Bill Gates has called for greater investment in engineered crops that can adapt to climate change and resist agricultural pests, in an effort to solve world hunger.
In the latest annual Goalkeepers Report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates says the global hunger crisis is so immense that food aid cannot fully address the problem.
What’s also needed, he argues, are innovations in farming technology that can help to reverse the crisis.
Gates points in particular to a breakthrough he calls ‘magic seeds’ – including maize that has been bred to be more resistant to hotter, drier climates, and rice that requires three fewer weeks in the field.
These innovations will allow agricultural productivity to increase despite the changing climate, he argues.
However, he claims that the research and development budget for new innovations like magic seeds is still much too small compared to spending on food aid.
‘It’s good that people want to prevent their fellow human beings from starving when conflicts like Ukraine interrupt the food supply, but we also have to recognise that those crises are symptoms of a deeper problem,’ Gates says in the report.
‘Many countries don’t grow enough yet, and climate change is making farming even harder. That challenge can’t be solved with donations. It requires innovation.’
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest private foundation in the world and is best known for its work on global health, including vaccines.
It began in its current form in 2000, after Gates left his CEO position at Microsoft, the tech giant he co-founded.
The foundation has invested heavily in farming technology, including a type of corn seeds that thrive at higher temperatures and in drier conditions, known as DroughtTEGO.
The seeds were first developed under a program of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, to which the Gates Foundation has given $131 million since 2008.
Since then, the foundation has spent $1.5 billion on grants focused on agriculture in Africa, according to Candid, a nonprofit that researches philanthropic giving.
Gates points to the potential of predictive modelling – using artificial intelligence to process the genome sequences of crops along with environmental data and conjure up a data-based vision of what farms will need to look like in the future.
‘From this computer model, researchers can identify the optimal plant variety for a particular place. Or they can do the reverse: pinpoint the optimal place to grow a specific crop,’ he explains.
The technology is still in its early stages, but similar predictive models – which anticipate where farms might be hit by an invasive species or crop disease, for example – have already seen huge results.