KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Amid global unrest over food security, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said Sunday it was forging a new effort to support agricultural research projects in Africa and Asia aimed at helping small farmers increase crop yields and farm incomes.
The Gates Foundation, which is already a force in agricultural research and development in Africa, said it would donate $70 million to a new collaboration that will focus on addressing threats to food production in the developing world, including crop diseases, pests, poor soils and harsh weather.
The Gates Foundation has a long history in agricultural development, spending over $2 billion for projects in developing countries.
The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) is partnering with Gates and will contribute $32 million over the next five years to the effort.
Gates officials said the money will go toward scientific research that helps farmers produce more and better food.
The partnership comes as escalating food prices are putting millions at risk of hunger and malnutrition and threatening economic and social stability throughout the world.
World Bank data released this month showed higher food prices — mainly for wheat, corn, sugars and edible oils — have pushed 44 million more people in developing countries into extreme poverty since June 2010.
World Bank chief Robert Zoellick said this month that global food prices have reached “dangerous levels,” and warned that the impact could complicate fragile political and social conditions in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Through the collaboration, Cornell University is receiving $40 million to continue its work to develop wheat varieties that are resistant to emerging strains of stem rust disease, such as Ug99, which are spreading out of East Africa and threatening the world’s wheat supply.
Wheat represents approximately 30 percent of the world’s production of grain crops and nearly half of that production will be harvested in developing countries.
The Ug99 disease is particularly deadly to many popular varieties of wheat, and scientists around the world are racing to find a solution.
“The Ug99 and related strains of the rust fungus are really pretty dangerous on most of the world’s wheat,” said Gates Foundation senior program officer Kathy Kahn. “It is an urgent problem.”
But the work has drawn critics who charge that the Gates Foundation and its private sector partners, including biotech crop leader Monsanto Co, are pushing to industrialize agriculture and commercialize genetically engineered crops in Africa at the expense of small farmers and the environment.
Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by Lisa Shumaker