Remarks by Administrator Rajiv Shah at Mississippi State University

Monday, September 10, 2012

I imagine Monday morning after a big game weekend isn’t a terribly popular time to come hear a discussion on food security.

But I’m glad to have the opportunity to speak to you today—and highlight some of the accomplishments and contributions that your University and your state of Mississippi have helped make to our nation’s development and our world’s prosperity.

As you probably know, your University has remarkable heritage. This year, in fact, marks 150 years—very nearly to the day—since President Abraham Lincoln signed the historic land-grant bill into law. That moment paved the way for the foundation of Mississippi State and dozens of other leading American universities.

More than that, it emphasized the fundamental importance of agricultural development to our nation’s progress—and led to the creation of the most productive agricultural economy the world has ever seen.

Over the decades, USAID and Mississippi State have partnered on dozens of programs designed to build on this American experience—strengthening agricultural capacity and food security around the world.

For example, through a collaborative research program on sorghum millet, MSU and USAID have helped more than 90 undergraduate and graduate students receive degrees and develop specialties in plant breeding, agronomy, and food science.

Many of these students were from developing countries—including Bangladesh, Malawi, and Nigeria—and returned home to conduct their thesis research under supervision of MSU professors.

Today, universities like MSU continue to draw on an incredibly diverse range of interests, skills, and experiences in order to address critical problems in development today.

This community includes everyone from professors who are researching cutting-edge agricultural advances—like drought-resistant seeds—to students leading the fight against hunger on campuses across the country.

At USAID, we believe we have the opportunity today build a new, more open model for development that builds on our strong legacy of university engagement to solve some of the greatest development challenges of our time.

In food security, that challenge is more pressing than ever. By 2050, the world will need to double agricultural production in order to feed a world of 9 billion people. At the same time, a changing climate will lead to warmer temperatures, more erratic rains, and longer more severe droughts.

Here in Mississippi, you know this better than anyone. The Mississippi river has fallen to near record lows—and a stretch of the mighty river near Greenville has had to close briefly.  And rural communities across the country continue to feel pressure from a parched land.

But the truth is that our nation has some remarkable systems in place to support farmers and ranchers in a time of significant drought. They can buy insurance products, access our government’s real-time data monitoring, and count on the USDA and universities like MSU to study the problem and foster new solutions.

In developing countries, many of these support networks don’t exist—leaving the consequences of extreme drought and rising food prices to fall disproportionately on the global poor.

Just this past July, prices of basic stables jumped abruptly.  Maize and wheat rose by 25 percent and soybeans by 17 percent, reminding the world of 2008, when soaring prices coupled with export bans and panic buying ultimately led to a global crisis.

And although drought cannot be prevented, it can be confronted. Today, we have the tools and the knowledge to realize a sustainable and lasting end to food insecurity and all its devastating corollaries—from hunger and malnutrition to regional instability.

But getting there will require us to work differently.  Instead of pursuing top-down, institutionally driven approaches, we have to build a new model that opens traditional development to problem-solvers everywhere. [We are] including corporate firms like Citi and DuPont; communities of faith; and perhaps most importantly, our universities and colleges.

Through Feed the Future, President Obama’s food security initiative, we’re bringing many of these partners together to help developing countries transform their agricultural sectors.

In the last three years, we have more than doubled our agricultural research investments—building new bridges between American universities and their counterparts in the developing world.

In fact, a major new Request for Application is about to hit the street in a week or two. It is one of the first to be aligned with our FTF research strategy—focusing on specific regions and crops we believe will have the highest impact on reducing poverty and hunger. And it will include a host of exciting new opportunities for students and researchers—both here and abroad. It’s still largely under wraps, so I can’t tell you much. But I can tell you that it will expand our work on climate-resilient cereals and legumes—as well as small-scale irrigation systems that can provide resilience in the face of drought or high temperatures. And it will create new partnerships with the university community on soy—a crop that is powering a livestock revolution and better nutrition.

We helped launch a significant new partnership between private sector companies and developing countries to expand investment opportunities in African agriculture; and supported African governments to undertake market-oriented reforms.

For instance, Tanzania committed to overturn export ban on staple commodities, strengthen land tenure rights for poor farmers, and open the local seed market to greater private sector competition.

At the same time, worked closely with local and global private sector firms to introduce them to new opportunities. So far, more than 45 companies have committed to investing more than $4.5 billion. This will help lift 50 million people in sub-Sahara Africa out of poverty in a decade.

And through the Higher Education Solutions Network, we’re launching a new platform for students, faculty, and institutions to deepen their focus on development challenges. Since its launch, we received over 475 concept notes from institutions around the world—including MSU. From this group, we will help form more than half a dozen new centers in universities to provide the physical and creative space for researchers and students to design, test, and apply real-world solutions.

But good development work isn’t just about who you partner with or even how much funding you can provide. It’s about ensuring these investments and partnerships are tied to meaningful results. As university students and professors, you understand exactly what that means.

Across our history, we’ve worked together to deliver smart, innovative, and cost-efficient projects in development that produce transformational results. And many of those projects have begun right here in Mississippi.

Over the past decade, we’ve partnered nearly two dozen times with Chevron—the 4th largest employer on the Mississippi coast.

For example, in Angola, Chevron and USAID facilitated the start-up of Novo Banco, the nation’s first bank dedicated exclusively to micro entrepreneurs and small businesses. In its first two years of operation, that bank extended $20 million in loans to 200,000 underserved customers; including helping fishermen buy better equipment and food wholesalers increase the variety of their products.

And today, USAID and MSU are partnering on a new project to develop varieties of maize that are resistance to aflatoxin contamination. Commonly referred to as “killer maize,” aflatoxin is a highly poisonous toxin produced by a fungus that infects crops before harvest and spreads as a result of poor drying and storage. An estimated 4.5 billion people in the developing world are chronically exposed to dangerous levels of aflatoxin, which affects an estimated 25 percent of the world’s agricultural production.

The project with Mississippi State is also working on new diagnostic tools to identify different strains of aflatoxin—so we can adjust and appropriately target our efforts to prevent it.

And to ensure we’re seeing results … across all our work, we developed a clear Results Framework to measure our progress in FTF. This forms the backbone of our objectives and strategy, developing quantifiable indicators that we can use to measure our performance. It’s also online, at feedthefuture.gov, where anyone can see it and understand our metrics. The first batch of data—part of a comprehensive scorecard we’re designing to keep ourselves accountable—will be fed into the framework and released publicly this spring.

I want to conclude with a note to the students here today—many of whom will go be leaders in the fields of engineering, agriculture, and veterinary sciences.

But even before you begin your profession—even before you begin graduate school—you have an opportunity to play central role to play in development.

Across the country, young people are expressing a surge of interest in tackling challenges like clean energy and ending poverty. Right here at MSU, students are studying abroad in record numbers. This past year, study abroad peaked at 344 students in 36 countries. A number that’s even more impressive when you consider that in 2005, the program was largely non-existent.

At the very the same time that students are expressing new interest, they’re also pushing the boundaries of what’s possible – designing new solutions to bring clean energy to off-grid customers and saving lives at birth through affordable, easy-to-use devices.

At USAID, we’re working hard to tap into this enthusiasm, creating a space for students to deepen their engagement and bring their ideas to life. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be rolling out exciting new opportunities and resources through a program we’re calling USAID Fall Semester. Stay tuned by visiting www.usaid.gov/fallsemester, our facebook page, or follow our twitter accounts.

Ultimately, it’s not hard to understand why or where this incredible passion for development is coming from. We know that when we strengthen food security, we’re really building our own nation’s security, and preventing a cycle food riots, famines, and failed states from even taking root. We know that when we help developing economies grow, we’re really growing our own economy, and expanding new markets for American goods and new opportunities for American investment.

But more than that—we know there is a powerful calling in development, one that attracts the best students, the brightest minds, and the smartest spirits. It is about representing who we as a nation and our commitment to the ideals of our founding—a belief in justice, opportunity, and the dignity of every individual

I look forward to continuing our close partnership with MSU and all of its students.

Thank you. 

Food Security Conference Mississippi State University

Last updated: October 16, 2014

Share This Page