Gates Foundation on fighting the food crisis: 'Magic seeds' and drought-resistant chickens

Corn prices spiked earlier this year as the Russian invasion of Ukraine made the cornerstone crop more difficult to get. The crisis was particularly acute in areas of the world that needed it most, including sub-Saharan Africa — a region that relies on importing $23 billion of food a year.

And by 2030, according to a new report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one-third of sub-Saharan Africa’s corn will be vulnerable to extreme heat that could slash yields.

The Gates Foundation Goalkeepers report also details ambitious solutions to help Africa, and other vulnerable regions, grow more of their own food.

“We have the tools and technologies to do that,” Mark Suzman, the foundation’s chief executive, told Yahoo Finance (video above). “That could actually help address the problem and turn these food-importing countries that often face starvation into robust, self-sufficient countries that can actually be exporters.”

FILE PHOTO: A hawker prepares a cob of corn at his makeshift shop in Soweto, South Africa January 27, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/File Photo
A hawker prepares a cob of corn at his makeshift shop in Soweto, South Africa January 27, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/File Photo

The sixth-annual Goalkeepers report focuses on two of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): food security and gender equality. In 2015, 193 countries laid out 17 goals to achieve by 2030. That progress is lagging on almost all of them, but Melinda French Gates and Bill Gates write that they are encouraged by past success in the battle against HIV as an example of the triumph of human ingenuity.

“We believe it’s possible that one day we will look back at the data in this report the same way we look at the AIDS data from the turn of the millennium: in disbelief at how quickly and dramatically things turned around," the report states.

'Magic seeds' and drought-resistant chickens

The foundation have funded corn crop researchers in Africa for more than a decade, and the report touts the promise of what Bill Gates calls “magic seeds” to help alleviate world hunger.

“Of course,” he writes, “the seeds weren’t actually magic, but by breeding select varieties of the crop, the researchers believed they could produce a hybrid maize that would be more resistant to hotter, drier climates. They succeeded wildly.”

That kind of agricultural technology is being put to work in other areas of the world, including India. Suzman said there are also opportunities in livestock development: The foundation has partnered with the government of Qatar to fund drought-resistant chickens to provide to farmers, providing a source of food as well as more sustainable livelihood.

(The 2022 Goalkeepers report)
(The 2022 Goalkeepers report)

The report also examines the potential for predictive modeling as climate change triggers increasingly more erratic and volatile weather patterns.

“Those are tools that are just coming online,” Suzman said. “We're helping create them as public goods, but they need to be accelerated and scaled. And we think that is because it is a little bit of an arms race, you know, climate change is getting worse and more challenging. But we think we can get ahead of that curve with these investments.”

On the gender equality side, the report finds that giving women digital financial tools was more successful than handing out physical money.

“Mobile payments give women more control over their money than a cash payment — because when money is deposited directly into her own online account, it’s harder for her husband or anyone else to claim it for themselves," Melinda French Gates stated in the report.

In Uganda, for example, the report finds, women who received digital microfinance loans re-invested the money into their business, earning 15% higher profits than those who got cash loans.

As of the end of 2021, the Gates Foundation had committed $6.7 billion to nearly 1,400 organizations.

Julie Hyman is the co-anchor of Yahoo Finance Live, weekdays 9am-11am ET. Follow her on Twitter @juleshyman, and read her other stories.

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