New Gates Foundation ag leader looks at big picture
Dryden's stance on international grain reserve unpopular with agribusiness
By JERRY HAGSTROM
For the Capital Press
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Sam Dryden, the new director of agricultural development at the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has taken a long road to get back to farming.
He grew up on a small tobacco farm in eastern Kentucky, got a degree in economics at Emory University in Atlanta, then headed for New York and success in the corporate world.
In Dryden's case that meant working for Union Carbide, spinning off a seed division into Agrigenetics Corp., making money on its sale, and becoming simultaneously a venture capitalist and an adviser on agricultural policy to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank.
He headed Emergent Genetics Inc., a biotech seed company, until it was sold to Monsanto and Syngenta in 2005. Most recently he was managing director of a low carbon energy fund at Wolfensohn & Co., the corporate advisory and investment firm founded by former World Bank President James Wolfensohn.
Kids from Appalachia such as Dryden are known in New York as a driving force in the investment world because they are smart, highly motivated -- and never want to look back to their impoverished backgrounds. Dryden is looking back, not to eastern Kentucky, but to impoverished farmers all over the world.
With Gates grants of $1.5 billion to agricultural projects in Africa and other places where food is scarce, Dryden's appointment makes him a key player in the quest to provide food security -- meaning freedom from hunger and fear of it -- for the world.
The fact that his predecessor at Gates, Rajiv Shah, is now the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development also means that whatever the Gates Foundation does in agriculture is likely to have influence far beyond its individual projects.
In an April 22 interview, Dryden stressed that despite his resume in high finance his farm background is authentic and that his venture capital projects have involved working with sorghum farmers in Texas and women farmers in India.
Dryden's appointment is controversial. The agricultural establishment is thrilled that Gates has said genetic modification is key to increasing the food supply and appointed Dryden to succeed Shah.
But La Vida Locavore, a website advocating for small and organic farmers and their customers, says his connection to Monsanto and his appointment proves that the Gates Foundation is "in favor of a pro-biotech, for-profit, unsustainable, scary, powerful approach to 'feeding the world' (a.k.a. lining corporate pockets)."
"Transgenics draw a lot of attention," Dryden said, but that research is "a very small part of what we do" at the foundation. In a May 13 speech at Rockefeller University in New York, he stressed the foundation's involvement in helping Ethiopia analyze and expand its extension service.
He also noted that even the Gates Foundation's resources pale in comparison with the amount of money governments need to spend on agricultural development, particularly in Africa.
Dryden also said he favors an international grain reserve so poor consumers could avoid the kind of price spikes that occurred in 2008 and led to an increase in world hunger. That statement puts him at odds with the agribusiness establishment, which says that in today's world of just-in-time delivery and free trade a reserve would interfere with market forces.
However, it puts him on the same side as the National Family Farm Coalition and other groups that say grain reserves would help stabilize the lives of small farmers and consumers.
Dryden says too many people have forgotten that disease and other factors can cause food shortages.
"People don't remember southern corn leaf blight" that devastated the U.S. corn crop in 1970, Dryden said. "Right now there is a wheat rust heading toward India and China."
The Gates Foundation has won praise for its commitment to agriculture in developing in countries, but its projects are so new that the jury is still out on whether its approach will work and whether the governments of developing countries are committed to helping their farmers rather than relying on food aid to feed their people.