Gates Pours Cash Into Agriculture
– Hayley Birch, Nature Biotechnology 27, 1064 (2009)
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced $120 million in grants to promote sustainable agriculture, a move intended to spur another Green Revolution, this time tailored to the needs of the poorest farmers. The Foundation will support crop research and agricultural projects that increase productivity and food security in low-income countries. The nine new grants announced in October, which will focus on homegrown crops from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, include $18 million for developing high-yielding varieties of sorghum and millet, $21 million for developing stress-tolerant sweet potatoes and $19 million to improve nitrogen fixation in legumes, such as soybean and cowpea.
“The foundation believes that helping the poorest smallholder farmers grow more and get it to market is the world’s single most important lever for reducing hunger and poverty. We’re taking a comprehensive approach-from investing in improved seeds to supporting effective farm management practices,” says Lawrence Kent, senior program officer for the Gates Foundation’s agricultural development initiative. Kent adds that biotech will be used where it has the potential to help farmers confront drought, flooding, disease or pests faster or more effectively than conventional breeding alone does-roughly 5% of the total funds. Seeds developed through foundation-supported research will be licensed royalty-free to seed distributors so that they can be sold to African farmers without extra charge.
Although better known for its investments in health, the Gates Foundation has donated over $1.2 billion to agricultural development efforts since 2006 as part of its ongoing global development program, with a third of those funds designated for “science and technology.” One of the current grantees is the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), based in Nairobi, Kenya, which last year launched its $48 million public-private partnership project, water-efficient maize for Africa, to develop new varieties of drought-tolerant maize. Field trials are expected to start next year. St. Louis-based Monsanto, one of the project partners, is providing germplasm produced by conventional breeding, as well as a molecular breeding platform and drought-resistant transgenes.
“If we were to start from zero, without any materials that had been bred and focused towards drought, normal plant breeding would take about ten years. Here we are getting materials which are already almost proven,” says AATF’s executive director, Daniel Mataruka.