OOn Sept. 25, 2015 at New York’s United Nations Headquarters, 193 leaders from around the world committed to ambitious targets and objectives to eliminate poverty and fight injustice and to fix climate change by 2030. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are now at half-way point. This is largely because of the convergence of conflict, climate change and Covid 19.
According to the annual Goalkeepers report published today by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world would need to speed up progress five times as fast to make the 2030 deadline. It may sound like a depressing prognosis, write Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates in the report’s introduction, but they add that there is real hope and opportunity in innovation. “Human ingenuity can render our careful projections irrelevant and make our boldest aspirations seem timid.”
On the eve of the report’s release, TIME spoke with Bill Gates about the next steps. The key message, he said, is prioritizing Africa despite the combined strains of the post-pandemic economy, climate change, and the war in Ukraine: “Because it is about millions of lives, [Africa] is more critical now than ever.”
TIME: Some countries are facing famine because of the disruptions in food supply chains worldwide caused by war in Ukraine. Your report notes that the maize crop in Africa—responsible for one third of the continent’s calories—could be reduced by 25% by the end of the decade due to higher temperatures. Climate change is a greater threat than ever.
Gates: Heat is your enemy If you get above a certain temperature, your maize productivity will drop a lot. You will eventually need to switch to sorghum if you are really, really hot. [a high-protein cereal grain]The ability to deal with extremely high temperatures is what evolved into the. We now face both population growth and climate change. This was brought about by wealthy countries, but it is much more severe for poor subsistence farmers.
How can we combat it?
Of course, you have to provide food aid, but that isn’t the solution. You’ll just be back providing food aid again and again because of population [growth]Climate and [change]. Therefore, it is imperative that Africa becomes self-sufficient. The African country’s food production is only 25% of the level that rich countries (including the U.S.) can achieve. That’s tragic because Africa should be a net food exporter as the cost of land and the cost of labor is very low. If you don’t have a credit system [to buy better seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides], and you don’t educate farmers—both men and women farmers—then you don’t get this extra productivity. These farmers would reap the benefits of having access to the right materials.
If donations aren’t the solution, what is?
Better seeds are the first step. The Green Revolution is what we want [a crop science intervention that transformed Asian agriculture in the 1970s]Africa. We say we care about climate adaptation, yet we haven’t fully funded the research [on climate-adapted seeds], and we haven’t funded the education of farmers. It’s a tragedy.
How can we get higher quality seeds using technological innovation?
I’ll give you two that are probably a decade off. You can increase the efficiency of photosynthesis.ScienceA magazine cover featured work that we had funded and showed 20% improvement. [in soybean yields]. That’s a very promising area, although it will take time. Leguminous crops are another option. [beans, peas, and lentils] including soybeans that work with fungi and bacteria in the soil to create their own nitrogen—their own fertilizer. So we’re taking that leguminous nitrogen fixation pathway and moving it into other crops including rice, wheat, maize, sorghum, and millet; that looks very promising.
That sounds promising, but you are talking about transgenic modification—GMOs. It is something that many consider taboo. Is it possible to overcome this hesitation and ensure better future food supplies?
Some of these seeds actually aren’t full GMO. Some of them use what’s called gene editing, which is no different than normal crossbreeding. In the case of leguminous, you take genes from soybeans and move them. [into other plants]It will therefore be subject to high standards of regulation, which we are fine with. If climate change threatens starvation and malnutrition, those areas should examine the safety record. Just like vaccines—at some point you’ve got to say “Okay, we have the safety data, we don’t want to starve, so let’s go ahead.”
How about immediate solutions?
Some things are more immediate, however. For example, we need to avoid cassava diseases spreading across Africa. Cassava is a root crop that you only pull out when there’s an emergency, like in a year where you have bad weather. However, severe malnutrition can occur if the root crop is infected. [We have developed]A technique known as RNA interference is used to stop cassava mosaic diseases.
The UN General Assembly meets on September 19, and NYC Climate Week begins in NYC. Is there one thing that global leaders must do in order to reduce climate-related impacts on the developing world’s environment?
Many of those living in poverty are farmers. They have very little land, but they don’t have much capital. It is important to get them weather data to know when and how to plant. Also, mapping the soil is essential to determine what fertilizer they should use.
Smaller and less developed countries that have been most severely affected by climate change are calling for climate finance as well as loss and damage payment. Is this the fairest and most efficient way of doing it?
I must admit, with all the financial pressures on European budgets from the conflict in Ukraine (in terms of defence costs and electricity costs) it is difficult to maintain a commitment for climate adaptation and Africa aid in particular. [is not easy]. Stability in Africa is good. If countries aren’t functional, they won’t spot outbreaks that can lead to pandemics. An important part of unrest in Syria was the farming crisis. [that led to war]. The war showed that the mass migration is troubling, even if you didn’t care about people in Syria, which of course we should.
What responsibility does it take for wealthy countries to finance the efforts of developing nations to combat climate change?
In ideal world, rich countries should give 0.7%. [their]GDP [to fund climate adaptation]. It’s not a gigantic sacrifice. It is important to concentrate our assistance on countries with low incomes, especially on agriculture, which has the potential for creating a huge problem. Innovation is a very exciting area. One piece of R&D can benefit millions of farmers. That’s pretty dramatic for both health and agriculture. So, if we can’t fund the CG system [a scientific group that develops climate-adapted, public domain seeds for poor farmers]For 2 billion [dollars] a year, as well as the downstream piece which is helping countries adopt those seeds, then it won’t look like we’re at all serious about climate adaptation. [Right now] I look at that CG funding number and say, “Are we serious about adaptation or do we just like meetings?”
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