CARY FOWLER: Hello, I’m Dr. Cary Fowler, the Special Envoy for Global Food Security at the U.S. Department of State. I’d like to thank Commissioner Sacko and Directors Nyambe and Bahiggwa for their focus on climate and agriculture and for the opportunity to speak with you today.
It’s tempting to think of last year’s global food crisis as being last year’s problem. On occasion, maybe even frequently, we all engage in some wishful thinking and in problem avoidance. This would not be the occasion, however, to ignore the obvious. I think we all realized that last year’s food crisis is now this year’s food crisis.
The numbers of food insecure have risen, even if media attention has declined. The number of people who truly don’t know where the next meal is coming from now exceeds 200 million. It’s an incomprehensibly large number and a human tragedy. Most of the major causes and catalysts of last year’s crisis are still with us. Climate change continues to be a major concern with more weather extremes and more variability. Last month was the 531st consecutive month in which the global monthly temperature exceeded the 20th century average for that month.
Excessive heat affects all plant parts at all stages of the plant’s life. It reduces yield, and it even reduces the nutritional content of what’s left. It magnifies water stresses. Climate change is also causing shifts in the natural ranges of thousands of species, including agricultural pests and diseases. Throwing together new and unique combination of species in farmers’ fields. There will be surprises and not all of them will be good.
Extreme weather events such as the record setting drought in the Horn of Africa are causing immense human suffering and they also challenge our ability and our willingness to help.
Conflict is both the cause and effect of food insecurity. Most of the food insecure people in the world are caught in this whirlwind of the cycle. We must come to realize that food security is a national security issue for everyone. Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine and its people is an example. To one degree or another, everyone has paid the price, certainly the people of Ukraine. But also, and most pointedly of all, Africa. At a moment when more help is needed, not more burdens.
COVID disrupted supply chains, impeded the production and distribution of food, and pushed many into extreme poverty and hunger. It remains a risk factor. To this list of causes and catalysts – climate, conflict, COVID, I would add context. Grain stockpiles, which buffer price spikes and provide some insurance in lean years, are now at a historically low level. There’s little room for error going forward.
The world’s aquifers that supply much water for agriculture are being depleted much faster than they’re being replenished, and the same could be said of the world’s soils. Soil erosion is occurring at a rate of 10 to 100 times greater than soil replenishment and not surprisingly, are most pronounced in some of the areas that are most food insecure.
Finally, we’re heading into an El Nino year, which typically means drier growing seasons in southern Africa, across large swaths of East Asia and Australia, for example. We are facing another difficult situation for global food security. The United States dramatically increased its contributions to the Nobel Peace Prize winning World Food Programme last year, and also increased development aid.
Looking forward, we are particularly interested in addressing the two core pillars of food security: crops and soils. Plainly stated, we will never achieve food security without fertile soils, and adapted and productive crops. Poor soils and poorly adapted crops produce poor harvest, poor people, and poor prospects. We all know this, so what more can we do?
Well, last December at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, we crafted the U.S. Africa Partnership for Building Sustainable and Resilient Food Systems in Africa. This partnership will help to boost agricultural R&D, climate smart agriculture, soil health, and seed systems.
In February, we announced an initiative we call “A Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils.” Focused on Africa, this effort, co-sponsored by the African Union, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, and ourselves, is well aligned with the African Common Position on Food Systems. It seeks to identify the most highly nutritious, traditional, and indigenous crops in Africa, assess how climate change is likely to affect them, and then marshal substantial and sustained investments necessary to ensure that these crops can fulfill their potential in providing good nutrition to all. Most of these crops are grown by smallholders, predominantly women, and are vital to addressing nutritional deficiencies, childhood wasting, and stunting.
Just last month, Commissioner Sacko joined me at the Agricultural Innovation Mission for Climate Summit, where our partnership expanded. We value the African Union’s work with AIM for Climate and we encourage additional African member states to join this key initiative focused on transformative R&D efforts. Currently, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Morocco, and Nigeria have joined from Africa.
We wholeheartedly agree with Commissioner Sacko, who during her participation at the AIM for Climate Summit, underscored the significant role that innovation in agriculture can play, introducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving soil health. We also support AU planning for the Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit, which can bring necessary political focus and financial resources to support long-term soil fertility goals for Africa.
Looking forward, we have the UN Food Summit follow-up session in Rome next month. We expect Africa’s Agricultural and Food Systems Transformation Agenda to feature prominently during the Nairobi Climate Action Summit in September. We also have the UN General Assembly in September and of course, COP28. Each offers opportunities for us to educate, advocate, and coordinate. It would be wishful thinking in the extreme to think that we could make progress towards a food secure world without doing so.
We are closely tracking the African Union’s Climate Change and Resilient Development Strategy and Action Plan as well as the Green Recovery Action Plan. Ensuring that our joint work aligns with the two strategies pillars on transforming food systems, enhancing climate finance for underinvested value chains, and leveraging both African and U.S. flagship efforts.
Indeed, the United States and the African Union intend through these fora and others to continue working together to respond to regional and global food security challenges, including by promoting and safeguarding an open, transparent agricultural market, investing in resilient food systems, and refraining from imposing any unnecessary trade obstacles.
Thank you for allowing me to speak with you today. We’re grateful for the collaboration we’ve had with the African Union as well as with the governments and African people on this important topic. And we look forward to strengthening our partnership with you in the future.