Press Room




Bill Gates - 2009 World Food Prize Symposium

October 15, 2009
Prepared Remarks by Bill Gates, co-chair and trustee

Thank you very much, Ambassador Quinn, for that generous introduction. Thank you all for the honor of speaking to this distinguished audience.

Like all of you, when I made my plans to attend this symposium, I had hoped to be able to see Dr. Borlaug.

His passing is cause for sadness, but his life should make us optimistic. In the middle of the 20th century, experts predicted famine and starvation, but they turned out to be wrong – because they did not predict Norman Borlaug. He not only showed humanity how to get more food from the earth – he proved that farming has the power to lift up the lives of the poor.

It’s a lesson the world is thankfully relearning today.

I want to congratulate Dr. Ejeta for the discoveries in drought and pest-tolerant sorghum that earned him this year’s Prize. I’d like to acknowledge Gordon Conway, whose book The Doubly Green Revolution got me enthused about this work. And I’d like to recognize the researchers, policymakers, and activists who have spent their lives fighting poverty and hunger through agriculture.

The world’s attention is back on your cause.

Each of us here has come to our interest in agriculture along a different path. I would like to take a moment to explain how Melinda and I came to the work.

When we started our foundation, we agreed that our giving should be guided by our belief that all lives have equal value—that every person deserves the chance to live a healthy and productive life.

Over time, our search for the greatest leverage brought us to the most compelling challenge in development: how do you help people who live on less than a dollar a day?

They face huge difficulties. How can they get some traction, so that their daily struggle can lead to a better life?

The answer is in the work they do. Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people get their food and income by farming small plots of land. So if we can make small-holder farming more productive and more profitable, we can have a massive impact on hunger and nutrition and poverty.

Melinda and I believe that helping the poorest small-holder farmers grow more crops and get them to market is the world's single most powerful lever for reducing hunger and poverty.

Of course, the idea that better farming can end hunger and poverty is not new. It was demonstrated by Dr. Borlaug. It was honored with the Nobel Prize. It was called the Green Revolution, and it helped avert famine, save hundreds of millions of lives, and lift whole countries out of poverty.

It was one of the great achievements of the 20th century.

But it didn’t go far enough.

It didn’t go to Africa.

Africa is the only place where per capita cereal yields have been flat over the last 25 years. The average farmer in sub-Saharan Africa gets just over half a ton of cereal per acre. An Indian farmer gets twice that; a Chinese farmer, four times that; an American farmer; five times that.

The technology and new approaches that are transforming agriculture in other parts of the world can be applied in new ways, and help Africa flourish too.

Now is the time. The food crisis has forced hunger higher on the world’s agenda. From NGOs to the G8 to African Heads of State – there is a rush of new commitment.

But there is also trouble.

This global effort to help small farmers is endangered by an ideological wedge that threatens to split the movement in two.

On one side is a technological approach that increases productivity.

On the other side is an environmental approach that promotes sustainability.

Productivity or sustainability – they say you have to choose.

It’s a false choice, and it’s dangerous for the field. It blocks important advances. It breeds hostility among people who need to work together. And it makes it hard to launch a comprehensive program to help poor farmers.

The fact is, we need both productivity and sustainability – and there is no reason we can’t have both.

Many environmental voices have rightly highlighted the excesses of the original Green Revolution. They warn against the dangers of too much irrigation or fertilizer. They caution against a consolidation of farms that could crowd out small-holder farmers.

These are important points, and they underscore a crucial fact: the next Green Revolution has to be greener than the first. It must be guided by small-holder farmers, adapted to local circumstances, and sustainable for the economy and the environment.

Let me repeat that. The next Green Revolution must be guided by small-holder farmers, adapted to local circumstances, and sustainable for the economy and the environment.

The last thing anyone should do is create short-term gains for poor farmers that have long-term costs for their children.

That’s why our foundation works closely with local farmers’ groups. And that’s why we are one of the largest funders of sustainable approaches such as no-till farming, rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation, and biological nitrogen fixation.

The environment also benefits from higher productivity. When productivity is too low, people start farming on grazing land, cutting down forests, using any new acreage they can to grow food. When productivity is high, people can farm on less land.

But some people insist on an ideal vision of the environment – divorced from people and their circumstances. They have tried to restrict the spread of biotechnology into Sub-Saharan Africa without regard to how much hunger and poverty might be reduced by it, or what the farmers themselves might want.

Some voices are instantly hostile to any emphasis on productivity. They act as if there is no emergency – even though in the poorest, hungriest places on earth, population is growing faster than productivity, and the climate is changing.

According to a Stanford University study published last year in Science Magazine – if farmers in Southern Africa are planting the same variety of maize in 2030 that they are planting today, the harsher conditions from climate change will reduce their productivity by more than 25 percent.

Declining yields, at a time of rising population, in a region with millions of poor people, means starvation.

The charge is clear – we have to develop crops that can grow in a drought; that can survive in a flood; that can resist pests and disease. We need higher yields on the same land in harsher weather. And we will never get it without a continuous and urgent science-based search to increase productivity – especially on small farms in the developing world.

Right now, we are collaborating with our research partners, including the CGIAR, many national programs, and others to boost productivity by breeding new crop varieties. We’re not advocates of any particular scientific method. We support a range of agricultural techniques.

In some of our grants, we include transgenic approaches because we believe they can help address farmers’ challenges faster and more efficiently than conventional breeding alone.

Of course, these technologies must be subject to rigorous scientific review to ensure they are safe and effective. It’s the responsibility of governments, farmers, and citizens – informed by excellent science – to choose the best and safest way to help feed their countries.

Certainly, it’s essential for Africa to find a maize crop that can get higher yields in a drought. More than 300 million Africans rely on maize as their main food source. When the rains don’t come, farmers and their children go hungry.

One of our private-sector partners is now collaborating with an African foundation, an international crop improvement center, and five African countries to develop drought-tolerant maize using both conventional breeding and biotechnology.

The technologies will be licensed royalty free to seed distributors so that the new seeds can be sold to African farmers without extra charge. If the seeds perform well, African farmers can expect to produce 2 million more tons of maize in a year of moderate drought.

Of course, for small farmers, too much water can be just as devastating as too little. To support farmers in flood-prone areas – and there are millions of them in India and Bangladesh – we’re helping develop a rice variety that can survive under water for two weeks.

Crop breeders have long known about a variety of Indian rice that can tolerate submergence. In the 1980s, they tried to breed this flood-tolerant trait into rice varieties that had high-yields, but they dragged in undesirable traits along with it.

So the idea hibernated in the minds of crop breeders for 25 years until it was taken up again a few years ago – this time, aided by a technique called Marker-Assisted Selection, a much more precise method of moving a trait from one variety to another.

The breeders developed a new rice variety – called Swarna Sub 1 – and tested it in Bangladesh. A short time after planting, the floods came. When the waters receded, only ten percent of the normal rice crop was left, but the Sub1 rice flourished – 95 percent of it survived.

Maize and rice that can tolerate drought and flooding are crucial for increasing yields in hostile weather. But we also need to play defense against disease – which can wipe out a crop no matter what the weather.

We’re involved in an effort to stop a fast-moving strain of wheat rust that threatens the world’s wheat crop. Almost all existing varieties of wheat are susceptible, and our partners at 15 research institutions are using a number of approaches to breed wheat varieties that will offer farmers some lasting protection.

We need to take full advantage of these emerging technologies to develop healthy new crop varieties – and we need to make the seeds available to the small farmers who need them.

I hope that the debate over productivity will not slow the distribution of these seeds.

I also hope the debate does not obscure a crucial lesson from the past:

Developing more productive seeds is just one element of an effective strategy.

At our foundation, we take that lesson very seriously. That is why our investments in agriculture are guided by two principles:

We focus on small farmers, and we make investments across the value chain.

The first principle guides every decision we make. We see all our investments through the eyes of small farmers – will they lead to better yield, better soil, a better living, a better life?

Our approaches are customized for diverse crops, different climates, and small plots of land. We’re responsive to the needs and recommendations of the farmers themselves. And we respect the expertise of women farmers, who do most of the farming in Africa.

The second principle – the value chain – guides our overall strategy. Farmers need new seeds, of course. But they tell us they also need new tools and training; they need access to new markets to sell their surplus; and they need stronger organizations that can represent their interests.

The value chain also includes gathering data, publishing results, and supporting countries to develop smart, sustainable agriculture policies.

If we’re going to get this right, we have to get everything right.

During the mid-1990s in Ethiopia, the push to increase productivity led to bumper cereal crops in the highlands, but farmers couldn’t get their crops to distant markets. So local markets had too much food, prices crashed, and farmers suffered – while distant markets had too little food, prices stayed high, and poor people went hungry.

Market access brings balance – prices that are high enough for poor farmers to get a good income, and low enough for poor consumers to feed their families.

This is the driving idea behind our partnership with the World Food Programme. In the past, the world’s approach to food aid involved purchasing surplus from rich countries and shipping it to poor countries. In recent years, some food was also purchased from big traders in poor countries.

But WFP is now buying crops from small farmers in the same countries where the food will be eaten. They’ve already purchased 17,000 metric tons of food from small farmers, helping them build the capacity to sell even more to WFP and other buyers in the future.

Today, I’m announcing nine grants totaling about $120 million that serve small farmers and span the value chain.

The package includes funding for legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil, for higher yielding varieties of sorghum and millet, and for new varieties of sweet potatoes that resist pests and have a higher vitamin content. The grants will provide training and resources that African governments can draw on as they regulate biotechnologies – so they can make science-based decisions, customized to local conditions, about what advances will best serve farmers, consumers, and the environment.

They will also assist African governments in developing policies that specifically serve small farmers. The package will help get information to farmers by radio and cell phone, support school feeding programs supplied with nutritious food from local farms, and help women farmers in India manage their land and water resources sustainably.

This is our approach – investing across the value chain in ways that will benefit small farmers and their communities. If each effort is measured against these goals, it will keep attention focused on the human impact of the work. That is the best way to de-emphasize the ideological arguments and help poor farmers build better lives.

In this global movement, it’s crucial that everyone play a role – but Africa must lead. In 2004, the African heads of state met in Maputo and pledged 10 percent of their national budgets to agriculture. Countries from Ethiopia to Malawi to Ghana are showing the way.

Ghana has met the ten percent pledge, and its success demonstrates why others should as well. Ghana’s agriculture sector is growing at a steady rate of more than 5 percent a year. GDP is steadily rising; national poverty rates are dropping; rural poverty rates are dropping even more; and Ghana is now the first sub-Saharan country to reach the millennium development goal of cutting hunger and poverty in half.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, led by Kofi Annan, is pushing for these kinds of advances across the continent. Unfortunately, most African countries have not yet met the ten percent pledge. African leaders should hold each other accountable. Is there any reason not to find 10 percent of your budget for the highest-leverage approach to the biggest problem you face?

Rich countries have also pledged to increase their investment in agriculture. In his inaugural address, President Obama promised to poor nations that the US will “work alongside you to make your farms flourish” – and then he took a lead role as the G20 made a three-year $22 billion pledge to help the poorest farmers increase their productivity.

It’s a great thing that donor nations are focusing on this issue. But we need them to spell out clearly what the $22 billion means – how much is old money, how much is new, how soon can they spend it, and when will they do more?

Finally, we need foundations, universities, the UN, the World Bank, scientists, farmers groups, and others to intensify their support.

And we need corporations to play a larger role. Research companies can take the technologies they’ve developed for big agriculture and apply them to the needs of small farmers. They shouldn’t try to change the customer to suit what they sell; they should change what they sell to suit the customer – many different crops, fertilizer that suits different soils, seeds sold in packages of 1 kilogram, not 50. In the poorest countries, some of these products need to be royalty free, or many customers won’t be able to buy them.

Food companies can use their buying power to provide markets for small farmers. The logistics might be more complex at first, but these companies have a phenomenal opportunity to help poor farmers by turning to them as suppliers. A number of our corporate partners are making impressive contributions along these lines; we need others to join them.

In closing, I’d like to tell you about a man named Chrispus Oduori, who just last year graduated from a school we support in South Africa – the African Centre for Crop Improvement, which is crucial to our hope of training more Ph.D.s in Africa. With his diploma, Chrispus became the only plant breeder in all of Africa with a Ph.D. in finger millet -- a grain that is grown almost entirely by small farmers, is eaten by more than 100 million Africans, and has shown no significant productivity gains since the 1960s.

Today, working in western Kenya near where he grew up, Chrispus goes back and forth from his demonstration plot to the local farmers – hearing their concerns, testing their methods, adding his own ideas.

Right now, the expected yield of a finger millet farmer in Kenya is between 500 to 700 kilograms per hectare. On the fields where Chrispus conducts his research, using improved seeds and fertilizer, he gets between 2,500 to 3,000 kilograms per hectare – 4 to 6 times better.

There is no reason for so many farmers to be so hungry and so poor.

Poor farmers are not a problem to be solved; they are the solution – the best answer for a world that is fighting hunger and poverty, and trying to feed a growing population.

If farmers can get what they need to feed their families and sell their surplus, hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people can build themselves a better life.

It will take passion and focus and a sustained sense of urgency. It will take a willingness to put aside old divisions and come together behind this cause.

We have the tools. We know what needs to be done. We can be the generation that sees Dr. Borlaug’s dream fulfilled – a world free of hunger.

Thank you.


October 15, 2009
In his speech at the 2009 World Food Prize Symposium , Bill Gates urged governments, donors, and others to set aside old divisions and join forces to help millions of the world’s poorest farming families.
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