Borlaug Field Award Presentation

Borlaug Field Award Presentation
World Food Prize Foundation
Des Moines, Iowa
October 12, 2016

It’s a great honor to speak with you tonight, and a great pleasure to see guests from over 50 countries gathered together here to honor the work of Norman Borlaug and the many scientists and anti-hunger advocates who carry on his legacy. It’s been 30 years since Norm founded the World Food Prize, and I believe he would have been overjoyed to see the generations of scientists and practitioners who have continued this vital work.

As some of you know, this is my last year as president of The Rockefeller Foundation, and it’s a special honor to be here because, of the many initiatives we’ve had the pleasure of creating during my time as president, the Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application is one of my personal favorites.

This award not only carries the name of one of our greatest Rockefeller predecessors, but also honors one of Norm’s personal goals: motivating and inspiring new generations of innovators and scientists to take up the mantle of securing the world’s food supply. The four tapestries hanging here on the opposite wall are meant to represent the “four seasons” of Norm’s life—from a schoolhouse in Iowa, to his work in Mexico, South Asia, and Africa.

Norm knew a thing or two about navigating the seasons. As many of you know, one of his most important innovations was called “shuttle breeding”— a system of planting seeds in two fields annually, during different seasons, and “shuttling” them back and forth.

Every summer, Norm’s team planted seeds in the village of Chapingo in the central highlands of Mexico. Then, every fall, they would immediately shuttle the most promising seeds from that harvest north to the Sonora desert and plant them in Yaqui Valley, to be harvested the next spring. Norm had his whole team racing 700 miles across Mexico twice a year, just to make sure the seeds were planted by winter. They crossed mountains and forded rivers. They analyzed their data by moonlight and wrote reports on weekends. Then, they did it again. And they did it again, and again, for years.

During one of these odysseys, Norm received a terse memo from the Rockefeller Foundation. “Expense reports three months overdue,” it read. “Please submit immediately.” He sent back a quick reply: “Do you want wheat or do you want paper?” Fortunately for the world, my predecessors chose wheat. And Norm’s wheat went on to save more than one billion lives.

Despite his accomplishments, Norm never sought out the spotlight.  Even when he learned he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize he was reluctant to leave his field work for the trip to Oslo. That’s because, to Norm, it was always about the work. When he founded the World Food Prize in 1986, it wasn’t for the sake of his own legacy, but to honor and inspire future generations of researchers, innovators, and practitioners to take up the goal of eradicating hunger. Norm fought for this goal to his last breath, which he used to utter one final charge: “Take it to the farmer.”

I’m proud to say that for a century, the Rockefeller Foundation has been doing precisely that—bringing the benefits of science and innovation to farmers across the world. In 1925—decades before Norm’s “Green Revolution”—a Rockefeller-funded botanist named Homer LeRoy Shantz studied African agriculture and farming techniques across the continent. Shantz was extremely impressed by the farmers he saw: they knew the local land better than anyone. And though they used different tools and techniques, they needed the same thing American farmers needed: “a greater knowledge of natural science.”

That philosophy—of pairing local expertise with scientific knowledge—has guided our approach for the past century, as we sought newer and more innovative ways to maximize productivity for farmers. That’s why Rockefeller supported Norm’s original work in Mexico and brought it to South Asia. And now, we’re continuing that focus in Africa. As the world’s population continues to grow, we’ll need new—and larger—breadbaskets to feed ourselves. And Africa represents an enormous opportunity in the fight to increase global food production.

A decade ago, we joined with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch AGRA—the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa—to catalyze an agricultural revolution across the continent.  Over the past ten years, we’ve partnered with farmers’ organizations and scientists; and dozens of donors, governments, NGOs, and private sector companies to make that revolution a reality. And these efforts have borne fruit—literally and figuratively.

AGRA has trained and financed a new generation of scientific leaders, with 600 new PhDs and MScs across the continent.  It has helped to develop hundreds of new seeds, and thousands of new agro-dealers—mostly mom and pop shops that distribute directly to farmers. To celebrate AGRA’s tenth anniversary—and build on its success over the last decade— we are renewing our investment and reaffirming our century-old commitment to strengthening agricultural systems through innovation. And others, including so many here, have joined in that effort.

But while our collective goals and commitment remain the same, Rockefeller’s approach is also responding to new realities of the 21st century. I want to highlight two, in particular. First, we are matching our efforts to increase production with a push to reduce loss and waste. There’s a Borlaug quote I love that you might have seen inscribed on the entrance of this building as you walked in today.

“Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.”

If food is a moral right, then food loss and waste are a moral outrage. One-third of all food worldwide is lost due to inefficient harvesting, storage, and processing. In sub-Saharan Africa, up to half of certain crops never make it from farm to table.  Meanwhile, here in the US, one-third of food produced for human consumption ends up rotting in landfills. This is not just a matter of morality or even of food security. It has far-reaching consequences for our health, safety, and prosperity—and that of our environment.

Twenty-five percent of all freshwater, and 20 percent of all farmland, is wasted on food that never gets eaten. And food loss and waste are responsible for a full eight percent of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why, when global leaders came together a year ago at the UN General Assembly to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, they recognized the urgency of this issue and set a goal to halve waste and reduce loss around the globe.

And it’s why, earlier this year, the Rockefeller Foundation launched YieldWise, committing several hundred million dollars to cut food loss and waste in half across the value chain, and help governments achieve their ambitious 2030 goals. Through this initiative, we are helping smallholder farmers in Africa adopt affordable technologies to reduce post-harvest loss, and connecting them with local and global businesses to streamline the process of getting their goods to market.

For example, consider mango farming. Without the right handling, processing, and storage techniques, many smallholder farmers are hard-pressed to get their fruit to market before they rot.  So our grantees are working with these farmers to provide new low cost storage technologies and to connect them more effectively with local and multinational mango buyers to create guaranteed markets for their crops.

Reducing food loss and waste is one critical key to feeding the world’s growing billions. The second key is building resilience. Globalization and climate change are bringing with them short-term shocks and long-term stresses that can destabilize our communities and erase our hard-fought gains. These tectonic changes have affected all of us, no matter where we live. But none have been harder hit than smallholder farmers. Droughts and floods have decimated herds and harvests. Disease and civil strife have left thousands of farmers one bad season away from starvation.

Resilience is the ability to weather these storms more effectively—to evolve and even thrive in their wake.  It fortifies us in times of crisis, and pays dividends in times of calm. The Rockefeller Foundation has invested hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade to help people and institutions become more resilient to the shocks and stresses of the 21st century.

In Makueni County, Kenya, a 67-year old man named Dickson Ndaka experienced the impact of resilience-building firsthand.  Like most farmers in Kenya, Dickson scraped out a living growing maize. But maize requires more water than many other crops, and Makueni County was in the middle of a drought. With help from Farm Concern International—an AGRA and Rockefeller grantee—Dickson switched from maize to cassava— one of the few crops that can grow in areas with poor soil and irregular rainfall. Not only is he now better prepared for drought, but today, Dickson has a much more reliable income and is using his earnings to invest in his children’s education. He is gaining the resilience dividend.

Building resilience means that farmers won’t have to worry that a single crisis—a drought or a flood—might destroy their livelihoods. It’s that very principle that underpins the work of today’s Borlaug Award recipient, Dr. Andrew Mude of Kenya. A few decades ago, crop or livestock insurance was a concept most East African pastoralists had never heard of. And with good reason: there was no such thing. For insurance companies, it simply didn’t make financial sense to send a claims adjuster trekking through rural Kenya every time maize withered or a goat died in a drought.

All that changed when Dr. Mude introduced “Index-Based Livestock Insurance,” a system that uses satellite images from the NOAA and NASA to monitor grazing conditions.  When the data show damage from a drought or flood, it triggers an automatic payment to the herder. No paperwork, no claim, no adjusters—just payments.

The 11,800 insurance contracts that have been sold so far represent $5.35 million in insured livestock. The governments of Kenya and Ethiopia are already piloting national versions of Dr. Mude’s program, and the World Food Prize estimates there are over 50 million pastoralists across Africa who will benefit from Dr. Mude’s insurance system. And research has shown that when African farmers are insured, they invest more in their own fields and farms, and expand their production, simply because they have greater security. Again, that’s the resilience dividend.

At The Rockefeller Foundation, we’ve long believed that innovations come from bringing together diverse areas of expertise: sharing knowledge and ideas across disciplines and borders to meet the world’s greatest challenges. Dr. Mude isn’t an agronomist or a farmer—he’s an economist with a Ph.D. from Cornell. So it’s fitting that when faced with an agricultural problem, he found an economic solution.

And I like to think that Dr. Mude’s exciting work, bringing his economic expertise to bear on some of the world’s toughest agricultural problems, is what Norm had in mind with his final imperative: to “take it to the farmer.” Norman Borlaug cared about the farmers and about the countless millions of people who don’t have access to enough food. There’s no question that Norm’s empathy is what fueled his work—what compelled him to trek 700 miles across a country, season after season, in search of better wheat.

But the Green Revolution came about not only because of what Norm cared about, but also because of what he didn’t care about. He didn’t care about the politics of agriculture, only about improving it.  He didn’t care about the religious differences between India and Pakistan, only about feeding them both. And, as my predecessors learned, he didn’t care about paper—only wheat.

In the half-century since the Green Revolution, Norm’s wheat has become the daily bread of more than one billion people. Some of them were Hindus; others were Muslims. Some lived in the riverbeds of the Indus Valley; others made their homes in the highlands of Mexico.

Tonight we celebrate the work of Dr. Andrew Mude— a man who, like Norm, has learned to see beyond national, geographic, and cultural divides. A Kenyan-born economist, educated in Pennsylvania and upstate New York, whose work will help 50 million pastoralists across the African continent safeguard their herds.

Thank you, Dr. Mude—for your dedication to making food not just a right, but a guarantee for “all who are born into this world.” And thank you to all those gathered here, for caring about the things that matter most—for choosing wheat over paper; for protecting food amidst famine; for bringing hope in the face of hunger.