Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates joined a top US official Tuesday in urging rich nations to invest in the world's poor farmers to help end hunger -- a move he said would also help improve food security.
"Looking at the food prices we've got -- at food insecurity and the fact that three-quarters of the world's poorest people live on small farms -- and then at the scientific advances that we can make... it's critical that we get agricultural research up and get food production up," Gates told reporters on the sidelines of a forum on agriculture in the developing world.
The effort to beat world hunger by funding agricultural development in poor countries is the second biggest program run by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation after its global health initiative, Gates said.
He urged the United States and other countries not to make further reductions in agriculture funding.
The call for better funding for agriculture comes as food prices have hit all-time highs, driving more people into poverty.
"In India, wheat prices have soared, even as wheat has seen bumper harvests in the country.
In Indonesia, meanwhile, the rapidly rising price of rice, a staple food product, "means that today, one billion people go to bed hungry every night and 3.5 million children will die of malnutrition, and those numbers are growing," said Rajiv Shah, administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) said in a speech to the forum.
The Obama administration has pledged $1.15 billion dollars to promote global food security in the 2011 fiscal year, said Shah.
Most of the money -- $900 million -- will be invested in agriculture in 12 African, four Asian and four Latin American countries in USAID's "Feed the Future" program, and another $100 million has been committed to a multilateral trust fund set up with the World Bank to promote food security.
USAID also has partnered with household-name US companies including Wal-Mart, Pepsi and General Mills to drive agricultural research in developing countries, Shah told the forum convened by the Chicago Council think-tank.
"In Central America, we partnered with Wal-Mart to source fruits and vegetables from small and medium-sized independent farmers to sell in regional markets.
"These links will eventually connect farmers to Wal-Mart's national, regional and global supply chains, creating previously unimaginable sources of demand for their crops and opportunities to scale-up smallholder plots," Shah said.
In Africa, USAID is working with General Mills "to help producers improve the quality of processed food and increasing opportunities for investment and employment."
And in Ethiopia, the United States has teamed up with PepsiCo on a pilot program focused on building the capacity of local farmers to produce chickpeas, establishing drip irrigation systems and supporting local millers, processors and packers.
The Gates Foundation has allocated $1.7 billion dollars for agricultural development, with its broad goal being to triple production in Africa and double it in parts of Asia where output is still low.
"If we can get African productivity to even two-thirds of US or European productivity, you'd be tripling African productivity," Gates said.
"That tripling is achievable over a few years, and what you get with it is more nutrition for the poorest, somewhat lower prices off these highs that we have right now, and that's great for security," Gates said.
Those targets are achievable with sufficient backing from wealthy nations and private industry, Gates insisted, but acknowledged that the push for an agricultural renaissance in the developing world comes at a bad time for donor nations facing tough budgets and debt crises.
"Foreign aid is always an easy target," said Gates.
"We need to tell people why this spending is worth it."