May 24, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

The Importance of Innovation

Bill Gates came to the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security with a confession.  “I’ve never been a farmer,” he said.  “Until recently, I rarely set foot on farm.”

Farmer Gates, no.  But Innovator Gates, certainly.

So this was one of his messages to a standing room crowd.  In ending hunger through agriculture development, innovation is the key.

First, the challenge:

“Right now,” he said.  “the average farmer in sub-Saharan Africa gets just over a ton of cereal per acre.  An Indian farmer gets twice that; a Chinese farmer five times that; an American farmer seven times that.  Why is there this huge disparity?  Farmers in other regions have tools and techniques and resources that African farmers do not.  By offering farming families in Africa and South Asia those advantages, the least productive farms can come closer to the most productive.”

“How,” he asked, “can the world help the poorest farmers grow and sell more?  The key is in innovation – combining the best of what’s worked in the past with new breakthroughs, customized to the needs of small farmers.

“Innovation in seeds brings small farmers new high-yield crops that can grow in a drought, survive in a flood and resist pests and disease.

“Innovation in markets offers small farmers access to reliable customers.

“Innovation in agriculture techniques helps farmers increase productivity while preserving the environment – with approaches like no-till farming, rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation.

“Innovation in foreign assistance means that donors now support national plans that provide farming families with new seeds, tools, techniques and markets.  This approach is reducing overlap and keeping developing countries in the lead.”

Innovation needs good ideas, and money.  Here, Gates said, “The U.S. has a pivotal role to play in helping farming families lift themselves out of poverty and hunger.  At the same time, of course, we have a big budget deficit and foreign assistance is an easy target for reduction.  We need to tell people over and over why this spending is a good investment, why it’s worth it even in tight economic times.”

First, he said, “these investments are going to countries committed to change.”

“The second reason agricultural investments are worthwhile,” he added, “is that farming is a business.  As you provide poor farmers business assistance through new tools and technology and access to markets and capital, it allows them to move to self-sufficiency with the help of market forces.”

“The third reason agricultural development is a smart investment is how effective it is.  In country after country, these approaches have improved the livelihoods of small farmers while reducing poverty and increasing economic growth.  It’s proving the point again and again: helping poor farming families grow more crops is the world’s single most powerful lever for reducing poverty and hunger.

These comments from Bill Gates, whose foundation with his wife Melinda has committed $1.7 billion to help farming families over the last five years, suggest again, as we’ve often said in this column, that we have arrived at a moment of potential opportunity that shouldn’t be squandered.  The budget crisis, he suggested, shouldn’t be reason for the U.S. to cut back on its promises to increase agriculture development aid, to scale back its Feed the Future ambitions.

“This is the first stage of sweeping change for farming families in the poorest parts of the world,” Gates said.  “We have an historic chance to help people and countries move from dependency to self-sufficiency – and fulfill the highest promise of foreign aid.  In the past we’ve invested aid in Brazil and India and South Korea, and they are all now dynamic actors in the global economy – some even joining to help provide aid to others.  This is our hope for the countries of Africa and South Asia as well.”


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Cruising down I-80 in the summer is one of the most wondrous, and paradoxical, drives in the country.

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The first 1,000 days of a child's life is a critical time for development, where nutrition--and stability--lay the foundation for a lifetime. 

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Outrage and Inspire with Roger Thurow - Am I About to Lose My Second Child, Too?

The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.

Roger Thurow on SDG 2.2

Roger Thurow sat down with Farming First to talk about the individual and societal consequences of malnutrition. 




Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

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The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

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