Keynote Address by Dr. Rajiv Shah, USAID Administrator, at the SAIS Year of Agriculture Conference

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

[As prepared]

Last year, for the first time in history, the majority of all people lived in cities. In China, the world's largest human migration in history continues to lead millions from the country's rural interior to its coast. In India, the migration pattern is North to South, from poorer states to megacities like Mumbai.

Today there are 60 cities in China with populations greater than one million; India has 45 while the U.S. and Europe have 25 combined. But it's not just Asia; Africa and Latin America both have at least 50 cities. And within those growing cities are slums-massive labyrinths of makeshift housing designed to accommodate the swelling ranks of the urban poor. Nearly everyone has seen images of slums like these either up close or in movies like Slumdog Millionaire. And they all look just like this: blue tarps, tin roofs, rubble and litter at every turn.

My first experience with dire poverty was in this exact slum-Dharavi, in Mumbai, India-where my uncle first took me on my first trip to India at age five. Because this is the image of poverty most of us are familiar with, most of us assume that this is how the poorest people in the world live.

But the most accurate depiction of poverty isn't this image.

It's this one [shows slide of South Sudanese farmer].

Most poor people depend on agriculture to make a living and most people who depend on agriculture for a living are poor. 75 percent of the world's poor live in rural settings like this woman in South Sudan.

And for most of them, tending the land is the only way to can grow or earn enough to eat. On average, they tend about a hectare, or two-and-a-half acres, of land and the majority of them-certainly the majority of those who do all the work-are women.

My goal today is to convince you future leaders of just one thing: if you care about ending poverty, then you should care about boosting harvests. Because in order to make poverty history, we must increase global agricultural production.

After numerous studies, we now know growth that comes from agriculture reduces poverty by a much more significant margin. And the poorer you and your country are, the more effective agricultural growth is.

GDP growth originating in agriculture is nearly three-to-six times more effective at raising the incomes of the poor than growth from other sectors like manufacturing or services. And this is near universal phenomenon. In China, agriculture growth was 3.5 times more effective at reducing poverty than non-ag growth. In Latin America, it was 2.7 times more effective.

Since smallholders make up the majority of the world's poor, it makes sense that increasing their productivity and incomes would decrease poverty.

But there's also a long-term effect at play. Over time that increased productivity will lead to lower food prices, allowing the poor to spend less of their income on feeding their families. Instead of spending 70 percent of their income on food, which most of the poor must do, they can invest in education and health care for their children.

As poor countries increase their agricultural productivity, their economies will restructure away from agriculture toward manufacturing and services. We've seen that agricultural productivity growth has been the key precursor to nearly every single industrial revolution in the world, from England to America to Japan to China to Vietnam.

So now you might be thinking, "If the evidence is so clear, why hasn't the world done anything about it?

In 1968, this man [shows slide Paul Ehrlich], a Stanford biology professor named Paul Ehrlich wrote a best-selling book called The Population Bomb and on the cover was a little yellow box that said: "While you are reading these words, four people will have died from starvation. Most of them children."

Looking at the rates of population growth and food production, Ehrlich did some simple math and predicted that billions in the future would be doomed to a life of famine and mass starvation. He bet even money that Britain would cease to exist by the year 2000.

But what Ehrlich didn't count on was this man…[shows slide Norman Borlaug]…an agricultural scientist named Norman Borlaug. Borlaug was hard at work in the Mexican highlands successfully developing heartier strains of wheat. The hybrids that he produced would go on to transform global agriculture forever, ushering in a Green Revolution that spared hundreds of millions from starvation and death.

Those new strains of wheat, more productive strains of rice and major pro-market reforms in agriculture turned major sources of food insecurity like Brazil, Mexico and India into agricultural powerhouses in their own right. And since that time, the world witnessed the most telling indicator of global agricultural progress: decades and decades of declining food prices. Ehrlich was wrong; productivity was outpacing population growth, not the other way around.

But despite this spectacular progress, the Green Revolution didn't extend far enough and in 2007 and 2008, the world had another "Ehrlich moment." After decades of declining food costs and hunger, prices suddenly spiked, spurred by rapid increases demand for biofuels, meat and dairy, in some cases pushed even higher by speculation.

The Food and Agriculture Organization released a stunning statistic: for the first time in 40 years, the number of people facing hunger and poverty had increased by over 100 million people. It was estimated that a billion people in the world suffered from widespread hunger.

Just recently we learned that estimate wasn't quite right-even in 2008, the number of people living in absolute poverty was still falling. But we do know there was one clear consequence of the food price spikes in 2008…[shows slide of food riots in Haiti]…anger.

In over 30 countries-including Haiti, pictured here-food riots broke out, fostering instability and awakening the world to the very serious fact that within forty years, the world would have to double food production to feed the nine billion people who would live on our planet in 2050.

And we'd have to increase that production while a changing climate leads to warmer temperatures, more erratic rains and longer, more vicious droughts.

In 2009, largely because of personal appeals made by President Obama, governments pledged to reinvest in food security. After decades of underinvestment in agriculture-public spending had fallen from a high of $20 billion to a low of $3 billion-the world committed $22 billion to increasing global food security, rebuilding political will for the cause, while encouraging developing countries to commit more of their own budgets to agriculture. Perhaps most importantly, that money was directed against agricultural growth strategies developed and led by developing countries themselves. Through this Administration's Feed the Future initiative, we're investing over $3 billion in 20 countries.

But Feed the Future isn't just about new money; it's about a new approach, dedicated to helping countries develop their own agricultural economies so they can feed their own populations, instead of relying on food aid from others.

In each of our target countries, we worked with countries to identify a strategic approach to our investment. We identified the exact regions and crops that had the best market links and most agricultural potential and whose growth would most likely benefit the very poor. We don't just want to help a few farmers increase their harvests; we want to create breadbaskets that can feed entire regions.

Guiding those investments are core principles of mutual accountability. We've created a framework for results at with several specific metrics and indicators for success. And because we know that empowering women is crucial to this effort, we've created a women's empowerment index, specifically evaluating how our programs are helping women get better access to capital, land and new technologies.

It's still early, but initial signs are that this new approach is paying off. Since we began the initiative in 2008, our 20 target countries have increased their total agricultural production by an average of 5.8 percent. That's over eight times higher than the global average of 0.7 percent.

Last year in Bangladesh, we witnessed staggering results when we launched a program to help rice farmers make more efficient use of fertilizer. We helped over 400,000 of these farmers increase their yields by 15 percent, leading to first ever surplus of rice in Barisal, the country's poorest state.

By harnessing the power of science and technology, we can transform agriculture around the world by using drought-and-disease tolerant seeds, better irrigation systems and improved fertilizers to boost yields.

To accelerate progress, we are prioritizing research into new seeds that can withstand droughts, thrive in floods and resist climate change. 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 the Philippines, we worked with scientists from the International Rice Research Institute, UC Davis and UC Riverside to develop a strain of rice that could withstand heavy floods. Over 1 million farmers are already seeing improved harvests by adopting it and we think we can reach as many as 70 million throughout Asia.

Many of the seed varieties and agricultural technologies that could benefit smallholder farmers already exist, but uptake has been slow. That is especially true in Africa, the only continent where agricultural productivity has remained stagnant for the past thirty years.

Hybrid seeds that revolutionized our country's production in the 1930s are only now reaching the Continent, the main reason African crop yields can lag as much as 90 percent behind those of Western farmers.

Since the 1960s, Africa has gone from being a net exporter of agricultural products into the only continent that does not produce enough to feed its own citizens. A country with huge agriculture potential is now forced to spend 150 million ever year importing food.

The world has been successful in building political will and support for strengthening food security, especially on the African continent. But we still face challenges. The investment plans of our partner countries are still underfunded and the money that countries have committed has been slow getting out the door.

Perhaps our biggest challenge is encouraging private sector investment in developing world agriculture. We need companies to sell better seeds and fertilizers to poor farmers, insure them against failure, provide them capital to grow, create stable demand for their products and help get their crops to market. Without a strong private sector presence to provide those crucial contributions, farmers can't succeed-in this country or anywhere else.

That's why we're working with J.P. Morgan to drive capital toward small and medium-sized East African agribusinesses. Along with the Gates, Gatsby and Rockefeller Foundations, we enabled a Kampala-based fund manager to invest $25 million in at least 20 agriculture firms throughout the region, raising incomes for at least a quarter of a million households.

We also partnered with PepsiCo and the World Food Program to help 30,000 chickpea farmers improve their yields and join PepsiCo's supply chain. PepisCo will use those chickpeas to create a highly nutritious food paste to sell to the World Food Program, which can use it to save the lives of malnourished children throughout East Africa.

And right now, our teams are working around the clock ahead of next month's G8 Summit to develop new incentives that will encourage private sector investment in African agriculture.

The point of these efforts isn't to reshape the world's farms in America's image. It's to fight poverty and address the growing rates of malnutrition that rob children around the world of their potential.

In all this talk about economic growth, productivity statistics and crop yields, it's easy to lose sight of what we're really talking about-to lose sight of the human cost of hunger and poverty.

But we know that if a child can't get enough nutrients during the first thousand days before their second birthday, they suffer irreversible limits to their potential. They earn 10 percent less over their lifetime and recent MRI images show that their brains are not as fully developed.

We believe if we can continue to support progress in Feed the Future countries, increase investment in food security and continue to crowd-in private sector investment, then we can help sub-Saharan African countries reach a goal of bringing 50 million people out of poverty within ten years.

To reach that goal, the world must stay committed.

Even last year, amidst this global push for food security, the world still spent more on providing food aid to malnourished people than it did on agricultural development.

As I'm sure many of you know-the worst drought in 60 years hit the Horn of Africa, putting 13.3 million people at grave risk. In southern Somalia, where twenty years of conflict wore down the country's ability to cope and a group openly affiliated with al Qaeda prevented humanitarian aid from getting through, the drought led to an outbreak of famine. Nearly 300,000 Somalis were forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries.

I travelled to Dadaab, the site of what has now become the largest refugee camp in the world, to meet families who had escaped the famine. While there, I met a young Somali woman who brought the horror of the famine into stunning clarity.

With an unsettling calm, she described the over 100-mile journey she took to Dadaab, on foot, with her two children by her side. As she pressed on, her children became too weak to stay on their feet. First she carried one. Then the other needed her support.

Eventually the strain became too much and she herself struggled to continue. She looked at her two children, said a prayer and made a heartbreaking choice no mother should ever to face: to leave one of them behind. In a field with its share of tragic stories, hers stands out in my mind.

But it would be an even greater tragedy if her experience didn't inspire the world to do better…if it didn't inspire countries to finally break this cycle of drought, disaster and emergency aid by strengthening resilience to disasters and continuing to invest in food security, and if it didn't inspire us to finally end the scourge of hunger and malnutrition that tears apart families, uproots lives and turns every day of a poor farmer's life into a brutal struggle.

As students who are now deciding how you'll spend your future, I ask that no matter what you do with your life, you use your career to replace these stories of heartbreak and tragedy with stories of possibility, fulfillment and progress.

Thank you.

SAIS Year of Agriculture Conference, Washington DC

Last updated: August 09, 2017

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