Around the world, more than 800 million people often do not have enough food to eat – and many of those are farmers. Three-quarters of the world’s poorest subsist by farming small plots of land, about the size of a football field. These smallholder farmers face often tremendous hurdles: unproductive soil, plant diseases, pests and drought, problems that will intensify with climate change. Each of these challenges can cripple crop yields, preventing farmers from growing the most nutritious varieties of staple crops.

At the foundation, our goal is to reduce hunger and poverty for millions of families across Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by increasing agricultural productivity. But with all the challenges smallholder farmers face, how do we know where to begin? Fortunately, that part is simple: We listen to the farmers. We focus on the crops they want to grow and the innovations they want to build a better life.

We believe the world’s poorest farmers should be able to choose from the full range of innovations and modern farming methods the world has to offer, and that’s why the Gates Foundation invests in a range of solutions to help farmers increase their agricultural productivity, cope better with climate change and produce more nutritious crops. Genetically modified crops is one of those solutions.

One of the biggest challenges farmers face in Sub-Saharan Africa is the threat of viruses or diseases that can destroy their crops. Farmers in Uganda, for example, rely heavily on cassava as a staple crop for feeding their families and earning an income, yet this crop has been devastated by Cassava Brown Streak Disease and Cassava Mosaic Disease, often wiping out a family’s entire harvest.  Partners in Uganda and Nigeria are working to develop new, locally-adapted varieties of cassava, with support from our foundation into research to limit the effects of both diseases using genetic modification techniques.

We’re also supporting the development of nutritionally enhanced varieties of cassava, banana and rice to combat micronutrient deficiencies that can have lifelong negative effects on children, such as the Banana21 project.

In many situations, agricultural researchers can find solutions for farmers using conventional crop breeding techniques, but in some cases, genetic modification is the most effective approach to help farmers cope with pests and disease. For example, the papaya in Hawaii was almost wiped out in the 1990s by the ring-spot virus, until scientists successfully developed a transgenic papaya that is virus resistant, helping save the fruit and the livelihoods of Hawaiian farmers.

Whether the product of advanced technology or more traditional means, all solutions – from GMOs to improved soil fertility management – should be available to farmers, so that they can choose the methods that work best for them and their families. Along with promoting greater access to markets and designing supportive government policies, ensuring all farmers have the full range of tools at their disposal will help us reduce hunger and poverty around the world. 


This article is published in collaboration with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Christopher J. Elias is President, Global Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Image: Seaweed farmer Nyafu Juma Uledi tends her crop in tidal pools near the village of Bwejuu on Zanzibar island, Tanzania, December 2, 2007.REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly