Special Envoy Fowler’s Remarks “Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils: Global Solutions for Global Food Security” at UNGA 78
DR. CARY FOWLER: Thank you. Let me begin by just thanking The Rockefeller Foundation for hosting us today. The Rockefeller Foundation has supported us every step of the way from the first step that we took on this project.
I also want to say that this is not a newfound interest of the Rockefeller Foundation. The Rockefeller Foundation’s interest and commitment to global food security goes back at least to the 1940s.
It actually goes back farther than that because the work in the 1940s with Norman Borlaug at CIMMYT and other places, really was based on some of the health work that they did in the American South – where I come from – where they worked on nutrition problems associated with people – perhaps some of my ancestors, I don’t know – eating a diet too heavily involved with maize at that point and not a diverse diet.
We’re going to talk a little bit about that later.
We’re all here because we care about food security, but I think there’s one other thing that joins us all, and that is, that I think we have a nagging suspicion that something about this food crisis is different, something is different this time.
Numbers are greater. Numbers of food insecure people are greater. The crises seem to be more frequent. The causes seem to be larger in number and they seem to be more intractable, not just one off or temporary.
We’ve also, since the late 1970s, had an unbroken string of months in which the global average temperature for that month exceeded the twentieth century average. Something is really different.
But despite all this evidence that something is different, it’s not always clear to me that our analysis of the situation or our response to the situation has quite caught up with this reality. This is not a moment where business as usual is the appropriate response. Business as usual is not going to give us the amount of change needed to reverse course and to avoid disaster.
It’s not that incremental change is bad. In agriculture, sometimes incremental change is necessary. You can’t always take a big leap forward. Small steps are required. But since the Green Revolution days, more than half a century ago, we’ve become accustomed to incremental change. I think one message I want to give you today is maybe we shouldn’t become so accustomed to that. Maybe it’s something we can’t bank on.
Moreover, in the face of the kind of challenges that we face, we know that the current pace of incremental change in crop yields, for example, is going to leave us far short of where we need to be by 2050. So, we need to think boldly. We need to act boldly. We need some game changing developments in agriculture and food security, and I’m here today to talk about one of them.
Earlier this year we announced the Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils, or VACS, as we’re calling it. It was premised on the understanding that food security fundamentally depends on fertile soils and adapted crops. Or put another way, degraded soils and unadapted crops are never going to provide for food security.
Indeed, even today’s production levels might not be sustainable. We decided initially to focus on Africa, and we decided to focus on the two fundamentals of food security: soils and crops.
On soils, we seek to help African governments and farmers answer four fundamental questions. The first is where to plant. The answer to that question will help governments to promote effective land use planning, underpin the infrastructure development that they’re undertaking, and of course underpin better food production itself.
Second question, what to plant? That helps farmers and governments make good decisions to maximize productivity, resilience, and nutrition. Third question, what management system to employ? That’s where we have to integrate everything we know about the environment, about the soils, about the crop varieties to help farmers make informed decisions.
And finally, how do you apply all that in a given year and a given season? That’s where we hope to expand the access to hyperlocal, timely recommendations to help farmers make the kind of management decisions in real time that they need to be better managers of their input, such as fertilizer.
Africa is the continent where precision agriculture is more needed than anywhere else in the world. The farmers need that kind of detailed, scientific knowledge about their soils that good management and sustainable practices require.
So, with the soils work, we’re working with a number of partners principally with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, with the CGIAR, with the International Fertilizer Development Center, and at least from the U.S. government perspective, all of that work is going through our USAID-led Feed the Future program.
On the crop side, we have partnered with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the African Union. They are co-sponsoring our work. We focused on nutrition, not just calories, because we know that staples alone cannot provide the kind of adequate, balanced nutrition that everyone on earth deserves and requires.
This requires access to a broad variety of foods and the micro and the macro nutrients that they provide. Over-reliance on a few staples, often just one staple, is risky ,and in the best of years it can’t provide an adequate diet or balanced nutrition for everyone.
The good news is that Africa is rich, nutrition-rich, in traditional and indigenous crops, which have suffered from years of neglect and underinvestment. The African Union’s Common Position on Food Systems makes this point over and over again. Expanding the spotlight and investments in these crops can unlock the potential to provide better nutrition, rebuild soils, support local communities and their cultures, and strengthen resilience.
One of the things that really thrills me the most is that most of the crops we’re talking about are tended by women. And serving the interest of women farmers in Africa serves the interest of children. So with the crops work, we’re working with a broad number of partners, of course with the African Union and with FAO.
I want to particularly call out the Feed the Future program, and our friends and colleagues at the U.S. Agency for International Development. We’re also working with the African Orphan Crops Consortium, with the Columbia Climate School and with AgMIP, with HavosAi, with the CGIAR, and others inside the U.S. government, I’ll mention the Treasury Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
With all these, we have developed a three-step program. The first step was to look at all those traditional and indigenous crops in Africa. There’s some 300 of them, and to ask ourselves which are those crops that have the most potential for providing more nutrition. We narrowed that list of 300 down to 60. The next step will be undertaken here at The Rockefeller Foundation in a few weeks, where we’ll look at those 60 crops and ask how they are going to do in a climate changed world.
On the basis of knowing which crops have the most potential nutritionally and which of those have the most potential to provide good production in Africa, we can make informed decisions on crop breeding and other efforts.
The third effort is to establish the mechanisms needed to support that kind of work in a sustainable and fundamental way. We’ll hear more about that later.
This doesn’t mean that the United States or any of us involved in this effort are abandoning our work on major crops. It simply means that we’re adding to this and taking advantage of the really tremendous cost benefit ratio, and the human health benefits that some of these traditional and indigenous crops offer.
What are these crops? They’re crops like pigeon pea and grass pea, lablab, and African yam. All those are legumes that will help build soil as well. Spider plant, Maringa and fonio and African eggplant and African custard apple. But there are also some crops that are fairly familiar to us that are major crops, but still need much more work. That’s sorghum, finger millet, okra, yams, cowpea, we could go on.
Governments in Africa that we work with will have to help us by providing an enabling atmosphere to do this kind of work, and that will mean collection and use of the plant genetic resources that are needed, and facilitation of the technology required. The program that I’m talking about is not going to solve all problems, no program could. But it does address two fundamental prerequisites for food security: having good soils and good crops.
So, I want today to ask all of you to please join with us. VACS is one game-changing initiative, we need more. That’s why I think that countries need to invest more in agricultural research and development. We have to become aspirational.
That could mean nitrogen fixing grains. It could mean perennial grains. It could mean improvements in photosynthesis. It could mean using microorganisms and fungize food sources. It could mean addressing alpha toxin, mycotoxin problems that rob us and poison our food. It could mean a lot of different things, but we have to be aspirational and we have to think big.
To strengthen food security and increase resilience, we need the kind of intergenerational and transformative initiatives that we’re proposing today with VACS. For this to happen, which it must, we need a dramatic change in the conversation that we have about food security, a change in dialogue. I hope today is the beginning of that kind of conversation. Thank you.