President Obama and other world leaders seem to be taking their cue from the Gates Foundation for a new three-year agricultural initiative announced today.

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President Obama and other world leaders seem to be taking their cue from the Gates Foundation for a new three-year agricultural initiative announced today.

Leaders from the Group of Eight leading economies made the $20 billion pledge to finance agricultural projects in poor countries to fight hunger and reduce food price volatility.

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The U.S.-sponsored food security initiative aims to provide poor farmers in developing countries with seeds, fertilizers, infrastructure and other tools to help them boost local food production, a shift from previous policy that emphasized sending food aid from abroad.

Here is what Obama said about the issue today:
“There is no reason why Africa cannot be self-sufficient when it comes to food. It has sufficient arable land. What’s lacking is the right seeds, the right irrigation, but also the kinds of institutional mechanisms that ensure that a farmer is going to be able to grow crops, get them to market, get a fair price.”

The Gates Foundation has focused on seeds, fertilizer, irrigation and market access in its own programs, spending $2.6 billion on global development so far, most of it for agriculture in Africa.

The world’s largest foundation has taken on a major role in agricultural development since it launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in 2006. AGRA funds work to improve seeds, fertilizers, irrigation, and market access for small farmers, employing techniques of the original Green Revolution started in the 1940s in an effort to boost food production in Africa.

The new grants by Gates and Rockefeller came at a time when U.S. funding for agriculture had fallen sharply. Agriculture’s share of U.S. development assistance was 3 percent in 2005, compared to 12 percent in 1985, according to this report. In dollars, support for agriculture went from a high of about $8 billion in 1984 to $3.4 billion in 2004.

Now besides the Gates and Rockefeller foundations, the U.K’.s Department for International Development has become another core donor to AGRA.

Obama also talked about agriculture and his trip to Ghana in this interview with AllAfrica.com.

“I’m still frustrated over the fact that the green revolution that we introduced into India in the ’60s, we haven’t yet introduced into Africa in 2009,” he said.

The push for a green revolution in Africa has sparked criticism and debate about the role of high-tech solutions over ecological farming methods. Obama said today that low-tech solutions are also important.

“We don’t need fancy computers to solve those problems; we need tried and true agricultural methods and technologies that are cheap and are efficient but could have a huge impact in terms of people’s day-to-day well-being.”

The Gates Foundation has also funded policy studies and advocacy campaigns. It gave nearly $1 million to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to fund a project on the U.S. role in global agricultural development, and Gates Foundation Senior Fellow Catherine Bertini co-authored the report.

At the beginning of the Obama Administration, the Chicago Council released the report with recommendations for a new policy on agriculture as a way to restore the United States “as a force for positive change in the world.”

The report, “Renewing American Leadership in the Fight Against Hunger and Poverty: The Chicago Initiative on Global Agricultural Development,” made five recommendations and more than 20 specific suggestions, calling for a renewed U.S. commitment to alleviating global poverty through agricultural development in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The recommendations include increasing support for agricultural education, research, including genetic engineering, and infrastructure.

The official support for biotech and commodity crops was called into question today in this piece by food writer Paula Crossfield.

Bill Gates has used forums such as the World Economic Forum in Davos to increase public attention to the issue, and has spent more time talking directly with world leaders since leaving Microsoft to dedicate himself to full-time philanthropy.

Gates has taken up the cause of agriculture in meetings with key leaders such U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, chairman of AGRA, recently outlined a 10-year strategy to develop regional breadbaskets among African countries to produce staples. AGRA President Namanga Ngongi was in Brussels a couple of weeks ago meeting with European Union officials about the topic.

The food crisis itself may pushed the issue back onto the political agenda. The UN predicts the number of people going hungry will rise to 1.02 billion this year, reversing a four-decade trend of declines.

Yet today’s G8 commitment also shows that the foundation’s relatively new efforts in global development are beginning to have a catalyzing effect on agricultural policy, just as its health programs have helped shape the world health agenda.

Mark Suzman, director of policy and advocacy for the Gates Foundation’s global development program, said today’s pledge is encouraging. Leadership coming from the G8 on agriculture could be a platform for the future in the same way that a G8 agreement to support public health in 2000 helped create the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, he said.

“It’s focused on the right set of issues.”