If you were the richest man in the world, what would you do?
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, along with his wife Melinda, decided to give most of his money away. His example inspired fellow billionaire Warren Buffet to contribute the majority of his billions, too, to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Now their combined financial forces are working on projects to alleviate hunger and poverty for the one billion people who live on less than $1 per day in poor countries around the world.
The Holy Grail of its efforts, according to Prem Warrior, senior project manager for the foundation, is to develop a super rice, since rice is the staple food for billions of people in South Asia and Africa.
Converting rice– a C3 plant with an inferior system of photosynthesis – to a C4 like corn, could be the breakthrough that would allow billions to be fed on the same land base, he said, in a presentation of the foundation’s current goals.
That’s evermore urgent, he added, because conventional rice-breeding techniques allow for yield gains of only a few per cent per year. Increasing fertilizer use, already at 300 kilograms per hectare per year in some growing regions, is no longer a solution because it has already reached the limit of its effectiveness.
In conjunction with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, the “high-risk, high-reward” C4 rice project seeks to insert genetic mechanisms which will alter the physiology of the plant to “supercharge” the efficiency of its photosynthesis.
“Some people believe that it’s stupid to do such a thing,” said Warrior, whose professional background is in the agricultural chemical industry.
“But we could probably double the productivity of rice. It’s a very ambitious project, very exciting and another example of potential innovation that we’re looking at.”
Other, more down-to-earth projects sponsored by the foundation include a rice variety that can withstand up to two weeks under water in event of a flood, and work on rust-resistant strains of wheat capable of countering the threat posed by UG99, which originated in Uganda and now threatens the breadbasket of South Asia.
To feed Africa, the Gates foundation is looking at ways to improve the fertility of the notoriously poor soil of that continent.
“Can we improve the fertilizer technology itself, perhaps with new controlled-release technologies, which could improve the uptake of fertilizers?” he said.
Africa’s poor road infrastructure means that while fertilizer at the Port of Mombasa may cost only $100 per tonne, by the time it gets inland to Malawi, it’s worth $500 per tonne.
“That’s because there are no roads available, no distribution mechanisms. The whole thing adds on tremendous costs,” he said. “Can we do some innovations with the supply chain?”
Ironically, he noted that Coca-Cola is widely available in all areas of Africa, but fertilizer is not.
“Coca-Cola, people want to drink. Fertilizer, they don’t want. So, consumer demand is also a question,” he said.
Natural methods of improving fertility are not being overlooked, however.
The introduction of legume-based cropping alternatives
is also being pursued, he added, noting that such a strategy has enjoyed good success in helping poor farmers in Brazil, where the new crops not only improved soil fertility, but also improved the diets of the farmers and their families.
Since air is 78 per cent nitrogen, there is roughly 88,000 tonnes of nitrogen directly above every hectare of cropland on earth.
“It’s the same in Africa. We can use legumes, along with the associated rhizobia, to fix nitrogen,” he said. “It’s an outstanding opportunity to improve nitrogen fixation, improve nutrition and soil fertility. All of this can be achieved with common beans.”
Another goal of the Gates foundation is to improve the efficiency of the Haber-Bosch process for converting nitrogen and hydrogen to ammonia.
Arguably the most influential discovery in human history, Warrior noted that it remains much the same as when it was first developed in 1914.
“Except for scaling it up, nothing has been done to improve it over the last 80 years.”
MIT nobel laureate Richard Schrock has developed a more efficient means of creating ammonia, that doesn’t require extreme temperature and pressure, and vast energy inputs.
“It’s a breakthrough. So now we’re working with Dr. Schrock to see if we can scale it up. He told me that the probability of success is one per cent. We told him we love it. So that’s what we are trying to do.” [email protected]