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Remarks by Rockefeller Foundation President Dr. Rajiv Shah at World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium

As delivered on Thursday, October 19, 2017 at Des Moines, Iowa.

Thank you, Ken. I don’t know what to say after that extraordinary introduction, other than while we do all have different jobs from time to time, what perhaps keep us coming back is the friendship and the commitment to each other and the mission we share. And to the Borlaug family, I remain speechless, but getting that card was my favorite thing that’s happened to me in my first six months at this job, so thank you.

I do see so many friends and family in the audience today, including my friend and compatriot the USAID Administrator Mark Green. I’m so glad you have that job and I don’t.

And friends like Gordon and Catherine and others, when I was coming here in the past, helped me get connected to all the wonderful young people, who you inspire through this extraordinary event.

People like Emily Hugen, who I know is one of your awardees, one of many students and scholars here today with the passion to fight hunger; Dr. Cui Zhenling, who’s been recognized yesterday for putting food on the table of millions of families in China; and of course, our dear friend, and your extraordinary award winner tonight, Dr. Akin Adesina, former “RockyDoc” at the Rockefeller Foundation. He – I’ll tell you, I see Gary Toenniessen back there, and Gordon’s been here, Rob Hecht, Peter Matlon – I think you are accepting the award today on behalf of a team. That’s pretty incredible, so congratulations to all of you. And Akin, congratulations for your friendship and leadership.

I’ll tell you in preparing for today, I’ve been recalling also my first time here, because it was 2006, and we really did come just to learn about what we might do, at a time when Warren Buffet was just in the process of making a gift to the Gates Foundation that enabled the creation of the agriculture program there.

In that panel that you made reference to, I did feel so honored, and also so humbled, to be with – that was the first time I met Dr. Borlaug. And I remember Jeanie saying, “You could spend some time with him afterwards in his suite, he wants to talk to you but he is a little bit older and will need some rest.” And I’d flown in from Seattle, and I probably didn’t sleep much the night before, because I was so excited. And I was a little tired, so I thought, “Oh good, this will be a short conversation.” And of course, it went on for hours.

And Norman had all the energy, you know, and I’m sitting there being like, “how can I be a little tired, needing coffee, when he’s got so much passion and energy?” But we all know – those of us that had the great honor of meeting and working with him – we know that that passion ultimately, more than anything, is why this room is so full.

He also said to me then what he most admired frankly about the Rockefeller Foundation, at that time, was how it “stuck the course” in fighting hunger and poverty. And in that spirit, I’d like to share some thoughts with you today on our past, but also how we’ll try to stick the course going forward in this great area of work against this extraordinary mission of fighting and ending hunger.

Early next spring will mark 75 years since a young scientist named George Harrar drove a brand-new station wagon south across the Mexico border to start the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican Agriculture Program. It will also mark the 50th anniversary of India’s first record-breaking wheat crop – the result of a quarter-century of work begun in Mexico by Dr. Borlaug, Harrar, and others.

But its genesis goes back even further. From the earliest letters between John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and his Baptist minister-turned-philanthropic advisor Frederick Gates, “scientific agriculture” was seen as a promising way to fulfill their foundation’s mission of promoting the well-being of humanity throughout the entire world. Initially, the foundation fought disease – building schools of medicine and public health, combatting yellow fever and malaria. Then after seeing millions starve during World War II, and as booming population growth threatened to outpace global food production, Rockefeller turned to fighting hunger as the greatest enemy of human well-being. And so the work in Mexico began.

In the many years since we all learned a great deal from how those pioneers advanced the idea that science and technology could be used to fight world hunger and reach the most vulnerable. And we are still in awe of the amazing results that have been delivered and honored through this World Food Prize – increasing yields to avert massive famine, helping defuse the so-called population bomb by moving more than a billion people off the brink of hunger and starvation.

Decades later we applied those learnings when the Rockefeller Foundation and the Gates Foundation partnered together more than 11 years ago to launch the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Akin and I were both proud to be part of that effort. Agnes Kalibata, who leads that effort, is here today. Because of AGRA, which really picked up and extended the legacy of the Rockefeller work in Africa, today 15.3 million farmers are using improved seeds. Those smallholder farmers have more than doubled their average yields. And 1.3 million hectares of depleted land have been restored for agricultural production.

Most recently, the Rockefeller Foundation launched the YieldWise initiative that is focused on reducing food loss and food waste – recognizing the world can’t sustain a nourishing food system if we don’t eat more of what we have. In addition to helping farmers in Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania reduce post-harvest loss, it’s also about combatting food waste right here at home because 40 percent of all food produced in this country goes to waste. Next week we’ll be announcing some results of this work: a partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council that examined how cities like Denver, Nashville, and New York can better rescue edible, wholesome food to feed those in need. The data is compelling. In one scenario, rescuing food in Denver alone could close that city’s annual meal gap by almost 50 percent.

All these concrete results validate the basic premise that the fight against hunger, especially when anchored in science and social science, can be won. But I know many of you in this room also know what that fight means on an instinctive and emotional level.

For the people and places Akin and I have had a chance to visit together in rural Nigeria with Bill and Melinda many years ago, it means farmers are no longer just subsistence producers but are participating in a commercial business. It means their families have enough food to feed themselves, without having to sacrifice – all too often – the food intake of women and girls. It means those girls can have the dignity of going to school and believing in their hearts that they deserve a more hopeful future, as opposed to one where they might just barely scrape by.

I know it’s the passion and commitment to delivering those kinds of results that does keep this community coming here every single year. This common sense of purpose is ultimately what’s represented in this prize, and in Dr. Borlaug’s legacy.

We’ve come a long way, to the point where in some places now you can tap your phone and have fresh food delivered, someday by drone, very quickly to your doorstep. Yet for all the progress, we simply have to do better. Because we live in a world where even today, a child will die every 10 seconds because of chronic or acute malnutrition.

Today the global food system produces one-and-a-half times enough food to feed our entire population, yet still 815 million people – 11 percent of humanity – don’t know where their next meal will come from. It’s even a problem here in America. As we sit here today, 1-in-5 children go hungry, which is unconscionable in the wealthiest and most advanced society in human history. Iowans like former governor and agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack continue to be champions in fighting child hunger here and around our nation. The same is true for the hidden hunger of malnutrition. Today 2 billion people are chronically malnourished – suffering from undernourishment, micronutrient deficiencies, or overweight and obesity. In fact, diet quality is now the number-one contributing factor to deaths and disabilities worldwide according to the World Health Organization.

As you all know, these statistics about hunger and malnutrition are really about people. They’re about the young girl I held in my arms in a feeding center in Afghanistan who was on the verge of death from malnutrition and who deserved better; and the young boy in Des Moines who’s overweight, malnourished, and not able to adequately able to learn. Both represent the consequences of a food system that is not successfully nourishing the world.

It’s also failing our planet, as agriculture and livestock production are key drivers of global warming and environmental degradation. Globally, meat production accounts for one-third of water use, three-quarters of agricultural land use, and nearly 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions – more than the entire transportation sector. The global livestock sector pumps out the equivalent of over 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. Now we all talk constantly about the electric car, but we are still waiting for someone to invent the electric cow.

These entrenched challenges are compounded by disparities in access to nutrient-rich food. Go 15 minutes west of here down Interstate 235, there’s a Whole Foods off University Avenue where you can buy a nourishing, responsibly farmed salmon fillet for about as much as a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread. But go 15 to 20 minutes in the other direction, east on University Avenue, and until very recently, you were in a food desert that extended from the State Fairgrounds to the Des Moines River. In that area more than 60 percent of people – one-third of whom are low-income – live too far from a proper supermarket, and are likely to have to rely on shelf-stable, convenience store foods for their last-minute shopping trips.

The global food system is subject to increasingly powerful consumer demands as well. As billions of people in developing countries go from living on $2-a-day to $10-a-day, we know demand for protein will only go up, and go up dramatically. So while our population will only grow about 13 percent over the next three decades, global demand for animal protein will increase much faster – rising by as much as much as nearly 80 percent.

This underscores the parallel challenges of a food system that’s fundamentally unsustainable, and fundamentally not nourishing everyone it needs to. We see this first here at home, but also around the globe. If every human being consumed as much food as the average American citizen, it would take four Earths to sustain that demand. And yet every trend indicates that as 2 to 3 billion people in emerging economies join the global middle class, the least attractive attributes of the American food system are first in line to shape their health and environmental outcomes.

A New York Times article last month about Brazil made this abundantly clear: our food system excels at getting candy bars, junk food, and soft drinks to the world’s poorest people in the most remote places – so much, that many countries in the Global South have recently seen their obesity rates grow much faster than more developed countries. But it’s not very good at getting local farmers in Africa the real-time data they would need to sustain maximum production on the land they’re farming, or the technologies that could lead to amazing tomato and other vegetable yields like we’ve seen in the Netherlands.

Seeing these challenges, and inspired by our predecessors, we at Rockefeller these last few months have been asking, “What would Dr. Borlaug do?”

Borlaug’s lifelong mission was promoting agricultural research, because to him it was the best way to fight hunger and poverty. He witnessed from Mexico to South Asia how research improved productivity – lowering food prices, and raising farmer incomes. He saw Indian and Pakistani farmers more than quadruple their net incomes, from $37 per hectare to $162. Food became more accessible, and because food was produced and consumed in close proximity, purchasing power increased for producers and consumers alike – helping them move away from poverty. In doing all this, Norm transformed himself from an agricultural scientist into a fierce global, moral leader.

Today, a new revolution in food would happen in a much greater context, but with the same potential to expand dignity and justice to vulnerable populations. The link between local production and local consumption of food is still strong, but there’s far more trade and mobility, especially for higher-value foods. And trade has grown faster than production. Based on our rough analysis of real-value growth from 1968 to 2013, while food production worldwide increased by nearly 200 percent, global food trade increased by [almost] 400 percent, and trade in fruits and vegetables by [closer to] 500 percent.

Meanwhile, we know that the basics are still true. From Bjorn Lomborg to the World Bank, we see the data that shows that agricultural research is still one of the most efficient and productive investments you can make to improve the lives of the poor and vulnerable. But it’s our opinion that the current research system over-emphasizes staple crops to the detriment of protein and micronutrient-rich foods. In the United States alone, going back to 1975, twice as much public R&D funding has consistently gone to grains, oilseeds, and other staple crops than to so-called “specialty crops” – the fruits, vegetables, and nuts that make a person not only well-fed but also well-nourished. To meet the world’s ever-growing demand for protein, our food system has focused on productivity of animal agriculture, often to the neglect of non-animal sources of protein. Compared to the early 1960s, that’s enabled our consumption of animal protein to grow twice as fast as our consumption of vegetable protein.

For several years now the food and agricultural development community has focused on the question of how to feed a future population of 10 billion people. That question is important and necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Instead, the question we should ask is: how can we sustainably nourish the world with dignity and equity, without breaking the back of our planet?

At Rockefeller, our early point of view here is focused around three concepts we hope to explore with you.

The first is that as we look around the horizon, we see a clear need to reshape the global protein economy. Focusing on both human health and the environment, we have to fundamentally rethink the way the world provides protein to a growing and ever wealthier global population. As one starting point, we need to better understand how the full range of our planet’s protein sources – from beef to farmed fish to lentils – can be used to meet the coming demand. To our knowledge, no one has looked across all these different sources and evaluated them based on how much we can increase their productivity without stretching beyond the means of our natural resources. That’s why in the coming months, we’ll be working with experts at the World Wildlife Fund and major universities worldwide to conduct this kind of comparative analysis across protein systems. It will evaluate suitability based on food security and nutritional impact, environmental impact, and projected consumer demands, amongst other factors. And we hope it will help us together identify new ways to reshape the global protein economy.

Second, as we look at how undernourishment persists at home and abroad, we think micronutrient-rich foods – especially fruits and vegetables – need to be given a much, much higher policy, pricing, and research priority. We want bold and effective ideas to dramatically rebalance the role of these foods in how people eat – making them more accessible, more available, and more affordable, for everyone, both here at home and around the world.

Third, we don’t think we’re going to effectively achieve anything on those points without flipping the basic model and thinking of the entry point as deeply affecting consumer behavior and consumer demand, today and in the future. As we see with tested, safe technologies including GMOs and Golden Rice, how people perceive food, and their natural demand for those food products, ultimately does define our capacity to have the impacts we want to have. In a new food revolution, we can’t afford to let innovations become exclusively elitist, or charitable only. Instead, they have to be desirable and demanded by all. The end goal is that consumer demand for food needs to be and should be that they demand not only delicious but also healthy foods, in a way that sustains their families and our planet.

It will take us time to consider what will come next for the Rockefeller Foundation in these regards, but we do welcome your feedback and hope to learn from you over the course of the next many months as we shape our basic approach.

All the while, those of us in this room can never forget Dr. Borlaug’s point about sticking the course. Even as we grapple with concepts that may prove to be the levers of real change over time, we must stick the course in helping small-scale farmers, mostly women, improve their incomes and lift themselves and their families out of poverty and hunger, especially in Africa.

While we don’t know all the details of what we’re going to do, we do know that our approach will be grounded in what the Rockefeller Foundation has done for more than a century: faith in science, priority around innovation, a desire to embrace public-private partnerships, and a fundamental understanding that public policy and political leadership are always critical to shaping a just and equitable food system. And going forward we will be drawing on that history for not only our work in food but also other areas.

We believe humanity has arrived at a pivotal moment in our history, and as the world surges into a data-driven, decentralized, and hyperdigital era, we will fight to secure the fundamentals of human well-being for even the most vulnerable.

We live in a time when it’ll soon be possible to hail a self-driving car with phones in our pockets, but a woman in rural India still has to walk hours in the dark just to get clean drinking water or find a working power outlet. We can buy wireless smart socks and networked baby monitors that track our newborn’s sleep patterns, yet in Africa and Asia, eight infants die each minute, often from diseases we know how to treat and prevent.

While the march of progress has and will benefit plenty, it is unacceptable that in a world capable of so much, there are still so many with so little. And it’s not only the girl in a developing country who can’t go to school because she has to help feed her family. It’s also the middle-aged factory worker here at home, in a Ford plant, who hasn’t been able to fulfill his dream of becoming an electrician or is starting to see his basic livelihood slip away.

In both cases, despair about the future has brought our world to a pivotal moment. People have less trust in institutions worldwide. Rising nationalism is pulling governments inward, away from helping the vulnerable. Anxiety about economic opportunity has fueled populist retrenchment in our politics. Automation and globalization are further separating haves and have-nots. And the global goals that we all fought so hard to make an example of how the world can cooperate to expand the reach of justice, are under immense, immense political pressure.

Yet it’s at this moment that we believe, more strongly than ever, in our shared capacity to solve the world’s toughest problems.

We see brilliant minds and moral hearts unlocking powerful tools – like data science and digital technology – to improve the lives of the vulnerable like never before.

We see businesses and philanthropies, faith institutions, state and local governments, coming together to try to solve tough problems

And we see a moral awakening – particularly in our young, especially tied to this project of the World Food Prize – where people want their lives to have meaning and purpose, not just financial success.

And because we get to learn from our own history at the Rockefeller Foundation – embodied in the team that is here celebrating the World Food Prize – we know that we can also learn from the fact, and take heart in the fact, that we’ve done this before. We have brought together the most capable people to solve some of the world’s toughest problems in the past, and we certainly can do it again in the future.

In fact, the Rockefeller Foundation was born at a transformational time as well, when the powerful intersection of capitalism, science, and leadership literally changed this country and the world. Grounded by a belief in scientific philanthropy, we looked into the future and brought together titans of charitable giving, government, business leaders, and scientists to solve the problems of that past era.

Today – informed by that same approach, and convinced that this is yet another time of fundamental social transformation – we feel inspired to act boldly, and with you. We’re determined to bring together the world’s most capable people to solve the world’s toughest problems.

I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to food, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. But here our past makes for good company.

After George Harrar drove his station wagon to Mexico, it took 25 more years for Dr. Borlaug’s work to blossom into the Green Revolution. At the beginning, they probably didn’t have it all figured out, at the time.

But I believe that if it’s possible today to grow meat in a laboratory and have drones deliver our food, it is certainly possible to believe that we can end hunger and sustainably nourish the world in the next few decades. We have the tools. We have the technology. We have the political will. We have the moral obligation to do so. All that’s required now is our commitment to each other, and our commitment to stick the course.

I’m willing to stand here today and say that the Rockefeller Foundation is committed to this goal, and we will be for as long as I’m there. And I know it’s no small thing to say that in a room packed with some of the world’s most important and smartest experts, innovators, and leaders in food and agriculture. That’s why I’m asking you to stand with us – work with us – partner with us – and collaborate – so that together, as we’ve done in the past, we can change history in the future.

Thank you.

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