Closing Remarks at Food Security Discussion With African Agriculture Ministers

Jose W. Fernandez
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Washington, DC
October 17, 2011

Thank you, good to be here again; good to see some good familiar faces. You can call me Jose or José, just don’t call me Mr. Fernandez. I’m delighted to be here. I actually have the distinct honor of cutting short what I thought was a wonderful discussion, and I apologize for that. I would have gladly yielded my time. I thought that was exactly the kind of discussion that we needed to have.

I also would like to thank the Center for Strategic and International Studies for this entire event. I’m pleased to be here, pleased to be here to provide final remarks on today’s discussion, but more importantly than providing final remarks is really to try and have a continuation of the dialogue that we already had, started in Iowa with a number of esteemed colleagues in this room. We were together last week at the World Food Prize in Iowa, and it was the beginning of what I thought a wonderful give-and-take with a number of our colleagues that we in the U.S. government would like to continue.

In Iowa last week, we saw technology and innovation that allowed a farmer to have an operation that was simultaneously profitable and sustainable, and we also learned about existing partnerships between the private sector, NGOs that allowed crops to be produced specifically to address African needs, crops like biofortified sorghum and improved maize for African soils.

During the week that we spent in Iowa, we had a very good roundtable discussion with farmers and several Ministers, where we talked about the need to have access to technology to address the 70 percent increase that we’ve all heard about in food demand to feed an estimated nine billion people by the year 2050. What is really alarming, at least to me, is that the production increase that we need in order to address this demand will require, at least if you listen to some of the critics and some of the experts, it will require at least a 50 percent increase in agricultural investment in developing countries. And this is beyond the type of investment individual country budgets and the kind of official development assistance budgets we’ve seen around the world.

And so this is where I would like to focus my remarks for the last couple of minutes – on technology and on investment.

There are opportunities to expand and develop the use of new technologies that will improve farmer incomes and result in greater agricultural output. I’m talking about the range of technologies from the development of new drought and pest resistant seeds through biotechnology to simple, yet, innovative techniques, techniques like hermetically sealed bags that can cut post-harvest losses. In fact, at the last AGOA meeting in Lusaka, we had a session devoted to those post-harvest technologies. And I don’t think there is enough attention being devoted to post-harvest technologies.

As you discussed during today’s session, private sector investment will be needed and will be critical at all levels of agriculture to improve food security, enhance access to markets for the poor and create broad-based economic growth.

But, to encourage private sector investment, countries will need, as you heard in the previous session, countries will need transparent, predictable and efficient regulatory systems. They will need plant variety protection and patent protection of seeds. They will need to create an investment climate with policies based on science that will send an unequivocal signal to public and private sectors that governments are committed to leveraging the latest scientific innovations.

And so we would urge governments, not just in Africa, but around the world, to make this a top priority so that plans to address the challenges outlined in your discussions today can move forward at the speed that Africa needs.

Without such systems and without such policies, many African countries will miss out on the opportunity that new technologies, technologies like biotechnology, have to offer and, as a result, will be disadvantaged and non-competitive in crop productivity.

For example, 29 countries around the world have allowed safe, science-based systems for agricultural biotechnology. These are 29 countries in both developed and developing countries, and these kinds of developments have allowed benefits of about $65 billion dollars in economic gains over the last 15 years around the world. In Africa, we only have three countries that are taking advantage of technology -- Egypt, Burkina Faso, and South Africa – although, as a result of the leadership of Minister Kosgei in Kenya, Kenya is rapidly moving forward.

As you work in CAADP and as you build a strategy for stronger private-public partnerships, and I heard a lot this morning about them and I agree that’s critically needed, I encourage you to think about investment and to ensure policies of promoting and enabling innovation. This will provide a clear path to leveraging investment, encouraging public-private partnerships, and to achieving the research and products that will help you move forward with all of your plans.

And as you do that, I would encourage you to do what we started to do in Iowa and what we’ve done in other meetings in the past, and that’s to raise issues that you see as roadblocks or barriers to furthering investments within your own constituencies.

As many of you know in this room because you participated in the last year or so, we have been reaching out in our Bureau to the African Diplomatic Corps in Washington through a series of three conferences that we’ve had so far in order to connect partners on agricultural biotechnology.

The first meeting that we had was a government-to-government meeting on the benefits of biotechnology for African agriculture. The second meeting facilitated industry-to-government discussions to ensure that there were policies in place and that we talked about policies that were needed in order to encourage investment. At the third meeting, we visited field trials and had frank discussions on the role that NGOs and universities could play in the adoption of biotechnology. We were very pleased by the results of those meetings, and we’re very pleased by the fact that at the first meeting we had maybe 15-20 ambassadors, and by the second meeting, we had almost twice as many. So I think that just having a dialogue is something that we felt was needed and actually would help to advance the ball.

And we’re going to put in a lot more effort to build alliances, to reinforce education, and to build connections with the private sector as we move forward.

Last week in Iowa, in discussions with Secretary Vilsack and with the U.S. Government Deputy Coordinator for Development for Feed the Future Julie Howard, many of you in those meetings expressed an interest in moving ahead with the adoption of agricultural biotechnology.

And, as I said in Iowa, and as we’ve said in the past, for those interested in moving forward, the State Department stands ready to be a bridge for building partnerships, to help in what I consider to be the three areas where I believe we can actually add some value:

1. Regulatory capacity-building;
2. Trying to talk to companies in order to encourage private investment in agriculture in Africa;
3. Public outreach.

We look forward to working together. This is something that you will see our Bureau continue to emphasize as we go forward.

I thank you again for the opportunity to close out the meeting today.