Remarks at a Reception for the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
New York City
September 24, 2014

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, thank you. Listen, thank you very, very much for being patient and hanging in here, though I noticed a lot of you have glasses in your hand with some liquid in it and therefore you haven’t been completely deprived, I can tell.

This city during these days of UNGA does not lend itself well to diplomatic speed dating, and unfortunately, I sort of scheduled one too many. And I just came from a meeting with my counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and obviously, we had a lot to talk about. And that’s why I’m running a little bit late, and I apologize for that.

Let me thank Nancy, Dr. Nancy Stetson, for her work, and I’ll say a word about her in a minute. But I’m also very, very privileged and I want to say thank you to the Dutch Government, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and to Agriculture Minister Sharon Dijksma. I’m very, very pleased, and her director-general is here somewhere. I don’t know, he was here a moment ago. I met him. There he is. (Applause.) But thank you so much for being here and being part of this and helping to launch this alliance. The Dutch Government is extraordinarily committed and forward-thinking about this kind of issue, and that’s exactly what we need to be right now, putting this critical connection, this nexus between climate change and food security, at the center of the agenda.

I wish it were otherwise. I’ve been involved in this effort – Nancy alluded to it – going back to the 1970s. The first thing I did when I returned from Vietnam was not protest the war, which I shortly did, but become active in Earth Day 1970, the first Earth Day, and helped to organize it in my home state of Massachusetts, when 20 million Americans came out and said we don’t want to live next to toxic waste sites, we don’t want to be getting cancer from Woburn dump, things like that in Massachusetts. Particularly we had the Cuyahoga River that lit on fire, literally.

And those 20 million people ultimately engaged in a way that became very political. They targeted the 12 worst voters in Congress, labeled them the “Dirty Dozen” and in the very next election beat seven of the 12. That is what brought us the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, and actually created the Environmental Protection Agency we didn’t have when that first took place.

So there’s been a hell of a journey from there to here. And I went to Rio and the Earth Summit in the 1990s and so forth. Unfortunately, it was a voluntary process. It didn’t work and we now are where we are, the hottest year in history last year, the last ten years have been the hottest ten years in history. I mean, it’s an extraordinary statement about the lack of willpower of governments on a global basis, ours included, to have been able thus far to be able to do what we need.

I’m proud to say that President Obama is changing that. We are moving rapidly now. We have ten times the amount of solar power in place that we had five years ago. We have three times the amount of renewables in place that we had. We have new automobile standards, new building standards, so forth and so on.

Why do I mention all of this in the context of food security? Well, for the very simple reason that the real solution is not to be talking about just moving things and coming up with resistant seed and doing our work in the laboratory. The real solution is not to damage it in the first place and to be able to preserve an ecosystem that functions.

But we all know we’re on a path right now that’s probably going to make the – that deprives us of the right of not worrying about mitigation and deprives us of the opportunity to avoid adaptation. So we are where we are, and the only responsible thing that we can do as a consequence of that is work at this.

That’s why I brought Nancy Stetson on board, because Nancy and I worked for two decades side by side when I served in the Senate. And through her work on malaria, TB, and AIDS, principally, I saw her ability to be able to break down things that were very complex and multi-layered, and make them happen. You are looking at the woman who really wrote the first piece of AIDS legislation – no joke. And we passed it. We even got Jesse Helms to support it. And that became the foundation of what became known as PEPFAR. So Nancy Stetson, thank you for your leadership and your effort and everything you did. (Applause.)

So that’s what we’re going to try and do with this alliance. When climate change and food security present these new challenges that they do, we need new partnerships and new solutions in order to tackle them. And the vitality of our ecosystem, the ability of the ecosystem to provide billions of people with food, is under stress, regrettably, like never before.

I was chairman of the fisheries, oceans subcommittee for a long period of time in the Senate, and I saw what has been happening in the major fisheries of the world. Even as we went and tried to ban driftnet fishing and rewrite the Magnuson laws and do all these things – still overfished, still too much money chasing too few fish, still major shifts in the ecosystem as the result of increases in acidity, the acidification of the oceans, the changes in ocean currents, what’s happening with the melting of the icecaps and so forth has a profound impact on the future of food. And all you have to do is talk to farmers or even talk to garden club members in America and they will tell you how things that used to grow in certain places don’t grow anymore, how there’s been a migration of certain species and capacities for growth, a band in the center of America that’s moved north and south.

So the link is clear: Climate change affects how much food we’re able to produce, and it affects – and how much food we produce actually affects climate change at the same time. Now we see this drought that’s hitting in various parts of the world, but particularly in Central America.

And this alliance is going to try to bring capable partners together who have the ability to find solutions. Climate-smart agriculture, it’s that simple. And the World Bank and the FAO have been working together for a long time and making successful investments in drought-resistant corn, soybeans, other climate-resilient crops for a number of years now.

For our part, we have some of the most advanced laboratories and research institutions. And as Secretary Vilsack told all of you yesterday, we’re targeting more of our resources to support agricultural innovation. The President doubled down on this approach yesterday in his executive order, making support for climate resilience a first-tier priority across our development programs.

And if you look at what’s happening in Central America, you can understand why. Sixteen of 22 provinces in Guatemala have been declared by the government a state of emergency. Crop losses in El Salvador have now reached 60 percent of their crops. In Nicaragua, staples like corn and beans cost four times more today than what they cost last spring.

So at the State Department, we’re going to look immediately at what we can do to help in Central America and other parts of the world where we can find our partners to apply our talents to this challenge.

In Ethiopia, we’ve partnered with DuPont to help farmers increase maize production by 50 percent.

In Mali, we’re supporting an aggressive agroforestry program, helping farmers to tackle the problem of desertification, and promoting the planting of fruit and fodder and fuel-wood for income generation.

In Bangladesh, we’re investing with private sector partners in intensified rice production, and helping farmers to diversify into high-value, nutrient-rich commodities like fish. But again, fish – it’s going to be dependent on your overall management of the ecosystem and is it sustainable. It has to be done in a sustainable fashion.

So these are the kinds of successful investments in food security, innovation, and resilience that we plan to showcase to 20 million-plus visitors next year at the Milan Expo. And we hope to attract new partners and new investments in this effort in doing that.

Every nation has an ability to be able to play a part in this. I hate the idea that – I mean, I don’t want to see all our energy going – I want to see us do it because we have to. But I still preach the notion that we have time still to turn this around if we make tough choices about carbon, carbon pricing, where we’re going with respect to the overall issue of climate change, so we minimize the need to do this. And in the end, confronting these challenges means we’re going to have to, unfortunately, invent; we’re going to have to innovate. Maybe I shouldn’t say unfortunately because you benefit anyway, but it’s the wrong way to come at it, and I think everybody here knows that.

That said, we’re going to do it, and I’m proud to be part of this alliance. I’m proud for this announcement tonight, and I’m delighted that you’re all here to share in it. Let’s get the job done.

Thank you all very, very much. (Applause.)