Bill Gates centre-stage at IFAD: Imagining a different future for agriculture

For a billionaire and former entrepreneur, Bill Gates is pretty candid about the limits of capitalism.

His perspective comes across as entirely apolitical. It’s an objective fact, he suggests, that markets will always fall short on research and development benefiting the world’s poorest people, most of whom are subsistence farmers. Investors simply calculate that the returns on smallholder farming are too slow and the risks too high.

Instead of helping the poor, says the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, technological innovations in agriculture tend to enhance the lives and livelihoods of those who are already well off.

Earlier today, Gates shared this viewpoint – and many more – at IFAD headquarters in Rome. As a centre-stage guest at the agency’s Governing Council of UN member states, he made a brief speech and a took part in a Q&A exchange moderated by broadcast journalist Isha Sesay. Before an audience representing governments, development agencies and farmers’ organizations, he repeatedly stressed the urgency of bridging the investment gaps in sustainable small-scale agriculture.

“Investments in agriculture are the best weapons against hunger and poverty,” said Gates. To measure their impact, he advocated a new system of public “scorecards.” As Gates sees it, such scorecards would make governments and their partners accountable for meeting productivity targets in the smallholder farming sector – and for directing agricultural resources to those who need them most.

“A different future”
Even before Gates arrived at IFAD, the 2012 session of the Governing Council had seen its share of luminaries. Yesterday’s session featured the President of Rwanda, the Prime Minister of Italy and the Vice President of Liberia. This morning, the Italian Minister for International Cooperation delivered a keynote address. Ministers of Agriculture from several countries have also participated.

Gates brought a different kind of energy to the proceedings. At 56, the Microsoft founder and global philanthropist retains some of the tousled quality of the teenage computer genius he once was. At IFAD, he seemed more comfortable speaking off the cuff about technology than reading from a prepared text. No one is likely to mistake him for a career politician.

Appearances aside, Gates was forceful and occasionally challenging in his comments. He praised the heads of the Rome-based UN food and agriculture agencies as “an exciting new generation of leaders.” At the same time, he urged them to be more coordinated in revitalizing an “outdated and somewhat inefficient” world food system.

With increased international attention now focusing on agricultural issues, he said, “we have the opportunity and the obligation to imagine a different future.”

Adapting to climate change
Ideally, of course, that future will be a time when smallholder farmers are able to sustainably increase food production, lift their families out of poverty and preserve the land for generations yet to come. To get there, Gates said, they will need access to innovations such as drought- and flood-tolerant seeds, micro-irrigation systems, and vaccines for livestock.

He noted, too, that smallholders must share in “the digital revolution” in agriculture – from DNA sequencing of plant genomes to satellite imaging of crop yields, and even the use of video to broaden the scope of rural extension services.

“When you put the right tools in farmers’ hands, the results can be magical,” said Gates. In fact, small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa could nearly triple their crop yields in the next 20 years with the right interventions, according to Gates Foundation research.

During the Q&A session, Gates returned to this topic, adding that the basic strategies for the future of productive small-scale agriculture would be the same even if farmers didn’t have the added burden of adapting to climate variability. “Climate change increases the urgency,” he said. “But the right things to do for agriculture are constant.”

Linchpin of development
Just before taking centre-stage at the Governing Council, Gates had joined IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze to sign a statement of intent for an expanded partnership between the Gates Foundation and IFAD.

The two organizations are already co-financing more than $180 million in agricultural development projects. Today’s statement will accelerate their joint efforts to improve rural livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The statement reflects a growing realization that food security is a linchpin of sustainable development and poverty reduction. As Gates said at IFAD, “More productive small farmers are the key to achieving the Millennium Development Goals on hunger and poverty. If you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture.”

It’s a timely message for 500 million smallholder farmers who produce 80 per cent of the food in the developing world. The future they imagine – a future of health, nutrition, education and dignity for their families – will only come about through concerted action on the issues raised so provocatively by Bill Gates in Rome.

Watch the recorded webcast here: