He used to have more money than anyone in history, with the possible exception of a couple of Roman emperors.

He grew up as the quintessential nerd, who leveraged his computer savvy into a software empire so successful that his personal fortune staggers the imagination.

Forbes magazine describes him as, “Microsoft mogul, futurist and America’s richest person, [who] with help from billionaire buddy Warren Buffett, convinced nearly 60 of the world’s wealthiest people to sign his “Giving Pledge,” promising to donate the majority of their wealth to charity either during their lifetime or after death.

He, of course, is Bill Gates, and he’s no longer the richest person on the planet (he’s now second, behind Mexican telecom mogul Carlos Slim Helu). But that’s only because he donated $30 billion of his personal wealth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. On that basis alone, his mission to improve food production and educational opportunities around the world deserve acclaim.

Here in Seattle, where I live, Gates is a well-known, if somewhat reclusive figure, residing in a palatial, earth-sheltered, heavily landscaped mansion on the shores of Lake Washington overlooking the city. His four-level, 66,000 square-foot house, worth more than $100 million, sits on a three-acre lot and features eight bathrooms,its own estuary, a commercial quality theater, full gymnasium, library, boathouse, 20-meter swimming pool, an underground music system (whatever that is), rotating paintings and pressure-sensitive floors.

What the heck. When you’re one of the kings of modern technology, you’re pretty much required to live in a high-tech home.

Not surprisingly, despite his largesse, Gates has drawn criticism for his foundation’s operations, becoming the target of complaints about everything from a too-cozy board stocked with Microsoft cronies to a propensity to fund local projects (the University of Washington, where Bill Gates, Sr., serves as a regent, received $280 million) to the choice of priorities (such as the eradication of malaria) that critics consider inconsistent with their global health initiatives.

But Gates doesn’t deservesthe criticism,despite his lavish digs or his legitimate choice of funding recipients, becausesince its inception, his foundation’shas funded sincere and well-meaning projects to improve agricultural productivity—and thus deal with hunger and food insecurity—around the world. His foundation supports programs in Africa and elsewhere that focus on bringing the benefits of modern science and technology to farmers and livestock producers sadly stuck in another century.

With hundreds of millions of farmers struggling to feed their families and produce commercial crops, degraded soils, the lack of hybrid quality seeds, fertilizer, irrigation infrastructure and other inputs cripples their efforts. Even when such farmers or producers do manage somesuccess, they often lack access to markets.

To remedy that situation, the Gates Foundation supports programs providing:

  • training, and support structures, such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa that develops and distributes locally adapted seeds
  • affordable irrigation systems
  • equipment and training needed to grow and sell high-value crops
  • programs to train women as scientists, researchers and technicians

But perhaps its biggest contribution—and what is the most controversial tactic—the foundation is emphasizing biotechnology to develop crops that can thrive in what are often extreme conditions: depleted soil, persistent drought and various crop diseases and that provide nutritional enhancement to combat vitamin deficiencies.

After several years of both success and controversy, Bill Gates is seekinginput from people involved in the business of food production.

In a news release, Gates stated that, “On May 24, I’ll be giving a speech in Washington, D.C., to draw attention to farming families in the developing world and the important role they play in cutting hunger and poverty. I need your help in making the case about why small farmers are so important—in fact, I want you to share your best ideas and help spread the word.”

Most people don’t realize it, but the world’s poorest people are subsistence farmers, Gates continued. They try to eke out a living on small plots of land, mostly without the advantage of hybrid—much less genetically engineered—seeds or modern equipment and other infrastructure western farmers and livestock producers take for granted.

“We know that smart investments in farming families help them become self-sufficient,” Gates’ statement said. “We know that increasing productivity while preserving the environment leads to higher incomes and better lives. Our foundation has invested $1.7 billion to help small farmers in Africa and South Asia [and] we have seen great progress.

“Please join me. Tell the world why we should listen to small farmers and do everything we can to meet their needs. Go to our challenge page to send us your best ideas.”

To connect with the Gates Foundation’s project to develop new ideas on food production, log onto www.gatesfoundation.org/foundationnotes/Pages/bill-gates-110506-small-farmers.aspx.

And Bill would appreciate it if you use Internet Explorer to do so.

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator