DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Gates Foundation, which has donated $1.5 billion to agriculture in developing countries, is focusing more investments on seeds and technology to help small farmers adapt to climate change, the foundation's chief executive said on Thursday.
"Most of our grants support conventional breeding. But in certain instances we include biotechnology approaches because we believe they can help farmers confront drought, flooding, disease, or pests more effectively than conventional breeding alone," Jeff Raikes, chief executive of the foundation started by the billionaire founder of software giant Microsoft, said in a speech to the World Food Prize meeting.
Raikes cited recent funding for a project to develop drought-tolerant corn for African farmers, which is now being used in Malawi and other countries. Other grants have helped develop a variety of rice that can tolerate submergence so that farmers won't be wiped out by floods.
Gates Foundation, which focuses on aid to small farmers, is working on multiple fronts to address the problems that climate change is making for developing nations.
"We've known for years that farmers were going to have to contend with harsher weather, but now we're getting a clearer idea of the scale and scope of the crisis," Raikes said.
"The places that will suffer the most severe weather -- the volatile temperatures, the changing patterns of rainfall, the droughts and the floods -- are the same places where the poorest farmers live. Their very survival will depend on their ability to adapt to climate change."
In sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture accounts for about two-thirds of employment and one-third of total economic output, according to the Gates Foundation. In South Asia, rural poverty rates hover near 40 percent.
Raikes said development of crop varieties to resist pests, diseases and drought were vital but the climate crisis had sharpened focus on one practical issue: water scarcity.
Rivers in China are drying up. Groundwater levels in India are dropping rapidly. And yet, because of rapid population growth, urbanization, and changing diets, the global demand for water is on pace to double in just 50 years," Raikes said.
"Without drastic changes, demand is going to outstrip supply in the areas where the poorest farmers live."
Given the growing crisis, Raikes said it was necessary for both the private sector and governments to resist cutting aid for developing countries' agriculture despite recessions.
"We need to remain vigilant in these tough economic times to make sure that donors follow through on their pledges. Budget pressures are threatening the progress we've been making," Raikes said. "The G20 countries pledged $22 billion last year, but this year it looks unlikely that they'll meet their pledges."
(Reporting by Christine Stebbins; Editing by Peter Bohan and Cynthia Osterman)
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