If you look at the historical investment in The Gates Foundation’s investment in Agriculture, the land acquisition paints a much deeper picture of how Gates Ag One may be a catalyst for developing new ways to produce food in the U.S. 

In the past two months, I’ve noticed that farmers, producers, authors and agricultural industry professionals can’t stop talking about The Land Report’s announcement that Bill Gates owns  268,984 acres of premium farmland across the U.S. The Land Report’s deep dive into the Gates landholdings via Cascade Investments (and its subsidiary Cottonwood Ag Management) quickly sparked interest in mainstream media (Forbes, Geekwire, Hypebeast) and it trickled through agricultural trade publications. It had achieved full-blown conspiracy theories and attacks on character by the time it reached social media). 

Bill Gates Isn’t the Largest Owner of American Farmland – Canada and Five Foreign Countries Are

I think it’s important to note that Gates isn’t the largest owner of farmland in the U.S., foreign countries are. Six countries own over 28.3 million acres in America valued at $52.2 billion

  1. Canada owns 6.87 million acres; 
  2. The Netherlands owns 4.87 million acres; 
  3. Germany owns 1.94 million acres; 
  4. the United Kingdom at 1.7 million acres; 
  5. Italy with 1.4 million acres 
  6. and France with 1.04 million acres. 

According to the US Department of Agriculture, that number is increasing (as of 2018 total land owed was estimated at over 32  million acres). For decades, other countries have bought U.S. farmland and limiting foreign acquisition of U.S. farmland has been a huge challenge. What’s even more interesting is that the purchase of U.S. farmland was to grow crops. According to the Midwest Center’s analysis of foreign land ownership, countries are buying it for timber and renewable energy.

What is 268,984 acres compared to 1.04 to 6.87 million acres? In the next twenty years, it’s estimated that nearly two thirds of American farmland will change hands in states with no laws that bar foreign purchase. That is drastically going to shift the landscape of agriculture in the U.S. As Ty Higgins of the Ohio Farm Bureau told NPR:

Once a foreign entity buys up however many acres they want, Americans might never be able to secure that land again. So, once we lose it, we may lose it for good.

So, is the purchase of U.S. land by individuals such as Mr. Gates a bad thing? Maybe. But maybe not. In looking at the historical investments and programs that The Gates Foundation has developed, it makes me hopeful that they may make some of that land available to smaller producers and use the rest to develop new farming methods that combat climate change and help provide access to food for those who don’t have enough. 

You and I both know that Agriculture needs a drastic overhaul. And it may be a group like Gates Ag One that plays a critical role in that. Let’s take a deeper, longer look at this and get into what that could look like (oh, here comes the smart and exciting stuff!)

A Look Back at Gates’ Involvement and Investments in Agriculture 

First, Bill Gates’ acquisition of the 242,000 acres that drove headlines isn’t anything new, and this specific purchase is over two years old. Since 2008, The Gates Foundation has invested over $306 million to develop and support small farmers Africa and South Asia. The foundation has other programs that go hand-in-hand with their investment in small farmers internationally, including  bringing clean water and sanitation and combating malnutrition in these developing countries. 

The Gates’ agricultural investments currently span everything from investing in research, to developing more resilient crops and healthier animals for dairy production, to exploring the viability of plant-based meat to manufacturing industrial farm equipment parts. Over the years, some of the partnerships and initiatives have come under heavy criticism (Monsanto and Cargill in 2010) as everyone from environmental groups to human rights organizations felt that there may be foul things happening behind the scenes (versus something like developing stable food systems in Africa).  

Who Owns The Most U.S. Farmland 2021

Because of their historical investment, support and research in Agricultural-related projects, it should come as no surprise that The Gates Foundation announced the formation of Gates Ag One in January 2020. According to the company, Gates Ag One “aims to speed up efforts to provide smallholder farmers in developing countries, many of whom are women, with access to the affordable tools and innovations they need to sustainably improve crop productivity and adapt to the effects of climate change.” 

The Gates Foundations went on to say that the goal of Gates Ag One is for the organization to serve as a centerpoint for governments, regional and international public- and private-sector partners who share the goal of furthering the success of small farmers globally by giving them access to affordable, high-quality tools, technologies, and resources. 

When it comes to Africa alone, by 2016, The Gates Foundation had invested $9 billion in Africa, largely centered around health and agriculture. That year, they said they’d commit another $5 billion over five years (and the latest reports show they invest $2 billion per year). I feel it’s safe to say that the official formation of Gates Ag One is based on the research, learning and data from all the Gates entities that have collectively been going around the world since each effort was created.  

Can The Gates Initiatives Combat Climate Change and Help Drive Sustainability?

If you follow the pattern over the years, what becomes very evident is that the parties involved through the foundations, investment groups and other entities are looking for ways to improve agriculture around the world. Furthermore, these efforts have central themes like empowering small landowners and farmers, ending hunger and elevating the quality of life people globally. Are you starting to see patterns emerge here? Investments in:

  1. Creating multiple infrastructures in developing countries.
  2. Millions spent in research to advance plant and crop science.
  3. Deep analysis of animal health and food production.
  4. Research studies on more efficient ways to grow food and feed people. 
  5. All while developing ways to utilize land around the world. 

I’m not afraid to say that it’s going to take a giant, cataclysmic shift in systems, operations and the way we work in order to successfully create sustainable, resilient food systems and supply chains moving forward. Without intervention, that will be almost impossible. As ranchers, producers, manufacturers, corporate entities, and anyone who’s involved in the product of food can tell you, that’s no small task. 

How to Get Parties to Come to the Table and Collaborate on a Better Food System

If the goal of Gates Ag One is to help address the many challenges linked to agricultural development and climate change through the development of new approaches and innovative solutions, I know the Bill Gates Foundation already has many proven systems. In the U.S., the battle to get parties to collaborate may be harder because the opinions on how to produce and farm vary so greatly. And of course, the political- and profit-driven agendas make creating a better local food system more complex. 

If we put some of the complications aside, and we simply ask ourselves:

 “Can we make agriculture and farming more sustainable and implement these practices more widely and at scale?” 

The answer is yes, if we have scalable systems that allow for fluidity and variation within the overall structure. But in order to do that, we’ve got to get everyone to come to the table and collaborate with one another. 

Addressing Questions and Concerns of Ranchers and Farms

Any large acquisition of land is going to ruffle feathers. People automatically want to know why such a large purchase was made. They want to know how it may impact them, how it may impact their livelihoods and the way they choose to live. While it would be nice to know this, that’s not the world we live in nor may it be necessary to actually know everything about it. But when the time comes, if programs are made available to farmers, here’s what may need to be addressed:

Addressing the Perceptions of Growers and Advocates that Believe in Sustainable, Regenerative Farming 

Whether it’s organic farming supporters, regenerative advocates, those that follow more traditional farming methods or the rank and file environmental fanatics, how Gates Ag One seeks to centralize and improve upon the U.S. Farming practices is going to come under fire. 

The regenerative agriculture groups don’t like the idea of an overly wealthy tech figure moving into their “sacred Ag space” and view him as a threat to how sustainable agriculture should work. And of course, investment in plants and crop development means genetic engineering which are viewed as the epitome of evil, even though drought and disease resistant crops provide greater food security. Discussing the goals of programs and new farming methods is going to require radical transparency, and a willingness to listen to the needs of those that follow its practices. 

As Tim Griffin, director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, told the Washington Post, “Having a food system that has multiple scales is better than having a preponderance of one scale (either large or small).” So, building partnerships with small to medium-sized producers is going to be critical. I also think the willingness to address open criticism and personal perceptions of past acts is going to be a consideration. 

Addressing the Concerns of Farmers and Producers that Follow More Traditional Farming Practices

Addressing ranchers and producers that follow more traditional Agricultural practices is also going to be a requirement. And their concerns are different from those of their sustainable counterparts. For many of them, the concerns surround the access to land and financial impact on the price of acreage. Bridget Elliot Coon, a Washington-based cattle rancher, business strategist, and friend of mine, and I were discussing this and I felt she said it best: 

Farmers look at the Gates’ acquisition of land (or any large purchase by foreign investors) and think, ‘Great, land is hard to come by/afford already. How can I compete with this?

Bridget’s question outlines the general perception of ranchers and producers when the ultra wealthy enter the land acquisition mix. It further puts stress on those producers to expand their operations (no matter how they farm).  These ranchers and farmers worry about not being able to purchase enough land to continue producing food. And, on some subconscious level, large land acquisitions may even make them feel obsolete and that one of the oldest ways of life in the U.S will truly die. Addressing the way they work and making it viable is going to be an important consideration. 

How We Begin to Have Meaningful Conversations with One Another

The Gates’ land acquisition has much larger considerations than the fact that he bought it. And because I don’t know the Gates’ family, nor did I speak to them for this piece, I am not going to make assumptions as to what they may be planning. I am, however, going to use it as an example of a way for people and groups with opposing beliefs to start holding conversations with one another in order to see if they could work together. 

So I ask you this: 

Instead of criticizing people we don’t know and attacking organizations without doing our due diligence, how about you or I invite them into a conversation about what their goals are and what they’re trying to achieve? 

I know this may sound idealistic, but believe me, it works. In the last four years, I’ve had the pleasure of learning about food production, farming and agriculture from many different people. Each one did things differently. I showed up to the table with no agenda, put my preconceived notions aside, rolled up my sleeves and learned from them.

Learning and Asking the Right Questions Isn’t Lost on Melinda Gates

And guess what? This idea isn’t lost on Melinda Gates. In fact, in her recent Spotify interview with Brene Brown, she talked about how this has already been successful in the work the Gates Foundation has done:

When you go into communities, you get to know them. You learn they do many things for incredible reasons. They’ve seen things we haven’t seen. They’ve experienced things we haven’t experienced. And what we have to look at is how do they view their community, their world, their family. What assets do they have? Because they have so many rich assets, how do we help them build on those or take up new ideas IF THEY WANT TO? 

Ms. Gates goes on to share the story of Molly Melching, where she learned to apply this to their work with Tostan. “You have to meet people where they are,” she said. “You then spend years getting to know them and gaining their trust.” She then goes on to share that as trust develops, you can start to bring new ideas to local communities, but you have to see what they’re interested in. And once the ideas are introduced (new conversations started), you then have to let the community decide whether they want to take up those ideas or not. 

So is the idea of creating community-inclusive conversations around how we grow and produce food just a novel idea? I don’t think so. It’s all in the way we learn from one another, build trust and slowly start to explore ideas on how we might do things differently. 

To make the idea a little more applicable, I love what writer and farmer Deborah J. Comstock says about communication: “Better communication is needed from farm to government, to ‘sell’ the importance of an agricultural economy to our country’s leaders.” 

If any program of scale can spark new dialogues, I’m fully willing to show up to the table to listen, learn and entertain new ideas. Are you?

Gates Foundation Ag One Programs

Updated 1/17/2021: Since I wrote this piece, MIT Technology Review sat down with Bill Gates and conducted an interview on his ideas surrounding climate change and agriculture. It’s worth a read as it shed more light on his beliefs on how U.S. Food Systems should work. It covers plant-based meat, lab grown meat and genetically altering the DNA of cattle to reduce emissions. I admit, it paints a darker picture than I was hoping to paint here. Also, Lisa Held made some insightful comments on Instagram on her efforts to talk to The Gates Foundation on their work in Agriculture. In the post, she does highlight how the foundation likes to push GMO crops engineered in the U.S. over ones that thrive in native African environments.

Further Reading on U.S. Farmland Ownership, the report and smart insights on the Gates land purchase: 

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