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Remarks as Prepared for Delivery: Agriculture Secretary Vilsack on Innovation in American Agriculture, Sustainable Solutions to Help Feed the World
WASHINGTON, June 13, 2011 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today spoke before the National Press Club on innovations in American Agriculture:
"Today, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that 925 million people were undernourished last year. This is an improvement from 2009, but still unacceptably high. Our goal as a nation and international community is clear: to bring down this number by increasing the availability and accessibility of nutritious food around the world.
"As we look to the future, this challenge grows even more stark. The global population is on the rise and strong economic growth in developing countries is expanding middle classes and increasing demand for agricultural products. We will have to increase food production by 70 per cent to feed a larger, richer global population of 9.3 billion by 2050. What's more, agriculture will play a role in meeting the growing demand for energy – which is expected to increase by more than 40% by 2035.
"The challenge of feeding a growing global population is real and success not guaranteed.
"For producers this is a time of uncertainty and constraint as they confront the uncertainty of climate change and face the constraint limited water resources. We know that past approaches to solving global hunger, which focused efforts on providing food aid, is not enough. We need to increase both the sustainability and productivity of global agriculture so that food is available, accessible and usable to people everywhere in the world.
"I strongly believe that our nation, our scientists, our policy makers and – most of all – our farmers, ranchers and agricultural producers have proven they are up to the challenge.
"American farmers are the most creative and productive in the world. Each acre we farm has become more and more productive, particularly over the course of the last century. America has moved from subsistence farming of the 1920s and 30s – to the world's largest food exporter today.
"This evolution was not pre-ordained. America's producers embraced science in their pursuit of greater productivity. Technologies emerged from the imagination, creativity and hard work of our scientists from USDA, Land Grant Universities, and the private sector.
"Principle Number One –the solution to global food security lies in innovation, arising from research and development.
"Higher productivity need not come at the expense of conserving our natural resources. America's farmers have taken steps to take care of our nation's natural resources. In the last 30 years alone, USDA has worked to help producers reduce soil erosion by more than 40% and agriculture has gone from being the leading cause of wetland loss to leading the entire nation in wetland restoration efforts. Our farms help capture carbon emissions, mitigating climate change. Farm lands, pasture, and forests through proper conservation efforts help preserve our water resources and clean the air.
"Principle Number Two – the solution to global food security need not be and should not be at the sacrifice of efforts to conserve our natural resources.
"Two years ago, world leaders in L'Aquila Italy committed to make sustained, increased investments in agriculture development. And the G-20 Agricultural Ministerial which I will attend next week will continue to reinforce and move this agenda forward.
"During these two years, the focus and extent of cooperation among world leaders has been remarkable – and it is mirrored here within our own government. Under the leadership of President Obama, the United States Government has pioneered a new coordinated approach to work towards global food security.
"Feed the Future, a presidential initiative led by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is smarter and more efficient because it is focused on raising the productivity and incomes of small holder farmers through country-led strategies. It is focused on specific geographic regions and value chains within 20 countries so that we can significantly invest in priority areas where we bring a comparative advantage. It is bringing together the capabilities of multiple parts of the U.S. Government, as well as multilateral partners and private and non-governmental sectors, to build local capacity to sustainably increase global agriculture productivity, improve nutrition, and also foster regional trade.
"Through Feed the Future, USDA is closely coordinating its efforts with USAID. In times of reduced financial resources efforts must be focused on core competencies. For USDA in the context of Feed the Future three core areas have been identified: innovation through collaborative research; in country capacity building in areas such as regulations, natural resource management, trade, and extension; and efficient market development through information, analysis and statistics.
"Principle Number Three – the strategy to achieve global food security must focus on country identified needs and the core competencies of US departments and agencies of other developing countries, and international organizations.
"As we have seen for decades, innovative research is perhaps our best opportunity for game-changing results in global agriculture.
"Research in a climate changing era is working to develop and extend new, improved technologies and methods for agricultural water use efficiency, soil conservation, and the basic productivity of the land on which seeds are sown.
"At the same time, innovative genetic research is changing plant breeding by providing us with a better understanding of the genetic basis of high-yielding and stress resistant crops. To confront heat, pests, soil salinity, toxicity, and new diseases, we are using discoveries about genetic information to better predict and accelerate the results of conventional breeding – selecting untested lines based on genomics rather than just labor-consuming field trials.
"In the past few years, USDA research has helped reveal the genetic blueprints of a host of plants and animals including corn, soybeans, apples, pigs, turkeys, cacao and a grass with great potential as a biofuel crop. In the past weeks alone, we published research with the full genome sequence of two common pathogens that cause wheat diseases which damage crops around the globe. This sort of work allows us to bypass generations of selective breeding and to develop disease-control methods to rapidly bring more abundant, nutritious food to tables around the world.
"This new understanding of genetics is having an impact on one of the world's most threatening agricultural challenges – the wheat stem rust known as Ug-99. This devastating fungus is spreading across Africa, Asia and the Middle East with the potential to threaten crops that feed 1 billion people. The United States is playing a key role in the international effort to reduce its damage. We have provided more than 14,000 lines of wheat to be screened for resistance at plots at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute. And thanks to genetics, we are pre-screening lines of wheat before sending them for field tests, increasing the frequency with which Kenyan researchers are finding rust-resistance in our wheat and moving us closer towards developing new Ug-99 resistant cultivars.
"Today we are taking another step to strengthen our capacity to combat Ug-99. USDA and USAID are celebrating the groundbreaking of a new USDA Ug-99 research greenhouse at the University of Minnesota, a significant commitment on the part of the U.S. government under the Feed the Future initiative to provide a more stable grain supply worldwide.
"Other USDA genetic science helped lead to a flood-tolerant rice variety that shuts down during flooding conditions, but resumes growth afterwards. Developed in conjunction with the University of California and the International Rice Research Center in the Philippines new varieties are helping transform the food security in Feed the Future focus countries such as Bangladesh.
"At the African Growth and Opportunity Act Forum last week, USAID and USDA were proud to announce that through the Feed the Future initiative, the U.S. Government will support an African-led partnership focused on controlling aflatoxin. Over 4.5 billion people in the developing world consume dangerous levels of aflatoxins, which are toxic and carcinogenic. This project, paid for by a broad array of international and local public and private sector organizations and foundations, including $12 million from the U.S. government, will help develop comprehensive regional strategies to limit the effects of aflatoxins on health and economic growth.
"Other USDA-funded projects are looking at heat and drought tolerance in beans, addressing vitamin A and other nutrient deficiencies that cause problems for millions of children with new corn and potato varieties, and improving fruits, vegetables and specialty crops like cacao and table grapes. This sort of advanced development holds incredible potential for improving sustainable production and nutrition and raising farm incomes both here at home and across the globe.
"And because of our belief in the value of global innovation and collaboration on agriculture, the genetic information that forms the basis for much of this work is available publically – and every year USDA distributes, at no cost, over 150,000 accessions from our seed banks to researchers at home and around the globe.
"This research is not just a domestic effort. Much of the best research is being done in conjunction with international partners and non-profit funding. And as tight budgets threaten funding for this work at home and abroad, it is critical that we not only advocate for continued investment in this sort of innovation, but that we encourage private and non-profit sector funding as well. At the G-20 meeting of Agriculture Ministers, I look forward to engaging with my counterparts on how we continue to sustain support for such critical research and innovation globally.
"But research alone will not feed the world. People will. Farmers and ranchers – and the chains of individuals who will help harvest, package, ship, sell and prepare food will.
"To meet future challenges, we must help farmers adopt the latest seed technology, improved irrigation systems and land and animal management techniques. We must help them appropriately apply fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides if need be. We must help them regulate the safety of their food systems, and engage in the global trading system so that food supply can reach demand.
"Food security efforts must be country-led and country-driven and focused at the local and community level. We want to engage smallholder farmers in villages to learn their ideas about developing the agriculture sector, so that we can help them with technologies, techniques and crops that fit their culture and lifestyle. Our focus must reflect an understanding of the role of women in farming, who account for between 60 and 80 percent of food production in most developing countries.
"And while we improve productivity, we must also ensure that food makes it from farms to mouths. We must help communities and nations build safe water systems, strong post-harvest infrastructure like roads and cold storage, ensure safe food supplies, and encourage vibrant local markets with transparent information and improved financial services.
"National and regional governments have an enormous role to play in this effort. In the United States, our land-grant universities and extension agents have helped producers practice successful farm management and marketing and even helped them form cooperatives. The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service engages with Ministries of Agriculture in over 150 countries around the world to enable trade, support policies based on strong science and help disseminate sound management practices in less developed countries.
"Today, through the Feed the Future initiative, we are focused on building capacity in countries like Bangladesh, Haiti, Ghana, and Tanzania, as well as regions in East Africa and Central America. These initial focus countries and regions were selected because of the strength of their political institutions and vision for confronting hunger. They have all committed to increasing their own investment in agriculture so our investments generate significant leverage.
"Ghana, for example, currently looses 30-40 percent of its grain supply after harvest because of inadequate commercial and on-farm commodity storage and handling facilities. To help tackle this challenge, USDA is collaborating with several Land-Grant University specialists to develop and deliver a series of training and capacity building programs to improve storage systems on and off the farm and minimize moisture losses.
"USDA's Borlaug and Cochran Fellowship programs expose international counterparts to American agricultural systems and innovation, supporting the critical human capacity that underpins growth. For example, in Kenya, the Cochran Fellowship program has helped the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service adopt a port-of-entry inspection system similar to what we use in the United States. This is providing direct benefits to the Kenyan economy as America is now importing some of their fresh vegetables. And it has the potential to make a big difference in the region, as Kenyans who have been trained through the USDA program are teaching pest risk procedures and assessments to government agricultural officers at other East African nations.
"USDA food aid programs are also driving agricultural productivity increases and raising the incomes of farmers. This year alone, they will benefit more than 5.2 million people in the developing world. USDA's Food for Progress Programs in places like Malawi, Guatemala, and Tanzania are building cooperatives, supporting extension, linking producers with buyers, and increasing market information and developing agricultural finance systems.
"And our McGovern-Dole Program invests in the future by increasing school attendance, literacy and food availability for children in 30 countries around the world, while also building capacity to design, manage, and fund sustainable national safety net systems – like the SNAP and school lunch programs that are so successful in America – to underpin longer-term economic growth.
"And as we work to develop agricultural economies we must remember that sound agricultural policies – here in the United States, in other G-20 countries, and in the developing world, are founded on good information.
"That is why another priority for food security, which I look forward to discussing with my counterparts next week, must be increasing transparency in agriculture systems. That means establishing data collection, information, and regulatory systems so that nations can make more informed decisions to establish sound policies, respond to changes in food supplies, and reap the many benefits of agricultural trade.
"The United States supports the United Nation's efforts to improve global agricultural statistics to provide accurate and timely market information and forecasts. And we support in-country efforts to improve data collection and analysis many countries.
"The U.S. Government is working to bolster national agricultural data systems and institutions in Feed the Future nations so that countries can carry out their own food security assessment, monitoring and analysis functions. In Nigeria, USDA is helping with a pilot project to improve sampling methods and data collection techniques. And in places like Guatemala, we're supporting market information systems so that farmers can make informed decisions.
"As these new capabilities and systems take hold around the world, we believe that not only will there be less waste and fewer hungry people, but the global community will be better able to mitigate and respond to crop failures and famines.
"Countries will be able to make more informed agricultural policy choices. As we watch a substantial increase in global commodity prices for the second time in the past few years, it is a good reminder of the importance of embracing transparency and free movement of food supplies. These measures will get food to the people that need it most, and help to smooth price spikes.
"The bottom line, is that with transparent systems in place, farmers around the world - from those a tilling an acre or two in Central America, to a large row-crop operation in the American Midwest - will be able respond to changing markets and grow what is most profitable for their family and most needed by neighbors, countrymen and global compatriots.
"The policies adopted by the international community are critical to creating a successful environment to collectively meet the challenge before us. At the G-20 agriculture ministerial next week, we will establish priorities, and agree on ways to increase the effectiveness of international agricultural systems, information, and investments.
"It is significant that the G20 leaders have singled out the importance of food security and are grappling together with how to address the problems of high food prices. I know that they are interested in long-term solutions to improve productivity, and I am hopeful that we will have constructive conversations about additional thoughts on how to meet the growing global demand for food.
"And so I will head to the G-20 meeting optimistic about what can be accomplished, and committed to the role of American innovation in driving sustainable intensification of agricultural production and improved nutrition around the world.
"In the end, progress on these issues is good for America. It means improved economic opportunities as developing nations grow economically and engage in the global trade system. And it means stable nations and fewer threats to our national security.
"Working to eliminate food insecurity across the globe – through innovation, hard work and partnerships – will provide incredible economic benefits and natural resource enhancements to developing and developed countries alike. It will increase political stability in conflict and poverty-stricken regions, and put countries around the world – and our global community – on a path to future prosperity.
"But agriculture's role goes beyond feeding and clothing the world. Producers are increasingly being called on to help provide renewable sources of energy.
"Here in the United States, we are looking to biofuels, in particular, to help confront the challenges of providing adequate sustainable energy supplies, generating economic growth in rural communities, mitigating the impacts of climate change.
"In some cases, the same goals can be met by biofuels production in the rest of the world. As the FAO Bioenergy and Food Security Project has shown, bioenergy production and use in the developing world isn't automatically good or bad. Instead, when managed carefully, considering not only energy needs, but environmental needs, economic growth and food security, bioenergy can promote food and energy security by driving investment and increasing incomes in rural areas. To help nations – especially developing countries – reach the right balance, the Global Bioenergy Partnership recently announced a set of measurements and tools to promote the production and use of bioenergy as a way of encouraging sustainable development.
"This is a clear reminder that we have to move beyond the all-too-common debate pitting food against fuel, and figure out how to meet both challenges – energy security and food security. The truth of the matter is that corn-based ethanol does not deserve the scapegoat reputation that folks often attempt to assign it. During the great run-up in food and commodity prices in 2007 and 2008, American biofuel production played only a minor role – accounting for about 10 percent of the total increase in global prices.
"Combating hunger and feeding the world, particularly the children, is one of the great challenges of our day. Giving a child the opportunity for a brighter, more productive future, affects not only the individual child, but the community where that child is raised, the country where he or she lives, and the entire world. This is a moral issue, and we are proud to be engaged in work that gives children around the world an opportunity to follow their dreams."