Seed Money: Behind the Gates Foundation Big Agricultural Grant to Cornell

Solving the food security problems in developing countries is a challenge. The theoretic equation seems relatively simple: better fertilizer + more productive crops = higher crop yields. According to the Gates Foundation, using this simple equation could result in the doubling of African crop yields—theoretically, anyway. If this simple theory holds, it will go a long way toward helping to solve global food insecurity problems.

But new knowledge and breakthroughs are still needed in this area, which is where an $18.5 million Gates grant to Cornell University comes in. 

The grant allows Cornell scientists to streamline the breeding of staple crops in developing countries including wheat, rice, maize, sorghum, and chickpea, and also supports the university’s Genomic and Open-Source Breeding Informatics Initiative (GOBII). GOBII will work alongside CGIAR (formerly known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) to develop a plant database and software tools regarding plant genotypes and phenotypes.

The database will be available to farmers to help guide them in their decision making from identifying which crops they should plant to analyzing which specific plant breed is best suited for their specific needs. And yes, the project involves the use of GMOs.

Bill Gates has already intimated that GMOs are one possible solution to food insecurity and that by using seeds that not only been genetically modified to be more drought and disease resistant, but more nutritious and productive, could result in high productivity and a greater variety of food. This in turn, allows farmers to sell their bumper crops to buy other food their families may not otherwise have been able to afford, like eggs, milk, and meat.

Related: How the Gates Foundation Supports Food Security in Insecure Countries

Of course, Gates has been criticized for proselytizing the benefits of GMOs in developing countries or otherwise. Gates has brushed those criticisms off, stating:

It’s important that the poor countries that have the toughest time feeding their people have a process, just like they have for medicines. In terms of injecting people and taking drugs, they’ve done a good job making sure that those things are tested and go through a regulatory approval process. The same type of thing should be true for new food products, no matter what technique is used to create them. There should be an open-mindedness, and if they can specifically prove their safety and benefits, foods should be approved, just like they are in middle-income countries.

The Gates Foundation’s $18.5 million give to Cornell isn’t so much about selling the benefits of GMOs to poor farmers in developing countries. Rather, it’s more about farmers using the information gathered by GOBII and CGIAR so they can farm more efficiently, with crops that have both better breeding lines and breeding values. That’s the theory anyway.

Considering the foundation doled out over $234 million to agricultural projects around the world last year, giving Cornell $18.5 million to test what looks like promising theory seems like a pretty safe bet for Gates.