Bill Gates may be a tech billionaire, but he and his divorcing wife Melinda French Gates are also two of the largest private farmland owners in the United States.
Recent reports detailing the extent of the Gates' land ownership land to have requested criticism from some environmental advocates and farmers, who say there seems to be a contradiction between his public environmental advocacy and his personal investment strategy.
Others have speculated that the purchase of farmland may be part of the billionaire's overall climate efforts. Bill Gates has said there is no connection either way. But the new details about the purchases – and the discussion surrounding them – serve as an important reminder that billionaires can store their vast wealth in all sorts of unexpected places, and that there can often be a tension between their personal investments and their more publicized philanthropic work.
On Tuesday, NBC News reported that the Gatesen had acquired more than 269,000 acres of farm in the United States in the past 10 years. Those purchases, made with the help of Washington-based Cascade Investment and a number of shell companies, include farmland in nearly 20 states that grow vegetables such as carrots, soybeans and potatoes (some of which end up in McDonald's French fries). These details come after agricultural company The Land Report reported in January that the tech billionaire and his wife were off the land. top private farmland owners in the country. An analysis by NBC News also identified the Gates as the largest farmland owner in the US.
Nearly 300,000 acres is a lot of land for one family or private individual to own, but it's still only a small part of the estimated 911 million acres of farmland in the US. While Gates appears to be one of the largest private owners of farmland in the country, he is far from the only one to want to include farmland in his investment strategy.
As Mother Jones recently reported, other large financial companies have tried to buy farmland as well, even though they have no involvement at all in the actual day-to-day farming activities. Land Report, the outlet that named Gates the main private farm owner, notes several other families claiming more than 100,000 acres. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that approximately 30 percent of U.S. farmland is leased by landowners who are not involved in agriculture, such as Gates.
Having said all this, it should come as no surprise that Bill Gates, one of the richest people in the world, makes investments to serve his own financial interests.
"It's a good investment," Johnathan Hladik, a farmer and the policy director of the Center on Rural Affairs. "It's smart, it's stable, and especially over the past few decades it seems to be going up."
Still, Gates' land ownership has attracted particular attention as the billionaire has tried to make a name for himself in climate advocacy. Gates is currently promoting a book on the subject and has positioned himself and the Gates Foundation as a leader in what the future of agriculture should look like, especially with regard to technology.
A Georgia farmer and environmental lawyer, John Quarterman, told NBC that while he expected Gates to encourage more sustainable practices after buying farmland nearby, his purchase of that land didn't change much. And the National Farmers Union has suggested that the growing number of non-farm owners, such as Gates, buying up — and renting out — farmland could lead to practices that harm the environment: Short-term farmers who rent land are less likely to take long-term conservation measures, the organization states. and non-farmer owners do not have the experience to "understand the importance of protecting natural resources".
Others have suggested the opposite idea: that Gates' massive investment in farmland could have a direct relationship with his other climate efforts. News week for example recently introduced his land holdings "may be related to his investments in agricultural developments in climate change and Impossible Foods," although it didn't offer much support for that premise.
While Bill Gates has previously tried to separate his Gates Foundation climate work from his private investments, Cascade Investment has defended his reputation for sustainability.
In response to criticism, a Cascade Investment spokesperson emphasized that it had included all of its farmland in a program from Leading Harvest, a nonprofit that releases sustainability standards focused on biodiversity, conservation and soil. “Cascade plans to continue to evaluate and implement new initiatives that will improve the overall sustainability of its farmland portfolio,” the spokesperson told Recode.
More generally, Gates and other wealthy buyers of farmland have also been criticized for contributing to the concentration of land ownership. Because they can usually make higher bids than local farmers can afford, fewer people end up owning their own farmland. As Professor Nick Estes at the University of New Mexico wrote for the Guardian in April, this results in "a greater push for monocultures and more intensive industrial farming techniques to generate higher returns," while indigenous people and smallholders are "more cautious about land use."
The issues at stake go beyond the tracts of land Bill Gates bought. "People tend to either look for the rescue story — he's doing this to save the planet — or they're looking for the opposite — you know, it's just another greedy landowner," Bruce Sherrick, a professor of agriculture at Urbana, told me. Champaign at the University of Illinois, at Recode. Sherrick, who sits on the board of Leading Harvest, says Gates-owned farms are taking a positive step by following Leading Harvest's standards.
Gates himself made it a point to differentiate his climate advocacy and his investments. In a Reddit AMA in March, the billionaire appeared to be trying to separate his climate advocacy and personal investments when asked about his land wealth. “My investment group has chosen to do this. It is not related to the climate. The agricultural sector is important,” he says said in the post, before adding a more general comment about deforestation and biofuels.
But whatever Gates might want, many observers can't quite separate the two things. To them, Bill Gates the environmentalist is also Bill Gates the commercial farmland owner, and they think the two roles are linked, even if Gates doesn't consider them.