ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you, Dr. Alexander, for that introduction, for your leadership within this community of researchers and innovators, and of course for your stewardship of the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development. We’ve only met by Zoom before, so it’s always great to meet in person. Let that be the way of the future.
BIFAD has been a critical partner with USAID for nearly 50 years, drawing upon America’s universities—many represented here today—to support a global transformation of agriculture and food systems that now feed twice as many people as they did a generation ago, back in 1975.
Dr. Alexander’s appointment to head BIFAD is also historic, because for all that our nations’ HBCUs and Minority-Serving Institutions have contributed in terms of advancements in global agriculture, Dr. Alexander is the first Board Chair to be appointed from an HBCU.
I also want to thank APLU President Peter McPherson for convening us today. As one of USAID’s longest serving Administrators, Peter helped the Agency respond to one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the 20th Century - a protracted civil war and historic droughts that led to a famine in Ethiopia, claiming the lives of an estimated one million people. And I’m sure for people like Peter who were part of that response, and even still people in the USAID family out there in the world, those images are flooding back in light of the gravity of the food crisis before us.
That famine, and the worldwide recognition of the scale of global hunger that followed starkly demonstrated that the world had turned away from the lessons of the Green Revolution. After significant gains in crop yields in Latin America and Asia, investment in agricultural productivity and long-term food security actually declined. Transformative changes in farm technology never reached much of sub Saharan Africa, and the support for research, innovation, and technology to help countries grow enough food for themselves had dried up.
As Peter began his tenure at APLU in 2006, he spoke at the Norman Borlaug World Food Prize Symposium on a topic that tackled that lapse, one that could not be more relevant today. The way he put it at that symposium was: “Can we replicate the greatest period of food production in all human history?” That’s what he set as a target and of course was referring back to the Green Revolution.
There are many questions America’s higher education system can help us answer—and I do want to talk about the ways USAID is working with higher education partners in a second—but that single question about global food security is the one that most demands our collaboration today.
Even before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, the world was facing significant economic devastation from the COVID pandemic. By disrupting supply chains and trade, shuttering businesses, and increasing prices for commodities, COVID-19 erased significant development gains and threw tens of millions back into a state of poverty and food insecurity. At the same time, the climate crisis has hammered countries with significant shocks, while bringing rising temperatures and longer-lasting droughts which as you well know have devastated the livelihoods of subsistence farmers in vulnerable areas. Last year, and well before Putin and his invasion in Ukraine, the number of people facing acute food insecurity reached historic levels—193 million people—an increase of 40 million from the previous year.
Then came Putin’s gratuitous, wreckless, brutal war. And with it, potentially another 40 million people projected to add to the ranks of those in desperate need. Russia and Ukraine produce close to a third of the world’s traded wheat and barley, a fifth of its maize, and over half of its sunflower oil. The war has rendered around a third of Ukraine’s crops and farmland useless - removing them from the market, removing nearly 27 million tons of wheat, corn, and barley.
The United States along with partners and allies are working to meet the needs of those facing severe food insecurity. We’ve contributed $2.8 billion in the last few months to those and other countries most acutely impacted by the food security crisis since the beginning of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
At the same time, we have to keep reminding ourselves of the lesson of the years following the Green Revolution—we cannot end hunger with food alone. We have to invest in the agricultural productivity, food security, and nutrition of partner countries so they can grow enough to feed their own people, lift millions if not billions out of poverty, and stop all this lurching from one food crisis to the next.
It was in the spirit, the longer term investments, that create food sustainability, that President Obama launched Feed the Future in 2010. This was aimed at addressing the root causes of hunger and poverty by boosting agriculture-led growth, resilience and nutrition in countries with great need, but also great capacity for improvements. This program contributes more than $1 billion per year to efforts in more than 35 countries to fight hunger and malnutrition. Of course, a huge part of that effort involves our Feed the Future Innovation Labs, which bring together the expertise of dozens of schools represented here in this room to support global research institutions and tackle emerging challenges in agriculture and food security.
Because we know expertise can come from anywhere, and that people from the countries in which we work have the best sense of the problems they need to address, we also support a major international grants program, PEER, to fund scientists and engineers in developing countries with government funded researchers here in the U.S. So far PEER has awarded more than $100 million to fund more than 400 projects in 57 countries—projects designed to improve water management, spur biodiversity, conserve energy, and mitigate climate disasters.
And, through our BRIDGE program, we are supporting partnerships between American universities and those universities in our partner countries, to create new centers of innovation, research, and training, like a new center to foster supply chain research and innovation in Ghana, a collaboration between Arizona State University and and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. We have to do much more of this kind of collaboration.
Finally, returning to a point I started with, we have to also tap into our nation’s historic Minority Serving Institutions and HBCUs, many of which have a long history of not just transforming agriculture in this country, but in lending their wisdom abroad. Our recently launched Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program is designed to open USAID’s doors to these institutions far wider, to help their faculty and students discover everything from internship opportunities, to research awards that we haven’t advertised on their campuses with sufficient intentionality.
I have had the chance to visit several Minority Serving Institutions in my year plus in the job. I started with Delaware State, made my way to Tuskegee, got to Alcorn State, Florida International University—and I’m heading there, to these places, to recruit new talent, to tell the students that we would love them to consider coming to USAID and being a part of the workforce. We have the most diverse foreign service class that has just come in - in USAID history. But I’ve also been going in order to sign new Memoranda of Understanding that I really hope will give these universities and their faculty, their researchers, seats at USAID’s table, seats that they have long-deserved.
But I am here today to hear what more we can do.
Right now, many farmers in poor countries are facing the highest sustained temperatures ever in the history of agriculture. They’re facing more pests due to a changing climate, longer droughts and more constant floods. The only way for them to thrive in the face of these new environmental challenges, is to invest in agricultural science and develop new seed varieties and farming techniques that can power a new revolution in global agriculture.
The father of the Green Revolution, Dr. Norman Borlaug, received his Bachelor’s, his Master’s, and his Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics at the University of Minnesota, and his work to breed higher-yielding crop varieties, it’s fair to say, changed the course of history.
Dr. Jennifer Doudna is a professor of Chemistry and Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley. She helped pioneer the kind of gene editing technology—known as CRISPR—that holds profound implications for public health, but also allows for precision agricultural modifications that can help produce crops that can reduce the need for land and chemical inputs.
These kinds of life-changing innovations flow in part from investments in and partnerships with our nation’s public and land-grant universities. We have a meaningful and progressive history of collaboration, and the partnerships and programs we already have are vital. But we need to think bigger. We need to deliver the progress that the world so desperately needs and I’m eager to hear what more we can do to tap into the collective wisdom of all of you and the institutions you represent.
Thank you so much