Remarks With Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on a Conference Call To Discuss Food Security on World Food Day
Secretary of State
Please watch “See the Future; Feed the Future; Change the Future,” a video released by the Department of State and narrated by Actor Matt Damon to highlight the Global Food Security Crisis and the U.S. Commitment to Action.”
OPERATOR: Welcome and thank you for standing by. At this time, all participants are on a listen-only mode until the question and answer session of today’s call. At that time, you may press *1 if you would like to ask a question. And now I’d like to turn the conference over to Ms. Cheryl Benton. Thank you, ma’am, you may begin.MS. BENTON: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you so much, operator. First of all, I’d like to welcome everyone to this call on behalf of Secretary Clinton and Secretary Vilsack. We had such an overwhelming response that we had to open the line up to a lot more reporters and journalists, so we’re just very, very happy to have everyone on the line. And right now, I would like to have Secretary Clinton open up and give her remarks. She’ll be followed by Secretary Vilsack.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you very much, Cheryl. And I’m very grateful for this opportunity to join with my friend and colleague, Secretary Vilsack, to discuss the critical issue of global hunger and food security on World Food Day. Today is the day that we should be focusing on the threat that chronic hunger poses not only to the more than one billion people worldwide who directly suffer from chronic hunger, but to governments, societies, and all of the associated problems that arise from that.
I think it’s clear that, if you look at what has been going on around the issue of food over the last several years, there have been more than 60 riots in countries since 2007, we have the economic and day-to-day security of families undermined, the environmental security, and even our national security. And what we have done in the Obama Administration is to make fighting hunger and increasing agriculture-led economic growth a priority. We want to help small farmers worldwide produce more food. We want to make sure that food gets to market and reaches the people who need it. That means strengthening the entire farming chain from labs where scientists develop improved seeds, to fields where farmers are laboring sunup to sundown, to the roads and the other infrastructure where the harvest occur and where food is bought and sold, and clearly to enhance the nutritional aspects of the food that people eat.
We are very pleased to be part of a commitment, along with other nations, of more than $22 billion over three years to spur agriculture-led economic growth. A few weeks ago, I joined with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to host an event during the United Nations General Assembly, where more than 130 nations, a number of foundations, private companies, international organizations, and NGOs were represented to discuss the strategy that was announced at the G-8 summit in July that we have been working on in a whole-of-government approach.
First, we’re going to work with partner countries to create and implement their plans. And second, we will address the underlying causes of hunger by investing in all of the tools that are needed to leverage the skills and perseverance of farmers, a majority of whom in the world are women. Third, we’re going to coordinate on the county, regional, and global level. Fourth, we’ll support multilateral institutions. And fifth, we pledge long-term commitment and accountability.
We believe that we have taken some significant steps to begin implementing these principles that are critical to the way forward. We’re going to make nutrition a key component. We’re investing more in research to fortify staple crops with vitamins and nutrients. We’re improving the effectiveness of our humanitarian food assistance, and we’re working hard to develop better mechanisms to hold ourselves accountable as we go forward.
I was very pleased that the President asked me and the State Department to help lead our efforts. And I couldn’t be happier to have a partner like Tom Vilsack who brings such a wealth of experience and expertise to this particular issue.
So let me turn it over to Tom.
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I appreciate this very much. And I certainly appreciate Secretary Clinton’s leadership and the State Department’s leadership in our government-wide effort. Recent estimates from the United Nations food and agricultural organizations suggest that, for the first time ever, more than one billion people around the world are chronically hungry. A significant percentage of that one billion happen to be children. And I think nations of the world have begun to agree that the past practice of solely relying on food aid is not enough to solve this problem. And I think there’s a consensus that a comprehensive approach, as the Secretary just outlined, is needed, and one that is focused on sustainability.
Our goals should be to increase the availability of food by helping people in countries produce what they need, to make that food accessible to those who need it, and to teach people to use it properly so that they can make the most of it.
In July in Ghana, President Obama characterized the growing consensus when he said, and I quote, “The true sign of success is not whether we’re the source of perpetual aid that helps people scrape by, it’s whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change,” end quote. I believe that we also need transformational change to establish food security across the globe and recognize that it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be difficult, but we must bring a sense of urgency to this issue.
And I want to say, at USDA, we are extraordinarily excited to be part of a comprehensive approach to this issue, which is being led by the State Department and Secretary Clinton. We also know that there is a specific role that can be carved out for USDA, focused on its core competencies and really examining how we can provide greater availability, accessibility, and utilization of food.
Our core competencies do, in fact, center around research, capacity-building, and technical assistance. USDA stands ready to use its vast research capacities to improve, as the Secretary indicated, the nutritional value and the productive value of crops across the globe. We have the ability with our extension service to build capacity in regions and communities and localities across the globe so that we are not just simply providing help and assistance, but we are building leaders, agriculture leaders in these countries so that they, in turn, can be – foster generation leadership.
And finally, we’re prepared to bring technical assistance, whether it’s small-drip irrigation, whether it’s dealing with plant disease, pests, invasive species, or whatever it might be, the USDA is prepared to provide that assistance in concert with other departments of government.
We understand and appreciate this has got to be a country-led effort. We are not here to tell folks what to do. We are here to help. We applaud the Secretary’s focus, in particular, on women farmers since they make up in many countries 70 percent of those who are, in fact, producing food. We look forward to encouraging sustainable practices and the use of good technology based on sound science, and we are looking forward to that comprehensive approach.
And based on my conversations with folks here in Iowa, during the World Food Prize celebration, talking with Bill Gates yesterday, leaders of NGOs and leaders of countries who are assembled here for the awarding of the World Food Prize, I can tell you that this message is being well received around the world. They look forward to this partnership. The have waited a long time for the United States to step up in this capacity, and I’m certainly pleased that we are part of it.
MS. BENTON: Terrific. Thank you, Secretary Vilsack. And thank you Secretary Clinton for your remarks. Operator, we can now open the call up for questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1. Please un-mute your phone and record your name when prompted. To withdraw your request, you may *2. One moment, please, for the first question.
And the first question will come from Bill Thompson. Please state your organization.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Bill Thompson. I’m with Dow Jones newswires. My question is about biotechnology. There is a lot of talk about how biotechnology can improve the lives of farmers and in farming overseas. But will – and it that was mentioned in your opening comments – will it be our advances here in the United States that will be translated over to impoverished countries or will the U.S. be funding initiatives to create generically modified seeds specifically for the needs of impoverished countries? And if so, what might be some of those needs?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I’ll start, and then Tom can certainly add from the perspective of USDA. We believe that biotechnology has a critical role to play in increasing agricultural productivity, particularly in light of climate change. We also believe it can help to improve the nutritional value of staple foods. And the two options that you mention: transfer of technology from the United States, working with other organizations and countries to address specific needs, will be both pursued as strategies. When Tom and I were in Kenya recently, we visited the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute, which has been a leader in East Africa at looking at the ways to improve soil and seeds and other inputs like fertilizer. So because this is a country-driven process, we think that certainly our very large and successful agricultural research infrastructure will be very value-added, but we also want to support research in the countries themselves and work with credible organizations like the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute, so that we can assist them in tailoring biotechnology solutions for their particular situation.
SECRETARY VILSACK: The only thing I would add to that is yesterday when Bill Gates gave his speech at the World Food Prize, he suggested that sustainability and productivity are not mutually exclusive goals.
And certainly, biotechnology is one strategy for more sustainable agriculture, but certainly not the only strategy. And since this is a country-led effort, we will find that there will be circumstances where biotechnology is the answer. It may very well be developed here in the United States. It may be made available royalty free in other countries. Or it may be tailored – the science and the research may be tailored to the specific circumstance that we find in a Sub-Saharan African country, for example, in which case we would be assisting researchers and scientists in that country. Or it may be that it isn’t biotechnology that is the solution. It’s the more traditional sustainable practices that will make a difference and those, too, need to be promoted, so it’s a combination.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. BENTON: Good. Operator, we’re ready for our second question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Jerry Hagstrom. Your line is open. Please state your organization.
QUESTION: Yes. I’m with the National Journal. Good afternoon, secretaries. I’m interested in your draft security initiative. It doesn’t specifically mention the use of food aid in development programs. And the groups like the private voluntary organizations and the co-ops that use USAID P.L. 480 programs and Food for Progress money to do both food aid and development, what role do you expect those groups to play? And will they still be allowed to use monetization to come up with the resources that they use?
SECRETARY CLINTON: You want to start on this one, Tom?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, Jerry, I would say that I don’t think we’re necessarily going to rule out monetization, but I think that there is a need for us to make sure that we’re flexible in terms of how we utilize it. This is not a circumstance where we want to continue to perpetuate the notion that this is only for the benefit of American agriculture and it’s a combination, it’s a partnership. So monetization may very well involve utilization of resources to purchase crops in-country and to utilize those resources in that way, number one.
Number two, I don’t think that we’re suggesting that food aid is not going to be used. We’re suggesting that we need a much more comprehensive approach and cannot rely solely upon food aid to address this issue. That we’ve got to make farmers around the world more productive. And, frankly, when we do that, they’ll get to a point where they are in a position to trade their surplus, which we believe will ultimately result in the capacity of those countries to purchase goods and services from America on a value-added basis, which will help our economy. So it’s a two-way street here. And certainly not – there’s not one strategy. And I think in the past, we’ve focused primarily on a single strategy. And I think we have to be far more flexible and far more comprehensive.
SECRETARY CLINTON: I think it’s also an important fact to raise. We used to, back in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, use much more of our aid dollar on supporting agriculture. And we began to shift more of our aid dollar to filling the humanitarian need. And we’ve relied on food aid to fill our gap in support for agriculture, and most importantly, to reach the poorest people. We’re seeking to close that gap between development and humanitarian assistance by dedicating development resources to engage the poorest in the growth process and to support community development. As Tom said, we think that you can have sustainable productive agriculture that is really aimed at giving people the tools that they need to help support themselves. There will always be humanitarian disasters because of climate and conflict. But we want to build up a stronger base of sustainable agriculture that people will be able to pursue that will see them through the good times and more of the bad times, while we try to fill the gap where that still exists.
MS. BENTON: Thank you, Secretary Clinton. Operator. I believe we have time for one more call – one more question. Pardon me.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next – our last question then will come from Roberta Rampton. Please state your organization.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m with Reuters. Just to follow up on that last question, it sounds like you do want to see some flexibility, some improvements – I think you said earlier, in the effectiveness of humanitarian food aid commodity, American-grown food aid. Is this something that you can do administratively to create that flexibility or is there some – is it something that has to wait until the next farm bill? How are you going to, I guess, achieve that flexibility in that portion of this overall plan?
SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, let me take a crack at that, Hillary, if I can. Clearly, there is no restriction in terms of us addressing issues that have been addressed in the farm bill. There is an understandable reluctance to open up the farm bill in a very significant way, since a great deal of time and effort went into the formulation of the farm bill.
I think what’s important for us at this point in time is for people in Washington and Congress to become comfortable with the notion of this comprehensive approach, to recognize and appreciate it is an all-government, all-hands-on-deck approach with the State Department in a leadership role, USAID doing what it traditionally does well in development, and USDA adding its expertise in the areas that I addressed earlier – research, capacity building, and technical assistance.
And so if it requires some flexibility, if it requires a change in regulation, a change in direction, it is simply to complement what we’re trying to do. It is not necessarily to change what we’re doing, it’s just simply to complement what we’re doing. And as I travel around the country and around the world, I hear concerns about the over-reliance that the United States has had in the past on simply the humanitarian assistance, and that the world is really looking for help and assistance in the form of experts being able to partner with scientists in other countries. They want our assistance in help and technology. They want to know how to be more productive. They take pride in what they do, as we do here.
And I think we will benefit as a nation both from a national security, and I think ultimately from an economic security standpoint, if we create a much broader array of tools that we use in combating hunger. Clearly, with the numbers increasing, the numbers of hungry increasing in the world, we have to assume that we need to do more and we need to do better.
SECRETARY CLINTON: And I just want to conclude by saying we remain fully committed to the importance of humanitarian assistance in times of crisis to address the urgent needs and protect the assets of the most vulnerable people. And we know we can increase the impact of that assistance by building greater local and regional capacity both to predict and respond to emergencies and to better bridge the gap between humanitarian and development assistance. By increasing our support to agriculture, while we maintain a robust humanitarian response, we hope that in the long term, countries will lower the risks of food insecurity that are caused by short-term shocks, and that would ultimately reduce the demand for humanitarian assistance, because three-quarters of the world’s poor still live in rural areas and they are largely dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods.
But the growth in the agriculture sector, if it can become more productive, if we can get farm-to-market roads, if we can improve storage facilities, create a greater capacity for the poor not only to feed themselves, but to actually be able to sell some of what they harvest, we will do more in terms of the poverty reduction goals we have, as well as broad-based income growth, because it’s critical that we combine what we’re doing on humanitarian and development assistance to also be committed to environmental stewardship and protect the natural resource base upon which agriculture depends. We know it’s inextricably linked to climate change. It’s a driver of deforestation. We have to help people work the land more efficiently in whatever climate zone they’re in, facing whatever challenges they face. And that means we have to improve the productivity of soils, we’ve got to conserve biodiversity. And we have multiple challenges with regard to water usage.
So this is a very broad agenda, when you look at it both from our goal of increasing agricultural productivity while maintaining our humanitarian capacity. But we think it’s the most effective way forward because we can’t just ignore the fact that after the Green Revolution lifted so many people out of hunger and even starvation and made countries self-sufficient who had not been able to do so, we haven’t continued on that growth curve. And Norm Borlaug used to say all the time, don’t forget hunger and don’t forget the causes of it and the way to try to remedy the suffering that comes from it. And that’s what we’re keeping in mind as we move forward on this initiative.
SECRETARY VILSACK: Hillary, if I could just add one thing. You mentioned Norm Borlaug. I think it’s interesting to note that – obviously, he passed away recently – but his last words were – he said to his family, he woke one afternoon and he said, “I have a problem.” And his family said, “What is it? What can we do for you?” He said, “The problem is Africa.” So his last dying thought were the starving people in Africa.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you, Tom. Thanks, everybody.
MS. BENTON: Thank you, everyone. Thank you, Secretary Clinton and Vilsack.
And operator, we are finished for the day.