One of the most telling difference between developed and developing countries is the way they relate to food they eat. In the US, for example, less than 2% of our population grows enough food to feed us all — and then some. More than half of Indians, however, are employed in farming, yet millions don’t have enough food to eat.
The way city dwellers who’ve never even been on a farm understand the food differs, too. In the US, the average household spends 6% of its budget on food; In India, that figure is six times larger.
The difficulty of getting enough food is a daily reality in poor places throughout the world. On any given day, a billion people — 15% of the world’s population — are worrying about whether their family will go hungry.
In rich countries, the fact that people don’t have enough to eat only comes into view when we hear about a famine or natural disaster. Back when I was in high school, a popular and controversial book, The Population Bomb, woke up a lot of Americans with a frightening prediction. It said hundreds of millions of people would starve to death because there wasn’t enough food to feed the world’s growing population.
Fortunately, new seed and production technologies came along in time to help farmers in many poor countries dramatically improve their yields. This was certainly the case in parts of India, where the productivity of key crops has more than doubled since 1960, saving millions of lives and helping many nations advance from the depths of poverty. Agricultural development has been an essential component of India’s incredible growth.
But the world’s success in averting famine led to complacency. Governments in both rich and poor countries focused their attention on other issues, and the percentage of development aid wealthy countries devoted to agriculture fell by more than 75%.
Today, many poor farmers still struggle to grow enough food, while contending with new plant diseases and the consequences of climate change. That’s especially true in the parts of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa where there never were significant productivity gains.
I’m optimistic that we can solve this problem, because we’ve done it before. And we can take the lessons from previous success to make our current work even more effective in driving sustainable productivity growth for small farmers.
Working with many partners, our foundation has invested almost $2 billion to help poor farm families increase their land’s productivity while preserving the land for future generations. For example, my foundation helped fund the development of a variety of rice that can survive the flooding that destroys entire seasons’ worth of crops in India and in Bangladesh. As farmers begin to plant this new variety, they will produce enough rice to feed an extra 30 million people every year.
But the problem requires more attention and funding from traditional aid donors. The governments of wealthy nations, which have been so generous up to now, must continue to support agricultural research that has yielded such amazing returns in the past.
The benefits of these investments are manifold. Helping poor farmers grow sustainable, higher-yielding crops creates food security, which increases social and economic stability everywhere. A larger food supply and lower prices mean better nutrition for children so they can grow up healthier, go to school, and become productive adults.
As the economic crisis continues and politicians around the world start talking about cutting programmes that support the world’s poorest, we face a clear choice: On the one hand, we can invest modest amounts to continue the progress we’ve seen over the past 50 years; on the other, we can choose to tolerate a world in which one in seven people goes hungry. I’m confident that when government leaders understand the choice, and the power of the solutions available, they’ll make the first choice.
Bill Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
The views expressed by the author are personal