Published online 25 January 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.530
Corrected online: 29 January 2008


Gates funds agricultural development

Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent to revitalize African soils.

Poor soils are starving Africa.Gallo Images

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, on Friday announced a package of grants totalling US$306 million aimed at improving the productivity and profitability of agriculture in the developing world.

Most of the money will go to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which intends to improve the soils in more than 6.3 million hectares of farmland on the continent. In addition to the $164.5 million that the AGRA has received from the foundation, it will also get $15 million from the Rockefeller Foundation in New York.

Every year for the past 30 years, the average cultivated hectare in sub-Saharan Africa has lost 22 kilograms of nitrogen, 2.5 kilograms of phosphorus and 15 kilograms of potassium, causing crop yields to fall.

At the same time populations have rapidly expanded, so inherited lands have been subdivided ever more finely. The smaller plots have forced farmers to stick to growing the most efficient crop for that location — often maize — to feed their families, rather than rotating crops, which would be better for the land. The practice of leaving a field fallow has become rare; applying fertilizer is often too costly. Gradual urbanization does not help; food flows to the cities, but faeces don't flow back.

The details of how the AGRA's money will be spent to address these problems have yet to be finalized.

Experts in the field have for months believed that the Gates foundation intended to channel more money in the direction of developing world agriculture, but have only speculated about the amount involved.

Cheaper rice

The rest of the Gates handout will be split between outfits that develop micro-irrigation technologies for small-holder farmers in India, boost high-quality coffee production or milk quality in Kenya and elsewhere, and improve dairy farmers’ access to markets in Bangladesh. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Manila, Philippines, will also receive $19.8 million over three years, the largest injection of money into rice research for a couple of decades.

“This money has arrived at a key time because the price of rice has more than doubled in the past two years,” says Duncan Macintosh of the IRRI.

The newly flush institute will channel some money into the Africa Rice Center, which helps to develop rice varieties so that they are suitable for African soils. The Africa Rice Center’s work has been restricted over the past two years because civil war in the Côte d’Ivoire forced it to move to Benin. Making it possible for countries to grow more of their own rice rather than importing it at high cost will free up more money for health and education, says Macintosh.

Some of the money will be used to disseminate the flood-tolerant rice seed that was developed at the institute and is already in use in India and Bangladesh, in Africa. “We got lucky with that one,” says Macintosh. “Flood tolerance involves only one gene, so it was easier to find.”

Other funds will go towards projects looking for genes involved in salinity and drought tolerance. Cracking the problem of salt tolerance will probably be relatively simple, says Macintosh, because rice varieties that can grow in brackish water already exist. But rice is not known to grow naturally in the same dry conditions as wheat. 


The IRRI clarified after this article went to press that not all their Gates money will go to the Africa Rice Center.
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