These days, Sam Dryden speaks in a soft whisper. When I met him for breakfast in the restaurant at the Seattle Four Seasons, I had to lean close to hear. Then I stopped my recorder and listened back, to make sure it was audible over the jazz standards and background conversations.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “With my condition, my voice is pretty quiet in the morning, and as the day goes on it quits altogether.”

Dryden is tall and lean. He lives upstairs, and the waiters know him and dote on him. One asked if he’d like his usual cinnamon roll, and when it arrived, he said, “I can never eat this whole thing, so if you’d like some…”

As part of my attempt to understand the contradictory information I’ve heard about the future of food and hunger, I sat down for a sort of exit interview with Sam Dryden, who recently left his position as head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s agricultural development program. (He’s still an adviser.)

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Dryden didn’t want the job initially. When he first got the call from Bill Gates, he knew him only as the fellow on the unpopular side of a famous antitrust fight.

“We spent an afternoon together,” Dryden said, “and it changed my mind. I told him I had no idea how to do this job, and there were other people who could do it better. He said, no, he didn’t think anyone had ever had this job before. And he knew I had this condition, and we knew it had about a five-year window. He said he had looked into it and, while it didn’t have a happy ending, it had some productive years and we ought to use them.”

Dryden has a Parkinson’s-like disease called multiple system atrophy, and there is no cure. Every one of us has a limited time here to actually accomplish something, but given Dryden’s prognosis, he more or less knows the schedule.

What gives Dryden a unique vantage on the debate over meeting the world’s food needs is that he’s not ideological — he’s been willing to listen to people on all sides. His life has allowed him to look at the issue through the eyes of both a subsistence farmer and an agribusiness executive. I wanted to learn what conclusions he’d reached after five years trying to figure out how to address the problems of poverty, hunger, and environmental degradation.

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When the Gates Foundation brought him on, many critics — including Grist — saw it as a sign that this philanthropy would be trying to spread industrial agriculture in Africa and Asia. Dryden, after all, spent most of his career in corporate agribusiness: He worked for the chemical giant Union Carbide, then led a biotech company it spun off called Agri-Genetics. Later, he started a company to invest in biotechnology that Monsanto purchased.

But Dryden didn’t end up pushing the Gates Foundation toward purely technological solutions. Instead, he embraced the foundation’s critics, and reached out  to people like Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Michael Pollan, and Prince Charles to exchange ideas and form partnerships.

“I always say — with a program this large — if there weren’t things wrong with it, it would be a really unusual situation,” Dryden said. “I don’t think any of us have that divine knowledge. So having people that are knowledgeable and who are willing to look at the program and give criticism is really important. So long as it’s not from a dogmatic perspective.”

Sam_DrydenauthorThe Gates Foundation had spent well over a billion dollars on agriculture alone when it hired Dryden — for comparison, the yearly budget for U.S. aid to reduce chronic hunger is $1 billion. And the spending increased during Dryden’s tenure. In the last five years, the Gates Foundation has invested more than any other charity, and more than most nations, to lift small farmers out of poverty.

As the Guardian’s John Vidal put it, “No government minister, banker, civil servant or corporation wields such influence or has so few political restrictions. If Dryden and his team says ‘get out of Malawi’, or ‘invest in cassava or drought-resistant crops, or a miraculous new vegetable’, then people may live better or die. If he pushes organic farming or agro-ecology or GM or any particular farming technology, the whole human development of a country may be changed.”

Dryden protests that it’s not really about him: he has been just one element in a large organization. All the same, Gates hired him expressly to develop a new strategy, and it’s clear that he brought new ideas and directions to the foundation.

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In the first conversation Dryden had with Bill Gates, Gates mentioned the importance of growing the food processing industry in poor regions of the world. “Be careful what you wish for,” Dryden remembers saying. Because industry has tended to work with corn and soy, it has pushed farmers to rely on a couple of cash crops, when other plants might be better suited to their environment. “Agriculture is drastically out of balance now,” he said. “We’re pushing corn into places it shouldn’t be grown.”

There does seem to have been a real change in focus under Dryden, from the major cereal crops to beans, sorghum, millet, cassava, and livestock.

Similarly, Dryden pushed against the strategy of getting more synthetic fertilizer to farmers with limited access. “I tried to move away from fertilizer for soil augmentation,” he said. This wasn’t an absolute position, he says, and there are many cases in which fertilizers are important. “It’s more of a topping off, but the basic thing is, give farmers the information they need to manage their soils.”

But if you want to know whether the Gates Foundation is now on the side of industrial agriculture or on the side of organics? Well, it’s not so simple. We spend a lot of time debating this choice in the abstract, but on the ground it isn’t an either-or divide. The foundation was always focused on supporting small farmers. Before, during, and after Dryden’s time, the foundation advocated using a mix of the most appropriate technologies.

“While Sam had a tremendous impact on the foundation, our agriculture program’s focus on the smallholder farmer preceded Sam,” wrote Chris Williams, a spokesperson for the Gates Foundation, in an email. “Our goal remains to reduce hunger and poverty for millions of poor farm families in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by supporting sustainable productivity growth for the crops and livestock that matter most to them and integrated solutions to address their needs.”

Dryden didn’t bring about a 180-degree change in direction, but he did change the emphasis and sought input from people on the organic side of the divide.

“Bill didn’t really want to interact with Prince Charles, because they had diametrically opposed philosophies,” he said. “To Charles’ credit, he had this adviser who said, ‘Let’s try to focus on where there is common ground.’” Both Bill and Melinda Gates later met with Prince Charles, and they agreed to work together. “So we are focused on genomics [learning the genetics of crops without doing genetic engineering] and digital communications, and those are places where we are working together.”

When Dryden took the job at the Gates Foundation he got in touch with Michael Pollan, met up with him for dinner, and called him from time to time to ask his opinion or advice. But when I asked Pollan about this, he pointed out that Dryden’s predecessor, Raj Shah, also met with him. Shah also met with the lefty advocacy group, Food First, and spent a lot of time talking about how to help small women farmers. Still, Pollan thought that Dryden had brought something new to the organization.

“It is true that Bill Gates had a very technological approach, and Dryden, though he came from biotechnology, was very sensitive to context and culture. He’s a systems thinker, and he understands that you can’t just look at yields — you have to pay attention to the market, too.”

When I asked people how the foundation had changed course under Dryden, most insiders clammed up, or asked to go off the record. The Gates Foundation is so powerful that anyone working in the same space is careful to avoid conflict, because they’ll almost surely want its cooperation at some point. One of these people, who is intimately familiar with this field, wrote in an email:

“Sam Dryden, like others in the best tradition of philanthropy, steadied his vision by drawing upon what he learned growing up in rural Kentucky and in the seeds business long before he was entirely surrounded by people peddling whatever could get them grant money. Using that experience he sought to re-focus the Gates Foundation away from what technology could beam down upon the small farmer, and instead towards trying to understand what the small farmer was actually looking for and whom she trusted to supply that to her.”

And Dryden was partially successful — but, this person added, “it is hard not to be overwhelmed at Gates by the sheer volume of the money, and the cacophony of 1,200 staff all specialized in different approaches trying to persuade each other and ultimately Bill himself that their fix is the right one.”

Persuading people in the middle of cacophony is a skill Dryden seems to know something about. He’s attuned to the way labels and language can get you boxed in. As I spoke with him, he kept saying things that critics of the Gates Foundation on the left have been saying in their critiques. For instance:

“If we try to use the same food system we have in the United States to try to feed China and India — driving them toward corn and soybeans — it’s just not going to work.”

I suggested that part of the suspicion of the Gates Foundation comes from its use of the term “Green Revolution.” That’s a dirty word in some quarters, associated with a corporate takeover of farming. So when some people hear the Gates Foundation talking about a “doubly green revolution” they assume it’s a bad thing. Most people don’t understand that that the term comes from Gordon Conway’s idea of producing more food, but this time in an ecologically responsible way — that is, a green revolution that’s actually green in the environmental sense.

“I maintain that we should never use ‘Green Revolution’ except to refer to a period of time,” Dryden said. “That was a period of time. You can’t repeat it, you don’t want to repeat it. It fed a lot of people. At the same time, it caused a lot of malnutrition, it caused a lot of environmental problems. So I try to get us to move away from Green Revolution.”

Now, the foundation materials use the term circumspectly, instead of making it the goal. But this change in wording has more to do with appearances than substance. In many ways Dryden and the Gates Foundation were always more aligned with their critics than those critics realized. Because the foundation saw some limited use for biotechnology, people worried that the foundation was merely a front for spreading corporate agribusiness. As is often the case, the obsession with GMOs crowded out more important issues.

When I pointed out that the methods Dryden was suggesting sounded similar to those laid out in the small-farmer-focused International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development, he said, “It should. It should sound very similar. Some of it is the same approach.” Dryden was one of the sponsors of the IAASTD, and he convinced the U.S. government to participate, but he resigned from the effort before it was finished.

“There were certain ground rules that we set up at the beginning that would make for an acceptable report,” he told me. “Those were, that we’d pay for the best authors we could find to write the sections, and then we’d pay for the best peer-review that we could find. When we couldn’t get the budget together for it, they started cutting the budget, and they cut pay for authors and pay for review. And that to me made it unacceptable, because what you got was whoever was the most aggressively scrambling group to vocally put forward their arguments. It’s not a peer-reviewed effort. I’d say, at 90-something percent level, it’s right and we follow most of it, but to have it as an authoritative source isn’t right.”

A lot of the confusion about Dryden comes from the expectation that his thinking aligns with the needs of agribusiness. But as he told me his story, it became clear that he grew up in a way that has a lot more in common with subsistence farmers in Asia than with modern American farmers.

What follows is a small piece of our conversation, about his life and his vision for agricultural development. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q. I understand you grew up on a small farm. Did that experience teach you any lessons that have been useful in trying to deal with these huge issues of hunger and poverty?

A. I grew up in eastern Kentucky, a rural community — at the time it was the smallest and poorest county in Appalachia.

Q. Which county?

A. Robertson County.

Q. I’ve been through there for some reporting. Beautiful, but hard to see how you’d farm. Just these tiny houses clinging to deep, steep slopes.

A. I grew up in what I call ridge and hollow [pronounced “holler”] country. First time I ever met Jeff Raikes — who is former CEO of the Gates Foundation — he greeted me at the door of his office and took me over to a big framed photograph and said, ‘I grew up on a farm also,’ and he pointed to this aerial photograph of corn and feedlots, in Nebraska. And I said to him, ‘Jeff, the only thing we have in common is that’s called a farm — it has nothing to do with what I grew up with.’

It was in the 1950s, and the Tennessee Valley Authority had just brought electricity to that area; some families still didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have running water. Even though it was a small county, we had four one-room schools, which is to say the geography [the mountains] divided how you dealt with things. We grew our own food, so in that sense it was subsistence. And it was subsistence in that, if we didn’t get a good cash crop, we had trouble making ends meet.

Q. Was that tobacco?

A. Uh-huh. Yeah. So that taught lessons: You hate to be dependent on one crop as your cash crop. It taught me the lesson that if you are on poor soil, there ain’t a whole hell of a lot you can do about it — some people just have the challenge of poor soil. But it also taught me the lesson that you try to work with the soil that you have, as opposed to inputs. I’ve always called fertilizer a cheap trick: It can do wonders, but it costs so much to use it.

It also taught me something about finances. We didn’t trust the banks; the last thing you did was borrow from a bank – you borrow from a lot of other sources first. It taught me about insurance: I remember sitting at the table every season, trying to decide whether to buy hail insurance or not. It taught me about risk – you break risk down into its components of probability and consequence. Hail is such a good example, because there’s a low probability that it’s going to hail every year, at least in that county, but if it’s after the crops emerge, especially if it’s getting toward harvest, it’s heartbreaking, because you lose the whole crop. So the consequences are huge. That was a big expense for us but oftentimes we’d take insurance.

We had our own chickens, our own pigs, a couple cows. And we would go once every two weeks to the nearest town, which was only 25 miles away but took over two hours to drive, because of the ridge and hollers. And you get supplies, and otherwise you had a huckster that would come through with an old bus and you’d barter.

So that’s how I grew up. It was the type of place where people solved things for themselves. There was a saying that you don’t wear a suit in that part of the world unless it’s Sunday, or a funeral, because otherwise you get shot. And it was sort of true.

Q. Because if someone was walking around in a suit, they were trouble?

A. They were from the government.

Q. There wasn’t the feeling that the government was there to help.

A. No, well, there were VISTA workers that would come to visit. My father passed away and my mother took boarders. We’d have the VISTA workers sometimes stay with us. You learned that there were two types of those people. There were the ones who, as soon as they got there, they started telling you how to do things better. Then there were the ones who would sit and listen. And they’d listen a long time, and then they’d start to suggest things. Those were the ones that had value.

Q. How did you get from there to college?

A. This was during President Johnson’s Great Society — the War on Poverty. They gave money to the colleges to get kids out of Appalachia. One of the VISTA workers told me about this, and so I drove down to Vanderbilt and walked into the admissions office in August, and asked to go to school there under this program. The dean, Dean Woods was his name, was nice enough to explain this wasn’t how you got into college. I’d gone the first two years to the local community college. He said he’d used all his Great Society slots, but Emory University down in Atlanta had some, and would I be interested in that? I’d never heard of Emory, but it was getting out of the county.

Q. So for you, success was really getting off the farm, and I think for a lot of people engaged in subsistence agriculture that’s probably the case. But there are also people who’d like to be prosperous and stay on the farm, and there’s this sort of inevitable calculus — as yields improve, each farmer is feeding more people and there’s a smaller proportion of people in agriculture. I think a lot of the criticism from the left is, we want these people to be able to stay on the land, and just be more prosperous. Is the end game that people are able to go to college and leave the farm?

A. The end game is that people have a choice. That they have choices in life. I think one of the biggest issues is respect. What these people are doing is a really hard job, and we’re trying to make it a little bit easier. You gotta respect ‘em.

Q. So what are you doing to help small farmers?

Dryden indicated that I should open his laptop. He found a slide with an illustration of an African farmer, surrounded by concentric circles of communities — her family, her town, her country.

A. We talk about these circles of trust. This farmer in the center, she’s also a mother, a wife, she has to make decisions about managing all those things, she always using the best judgment she has and she’s always nervous about that. If you are a smallholder farmer operating on a thin margin of error, it’s not surprising that you don’t trust many people.

And we’re way over here in Seattle, outside all those circles of trust. The challenge is, how do you get her voice into what you do, and how do you get your money towards her so it actually benefits her?

Q. That gets back to that VISTA worker who’s actually listening.

A. Exactly right. We try to support the farmers rather than telling them what to do. She’s making out the best she can, the question is, how do you use technology to make things easier for her?

There’s this group in India called Digital Green — it was started by a guy out of Microsoft India. He had the idea that if there’s someone in a community that’s an influencer on adoption, then why not use technology to record them? So they video each cultivation step, and then on Saturday night they go into the village and project this. All the farmers, they don’t have anything else to do on Saturday night. It’s entertainment. It’s someone in their local dialect, local dress, usually from a neighboring community, and they are showing best practices. Then what they also do is, they video the question and answer session, and then they word-mine that, and you start to find trends of questions. So those are the voices of the people, what’s important to them. Then you start to address that.

They’ve done this long enough now that they’ve actually created a sort of Facebook, and it’s creating social contacts. When you combine that with some technologies of mobile phones where women are able to form a savings group, that lends amongst themselves — it’s all digital and they are learning to trust that. So those are all ways we are learning to help the farmer, and hopefully it helps them.

We started out focused on products. But that’s sort of us turning the crank, designing products for them, as opposed to them learning how to use the technology and design it themselves. As it turns out our strategy has been robust enough – it’s had a lot of influence. We actually find we work better at the systems level. Where, if we put the capacity in place, they turn the crank themselves.

Q. So how do you affect the system?

A. We go the whole way, from molecule to market. Way upstream. Taking sorghum and millet and sequencing all those genomes through the Beijing Genomics Institute. You can genetically engineer drought resistance into corn all you want, but you are just pushing it toward sorghum. Sorghum’s already there. Millet is already there. So why don’t we work with those to begin with? Well, it just so happens that people began crossing corn instead of sorghum, but I’m optimistic that with the new genomic information, and rapid-cycle, and so forth, well get sorghum caught up. Get those genotypes and try to correlate them with phenotypes. And we are doing that for rice, corn, and wheat, sorghum, millet, and potatoes and so forth. And while the Basic Genomics Institute and everyone is willing to make that open to the public, it creates a big data challenge. How do you make that relevant to the breeder? So that’s a problem that Bill is really focused on. And then we are looking at speeding up breeding, so we don’t have to focus on transgenics. So we are focusing on, what is it that we can learn from the matrix of genes in each of these different varieties.

Q. Does the Gates Foundation have investments in transgenics at this point?

A. Yeah, about 4 to 5 percent of the budget. Those are mostly in virus resistance in places where you don’t get natural resistance.

Q. So you’ve got the seeds, then what?

A. Then it gets handed off to the seed systems. The best-developed seed systems are of course for corn. And then at the center of this is the farmer. How do you get the farmers?

We are working with digital soil maps, so for the first time, down to a meter, a farmer can understand what the soil type is. Understand that and she can figure out how to do rotation crops.

And then there’s the market. You have to deal with the fact that the food processing companies need to have some uniformity, and now they are getting that from corn. Well, what can we do that gives more diversity upstream at the farm that they can still use downstream? That’s a conundrum we are working on.

Q. You want to create a market that doesn’t force farmers to put all their eggs in one basket — like your tobacco crop.

A. That’s right. When I was working at Agri-Genetics, Kellogg was the second largest shareholder. You come to learn a few things having Kellogg as your shareholder. Every quarter we had this obligation to go talk to them about new ideas, and their chairman Bill Lamothe would draw together his management committee, and it soon came to be a pretty boring exercise. Because the VP of marketing would say, ‘Well, that’s an interesting idea, but I need this many trainloads a day for cornflakes’ — or whatever — ‘and can you supply that?’ Of course those were numbers that were astronomical. So then the VP of manufacturing would say, well, if that product has a different consistency we’re going to have to retool, and that’s going to cost tens of millions of dollars. So if it had a different endosperm or something.

Q. Technological lock-in.

A. Yeah. So then the VP for marketing would say, ‘What are you going to be able to put on the box? If this is insect resistance and it’s only benefitting the farmer, I can’t put it on the box.’ And the VP for sales says, ‘I can’t sell it.’ And the VP for finance says, ‘We can’t make any money on it.’ So you learned why everything is #2 yellow corn. And you learn that the interstate highways and the railroads that run through the heart of America run through those grain belts to pick up #2 yellow corn. All situated for that.

Q. America is built around it.

A. That’s right.

In the end, we got a strategy that I think is so robust. It’s based on poverty alleviation. It’s focused on rural poor, and mostly women. While it’s a supply-side strategy — productivity and surplus for the poor — the first thing they got to do is grow enough for themselves. Then the market has to be willing to take their surplus production, or else you crash prices. So the foundation strategy is just focused on productivity. We figure the demand side will be able to meet that. But we have to be coordinated with the food, manufacturing, and feed companies, because we’d like to get them off of corn and soybeans. We’d like to get them using these other crops we grow — part of having more than one cash crop. It’s not the foundation, but I’m working with others, including [former U.N. Secretary General] Kofi Annan, leading an effort to get big food and feed manufacturers to substitute 10 percent of their needs with sorghum instead of maize or something like that. But it means these smallholders need to organize themselves in a fashion that they can get to the market. And they can do it in a way that they are a reliable supplier. So that’s part of the strategy.

Midway through our conversation, we moved upstairs, to his surprisingly modest little apartment. The conversation lasted some three hours — I’ve cut and rearranged liberally to convey the most salient points. It was a warm cloudless day, and we walked out onto Dryden’s terrace to look down on the rooftops. He pointed out a young seagull on a neighboring building. He’d been watching as it learned to fly.

By the end of our conversation Dryden’s voice was fading. But as I left, an assistant was arriving. He had more he wanted to get done.

Correction: This story had the name of the genomics institute wrong. It is the Beijing Genomics Institute, not Basics Genomics Institute. We’ve also added a passage clarifying that Bill and Melinda Gates ultimately met, and formed a partnership with, Prince Charles. We have sentenced the writer to read the first 1,000 base pairs of the millet genome as a sort of secular rosary in penance.