Summary

  • USAID predicts that emergency food assistance needs will increase by 25% in 2020 to address crisis levels of hunger. Dr. Robert Bertram, Chief Scientist in USAID’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, discusses the impact of the public health crisis on global food insecurity, how the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative is responding, and how USAID is partnering with top U.S. universities on research and innovation to reduce global hunger, poverty and malnutrition.

    Dr. Hale Ann Tufan, Associate Director of the Feed the Future Crop Improvement Innovation Lab at Cornell University, discusses new global crop improvement research aimed at increasing crop yields and enhancing nutrition. Feed the Future Innovation Labs lead research efforts to develop safe and effective technologies to address some of the world’s greatest challenges in agriculture and food security. The Innovation Lab at Cornell University was established in 2019 with a $25 million grant from USAID.

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. 

MODERATOR:  Good morning.  My name is Jen McAndrew, and I am a Media Relations Officer with the Washington Foreign Press Center and the moderator for today’s on-the-record briefing on “How USAID is Responding to Global Food Insecurity.”    

Our first briefer is Dr. Robert Bertram, Chief Scientist in USAID’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, who will discuss the impact of the current public health crisis on global food insecurity, how the Feed the Future Initiative is responding, and how USAID is partnering with top U.S. universities on research and innovation to reduce global hunger, poverty, and malnutrition.    

Our second briefer, Dr. Hale Ann Tufan, is Associate Director of the Feed the Future Crop Improvement Innovation Lab at Cornell University.  She will discuss new global crop improvement research aimed at increasing crop yields and enhancing nutrition. The Innovation Lab at Cornell was established in 2019 with a $25 million grant from USAID.     

We greatly appreciate both Dr. Bertram and Dr. Tufan for giving their time today for this briefing.    

And now for the ground rules:  This briefing is on the record, and the contents of today’s briefing are embargoed until 12:00 noon Eastern Time, today, September 17th.  We will post the transcript of this briefing later today on our website, fpc.state.gov.  If you publish a story as a result of this briefing, please share your story with us by sending an e-mail to DCFPC@state.gov.    

Dr. Bertram and Dr. Tufan will give opening remarks, and then we will open it up for questions.  If you have a question, please open the participant box and virtually raise your hand.  At that time, we will unmute you and turn on your video so that you can ask your question.  If you have not already done so, please take the time now to rename your Zoom profile with your full name and the name of your media outlet.   

And with that, I will pass it over to Dr. Bertram.   

MR BERTRAM:  Thanks so much, Jen, and good morning, good afternoon, good evening I think for some of you.  And it’s a pleasure to be here, and I appreciate very much your joining us today.  My name is Rob Bertram and I am the chief scientist for Resilience and Food Security at USAID.  And this week we are celebrating 10 years of an initiative called Feed the Future.  Feed the Future was born 10 years ago as a response to the global food crisis that took the world by surprise in 2008, 2007.   

And what we found was that for a long time there had been complacency about investing in agriculture, and yet demand for food was growing, but faster than production was growing, and this caused price spikes, and because of trade linkages we saw prices increase tremendously.  We saw riots take place around the world.  After years of benign neglect, agriculture and food security was back front and center on the global stage. 

So under President Bush, an emergency package was – of $900 million was announced, and then subsequently when President Obama came into office he worked with international partners as – and the U.S. made a commitment for a billion dollars a year to fund Feed the Future.  And that was in partnership and complemented by similar kinds of investments from Germany and the UK and other partner countries.  It was really a global effort to respond. 

So – but what we found out, of course, in that crisis situation is that most of the people that were most seriously affected actually depended on agriculture for their livelihoods.  The people in the rural areas were suffering the most from food price spikes because many – even small farmers are net consumers.   

So the path forward when we talk about feeding the future really starts with feeding the present, and we set about it in a couple of – with a couple of new innovations.  First of all, we put nutrition front and center, because what we found is where we looked at where hunger was – and that’s also where extreme poverty is – we also saw rates of child stunting, sometimes 40 and 50 percent.  Child stunting – in other words, not – weight – height-for-age, excuse me – is a marker for chronic food insecurity, lack of access to food exacerbated by – to a quality diet, exacerbated by poor sanitation, a lack of health care, a number of things.  It’s a complex outcome.  But we made that target of reducing stunting front and center, which put a human face on our work in agriculture.  The other thing we had as our big goal was reducing extreme poverty, and those two things go together.   

So what else was new about this?  We took what we call a country-led approach.  In other words, we partnered with countries where child stunting, extreme poverty, and agricultural potential all went together.  And ironically – you wouldn’t think this – but ironically, hunger and extreme poverty and child stunting concentrate in the major agro ecologies across the world – the savannahs of Africa, the Ethiopian highlands, South Asia.  These are also bread baskets and rice bowls of the world, but still hunger and poverty persisted. 

We also – and very importantly, in linking to our subject today, is that science and technology was seen as a key opportunity to really address the needs of small older farmers in developing countries around the world and bring them the benefits of science that farmers in Europe or North America or Australia or Japan take for granted.   

So that’s a lot of what we’re going to be focusing on today.  USAID set out to lead Feed the Future with other agencies, and I want to particularly call out USDA the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the State Department, who was the – leveraging our domestic capacities and our diplomatic engagements around the world to work with our partner countries.  We also put gender front and center in our work.  We had gender as a – we saw women as key to economic action in agriculture.  Many farmers and farm families are led by women, but also absolutely critical for the nutritional outcome.  So empowering women is part and parcel of the approach because women make key decisions that affect the outcome of family and child nutrition.  So the combination of both the economic and the household realities of gender is – plays significantly in our work. 

So in leading this research program that is part of Feed the Future, much of our work was in the individual partner countries through development programs, generally about linking farmers to markets and improving policies and making agriculture more efficient, productive in ways that increased incomes but also lowered the prices and made food more affordable for especially low-income consumers, whether they were in cities or in towns.  And I’m pleased to share with you that last year the World Bank put out a report called “Harvesting Prosperity” that shows that agricultural-led growth in an economy is up to four times more effective at reducing extreme poverty, and that’s both in urban areas and rural areas because of those linkages that I talked about. 

So we know that a key way to enhance both the incomes of people but also their access to food is through growth in the agricultural sector.  And of course, our focus has been on the smallholder farm families.  There are hundreds of millions of them across the world, and they produce a huge amount of the food that feeds much of the world, especially in places like sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, parts of Latin America. 

So we work with sets of partners in carrying out the science piece, and that’s what I’m going to talk about now. 

We work with our U.S. university community.  The United States, by virtue of our size and the number of climates, the types of agriculture we have, we’re a country that can both contribute a lot to collaborative research with our partners in developing countries, and we also stand to gain sometimes.  Sometimes we can work on a disease in Africa or Asia before it gets to the United States.  And we also work with the international agricultural research centers, the CGIAR centers.  They’re funded by many countries across the world, and they work all through the developing world on agriculture and related natural resources issues. 

We work with our national research partners in partner countries.  That’s the critical third leg of our stool.  And maybe if I add a fourth leg, we work with the private sector as partners in research and development here in the United States but also in our partner countries.  So for example, in the private sector, there are key capacities in terms of product development in ways that can accelerate the speed with which we can generate new technologies, and we’ve generated more than a thousand that have been taken up by farmers all over the world.  So this is – it’s a very gratifying sense of impact that we’ve achieved, and I want to just state a couple facts for you. 

We have measured that 24 million people – fewer people are in extreme poverty because of this work.  We have measured that there are more than 3.5 million fewer stunted children because of this work.  And we’ve measured that 5 million families have escaped hunger.  So – and this is an ongoing effort, and many of you have heard that the world has committed to trying to end hunger in this decade, and we are contributing to that and doing it with the whole range of partners that I’ve mentioned. 

Finally, I want to come to – and the last point on the science partners.  And the U.S. has also been a leader in working in a demand-driven way with our partner countries to access all the science that’s available.  So that’s biological sciences, social sciences, digital information sciences.  All of these are coming together to generate solutions in our partner countries. 

Finally, we can’t think about food security right now without mentioning COVID, as Jen mentioned.  And COVID is – it’s a key threat to some of the most nutritious, important foods that people and families depend on: the fruits and vegetables, the fish, the dairy, the poultry.  These are value chains and production systems that have lots of human involvement and interaction, and that’s good because it generates jobs and opportunities, and even – and for women and youth as well, both on farm and off.  But these are the ones that are most vulnerable.   

So we’re working with our partners in our USAID missions in the private sector and our – the governments in our partner countries to see how we can try to keep those safe markets operating for fresh foods, for fruits and vegetables and meat and fish and dairy, and make sure that those continue to operate safely.  And of course, we are looking at food safety more broadly, and that – and building it in to our work in ways that help us build back stronger as the world collectively meets this challenge. 

So I think – Jen, I think my time is up.  I’ll stop there.  But later on, when we come to the questions or if there’s anything I’ve missed, I’m really happy to say a few more words.  Thank you.  

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Dr. Bertram.  And now over to Dr. Tufan, please. 

MS TUFAN:  Thank you, Jen, and good morning, good afternoon, good evening, as Rob said.  I’m really happy to be here and thank you for the opportunity.  My name is Hale Ann Tufan.  I’m the associate director for the Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement (ILCI) led by Cornell University.   

So as Rob pointed out, we have multiple crises that are coming to the fore threatening global food security: economic crises, conflict, pandemic right now, climate change.  So while we see social, public health, and economic healing will bring back stability to these food systems, we really think scientific research will play a really important role to – about bringing – building back stronger.  For example, virologists will help discover a COVID vaccine, but agricultural researchers such as plant breeders will also help a reliable influx of crop varieties that really serve the backbone of food security in vulnerable countries.  So we think this is an all-important function of crop improvement as an example of the science that Feed the Future supports globally.  

So our Innovation Lab is a five-year initiative and it’s a 25 million grant from the U.S. Government Feed the Future Initiative.  And if I have to think and describe ILCI in a word, I would say it would be space, and I’ll explain why that word.  So our whole premise in ILCI is to serve as the support structure to National Agricultural Research Institutes (NARI).  I’ll refer to those as NARIs going forward. 

So we really see that as NARIs define their own goals and drive advancement to breed resilient crop varieties to stand up to pests and disease and climate change, we’re a support structure to that advancement.  So our ideas are if researchers and NARIs are given the space to set their own priorities for crop improvement, what would those look like?  And if they’re really given the space to – if were given a space to co-create solutions to crop improvement challenges that NARIs face in their own countries, what would those look like? 

So NARIs really play a central role in food security strategies, but they often lack the freedom to design and implement their own homegrown solutions.  There’s a lot of donor priorities, a lot of influx of different projects that sometimes keep busy work going, and we really see to create the space for co-designing these contextualized solutions is really important.  And as we’ve said, we believe that if these NARIs play a central role in designing their own innovations to target their own needs, these solutions would be more sustainable.  And we really think that this dovetails with USAID’s framework for the journey to self-reliance, so we see ourselves in kind of enabling that through these grants. 

We have a global mandate.  We have East and West Africa regions, Latin American, Caribbean, and South Asia.  So it’s quite a wide mandate.  We have – we’re working on crops that are really critical to food security in these regions – roots, tubers and bananas, sorghums and millets, and legumes except peanut and soybeans.  So these are really important crops for food security.   

Our core team is a multidisciplinary team across Cornell University, Clemson University, and Kansas State University, but also we have partners for cross-cutting issues, cultural practice, RTI International for MLE, and Makerere University in Uganda for gender training for scientists.  

So really looking at our own experience at Cornell and thinking why this is exciting for us, we really host some of the most original and cutting-edge thinkers in crop improvement.  There’s a lot of new innovation and new ideas that come out of Cornell.  Yet we don’t really stop to think how these thoughts and innovations apply to NARIs.  What does this mean?  So through ILCI, we see a lot of our faculty getting excited about experimenting with how their innovations play out in national settings and really create space for consultation, feedback, and co-creation for these ideas to be adapted to effectively support NARIs.  So this is what really excites a lot of our team. 

And I want to give an example to really concretize that idea.  So one intervention we focus on is really tools, technologies, and methods for crop improvement.  What does that mean?  For example, we have a team of faculty from Cornell, Kansas State, and Clemson together supporting what we’re calling phenomics.  Now, phenotype is a plant or what you observe – what is an overt, observable characteristics of a plant, which is a combination of its genes that it carries but also the environment in which its grown.  So it’s really what you see, what’s manifested visually for the plant. 

Historically, plant breeders observe plants visually.  So they say how tall is it; what’s the color of its grains, fruits, and tubers; is it resistance to pests.  So it’s a visual observation.  But in – over the last decade, there’s been a lot of work done into really supporting that with science and technology to say – what happens if you use tablets or cameras to take pictures and use those measurements to be more precise?  What happens if you collect data with those tablets, analyze them?  What if you have specialized devices that measure biochemical compounds that may be associated with what you’re seeing for quality of that crop, for example, or the nutritional content? 

So our faculty are really bringing these expertise and that knowledge and offering them as options to our NARI partners to say do any of these work for you; how can we tweak these so that these would work for your crop improvement systems.  So, for example, can the tablets be used to capture data from field tries of sorghum in Uganda?  Can the tools to measure protein content for lentils help breeders in Nepal?  Are these useful tools?  So right now, we’re developing, testing, adapting, and refining these many different approaches, and we hope to do this directly with NARIs. 

I think lastly – and Rob touched on this; it’s really important – we realized that crop improvement does not happen in a vacuum.  So oftentimes science gets disconnected from social issues in the countries that we work in, and to counter this, we really put a heavy emphasis on crosscutting issues.  These are gender, nutrition, resilience, and involvement of youth.  So we really believe that fostering gender and market-responsive innovations – what that means is any technology or any variety that’s developed is developed with women, children, and market dynamics in mind – that these go hand in hand with relieving world hunger.  We can’t do one separate from the other.   

We also believe that the future of food lies in getting youth involved, and we believe that nutrition and food safety are at the heart of growing food.  So if plants and people can stand up to economic and environmental crises, we have a better chance of breaking the cycle of poverty.  So we really see food security deeply entangled with issues of poverty, malnutrition, and gender equality, and we really by prioritizing those issues up and front and center with our NARI partners as well will be supporting more transformative innovations. 

So I just want to point out to those listening that we have just begun our journey.  We just started.  We haven’t completed our first year yet, so we have many opportunities for funding that will come up in the next four years in the Feed the Future target countries.  This will be around crop improvement, as I mentioned – around the mandate crops that I mentioned – and we really encourage researchers to keep in touch to learn of further opportunities.  Sorry. 

So I’m going to end with kind of outlining our current major partners and their planned activities.  So we’ll be announcing today – that’s what the embargo is for – our four new centers of innovation, as we call them.  Each of these centers will receive $1 million over three years to invest in crop improvement priorities that they have established, that we will be supporting them to see through.   

So the first is called the East Africa Center of Innovation for Finger Millet and Sorghum.  This is centered in Uganda as the prime country with collaborating countries Kenya and Tanzania, and the lead institution is the National Semi Arid Resources Research Institute, or NaSARRI, and the PI is Scovia Adikini.  They’ll be working on sorghum and finger millets, and they – their tagline for their project is “harnessing sorghum and finger millet genetic resources for increased productivity and utilization in arid and semi-arid regions of East Africa.” 

The second project is the Central American and Caribbean Crop Improvement Alliance.  This is centered equally between Costa Rica and Haiti and the PIs are Jose Camacho (ph) and Gael Pressoir.  The crops are common bean, sorghum, and sweet potato, and they describe themselves as “a hub for plant cultivar development and breeding innovation in Central America and the Caribbean.” 

The third center is Center for Innovation of Crop Improvement for East and Southern Africa, centralized in Malawi with Mozambique and Tanzania as partner countries, and the lead institute is LUANAR, or Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources.  The PI is Dr. Michael Chipeta, and they are focusing on cowpea.  So they’re really focused on cowpea improvement for yield, disease resistance, adaptation, and nutrition security in East Africa. 

And last but not least, we have Crop Improvement in West Africa Center.  This is centralized in Senegal with collaborating countries Burkina Faso and Niger.  The lead institution is – it’s in French, sorry – Institut Senegalais de Recherches Agricoles, or ISRA, and the PI is Dr. Jedo Kan (ph) and they’re focusing on sorghum, pearl millet, and cowpea for a regionally coordinated approach to the development and dissemination of innovations in West Africa. 

We also have, very quickly, five short-term research projects which will be one year long in Haiti with Gael Pressoir, in Nepal with Dr. Faishandar Durai (ph); in Uganda two different projects with Stanley Nkalubo and Benard Yadof, both with NaCRRI. 

So I’ll take any questions.  Thank you very much. 

MODERATOR:  Before we go to questions – thank you very much, Dr. Tufan – Dr. Bertram, did you have any other remarks to make before we go to Q&A? 

MR BERTRAM:  Thanks, Jen.  Yes.  I want to build on the great news that Hale has just shared, and I think Hale, you’ve done a great job of showing how we approach collaborative research to improve food and agriculture by partnering with national institutions, following their priorities, helping them achieve the things they want to achieve.  So it’s really an example of that country-led approach and also building capacity for our partner countries to solve their own problems, to identify and solve their own problems in ways that will help sustain their own journey to self-reliance, which is the theme that has guided us for a number of years in all our work. 

But Jen, I want to just say that in addition to the great news about the Cornell lab and its new partnerships, we also have the animal – a new Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Animal Health, and that’s going to be led by Washington State University at Pullman in Washington.  We’ve awarded them $16 million over five years to work on a tremendously important disease that affects livestock in much of Africa called East Coast fever, costing the continent $300 million per year.  Sometimes people talk about a cow dying every second from this disease.  It’s a terrible scourge of animal agriculture across much of Africa.  So we’re very excited about that. 

We’ve also made a special grant to our Feed the Future Soybean Innovation Lab, which is led by the University of Illinois, to launch an Innovation to Impact platform that’s going to help make technologies more accessible to farmers in ways that advance global food security.  And again, this will be working with local partners, national, and also private sector partners in commercializing these technologies.  This is a – we’re very proud of this lab.  It really exemplifies building partnerships.  It works in Ghana, Zambia, Mali, Mozambique, and Malawi, and again is really responding to Africa’s interests in developing soy in ways that will help make things like chicken and eggs more affordable, and fish – fish feeds, make aquaculture-based fisheries more affordable and available for Africa’s farmers.   

Finally, Jen, we have reauthorized and refunded our Livestock Systems Innovation Lab.  This is led by the University of Florida but involves many U.S. universities and many, many researchers in partner countries.  That’s going to continue to address the opportunities in animal agriculture, in large livestock, small ruminants, and poultry, and also very importantly focusing on how these foods in the diets of the poor are so important in providing nutrition in ways that reduces child stunting as well as gives people an opportunity for a better life ahead. 

So we’re really happy this week to be able to share this news about our continuing partnership with U.S. universities and importantly partners, scientific partners, in developing countries all around the world.  Thank you.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Dr. Bertram.  On a logistical note for the participants, all of these details are in a press release to be issued later today.  We will share that with all the participants, and the contents are embargoed until 12:00 noon Eastern.  

I will now move to the Q&A portion of this briefing.  I see we already have a hand raised from one of our participants, so I will call on Simon Ateba from Today News Africa for the first question.  We will now unmute you.  

QUESTION:  Thanks.  Can you hear me?   

MODERATOR:  Yes.  

QUESTION:  So thank you for taking my question.  This is Simon Ateba from Today News Africa in Washington, D.C.  I don’t know if you can talk a little bit more about food insecurity in West Africa.  I was born there, and I see a lot of land, but we seem to have – as you mentioned, in Kenya and in other places where we have a lot of arable land, why is it so – why do we still have that problem of food insecurity in Africa, especially in West Africa?  And if you can talk a little bit more about the East Coast fever that costs the continent billions of dollars every year.  Thank you.   

MR BERTRAM:  Shall I go ahead, or?  Jen, or —  

MODERATOR:  Yes, please do.  

MR BERTRAM:  Oh, okay.  I didn’t – so thank you, Simon, for that question.  We do – West Africa is a major area of focus for us.  We have partner countries, as Hale said, in Senegal, Nigeria, Niger, Mali, and we have programs – important programs in Burkina Faso.  And as you say, West Africa faces many challenges despite the fact that they are – they do have a lot of good land and sometimes rain.  I think rain and drought and climate change are major challenges in the region, and we are working with partners to develop crops that are more resistant to climate change. 

So Halle mentioned the sorghum and millet with Senegal.  We’ve worked on that across the region, but also cowpea, another crop.  And some of these crops – this is one of the exciting things about Hale’s lab at Cornell, the Crop Improvement Innovation Lab, is that they’re bringing the benefit of these scientific tools to the crops that have been under-researched.  Rice, wheat, maize have gotten a lot of attention.   

Now, having said that, rice and wheat and maize are very important in West Africa, and we do work on those.  You might have heard about fall armyworm.  This was a pest that went from the Americas to Africa about four years ago and has since spread all the way to Australia and is causing major losses to the maize crop and sometimes sorghum across West Africa, East Africa, Southern Africa, and parts of Asia.  And we have mobilized with partners across the world to address that.   

But – so West Africa, I think the other big thing to talk about there, besides managing water resources better through drip irrigation but also through better land management techniques, would be the soil fertility challenges.  They’re very large, and we work with national partners and regional partners around things like fertilizer policy to try to make fertilizer markets more efficient, such that African farmers can access mineral fertilizers but also adopt practices that increase the soil health – rotations of legumes, integration of perennials and trees.  There’s a number of things we can do – integration of livestock in a mixed system so you get the manure produced. 

So we take what is called the systems approach, in addition to coming in with these specific technologies around improved crops, maybe improved access to weather information that helps farmers make better decisions about when to fertilize, and also just accessing better information about pests and diseases and how to best manage them.   

So – but I think we are making progress.  I really do.  Northern Ghana is an area that we worked a lot in, and we do see improvements there.  It’s slow, but it’s coming, and it continues.  There are some special challenges that are not related to agriculture directly that also affect and challenge our work in that part of the world.  But we know that there’s strong commitment from our partner governments and organizations and institutions in those countries to make progress.   

And then on East Coast fever, just briefly, this is a – not a new disease.  It is endemic in the area.  It’s spread by ticks, and East Coast fever, the technical name is theileriosis, and the International Livestock Center – International Livestock Research Institute (, ILRI), in – located in Kenya, is a main researcher in this area, as are now with the new U.S. institution at Washington State University also bringing to bear our science on this problem.  But it is widespread and people live with it, and animals live with it, but many of them don’t thrive.  And of course, the families, if they lose a cow, this is a tremendous loss for their livelihoods and for their nutrition, the ability to have milk available for the family or for the market.  

MODERATOR:  Thank you for that.  Our next question is from Cara Anna, the Associated Press South Africa.  We will now unmute you.  

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you for the briefing.  My question is what seed shortages have you noticed in Africa caused by the pandemic and its wider effects, and what does that mean for food security in the seasons ahead?  Thanks. 

MR BERTRAM:  Well, I guess I’ll take that one again, unless Hale, you want to speak to it, I’m okay.   

MS TUFAN:  No, please go ahead. 

MR BERTRAM:  So seed systems in Africa are a key area of us – for us.  I just mentioned the input markets for fertilizer, but the other main one where we work at both the technical level and the business level and the policy level is on crop seeds.  The most vulnerable seed systems – the most vulnerable commodities that I mentioned to – in this crisis have been the fruits and vegetables.  And the vegetable seed industry is fairly advanced relative to the seed industries for things like cowpeas or potatoes or other crops, sorghum and millet.   

So I tend to think that in the short term we are probably less vulnerable with respect to seed access.  It’s more the markets that – in terms of moving the product, the degree of human involvement in transport, processing, marketing, and retailing that is our – probably our larger challenge at the moment.  But I’m really glad you asked the question, Cara, because it’s a huge problem.  Much of Africa, farmers are still growing seeds that are – varieties that are 20 or 25 years old.  This means there’s been decades of times for pests and diseases to evolve in ways that they can attack them.  This means they’re not adapted maybe to some changes in weather that have occurred or climate that have occurred in those intervening periods. 

So a lot of what our work – and exemplified by Hale’s work, but also very much at the end of the seed systems end of the spectrum – is about getting these innovations, these improved crop varieties into the hands of farmers.  So in that regard we have a partnership called Seeds to Be, and it’s to work in ways that help bridge the gap between the innovation and the breeding with reaching the farmers and the seed systems.  The best place we see this happening – in fact, the most functional part is with respect to hybrid maize, because there’s a strong private sector incentive there.   

And so for example, in the 2016 El Nino drought there were more than a hundred African companies – a hundred kind of companies in Africa, many of them small and medium sized, locally owned – that were providing drought-tolerant maize seeds to 3-and-a-half million farmers.  So this is a tremendous – we can see what can happen in ways that help reduce the losses of maize.  Farmers who grew that drought-tolerant maize that had been bred for years and years, they benefitted tremendously.  But in the crops like cowpea and sweet potato and finger millet and many of the others that we’ve mentioned this morning – sorghum and millet – the seed systems are not as well developed.   

So that’s really where a lot of our effort is going.  And frankly, we look to learn from countries like South Africa that have managed to manage their seed systems in ways that reach communities that are very similar to the same kinds of communities we’re working to reach in other countries.   

MS TUFAN:  Can I just add to that quickly, Rob?  I think a lot of what we’ve heard recently is how COVID disproportionately affects the most vulnerable.  So that’s kind of a trend that we’re seeing.  And I think that’s true also for the seed system and women, because women often engage in informal seed systems, which is kind of off the record.  There’s no formal supply chain, it’s person-to-person, it’s local growers and multipliers, so there’s no kind of business around it that’s formalized.  And if those seed systems are impacted more than the formal seed systems, women may bear the brunt of that change.  So I think I just want to highlight that in all aspects, COVID will probably impact women more than it does men, and in seed systems that’s particularly true.  And some of the crops that women are more engaged in are the ones who have informal seed systems.  So it’s kind of this knock-on effect, and then that’s why we think it’s really important to make women’s involvement front and center, visible, and give them more voice in the choices that we’re offering. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  I will now go to a question from the chat box, which is from Pearl Matibe with Open Parliament, Zimbabwe.  The question is:  “On the massive food insecurity that Zimbabwe is facing this year into 2021, can you comment and share data that show to what extent this issue is so large – i.e., how big is the problem?” 

MR BERTRAM:  Wow.  That’s a challenging question.  We know that things are getting worse and that COVID is affecting situations across the continent and elsewhere in the world, of course.  Zimbabwe has, as you know, had particular challenges associated with its currency, with internal markets, and I – the agriculture sector, like other sectors, has struggled.   

We do see the benefit of regional trade in these situations.  Zimbabwe is significantly linked with its neighboring countries – Zambia, for example, and others – in ways that help cushion, perhaps, the shocks that have occurred in-country.  But the thing about the COVID shock that’s unusual is that it’s at the same time a supply shock for the reasons we mentioned, but also a demand shock because people are losing their employment, the tourism industry has collapsed, other industries have scaled way back.  In Africa, many people in urban areas are involved in goods and services for people, all kinds of services, and when people don’t have money they cut back on those.  So this is – it’s a real serious issue, and we’re trying hard to work with our global partners and our partners in the partner countries to really understand in real time the extent to which we need a range of responses, from emergency assistance in some cases to better guidelines to policies that help foster liquidity and make loans more readily available to small and medium sized enterprises.   

But it is a very complex and dynamic situation.  This is one that I’d be happy, Jen, to circle back on it, if you’d like to get more specific information with respect to Zimbabwe.  But we are there and we are watching and engaging in that situation very actively. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  I do want to go back to Simon Ateba, who had a follow-up to his earlier question.  Simon, coming back to unmute you. 

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity again.  I was – you said that the Feed the Future Initiative started under President Bush and President Obama expanded it.  And we know that President Trump has cut funding to many initiatives, from the UNUnited Nations, WHOWorld Health Organization, and everywhere else.  I was wondering if you’ve been affected by those cuts by the – by President Trump.   

MR BERTRAM:  So thanks, Simon.  Let me clarify one thing.  President Bush began an emergency response to the food crisis, but Feed the Future was initiated under President Obama.  The crisis came right as one was leaving the White House and one was coming.  So I want to be clear that the Feed the Future started under President Obama, and then it became the law of the land in 2016.  It went from being a presidential initiative and our Congress passed the Global Food Security Act which President Obama signed in July of 2016.   

Now, interestingly President Trump has re-authorized that for five years in 2018, so the actual re-authorization for Feed the Future and our work in global food security and resilience is – has actually continued under this administration with the law being extended until 2022.  And then the other thing I would say is that we’ve had tremendously strong bipartisan backing and our budget is – has remained $1 billion a year roughly.   

The other thing, I think – just one other point on West Africa that I maybe should have made earlier is I think you know, Simon, how interdependent West African economies are.  The livestock is produced in the drier regions to the north, and it moves south to meet the demands of urban markets and coastal cities and the cities in between.  And so the whole area of trade policy and trying to improve the efficiency of markets is another thing that I think I would mention as a key objective we have in West Africa.  And too often we see real costs and productivity losses relating to many kind of checkpoints and stops where trucks sit and wait, and that costs money and it takes time.  So we’re also working with countries in the region to really help them improve their – both their trade but also their internal market efficiency.  Just wanted to add that.   

QUESTION:  Thank you. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We do have two more hands raised and I have a question in the chat box, so I will start with the question in the chat box, which came in first.  And that is from Kishor Panthi from ABC TV Nepal:  “How is USAID responding in Nepal during the pandemic?  There is a kind of starvation because of the pandemic.  Could you please respond?”  

MR BERTRAM:  Thanks, Jen.  I think that that one is for me again.  So in Nepal we have traditionally had a very strong emphasis on nutrition as integral in Feed the Future.  So we’ve had some major programs in the country, particularly in the Terai region but also in the mid-hills.  In the Terai a lot of it is around system-level productivity and climate resilience and integration of nutritious crops like mung bean into the rotation where formerly there would be a hot season fallow.  So with all of these things have been – we’ve been trying to improve the productivity and resilience.  In the mid-hills it’s been more around horticulture and market opportunities linked to that.   

And then very importantly, we’ve had a major program called SUAAHARA, which is an acronym for Nepali language.  I can always try to get the exact – from the Nepali language, but it is basically about the nutrition piece of this.  And we have been studying closely how to make agriculture more friendly to nutrition, how to engage communities in ways, particularly through women, that result in improved nutrition, improved availability of fruits, vegetables, poultry, and eggs, and nutrition education.   

So we’ve had a robust effort there in partnership with the Nepali Government.  I think right now, as is – as everywhere, just as in Zimbabwe, we are looking and working closely with the Government of Nepal to see how our programs can what we call “flex.”  We – some of them are in positions where they could make specific changes that would allow them to address some of the constraints that COVID is posing.  So in a sense we are trying to – we’re giving license to our partners to try to be more flexible and responsive in ways that could speak to some of the needs that you talk about, Kishor.  So – and again, I’m happy to find out more, Jen, and provide more background to Kishor if that were something that would be helpful. 

MS TUFAN:  Can I just add to that too?  And I think I want to make this point that – maybe this is a little naive but I think it’s true – that often when we have collaborations between scientists that transcends crises and politics – so for example, our work in Nepal right now, and looking at bio-fortification of lentils and kind of using some of the methods to have higher protein content in lentils.  And through everything, I think those links scientist-to-scientist, we often weather these shocks just to work together and continue our work together however that looks.  I just want to make that point that that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to have the local scientists paired with the scientists internationally, because we try to continue our work whatever happens and that resilience is really important.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  I will now call on Kemi Osukoya from Africa Bazaar magazine.   

QUESTION:  Hello, can you hear me?  

MODERATOR:  Yes we can.  Please, go ahead.  

QUESTION:  Okay, all right.  Thank you for doing this call.  As you mentioned earlier on, this is not the first time that the U.S. is addressing food insecurity in Africa and in the developing world.  I was wondering if you could share some of lessons that you’ve learned over the years and what you’re doing differently this time.  The other part of my question is you also mentioned women involvement.  Women especially in Africa are primarily the farmers, more of the farmers.  So – and land ownership is key to food security.  So what are you doing in this aspect to enable and empower women regarding land ownership?  

MR BERTRAM:  Great.  Thank you for that question, Kemi.  So I guess some of the lessons I would mention that we’ve learnedI mentioned country-led, right, when I was talking earlier, and I said that we follow the lead of our countries.  I think we learned that if our partner country doesn’t prioritize something we probably shouldn’t either, because it won’t be sustainable.  In other words, it’s not – this is not about us imposing some agenda that we have, whether it be in science or policy or development activities, but rather really following the lead of our partner countries with them as the key investors.   

This is – countries like Ethiopia have tremendous investments going on now in both research extension, the fertilizer system, and the country has seen tremendous progress.   People don’t know enough about how much Ethiopia has grown its agricultural sector in ways that have reduced poverty tremendously.  In the past 20 years, extreme poverty rates in Ethiopia have gone from about over 70 percent down to under 20.  I mean, it’s a tremendous story that’s – we often think of the Green Revolution about Asia but there’s been a Green Revolution going on in Ethiopia as well.  So that’s a case in point.   

Other issues that I would say: the fact that the private sector is where the action is.  I mean, public investments are really critical – roads, education, some types of extension – but increasingly in this world we see the private sector – local private sector especially, but also international partners – engaging in ways that help meet the needs of farm families.   

I think the digital revolution is changing things as we speak, making better weather forecasts, better market information.  Imagine how much more powerful a woman farmer in rural Ethiopia is if she knows the price of chickpeas in Addis, and when she’s selling to a vendor, an aggregator, a transporter, a middleman as we sometimes call them.  So we see that information as being a really powerful aspect of what we do in – and with respect to everything – managing soil and water, the crops we grow, the livestock – animal health measures we take, the livestock breeds, everything, and then right through the market system to the consumer.   

And then finally, regarding women, we have a women’s – we developed with IFPRI and it was cofounded with the Gates Foundation – the Women’s Empowerment and Agriculture Index.  It’s called the *WEIA, W-E-I-A Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI)*, and you could search for it on the web with IFPRI, the International Food Policy Research Institute.  And that is – was – has been a tool that has guided us to help us understand what is the ability of a woman to control resources, to have opportunities in business, to be involved in the seed systems.  We’ve done some really interesting work around informal seed systems in Rwanda just recently that shows how critical the role of women are in those informal seed systems.  And very importantly, using what we call DNA fingerprinting, we see that those informal systems in some cases are picking up the latest varieties and moving them to farmers.   

But we also see that the playing field isn’t always level.  The males tend to have larger volumes.  The women may have more customers because they’re at a smaller scale.  So we try – understanding these things and these disparities is the first step towards addressing them.  But the idea of women’s empowerment – and I think both Hale and I have really tried to emphasize that this morning – is part and parcel, and not only because we think it’s the right thing to do.  It’s also the smart thing to do because women are incredibly important economic actors in food and agriculture. 

MS TUFAN:  If I can just add to that, I think in land ownership it’s a very tricky subject, and a lot of people who work in gender and ag are focused on this, and to understand that there are customary laws and formal laws to land ownership.  And sometimes those are in contradiction; sometimes they’re not.  But I think what’s important we’re seeing more and more in this space is transformative community change, so engaging communities, especially men and boys, to empower women.  So that kind of community-wide transformation often is the most sustainable way to empower women, so I think a lot of the interventions are seeing more of that instead of focusing on – just on women bringing the whole community along.  So we’re seeing – I think that’s really important.   

And also USAID does a lot of gender and value chains work, because what we see is if you can’t always solve the problem of land access, you can create more opportunities for women along other nodes of the value chain, whether that be employment, whether that be kind of engaging in the sales or processing of the crops.  That’s a form of empowerment.  If you can’t change the land tenure, then at least you can create opportunities in other nodes through especially cooperative and collaborative arrangements.  So there are worries around the land issue that I think people are getting more creative with.  

MODERATOR:  I have a question from Alex Raufoglu, Turan News Agency, Azerbaijan.  Alex, we will unmute you.  

QUESTION:  Great.  Thank you so much, and it’s good to see you, Jen, today.  I thank you all for being here to inform us today.  I understand Feed the Future Initiative doesn’t cover the South Caucasus, particularly Azerbaijan, but given your experience in working in oil-rich countries, I wonder if you have any recommendations regarding how to avoid food insecurity caused by the pandemic, particularly given the report that the era of oil demand growth is about to die.  In other words, what do you hope people in my part of the world take away from your report?   

And separately, if I may, I do want to ask about the technology, as you mentioned at the beginning.  It is always – has always been a key driver – new development, weapons – right?  But is there anything – anything different about technology today when it comes to addressing food insecurity than it has been historically?  Thanks so much. 

MR BERTRAM:  Right.  I appreciate your bringing up this issue that some countries are suffering a real double whammy because they’re suffering from COVID but also a collapse in oil prices and oil demand and sometimes other natural resource exports.  So these countries have been hit hard. 

Our analysis shows that, generally speaking, some Asian countries are – can – and I’m not talking about Azerbaijan here; it’s a producer.  But some of the consuming countries in Asia can benefit to some degree from lower oil prices in ways that help sustain their industries.   In Africa, we don’t see that happening, in part because the urban environments are heavily goods and services oriented and less industrialized and hence the impacts there have been somewhat larger in the urban areas. 

In an oil-producing country like Azerbaijan I think – and I’m going beyond my expertise here, but I think the opportunity for the government, it’s a more developed economy, there are more means for countries – a country like that to undertake stimulus, albeit with the challenge you just mentioned, Alex, around the reduced oil revenue, so I understand the squeeze there.   

But many of the poorest countries don’t have ready ways to support their economy broadly.  They don’t have as many stimulus opportunities.  So I’m sure that the economists in Azerbaijan and its international partners – for example, like IFPRI or some of our U.S. universities are, I’m sure, partnering with institutions in your country and others – are thinking about what opportunities are there.   

I think agriculture is – opens up diversification opportunities, and Azerbaijan has a very diverse and rich agriculture.  I’s possible that in this period where certain aspects of its economic landscape are changing, maybe some of the investments in agriculture will be of high interest, especially the things – the horticulture, the fruits and vegetables.  And of course, these are the same ones that often offer opportunities for women, for people – youth, for people without land.  So it’s – that is not a comprehensive answer to your question by any means. 

That last point you made about technology – yes, that’s – this is – technology has changed a lot, and it’s helping the world address challenges like growing population, like scarcity of good land in some areas.  We’re using most of the farmland that we can in many parts of Asia, for example.  Water use efficiency, resource climate change.  I mean, we can look at things like heat tolerance and drought tolerance, and I mentioned some of that earlier.   

Now, I think the challenges come up there because you get into science policy discussions, correct?  I mean, some parts of the world – many countries have embraced biotechnology in agriculture as a means for reducing the use of pesticides, reducing the use of water, or increasing – actually, in our country, increasing soil fertility and soil conservation, reducing soil erosion. 

So you see that, but you also see countries that have said no, we don’t want that.  And of course, I think now, for example, with a situation like fall armyworm in Africa, some countries – or a country like South Africa is not having a problem with fall armyworm because they have biotech maize there, whereas some of their neighboring countries are really suffering.  And so countries are saying, well, do we want to try to control this with pesticides, which are expensive and toxic, or do we want to try to use this technology that’s used all over the world at this point? 

So we also engage with our partner countries in the science policy where we try to, I think, work with them in ways that increase the ability to do food safety and bio safety, environmental safety assessments of technologies, new technologies.  Gene editing is another one that’s on everybody’s – Hale should say more about that because she knows way more than I do.  But absolutely trying – again, not – it’s not just about technologies.  It’s about how you manage and regulate them.  And we work with our partner governments around the world to enhance their capacity there.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Dr. Bertram.  I think we’ve come to the end of our time.  There are still a few questions in the chat box, which I will forward to our briefers for response later today.  As a reminder, the contents are embargoed until 12:00.  We will send the details about the announcements mentioned in the briefing to all the participants via email. 

I want to thank both of our briefers for giving their time today on this very timely and important topic, and I will wish everybody a good day.  Thank you all.   

MR BERTRAM:  Thank you, Jen.  Thanks to all who joined. 

MS TUFAN:  (Inaudible.)  Yeah, thank you. 

MR BERTRAM:  I’m really grateful that we have a global interest in this, what is truly a global issue.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Good afternoon. 

U.S. Department of State

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