“Farmer Bill” is the nickname they gave him for becoming the largest landowner in the United States, having bought up to 242,000 acres of land over the years. Founder of Microsoft together with Paul Allen, a philanthropist sensitive to the health of the planet and, now, also a farmer: Bill Gates, with the fourth highest fortune in the world – 124 billion dollars – has decided to invest heavily in the land. And that could be welcomed as good news if we think about the contribution the Seattle computer genius has made to the community. Doubts, however, remain from the point of view of ethics.
With order. The Land Report magazine, which annually lists the top 100 landowners in America, revealed how Gates has long since decided to diversify its portfolios to make the operations of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation even more profitable. His wife, about two years ago, had declared how she was surprised by the advice that was suggested to her, that of investing in this sector, only to change her mind and consider it “one of the best I have ever received”. And believe her because she and her husband currently own acres of land spread across eighteen American states. In addition to holding 25,750 undergoing transformation west of Phoenix, Arizona, to build a new suburb – some speak of a new city of the future, with 200,000 residents – its largest parcels are located in Louisiana (69,071 acres ), Arkansas (47,927 acres) and Nebraska (20,588 acres).
To be more precise, when talking about the assets of Bill Gates and his wife, it is necessary to refer also to those who, for over a quarter of a century, have been involved in management. Michael Larson, since he was called in 1994, with his Cascade Investment has been handling all the investments of the Gate Foundation. The former bond fund manager of Putnam Investments was in fact tasked with diversifying 45% of the total assets of the Microsoft co-founder which, according to Land Report, ended up in part in AutoNation (an American dealer of used and new cars, which has over 300 coast-to-coast outlets), partly in the tourism sector, such as the Charles Hotel in Cambridge and the Four Seasons in San Francisco, and not least in the land. The initial estimated share would be 100,000 acres of land spread across California, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana and other states. In addition, Cascade Investment holds investments in a food safety company, Ecolab, another used car dealer, Vroom, and Canadian National Railway, Canada’s largest railway company that travels to the Gulf of Mexico via its US subsidiary, the Grand Trunk Corporation.
The biggest blow landed was about four years ago. The Agricultural Company of America (AgCoA), a joint venture launched in 2007 by Duquesne Capital Management and Goldman Sachs, with its 100,000 acres of land was one of the most important companies on the American agricultural landscape. In 2013, AgCoA was bought by the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board – a company owned by the Toronto government that is in charge of controlling and investing the funds of the Canadian Pension Plan – which had decided to invest in the land, only to then sell some possessions. years later: approximately $ 500 million of agricultural assets were purchased by Cascade Investment, which the following year repeated with an additional 180 million, acquiring approximately 14,500 acres of land in the Horse Heaven Hills, Washington State. A total investment that is around 700 million dollars and which has allowed Bill Gates to become the largest farmer in America, with a territory that expands like all of Hong Kong, about 6 thousand acres larger than the one owned. by the British Crown or, as Nick Estes pointed out in the Guardian, “twice the size” of the “Lower Brule Sioux” Indian Reservation, of which the professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of New Mexico is a citizen.
Estes’ analysis – critical, of course – contrasts with that which sees the investment of Bill Gates as a collective good. When Gates took to the Reddit online forum about a couple of weeks ago, he was pestered with a few questions to clarify what the purpose of his farming mission was. “My investment group chose to do it,” was his response, but underlined that it was not “linked to the climate”. Probably realizing that saying this could have created more perplexity than clarification, Gates was quick to recall how his attention to the environment is always vigilant, also demonstrated by his latest book. How to avoid a climate disaster. Inside, in fact, Gates writes: “The agricultural sector is important. With more productive seeds we can avoid deforestation and help Africa to face the climatic difficulties ”. Also during the online meeting, Gates said that in the world “we have a lot of water. The problem is that it is expensive to desalinate it and move it where it is needed. The cost of agricultural use of water is prohibitive. New seeds ”, therefore,“ can reduce their consumption, but some areas will not be able to grow that much ”.
The awareness of respect for the environment and the search to reduce inequalities in the world by its foundation are undeniable. In 2008, at the meeting in Davos, he announced that the Bill & Melinda Foundation intended $ 306 million in grants to the rural poor to provide better seeds, more productive land and access to new markets for their crops. Four years later, in Rome, he had instead asked the United Nations to establish a global target for the growth of agricultural productivity, leaving it to the experts to set it. For some time, Gates has been trying to better understand the world of synthetic meat, looking closely at the activities of the Impossible Foods and Beyond Meets companies (in which Cascade Investment owns shares), which are engaged in the production of meat substitutes and dairy products. vegetable base. Proteins that can also arrive from laboratories, to put an end – or at least limit – to the activity of the industrial slaughterhouse, polluting due to the large quantities of CO2 it emits and therefore very unsustainable. Last year, then, he and Melinda started their own agricultural innovation project, Gates Ag One, led by Joe Cornelius (former Bayer Crop Science executive in the 1990s who dealt with food, nutrition and technology development, then director for international development at Monsanto, a US multinational agricultural biotechnology company), with the aim of helping “small farmers in developing countries, many of whom are women, to sustainably improve crop productivity and adapt to the effects climate change. “
The slow and profitable move of Bill Gates, however, should not surprise in its originality. Like him, many other billionaires are looking to the earth as a tempting prospect. In fact, the Land Report ranking includes John Malone, president of Liberty Media, as well as the founder of CNN, Ted Turner, the spouses Stewart and Lynda Resnick – co-founders of the Wonderful Company, a company that includes, among many others, one of juices ( POM Wonderful), one of bottled water (FIJI Water), one of mandarins (Wonderful Halos) and one of pistachios and almonds (Wonderful Pistachios & Almonds). Although somewhere lower, there is also the CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, who with a wealth of 177 billion dollars has just confirmed himself at the top of the other ranking, that of the richest in the world. The motivation that drives them to (not) wear overalls and boots is the oldest: earning. The economic crisis of 2007, having made it clear that the construction of the company was based on easily destructible toothpicks, changed the way of thinking and investing, not necessarily for the better. The land, therefore food and water, have become safe investments due to their primordial characteristic: they necessarily serve everyone and their demand will never end. Especially if the amount of arable land continues to decline and the world population continues to increase. Private and state companies, multinationals, banks and investment funds have thus thrown headlong into this gold mine. But, of course, there is also a healthy gain to be explained. In fact, experts say that the investments will lead to land redevelopment, with some national governments encouraging the abandonment of fossil fuels to start the ecological transition, thus giving breath to biodiversity.
The role of activist, however, also focuses on another essential question. In an even more unequal society, as told in the Oxfam report where we read that the richest 1% produce double the emissions compared to the poorest 50% or, again, by Forbes which states that the number of billionaires has grown exponentially during the pandemic, how much good is it that few humans hold as much of a fundamental wealth as the earth? If 1% of the world’s farms manage 70% of arable land, how much is it to the benefit of the entire community? These questions have come to the fore after the news that a billionaire like Bill Gates, who is noble in the many sectors he deals with, has become America’s number one farmer. A country that makes agriculture an important part of its economy but which, since the 1980s, has decided to industrialize the entire sector as much as possible, to the detriment of the many family-run businesses that have either ended up succumbing or to be incorporated . Like the United States, many other states, mind you. The same goes for Brazil, China, the Netherlands and so on.
In 2017, a FAO report entitled “6 Ways Indigenous Peoples Are Helping the World Achieve #ZeroHunger” reaffirmed the importance these communities hold for the environment and for everyone’s survival. “Constituting only 5 percent of the world population”, it says, “indigenous peoples are nevertheless fundamental guardians of the environment. Traditional indigenous territories comprise 22% of the world’s land surface, but 80% of the planet’s biodiversity ”. Then, the list of aids provided: their agricultural practices resistant to climate change, the conservation and restoration of natural resources, the production of native foods capable of diversifying dietary diets and lifestyles respectful of the place they live in. An attention that comes from the atavistic attachment that binds individuals to the earth and which, very difficult, can be reproduced after an investment of over half a billion dollars.