Special Envoy Fowler is speaking at a podium, three people are seated on stage to his right. In the background is a green screen patterned with text reading World Food Prize Foundation with a logo.

DR. CARY FOWLER: I just have to begin by acknowledging and saying how grateful I am to the Borlaug and Ruan families for bringing us together. This is such an important and unique gathering. It happens every year. I don’t want to take that for granted. 

I’m joined by a great set of panelists here– Lindiwe Sibanda, who’s the board chair of the CGIAR; Gérardine Mukeshimana, who is the vice president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development; and Cynthia Rosenzweig. Who is Cynthia? That’s, oh yes, last year’s World Food Prize Laureate with the– with Goddard and with AgMIP, as you’ll learn in just a few minutes. 

So some years ago, quite a few years ago, I gave a lecture in Australia called the Crawford Fund Lecture, and as I recall, I started off that lecture by saying that I thought there were three things that we all know and that we all agree upon. Number one is that the current agricultural system will not remain as is forever. Number two, we’re going to need to produce much more food in the future, and number three, we’re not acting as if number one and number two are true. 

Well, since then, some things have changed. The numbers of food insecure has actually risen. The crises have become more frequent. The causes behind food insecurity are larger in number and perhaps more intractable than they’ve ever been. They don’t seem to anyone, I think, to be one-off or temporary. 

And you can go back to the 19– late 1970s to find a month, a single month in which the monthly average temperature for the– global average temperature for the planet was not exceeding the 20th-century average for that month. So in the face of this and in this context, to have business as usual is really not the appropriate response. It’s not going to give us the amount of change needed to reverse the course we’re on and to avoid disaster. It’s not that incremental change is bad. Sometimes, it’s necessary, but it’s just that it’s not enough. 

We, I think, need to be more aspirational. We need to think more boldly and act more boldly, and we need some game-changing developments in agriculture and food security. 

The one thing that I would change about the talk that I gave to the Crawford Fund years ago would not be number one or number two. It would actually be number three because I think we are, in fact, beginning to act as if number one and number two are true, and I want to simply give you this morning one example of that. 

Earlier this year, the U.S. government launched what it calls the Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils. We use the English acronym VACS. It’s co-sponsored by the African Union, by the Food and Agriculture Organization, and by the U.S. government, on our side principally by the State Department and USAID. 

It’s premised on the understanding that food security fundamentally depends on fertile soils and adapted crops. You just don’t have food security without those two things. Poor, degraded soils and unadapted crops will never, never provide for food security. In fact, even today’s production levels would be unsustainable. 

The Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils, VACS, is initially focused on Africa, though I think the approach is applicable in other places. With the soils part of it, we’re building on Feed the Future, Space to Place work, and trying to provide better data and information both for governments, and all the way down to the farm level, so governments can make better decisions about land-use planning and farmers can make better decisions about farm management. In other words, we’re trying to answer four questions– where to plant, what to plant, what management system to use, and how to apply it in a given season. 

With the crops work, we are focused quite clearly on nutrition, not just calories. We know that staples alone cannot provide for balanced nutrition. This requires, as a good agricultural system and good soil health would, access to a wide variety of foods and the micronutrients and macronutrients that they provide for agriculture. Overreliance on just a few staples, often just one, is risky, and in the best of years, it cannot provide for adequate and balanced nutrition for all. 

Fortunately, Africa is rich in traditional and indigenous crops, which have suffered from years and years– one could say centuries– of underinvestment. This is highlighted in the African Union’s Common Position on Food Systems, which repeatedly refers to the importance of their indigenous crops and the fact that they’ve been underinvested in. 

So expanding the spotlight and our investments in these kinds of crops can unlock the potential to improve nutrition, rebuild soils, support local communities and culture, and strengthen resilience. And I would point out that many of these crops are primarily tended by women, and so we think the benefits will flow inordinately to women and to children, and thus really aid in combating the terrible problem of stunting. 

As I mentioned, we were working with the African Union, with FAO, but also, the work inside the U.S. government in this regard will be done through the Agency for International Development, particularly the Feed the Future program. We’re collaborating with the African Orphan Crops Consortium, with the Columbia Climate School, and AgMIP, which you’ll hear about in a moment, with Havos.ai, with the CGIAR, and internally, other than USAID, of course, with Treasury and USDA. 

And through all of these partners, we instituted a three-step process. The first step was focused on nutrition. If you’re going to make investments in food systems and particularly in plant breeding, and particularly in these indigenous crops, the place to start is to ask yourself, well, what are the crops that have the most potential for providing the best nutrition? 

As I’ve mentioned, Africa is rich in indigenous crops. There are over 300 of them. We took that list, and we basically narrowed it down to 60. There are all crop categories — cereals, roots and tubers, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, tree crops, and crops that are growing in each of the five African Union subregions of Africa. Our goal was to say, well, where are the highest potential crops that can provide good nutrition year round for all segments of society? 

The second step then is to take that list of the most promising crops for adding nutrition and ask yourself, well, how are they going to do in the future climates of Africa? We’ve had– we’ve been lucky enough to have — from the very beginning the collaboration, the partnership with Cynthia Rosenzweig. She’ll mention what she’s been doing in just a moment. 

And we’ve had the support, the strong support, throughout this entire process of The Rockefeller Foundation, who’s funded the entire process. And next month, we will have a meeting at The Rockefeller Foundation to look at those 60 crops and look at the modeling work that Cynthia and her colleagues have done to inform us about which of the 60 will have the most likelihood of success in a future climate. 

I think this is really the first time that – on this kind of scale – that anyone has gone through this process of being so rational, frankly, about making future investments in plant breeding and improvement efforts. 

The third step – I mentioned this was a three-step process – was to establish a multi-donor funding mechanism to provide the kind of ongoing funding and support that these types of efforts on soils and crops are going to require, and Gérardine from IFAD will tell you about that. The fund has been established under IFAD in Rome. 

This doesn’t mean that we or anyone else is advocating that we abandon our work on the major crops. I used to serve on the board of trustees of CIMMYT. In fact, I chaired the committee at CIMMYT that oversaw the research program at CIMMYT, and I must say, I’m quite happy that it was during a period when CIMMYT was working on its drought-tolerant maize. 

So you’re not going to find me saying anything bad about research in the major staple crops, and I guess if I did, CIMMYT would probably excommunicate me. But I don’t intend to go there.

What we’re proposing is that we add to this attention and take advantage of the tremendous potential that these crops have from a benefit-to-cost ratio and in terms of human health and benefits to the environment. 

These crops have names. They’re crops like pigeon pea and grass pea and lablab and African yam bean, Bambara groundnut – all legumes great for the soil. There’s spider plant, moringa, and African eggplant, African custard apple. 

So there are a lot of crops that maybe some of you haven’t heard of, but there are also some crops that you have heard of that still could benefit from a good bit more research. And that would be crops like sorghum and finger millet and fonio and okra and cowpea. 

This program, VACS as we’re calling it – it does not solve all problems, but it addresses two fundamental prerequisites for food security – the need for good soils and the need for adapted and nutritious crops. VACS, I believe, has the potential for being both transformational in African food systems and intergenerational. 

To be that, the technical work needs to be performed at a really high professional level, and of course, it needs to succeed. Norm Borlaug could have told us a lot about that because not only was he a scientist, but if he read one of the several biographies of Norm Borlaug, you’ll find out that he was a great pragmatist and knew how to put institutions together and knew how to make things work. We’re going to need those same set of skills for this. 

But something else has to happen for this effort to succeed, something that’s maybe even a little bit more fundamental. And that is that the discourse about food security needs to change, and it needs to recognize three things, I think. 

First is that we need to protect and recapitalize our soils. The second is that we need to organize our food systems around providing good nutrition, balanced nutrition year round to everyone. And the third thing is that we need to ensure that all of our crops, major and minor, including those nutrition-rich indigenous crops in Africa that we’ve effectively ignored for decades, that all of these crops realize their potential in African farming and food systems. 

If this is going to succeed, it will not be because a few organizations and individuals have come together to try to make it succeed. It’s going to take you in the audience helping us changing the conversation, changing the discourse, so I ask you to join us. Thank you. 

U.S. Department of State

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