Plain English with Derek Thompson - Bill Gates on Progress, Food Technology, and the Battle Between Climate Change and Innovation

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I’m Matt Bellamy founding partner of Puck news and I’m covering the inside conversation about money and power in Hollywood, with my new show, the town I’m going to take you inside Hollywood with exclusive inside on what people in Show, Business are actually talking about multiple times a week.


I’ll talk to some of the smartest people I know journalists insiders, all of whom can break down the hottest topics and entertainment.

Tell you what’s really going on.

Listen now, Today’s episode is about the state of human progress.


And I am very pleased to say that for a topic.

This big Our Guest is Bill Gates.

So just this past weekend, I was in Michigan.

Visiting my grandmother Mo me and we stopped by her friends place for dinner.

And as we were drinking wine, catching up.


My grandmother’s friend asked me whether I was optimistic about the future or whether I shared her feeling that the world was basically going to help now evidence that the world is going to help.

By the way, isn’t in short supply, you’ve got the pandemic.

It you’ve got global warming which looks Unstoppable, women’s rights or backsliding in Afghanistan and I think a lot of Americans would argue their backs.


Being in the u.s. to Eastern Europe is at War.

Western Europe is facing an energy crisis China’s probably in a recession.

So what is there to be optimistic about?

She said and I told her, you know, you picked an interesting week to ask me this very big, very difficult question because I’m working on two things right now that I think offer an answer to it.


I’m working on this article for the Atlantic and this podcast for the ringer about a new report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on the topic of global progress.

And I got to talk to Bill Gates about this report.

So, what is this report?

Well, seven years ago about 200 world leaders agreed to a bunch of development goals for the world.


Things like the elimination of global poverty.

The eradication of world, hunger, big stuff like that.

And today, the foundation releases its update to those sustainable development goals.

Now, there are two ways to read this report, I think you could read it and it disappointed way because the report does conclude that the world is on track to achieve Quote almost none of its development goals, almost none.


Or I think you could read it in an optimistic and I would say realistic way, which is that, for all the absolute shit that we have gone through in the last two years, the last decade less than Century humankind, is better off than it was a generation ago in almost every single category that matters.


What do I mean?

Well, according to the report, which published just this morning, as I write in today’s piece, in the Atlantic, since 1990, the share of children who are malnourished has fallen by 30%, the rates of tuberculosis have declined by 30 percent rates of maternal deaths, per live, birth have declined by 40%.


The share of children who die before the age of five has fallen by 50%.

The prevalence of neglected tropical diseases has declined by roughly seven. % the share of the global population with access to toilets.

And safe, Plumbing has increased by roughly 100 percent and finally, taking the Long, Long View, the share of people around the world who died from famine has declined by roughly 99% since the late 1800s.


Despite the world’s population being roughly five times larger than it was in 1870, it is hard to imagine statistical proof of material.


That is more compelling than this.

We thought a century and a half ago that more living human beings would Doom life itself to a state of abject misery and constant hunger.


And instead, the population increased by 5x and famine declined by a factor of 100.

And now, in my experience, I found that there is a certain kind of person who doesn’t really like hearing about all of this.

I think some people fear that folks like me, who, Cite these facts of progress are requesting that other people stop complaining about the world, but on the contrary, let me be explicit.


I think, complaining about the world is part of what makes progress happen.

Complaining about gender inequality, pointing out racism, identifying labor, discrimination abhorring global inequality.

These things are essential to making the world better.

I just also separately one us to see reality as it is.


The world is bad.

The world used to be worse.

And it’s getting better.

And it needs to get better still.

The news media is very good at telling you about breaking stories that are bad sudden and surprising, we’re not as good at telling you about stories that are good and slow changing even when they are the stories of the century.


So that’s what this episode is about the stories of the century.

We only had about 20 minutes to interview Bill Gates on his report.

Bill Gates is busy, but I think it’s a full, 20 minutes and I hope it serves as a moderate corrective to my own tendency to overlook The Long View.


And forget that the most important stories in the world aren’t just sudden and bad.

They’re often slow and hopeful.

I’m Derrick Thompson.

This is plain English.


Bill Gates, thank you so much for being on the show.

You bet, let’s begin with your goalkeeper report, which looks at some key measures of human progress around the world.

One of the themes of this report is that we live in an age of Crisis.

Whether it’s inflation here in the US or War abroad.


But that sometimes crisis can force people to do things that reroute the future.

And one example in your report is AIDS at the beginning of the century, it was projected that in 2025 million, people would die from AIDS.

In fact, 500,000 people died, that number is 10 times smaller than the projection.


What is the key lesson that you want people to take from this dramatic?

Shift toward progress in the HIV/AIDS epidemic?

Well, it’d be easy in the face of all.

These challenges to sort of turn away from thinking about Africa and the challenges there.


You know, we have, you know, electricity price increases inflation, you know, all sorts of things that have a turning a bit Inward and yet the level of generosity, you know, that’s kind of considered Great is 0.5. 0.7 percent of GDP so a fairly small percentage because those dollars are so impactful whether its buying better seeds or buying HIV medicine, you know, we’re innovating these costs so that in the health field and we’re saving lives for a thousand dollars per life saved, which is very different than ritual medicine.


You know, that would be willing to spend and a million dollars per life saved.

So we’re not sort of saying, okay, everything we have, you know, everyone can have maybe, you know, 50 years from now, we can say things like that but here we’re just talking about the basics of survival and avoiding malnutrition.


So I am optimistic that we don’t turn away that if we fund the Rd, if we fund The Delivery Systems that will get back on track.

You know, the world has this report card called the Animal development goals, which is where we should be by 2030.


And because in 2015, when we set those goals, we didn’t expect a pandemic.

We didn’t expect a war in Ukraine, and we were a little aspirational and some of the goals.

If you look at that report card, you’d be like, wow, you know, maybe I should drop out but, you know, this is about millions of lives.


And so every year, the foundation puts out the goalkeepers report and you usually, it’s about half things that were, you know, doing well, on and about half things were behind on sadly here.

You know, we took food in particular, and gender as two things to get into, you know, some examples where things are going well.


But the overall picture is very challenged and and yet because of the progress before the pandemic can because of the Innovation including new vaccines using mRNA and and the new seed, We’ve been talking about I remain optimistic when I think of the you know, 10 to 20 or timeframe.


So your review of the 2015 sustainable development goals, had a lot of bad news because it’s been a really tough two years, with war, the pandemic.

I want to ask you about one piece of good news here and it I think it might be the best piece of news on the planet in the last 30 years, it is the share of newborns and children who die before the age of five that number has declined since 90 by 50%.


How did this happen?

The biggest reason why that number has gone down is that we got the vaccines out to almost all of the children in the world.

And so this group called gobby, that’s created near 2,000 is helping by those vaccines and the prices have gone way way down.


So, that’s now affordable.

So you have a Real vaccine and pneumonia vaccine then couple that with the global fund, which is also created at the same time and focuses on HIV, TB, and malaria malaria.


Mostly kills young kids.

And that’s where we invent these new bed nets and we keep those bed nets up up-to-date.

And so, yes, it’s a combination of somewhat better nutrition and economic progress.

Dress but over half is delivering not just inventing but delivering through the Primary Healthcare System even in the poorest countries quite a few new vaccines.


And you know, so that statistic, you know, I think the world should be very proud of all the donors who are involved.

Our foundation is a piece of that, but it’s the reason why, you know, keeping these foreign aid levels.


You know what is considered a generous level?

Is such a moral cause you mentioned gavi and for those that don’t know.

God be is a public-private global Health Partnership that buys and distributes vaccines to people around the world.

Most importantly children who are vulnerable to diseases like measles and ammonia bill.


You have this penumbral view of the scientific Frontier.

What is the one domain of science that you are?

Most excited about right now.

You know, our ability to understand genetics to sequins to edit you know that has for many diseases like perhaps curing HIV or Sickle Cell which is present everywhere, but mostly in in Africa those things are super expensive but we have a way.


That over the next decade, we think we can get that down to a single shot, that’s less than a thousand dollars.

And so, you know, the the excitement of the scientists to take it from a million dollars to, you know, cures Sickle Cell rhv, down factor of a thousand.


You know, it’s great to see the number of Pathways and ideas.

And, you know, I love working with those scientists and giving them the resources to Full Speed Ahead.

You report this year goes deep on a topic that’s been all over the news recently but that I’ve always wanted to know more about and that is the future of food.


Your organizations working with some really cool companies and groups in this space of Agriculture Tech.

The entire world got a lesson in food security this year.

The war in Ukraine is clearly contributing to a burgeoning food crisis, in Africa, and Asia.


And I think it’s worth starting here with the pretty basic question.


Did a crisis in Europe threatened to starve.

Millions of people, thousands of miles away in sub-Saharan Africa.

Well, sadly Africa is a significant net Food importer and so you know, they’re buying these crops on the World Market and they’re also buying the fertilizer on the World Market and so when you have less fertilizer getting out or the price of natural, Ask going up, which is a key ingredient for fertilizer, then the price goes up and, you know, some Farmers just can’t afford that.


We also have the climate change whether which now is, you know, creating more droughts including a very big one in the Sahel region in Africa right now.

And so, Africa has such low Low agricultural productivity about a quarter of what rich countries have and so when you get whether setbacks or, you know, fertilizer costs going up, what you see is a dramatic increase in malnutrition and even in some areas actual starvation.


So let’s bring climate change, fully into the picture here because as you mentioned the war in Ukraine, has been a big problem for Global food supply, raising the cost of Natural gas but climate change going forward.

It’s going to be a much much bigger problem you call it.

The largest threat to food production since the invention of agriculture.


So let’s get our arms around.

The problem itself, tell me when your foundation funded a project to analyze African corn or Maize production.

You saw some deeply alarming results.

What did you learn?

Well, the Story for me, is in the United States is a very positive one where you have the seed makers constantly improving the seed.


And so you know because the temperatures are rising, they use different seed varieties and they’re able to actually maintain High productivity that same sort of advanced seed is not available in Africa, so they’re using seed that they’ve used Decades and yet you know the hotter it gets you get a dramatic reduction in the Maze output and so sadly even though you know, the rich countries have caused climate change.


We haven’t funded the work to get the best seeds adopted to Africa needs for their weather is quite different than ours is and they don’t just use the main cereal crops that Use means and rice and wheat, but the variety there includes lots of things like sorghum, Millet, cowpea.


And so the seed Improvement agenda has been vastly underfunded and so these small holder Farmers which are the majority of the population, you know the closer they are to the Equator the worse off.


They are and we were not helping them like we should So you did this project and you projected that Maisie old is going to decline in the future as temperatures, rise and Rise more people in Africa, may be hungry and they’ll be more vulnerable to Global shocks from Wars.


Like the one that we’re having this year now there’s so many ways to be can think about trying to solve this problem of African hunger.

We can say, how do we change Global energy policy to slow climate change?

And of course we should try to do that but another strategy that we can try at the same time is to improve.


Agricultural technology.

So that maze can be grown under hotter conditions at tell me, are we any closer to being able to do that?

Yes, The.

We understand a lot about improving maze, you know, Texas for example, is getting new varieties to maintain their productivity because that’s, you know, a much hotter part of the United States, Africa’s, not identical.


So you still have to do some adaptation to get a maze seed.

That works well in Africa, but we know we can do it.

And that science is getting better all the time because it Benefits from things like Gene sequencing and Gene editing that come to us from Human Health gigantic investments in.


Oh thank goodness.

Plant DNA is the same because you know the agricultural World couldn’t afford to invent those tools.

And so yeah, we have the short term mean, you know, which is the acute crisis where you ship food in, but the only real solution is Is to help those Farmers.


Have maze.

That’s both higher productivity and can deal with the the temperature and the drought Challenge and we’ve seen.

We’ve had projects, you know, where that went very well and slowly but surely the African countries are beefing up their expertise.


You know, so they can decide to give approval to these new crops.

So there’s you know, almost a factor of 2 in Activity.

Which would make all the difference that with the right Investments over the next 15 years.


That’s, that can be achieved and tell me a little bit more about drought Tigo this product that you’ve invested in.

That sounds, well, you call it in your most recent paper magic seeds in terms of its ability to grow corn or Maize under really, really hot conditions, precisely the conditions that we expect to see more of in the near future.



So so, this variety When it’s trying to grab CO2 out of the air, it doesn’t leak as much water out.

That’s a challenge plant halves.

Is they open up their stolen and to grab the CO2, but water leaks out when they do that.


And so this variety is much better.

At not leaking out the water and so it can actually thrived with far less water.

And that’s one of the key reasons maze does so poorly with heat, is that the water need and, you know, so it’s kind of incredible that will have Farmers grow the new variety, you know, one field and then next to it grow their traditional variety and they’ll see That difference.


And then you get, you know, if you’ve gone through all the regulatory things and you get the word out, you can get very broad adoption.

And so, there is, there is hope here, you know, it’s not that, you know, Africa, with its population growth and climate change affect.


It’s insoluble, in fact of our climate budgets, you know, the two billion a year that the seed R&D system, from which we call the CG system deserves to get, you know, it’s not, that’s not a gigantic amount, and the impact will be very, very dramatic.


I thought reading about drought ego this magic seed that you funded was really thrilling because it made me think that the problems that we face with climate change with future Wars are so impossibly, big to think about, but human Ingenuity, really can be at least a partial solution to a lot of those problems.


We not only Fear the Future of hotter temperatures.

We can also react to the future of hotter, temperatures and make seeds that will Thrive under those conditions.

How are you little bit?

Absolute head?


So Innovation is key, not only to the what they call climate mitigation, which is reducing emissions.


But also to climate adaptation, which is reducing the suffering because we’re know, were guaranteed to have somewhat higher temperatures even if we do the best possible job on that mitigation piece.

And sometimes people when they think about a patient, they just think of food Aid.


They don’t think of the scientists in the lab coming up with, you know, No.

Something that’s as miraculous as the Green Revolution, which was the doubling mostly for Asian farmers of their crop productivity to avoid.


Starvation going back into the the 1970s, right?

We have something like 60 billion dollars worth of food Aid, worldwide and about nine, ten billion dollars worth of agricultural research and to a certain extent, it’s wonderful that countries like Ukraine or Russia as opposed to a certain extent America Grow so much food that we can exported all over the world, but it would be fantastic.


If those exports weren’t necessary if the African countries of the future could grow, the amount of maize that they need.

One thing that, you know, I love the history of Technology, The History of Science.

I do think that one of the underappreciated aspects of the history of material progress, is that invention alone is not enough.


It is not enough to just say, oh, we invented magic seeds in the lab and now the problem is solved.

No, you have to make the seats cheap.


You have to tell Farmers how to use them.

You know, these deployment questions, aren’t the most sexy things like a great.

CNN Headline is you know, Hallelujah, we made climate change resistant corn, that’s fantastic, but if the Farmers can’t afford fertilizer, it doesn’t.


It doesn’t matter that we’ve invented these new seeds because they can’t grow it.

So, tell me what you’re doing.

In addition to the hard work of invention on this deployment front, how you are helping farmers in Africa, actually, deploy this technology.

Where you’re Really right.


You’ve got to get through the country systems to get the seed approved and so we’re you know, funding a lot of African scientists to have, you know, help their country make Expeditions decisions on seed licenses.


But you’ve got to get all the way out to the farmer, both with advice and with credit the credit, lets you buy the fertilizer which Is a very key ingredient.

You know, when Borlaug went to India to tell them, hey, you’ve got to use the seeds.


He said, hey, there’s three things you have to keep mine, fertilizer, fertilizer, fertilizer because that’s crucial.

We use mobile phone.

Technology to do what we call digital green, where we take Farmers giving advice to other farmers and we make that easily available.


Little bowl.

And so knowing when to plant, you know, which varieties might fit the particular land that you have, you know which you know can you plant multiple crops over the course of the Year multi cropping which can be a huge economic Advantage if you get the timing right?


So yes this is got to get all the way to adoption and if we don’t know what the farmers want you know, we might give them Is that they don’t like the taste of or that they’re just risk-averse and they go back to using the seed that they’re used to.


Even though it’s productivity is going down, we will have to leave it there.

Bill Gates, thank you so much.

Thank you.

I’m Jerry Thompson.

That was plain English.

Thanks very much to our producer.

Devin manzi, if you have any questions comments ideas for future episodes, please shoot us an email at plain English at


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