Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Announces $120 Million in Grants for Agriculture

A major U.S. foundation is giving $120 million in grants to nine organizations to help small farmers in developing countries.

"Helping the poorest smallholder farmers grow more crops and get them to market is the world's single most powerful lever to reduce hunger and poverty," said Bill Gates, founder of the Microsoft Corporation and co-chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

He spoke at an international symposium on food and agriculture in Des Moines, Iowa, October 15.

The Gates Foundation funding will support research for improved varieties of legumes, sorghum, millet and sweet potatoes.

The funding will also provide resources that African governments can draw on as they regulate biotechnology and develop methods that benefit small farmers, such as distributing information to them by cell phone and radio.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa said it will receive $15 million in Gates Foundation funding to help farmers in Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Mozambique and Tanzania strengthen their policymaking capacity through training. The alliance will use part of its funding to bolster research institutes and establish databanks to support policy development.

Another destination of the Gates Foundation money is school feeding programs supplied with locally grown foods. Women farmers in flood-prone India also have been singled out for help in managing their water resources.

The new commitment from the foundation adds to the $1.4 billion the Seattle-based charitable organization has previously committed to agricultural development.

Gates said that "many environmental voices have rightly highlighted excesses of the original Green Revolution," like the overuse of fertilizers and irrigation.

Improved grains that were developed during the 1960s and 1970s saved millions from starvation in Asia.

Gates urged scientists, farmers and environmental groups to overcome their differences in the debate over productivity and sustainability.

"The fact is, we need both productivity and sustainability, and there is no reason we can't have both," Gates said. "We have to develop crops that can grow in drought, that can survive a flood, that can resist pests and disease. We need high yields on the same land in harsher weather," he said.

He said the way to increase productivity, especially on small farms, is to use more science-based research, adapted to local circumstances and sustainable for the economy.

Briefing reporters the following day in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said fighting hunger and increasing agriculture-led economic growth are a U.S. priority.

"We want to help small farmers worldwide produce more food," she said. "Biotechnology has a critical role to play in increasing agricultural productivity, particularly in light of climate change," and "it can help to improve the nutritional value of staple foods."

At the same briefing on World Food Day, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the use of biotechnology is one strategy for more sustainable agriculture, but traditional sustainable farming practices also should be promoted.

The symposium was sponsored by the World Food Prize.

Read the transcript of a conference call hosted by Clinton and Vilsack to discuss food security on World Food Day.