WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told a group of political, business and development leaders on May 24 that supporting farming families in developing countries is critical to overcoming poverty and hunger.

"I came here today to join those calling on the U.S. and other countries to fund agricultural development for poor farming families," Gates said. "The U.S. has a pivotal role to play."

Gates spoke at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security, where leaders discussed how U.S. public and private sector support for agricultural development can advance global security, stability and economic prosperity. He was joined by U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, World Food Program Executive Director Josette Sheeran and others.

In his first major address on agriculture to high-level members of the Obama administration and U.S. Congress, Gates noted that three-quarters of the world's poorest people rely on small plots of land for their food and income. Helping these small farmers grow and sell more so they can become self-sufficient is the most effective way to reduce hunger and poverty, he said, giving examples of progress already happening in Africa and South Asia.

Today, there are nearly a billion hungry people in the world. In 2008, food prices jumped to record levels, causing riots, hunger, instability and a plunge back into poverty for millions. Early this year, food prices spiked again, even higher than the peak of three years ago.

Gates argued that sweeping change is already underway. He praised U.S. leadership for helping to secure $22 billion in commitments to food security that were announced at the G8 and G20 meetings in 2009. While only about half of these pledges have been disbursed or are on track to be disbursed, Gates noted the commitment of President Obama and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to spend $3.5 billion over three years through the Feed the Future program. He also lauded Congress for including $100 million in the budget for the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program. He noted that France has put food security and agriculture at the top of the G20 agenda this year.

"We have a big budget deficit, and foreign assistance is always an easy target. So we need to tell people over and over why this spending is worth it — even in tight economic times," Gates said.

Gates said farming is a business that helps poor farmers build self-sufficiency and improve their lives. He explained how the foundation and its partners are focusing their efforts on helping farmers get better seeds, healthier soils, and access to markets, as well as supporting better data and policies.

"In country after country, these approaches have improved the livelihoods of small farmers while reducing poverty and increasing economic growth," noted Gates. "It's proving the point again and again: helping poor farming families grow more crops and get them to market is the world's single most powerful lever for reducing poverty and hunger."

Gates cited examples of foundation-funded projects that are yielding promising results:

The World Food Program's Purchase for Progress (P4P) project is helping small farmers, particularly women, gain access to reliable markets and the opportunity to sell their surplus at competitive prices. Since its start less than three years ago, P4P has paid out an estimated $37 million to small farmers and traders.

A project by the International Rice Research Institute is developing new high-yield varieties of rice that are more tolerant to floods, drought and other environmental stresses. By the end of 2010, 400,000 farmers had planted a new variety of rice that can survive up to 20 days after being submerged. By the end of 2011, the project is expected to reach 20 million farmers. The new rice varieties will prevent crop loss, reduce hunger, and boost the income of farming families.

At the symposium, the Chicago Council released the first Annual Progress Report on U.S. Leadership in Agricultural Development, which tracks fulfillment of U.S. government food security policy development, implementation, and resourcing.

To date, the Gates Foundation has committed $1.7 billion to agricultural development. The foundation takes a comprehensive approach to supporting small farmers so progress against hunger and poverty is sustainable for the economy and the environment.