Bill Gates on climate change, CGIAR and adapting to a warmer world

Climate change is going to force us to consider entirely new needs.

CGIAR is the world’s largest agricultural research group: In short, it helps create better plants and better animal genetics. It was at a CGIAR lab in Mexico that Norman Borlaug did his groundbreaking work on wheat, sparking the Green Revolution. Other CGIAR researchers, inspired by Borlaug’s example, developed similarly high-yielding, disease-resistant rice, and in the following years the group’s work on livestock, potatoes, and maize has helped reduce poverty and improve nutrition. 

CGIAR will be indispensable in creating new climate-smart crops and livestock for the world’s poor farmers. One of my favorite examples is its work on drought-tolerant maize. Although maize yields in sub-Saharan Africa are lower than anywhere else in the world, more than 200 million households there still depend on this crop for their livelihoods. And as weather patterns have become more erratic, farmers are at greater risk of having smaller maize harvests, and sometimes no harvest at all. 

So experts at CGIAR developed dozens of new maize varieties that could withstand drought conditions, each adapted to grow in specific regions of Africa. At first, many smallholder farmers were afraid to try new crop varieties. Understandably so. If you’re eking out a living, you won’t be eager to take a risk on seeds you’ve never planted before, because if they die, you have nothing to fall back on. But as experts worked with local farmers and seed dealers to explain the benefits of these new varieties, more and more people adopted them.

The results have been life changing for many families. In Zimbabwe, for example, farmers in drought-stricken areas who used drought-tolerant maize were able to harvest up to 600 more kilograms of maize per hectare than farmers who used conventional varieties. (That’s 500 more pounds per acre, producing enough to feed a family of six for nine months.) For farming families who chose to sell their harvests, it was enough extra cash to send their children to school and meet other household needs. CGIAR-affiliated experts have gone on to develop other maize varieties that grow well in poor soils; resist diseases, pests, or weeds; raise crop yields by up to 30%; and help fight malnutrition.

And it’s not just maize. Thanks to CGIAR’s efforts, new types of rice that can tolerate drought are spreading rapidly in India, where climate change is causing more dry spells during the rainy season. They’ve also developed a type of rice—cleverly nicknamed “scuba” rice—that can survive underwater for two weeks. Generally, rice plants respond to flooding by stretching out their leaves to escape the water; if they’re underwater long enough, they expend all their energy trying to escape, and they essentially die of exhaustion. Scuba rice doesn’t have that problem: It’s got a gene called SUB1 that kicks in during a flood, making the plant dormant—so it stops stretching—until the waters recede.

CGIAR isn’t just focused on new seeds. Its scientists have also created a smartphone app that allows farmers to use the camera on their phones to identify specific pests and diseases attacking cassava, an important cash crop in Africa. It’s also created programs for using drones and ground sensors to help farmers determine how much water and fertilizer their crops need. 

Poor farmers need more advances like these, but to provide them, CGIAR and other agricultural researchers will need more money. Agricultural research is chronically underfunded. In fact, doubling CGIAR’s funding so it can reach more farmers is one of the main recommendations by the Global Commission on Adaptation, which I lead along with the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the former World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is money well spent: Every dollar invested in CGIAR’s research generates about $6 in benefits. Warren Buffett would give his right arm for an investment that paid off six to one, and saved lives in the process.

Aside from helping smallholder farmers raise their crop yields, our commission on adaptation makes three other recommendations related to agriculture: 
Help farmers manage the risks from more chaotic weather. For example, governments can help farmers grow a wider variety of crops and livestock so one setback doesn’t wipe them out. Governments should also explore strengthening social-security systems and arranging for weather-based agriculture insurance that helps farmers recover their losses. 

Focus on the most vulnerable people. Women aren’t the only group of vulnerable people, but they are the biggest. For all sorts of reasons—cultural, political, economic—female farmers have it even harder than men. They may not be able to secure land rights, for example, or have equal access to water, or get financing to buy fertilizer, or even be able to get a weather forecast. So we need to do things like promoting women’s property rights and targeting technical advice specifically for them. The payoff could be dramatic: One study by a UN agency found that if women had the same access to resources as men, they could grow 20% to 30% more food on their farms and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12% to 17%. 

Factor climate change into policy decisions. Very little money is funneled into helping farmers adapt; only a tiny sliver of the $500 billion that governments spent on agriculture between 2014 and 2016 was directed at activities that will soften the blow of climate change for the poor. Governments should be coming up with policies and incentives to help farmers reduce their emissions while growing more food at the same time. Climate change is going to force us to consider entirely new needs.

Read full Bloomberg Green article here

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