situation for 2009-10 is strikingly similar, with a new record in the size of the global wheat supply and the world carryover posting a hefty increase. With these numbers, it is probably only someone like Bill Gates who is listened to in stressing the need to boost global production.

"Helping the poorest small-holder farmers grow more crops and get them to market is the world’s single most powerful lever for reducing hunger and poverty," declared Mr. Gates in addressing the World Food Prize symposium. This was the theme of the firstever address on agricultural issues by the co-founder of Microsoft Corp. who ranks as America’s richest person. Not only is it significant that Mr. Gates has chosen agriculture as the central issue before his and his wife’s multi-billion-dollar foundation, but in so doing he elevates solving hunger ahead of what had been lead items — improving health in the developing world and strengthening education in the United States.

When Mr. Gates commits to an issue, substantial sums are allocated. Nine grants totaling $120 million are his beginning efforts to improve the output of impoverished farmers. As someone who made his fortune in technology, he seems hesitant in embracing genetic modification. Indeed, he cites what he terms "an ideological wedge" between groups relying solely on technological solutions "without regard for environmental and sustainability concerns" and those who dismiss all efforts to boost crop productivity. He describes this debate as a "false choice," breeding hostility between people who should be working together. "The fact is," he says, "that we need both productivity and sustainability — and there is no reason we can’t have both."

Indeed, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is supported not only by the Gates’ wealth but also by the fabulous fortune of Warren Buffett, may be just the organization with the power and influence to erase the "wedge." As this page has frequently noted, genetic modification presents an unparalleled opportunity to boost food production, to create a second Green Revolution that is, as Mr. Gates puts it, "greener than the first."

It is fascinating that this man whose success stems from embracing and imagining the promise of new technology for computers has assigned priority to expanding food production. He says he has been influenced by the political turmoil in the wake of sharp advances in food prices during 2008 as well as forecasts of sharply expanding food needs. The estimate of 1 billion people not having sufficient food and an equal number of disadvantaged farmers are factors he wants addressed. Of course, solving world hunger cannot be done by a single institution, even one as strong as the Gates Foundation. It requires massive aid by governments, particularly fulfillment of the Group of Eight pledge to provide $22 billion to expand food production in the next several years.

Never has the task of ending global hunger had an ally from outside government as powerful as Mr. Gates. Assuming that he succeeds in convincing governments, researchers, farmers and environmentalists to set aside old divisions, the consequences appear to be as great for grain-based foods as is the promise of a more peaceful and less hungry world.