Remarks by Feed the Future Deputy Coordinator for Development Ambassador William J. Garvelink at the HarvestPlus Conference on Biofortification: From Discovery to Delivery

Tuesday, November 9, 2010
The Future of Food

Thank you, Peter, for your kind introduction and for your contributions to humanitarian assistance and agriculture throughout your distinguished career. In particular, I would like to applaud you for your work with the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa and for your leadership with land-grant universities.

I am sincerely honored to join you this morning to kick off the first-ever global conference on biofortification. It is my hope that this historical meeting of policy makers, public health experts, researchers and business leaders is another spark to further foster the global momentum to link agriculture, research and global health.

First, I would like to congratulate HarvestPlus for bringing together members of the agriculture and nutrition community – from scientists to policy makers – to discuss and discover how we can collectively improve the nutrition level of the diets of the world’s poor. Special thanks to Howdy Bouis, Bonnie McClaferty and the whole Harvest Plus team for making this happen.

USAID has had a long-standing partnership with HarvestPlus. In fact, our partnership goes a back at least as far as 1994. We have continued to be a partner in this innovative pathway for nutrition and have watched with great satisfaction the significant strides that have been made. This confidence in the work of HarvestPlus mirrors our continued support of the CGIAR system and its vital partnerships with the university community, NGOs and the private sector.

The seven nutrient-rich staple crops that you plan to release in 10 countries by 2014 is a remarkable accomplishment that we know will make a tremendous impact. These biofortified staple crops, from maize to sweet potato, represent the primary source of food for the vast majority of people on the planet.

The policy and technical dialogue that you all will participate in over the next three days comes at a crucial time. Development, specifically agricultural development, has been elevated in historical ways not only within the U.S. Government, but across the world.

On September 22, President Obama issued the first-ever development policy by a U.S. president, demonstrating that development is a core component of policy at the White House and across multiple agencies.

In addition, there has been a significant shift in funding for agricultural development. In the 1980s, 25 percent of U.S. foreign aid went to agriculture. That number dropped to 6 percent by 1990 and was a meager 1 percent last year. World Bank lending for agriculture fell from 30 percent in 1978 to 16 percent in 1988 to only 8 percent in 2006.

But, the focus has changed.

We watched as the spike in world food prices in 2007 and 2008 destabilized local and national economies across the world. The international community responded with the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative, launched at last year’s G-8 Summit, which reversed the decades-long decline in official development assistance for agricultural development. The United States is proud to be a part of this broad international effort to combat hunger and spur economic growth in some of the world’s poorest countries.

The collaborative global effort is centered on country-owned processes and plans that implement a common approach to improve food security, agricultural production, and nutrition.

President Obama pledged to spend at least $3.5 billion over three years on agriculture-led development – a more than doubling of our recent spending in this area. The United States is well on its way to achieving that financial commitment with an approved FY 2010 budget of $888 million that focuses investments in agricultural development and nutrition.

Feed the Future, which is the U.S. Government’s contribution to the global effort, prioritizes investments in game-changing innovations and research, host country capacity, and strong mechanisms to hold both ourselves and our partners accountable for achieving sustainable outcomes in food security.

Along with these policy, funding, and priority shifts around food security, we have seen biofortification emerge as a new science in both agriculture and health. These two once disparate disciplines – agriculture and nutrition – are merging across programs in development in monumental ways.

At the 1,000 Days nutrition event in New York on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in September, Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the World Food Program said, “We are witnessing a revolution in our approach to undernutrition.”

Nutrition is the defining link between the two game-changing U.S. Presidential Initiatives: Feed the Future and the Global Health Initiative. We know that food security is about much more than ensuring better access to food, but ensuring better access to better quality food, and ultimately ensuring that those who can benefit most – women, children, and poorer communities – consume these foods. And that’s exactly why we are investing in innovative linkages between health and agriculture. The good news is: we are not alone.

As the world responds to the challenge of food security, we are pleased that the CGIAR system and programs like HarvestPlus tackling this challenge head-on. New research programs plan to maximize the impact of agriculture on food security, diet quality, and nutrition, and to recognize the importance of gender-responsive approaches, which are critical to both agriculture and nutrition. I am also pleased to see a focus on mitigating agriculture-associated health risks through improved food safety, water quality, agricultural practices, and control of infectious diseases. Key to all of this work is effective partnerships: the U.S. Government is committed to working with our research partners here in the U.S. and in developing countries to realize the potential of new technologies.

If there is one thing I want you to remember from my speech today it is this: the momentum to link agriculture, research and nutrition across programs is greater than ever before. We must capitalize on this energy. The time has come for us to channel the powers of modern agricultural technology to reduce the single largest public health problem in the world: malnutrition.

New foods are being developed to reduce global hunger and we are already seeing the value of this on the ground. Orange flesh sweet potatoes packed with provitamin A are being planted throughout East Africa. High iron beans in Rwanda and provitiamin A maize in Zambia are currently being adapted by national agricultural research countries in those countries. We have seen the potential for the orange flesh sweet potato to dramatically reduce vitamin A deficiency in children in Mozambique, and are committed to working together with HarvestPlus, the International Potato Center, and others to ensure the scale-up of this crop throughout Africa as part of our comprehensive approach to reduce child undernutrition.

Plant breeding to add iron, zinc, and provitamin A directly into staple foods is exactly what we need to combine the tools and techniques of agriculture to improve global health. This is a necessary complement to other nutrition interventions and reaches populations who may not have access to a viable health care system or commercially processed fortified foods.

Through Feed the Future and the Global Health Initiative, the United States is bringing together the necessary components of agriculture and health programs to improve the quality and diversification of diets; improve accessibility to food, water and sanitation, and health systems; and invest in better nutritional practices in the household. These are our core investments, and our contribution to the global agenda for Scaling Up Nutrition.

We welcome the work of HarvestPlus in the years ahead to take their research from the greenhouse to the farmer’s fields in the poorest countries. Biofortification holds the promise of low-cost, familiar technologies and crops that will improve the quality of the diet for the neediest. As a bonus, many of the biofortified crops result in improved crop yields that are better able to grow in nutrient poor soils, limited moisture and other adverse conditions.

Clearly, there is a long list of benefits from biofortification. But, I would be remiss if I did not also make reference to the concern by some consumers and advocacy groups of the use of genetically modified technologies in producing biofortified crops. We look to genetic modification as an additional tool available to breeders to help us to improve dietary quality and quantity. While continually looking for adverse consequences of genetic modification technologies, we believe that the evidence points us to further development of genetically modified food production. We can only think about what the future holds, but for the vast majority of the work of HarvestPlus and biofortication, conventional plant breeding is the tried and trusted approach to improving the nutrient profile.

We know that increasing agricultural productivity alone is not enough to reverse malnutrition trends. Hunger and malnutrition are enormous development challenges that demand innovative technical, operational and institutional solutions. And we need to do more.

Across the globe, micronutrient malnutrition affects more than 2 billion people – mostly women and children – increasing their susceptibility to diarrhea and other deadly illnesses and infections. Iron deficiency alone is estimated to affect about half of all children in the developing world, hampering growth and causing irreversible cognitive damage. The impacts of anemia turn into a vicious cycle that limit a child’s ability to learn and a woman’s ability to work productively—which in turn, given the role of women in agriculture, prohibits growth and productivity in the agriculture sector as a whole. For example in Sierra Leone, the lack of adequate actions to address women’s anemia is estimated to result in agricultural productivity losses of almost US$100 million during the next five years.

Even mild levels of micronutrient malnutrition damage cognitive development, lower disease resistance in children, and reduce the likelihood that mothers survive childbirth. The costs of these deficiencies in terms of lives lost and poor quality of life are staggering.

This is precisely why we need to better target nutrition research and delivery towards the most vulnerable, which includes pregnant women and children. At the MDG Summit in September, Secretary Clinton and Minister Martin—along with many other leaders—emphasized this 1,000 day window of opportunity. As we move forward on collective action with countries under the Scaling Up Nutrition Road Map, we will be focusing our energy and resources on achieving significant results on nutrition in this relatively short period of time.

I urge all of you in this room this morning to take on two important pledges this week: first, take talk to action, ensuring important strategic discussions and new technologies don’t sit only in our minds or on a shelf; second, come together as experts in agricultural and nutrition and explore how to better target vulnerable women and children. Women are a fundamental force in agricultural development, economic growth, and global health.

USAID has long been committed to improving nutrition and we will continue to support this effort.

Georgetown University Conference Center, Washington, DC

Last updated: September 27, 2017

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