ROME — Current approaches to global agriculture are outdated, inefficient and don't give small farmers in poor countries the help they really need, Bill Gates told U.N. food agencies Thursday as he announced nearly $200 million in grants.
The Microsoft founder brought his campaign to fight poverty and hunger in Africa and Asia to a forum of the U.N. International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), one of three Rome-based U.N. food agencies.
Much of some $2 billion spent over the past five years to fight poverty and hunger in Africa and Asia by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has gone toward improving agricultural productivity.
Gates urged the U.N. agencies to commit to measurable targets for increasing agricultural productivity. He also advocated taking immediate advantage of high-tech methods — such as genomic science — to improve plant breeding.
"(The) use of such techniques can make the difference between suffering and self-sufficiency" for small farmers in developing countries, he said.
Among the projects receiving funding from Gates is one to monitor the effects of agricultural productivity on a region's population and environment. Other grants will build on existing projects, including the release of 34 new varieties of drought-tolerant maize and delivering vaccines to tens of millions of livestock.
Gates has embraced high-tech — and to some critics controversial — solutions for boosting agriculture, including supporting genetic modification in plant breeding as a way to fight starvation and malnutrition.
"When Melinda and I started our foundation more than a decade ago, we initially focused on inequities in global health. But as we spent more time learning about the diseases of poverty, we realized that many of the poorest people in the world were small farmers," Gates said. "The conclusion was obvious. They could lift their families up by growing more food."
The foundation, which he co-chairs with his wife, is based in Seattle, Washington.
In his speech, Gates said the foundation estimated that small farmers in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa can "double or almost triple their yields, respectively, in the next 20 years — while preserving the land for future generations."
The impact of these productivity increases would "translate into 400 million people lifting themselves out of poverty," he contended.
Gates called on the U.N. agencies to create a "global productivity target" for small farmers and to make public scorecards to measure how countries, food agencies and donors are contributing toward the goal of reducing poverty.
Gates told his audience that the "No. 1" criterion should be whether subsistence farmers can grow enough for their own families.
On a broader basis, Gates said Africa should be a net exporter of staple crops, not a food importer.