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‘Concentration of land ownership’: The controversy over Bill Gates becoming the largest private farmland owner in the US

 Gates’s landownership has attracted particular attention because 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 in regard to technology.

One Georgia farmer and environmental advocate, John Quarterman, told NBC that while he expected that Gates would encourage more sustainable practices after buying farmland nearby, his acquisition of that land didn’t change much. And the National Farmers Union has suggested that the growing number of non-farmer owners like Gates buying up farmland — and renting it out — could lead to practices that hurt the environment: Short-term farmers who rent land are less likely to take long-term conservation steps, the organization argues, and non-farmer owners don’t have the experience to “understand the importance of protecting natural resources.”

Others have floated the opposite idea: that Gates’s massive investment in farmland might have a direct relationship to his other climate efforts. Newsweek, for instance, recently suggested his land ownership “may be connected to his investments in climate change agricultural developments and Impossible Foods,” though it didn’t offer much support for that premise.

While Bill Gates has previously tried to separate his Gates Foundation work on the climate from his private investments, Cascade Investment has defended its record on sustainability.

In response to criticism, a spokesperson for Cascade Investment emphasized that it had enrolled all its farmland in a program by Leading Harvest, a nonprofit that releases standards for sustainability 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 broadly, 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 what local farmers can afford, fewer people end up owning their own farmland. As University of New Mexico professor Nick Estes wrote for the Guardian in April, this results “in a greater push for monocultures and more intensive industrial farming techniques to generate greater returns,” while Indigenous people and small farmers “are more cautious with the use of land.”

The issues at play go beyond what pieces of land Bill Gates has bought. “People tend to look either for the salvation story — he’s doing this to save the planet — or they look for the opposite — you know, it’s just another greedy landowner,” Bruce Sherrick, an agriculture professor at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, told Recode. Sherrick, who is on the board of Leading Harvest, says that Gates-owned farms are taking a positive step by following Leading Harvest’s standards.

Gates himself made a point to differentiate his climate advocacy and his investments. In a Reddit AMA in March, the billionaire seemed to try to separate his climate advocacy and his personal investments when asked about his wealth of land. “My investment group chose to do this. It is not connected to climate. The agriculture sector is important,” he said in the post, before adding a more general comment about deforestation and biofuels.

But whatever Gates might wish, many observers can’t quite separate the two things. For them, Bill Gates the environmentalist is also Bill Gates the commercial farmland owner, and they think the two roles are connected even if Gates doesn’t consider them to be.