Remarks by Administrator Rajiv Shah at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Good afternoon. Thank you, Dan. I almost want to say thank you and sit down now, because it will be a little hard to top that.

I have had such extraordinary respect for Secretary Dan Glickman, not just for his tremendous public leadership roles that everyone knows about, but for the real commitment and hard work—that he takes on when the cameras are not shining and there is no red carpet—to make sure that really, America is proud of the work we all do to fight hunger and that a greater slice of Americans take honor and purpose in this work, and in particular, members of Congress.

I think your efforts, together with Catherine Bertini and your whole team at the Chicago Council, made a huge difference over these years.

You all know that Feed the Future exists, in large part, as an initial reaction to a Chicago Council report that Catherine and Dan chaired and talked about right when President Obama was taking office. Dan, we’re working hard to make you proud. I hope we’re making you proud every day. We’re certainly trying to.

I want to also just say thank you—there are so many friends and colleagues in this room whom we work with and have deep respect for. Thank you for supporting the Chicago Council. Thank you for continuing to bring your excellence and your expertise to this long-term mission, one in which we are succeeding and will succeed to end hunger and extreme poverty in the next two decades.

Your presence here today, your efforts, make a huge difference. Your commitment, deeply-held, to do what Dan just described and ensure that American law codifies the energy and intellectual spirit of this effort, will be very, very important in the coming months and years. Thank you.

I enjoyed hearing Susan’s remarks earlier, and she sort of said it all for us. I want to just note that as she was speaking, I was remembering President Obama’s inaugural address.

In that address, he had the following phrase. He stood before almost 2 million people on the National Mall before he had walked into the office. He said, “to the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow, to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”

At the time, on the heels of a food, fuel, and financial crisis that really did rock our own confidence in our ability to bring the world together to tackle what appeared to be a crisis that could move us into a Great Depression-like era, President Obama stepped forward and ensured that every time he brought global leaders together around the financial crisis, we also spent time focused on the global food crisis.

The spirit of that early enthusiasm is coupled now with the experience we’ve developed over the last several years of implementing Feed the Future.

Some of the challenges we face, but also the progress we’ve made in getting important reforms through the Congress of our food aid and assistance programs, are starting to create a new and stronger American ethic around our collective responsibility to genuinely lead on the issue of ending hunger and creating food security.

We all know and you’ve heard earlier today that by 2050, the world will need to feed 9 to 10 billion people and will need to do it by driving productivity improvements—in particular, in places where productivity has been relatively low—and by bringing online much of the commercial potential of food production in places like sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central Asia, where there is still great gains to be made.

I know the report that the Chicago Council issued is tremendously important because it puts into stark relief the reality that storm after storm, drought after drought, these consequences of climate change are hitting the same vulnerable communities again and again.

The baseline of our effort is not a downward-sloping curve where hunger will just go away gradually on its own. The baseline of our effort is fighting some tough trends—population growth, hotter and drier growing conditions—that will actually put downward pressure on our ability to end hunger. We need to be even more committed to this goal to overcome that.

Back in November, when Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines with the strength of one of the most powerful storms to ever hit land, it was the fifth time since 2009 that we were called upon to respond in that setting in the Philippines alone.

Susan noted this, but it is an extraordinarily sad reality that we spend tens of billions of dollars on international humanitarian assistance in the same places, year after year after year, and for too long, have treated that and literally called it “emergency response.”

An emergency is something that you don’t know is coming and you respond because it surprises you. These are not surprising.

The New York Times recently ran a front-page story describing how rising sea levels will threaten to put underwater one-fifth of Bangladesh’s land mass. It’s not surprising where that is. Scientists have mapped out exactly what we’re talking about. There are 18 million people that live on and depend on that particular plot of land.

So the greatest consequences of climate change, we know, will not be felt on the high-rises of the Upper East Side in Manhattan, where air conditioning will probably just improve, but will be felt in the dirt-poor slums and the vulnerable rural and coastal communities for whom we’re gathered here today. We know that in those communities, when shocks hit, it is women and children that suffer the most.

That’s why, when President Obama launched Feed the Future, he made this not just a commitment of our financial resources or a one-time effort to invest in agricultural development for a couple of years or even a couple of presidential terms, but a global long-term effort to genuinely end hunger.

If we don’t set the bar that high, and if we don’t adopt the timeframe of decades, we can’t adapt to the things we need to adapt to, including the pressures of a changing climate.

Instead of treating climate change and food insecurity like separate problems that need separate solutions, we need to and we will continue to come together and invest in climate-smart agriculture to make a genuine difference in the most vulnerable parts of our world.

Instead of trying to work everywhere at once, we will choose partners selectively, as we have with Feed the Future, and encourage them to lead with their own plans and their own commitments that we can then get behind.

Instead of merely providing emergency aid time and time again to avert the consequences of disaster, we will invest more in preparing, planning, building resilience, and putting in place the architecture of research and scientific partnership so that we can tackle these challenges over the long-term.

To do any of that, and to know that we can succeed over the timeframe required, we will need a strong legislative framework that allows America to play its appropriate leadership role, not just during this administration, but during the next two decades.

These numbers are big. These challenges require an all-hands-on-deck effort. So when Susan is able to tell you that we’ve reached nearly 7 million farm households, that we’ve helped move 12 and half million children out of poverty, that farmers in places like Honduras, where we work with 26,000 farm households, have improved their income from 71 cents per person per day to $2.39 cents per person per day, that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the kind of progress that we need to make. It’s a strong and proud first step in an effort to end hunger.

When you look at the global statistics—and I never fully know, there are experts in this room that can bring to life how precise those numbers are—we know, in general, since the food crisis, at first tens of millions of people were pushed back into a condition of hunger. Over the last few years, somewhere between 40 and 45 million people have been moving out of conditions of hunger.

We know that a lot of those movements took place in tough environments in fragile states. We know that to continue to imagine success, we’re going to have to continue to protect those gains and double down our efforts in some very, very difficult settings.

One of the things we’re trying to do now is to ensure that our research investments and our scientific partnerships are really aligned with the almost 7 million farmers we now help.

That’s why, in order to prevent a backsliding of the progress we’ve seen with those 26,000 families in Honduras, we’re investing $5 million with Texas A&M to deal with coffee rust and to combat the crisis of coffee rust. We know that this is a disease that can otherwise quickly wipe out the gains that we’re so proudly talking about today.  

If you still doubt whether it’s possible to imagine a second revolution in food production that can move hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, The Economist just recently published an article describing the transformation of small-farm agriculture in country after country.

What I was struck by in reading the article—first, I was just thrilled they were writing about it, because it’s nice to write about it when it’s not a crisis—in each of the examples, there was a focus on science and technology.

As part of Feed the Future, we have nearly tripled our research investments, developing and deploying more than 25 new drought-tolerant maize varieties in the last few years alone, and investing in 23 Feed the Future innovation labs around this country on college campuses.

This afternoon, I am pleased to announce an additional commitment of $5 million for the locally-led partnership Water Efficient Maize for Africa, doubling our commitment of the previous year.

The reason these types of examples are so important is because they bring together public and private partners, the best scientists in the world, and local researchers for whom we can build capacity and support.

They deliver improved varieties. In this case, varieties are being planted in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, and are expected to increase yields by 20 percent, even in very low rainfall conditions, reaching and helping 5 million African farmers in just the next four years.

These examples, like flood-tolerant rice in the Philippines, or deep placement urea in Bangladesh, or NERICA rices in Senegal, are the answer to climate-smart agriculture. They are the products and the technologies that allow us to show the rest of the world that actually, treating the fight against hunger and the fight against climate change as the same battle is appropriate and important.

If we don’t stay focused, and if you don’t stay focused, then the risk is we will invest in creating these new tools and technologies and fail to get them out to the hundreds of millions of people whose lives need to be transformed, not just by their creation, but by their actual use.

I’m also pleased to announce that we will launch our 24th Feed the Future innovation lab at Purdue University, designed to improve food processing and to tackle post-harvest losses, a problem that not only wastes essential food, but puts unnecessary strain on our planet’s resources.

I hope over time we continue to expand the approach of getting young scientists, young agricultural leaders, and students more involved in this work, because that’s what it takes to continue to build the enthusiasm.

I just want to close with a final comment about something Susan made reference to—that the President, when he started this effort, insisted on a focus on women and a focus on small-scale agriculture.

I think one of her comments that was particularly important made reference to the private sector. We know that the private sector is going to be the engine of investment and transformation in agrarian economy after agrarian economy. We know that. That’s not a debatable proposition.

What is debatable is whether or not those private investments will reach all the way to the small-scale producer and will preferentially empower women and young girls.

One of the things I’d like to ask this group to do is to make sure that even as we advocate for a very strong, very central role of commercial agriculture in this work, and of great businesses in the United States and all around the world to be more engaged and supported to do this, that we continue to use tools that our teams and yours have developed, like the Women’s Empowerment Index, we continue to look at the data that tells us that despite our best efforts, the benefits of many of these programs preferentially help men instead of women, and we do something about that fundamental disparity and inequality.

If we do, if we stay focused, if we heed Dan’s call from his generous introduction, there’s no question in my mind we will succeed at achieving this goal. But please remember that this is a many-year, multi-decade effort that requires your political leadership, your corporate commitment, your NGO partnership and insight, your university science commitment, and the continued success of the Chicago Council to keep us all coming together, recognizing our progress, setting new aspirations, and taking this to the next level. Thank you. 

Last updated: November 17, 2014

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