Chennai: Microsoft Corp. founder and philanthropist Bill Gates urged governments and businesses around the world to revive their slumping support for farm research to stoke food production that can help reduce the death of children from poor families and curb debilitating price rises.
In his fourth annual letter as the co-chair of the 18-year-old Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he commended the Indian government for celebrating its first polio-free year earlier this month.
“The challenge in India was mind-boggling,” Gates wrote. “It’s hard to imagine how you would design a polio campaign that reached every Indian child. More than a billion people live in the country. Massive numbers of families migrate constantly to find work.”
Explaining the challenges faced by the Indian government, Gates gave the example of the eastern flood-prone state of Bihar where the vaccine didn’t work well amid malnourishment, diarrhoea and other illnesses among children.
A file photo of Microsoft Corp. founder and philanthropist Bill Gates.
“But the government kept raising awareness and improving the quality of its campaigns, even in the toughest locations,” said Gates. “The Indian government deserves special credit for this achievement.” He said that it is now key to keep polio-free regions from getting reinfected.
“It is important to prevent a relapse,” said Priyanka Singh, chief executive of Seva Mandir, which works on education, health and women’s empowerment in rural Rajasthan. “But we have to also realise that the government’s focus on one or two diseases has led to missing out others like diphtheria, tetanus, tuberculosis and malaria.” Gates, rated by Forbes in 2011 as the world’s richest man after Mexico’s Carlos Slim, started writing the annual note in 2009 on advice from his friend Warren Buffett.
The Berkshire Hathaway Inc. founder, a Gates Foundation trustee and a top donor himself, is ranked the third wealthiest person globally. Buffett writes a much-awaited annual letter peppered with anecdotes to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway.
Gates, who has committed close to $1 billion to health and development projects in India, said the renewed focus on agriculture was needed because more than one billion people live in extreme poverty. “Knowledge about managing soil and tools like drip irrigation can help poor farmers grow more food today,” said Gates, whose foundation has committed close to $2 billion to boost the productivity of poor farm families, largely led by women. “But we won’t advance if we don’t continue to fund agricultural innovation, and I am very worried about where those funds will come from in the current economic and political climate.”
The problem is exacerbated by statistics that point to the decreasing focus on agriculture in the developed and developing worlds. Agricultural aid fell from 17% of all aid from rich countries in 1987 to 4% in 2006, the philanthropist said. In total, only $3 billion per year is spent on researching the seven most important crops.