When Bill Gates was a teenager, 40 percent of the world was poor. Thanks to a "Green Revolution," led by researchers who revitalized crop yields by creating new seed varieties, that number dropped significantly, saving countless lives. Five decades later, Gates says it's time for a second revolution.
In his fourth annual letter, released online yesterday, the former CEO and current chairman of Microsoft laments the shortage of research on agricultural technology today, calling on global leaders to invest in innovations that will help halt poverty in developing nations—including controversial genetically modified crops.
Gates calls the lack of funding for agricultural research "shocking—not to mention short-sighted and potentially dangerous" because of food's ties to human welfare and national stability.
In the U.S. and other developed countries, mixed feelings about genetically modified crops, pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, and other agricultural advancements often pit anti-hunger advocates against one another. Among critics, concerns run high about the cost of modern agricultural practices and their toll on the environment. Advocates, like Gates, believe utilizing technology is crucial to keep millions from starving.
Gates says that resistance to these technologies is causing people in developing countries to suffer the brunt of the repercussions of climate change when they "had nothing to do with climate change happening." He points to preliminary studies that show that rising global temperatures could cut crop productivity by 25 percent. Current floods and droughts also threaten entire crops. That's where science can step in, says Gates, who cites the recent case of cassava blight in Africa. Researchers were able to insert foreign genes to protect cassava crops from two vicious diseases that were destroying farmers' livelihoods.
In the letter, Gates describes progress made thus far on global poverty. In the past 50 years, poverty levels have fallen from 40 percent to 15 percent. While that still puts the number of the world's poor at a billion, Gates says further progress is possible. He calls for tried-and-true solutions, like introducing soil management and drip irrigation to small farmers, in addition to new approaches. But none of it can happen, he says, without further investment in agricultural technology.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has devoted $2 billion to assisting poor farm families, investing in sustainable land management, educating farmers, and connecting farmers to markets. Worldwide, aid from rich countries has dropped. From 1987 to 2006, agricultural aid from rich countries to poor countries sunk by 13 percent to just four percent.
"The world faces a choice," Gates says in his letter. "By spending a relatively little amount of money on proven solutions, we can help poor farmers feed themselves and their families and continue writing the story of a steadily more equitable word. Or we can decide to tolerate a very different world in which one in seven people needlessly lives on the edge of starvation."
Lest anyone accuse Gates of proposing a silver bullet solution—or having a blind spot for GMOs' pitfalls—Gates offers a cautious perspective.
"I think the right way to think about GMOs is the same way we think about drugs," Gates said in an interview with the The Huffington Post. "Whenever someone creates a new drug, you have to have very smart people looking at lots of trial-based data to make sure the benefits far outweigh any of the dangers."
Read the full letter, which also discusses global health, U.S. education, and updates from the Gates Foundation, on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website.