One of the world's richest men has issued a challenge to the world's richest nations on the eve of meetings that will unite agricultural superpowers against the challenge of increasingly volatile global food prices.
"It's decision time," said Microsoft co-founder-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates, outlining his case for increased government investment in South Asian and African agriculture programs designed to boost the viability of small farms in the world's poorest nations.
Mr. Gates' speech at a Chicago Council on Global Affairs' symposium was his first major address on agriculture to high-level members of the Obama administration. Over the past five years, the philanthropic foundation named for Mr. Gates and his wife, Melinda, and fuelled by the fusion of their fortune to Warren Buffett's, has spent $1.7-billion in pursuit of food security by helping small farmers in struggling nations.
"It may sound like a lot - but against the need, it's not," Mr. Gates told his audience, which included U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Rajiv Shah, the country's top aid official. "The scale of opportunity means no one can do it alone - it demands the full participation of donor countries and national governments."
That includes Canada, which won a mention in the speech for showing leadership on global food security issues last year when it joined the launch of the Global Agricultural and Food Security Program, a $925-million initiative sponsored by the foundation and the U.S., Spain, South Korea, Ireland, Australia and Canada. As of April 30, 2011, only 45 per cent of the money pledged had been received by the fund, which will dole out grants next month to needy countries with sustainable agriculture proposals. The U.S. is the leading laggard, having only contributed $66.6-million of the $475-million it committed, according to the GAFSP.
While Canada has disbursed the full $230-million pledged, Mr. Gates' implication was that all nations who say they are committed to combatting global hunger and poverty through agricultural advances need to sharpen their focus and renew their commitments in an era of widespread cutbacks.
In Canada, global food security has been identified as a top priority at the Canadian International Development Agency, which disburses foreign aid. Nonetheless, aid contributions have been slowing: The Conservative government's 2010 budget outlined $1.8-billion in cuts to planned foreign assistance by 2014-15. Official assistance to Africa, the continent most in need of agriculture-related development assistance to combat malnutrition and hunger, has also been scaled back in recent years as Canada shifted its list of priority recipients to more Caribbean and Latin American nations.
Namanga Ngongi is president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an organization started by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan devoted to boosting food security in Africa by facilitating sustainable growth on smallholder farms and the top recipient of Gates foundation agriculture funding. Although his organization gets some money from Canada's International Development Research Centre, it has been working hard to convince Canadian government officials it is worthy of CIDA funding.
He said G20 countries have failed to understand that making significant investments in Africa's on-farm productivity - and pressuring their comrades to do the same - will reduce the need to "put out fires" that arise from political and food-related instability.
"The African productivity in agriculture is so low that just a marginal investment in improving productivity can lead to huge changes in the production levels," he said. "There are good indications that African agriculture can become the leader in the future in terms of growth and in terms of potential."
That, according to Mr. Gates, is indication that African farmers are a good investment.
"A fiscal crisis shouldn't become a crisis of courage - and it should not force cuts in programs that pay huge returns," Mr. Gates said. "When the benefits are this clear, fiscal sanity means you spend the money."
Alliance aims to reduce food insecurity by 50 per cent in at least 20 countries
What is the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa:
Started by former United Nations' Secretary General Kofi Annan, AGRA works across sub-Saharan Africa to facilitate the sustainable development of smallholder farms, many of which are run by women and produce much of Africa's food with little government support or technology.
Development of smallholder viability is critical to solving issues around hunger, poverty and malnutrition in Africa. The widespread transfer of agricultural techniques and technology that occurred over a 30-year period during last century, and is now referred to as the Green Revolution, is widely credited with improving standards of living for millions of people in the developing world. The wave skipped Africa, which is now ripe for its own Green Revolution.
AGRA has three objectives with a 2020 target. The organization, run by a former president of the UN World Food Program, aims to reduce food insecurity by 50 per cent in at least 20 countries, double the incomes of 20 million smallholder families, and put at least 15 countries on track to attaining "a uniquely African Green Revolution: one which supports smallholder farmers, protects the environment and helps farmers adapt to climate change."
AGRA is the largest recipient of grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with a startup grant of nearly $165-million jointly funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Other donors include the United Kingdom Department for International Development, Canada's International Development Research Centre, Denmark's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Howard Buffett Foundation.