Secretary Antony J. Blinken At the Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils: Global Solutions for Food Security Event

Secretary Antony J. Blinken At the Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils: Global Solutions for Food Security Event

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Thank you very, very much.  So we’re, what, about halfway through High-Level Week, I think – (laughter) – which is known at the department basically as speed-dating for diplomats.  And we have lots of events, lots of meetings, lots of gatherings.  But I have to tell you I was really looking forward to this particular meeting, this particular gathering, and I’ll tell you why in a few minutes.

But let me just start by saying to Raj, my friend and colleague of many years, thank you.  Thank you for the extraordinary leadership that you’ve shown here, the leadership that you showed in government, but also the partnership on this issue and so many others.  And that includes hosting us here just about a month ago to meet with and learn from agricultural leaders about what it’s going to take to meet growing global food demand.  It was, for me at least, a very enlightening session.  Cary was there, and we continued to learn a lot every single day.

Cary Fowler is a remarkable resource for the State Department and for the country, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Global Food Security, known, I think, to everyone in this room.  Cary has taught me more about soil and seeds than I ever knew I wanted to know.  (Laughter.)  And we’re also joined by another extraordinary colleague, Jose Fernandez, our Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment.

So we’re here in large part because, among many other challenges we face, we are facing a global food crisis – one that, as you all know, is fueled by climate change, COVID, and now, especially, conflict.  This emergency has left 700 million people undernourished.  It’s helped stunt the growth of more than 30 percent of Sub-Saharan African children under five.  It’s driven the price of staple crops like rice to a 15-year high.

When I think about just one of those statistics, stunted growth for more than 30 percent of Sub-Saharan African children under five, I’m thinking about my own kids, who are almost exactly that age.  I’m thinking about what President Biden has said, which is that if your kids have an empty stomach, pretty much nothing else matters.  It is the foundation of everything.  And so as Raj said, we’re tackling a lot of other challenges around the world, but if we don’t get this right, I actually don’t think anything else really, really matters.  We have to as a matter of our humanity and, quite frankly, as a matter of our profound self-interest.

We are working in our government to try to deliver solutions to, in the first instance, mitigate the impact of the immediate crisis we face.  If you go back to January of 2021, we’ve provided more than $17.5 billion to address global food security – insecurity.  And we’re continuing to work to rally the world to deliver the urgent relief that people need – people facing acute hunger in this moment, including the millions affected by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the world’s breadbasket.  We continue to join the UN and countries around the world in calling on Russia to stop its attacks on Ukrainian ports and grain silos, to allow desperately needed grain to reach the world.

You all know this, but it’s important to keep emphasizing.  The fact that we had to have a Black Sea Grain Initiative negotiated by the United Nations and Türkiye, that never should have been necessary in the first place.  It was – only became necessary because Russia invaded Ukraine and then, having done that, blockaded its ports.  The result of that initiative – getting the grain moving again – meant that some 35 million tons of grain got out of Ukraine and, principally, to the developing world.  Two-thirds of the wheat coming out through that got to the developing world – the equivalent of 18 billion – 18 billion – loaves of bread.  Now Putin’s torn it up and is trying to use it once again as political leverage.  Weaponizing food – talk about unacceptable; that should be near the top of the list.

So we are working aggressively on this to try to mitigate the damage that’s being done, to look in the case of Ukraine for alternate routes, but also, more broadly, to come to the assistance of people who desperately need it right now.  I’m proud of the fact that the United States is by far the largest donor in the world to the World Food Program.  We provide about 50 percent of the World Food Program’s budget every year.  I would note that other very large countries that are often in the headlines provide less than 1 percent of its budget.

But here is the thing, and this is something I am profoundly convinced of from the conversations I’ve been able to have over the last couple of years with colleagues, especially colleagues in Africa.  Even as we focus on these near-term needs, even as that is an obligation for us, we can’t lose sight of the fundamental challenge of the coming decades – feeding more and more people in the world where growing food is becoming harder and harder.  And working to genuinely give countries the capacity to have sustainable productive capacity of their own – this is what countries around the world most want.  Yes, they deeply value the emergency assistance.  But what they really want to be able to do is stand on their own feet, and we have the means, I’m convinced, to help them do that and so much more.  I think there is huge potential that countries that right now are not able to feed their own people to turn around and not only feed their own people, but feed many others.  There is so much untapped productive capacity around the world if we can just do our jobs and do them right.

But the challenge we have, especially if you project out over the next 25 or so years, is this:  Global demand for food is projected to increase by 50 percent between now and 2050.  Over the same period, prolonged droughts, horrific wildfires, catastrophic storms caused or exacerbated by climate change we know could reduce yields by as much as 30 percent.

So we’ve already got a huge problem, and if we’re looking out to 2050 we see hugely growing demand and potentially significantly diminishing supply.  We have to do something about that and we have to do it now.

Our ability to provide sufficient, affordable, and nutritious food in the future, I think, depends on making some significant decisions today.

President Biden talks a lot about what he calls an inflection point.  It’s something that comes along every six or seven generations, and what it means is this:  The changes in the international environment right now are so significant, so profound, that the decisions that we and other countries make today are going to shape the future not just for the next few years but for the coming decades.  And this is the kind of moment that comes around only once every six or seven generations.  We had it after World War II.  We had it after the Cold War.  Now we’re facing such a moment again.

And this question of food security, I think, is a powerful example of that.  Quite literally, the decisions we make now in the next few years are going to shape the next decades.

So, in February of this year, the United States, the African Union, the Food and Agriculture Organization came together and launched something we call the Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils – or VACS.  VACS is part of USAID’s Feed the Future initiative.  And USAID has been our extraordinary leader on all things food security, and Feed the Future has been our comprehensive response to food insecurity, and we are devoting a billion dollars annually to strengthen food systems, to expand social safety nets, to boost nutrition in over 40 countries.

But the new element we’ve added, the new approach that Cary has really helped pioneer and shape, VACS – twofold.  First, we’re investing above ground: identifying the indigenous and traditional African crops that are most nutritious but also most resilient to climate impacts; and then we’re taking them, improving these varieties, and delivering them to consumers and markets.  At the same time, we’re investing below ground: mapping, conserving, building healthy soils – because as Dr. Fowler reminds us, poor soils do not produce rich harvests.

In July, the United States committed $100 million to VACS – $30 million to adapt crops, $70 million to enhance the health of soil.  And working through the International Fund for Agricultural Development – IFAD – we have also established a new multi-donor funding platform to help finance those better seeds and soils.  I am very proud of the fact that the United States is a founding donor, and I have a very simple request to you tonight:  Join us.  Commit to this effort so that we can demonstrate real action on climate adaptation ahead of COP28 in Dubai.  Make this investment in our shared future.  I think we have a powerful opportunity to make a profound difference, to do the shaping of the next decades starting right now.

Now, I know for all of us involved in this, the task can seem daunting, even overwhelming.  But we’ve been here before, as Raj reminds us.  In the middle of the last century, experts were predicting a “population bomb.”  They were warning of mass starvation.  I remember studying this in school.  And of course, it was Norman Borlaug – working through the Rockefeller Foundation – who catalyzed the Green Revolution and is literally credited with saving billions of lives.  Think about that for just a minute.  Talk about extraordinary; that’s the definition.

So here tonight, and the reason I was so excited about being with you tonight, is because I think we have in this room and in the networks of people, organizations, institutions, expertise that you’re all connected to, I think we have the ability to once again mobilize our respective governments and institutions, to harness agricultural ingenuity, to feed the world.  What an extraordinary and wonderful mission.  Thank you for being willing to take part in it.

Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

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