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Remarks by Rockefeller Foundation President Dr. Rajiv J. Shah At the SDG Conference “Towards Zero Hunger: Partnerships For Impact”

As delivered on Friday, August 31, 2018, in Wageningen University & Research, Wageningen, The Netherlands

It is great to be with you here at Wageningen. I also want to especially thank President Louise Fresco for her leadership of this great institution, and for hosting us over these last couple of days.

Five years ago, this university appeared in The Rockefeller Foundation’s centennial books, which noted our history of funding agriculture research scholarships and fellowships together. So I’m honored to reciprocate and be here for Wageningen’s centennial celebration as well. In preparing for this discussion I stumbled upon a speech that was given at this university some four decades ago, by a Rockefeller Foundation vice president – some of you might have known – Dr. Sterling Wortman. A plant geneticist by training, he led our agricultural sciences team at the peak of the Green Revolution – which he started working on many years earlier in Mexico, of course, alongside Dr. Norman Borlaug.

In 1976 Dr. Wortman traveled right here to Wageningen and said the following. He said, “as we recognize [the] leadership by scientists of The Netherlands and of Wageningen – one of the world’s great centers of science related to agriculture – we have an opportunity to consider the accomplishments of past decades, the nature and magnitude of problems now confronting mankind, and the new challenges before us all.”

Today, as we gather to advance SDG 2 – the fight against hunger worldwide, and we all just saw the big-picture description of that – I hope we can revisit each of those elements:

  • both the accomplishments, in terms of food production gains that have successfully helped address widespread hunger, and the challenges of a global food system that today appears to be the top cause for undermining our own human health;
  • the scope and scale of the problems we now confront – especially as we acknowledge the link between food production at global scale and climate change; and, finally,
  • the scientific, institutional, and political challenges we must overcome to sustainably nourish the world – because doing so will require real, drastic policy changes, and I believe real reinvestment in a research agenda that’s very different than what we have ongoing today.

In particular I want to just introduce a couple of members of my team that are here: Devon Klatell, who will be speaking with you later today – Devon, put your hand up? And Daniel Ruben, her colleague. They have been working together to help lead our food and agriculture work and have been an active part of these discussions.

Now, I can think of no better place to have this conversation than here in Food Valley, where the science and technology used to feed the world is constantly reimagined, researched, reinvented, and applied – every day. You’ve made the Netherlands a global powerhouse of not only sustainable and nourishing food, but also the knowledge and science that underpins our global food system. You’ve discovered ways to produce more food, while using less energy, less fertilizer, less pesticides, and perhaps most importantly a lot less water.

Here at home, you’ve ushered in a future of “precision farming,” with driverless tractors and flying drones measuring soil chemistry and plant growth down to the individual plant. State-of-the-art greenhouses dot the Dutch landscape, lit with LEDs that grow tomatoes in higher yields, and with higher nutritional value. And abroad, you are an outsized exporter of both high value food product, but also the knowledge and science that is essential to reimagine the global food system.

Thousands of international students study here every year. And I enjoyed meeting yesterday with some of the several hundred African graduate students that are currently students here at Wageningen. You know, each one of them expressed an eagerness to return to their home countries to make a real difference with their lives and their careers. And we do need to work together to make sure that they will have that opportunity.

Their efforts to make the food technology frontier practical and accessible to everyone around the world – even in the most remote locations – does remain essential to lifting up the poor and vulnerable families, and now increasingly is essential to protecting our ever-more fragile planet.

We have to embrace this dual task, because today the world’s food system is simply not getting the job done. It’s failing us in three big, profound ways.

For one, it’s failing at feeding the world. Tonight 815 million people will go to bed hungry, which represents an increase of 25 million from the year before. That’s no small challenge, and it only makes it harder to achieve our shared goal of “zero hunger,” which we’ve established for ourselves to achieve by 2030. It’s happening even as farms and factories produce enough food to feed every person on Earth one-and-a-half times over – and in my own country, the United States, 40 percent of all the food we produce is wasted, yet 1-in-5 children go hungry. That is simply unconscionable. And it’s happening as the majority of the future population growth, especially on a global basis, remains concentrated in the world’s poorest and most fragile communities where widespread hunger is already a problem.

The global food system is also failing at nourishing the world. Today – as we heard yesterday from Lawrence Haddad – 1.9 billion people suffer from chronic malnutrition: whether it’s undernourishment, micronutrient deficiencies, or overweight and obesity. We’ve all seen it: The stunting that prevents a child in Somalia from reaching her full potential, her height, her ability to learn and grow. The high-calorie, high-sugar junk foods that dominate our retail food system and are available at every corner store from Rotterdam to Rio de Janeiro. According to the W[orld] H[ealth] O[rganization], diet quality is now the number-one contributing factor of death and disability worldwide. What we eat accounts for half of all the risk factors contributing to the global burden of disease, on an aggregate basis – and this is likely to simply go up, over time. Our new scientific understanding of chronic diseases, as that advances, will further intensify and accelerate this negative trend.

Last but not least, our global food system is failing our planet. The food and ag sector is responsible for 70 percent of global freshwater use, 50 percent of vegetated land use, and nearly 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Much of this stems from animal-based food production, including the grain we grow to feed the animals we eat. It accounts for roughly half of that water, three-quarters of that land, and two-thirds of those greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than every car, train, and plane on Earth combined. And again, this problem is likely to get worse, not better, if we keep doing what we’re doing. As billions of people in emerging economies go from living on $2-a-day to $10-a-day, demand for animal protein will grow considerably faster than their incomes, or their populations. According to Project Drawdown – an important scientific analysis of how greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced – food and agricultural solutions have more potential to reduce atmospheric CO2 than any other sector. Think about that: more than energy generation, buildings, cities, materials, land use, even transportation. Food and agriculture should be on the forefront of fighting climate change, but instead right now it’s on the forefront of creating the problem.

So our task is bigger than feeding a future population of 10 billion people using today’s production technologies. We need a reimagined global food system that sustainably nourishes the world with dignity and equity, without breaking the back of our planet. And getting there will require each and every one of us to do things very, very differently.

Some of you have heard me say this before. What you haven’t heard, is why the Rockefeller Foundation feels a special responsibility to help usher in that new and different future.

When we look back on our Foundation’s proud, 105-year history, a major arc in the timeline is our role in seeding and scaling the Green Revolution. And as proud as we are of having done that, we also can – and should – have the courage to admit that it wasn’t perfect.

We’re all familiar with – and indeed have celebrated – how the agricultural research improved productivity around the world. Hybrid seed varieties and new technologies led to record-breaking grain outputs, which lowered food prices and raised farmers’ incomes by as much as 400 percent in just a few years. Purchasing power rose for producers and consumers alike, lifting countless families out of poverty and opening doors to newfound prosperity. And in fact, this revolution helped feed a billion people, averting mass hunger and starvation when it was needed most.

This revolution that had previously transformed the agricultural economies of western industrial countries went on through the Green Revolution effort to transform the agricultural economies of Latin American, South Asia, and East Asia. [But] in places where the Green Revolution was effective and successful in addressing calorie-based hunger – which it did – it still led to consequences that today we’re reckoning with:

Chemical fertilizers delivered higher yields, but also depleted the soil.

Water pumps and irrigation practices enabled plants to be more productive, but also sucked water tables dry faster than rain could replenish them.

Pesticides and herbicides protected crops, but also polluted land and waterways, and ultimately posed real environmental and health risks.

Meanwhile, agricultural breakthroughs put rice, wheat, and corn in the hungry mouths of hundreds of millions of rural poor, and urban poor – but they also shaped the global system of research, policy, subsidy, and consumption that overemphasizes these staple grains, and their processed food products, at the expense of more nutrient-rich foods, like fruits and vegetables.

We cannot change this history. But we can try to improve upon it. Rather than ignoring the genuine flaws of the Green Revolution, we can learn from them, and today work actively to correct them. We can push ourselves to ask a profound and sobering question: What would it mean to save millions of people’s lives from starvation, or even just one mother from starvation, if you then allowed her children and grandchildren to go through life with high rates of disease and chronic malnourishment?

Our international agricultural research enterprise, which focuses on major staple grain crops, seeks to address these challenges by breeding more nutrients into those staple grains. We’ve leaned heavily onto breeding more nutrients into staple grains, and fortifying processed foods, as strategies to improve nutrition – but we should know that that is not enough. In fact, with the notable exception of the Netherlands, our global food system including research, policy, public subsidies, and focused areas of effort, tend to treat specialty and alternative crops as afterthoughts – failing to devote real resources to research and productivity and access in those areas. In the United States, these specialty crops – our term for vegetables and all other things that are nutritious and good – receive less than 15 percent of all public research dollars, and probably a much lower percent of total subsidies and total public sector procurement as part of America’s public food safety net systems. During the Obama administration, or part of it, I oversaw this research enterprise, and I can assure you it will not be easy be easy to shift the weight of innovation, R&D, commercialization, public subsidy, and public procurement toward these long-neglected areas – particularly in the American political context. But that is what will be required if we are to be successful.

Fifty years ago, faced with booming population growth and a looming famine threatening 30 percent of humanity, the world made the decision to act. At Rockefeller we believe now is once again a time for the world to act, because today we all face the weight of a global climate disaster and a global health disaster. But this time, our priorities need to be different. We have to prioritize both environmental sustainability and human health – not just poor agricultural productivity.

And to that end, I’m excited to say that going forward, the Rockefeller Foundation will reinvigorate our food initiative. It will be led by Dr. Roy Steiner – Roy, many of you would know, from his work most currently at the Omidyar Network, McKinsey, [and] a decade at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he was a founding member of its Agricultural Development team. He worked closely with Akin Adesina – who spoke eloquently here yesterday – who at the time was at The Rockefeller Foundation, to create the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa or AGRA. And for Roy this is a bit of a homecoming: he was a Warren Weaver Fellow at Rockefeller more than 25 years ago.

Our work going forward will focus on three core priorities.

First, we’re going to absolutely maintain our decades-long commitment to agricultural transformation in Africa, in particular by continuing to support AGRA – which has since 2006 benefitted more than 15 million farm households with improved seeds, improved fertilizers, and other inputs, and more than doubling their average yields. I’ll say more about this next week in Rwanda, where I hope to see many of you at the African Green Revolution Forum.

Second, because America is not immune to the global rise in food insecurity, we are expanding our commitment to ending hunger and malnutrition in the United States. Today more than 40 million Americans don’t know where their next meal will come from. That’s more than double the entire population of the Netherlands. Meanwhile, most of what America eats is not very nourishing, as we’ve already discussed: nearly 40 percent of American adults and as many as 20 percent of American children are already clinically obese. The consequences range from kids in school who cannot learn, to medical costs for non-communicable diseases that are tearing apart our public budgets. Meanwhile, in the U.S., public social safety net programs – which are necessary both to have and to reform – are under constant attack in our current political environment. So we’ll seek to build new partnerships to address hunger and malnutrition at home.

But our third focus will be a major, long-term effort dedicated to using the frontiers of science, technology, and research to reshape our global food system – with a special focus on understanding what Louise Fresco has called the “necessary protein transition” that we all need to make together.

We know that animal agriculture is critically important but has significant negative consequences for our food system and our planet. It has to come to consume – it will need to consume fewer resources in the future, and we’ll have to do more with less as demand for animal protein increases. So we’ll invest in a range of strategies: from alternative feed sources, like insects, algae, bacteria, and food waste; to eating fewer animal-based foods, and letting less go to waste; to embracing alternative foods themselves, like plant-based proteins and cultured eggs, dairy, and eventually meat.

As with the original Green Revolution, we will look to advance innovations with the potential to be transformational. And we had a chance to see much of that yesterday at Wageningen’s own research facilities. Researchers right here are already leading public-private partnerships designed to use algae to feed fish, and have found dramatic ways to improve aquaculture productivity in places like Bangladesh by focusing on feed that improves the actual water quality in those systems. Scientists across the street are working with local companies to bring artificial intelligence and robotics to vegetable breeding, and studying ways to replace the plastic food packaging – which accounts for nearly a third of the total use of thermoplastic materials from hydrocarbons – by replacing them with sustainable biodegradable packaging alternatives.

As our research into the human microbiome evolves, we will invest in and learn about how probiotics can eliminate stunting for good. And we might find that some of the answers to those questions are still pretty basic: as we’ve seen in a recent Ecuador study that shows you can dramatically lower stunting by giving malnourished children one egg a day.

The microbiome in our soil offers another new frontier for science to be transformational. That’s why next month, we’re partnering with a global consortium of venture funds, banks, companies, NGOs, and foundations to launch FoodShot Global. This is a unique investment platform, the goal of which is to achieve Moonshot-scale impact that makes our food system more nourishing and sustainable. And FoodShot will launch a challenge called “Innovating Soil 3.0” to unify advances in biology, genetics, chemistry, sensing, visualization, and more to build healthy soil into the foundation of a 21st century global food system.

As with the work of Sterling Wortman and Norman Borlaug many decades ago, success will require dramatic research breakthroughs that are transformational for our global food system. But that will not be enough. The Green Revolution required real policy and political changes, and we will need those to be successful as well.

We will have to have the courage to reevaluate public investments and public subsidies, and shift them to promote real dietary diversity and sustainability in the production of micronutrients.

We have to use policy and regulatory changes to transition to a sustainable, alternative, and plant-based protein economy – in industrial countries and emerging economies alike.

We need to embrace science, including genomics, in food production, and use science-based labeling and nutrition standards to change the way people consume food – potentially embracing and advocating for controversial efforts to reduce processed sugar consumption, for example.

And ultimately, we will need to reimagine what it takes – at a time when we can credibly see drone-based food delivery as a real way many of us will be receiving our groceries on a weekly basis in the future – we will have to reimagine what it takes to make sure everyone, everywhere has access to healthy and nutritious and sustainably-produced food.

Thank you.

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Originally posted as prepared for delivery at 3 a.m. ET on Friday, August 31, 2018.