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Gates Foundation CEO: We need ‘smarter tools’ to fight world food crisis

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss easing the food crisis through agriculture technology, fighting world hunger, the effects of climate change on crops, and the benefits of technology on crop growth.

Video Transcript

JULIE HYMAN: The war in Ukraine contributing to food shortages worldwide, forcing millions of people around the world to resort to food aid programs. A new report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation says there are enough resources to make all parts of the planet food self-sufficient. Mark Suzman, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, spoke to me and Akiko Fujita.

MARK SUZMAN: Essentially, what the report says and notes-- because we, around the date-- it's a very challenging time, as you know, for food security. The inflation of food prices has meant dramatic shortages, particularly in developing countries across Africa and Asia. And what you see is, then, many tens of millions of people being thrust onto food aid, needing aid simply to stay alive.

And the report says, actually, that shouldn't be the case. It's very possible to have all parts of the planet, including Africa, be food self-sufficient and actually become food exporters, which has broader economic growth prospects as well. But to do that, especially in the context of severe climate change, you need to have smarter tools. And the most important ones are crops that are going to be more drought and flood-resistant because we know these countries are already facing these.

And so we cite some examples of both corn in Kenya and rice in India, which are able to grow in much tougher conditions, that these need to be scaled rapidly. And we have the tools and technologies to do that, and that could actually help address the problem and turn these food-importing countries that often face starvation into robust food self-sufficient countries that can actually be exporters.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, Mark, it's fascinating to read about some of those examples that you gave. It makes me think to what extent is climate change going to fundamentally change the type of food that we eat but, also, how well-equipped are developing countries, especially, to keep up this kind of research. Is that on the private sector, or is it the government that needs to pick up the load?

MARK SUZMAN: Well, it's both. Actually, the most important agricultural research group is a global group. It has a really complicated acronym called CGIAR. But it's basically one that the US, and the Gates Foundation, and others are among the key funders which invests around a billion dollars a year in exactly these things.

Because these are global public goods. Crops that can grow in Africa or Asia can also grow in the US, or in Latin America, or [INAUDIBLE]. It's just that Asia, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa happen to be the two places that are being most affected by climate change, even though they contributed least to the greenhouse gases that caused it. But the global research that can locate these public goods should come from these-- and that's a mixture of universities, academic institutions, private sector partners and related groups working across key crops like maize, corn, wheat, rice, but also some of these crops that we don't really eat in the United States like cassava or millet but are actually really important staple crops in many countries in Africa, and Asia, and Latin America.

JULIE HYMAN: Mark, as the report points out, part of the challenge, too, of climate change is it's not as though climate change happens and then every season after that is more wet. It's that you really get this volatility in weather and unpredictability. So it's not just about growing the right seeds, right? It's about trying to figure out what is going to happen.

Are we getting better at doing that? And how do we get better at doing that?

MARK SUZMAN: Yeah, that's a great point. And so one of the tools that we have-- and actually, this is something that gets used commercially in the US and is starting to be-- is using what we call adaptation atlases, where you use digital soil health mapping from satellite health mapping that actually analyzes at a granular level the chemical composition of the soil, which we now have the technology to do anywhere on the planet. And that allows you to have a much more customized thing saying, in these climate conditions, here's a more customized fertilizer combination you can use that uses less fertilizer in a smart way.

Here's exactly the kind of crop or the kind of seed that will be most responsive in that soil. And by doing that, you can actually massively improve productivity and the resilience of the crops. And so those are tools that are just coming online. We're helping create them as public goods and putting them-- but need to be accelerated and scaled. And we think that is.

Because it is a little bit of an arms race. The climate change is getting worse and more challenging. We have some data in the report that shows, say, on the continent of Africa, that's where 30% of our crops will be affected by heat stress on a regular basis by 2030. But we think we can get ahead of that curve with these investments and some of the additional surround supports.

Because you've then got to create a better market to take up and purchase the crops. It is, also, interestingly-- we don't talk about in the report, but there are opportunities to do more drought-resistant livestock. We've been part of doing something which is a term I hadn't used before called dual-use poultry, but where we've been working to develop-- and we actually have a partnership with the government of Qatar-- that's investing in these drought-resilient chickens which actually are more likely to survive in droughts and provide eggs and meat, and so provide that income-- in this case, for women farmers, who are more likely to farm chickens.

And so there are lots of those kinds of opportunities.

BRAD SMITH: And that was part one of Akiko and Julie's interview with Mark Suzman, who is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's CEO.