Bill Gates: ‘We’re in a Worse Place Than I Expected’

Well, it’s always fascinating to see that the varieties of maize that you use in the United States, they keep marching north. But eventually you get hot enough that you can’t even use maize. Maize is very temperature sensitive. You can reduce that only somewhat.

Unfortunately, there are other crops like sorghum that evolve to be way more heat tolerant, but of course, we haven’t done our magic improvement on a lot of those African crops, like sorghum. They call them orphan crops.

They haven’t gotten the innovation attention other crops have, you mean.

Maize is No. 1, in terms of improvement, then you have rice, then you have wheat and then soybean, then you drop way down to all of the things that are particularly important to Africa.

Farming is the outdoor-weather-dependent thing that humans do. And if you can’t work outdoors, if you’re drying up the soils, and sadly, there’s this cycle where you dry up the soil, then when you do get lots of rain, the soil’s not able to absorb that rain, so you get terrible runoff.

And so it’s weird when people say, “What are you talking about? Are you talking about drought or floods?” Sadly, we’re talking about high, high variance weather that leads to both drought and floods. I mean, look at that map of Pakistan. It’s just crazy. Nobody expected that. The weirdness of the weather induced by climate change over the last five years has been far worse than was predicted.

Given your interest in innovation, it’s striking to me that, when you write about possible solutions in this report especially, it seems you’re placing less emphasis on new breakthroughs. In a lot of cases, you say, we already have very good seeds, for instance. Instead, you’re emphasizing the problems with adoption, which is more of a political, social and economic challenge. In your view, why has that proved so difficult? If we have new crop varieties that can thrive under even punishing conditions, why has it been so hard to really deliver them into the hands of the most vulnerable farmers in the world? And what can we do differently, to make sure that advances in the lab make a difference in mitigating these worst impacts of climate change?

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