Remarks at the 2014 Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium

Charles H. Rivkin
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
Des Moines, IA
October 17, 2014

Remarks as prepared

Thank you, Ambassador Quinn. It’s an honor to speak to this distinguished group. And as someone with family ties to Iowa and the Midwest, I’m especially delighted to be back.

My grandfather immigrated to the United States from Russia, and settled in Muscatine. My father was born there. My aunt married my Uncle Lester who owned a meat packing plant and an amusement park called River View. You could sit on that Ferris wheel, and when it rose to the highest point you could see Iowa spread out before you. It was magical.

Yesterday, I visited a soybean farm to get a closer look at the wheels of agricultural production in this state. That triggered another childhood memory. My brother and I would visit my stepfather’s soybean farm in Lacrosse, Indiana – and we’d duck into those silo bins, where we could dive into an enormous, beautiful sea of perfectly round soybeans.

Little did I know, then, how much soy beans would become a staple of the world – or that, one day, I’d be the Assistant Secretary of State, and working with global partners to address one of the great questions of our time: “How do we sustainably feed nine billion people by the year 2050?”

As the famous American economist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Samuelson once said, “Good questions outrank easy answers.” When it comes to feeding the world – sustainably – that’s a question that yields many challenges.

Making sure we have well-functioning agricultural systems is a food security issue. It’s an economic security issue. And it’s an energy security issue.

As we learned during the food price riots of 2008, it’s also a national security issue. And as we learned during the famine in Somalia in 2011, which claimed more than 250,000 lives, it’s also a moral issue. As Dr. Norman Borlaug famously said “You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.”

When it comes to addressing these and other related challenges, fewer are closer to the heart of this debate – and the action in this huge arena – than the United States.

Agriculture is a cornerstone of our economy, and it’s a sector in which we consistently enjoy a trade surplus. We are the world’s largest and most innovative producer of biotech crops and – at the consumer end – its largest market for organic products.

We continue to leverage the technological and the ecological know-how of our American scientists and farmers to make significant advances in precision farming, breeding, and biotechnology… to raise productivity… improve food security and nutrition… to build resilience … and advance development.

And on the global stage, we are committed to open markets that yield affordable and stable supplies of wheat and other staples to the world ... and committed to making sure that that the poorest counties have better access to international markets.

We are also working closely with global partners across many sectors to support smallholder farmers – through initiatives such as Feed the Future, which works with developing countries to invest in their own agricultural systems.

Or the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, which the president created in 2012 with African leaders and the private sector, to support investment in African agriculture.

At this very event in 2012, Pierre Ferrari, the president and CEO of Heifer International, said that smallholder farmers are quote-unquote: “the best change agents we have to help feed this hungry world.”

We are also committed to ensuring that women farmers – who comprise 50 percent of the world’s smallholders – have the same access to land, agricultural inputs, and markets as men.

As we work towards these and other goals, we are mindful of agriculture’s environmental footprint. So we must also work with our global partners to create and promote low-emission, climate-resilient development solutions.

The Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, which the U.S. launched at the recent UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in New York, will work to reduce greenhouse gases. It will also provide economic opportunity for farmers – particularly women. That’s another key step in the right direction.

Dr. Borlaug once described himself as one small part of a big team of organizations, officials, scientists, and farmers, who were fighting a “losing war” on the food production front.

Today, that team is many times bigger – and everyone has a part to play, from the farmer in the mountains of Nepal applying crop intensification techniques to feed her family… to the researcher at an innovation lab working to find better nutrition for livestock… And from all the political leaders and business leaders – women and men – to the members of the NGO community and our multilateral agencies…

While it may have seemed like we faced a “losing war” when Dr. Borlaug said those words, today it’s a war we’re winning. One hundred years after his birth, we are well positioned to honor his legacy, by bringing that global team together to fight hunger, poverty, and undernutrition, and safeguard our food security.

Given the commitment – not only of the United States – but so many players from all sectors around the world, I have to say: I like our chances.

Thank you.