The technology behind the first “Green Revolution” in agriculture, during the 1960s and ’70s, focused on boosting crop yields, to help feed growing populations and spur economic growth in Latin America and Asia. But that revolution wasn’t all that green in the 2009 sense of the term, relying heavily on chemical fertilizers and increased irrigation. Now Bill Gates, Microsoft (s MSFT) founder and uber philanthropist, wants to help accelerate a second green revolution in agriculture — again boosting yields, but this time paying more mind to the environment and turning to some technologies that could help deliver a truly sustainable movement.
At the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa today, Gates announced that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $120 million in nine new grants to organizations and research partners (including $15 million for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa), to work on the effort, focusing primarily on small-scale farming in sub-Saharan Africa. In his speech Gates called for an end to the ideological division over the future of agriculture: “Productivity or sustainability — they say you have to choose. It’s a false choice,” he said. Rather, we need farming techniques that are both environmentally responsible and highly productive, and technology will help bridge the gap, he said.
Today’s grants are being awarded for projects including distribution of legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil and pest-resistant sweet potatoes, training for African governments to “draw on as they regulate biotechnologies,” help for women farmers in India to manage land and water resources sustainably and programs to deliver information to farmers via radio and mobile phones. The awards come as part of the $1.4 billion that the Gates Foundation has committed so far for agricultural development efforts — promoting techniques such as no-till farming (explained in the video clip below), rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation.
The Gates Foundation has drawn criticism, as the Seattle Times points out today, for focusing too strongly “on technology solutions and higher yields, a path that risks repeating the mistakes of the original Green Revolution.” But a growing number of firms, including startups and small companies, are working on a new wave of agricultural tech that could play an important role in a real green shift.
Climate change is raising the stakes for agricultural tech as the world population grows and the amount of arable land shrinks. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, farmers will have to deal with “increased potential” for extreme events like droughts, floods and heat waves,” and “enduring changes in climate, water supply and soil moisture could make it less feasible to continue crop production in certain regions.” More mouths to feed, plus less arable land and changing rainfall patterns, means growing demand for tech that lets farmers do more with less.
Venture capitalist David Anthony, founding partner of 21Ventures and a frequent co-investor with Quercus Trust, thinks that “aeroponic farming,” or farms in urban environments that use technology like LEDs to grow crops, will find a growing market. His firm invested in Aero Farm Systems, a New York-based startup that develops tech-heavy urban farming processes. In general, Anthony thinks that advanced farming techniques are an under-invested area where his firm sees promise.
A slew of companies are also working on smart water management technology, and some of them could extend to agricultural applications. PureSense, for example, uses soil moisture sensors and sends data via wireless networks to irrigation control systems.
Other companies are helping small-scale farmers bring their surplus foods to market using technology and the broadband age. Take FarmsReach, a California startup that won the audience choice award at our Green:Net conference in March. The 2-year-old company has developed a web marketplace to make it easier for buyers, such as restaurants, hospitals and schools, to order produce from nearby farmers, and for farmers to manage their sales and deliveries.
FarmsReach has been designed with the U.S. food system in mind, but other iterations — perhaps utilizing mobile devices for areas without ready computer or broadband access — could be useful elsewhere. Gates spoke to that need today, urging food companies to “buying power to provide markets for small farmers,” although, “the logistics might be more complex at first.”
Of course, the farmers and communities that the Gates Foundation is seeking to serve with these grants need low-cost solutions, and much of the technology emerging from startups right now still has a ways to go on the cost curve. As Pacific Institute co-founder Peter Gleick put it at this year’s Clean-Tech Investor Summit, “It’s entirely possible to create brilliant water technology that the places that need it the most can’t afford.” So we second the call from Gates for a “greener” revolution, with an extra nudge for startups to put technology to work for small farmers and the planet.
Photo credit Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation