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Nothing improves an economy as efficiently as agriculture, the Microsoft founder says

Investing in agriculture is essential if the fight against world poverty is to succeed, according to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who spoke at an International Agriculture and Food Security Briefing sponsored by Farmers Feeding the World, a Farm Journal Foundation Initiative, and the Senate Hunger Caucus.

"It’s been proven that of all the interventions to reduce poverty, improving agricultural productivity is the best. All the other different economic activity—yes it trickles down. But nothing as efficiently as in agriculture," Gates said to a packed conference room in the U.S. Senate office building.

Several congressmen and many staff attended the briefing, along with key influencers in agricultural policy. The event offered a rare chance to hear from Gates himself about his foundation and its work in agriculture.

"I want to talk about why investments in agriculture make such a big difference in the lives of the poor," Gates said. "Our agriculture program has become one of our biggest, and it’s one of our fastest growing. That’s because we’ve seen huge results, and without it we don’t see a way of achieving our goals, where kids can be healthy, their brains can fully develop, and they can have a chance to live a normal life.

"Most of the poor people of the world are farmers—farmers with very small plots of land, who have to deal with a great deal of uncertainty because they don’t know what their yield is going to be, and in many years they are making just enough—or not even enough—to have the food that they expect."

Read on to see more of what Gates had to say.

The Green Revolution: A Model for Success

"There is a history of success here. Certainly the green revolution is one of those unbelievable stories that’s quite exciting. I was down in Mexico at CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) a couple months ago. They were putting in a Norm Borlaug statute down there, talking about how they are carrying on in the spirit of his work, to help everyone in the world put in high-productivity crops.

"That revolution certainly saved hundreds of millions of lives. But it’s a revolution that’s not yet complete. And if we take the world as a whole, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was a shift away from agriculture, not focusing on what still had to be done. And particularly if we look at Africa, because of the breadth of eco-systems there, this green revolution, this increase in productivity, is not noticeable at all.

"You take that history of yield chart, and not only are they at a very low level, but they are essentially staying at that level. So it’s time for a renaissance of the green revolution. Obviously we learned a lot in the first green revolution about sustainability, use of agriculture, making sure it reaches out to the very poorest farmers. This time around, as we redo what was done well, we can do it in an even smarter way.

"The metrics here are pretty simple. About three-quarters of the poor who live on these farms need greater productivity, and if they get that productivity we’ll see the benefits in income, we’ll see it in health, we’ll see it in the percentage of their kids who are going off to school. These are incredibly measurable things.

"The great thing about agriculture is that once you get a bootstrap—once you get the right seeds and information—a lot of it can be left to the marketplace. This is a place where philanthropy and government work, and market-based activity, meet each other."

Increasing Investment in Research

"It’s been proven that of all the interventions to reduce poverty, improving agricultural productivity is the best. All the other different economic activity—yes it trickles down. But nothing as efficiently as in agriculture."

"Our agricultural program has a number of aspects. A fair bit of it is in the upstream area. We’ve become one of the larger funders of the CGIAR system. Places like CIMMYT do really unbelievable work. And given the impact of their work, and the importance of the work, we’ve all got to be disappointed that funding is not even at peak levels. It’s come off from the peaks of a long time ago, and it needs to be renewed. In particular, given the opportunities of taking the genetic revolution and various digital approaches that track productivity and look at genotype and phenotype information, we have to dedicate ourselves to upgrade the tools and the skills that are in those centers, so that they are benefitting from the latest science.

"A lot of the research is done here in the United States. It’s research on things like wheat rust, productivity, and various stresses like drought management. Many of these things are going to be beneficial throughout the globe. Stopping wheat rust is not just a benefit for the poor, it’s a benefit for wheat farmers in middle income and high income countries. I think we’ve lost track of the public goods here, whether it's coming from the research centers or from the universities. We are under-investing.

"That’s always a challenge in capitalism—innovation is under-invested in, and particularly innovation on behalf of the poorest. So all of us with our voices, and this is certainly one of the goals of the foundation, must not only fund agricultural research, but encourage others to do that as well.

"Of course just developing new seeds is not enough. You’ve got to get into the countries and look at the policies, the land policies, the Extension policies, the research policies, the acceptance of GMO techniques. And make sure every one of those things is managed in a very strong way. There’s a lot of research, a lot of benefits, that’s not getting out to the farmers who need it.

"The U.S. traditionally has played a key role in agriculture research. It has played a key role in food aid. What we see in the numbers, though, is that agricultural research has been flat-lined. The PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) report went through and looked at how that affected not just the poorest countries but everyone, and talked about a need to increase that investment.

"The leverage of that investment will be particularly strong because of new advances, new digital approaches. In fact, just recently the foundation announced an initiative with the Department of Agriculture about open data for agriculture. [We are taking] what’s called cloud techniques, or big data techniques, and gathering together all the information—whether it’s understanding which policies work, how to direct crop breeding activity, or the genotype, phenotype information data basis. [We want] everybody leveraging everybody else’s work to move forward here."

Funding a Better Future

"I’m very optimistic that we can increase productivity. One of the ways that all of us can renew our commitment to this is going down and seeing firsthand how U.S. investments are making a difference in the lives of small-holder farmers. My wife last year went to Tanzania. The [trip] happened to be led by Sen. Graham. It was pretty amazing, even for Melinda, who has been involved in this for a long time, to go out and meet the farmers and talk to them about what they were going to do as they got more productivity.

"One woman had a new maize variety supported by the U.S., and what she had seen is that it had doubled her income. And everyone there was looking around and seeing that she had to walk three miles a day to get water. No electricity, no transport. So they were very curious to ask her what she was going to do now that she had this additional income. And she had a very straight-forward answer: invest in her children’s education so they would have an even better future.

"So when you hear the kind of impact this stuff can have, the scale that it’s needed, I think we all get very dedicated to this work. So I’m glad to be here and thank you for your commitment to this cause, and hopefully we can recruit more resources both in the U.S. and around the world to move even faster."

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