Playing with House Money--Bill and Melinda Gates' Bet on Agriculture
Jan 28, 2015
In their 2015 Annual Letter (http://www.gatesnotes.com/2015-Annual-Letter), Bill and Melinda Gates laid out their new challenge in the form of a bet--they are doubling down on the proposition that ‘the lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history,’ and they are committing the considerable resources of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation toward achieving that goal.
Personally, I doubt that either Bill or Melinda Gates has spent a lot of time in Las Vegas or similar venues honing their gambling skills, but Bill Gates demonstrated during his nearly 30-year tenure running Microsoft that he is very good at recognizing nascent trends and nudging them forward with the resources of his massive corporation. I think that they are on target with recognizing the economic growth engine that is agriculture, although it will take a lot of nurturing from the Gates Foundation and other donor countries and institutions, in collaboration with governments and civil society in developing countries, to get there.
Their 28-page letter focuses on four areas of breakthrough--in health, farming, banking, and education. All four areas are related to helping people in developing countries obtain better access to healthy and productive lives, but I plan to discuss the second area, helping African farmers improve their productivity so that the continent will be able to produce enough food to feed itself within 15 years, although they will likely still import to achieve more diversified diets.
In 2011, I had the privilege of discussing agricultural development issues with Dr. Per Pinstrup-Andersen, former director-general of IFPRI and 2001 recipient of the World Food Prize, now at Cornell University. During our conversation, he pointed out that we could address a big share of the shortfall between current production levels and the food needed for 9 billion or more people by 2050 by tackling two major problems--raising the productivity of subsistence farmers closer to world average levels, and reducing the amount of food that goes to waste before it is ever consumed by human beings.
These problems are particularly acute for African smallholder farmers, due primarily to their lack of access to modern agricultural inputs such as improved seed, fertilizer, and mechanical traction. Average U.S. corn yields are about five times higher than average African yields, although that yield gap has started to narrow over the last several years, suggesting modest progress has already been achieved.
Fixing this problem will require getting better inputs into the hands of smallholder farmers, like the drought-tolerant corn seed planted by the Tanzanian farmer Joyce Sandiya profiled in the Gates letter. Such seeds are being provided royalty-free through the Gates-funded WEMA initiative and other programs and were planted on more than 3 million acres by primarily smallholder African farmers in 2013. The potential for gains through expanded use of mobile phone technology in developing countries, featured in the banking section of the letter, is also true for agriculture, where access to reliable market and weather information is every bit as important as access to physical inputs and market infrastructure for successful farming.
As to the other part of Dr. Pinstrup-Andersen’s diagnosis, excessive food waste, this problem needs to be addressed in both the developed and developing world. In developing countries, World Bank research shows that losses stem primarily from poor post-harvest practices, including storage and handling. In developed countries like the United States, USDA studies show that the bulk of losses occur at the other end of the supply chain, at retail outlets and restaurants and in consumers’ kitchens.
The Gates’ bet on African farmers would draw a lot of action in Las Vegas, because existing technology can go a long way in resolving both of these problems, even though it will take a substantial resources and hard work to make it happen. That proposition represents a challenge to every one of us to step up and act as responsible Global Citizens.