Double agricultural research to help world's poorest: Bill Gates

Wed Jan 25, 2012 3:45pm EST
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By Luke Baker

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The world needs at least to double its spending on agricultural research if it is to produce reliable crops and improve the lives of the one billion people who battle starvation every day, Bill Gates said in an interview on Tuesday.

A day before flying to Davos to meet political and business leaders, Gates said he was concerned the austerity drive in Europe could lead to a fall in foreign aid spending, setting back the fight against poverty, hunger and disease.

While acknowledging the difficulties policymakers in the richer world face at a time of slumping growth, the world's second wealthiest man said now was the time to invest in research and development.

"The big choice is whether the crisis in the rich-country governments will cause them to stop increasing the aid that's been so key to reducing disease, improving food availability for the poorest, and bringing down the number who suffer from AIDS or malaria or malnutrition," Gates told Reuters in Brussels, where he met EU officials.

Referring to agricultural research, he said it was shocking - as well as short-sighted and potentially dangerous - that only $3 billion is spent each year on seeking to improve the seven most important staple crops on which the poor depend.

"The number should easily be double what it is," Gates said of research spending while underlining there had been an increase in investment by the private sector.

"Capitalism always has a challenge that research is not funded as well as it should be. That is, that the innovator can't capture enough of the benefit to society. So they tend to be risk-averse, and that's why basic research - medical basic research, agriculture basic research - has to be funded by governments."

European governments have been among the most generous in providing aid - more than half the world's aid spending comes from European or EU-level budgets - but there is no guarantee it will go on rising during the economic downturn.   Continued...

<p>A Kashmiri woman carrying fodder for her cattle on her head walks on a cold day in Srinagar January 4, 2012. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli</p>