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Power Hour: Meet Gates Foundation’s Ag Development Leader

12:00PM Jun 12, 2014
WEB Pamela K Anderson Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

During a recent climate change symposium in Washington, D.C., AgWeb sat down with Pamela K. Anderson, the new director of agriculture development for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Anderson, who spoke at the conference, has spent her career researching staple crops that could improve conditions for small-holder farmers and alleviate hunger. She decided to devote her life’s work to the cause in the 1970s during college and moved to Latin America at age 20.

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Later, Anderson returned to the U.S. to finish advanced degrees at the University of Illinois and Harvard University. She spent 15 years working on national research programs in Latin America before entering the international research system. She rose to become director general of the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, part of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Now, she is based in Seattle and runs a program that she describes as a "catalyst" for international agriculture development.

What impact has the Gates Foundation had on research conducted by international research centers?

It was like oxygen for those of us in the business when the Foundation began investing in basic upstream research in 2006. This was before the food crisis, and we were getting to the point where it was increasingly difficult to conduct research. It wasn’t uncommon for advances in the lab, like the Scuba rice I talked about this morning, to take 30 years to find its way into the field. The decision by the Foundation to support research on basic breeding was phenomenal.

The opportunity to take the experience I gained working at an international research center to the Gates Foundation was an opportunity that I just couldn’t say no to.

Judging by Bill Gates’ recent remarks, the Foundation seems to be taking a more holistic approach to agriculture development, an approach that recognizes the importance of building food delivery systems and gaining foreign government support, in addition to basic seed research.

It is, and it was a real tactical shift in the way that we had been working. In general, we were tending to go into the most difficult countries—the poorest of the poor. The foundation figured out pretty quickly that there was wisdom in digging in behind a progressive leader like Dr. Akin Adessina of Nigeria and Dr. Agnes Kalibata of Rwanda, where there was a political will to really move things. If it could chock up some success stories, that would help all us learn and serve as inspiration for other groups of leadership.

In the agricultural strategy of the foundation, we have given ourselves permission to work from upstream basic research to the delivery of it, to the policies that allow it to function, and to the work with the government. We have an end-to-end scope. The challenge is figuring out the best place to put down our money.

The leaders of the foundation believe, as do I, that we are stewards of a special kind of money. We don’t have accountability to shareholders or governments. So we should use our unique resources to get catalytic in the places where it’s harder for others to work. One way of being a good partner is going where there is higher risk or where other people can’t put their money down as easily.

Can you give us some examples?

This morning, I talked about the Scuba rice. That’s an amazing example. The work was started 30 years at the International Rice Research Institute and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and other donors to the CGIAR. But it was taking too long to move from the lab to the farm. One of the Foundation’s early grants, in about 2006, was to work with farmers to figure out their rice preferences, get that resistance into their preferred varieties and then fund initial scale-up work.

So now, only five years after the initial releases, those new rice varieties are in the hands of 5 million households. That’s an incredible success. What we’ve got to figure out is how to replicate that and do it faster.

How does improving nutrition figure into the Foundation’s basic research work?

There’s been a movement since the 90s to find ways to use agriculture to really improve nutrition. Unacceptable levels of stunting in children is one of the driving forces. But the other issue that worries people is hidden hunger—where you have enough calories, but you don’t receive enough vitamins and minerals.

When international agricultural research started in the 1960s it was mostly about getting yields up to produce more food. Researchers weren’t necessarily paying attention to food quality. The thought was that if we produced more food, nutrition would be better. But there was a deficiency of vitamin A, iron and zinc, and that has some pretty bad consequences.

In the ‘90s, we started to really pay attention to bio-fortification—how to improve the nutritional value of crops. We were doing it through the biological plant as opposed to providing food supplements or adding vitamins and minerals to processed food. That work has really taken off.

At the International Potato Center, we developed a whole program to introduce high-vitamin A orange-fleshed sweet potatoes into Africa. A whole constellation of investors supported that work, including USAID, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Irish Aid and DfID.

Some of the work on improving the iron in dry beans has been a huge win, since it’s such an important protein source. The wonderful part of the story is that these bean varieties don’t just have higher iron; they also have much higher yields. In eastern Africa, the farmers are taking them up like wildfire.

We heard a lot at the conference today about the need to address hunger and climate change simultaneously. The Gates Foundation, of course, has been a leader in that respect, funding research into drought- and flood-tolerant staple crop varieties and investing in staple crops such as sorghum, millet and cassava that are efficient under extreme weather conditions.

We have to look at this as the same problem—food security and sustainability. In the early ‘90s, natural resource management became an agenda item in international development. We all hoped to see natural resource management research supporting agriculture. We wanted to know how we could do better soil research, create less soil degradation and manage water better. Instead, the work took on its own life, diverting attention and resources from the agricultural agenda. We need to keep these linked.

Many of the solutions put forward for climate change in developing countries—remedies such as using cover crops or planting trees that fertilize crops with droppings—are relatively simple. The Gates Foundation is supporting some of the harder work, correct?

The investments that we are making focus mostly on climate-proofing, on producing crops that are more resistant to flooding, drought or severe weather events. But then you have to put the solutions that you mentioned into a system and take an integrated approach. It’s going to take all of us, putting our contributions together, to make a difference.

You mentioned in your presentation that climate change is already creating new poverty traps around the globe. Can you elaborate on that?

Climate change is manifesting in different ways in different locations. The example that Minister Kalibata’s cited at lunch today—where extreme weather and heavy rains are eroding hillside farms in Rwanda—is an excellent example because most people don’t think about that. They tend to think about drought, but farmers are also suffering problems like flooding and erosion and freezing. When these severe weather events are becoming so common, affecting their crop yields every year, it makes it even more difficult for small farmers to make their way out of poverty through their agriculture.

Crops that farmers used to be able to produce in one area—in 20 years they may not be able to. So there is a big question, as we continue to climate-proof seeds and build resilience into farming systems, how do we also help farmers become more agile, to change their systems and to adapt to these coming changes? We may see an awful lot more African farmers decide to go back to growing sorghum and millet because it’s more rustic, less vulnerable than maize.

That why, at the Foundation, we’re looking at 14 staple crops—not just rice, wheat and maize. We’re also investing in cassava, sweet potatoes, bananas, yams, sorghum, finger and pearl millet, dry beans, cowpeas, groundnuts and chickpeas.

At the same time, you also need to be respectful of the fact that people want to eat maize. An awful lot of traditional foods are based on it. It’s often an important part of local culture. So you need to consider the social and cultural dimensions of food as well.

A federal official speaking this morning said that agriculture and livestock around the world account for 28 to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. You mentioned in your presentation that livestock emissions are most intense in developing countries. What kind of work are you doing in that arena?

What we are doing directly is trying to improve dairy productivity. When you do that, you not only improve nutrition but you make the dairy system more efficient. You in effect drive down the emission intensity, which is often measured in terms of emissions per kilogram of protein. The more productive you make the system, the further you drive down emission intensity.

Other very interesting developments are on the horizon. At the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, they have just built a special chamber. They are going to study livestock emissions as a function of what they feed livestock. They are going to figure out how we can modify the feed recipes as a possible approach to drive the emissions down. Additives to feed stock are being developed that may also drive down emissions.