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Bill Gates finds fertilizer fascinating


• Bill Gates extols the value of fertilizer. • “A few billion people would have to die if we hadn’t come up with fertilizer,” • “…it is shocking—not to mention short-sighted and potentially dangerous—how little money is spent on agricultural research.”

Fertilizer. It’s not the most scintillating of conversation starters, not something one would bring up to impress a young lady on a first date, perhaps. It’s not the first thing one would think of when sitting down to a fancy meal in one of Dallas’ finest restaurants. And one would be foolish to believe fertilizer would concern a mother shopping for blue jeans or tee-shirts for her children.

But perhaps it should be. Bill Gates believes so.

Yeah, that Bill Gates, the one responsible for the computer system that we alternately praise and curse, depending on which version we have at the moment and how familiar we are with how it works. That Bill Gates, the one with more money than Croesus and considered by some to be one of, if not the, most important figures in recent history.

Bill Gates extols the value of fertilizer.

“A few billion people would have to die if we hadn’t come up with fertilizer,” he told CBS’ Charlie Rose Sunday night on “60 Minutes.”

The conversation turned briefly to fertilizer, following a comment by Mr. Gates’ wife, Melinda. A partial transcript of the conversation:

Melinda Gates: But the great thing is Bill will go read an entire book about fertilizer. And I can tell you even without three kids in the house, I’m not going to read a book about fertilizer.

Charlie Rose: So what is it about a book about fertilizer? I mean seriously?

Bill Gates: Well, fertilizers are very interesting.

Bill Gates: We couldn’t feed — (a few) billion people would have to die if we hadn’t come up with fertilizer.

That puts fertilizers in a more interesting light than most folks would think. Gates also thinks agriculture is very interesting and a topic that gets far less attention than something as important as providing food deserves. In his annual letter he called on the United States and other developed nations to take agricultural research more seriously.

In that letter he wrote:

“Farming is a great example of something critical to the poor that gets very little attention in rich countries. Back in the 19th century, the majority of people in the United States worked in agriculture. Now less than 2 percent of the workforce is involved in farming, and less than 15 percent of U.S. consumer spending goes to food. Farming issues rarely make the news. The exceptions are when food is contaminated, when government subsidies are being debated, or when there is a famine like the current one in the Horn of Africa.”

He added that food-related issues remain important and that new challenges are emerging that test the gains made by the “Green Revolution,” that prevented the dire predictions of widespread starvation proposed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Over the past decade, demand for food and food prices have risen. Gates said climate change threatens food production. And many developing nations already face consistent food shortages.

Those challenges, too, can be met, he said. But achieving food-production goals will demand more focus on agriculture research. “…it is shocking—not to mention short-sighted and potentially dangerous—how little money is spent on agricultural research. In total, only $3 billion per year is spent on researching the seven most important crops.”

That’s not enough.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donates significant amounts of money to help poor people around the world, but to accomplish the goals of empowering those people to feed and clothe themselves, they need tools to improve food production. That means learning how to grow more on fewer acres. That means research—including studies on fertilizer.


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Discuss this Blog Entry 4

travis janak (not verified)
on May 15, 2013

Then Bill must be aware of our impending domestic phosphorus supply problems that no one seems to talk about.

Mikkelsen (not verified)
on May 21, 2013

You should be aware that the concern about peak phosphorus has been dismissed by more accurate reporting of the global P supply.

The U.S. Geological Service and the International Fertilizer Development Agency have published extensively on the new data, but they are not widely reported.

Here is one key reference:‎

This does not mean that efforts should not focus on enhanced eficiency, recycling, and recovery, but it is not a looming crisis. Like every material that is mined from the earth, efforts should be used to use it wisely.

on May 23, 2013

We need to focus on improving our soil. With improved soil carbon and OM, we can greatly increase the availability of the nutrients in the soil, increase the water holding/retention capacity, and the overall productiveness of the soil.

on Jul 5, 2013

Getting Bill Gates' attention to the importance of fertilizer---and other aspects of improving crop yield---may help stimulate interest in getting more resources directed to production agriculture. With less that 2% of the US population directly involved in farming, and with many of the important research needs not directly tied to marketable input products or technology, it is hard to get the clout needed to stimulate the investment in many key research projects.

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