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Bill Gates: Technological Innovation Would Help Solve Hunger

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Gates pointed to the war in Ukraine and the pandemic as the main causes for the worsening hunger crisis

New York, Sept 13: Bill Gates says the global hunger crisis is so immense that food aid cannot fully address the problem. What’s also needed, Gates argues, are the kinds of innovations in farming technology that he has long funded to try to reverse the crisis documented in a report released Tuesday by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Gates points, in particular, to a breakthrough he calls “magic seeds,” crops engineered to adapt to climate change and resist agricultural pests. The Gates Foundation on Tuesday also released a map that models how climate change will likely affect growing conditions for crops in various countries to highlight the urgent need for action.

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In assigning technology a pre-eminent role in addressing the world’s food crisis, Gates puts himself at odds with critics who say his ideas conflict with worldwide efforts to protect the environment. They note that such seeds generally need pesticides and fossil fuel-based fertilizers to grow.

Critics also contend that Gates’ approach doesn’t address the urgency of the crisis. Developing “magic seeds” takes years and won’t immediately deliver relief to countries currently enduring widespread suffering because they rely on food imports or are experiencing historic droughts.

It’s a debate that could intensify international pressure to meet the shared goals for global prosperity and peace, known as the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, ahead of a 2030 deadline. The 17 goals include ending poverty and hunger, battling climate change, providing access to clean water, working toward gender equality and reducing economic inequality.

“It’s pretty bleak relative to our hopes for 2030,” Gates, 66, said in an interview with The Associated Press. He added, though, “I’m optimistic that we can get back on track.”

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Gates pointed to the war in Ukraine and the pandemic as the main causes for the worsening hunger crisis. But his message to other donors and world leaders convening for the UN General Assembly this September is that food aid won’t be enough.

“It’s good that people want to prevent their fellow human beings from starving when conflicts like Ukraine interrupt the food supply,” Gates writes in the new report. But the real problem, he says, is that many food insecure countries don’t produce enough of their own food — a problem sure to be exacerbated by the consequences of climate change.

“Temperature keeps going up,” Gates said. “There is no way, without innovation, to come even close to feeding Africa. I mean, it just doesn’t work.”

As he has for more than 15 years, Gates called for investment in agricultural research, highlighting corn seeds that thrive at higher temperatures and in drier conditions than other varieties. Those seeds were developed under a programme of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation to which the foundation has given $131 million since 2008.

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Since then, the Gates Foundation has spent $1.5 billion on grants focused on agriculture in Africa, according to Candid, a non-profit that researches philanthropic giving. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is by some measures 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. Forbes estimates his net worth to be around $129 billion.

The foundation’s spending on agricultural development is why Gates’ view on how countries should respond to food insecurity has taken on heightened importance in a year when a record 345 million people around the world are acutely hungry. The World Food Programme said in July that tally represents an increase of 25% from before Russia invaded Ukraine in February and a 150% jump from before the pandemic struck in the spring of 2020.

Mark Suzman, CEO of the Gates Foundation, defends its approach warning that limiting access to fertilizers means farmers cannot increase their yields.

Melinda French Gates, the other co-chair of the Gates Foundation, highlighted in a separate letter the halting progress toward gender equity worldwide. Since January, the foundation has expanded its board, adding six new members to help direct its work, a move that followed the announcement of the Gateses’ divorce last summer.

French Gates has agreed to step down after two years if the two decided they could not continue to work together. French Gates, who also founded an investment organization called Pivotal Ventures, was not available for an interview.

Gates said he is lucky that his former wife has continued to put her time and energy into the foundation. In July, Gates said he would contribute $20 billion to the foundation in response to the significant setbacks caused by the pandemic, raising its endowment to approximately $70 billion.  (AP)

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