An official website of the United States Government Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

CARY FOWLER: Good morning. Some months ago, Cathy Reade got in touch with me and invited me to come give this lecture. I first thought it was a mistake, because back in 2015 I actually did give the Crawford Memorial lecture and I didn’t think you would want me back after that.

But I said yes quickly. And then I began to ask myself, well, what’s different now from 2018? And what’s changed? And more pointedly, I had to ask myself what have I learned in those years and what did I get wrong or what did I overlook? Surprise, surprise, I did get a few things wrong and I did overlook some stuff and I’m and that’s what I actually want to talk about today.

For one thing, what’s changed is the number of food insecure people has grown 800 million or so now.

What I did back in 2018 at the Crawford Memorial lecture was I based that lecture really on a wonderful book I had read before that by Lloyd Evans, an Australian. The book was called Feeding the 10 Billion. I think it’s still one of the best books I’ve ever read on the subject and Dr. Evans, towards the end of that book outlined the six ways in which we have of increasing food supplies.

There are only six ways of increasing food supplies, and we all know that food supply is going to have to increase it only because of population growth. And I looked at the constraints or the obstacles, the challenges towards increasing food supply.

And in particular, I looked at climate. I looked at land. The amount of land devoted to grain production in this world on a per capita basis is half what it was in 1961. So, that’s probably not going to be a way out of our current crisis.

And I looked at water. Most of the aquifers in the world today are in a state of depletion. They’re being depleted faster than they’re being replenished. So, I looked at basically climate, land, and water.

So, what did I get wrong or what did I not emphasize enough? Even though I was really preoccupied by climate in those days, I don’t think I quite got that right, because I don’t think that I, or maybe any of us, really quite anticipated the speed, or the severity of the changes that were about to come, in the number and the extent of extreme weather events.

This past June was the hottest June ever recorded for global temperatures. July was the hottest July ever recorded. July was the 533rd consecutive month in which the global average temperature for the month July in this case, exceeded the 20th century average for July’s. 533 consecutive months of, quote unquote, above average temperatures.

I don’t know anything in life that happens 533 consecutive times by coincidence, something is changing. And it’s playing out in real time.

We’re seeing historic drought in the Horn of Africa. We’ve had heat waves and droughts and fires in the United States, in Europe. Pakistan has just been through a monsoon that was five times the 30-year average. Two million acres flooded, eight hundred thousand animals killed, and now we’re heading into El Nino. And you know what that that means?

So a lot of people are saying, well, you know, this is the new normal, but maybe not. Maybe the new normal hasn’t quite arrived yet. Maybe the new normal is actually in the future.

If you look at climate predictions, you would have to say the new normal is not yet here. In fact, today’s weather may turn out to be the coolest and best that our agricultural experience, agricultural systems experience in our in our lifetime.

So, while the speed and the severity of climate changes exceeded even my expectations, what’s not clear to me is that our analysis has caught up with that. I’m not sure that our analysis of what to do or how much to do has really changed quite as much, or quite as fast as the climate itself.

And I’m not sure that we in the global community have really, fully come to participate to appreciate how profoundly and how extensively climate change is going to affect our agricultural production.

If you look at crops, you know that excessive heat affects every part of the plant at every part of the growing season, from roots to flowers. So in the future, our plant breeders are really going to have to have their work cut out for them in adapting every part of the plant at every part of the growing season to climate. And they’re going to have to do that for every one of our crops.

Looking back at my 2015 lecture, the one big thing I really missed was conflict. I don’t think I mentioned it in the 2015 lecture. We know, of course, that there is a strong correlation between climate, between food insecurity and national security and conflict. That correlation goes back many, many years.

In 2002, thousand 2007, 2008, we saw climate events, we saw food price hikes, we saw unrest in 14 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. You look at Arab Spring, and you’ll see a time when China was having a drought. Food prices were going up. Then all of the countries that are the largest importers of wheat on a per capita basis were in the Middle East. Then we had Arab Spring.

I’m not saying that the correlation is total, but I’m saying that climate is a threat multiplier for conflict and conflict is a threat multiplier for insecurity. Sixty percent of the people on earth that live in that, that are food insecure live in countries that are experiencing conflict and 80% of the children on earth that are stunted or malnourished are living in countries with conflict.

I have to mention the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Ukraine was in the top five exporters of food in the world. It has historically been a breadbasket for Europe. It’s a top five exporter of wheat, barley, sunflower and maize and there the whole infrastructure of the country is geared towards exporting that that grain through the Black Sea.

And as you all know, Russia has pulled out of the Black Sea grain initiative. What you may not realize is that during the time that that Black Sea grain initiative was in effect, Ukraine exported 32,000,000 metric tons through the Black Sea. That’s not the full portion of what Ukraine would normally export, but it’s a lot of it’s a lot of grain.

In the wheat portion of those 32,000,000 metric tons was enough to make 18 billion loaves of bread. It’s not trivial.

What you may not have picked up on yet is just reading the popular media the last two days. Obviously Russia pulled out of the Black Sea grain initiative. Now it’s bombing the ports, the Ukraine ports on the on the Danube River, which is the alternative to sending grain out through the Black Sea.

This is a war on food security, or at least poor people in in the global south are the collateral damage for Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine. Words really fail me here to describe the immorality of what’s happening there.

So if we if we just look at what’s going on in in Ukraine, that brings me to yet another thing that I failed to mention in 2015. And that’s the importance of trade. In a world with many different risks, many different uncertainties, trade becomes much more important. 131 out of 196 countries on Earth are net food importers. And that of course, also underlines the importance of trade.

So I think that is as shocks continue to the system and as they increase, we’re going to see trade become much, much more important. And already we can see right now some countries reacting to climate issues and other production issues by trade restrictions, export bans, etcetera, etcetera. India has just put bans on wheat, on rice and duties on onions and such.

So to recap, what did I get wrong or what did I not emphasize enough or what did I overlook? Well, climate – a little bit; conflict – totally; COVID – I didn’t anticipate that; and trade. All of these issues I think point to the necessity of our thinking more seriously about building in resiliency in our food systems, ensuring that countries and farmers have viable options.

I think resilience is something we certainly need at the national level and in many places back, you know at the at the farm level.

So when I joined the State Department, which is about 16 months ago, I think I I asked myself, “well, what, what faulty assumptions are we making where, where can we add value and how can we and what can we do that’s meaningful and at scale and something that’s has a big impact and something that’s not easily undone by politics”.

That led me back to thinking about the basics, about the fundamentals. And it seemed to me, if we’re following the Hippocratic Oath, the first do no harm, that we have to realize that there is no such thing as food security unless you have good soil and you have adapted crops. We can’t have food security based on poor, depleted soils and un-adapted crops.

If you look at the continent of Africa, in many places what you see are poor soils and un-adapted crops. And by the end of the century, Africa will be the largest continent population wise on Earth. So what we’ve done at the State Department is to promote what we’re calling a Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils, or VACS – if you want to go by the acronym.

On the soils front, we and particularly paying attention to Africa, we think that what is really needed or is better information, better soil mapping, better, better analytics that would allow the countries to make more informed decisions, planning decisions about agriculture. And it would enable farmers to make better management decisions how to fertilize appropriately so that they get the most benefit from the small amount of fertilizers that they’re applying for example.

Erosion is taking away soil in Africa right now at a rate of 100 times the replenishment of soils. So obviously if we’re looking for food security in Africa, we can’t be thinking of humanitarian aid as being equal to food security and we can’t be thinking of having food security without good, good, healthy soils.

On the crops front, which is near and dear to my heart, we have put up a program that’s an initiative that’s cosponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and by the African Union. It’s a three-step program.

I’ll say this background that the there’s the African Union some years back, just a few years ago adopted a Common Position on Food Systems. And in that Common Position on Food Systems they emphasize themselves the importance of traditional and underutilized and indigenous crops in Africa and noted that these are crops where they’ve been massive underinvestment.

If you look at Africa tonight today the staples, wheat, maize, rice, these are crops from that originated outside of Africa. It’s probably the only continent which you in the developing world that you could say that about.

So, we wanted to look at some of the underutilized crops for a couple of reasons. One, to help them realize their potential to increase the resiliency to the systems and to add good nutrition for people in Africa. And as I mentioned, we put up a three-step program.

The first step, co-sponsor Baffio in the African Union, was to identify those crops that have the most potential for adding nutrition to the diets in Africa. The second step was to take that subgroup. We first started with a group of about 300 indigenous crops in Africa, narrowed that down to the 60 that we thought had the most potential for adding to nutrition.

And then the second stage was to look at those sixty and say, well, which of these sixty are going to perform best in a climate changing world? If we have that information in front of us, if we know which of the crops have the most potential for nutrition and we know which of those those crops are going to do the best climate change, then for the first time in history actually we have a rational basis for making crop improvement investments.

So what we did was to bring together the nutrition community, the climate change community, the agricultural development, and plant breeding community – pretty much for the first time, and in the same room to hash through a lot of these these issues in in an effort really to rethink what a cropping system would look like based on nutrition.

And then to facilitate it with this work on crops and soils. We believe that the diversity of crops equals greater resilience and dietary diversity equals better nutrition and less stunting of children in in Africa, which is a terrible problem.

The third step in our program is to establish a multi-donor trust fund. We’re in discussions with the International Fund for Agricultural Development in Rome about establishing that fund so we can provide ongoing support for these types of efforts. Plant breeding takes a long-term commitment as you all know.

The second big thing that we’ve tried to push at the State Department of the United States is simply to bring more attention to the need for agricultural research and development. Agricultural research and development is the comparative advantage that countries like Australia and the United States have in this world.

And yet, speaking for the United States, I will say that our public investment in agricultural research on an inflation adjusted basis is back where it was 50 years ago.

In the midst of growing and severe challenges to food security, we need to be prioritizing agricultural research and development if we’re going to maintain our status in the world and we’re going to promote the kind of values that the United States and Australia share. And we, if we’re going to have a chance of creating a food secure world, we’re going to have to reprioritize agricultural research.

Business as usual isn’t going to cut it. And in fact, I think we have to be ambitious and aspirational and perhaps go for a few moonshots, a few big developments in agricultural research and development.

I’m not well placed to tell you what those would be, but maybe it’s nitrogen fixing grains, maybe it’s perennial grains, maybe it’s a transition of some crops from C3 to C4 for photosynthesis. Maybe it’s work on aflatoxins and mycotoxins to reduce post-harvest loss.

There are a lot of different things that we could really be putting some scientific effort into anyway. These are the kinds of things that we want to do and I think we have to get into the mindset of being willing to make long-term investments and long-term commitments.

To do that, I’m going to end with two, two thoughts. One is I hope everyone in this room appreciates how important and how special the Crawford Fund is. It’s an amazing institution. There is no institution like it in any other country that I know of. And I I really wish that every country in the world had a Crawford Fund, and I really wish that every country in the world had a Cathy Reade. Unfortunately, there’s only one of each.

The second thing I want to mention is that John Anderson mentioned yesterday that we’ve lost some real giants in our field in recent years and I want to close on that note. Of course, a couple of years ago 2019, we lost Tim Fischer who’d been the Chair of the Board of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and was such a such a friend and such an ally for us.

You lost John Kerin recently, and just in the last couple of weeks, we lost a couple of other really special people. Gordon Conway, who was the former president of the Rockefeller Foundation and wrote a book called The Doubly Green Revolution. And then we lost a person who is one of my dearest friends and a dear friend to several people in the audience, and that was Wally Falcon.

Wally, for whom I named my dog, which is a great honor in my family, was an agricultural economist, a professor at Stanford University, co-founder of the Center for Food Security and the Environment on the Presidential Commission for World Hunger. He is one of the few people, there are only one or two others, that have been the chair of the Board of Trustees, both of the International Mason Wheat Improvement Center and the International Rice Research Institute.

Wally was a bigger than life person on the outside. He looked a little bit like Winston Churchill in the face, and he had a gruff exterior, perhaps, and a deep voice. I was thinking about him as I thought about what to say to you today. And I thought, well, if Wally were here, if you were out in the audience after I finished my talk, he would come up to me, probably, and he would say something in this deep voice of his. And he would say, well, “Pretty good lecture, Cary”. And then he would say, “You know, you made some, you made some important points there”. And then, with a little twinkle in his eye, he would add, “Some of them might even be true”.

So, I guess I’ll leave it to you to decide whether anything I’ve said today is true. But if you invite me back again, I’ll tell you what I think about it. So again, thank you so much. Have a great conference.


U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future