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Research or relaxation? Why Bill Gates was in the Philippines this week

Following Microsoft's 40th anniversary, the company’s co-founder reportedly took a trip to the Southeast Asian country, where he spent time with his team at the International Rice Research Institute, a major Gates Foundation beneficiary.

Lauren Victoria Burke/AP/File
Bill Gates prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 26, 2015, before the Senate State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs subcommittee hearing on diplomacy, development, and national security. Following tech giant Microsoft's 40th anniversary April 4, Mr. Gates reportedly went on vacation to the Philippines, where he also looked in on projects with a major Gates Foundation beneficiary, the International Rice Research Institute.

Bill Gates has been nothing if not clear about his vision for the future of technology: Access for everyone, regardless of income, age, or gender.  

A big part of that vision involves technology’s role in ending poverty and hunger – so it should come as no surprise that, just as Microsoft celebrated its 40th anniversary April 4, the tech giant’s co-founder and his philanthropy team took a quiet trip to the Philippines to drop in on the world’s leading center for better rice.

Senior officers with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent several days touring the facilities and getting briefed on the latest projects at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at the University of Los Banos in northern Philippines.

Mr. Gates himself reportedly spent time at the IRRI April 8.

“We are thankful that the BMGF has come for updates on the food and nutrition security initiatives that they support,” Robert Zeigler, IRRI director general, said in a statement. “The foundation is a staunch partner in applying the best of science so that people in the rice-eating world will not go hungry.”

Agricultural development is among the largest initiatives of the Gates Foundation, which has to date committed more than $2 billion to the effort. A large chunk of that funding goes toward improving rice, a staple food for more than half the world’s population, including the Philippines, and “the single largest source of employment and income for rural people,” according to a 2010 Oxfam report.

Vital as rice is to the global economy and to the lives of millions, growing the crop comes with a host of production and environmental problems. According to Oxfam:

Current practices promote genetic uniformity, which makes crops more vulnerable to pests and diseases. They are also wasteful of … resources such as water and fossil fuels, using up about one-quarter to one-third of the world’s annual supply of freshwater. Heavily fertilized, continuously flooded rice fields produce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, and misuse of inorganic fertilizers and agrochemicals results in soil and water pollution.

“Further,” the report continues, “growing rice is very labor-intensive, with women generally bearing the major burden of work along with their other household and child-rearing tasks.”

Rice’s nutritional value is another issue: Though high in much-needed calories, the crop is notoriously low in Vitamin A.

The partnership with the IRRI is part of a number of Gates Foundation initiatives aimed at increasing productivity, fostering sustainable agricultural practices, and improving crop quality. Among those efforts is a project that has faced heavy opposition from critics of GMO research: The development of genetically-modified, “golden rice,” with the goal of improving the crop’s nutritional value.

Criticism has not kept Gates from pushing for agricultural innovation developing countries, however. In their annual Gates Foundation letter this year, Gates and his wife, Melinda, wrote about developing the types of technology in agriculture, as well as in other industries, that could improve the lives of the poor.

“We think the next 15 years will see major breakthroughs for most people in poor countries,” they wrote. “They will have unprecedented opportunities to get an education, eat nutritious food, and benefit from mobile banking.”

“These breakthroughs will be driven by innovation in technology – ranging from new vaccines and hardier crops to much cheaper smartphones and tablets – and by innovations that help deliver those things to more people,” they added.

Philanthropy aside, the couple and their family also reportedly spent time at the exclusive Amanpulo island resort on the Philippine island of Palawan. They will have spent 12 days in the country, leaving Thursday, April 16 after arriving April 4.

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