Classic Smil

Bill Gates on poverty, GMOs, Microsoft, and vacationing at the Large Hadron Collider

January 22, 2014
January 22, 2014

This morning, Bill and Melinda Gates published their foundation’s annual letter, which attempts to debunk commonly held beliefs in development economics.

Quartz caught up with Mr. Gates to talk about the letter, how he’s juggling his work at the Gates Foundation with his work at Microsoft, and what else is going on in his life. What follows is a condensed transcript.

Throughout the letter, you talk about countries reaching the point of self-sufficiency. You also predict that there will be almost no more poor (or low-income) countries in the world by 2035. Do you consider these things to be the same? Once a country reaches middle-income status, does it no longer need any foreign aid?

If you have a disaster, of course, people are going to come and help out. And there are still these global public goods, like inventing vaccines—inventing the malaria vaccine, inventing the TB vaccine, inventing the AIDS vaccine. You’ll be a huge beneficiary of whatever the rich countries are doing.

You can talk about whether or not the World Bank threshold between low-income and middle-income [currently $1,035 in gross national income per capita] should be moved up a bit. When you get to China’s level of wealth, or Brazil’s, or Mexico’s level of wealth, then clearly you’re not going to have systemic yearly aid transfers coming from richer countries. You’re going to have to use your own tax-base, including mineral wealth, to create income and education and opportunity so that you cut down poverty in your particular country.

A very high percentage of aid recipients historically, including Korea, are no longer aid recipients. Korea is kind of unusual in that it’s made the full progression and is now considered a high-income country. They have a commitment to get their aid budget up over time to 0.5%, which would make them slightly more generous than the European average and quite a bit more generous than the US (at 0.2%).

But except for the bottom of the middle-income category, you typically become self-sufficient. Nigeria has moved into low-middle-income, but their north is very poor and the health care systems there have broken down. India is right on the bottom edge of middle-income, and I’d see us for another decade giving to India, despite it’s characterization. If you set the threshold more at like $1,800, then yes, you are self-sufficient.

Also in the letter, you mention “better seeds” as something that will create wealth in poor countries. Are you talking about GMO crops?

A lot of the improved seeds will use GMO techniques as time goes on, as you’re looking for really powerful drought-resistance, salt-tolerance, and other things like that. Most of the new seeds that we’re doing right now are non-GMO because there’s still a lot of room for conventional breeding-type improvements.

It’s important that the poor countries that have the toughest time feeding their people have a process, just like they have for medicines. In terms of injecting people and taking drugs, they’ve done a good job making sure that those things are tested and go through a regulatory approval process. The same type of thing should be true for new food products, no matter what technique is used to create them. There should be an open-mindedness, and if they can specifically prove their safety and benefits, foods should be approved, just like they are in middle-income countries.

Middle-income countries are the biggest users of GMOs. Places like Brazil. Small farmers have gotten soy beans and cotton and things like that. But we’re trying to get African agriculture up to high productivity—it’s about a third of rich-world productivity right now—and we need the full range of scientific innovation, with really good safety checking, to work on behalf of the poor.

How do you split your time between the foundation and Microsoft?

The foundation is easily two-thirds of my time. I work on weekends, do lots of email…it’s pretty much a full time job. I do squeeze in some Microsoft things, helping some of the product groups, and I have some non-Microsoft, non-Foundation things like the nuclear energy company, TerraPower, and some tech-related investments, a number of which are in connection with Nathan Myhrvold, whom I worked with at Microsoft.

Do you have any plans to become more involved with Microsoft?

It will be up to the board as it finishes its process and picks a CEO; I’ll talk to the CEO about what he wants. The foundation is still going to be my full-time work, but I’ll direct my help to Microsoft according to whether or not the CEO sees that as being useful. There might be an uptick in the first year or two, depending on what they want.

How do you spend whatever time you have left?

Some of my time is spent going down to the Valley to see venture capitalists, and talk about the different things they’re doing. I have a particular relationship with Vinod Khosla because he’s got a lot of very interesting science-based energy startups. It’s always fascinating to see what the different venture companies are seeing as new opportunities.

There are things you might think of as vacation. My son likes to go see mines and electric plants, or the Large Hadron Collider, and we’ve had a chance to see a lot of interesting stuff. We’re going to go down to Los Alamos in the next two months. We’ve been to a copper mine, we’ve been to a missile silo. He likes learning along with me.

I know that you’re a voracious reader, especially of nonfiction. What are you reading now?

Vaclav Smil keeps turning out amazing books. Making the Modern World, I just finished, and it’s pretty fantastic. It’s about this idea that we are still using more materials per person, even as advanced economies, though people talk about the dematerialization of steel, the amount of concrete, and other minerals. It’s classic Smil: really explaining how steel is improved, how concrete is improved, how you think about maintenance, and recycling, and limits, and what the new advances are. And really, the amazing progression.

The other one that I’m not fully done with is his US manufacturing book. It’s another incredible story of why the US dominated manufacturing through basically about 1970 and why it’s so important that we retain that. Among other things, it’s about how we electrified our industry before anybody else did and it gave us almost double the productivity.

Smil—someday he may quit turning out books. But so far, he really gives me a base understanding of how the world works.

Read this next: Meet Vaclav Smil, the Canadian polymath whose books Bill Gates is racing to read

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