Skip to main content

Transcript: Remarks as Delivered by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the 2015 World Food Prize Laureate Announcement Ceremony at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC

July 1, 2015

Sec. Vilsack: Thank you very much. Ambassador Quinn, thank you very, very much. Certainly have appreciated our friendship and our work together, uh to focus on the World Food prize and certainly carry out the great legacy of Dr. Borlaug and vision of John Ruan, another great Iowan who also very much involved in making this, this day possible. Certainly appreciate the Ruan family's support for the World Food Prize and Ambassador, nice to see you again. You were kind enough to welcome me as the Secretary, and perhaps joining over 2,000 other people's gardens that were established when you were the Ambassador in France and I will always remember that wonderful walk through that beautiful garden that you all produce there. So, I appreciate you being here. And lots of distinguished guests.

Um, certainly would want to acknowledge Julie Borlaug in particular because of the great work the Borlaug family has done in promoting and opportunities for people around the world. Certainly a proud legacy that she continues and the Borlaug family continues. And today I have the privilege of honoring Sir Fazle Abed, an individual who has made his life's work to lift millions of people around the world out of poverty. As Ambassador Quinn has indicated, this is a man who has been instrumental in inspiring and empowering countless young women and girls. His work is an inspiration to all of us and I would say he is extraordinarily deserving of this honor being awarded today and to be formalized in October.

He was born into a distinguished family in Bangladesh. He was fortunate enough to attend a good school. He grew up to become a successful businessperson. He was really good at his job. I suspect he was living happily and probably comfortably. He was living what many would consider the dream life. Things could easily have gone on like that for the rest of his life, but in the early 1970s, something happened that changed his life and the lives of millions forever. More than 3 million people died in the aftermath of a devastating tropical cyclone and a nine month war of independence with Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and further impoverished. In the aftermath of these tragic of events, he heard the call of his country and he answered. He resigned his job; gave up the surety of a steady paycheck and comfortable life; and, as Ambassador Quinn indicated, he formed BRAC, which was initially known as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee.

That-BRAC was – helped to designed to aid and recover opportunity in his homeland. Now over time the name of that organization has changed and its mission has evolved but its core mission has not. BRAC is about inspiring and empowering. It has brought and continues to bring hope and the promise of opportunity to rural communities and particularly to young women around the world. We're here to honor him today, but more broadly we are here today because we all face a crucial challenge in figuring out how to feed a growing global population in a sustainable way. The reality is that we have 9 billion people coming down the pike and it's going to take everything that we can collectively do to adequately feed all of these folks, especially in a world where, even today, over 800 million are undernourished.

Global food security is not an insular discussion. It impacts all nations and all of us. And all nations have a role to play in supporting agricultural growth and driving the innovation necessary to survive. Greater access to innovative tools and technologies, many of them developed here in the U.S., will allow farmers and ranchers and producers around the world to produce more, to increase access to food, to reduce food waste, and, ultimately, provide ladders of opportunity with improved incomes for people in rural areas around the world.

Now, we must all continue to drive critical research, something that Dr. Borlaug understood, and that research which leads to exploration and innovation. At USDA, for example, we've sequenced recently the genome of wheat, something that I suspect Dr. Borlaug would have been quite interested in, and the wheat stem rust pathogen, an important opportunity for us to combat a serious disease which threatens to destroy wheat crops worldwide. And we're distributing this new germplasm globally in order to reduce the risks of unproductive harvests. We have to work together to identify new breakthroughs and to expand the benefits to everyone.

That's why programs like the Borlaug fellowships are so critically important. Over the past six years, the Borlaug fellowship program has provided training and collaborative research opportunities to more than 440 scientists and policymakers from developing and middle-income countries. Now their training is focused on a wide range of culturally-related topics, including veterinary science, nutrition, food safety, sanitary and phytosanitary issues, natural resource management and biotechnology. The idea is that they take this knowledge and information back to their home countries and implement better policies and practices.

This kind of information sharing is extraordinarily valuable because it increases the value of investments taxpayers in this country and around the world have made in agricultural research. It also creates a data ecosystem that fuels economic growth and helps drive agricultural innovation needed to meet our global food security challenge. Data, all of this information we've acquired through groundbreaking research and investigation, is and will continue to be a critical factor as we continue to push for greater innovation around the world.

Two years ago, the U.S. along with the U.K. launched the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative. This seeks to support global efforts to make agriculture and nutritionally relevant data available, accessible, and usable for unrestricted use worldwide. We continue to push for more open access and the sharing of data, something that Secretary Kerry and previous Secretary of State Clinton supported. Research breakthroughs, best practices that can be expanded throughout the world, and we're looking forward to joining with other nations as partners to take on these challenges collectively and collaboratively. That's something the U.S. always takes seriously.

The Milan Expo, which has been mentioned recently by the Ambassador, one of the world's largest opportunities to celebrate the role that food plays in our lives, and this year the U.S. has a major presence. The Expo's theme addresses a key concern for all of us in the room today, how do we get more food secure, nourished world in a sustainable way? This is essential to long-term prosperity of individuals, economies, communities, and nations, and indeed, as the Ambassador indicated, promotes global stability.

So, the presence at the Expo obviously showcases our commitment, here in the U.S., to global food security. And it is a priority of this government and this president. U.S. policy initiatives developed more productive and more sustainable ways to produce food on land and in the ocean and we're contributing to more resilient systems.

Since the early days of this administration, President Obama, former Secretary of State Clinton, and, now, Secretary Kerry have emphasized the commitment to a U.S. leadership role in food security issues. From the G7 commitment to sustainable, global food security in 2009 came our Feed the Future program and the U.S. government-wide investment of over three and a quarter billion dollars. In 2012, the president rallied a group of global leaders at Camp David to launch the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, which is focused on improving and increasing public-private partnerships in this space to leverage new investments in agricultural systems. Something that our, uh, Food prize laureate would certainly appreciate. That commitment has now leveraged a commitment of over ten billion dollars from more than 200 companies. The majority of them are African firms or farmer-owned businesses.

And last year the U.S. was one of the founding members of the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture. And this is a knowledge platform for taking stock of ongoing agricultural practices and adaptation techniques in light of a changing climate. And we're sharing our information with partners around the globe.

If we're going to meet the global food challenge, we've got to find ways in which we can continue to produce more with less because the climate is indeed changing. Weather patterns are more intense; there will be greater challenges to where things are grown and how things are grown. We have to continue to push for a healthy respect and reverence for science innovation, and we have to do a better job and even better job of using our land and water resources so that we can produce more food while also reducing waste and post-harvest loss to make full advantage and take full advantage of the food we do grow.

Now we have to work together to figure out how we can help folks be more economically secure through agriculture. How can we work together to reduce global poverty and malnutrition through more productive agriculture? How can we help everyone feed their own people, strengthen the middle class, and create a much, much safer world? These are issues that our World Food Prize laureate has dedicated his life to addressing, and for good reason, because it takes substantial increases in innovation and investment to address these challenges.

Now some have estimated that it will take as much innovation in agriculture in the next forty years as in the preceding 10,000 years if we're to meet the demand for food. Now in order to do this we obviously need everyone at the table, particularly women, because the fact is, women are the world's primary food producers. Women, on average, comprise 43% of the global agricultural labor force in developing countries, but tend to work longer hours than men – that's probably no secret – control less land than men, and unfortunately have poor access to credit and agricultural extension services.

Young women here in the United States, some the daughters and granddaughters of farmers, but not all, are going to schools in record numbers. Minority producers are also a fast-growing aspect of American agriculture. So there is an opportunity here in the U.S. to provide leadership in this area of women in agriculture by providing and encouraging more diversity in our farming and in our agricultural research. In that spirit, we have established the Wallace-Carver Fellowship in 2011.

Named after Henry A. Wallace and George Washington Carver, two great American leaders with very serious and significant Iowa connections and leaders in agricultural science who fought hard to end hunger in the 20th century, the fellowship was created by USDA and the World Food Prize foundation. And through this opportunity, students are given the opportunity to work side by side with globally recognized scientists and policymakers through their summer breaks from school. The fellowship has given over 110 outstanding participants from 28 different states and the District of Columbia extraordinary, life-changing educational experiences and opportunities in multiple areas of study.

This year I am proud to say that more than 60% of this year's fellows are exceptional young women and 32% are racial and ethnic minorities. There are 31 fellows today working at USDA, though I suspect most of them are, so maybe they are not working, they're listening. But I'm sure they feel proud and honored to have been selected to participate in the Wallace-Carver Fellowship, but it is us who should feel honored to have them next to us as we learn from them, as well. I applaud each of them for their dedication and commitment and their passion, and I hope that each of them brings that drive and passion to a future career in agriculture.

So, USDA is pushing to expand opportunity all over the world including on our own soil. And that's important because giving opportunities to the next generation is how we will ensure that our future is in great hands. We have to open the doors wide to new thinkers.

That's why I think the World Food Prize is so important. It lifts up the individuals who have improved quality of life for millions of people by addressing one of the more important, basic human needs: food. It inspires and empowers the next generation to commit their lives to agriculture and to fight against global hunger. But, for me, the most important thing about the World Food Prize is that it indicates the power of a single individual to make a difference.

Dr. Borlaug, I suspect, when he grew up as a young man in Iowa through tough-very tough economic times, probably never thought of himself as the savior of hundreds of millions of people. He thought of himself as a teacher and a scientist and a researcher, a farmer, somebody who understood the power of agriculture. And he committed his life with passion to making sure that he did everything he could with his life to improve the lives of others. That's what the World Food Prize is all about, that's why we're here today – to continue the tradition of acknowledging the power of a single individual to make a fundamental difference in the world.

If each of us understands the power that we each have to make a difference, what a more secure, peaceful, and better world it would be.

Thank you all for attending today and I look forward to seeing you all in October in Iowa.