Global Farmer Award Dinner

Jose W. Fernandez
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs
Des Moines, IA
October 11, 2011

Good evening, I am honored to be here this evening to recognize the global farmer of the year, Kenyan farmer Gilbert Bor, who has been a strong advocate for biotechnology. I would like to welcome several ministers of agriculture from African countries who are with us tonight.

They are here learning about the use of biotechnology in the United states, and spent today visiting a farm. I look forward to hearing your thoughts later as to how we can move the discussion of biotechnology in your countries forward.

The Challenge
As many of you know, the challenges of feeding the world are great. Agricultural production systems are under pressure as never before, and this pressure will not decrease in the coming decades. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that a doubling of agricultural output will be needed by 2050 to feed a population of more than 9 billion people. That doubling of production will need to occur despite challenges caused by climate change, including water shortages and increased salinity of soil. We have an enormous task ahead of us to maintain and expand our economic growth in the agricultural sector.

The good news is we are not powerless to meet this challenge. Through a multi-pronged approach, and efforts by governments, business, and civil society, we are adapting to change and moving forward. Through technology, we are making seeds more drought and pest resistant. Through development projects, we are improving farmers’ access to credit and to markets, and addressing gender inequalities that inhibit agricultural production. And through improvements in supply chains, we are reducing pre- and post-harvest losses and ensuring more food reaches consumers. As a global community, we will need to continue and expand these programs in order to meet our future challenges. Tonight, I want to focus on biotechnology, and how it can contribute solutions.

Since the adoption of biotechnology in agriculture 15 years ago, the impact has been tremendous both in terms of agricultural productivity and the world economy. New agricultural technologies have doubled the production of food since 1960 and increased per-capita food supplies in the developing world by 25 percent. Biotech crops can, and have, increased productivity and incomes significantly. They have served as an engine of rural economic growth and contribute to the alleviation of poverty for the world’s small and resource-poor farmers. Take the example of biotech corn. It protects plants from insect pests leading to 40 to 60 percent higher yields and an increase in the farmer’s income of 34 percent. No matter if you are a farmer in Kenya or one in Iowa, a 34 percent increase in income matters to your family.

But while facts and figures are important, we know that often what really matters to governments, farmers and corporations is the bottom line. How does the investment in biotechnology benefit their costs and profits? In South Africa, where they have been growing biotech maize, soybean and cotton for the past 11 years, economic gains are $676 million. In India, the use of biotech cotton increased profitability by $250 per hectare. These are real, tangible gains.

Road Ahead
Despite all of these gains and benefits, the adoption of agricultural biotechnology has not been a smooth path. It has been, and remains, fraught with political debate that in many countries overshadows the science. New crops are waiting to move from labs to the farmer, but lack a clear pathway. Functioning, science-based regulatory systems are necessary to make such transfers possible.

Governments play an indispensable role in this. They can attract investment and facilitate access to new technologies. They can design and implement predictable, transparent, and science-based regulatory frameworks. Government commitment can help leverage private sector investment for the latest scientific innovations and technologies.

With the knowledge gained over the past fifteen years, it is possible to design appropriate regulatory systems that are responsible and rigorous, but not onerous, therefore requiring modest resources within the means of most developing countries. If we and the rest of the world are to accelerate food production to the levels necessary, countries will need such systems not only to facilitate trade, but to pave the way for the greater use of biotechnology.

Over the past few months, my office hosted a series of conferences for the African diplomatic corps to discuss issues related to biotechnology. And this morning I met with the visiting African ministers of agriculture. During all of these meetings, I asked them to think about how we can turn our discussions into concrete actions to advance the role of biotechnology in their home nations.

The United States wants to work in partnership with the developing world to expand the role of biotechnology. It is a rare situation when the interests of governments, private sector, businesses, and individuals intersect. In the case of food security, all sectors will benefit from reforms and increased use of biotechnology. I hope that nations who have concerns about the use of these products will continue discussing those concerns with us and learn from the application and successes of biotechnology. Together, we can tackle the challenges of our changing world.

Introduction of Keynote Speaker
Now I would like to introduce tonight’s keynote speaker, Dr. Calestous Juma. Dr. Juma is a professor of the Practice of International Development and director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at Harvard University. He also directs the Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dr. Juma is a former executive secretary of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, and the founding director of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi. He also served as the chancellor of the University of Guyana.

Dr. Juma is the recipient of several international awards for work on sustainable development, and is a member of the Royal Society of London, the U.S. National Academy of Science, and the African Academy of Science. He currently serves on the boards of WWF International and the One Laptop per Child Foundation. It is my pleasure to introduce Dr. Calestous Juma.