Administrator Samantha Power at the World Food Prize Foundation's Annual Norman E. Borlaug International Dialogue

Speeches Shim

Wednesday, October 19, 2022
Subject 
Remarks

Administrator Samantha Power called for an acceleration and expansion of agricultural investment as a critical pillar of addressing current and future global food crises, and announced new USAID initiatives to spur research to improve agricultural production around the world, strengthen resilience, and address the root causes of hunger, malnutrition, and poverty.

In remarks at the 2022 Norman E. Borlaug International Dialogue, hosted by the World Food Prize Foundation in Des Moines, Iowa, Administrator Power underscored the challenges the world faces in addressing hunger as well as the impacts of climate change and conflict on food systems and food insecurity, exacerbated by Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine, and called for urgent action to accelerate innovations and technology that will feed the world.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: So, I was last in Iowa canvassing for Barack Obama, in primary season, back in 2008. And I met my now husband and the father of my two children on that trip – my last trip to Iowa. So this better be a productive trip! It’s a high bar. 

I am delighted to be here and I thank you, Barbara, for that introduction, for your leadership. We were just talking that her timing was impeccable as she took over just a month or two before the pandemic would strike, and her leadership has been invaluable in these incredibly challenging last several years. You have led through a pandemic that devastated farmers around the world, you have done tremendous good in transitioning the Foundation into the Zoom era, linking experts as well as students to tackle the food security issues of our time. Just yesterday, you were telling me that having a Ukrainian farmer beaming in really brought home the stakes of the war but also of the food crisis that the conflict affects and exacerbates around the world. And again, that's one of the changes out of the pandemic that you have helped facilitate and that we can all take advantage of. And so, just grateful to you for your leadership and for having me here today.

I also want to acknowledge Ambassador Ken Quinn, who has spent his career fighting hunger around the world, from his early days as a rural development officer in Vietnam, to his work with communities and refugees from Southeast Asia, to his two decades of leadership right here in Iowa. 

And, I have to, of course, congratulate Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig – this year’s World Food Prize Laureate. Congratulations, Cynthia. 

And just a word on her, not that you need more, but back in the 1980s, as climate science had only just begun to take shape and, it’s hard to remember these days, but when “greenhouse gas” was the furthest thing from a household term, Dr. Rosenzweig was among the first to recognize the links between food and climate change, not just that climate change would restrict the world’s ability to feed itself, but that the way we eat and grow has such lasting effects on the environment. 

Dr. Rosenzweig’s research could not be more timely, needless to say, because today, we award the World Food Prize amidst the greatest global food crisis of our lifetimes.

And, that is what I would like to discuss with you today. In a world where climate change is leading to ever more disastrous shocks, with so many of the harshest impacts falling on poor farmers, how do we break the cycle of lurching from food crisis to food crisis. How we can harness the industry and know-how, and just stubborn determination of farmers around the world, as well as the work of the tremendous innovators in this room, those tuning in and all around the world, to feed the planet, and to feed the planet without accelerating climate change even further. 

This is a tall order, but we know what is required: it starts with changing what we grow, how we grow it, and who benefits. 

And it could not be more urgent. Each night, as many as 828 million people go to bed hungry. Forty million people face emergency levels of hunger, that means that such households have already seen family members die due to lack of food. 

And once again, in the country of Somalia, unless we see a much more significant inflow of humanitarian assistance, the UN predicts famine is imminent and parts of Ethiopia soon could follow. Already, there in the Horn of Africa, millions of livestock have died, and the pastoralists who had tended to those livestock over so many generations have lost their livelihoods and their source of meaning and identity. On my trip to the Horn of Africa this summer, I met pastoralists but also the wives of those pastoralists, and I heard reports of a growing number of suicides in these communities, so desperate had conditions become. And aid workers in that region have seen drought, they have seen deaths from severe acute malnutrition in the past but this spades of suicides, they say, this is something new. This level of devastation is something none of those that I know have ever seen before at scale.    

There are many culprits behind today’s food crisis, you know them well. The COVID-19 pandemic grinding economies to a halt, splintered supply chains, causing huge spikes in inflation, everywhere it seems. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, holding hostage global supplies of food, fertilizer, and fuel, denying food to the world’s poorest communities – and that’s one of the many conflicts actually that is contributing to hunger around the globe.

But, more than any other force, it is climate change that threatens humankind’s ability to feed itself. According to a UN report from last year, the world now faces three times the number of extreme weather disasters each year that we did in the 1980s. Those disasters hurt agriculture more than any other industry, with the greatest harm caused to the poorest countries – those least responsible for climate change. Between 2008 and 2018, natural disasters alone cost developing countries more than $108 billion in crop damage, lost harvests, and those thinning herds. 

And this year, there is an ubiquitousness and relentlessness to climate shocks that is causing searing pain across communities, and fueling ever-louder cries for climate justice. The unprecedented drought in the Horn of Africa was caused by four failed rainy seasons; there are fears that a fifth failed rainy season has just gotten underway. 

Somalia is no stranger to drought, so much so that the worst ones are named for the effects that they wreak. In 1980, it was called “cattle killer.” The last one, in 2017, Sima, which means “equal” – it was believed then to be the worst yet. It spared no class, no gender, no region. This year’s drought has yet to be named – though one Somali man who fled his dessicated fields suggested “White Bone.”

In response to this climate disaster, we are committing unprecedented amounts of humanitarian aid. In 2020, after the onset of the pandemic, the United States spent $10.7 billion dollars on humanitarian assistance. This year, we’ve already topped $15 billion – $865 million spent to address the crisis in Somalia alone. 

Now, that aid, of course, is critical to meeting today’s emergency food needs. It is lifesaving. Again, I saw this first-hand. And we need other donor nations to step forward – and to just give one indication of how urgent it is for those countries to do that, right now America’s contributions to the World Food Program cover 89 percent of their emergency appeal for the Horn of Africa. Eighty nine percent. I am proud of that – but we are stepping up – but that is not the division of labor that we need on this earth if we are to be in a position to meet other emergency needs. 

In 2017, during the last drought in the Horn, the United States accounted for over one-third of total funding, as the rest of the world did more to chip in. 

But the truth is, climate change is wreaking havoc faster than we can respond, honestly. Temperatures and flood waters are now rising faster than emergency assistance budgets. There is no way we can keep up simply through cash or food aid.

The course we are on is unsustainable. If climate change were to lead to multiple, simultaneous breadbasket failures in coming years – the potential is almost too dark to imagine. 

But, we do have a path out of the darkness – a path that the creator of the World Food Prize, himself, helped illuminate. 

We should remember that Norman Borlaug also faced a bleak forecast when he first began his work. In the late 1960s, when the global population had exploded – increasing by a billion people in less than four decades – many predicted the onset of global famine, including the biologist Paul Ehrlich, who famously declared in 1968 that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over.” He was implying, of course, it had been lost.

But Borlaug, with his Midwestern resolve, proved Ehrlich wrong, embracing agricultural innovation as a way to feed the world. After years of research, as you well know, Borlaug – along with other researchers and institutes working on similar efforts – created new strains of staple grains like wheat and rice that helped bring about significant food production increases across Asia and Latin America. 

His work, and the agricultural innovations it inspired, saved over a billion lives and pulled hundreds of millions out of hunger. And as countries moved out from under the immediate threat of famine and began to engage in global agricultural trade, food supplies increased, not just in individual countries, but worldwide.

Beyond its immediate impact on hunger, the Green Revolution transformed agriculture as it had been understood and as it had been practiced. It decreased the need for farmland expansion, tripling grain production while cultivating limited amounts of additional land. By reducing food prices and boosting global economies in developing countries, it significantly lowered poverty rates. And it showed that an embrace of agricultural innovation, coupled with broad public and private agricultural investment, could dramatically reduce hunger. 

But, the Green Revolution also led to tradeoffs – tradeoffs that paled in comparison to the stomachs filled and the lives saved, but that many of you have spent years studying and trying to mitigate. 

As staple grains like wheat, rice, and corn became cheaper and more accessible, protein- and iron-rich crops like lentils and chickpeas became much more expensive, with significant consequences for community nutrition and, it would turn out, significant consequences for resilience against the climate change to come. 

The methods used to grow crops themselves also had serious implications for the environment. Although new, high-yielding crops initially lowered the need for farmland expansion, the fertilizers and pesticides that helped fuel large spikes in production, when not used judiciously, polluted water sources. And vast expansion and inefficient management of irrigation depleted aquifers and caused salt buildup in the soil – causing some of the world’s most fertile soil in places like India and Pakistan to shrivel up.

And the initial benefits of increased harvests were spread unevenly, due to inequities that far predated Borlaug. Farmers with access to higher-quality land, fertilizer, and irrigation could take advantage of new seeds and innovations, but poorer farmers who lacked access to food storage options and markets lagged behind, and women were sidelined by laws and cultural norms. 

Nowhere was this inequity clearer than in Africa. Already, the region’s soils were more challenging, little of its arable land was then being irrigated, and many of its communities lacked the infrastructure of other regions to connect farmers to suppliers and markets. Private sector companies didn’t think they could profit by investing in rural areas or in smallholder farmers. And a lack of government support meant that there wasn’t enough public funding to close the gap.

Despite these tradeoffs, the primary lesson of the Green Revolution was clear – with investments in agricultural productivity and fundamental research, food supply can grow faster than demand. 

Unfortunately, again as you well know, over time investments in agriculture plummeted and humanitarian aid, there is no coincidence, soared. In 1996, emergency aid made up just over a third of all food assistance, with the rest going to agricultural investment. In 2006, those numbers flipped, with 66 percent of all food assistance going toward emergency aid. 

But we know that investing in sustainable agricultural growth isn’t just a more sustainable way to fight hunger and poverty; it’s cheaper, too. In Afghanistan, for example, cultivation packages that help farmers grow wheat can provide a year’s supply of staple grains for a family of seven, at just over $150. In contrast, cash transfers to purchase the same amount of food at a local market would cost more than $600. And direct food aid would cost over $1,000.

The cost of those years of underinvestment in agriculture became visible in around 2007. Global food prices spiked, pushing the number of people going hungry above a billion – or a sixth of the world’s population. The importance of agricultural investments could not have been more clear – and, as we all recall, it propelled the United States to call on the world to increase agriculture investments at the 2009 G8 Summit in L’Aquila. It is the spirit that animated the creation of our food security initiative at USAID and in the U.S government, Feed the Future. Today, the United States contributes more than $1 billion to Feed the Future each year – a commitment President Biden reaffirmed last fall for an additional five years.

To date, Feed the Future investments have unlocked more than $4.8 billion in agricultural financing, leveraged more than $2.6 billion in private-sector investment in food security, and generated more than $17.9 billion in agricultural sales for smallholder farmers. And, we have learned tremendous amounts by working with our partners in the field so we are iterating.

Today, as we stare down a global food crisis and as we have to anticipate more climate-induced pressure on food production in the future, it is clear that we must learn the lessons of the past, and tailor and scale our methods to the world that we now face. A world where climate change is wreaking havoc on crop production. A world where agriculture, itself, can be a leading source of environmental stress. A world where inequities continue to limit the potential to help those most in need. 

To take account of that world, this world, we need to accelerate and dramatically expand efforts to transform what we grow, how we grow it and who benefits. Everything starts with what we grow – with our ability to produce more food, more quickly.

Back in the 1960s, scientists had to painstakingly observe the behavior of generations of crops to know which lines to cross, taking years to increase yields. But today, genome sequencing allows scientists to rapidly select the most desirable varieties to cross – in some cases, shortening the breeding process from years to a matter of months.

USAID is supporting this kind of accelerated breeding around the world. For example, to help bolster wheat production in Southern Asia, we’re funding the Applied Wheat Genomics Innovation Lab, an initiative led by Kansas State University with research sites in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. The Lab has sequenced more than 74,000 wheat varieties to identify traits that boost climate resilience and yields.

For nations that choose to embrace it, genetic engineering – inserting new sequences into plant genomes – can quicken the pace even further. In Bangladesh, four varieties of genetically-engineered, insect-resistant eggplants approved in 2013 have benefited more than 65,000 smallholder farmers by increasing yields and incomes, reducing pesticide use, and improving food safety.

Inserting new sequences into plant genomes – creating genetically modified organisms – sometimes meets with resistance, despite extensive evidence of safety. But, newer genomic techniques like CRISPR allow scientists to quickly and precisely introduce specific changes to a crop’s genome that don’t involve gene transfer. For example, scientists can now snip out a gene that makes a crop susceptible to disease or tweak base pairs to help a crop withstand drought or rising temperatures. 

The problem, however, is that smallholder farmers, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, don’t often benefit from new technologies, since funding comes mostly from private sector companies looking to profit from crops that may not be bred for rural smallholder communities. Even if they are, the seeds often aren’t tailored to local soils, salinity, and climate – which are also rapidly changing as a result of the climate crisis. And farmers on the ground, understandably, don’t want to take a risk on more expensive, unfamiliar seeds with their hard-earned cash, especially if they are living season-to-season.

But homegrown innovation – new crops developed in the environments where they’ll be harvested – can address some of these barriers. In partnership with American universities, we’re investing in crop breeding innovation in partner countries. Innovation that tailors new seeds to their environments, and builds trust with local farmers by showing them that taking risks on agricultural innovation pays off. 

We know how effective this can be. In the 1990s, USAID and the Rockefeller Foundation supported a talented young Ethiopian scientist who bred new varieties of sorghum resistant to drought and the parasitic weed striga. The new seeds, distributed in twelve countries across sub-Saharan Africa, including in the Horn, quadrupled yields even in areas facing severe drought. 

That scientist was Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, who won this very award in 2009, and who is here today in the audience somewhere. There we go.

Today, we’re supporting a new generation of African scientists building on Dr. Ejeta’s work. I’m excited to announce that USAID will invest nearly $3.8 million to support the ISAAA AfriCenter, Kenyatta University, and Addis Ababa University to use CRISPR to develop new “Striga-smart” varieties of sorghum. These new varieties will accelerate breeding efforts and protect farmers from devastating weed infestations that still plague many African farmers today, while minimizing the need for herbicides or the laborious hand weeding so often done by women. 

But it’s not enough to simply find more suitable crops to grow. Currently, food systems contribute nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions – a percentage that will almost certainly increase if we ramp up global agricultural productivity the way we’ve done in the past. Today, the ways we grow our crops must not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also help communities vulnerable to climate change build resilience. 

For the last decade, USAID has supported new practices and processes that allow local communities to produce more food in an increasingly volatile climate while reducing agriculture’s environmental and climate footprint. What has come, of course, to be known as climate-smart agriculture.

We’re supporting these efforts in smallholder farming communities across sub-Saharan Africa. In Ghana, for example, where smallholder farmers often irrigate their crops using pumping systems powered by expensive fossil fuels, USAID invested in the research and development of small-scale solar-powered irrigation systems – systems that are not only sustainable, but are more affordable and return higher profits, while also benefiting the women tasked with collecting irrigation water from sources miles away. 

The key today is to make these new climate-smart practices accessible, to train farmers to use technologies and techniques that will make farming more efficient, and to scale them so that more farmers can benefit.

We’re funding efforts in both of these areas. In the Sahel region, where hundreds of thousands of farmers rely on trees to protect sorghum and other crops from harsher temperatures, our research partners are working with communities to plant perennial grasses, shrubs, and trees in croplands. These perennial plants improve soil health, help crops withstand extreme weather, and provide valuable livestock feed, all while sequestering carbon.

We’re also using digital innovation to help farmers reduce the amount of fertilizer that goes to waste – a major source of soil and water pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions. It’s waste that stems from the fact that fertilizer application, for so many, is so often a guessing game. 

In Ethiopia, with USAID support, U.S. universities and the International Fertilizer Development Center are working with local scientists and other donors to address that problem. Satellite imagery from space and remote sensing help researchers determine exactly how much fertilizer to apply, and where to apply it. Using this information, scientists create fertilizer recommendations, which they use to train farmers to more efficiently use their supplies. Their increasingly scarce supplies. The technology has helped reduce fertilizer waste by 80 percent on farms that benefit from this know-how, while more than doubling crop yields. 

The Government of Ethiopia has been working to scale this approach – an approach we call Space to Place. They have been scaling it across the country, where it has already expanded to over a few million hectares in just a few years. And today, USAID is providing more than $27 million in additional funding to bring the approach to other parts of sub-Saharan Africa – a region where fertilizer use is low, precisely because high costs and a lack of information about how to use it most effectively prevents farmers from reaping its benefits. 

Here is the challenge: programs like Space to Place must be expanded much more rapidly than the United States and our partners are currently on pace to do. We need help from governments, the private sector, donors, and nonprofits to accelerate and scale their use. And to create more programs like it, we need far greater public investment in agricultural research and development – research that develops and improves techniques like fertilizer efficiency and crop diversity. We especially need those investments from governments in developing countries, which are currently lagging. That’s despite the Malabo Declaration, which reaffirmed the African Union’s 2003 goal of committing ten percent of public spending on agriculture – a goal that just four African countries currently meet.

Beyond climate change, one of the targets of increased public investment in food systems should be food fortification, which adds essential vitamins and minerals during food processing, and remains one of the most impactful ways to tackle malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. While it can’t replace a nutritious, diverse diet, food fortification can give families a kind of nutritional safety net you might say – providing the essential nutrients that they need to survive. And it’s incredibly cost-effective. Iron fortification costs eight cents per child, iodine fortification of salt even less. 

The problem, however, is that food fortification is unaffordable for food processors. Producing food products from raw materials – like flour from wheat – is a business that already operates on razor-thin margins. And they have no way of mitigating those additional costs, because low-income families can’t afford to purchase more expensive, fortified products. As a result, governments are hesitant to set and enforce nutritional standards for fear of putting small- and medium-sized food processors out of business. 

That is why I’m pleased today to announce a new $75 million investment in large-scale food fortification. The project, which we’re calling AFFORD, will work with food processors, civil society, country governments, and private-sector companies in Feed the Future countries and beyond to add micronutrients to staple foods. With this funding, we’ll work with governments to set and enforce nutritional standards, while also providing resources to expand and scale fortification across regions facing malnourishment.

But alongside supporting agricultural innovations and developing and scaling more sustainable practices, the first two elements of what I am here to talk about with you today, it is essential that we take on a third element in a more intense way. And that is making sure that the playing field be leveled for small farmers – especially women, who make up nearly half the agricultural workforce in low-income countries. 

When I visited Zambia a few months ago, I spoke with women farmers facing similar barriers as other smallholder farmers – most immediately the soaring cost of fertilizer which led them, they said, to be able to buy half as much. And in most instances, that meant for them, planting half as much. But they had additional challenges beyond those faced by their male counterparts – other small holder farmers. 

There, as in so many low-income countries, women can’t access the same financial resources as men can, limiting their ability to purchase land, seeds, and equipment. A lack of emphasis on education for girls has prevented women farmers from gaining digital fluency and learning to use digital agricultural technology, which could undermine the impact of programs like Space to Place even as we try to scale them. And due to competing, unpaid obligations like cooking, cleaning, and childcare, which all too often fall on their shoulders, women have less time to devote to their farms than men. This lack of access to seeds, tools, and fertilizers has led to significant gender gaps in how much women are able to produce. 

In response, USAID is investing in the food systems that farmers, but especially women farmers, rely on – systems that weren’t necessarily designed with women in mind. Food systems include expanding access to new seeds, digital innovations, and financial resources, as well as ways to store excess harvests and prevent food loss.

When I traveled to Malawi a few months ago, I learned about our efforts to scale the distribution of improved, disease-resistant peanut seeds, an effort especially important for women, who make up the vast majority of farmers who primarily grow peanuts. And we’re working to expand these same women’s access to credit and loans as well, loans that 97 percent of these women have paid back in full. 

To help expand women’s access to digital innovation, we’re partnering with private tech companies in Colombia to bring internet access and digital training to rural women, an effort that will help women farmers adopt digital agriculture innovations. And in Nigeria and Ghana, we’re investing in food storage technologies, like airtight bags for maize, which women in Ghana use to feed flocks of poultry, and that have helped some increase their flocks by up to 5,000 percent in just five years.

But perhaps the most important barrier to the success of women farmers is land ownership. According to the World Bank, more than a third of countries still place legal limits on women’s ability to own land and property. In other countries, women farmers still struggle against cultural norms that leave farms to sons rather than daughters and relegate women and girls to the home. As a result, globally, women make up less than 15 percent of farm owners, limiting their ability to make purchasing decisions, access credit and loans, and increase yields.

In Tanzania, where national laws protect women’s land rights but village property rights are less secure, USAID is supporting efforts to rectify that. We’re working with local governments and village leadership to clarify and document land ownership, while also educating village leaders and residents as to their rights to own land – efforts that have doubled the rate of land ownership among women. 

And in West Bengal, India, USAID teamed up with PepsiCo to help women potato farmers participate in a land-leasing activity, which helped them learn how to negotiate land leasing terms, an effort that resulted in many of the women accessing farmland independently for the very first time.

There’s tremendous potential here: if we can close the gender gap in agriculture, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we can lift up to 150 million people out of hunger.

Changing what we grow, how we grow it, and who reaps the benefits, that’s how we can not just increase global agricultural investments, but target them to the areas where they can have the most impact.

But we can’t do this work alone. We never have. The fight against hunger is, and always will be, a collective effort. And as always, USAID is working to bolster our partnerships – which have helped us understand the impacts, possibilities, and challenges, and limits in our work.

I mean partnerships focused on research and innovation. Today, I’m pleased to announce the Global Food Security Research Strategy, jointly led by USAID and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal partners who engage on it. The strategy provides a roadmap for investments and research, one developed in partnership with development organizations, universities, federal research agencies, and researchers in the communities themselves around the globe. And it will focus investments and research on three key areas: genetic improvements of crops and livestock, climate-smart agriculture, and improved nutrition.

I also mean partnerships with the private sector. Last year at COP26, President Biden announced that the United States will commit a billion dollars over five years to spur investments in climate-smart food systems. More than 40 countries have joined that initiative, AIM for Climate it is called, as well as more than 150 private sector, and academic institutions as well as NGOs. We anticipate that number will increase at COP27 next month. I want to thank our bipartisan allies in Congress who have already dedicated so much to strengthening food security, and I look forward to working with them so we can devote even more resources to fund sustainable, climate-smart, and resilient food systems.

Of course, I also mean partnerships with all of you. Regardless of whether you have formally worked with USAID, all of you are our partners in the fight against global hunger. And we are always learning from your expertise and your experience.

Today, I urge all of our partners to join us in pursuing this vision for a sustainable and resilient agricultural future – one designed not just to feed us today, but to protect our tomorrow. 

I urge government partners to invest in research and development within their own borders, to partner with private companies and nonprofits to bring new seeds to environments too often overlooked, and to develop regulations and policies that encourage the development of safe, cutting-edge agricultural innovation. 

I urge private companies and nonprofits to partner with governments to affordably scale climate-smart practices and food fortification efforts through initiatives like AIM for Climate, and for nonprofits, civil society organizations, and community advocates to work alongside us to help the most marginalized communities take advantage of them.

And I urge everyone – governments, communities, nonprofits, private sector companies, and individuals – to change cultural norms that relegate women to the home, and begin dismantling cultural and legal barriers that are holding back our women farmers, our women leaders. Because when we hold women back, we hold everyone back.

Together, we can usher in a new era of renewal. Norman Borlaug had no patience for what he called the “constant pessimism and scare-mongering” of those who saw famine as inevitable. “Pessimism,” he said, “has no place in action.” He believed to the end that no matter how dire the situation, there is always something we can do, if only we act and act together. Thank you so much.

Iowa Events Center Des Moines, Iowa

Last updated: November 30, 2022

Share This Page