“In total, only $3 billion per year is spent on researching the seven most important crops. This includes $1.5 billion spent by countries, $1.2 billion by private companies, and $300 million by an agency called the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR),” the letter states, and this, says Gates, is not enough.

Gates says another area where scientists need to do a lot more study is the effects of climate change on agricultural productivity. He says there are varieties of rice and other crops that can deal with the higher temperatures and weather variations better than today’s plants, and that some plant varieties actually benefit from the increased carbon dioxide levels.

“There is no clear data on how significant this will be. Early greenhouse studies were very promising, but field studies have shown much smaller effects. The world must invest in a variety of techniques to help poor farmers deal with weather impacts better than they can today,” he says.

Gates adds there are reasons to believe that the chronic underfunding of research in agriculture is starting to change, however, and that there will be more breakthroughs in the future. He points to what he calls a revolution based on a better understanding of plant genes.

“The field of agriculture is just now in the process of figuring out how to take advantage of these tools, but it’s clear that they will greatly accelerate the pace of plant research. It is hard to overstate how valuable it is to have all the incredible tools that are used for human disease to study plants,” the letter reads.

The lengthy annual letter is mostly dedicated to advancing agriculture research, including genetic engineering and plant breeding, and argues that increased investment into agriculture research is necessary to the success of “feeding the multitudes” in the years ahead.

As the USDA, prompted by Congressional demands to cut federal spending, culls the number of its research centers nationwide, Gates is calling for reason and forward thinking at a time when agricultural advancement holds the keys to the world future.

Gates’ letter can be found online at http://www.gatesfoundation.org/annual-letter/2012/Pages/home-en.aspx.