Bill Gates Sets His Sights On Small Farms

Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates has had lots to say on technology, and a growing amount to say on malaria and other health problems in Africa. But last week, he made his first major address on agriculture, a field in which he has been quietly building up his investments.

Gates spoke at the 2009 World Food Prize, an award created two decades ago to honor work like that of Nobel laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug. This year, the award went to Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, an Ethiopia native and now a professor at Purdue University who was recognized for developing drought-resistant hybrids of sorghum, a key grain in sub-Saharan Africa.

That’s important work, to be sure, but there is much more to be done to achieve food security in the Third World. So Gates, through his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced that he is awarding $120 million to nine institutions around the world for agricultural research aimed at helping small farms grow more food. Just as with Borlaug’s work, not everybody is going to like the projects that Gates is sponsoring because they involve some tinkering with plant biology to improve yields. But when Gates starts targeting money at an issue, it pays to pay attention.

Gates says in his address, which I’ve excerpted below, that productivity and sustainability are not incompatible. For the full video, and a transcript, go to the Web site of the Gates Foundation.