Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and one of the richest men in the world, highlighted the relative lack of money devoted to agricultural innovation and research in his annual letter outlining the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2012 priorities.

The Foundation was founded by the Gates’ in 1994 and is now the world’s largest philanthropic organization. Guided by the philosophy that every life has equal value, the Foundation spends the majority of its funds on global health and development projects, both of which are intimately tied to agriculture.

Gates’ comments in his 2012 letter expand on his longstanding interest in agricultural development, to which he says his Foundation has devoted $2 billion.

Research commissioned by the Foundation shows just $3 billion a year is spent researching the seven most important crops, including wheat, maize, rice, cassava, sorghum, legumes and sweet potatoes. Of that, $1.5 billion comes from countries’ public funds, $1.2 billion from private companies and $300 million from international research organization CGIAR. By comparison, the Foundation made $2.4 billion in grant payments across a range of program areas in 2010.

“Given the central role that food plays in human welfare and national stability, it is shocking – not to mention short-sighted and potentially dangerous – how little money is spent on agricultural research,” he wrote.

In the letter, Gates said the world population is projected to swell to 9.7 billion by 2050. To meet the needs of this growing number of people, he said it is imperative to “help poor farmers sustainably increase their productivity so they can feed themselves and their families,” but he realized that is only achievable “if we prioritize agricultural innovation.”

Gates also highlighted research being done to combat Ug99, which has been funded by the Foundation through the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project. Ug99 is a virulent wheat stem rust that has devastated crops in Africa and parts of the Middle East and is poised to spread into some of the most populous and volatile parts of the world.

It is the first such disease to rear its head since the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and, in his letter, Gates compared the potential danger a disease like Ug99 can cause to the widespread starvation and poverty caused by potato blight in Europe in the 1840s.

Gates’ focus on agricultural research has the potential to dramatically amplify growing concern about the overall stagnation, and in some areas, decrease, in funding for agricultural research.

This is a particular worry for the wheat industry, which is disproportionally dependent on public-sector research dollars that have decreased in recent years because of squeezed state and federal budgets.

At the same time, more private research organizations have announced new investments in wheat research since 2008, and there is increasing recognition that coordination and collaboration among wheat researchers in the U.S. and abroad is necessary to meet growing challenges of diseases and pests while still increasing yields to keep up with population growth.

Gates’ letter in its entirety is at http://www.gatesfoundation.org/annual-letter/2012/Documents/2012-annual-letter-english.pdf.

More about wheat research and NAWG’s research priorities is at www.wheatworld.org/research.