Gates Foundation picks new head of ag program

Published: Friday, January 8, 2010 at 6:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 8, 2010 at 6:51 p.m.

SEATTLE — A man who has focused much of his career on agriculture technology, including development of genetically-modified seeds, was named Friday as the new head of agriculture development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Sam Dryden, a managing director of New York-based Wolfensohn & Company, will take over the program on Feb. 1. His appointment was announced a day after the foundation's previous agriculture leader, Dr. Rajiv Shah, was sworn in to take over the United States Agency for International Development.

The foundation, which has committed $1.4 million to agriculture development efforts in Africa and South Asia, has focused most of its agriculture efforts in the past three years on helping small farmers improve production and distribution of their crops and livestock.

But they have also looked at higher tech solutions for combatting world hunger and disease, especially through its world health program, including a major investment in Seattle-based PATH's nutrient-enriched rice, which has won international awards as well as some criticism.

The foundation has focused its agriculture grants on getting better seeds to farmers, boosting their productivity through irrigation and fertilizer, helping them sell their excess production and move it to more lucrative markets, and advocating for better government policies and agriculture investment.

"Sam brings a wealth of experience to the foundation — not only in agriculture, research and business, but also in a wide variety of projects related to agriculture development and public-private partnerships," said Sylvia Mathews-Burwell, president of the foundation's Global Development Program.

Dryden has 25 years of experience as an investor and entrepreneur in the life sciences. He has served on a number of international boards and commissions focused on agriculture development, economic development and food security.

Dryden previously was chair and CEO of Emergent Genetics, which developed and marketed genetically modified seeds. The company was sold to the Monsanto Co. in 2005. Before Emergent, he co-founded Agrigenetics Corp., which is now part of Dow AgroSciences.

The foundation's choice of Freese raises a red flag for organizations that advocate against genetically modified crops, said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center on Food Safety.

"Appointing someone like this as head of their agriculture project is a bad sign," Freese said.

He said this isn't the first issue the center has had with the foundation, which also has not taken a stand against seed patents.

Seed patents prevent farmers from savings seeds and using them for future crops, Freese said. Although this is no longer common in U.S. agribusiness, it is an important practice in developing countries.

"They're a big foundation and they have a number of different initiatives. It's clear they're doing some good things. But they're also very naive about biotechnology and seed patenting," Freese said.

In its announcement about Dryden's appointment, the foundation points out that he is on the U.S. board of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which works to ensure crop diversity for food security. He also serves on the National Academies Roundtable on Science and Technology for Global Sustainability.

Previously, he served on the World Bank's steering committee for the International Assessment on Agricultural Science and Technology.

He has worked in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. The Kentucky native earned a bachelor's degree in economics from Emory University.

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