DR. CARY FOWLER: Thank you, Barbara. It’s such an honor to be with all of you today in this place on this day. Years ago, I attended a lecture by Jack Harlan. Dr. Harlan was a geneticist. He was a plant explorer. He was an agricultural historian. Worked at the University of Illinois most of his career.

And the lecture was entitled Self-Perception and The Origins of Agriculture. I’ll never forget it. His point was that how you believe agriculture began has a lot to do with who you are with the perch you occupy in life.

If you are an academic you might be tempted to think, well, agriculture must have been invented or discovered by some particularly clever person about 12,000 years ago. If you were very religiously inclined, you would think well, it was a gift from the gods. In most religions, in fact, have a story to explain the origins of Agriculture.

Likewise today, I think how we understand the current global food crisis and certainly the solutions that we tout, these have to do with who we are and what perch we occupy. If your only tool is a hammer, you will– you know how that ends.

So, I’m certainly as vulnerable to myopia as anyone, I realized that. I realized that the current crisis is as Barbara mentioned, multi-causal. There’s COVID. There’s climate. There’s conflict. But there are also a lot of other things, very high fuel prices, a fertilizer situation, export bans, low, by historical standpoints, grain stockpiles, et cetera, et cetera.

But I cannot personally shake the belief that on the list of the 5, or list of the top 10 most important challenges that we face in regards to food security. That climate is 1, 3, 5. When I became executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust back in 2005, I remember saying at my very first staff meeting that this was a climate change organization. I think they thought I was a crazy at that time. But it was a climate change organization because climate changes everything.

Last month was the 453rd consecutive month in which the global average temperature for that month exceeded the 20th century average. 453 consecutive months of above average temperatures. Of course, higher average temperatures are not the only thing that’s happening with climate change. We’re having more extremes. We’re having longer periods of hot weather.

And this is causing species to migrate. And so, we’re in the midst of seeing new and unique combinations of species in the field– in agricultural fields around the world. We’re going to have some surprises. They’re not all going to be good ones.

Take a look at this histogram just briefly. The blue bars there representing a historical distribution of average growing season temperatures in Zambia. The legend is a little bit missing for the red bars. But the red bars are the projection for what will happen between 2040 and 2060.

And what you’ll notice, and I’ll draw your attention to is where they overlap. What this means is that in the future, the best growing seasons of the future will closely resemble the worst of the past. Let that sink in. If you go out in time a little bit further, you’ll see how they actually, almost completely diverge.

This is the type of situation that we are going to be dealing with in the future. And I think that the assumption that we can somehow look into the rearview mirror for guidance about the future and that crop production is going to magically continue its historic upward trend. Why?

Because well, of course, we need it to.

This assumption has really outlived its usefulness. Should we worry about maize and wheat and rice and soy? Absolutely. But these are the crops that are attracting and have attracted historically the most research funding. So, I’m worried about everything else as well about the not so minor, minor crops. These are what you might call orphan crops. They’re orphan crops because they have a lot of potential, but we haven’t been investing in them.

Roots and tubers, fruits and vegetables, the minor millets, teff, on and on. The crops that are so vitally important for nutrition if you think about nutrition as being more than calories. For many of these crops, there are very few plant breeders. For some crops like yams, for example, there are probably fewer than 10 plant breeders in the entire world. And a lot of crops, perhaps half of the crops that are grown today, have never had a single Mendelian trained plant breeder working on them throughout agricultural history.

So, we justifiably I think will focus on how many people do yams feed. But increasingly, I think what we have to ask ourselves is, how many people do yams depend on. And in this case, it’s not many.

So how is it that crops evolve? Well, they’re domesticated. Think about that word, domicile, domestic. They’ve entered the home. Their future is literally in our hands. Their adaptation is in our hands.

They adapt by formal plant breeding and/or by farmers making selections based on diversity, or they don’t adapt at all. So, we may want to learn a little bit from our own history in the United States. After all, when wheat came to the United States from the Near East, when soy came from Asia, when potatoes migrated northward from the Andes, when sorghum came from Africa, think about it.

When all of these crops first came to the United States, they were experiencing climate change from their native habitats. How did they evolve? How was it that they came to be grown under over such vast acreages in the United States? The answer lies in the selection that farmers made with the diversity that our own government provided them potentially particularly back in the 1800s.

I will go backwards here for a second. Yeah. So, I think that aside from the top five crops that we have in the world today, basically all of our crops are orphan crops in the countries in which they’re grown. Ideally, I think what we should be doing is to identify the crops that are or could be most important for nutrition. We should be assessing how climate change will affect them. And then with this foundation, we should be ramping up to help those crops, those domesticated crops, those crops in our hands to cope with the climate change that’s on our doorstep right now.

We luckily have great resources in the gene banks around the world. We have perhaps 1.5 million to 2 million unique samples of crop diversity that wait to be explored and exploited for the challenge that lies ahead with climate change. Now, in closing, I want to take you back into history a little bit and I want to mention three incredibly important things that happened in a single year in the 1800s, and that year is 1859.

The first thing that happened was that in 1859, Edwin Drake drilled the first commercial oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The second thing that happened, happened at the hands of this man named John Tyndall in the UK. John Tyndall in the laboratory discovered and proved that CO2 traps heat. And thus, he in a sense discovered the greenhouse effect that was about to be created by the first slide that I showed you about the drilling of oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

And the third thing, of course, was the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection”. Darwin put together four basic steps or ingredients that you have to have for evolution, otherwise known as adaptation. We – he understood that there was inheritance, and that there was diversity. The first chapter of “Origin of Species” is called variation under domestication. It was about agricultural crops and domesticated species.

If you have inheritance which we do, if you have diversity and if you have natural selection working on that diversity, then over time you have adaptation. Well, we still have inheritance, we do have diversity, we still have natural selection, but we don’t have a lot of is time at the moment. And that’s where-we come in.

The first two of these events from 1859 presaged the crisis of climate change and food security. The third points to a solution that we have yet fully to grasp. And that solution at least in part and here’s where I acknowledge my own myopia has to do with crop diversity.

The very ending of origin of Species by Darwin in his last paragraph he sums up the book and his feelings about what he has uncovered. That last paragraph is to me, it’s like a Bach cantata. It is rich and it is exquisite. And I want to read that last paragraph to you in closing.

Darwin says, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one– and that, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” My friends, I submit to you that this is what we need to keep alive if we hope to have food security in a climate changing world. Thank you.


DR. FOWLER: OK. Thank you. Pretty warming.

BARBARA STINSON: We have a few more minutes. So, we’re going to continue the conversation just a bit. Thank you so much for your comments and perspective that you bring in global crop diversity, coming to this position now at the State Department. Just say a little bit about your position as Special Envoy to Global Food Security, it’s a recent appointment. And what is on your agenda as you proceed these especially in these first few months.

DR. FOWLER: OK. Well, if you were to read the job description that I finally found in the global food security strategy, I don’t want you to look at it because you’ll blame me for anything going wrong.


DR. FOWLER: It’s a humbling position. It’s– it is the– I guess the highest ranking position at the State Department dealing with global food security. So we have a lot to do with diplomacy issues, with coordination, and collaboration with other departments and agencies.

I think what– what I have wanted to bring to the position, however, is a more long term view. There is obviously a great deal of attention that gets focused on the immediate humanitarian side of the food crisis. And I don’t begrudge people working on that at all.

But I think we have to realize that the humanitarian need is going to overwhelm us unless we put into place the kinds of programs that will help ramp up agricultural production. So people– countries around the world can be more self-sufficient. So, we’re very interested at the State Department and my office in looking at initiatives that I think will pay off in a big way. The moonshot kind of initiatives that have a lot of cost benefit.

And in that regard, I’ll just mention that we will be trying to be a catalyst for what I mentioned from the podium about assessing crops, importance to nutrition, about their effect, their impact– the impact that climate change is having, and about trying to catalyze programs in the future that will help those crops adapt to climate change.

BARBARA STINSON: Wonderful. Well, it’s great to hear that perspective on the work that’s ahead of you. And I really appreciate it in your comments both your advice not necessarily to be able to look into the rearview mirror to find the answers but also to consider 1859 and those seminal events that you mentioned.

So, let’s talk just a little bit about the assessment charge that you’re taking up assessing the impact on crops of climate change. This is the business of Cynthia Rosenzweig and those at NASA and the GISS, the Goddard Institute, and particularly her argument project. Can you just say a little bit about the assessment not only of impact on nutrition of climate change but some of the other aspects that you’re hoping to focus on.

DR. FOWLER: Yeah. Well, yes. Obviously, climate change is having a huge impact already on nutrition. It has deleterious impacts on the actual nutrition of our crops. It lowers the nutritional value of a lot of our crops.

But looking forward, one of the things that’s amazed me and frustrated me, frankly, is looking at projections of future food demand. You can go in the academic literature, and you’ll find many, many articles out there about what the food demand is going to be in 2050. Generally speaking, we need to produce 50% to 60% more food by 2050.

And very often, those same articles will give a projection of how much food we will produce. And that’s where the reference to the rearview mirror comes in because I think for the most part, we are looking in the rearview mirror when we project future food production. And you can see the projections being roughly in the realm of 50% more about 2050.

If you want to scare yourself though look at the footnotes. And the footnotes will say, well, this projection doesn’t take into consideration climate change, conflict, food, and price inflation, et cetera, et cetera. In other words, all the things that we’re having today.

If you in turn go to some of the climate people and look at– at what they’re projecting for individual crops, well, you see that May’s experts will tell you that one degree centigrade increase in climate will increase pest and disease damage by 10% to 20%. And in some areas of Africa, you can get the projection that well by 2050 with the climate change that they’re looking at there, we won’t be producing 50% more food, we’ll be producing 10% less, and that’s a big variance.

So, I think that perhaps one of the things that we can do at the State Department we’re not an implementing agency. We don’t have these types on the ground. Programs is to sound the alarm and to say that let’s be careful. Let’s not make assumptions about future food production.

Let’s look at what the needs are going to be in the future. And let’s plan backwards from that. And let’s put the programs and the investments in place that we really need to ensure that we can produce the food to feed everyone.

Tremendous perspective really to offer. Can you say a little bit more about the orphan crops – about the crops that have been considered minor crops and yet we know we need to emphasize that diversity in production going forward. How do you see it?

Well, I think there are actually two categories at least in my mind of orphan crops. And the first category are of really important crops that we don’t think of as being orphans, but they are. So, that would be anything other than the top four or five crops.

Crops that are receiving some investment and are very popular and well-known crops, sorghum would be one. Frankly speaking, potatoes and sweet potatoes. And a lot of those types of crops and virtually all the vegetables would be in that category. Simply not receiving the amount of investment that they deserve if you’re considering food security as being as nutrition as being central to food security.

The second category that worries me even more would be crops that we take totally for granted. This would be African leafy greens, for example. Crops that are part of the household gardens and developing countries for which there are no plant breeders at all.

And here again, we have to be careful about the assumptions we’re making. Are we assuming that those crops magically are going to be adapted to climates that have never before existed in the history of agriculture simply because we want them to and need them to. That to me is a dangerous assumption. So, we do need to be devoting some attention to those crops as well because they’re disproportionately I think important– particularly to women, to children because of the supply of micronutrients and very often grown in household gardens.

BARBARA STINSON: Well, thank you so much. I know everyone appreciates hearing not only your in-depth scientific experience that you bring but that broad policy and diplomatic role that you’ll have in your position. We’re coming up to COP 27. Tell us a little bit about the United States – not an official position but really what do you– what are you expecting coming up next month.

DR. FOWLER: Well, I think COP 27 offers all of us an enormous opportunity to look at the question of crop adaptation– agricultural systems adaptation. I don’t think it’s any secret that agriculture hasn’t been let’s say given its due at many of the previous cops, but now here we are. And I think we really have to take advantage of this because frankly, if our agricultural systems don’t adapt to climate change, if our crops don’t adapt to climate change, our crops being on the front lines, if they don’t adapt to climate change, then neither will we.

And so all of our hopes and dreams if you’re an environmentalist or whatever, we’ll, really go down the tubes if we don’t have a successful agricultural system. At the end of the day, we all know that people will do what they need to do to try to feed themselves and their families. And there are many studies out there that will tell you that low productivity agricultural systems lead to environmental degradation.

It was only the middle of the 1980s when we saw quite a historic transformation. In the middle of the 1980s for the first time in human history that we were producing more food, the incremental amounts that we were producing every year came from intensification of Agriculture rather than cutting down trees and expanding our croplands. Do we want to go back to what has been the most historically prominent way of increasing food production, which is to cut down more trees and expand cropland or are we satisfied with the route that we’re on now, which is to make better use of the resources that we already have? And I think that’s a message that needs to get out at COP 27.

BARBARA STINSON: Food productivity over just flat food production.


BARBARA STINSON: Well, thank you so much for all of these perspectives. I want to connect part of what you’re talking about with regard to adaptation and the mitigation opportunities within agriculture to the work that Cynthia Rosenzweig is doing and the sessions that we’ll have tomorrow to really explore that the assessment potential of the models that are being used worldwide already. And I just– I want to thank you for rooting us in history in this conversation.

I know you’ve laid out some themes that we’ll draw on throughout the discussion. So, thank you so much for your time today and for being with us. And you’re here with us throughout the week, I think.


BARBARA STINSON: I appreciate that.

DR. FOWLER: Thanks, Barbara.

U.S. Department of State

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