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Food Security is a Global Challenge

Thank you for the kind words and warm welcome.

I am honoured to have been invited to mark the opening of the Centre on Food Security and the Environment.

The challenges you are focussing on could hardly be more important. Nor could your timing better underline their urgency.

Only last week the UN marked the world’s population reaching seven billion. And it was just 13 years earlier, in Sarajevo, where the world celebrated the birth of the six billionth child.

This growth has been driven by great advances in healthcare, higher levels of prosperity, and longer life expectancy.

But these achievements are marred by the knowledge that our successes go hand in hand with a shameful failure.

For almost one in seven people on our planet will today not have enough to eat.

Addressing this failure, urgent as it is, will be made much harder by climate change.

For rising temperatures and more frequent severe weather will have a disastrous impact on the availability and productivity of agricultural land.  Indeed they already are.

It is these two inter-linked global challenges- food security in an era of climate change, and their impact on our ambitions for a fairer and more secure world that I want to talk about today.

I will focus in particular on the challenges and opportunities that currently exist in Africa.

Ladies and gentlemen, we live at a time of great contrasts.

New technologies and the benefits of globalisation have created greater prosperity and more opportunity than ever before.

But this progress has not been shared evenly.

Hundreds of millions of our fellow citizens continue to live in poverty, and without dignity.

At the heart of this global inequality lies food and nutrition insecurity.

The lack of food security for almost one billion people is an unconscionable moral failing.

But it is also a major brake on overall socio-economic development.

It affects everything from the health of an unborn child to economic growth.

But despite the increase in our knowledge and capabilities, instead of seeing a reduction in the number of people going hungry, we are seeing an increase.

According to the World Bank, rapidly rising food prices during 2010 and 2011 pushed an additional 70 million people into extreme poverty.

We also know that we will have to find food to feed many more mouths in the coming decades.

Recent projections warn that the number of people may not stabilize at nine billion, as was forecast only two years ago, but could surpass 10 billion by the end of the century.

At the same time, greater prosperity in developing countries will see three billion people moving up the food chain with a growing appetite for meat and dairy products.

So grain, once used to feed people, is increasingly being switched to feed animals.

And rising oil prices have brought greater competition from heavily subsidized agro or bio fuels.

These factors alone could lead to demand for food increasing by 70 per cent by 2050.

This would be a tough enough challenge. But it is only half of a dangerous equation.

For we are facing new constraints on food production of which the most severe is climate change.

Climate change is an all-encompassing threat to our health, security, and stability.

It will have a major impact on fresh water resources and the productivity of the land.

Some experts warn that we may still be badly under-estimating the damaging long-term impact of climate change on food supply.

What is certain is that rising temperatures and changes to rainfall patterns are already affecting crop yields negatively.

This is a terrible legacy to leave our children. Yet so far, our generation of leaders – including those here in the United States – have failed to find the vision or courage to tackle it.

This is despite the last 12 months seeing record-setting floods and snowstorms, prolonged drought, and devastating wildfires here in the United States.

Worldwide, 20 countries in 2010 experienced new record-high temperatures; a heat wave in Russia proved the deadliest in human history; and the current flooding in Thailand highlights that the threat of extreme weather events driven by man-made climate change is growing.

Yet those arguing, here and elsewhere, for urgent action and a focus on opportunities to green our economies, still find themselves drowned out by those with short-term and vested interests.

This lack of long-term collective vision and leadership is inexcusable. It has global repercussions, and it will be those least responsible for climate change- the poorest and most vulnerable, that will pay the highest price.

Populations in developing regions which are heavily reliant on rain water for crops will immediately feel the impact of rising temperatures and water shortages.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, crop yields from rain-fed farmlands are forecast to fall as much as 50% by the end of this century, while 8% of fertile land is expected to be transformed into dustbowls, useless for cultivation or grazing.

These damaging changes are taking place in a continent where agriculture has already suffered badly from sustained lack of investments.

A lack of investment in research, human resource development and infrastructure means that cereal yields are a quarter of the world’s average, and have barely increased in 30 years.

As a result, Africa – the continent where the biggest future growth in population is projected – is already failing to produce enough food to feed its own peoples.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the deeply worrying backdrop against which the work of this Centre will begin.

It is why no challenge is in greater need of the innovation and intellectual rigour for which this university is internationally renowned.

But there are also signs of hope and opportunities to be seized.

First – and almost counter-intuitively – the rise in food prices may help us find solutions, provided we can find mechanisms to protect the vulnerable and prevent price volatility.

It is not so much the rise in food prices as the speed of the increases which has caused so much hardship.

The price of food has, in fact, fallen in real terms for much of the last three decades.

While this has been good for every consumer, particularly those in the developed world, it has damaged many rural communities and the long-term global supply of food.

If prices are artificially low, farmers are denied a fair return as well as the incentive and means to increase food production.

In contrast, more stable higher prices can encourage investment, stimulate production, and hold down prices in the future.

We urgently need to find ways of dampening extreme volatility in food prices, particularly the excessive speculation in agricultural commodities which causes it.

Maintaining and managing adequate food stocks is, I believe, crucial to managing price fluctuations.

Second, by applying known tools, techniques and support, Africa and its smallholder farmers can make a major contribution to global food security.

It may now be the only continent which can not feed its own people.

But it also contains some 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land.

Even without bringing more land into cultivation, boosting cereal yields to just half the world’s average would turn Africa into a major food surplus region.

So our ability to achieve global food security will rely in no small part on our success in supporting a uniquely African Green Revolution.

What are the elements which will make up this transformation in productivity?

It must be a revolution which draws from the lessons, positive and negative, of what has happened elsewhere including in Asia.

It must also be ‘climate smart’ so the productivity of land, and intensity of farming can be increased, while the negative environmental impacts are diminished.

I hope this is an area where the Centre on Food Security and the Environment can make a major contribution to finding solutions.

They must be solutions which draw from the knowledge of local communities and can be put into practice by small-holder farmers.

Four out of five Africans, many of them women and almost all working on farms of two hectares or less, depend on agriculture to provide for their families.

Even now, small holder farmers continue to produce the majority of Africa’s food.

They must be at the heart of the agricultural revolution we need to see.

This is the approach that informs the work of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa or AGRA – the organisation which I have the honour of chairing.

It is early days yet. But our focus on smallholder farmers, staple crops and key breadbasket areas is helping fight hunger.

It is also supporting farmers to adapt to the challenges of climate change.

In Tanzania, for example, the farmers in the southern highlands now plant early-maturing maize to escape the damage caused by an increasingly short and unreliable rainy season.

In West Africa, over 300,000 farmers are using micro-dosing techniques to boost sorghum yields with only one-third of the recommended fertilizer.

Our programmes are contributing to climate change resilience. But none of us must kid ourselves.
Without action at the global level to address climate change we will see farmers across Africa – and in many other parts of the world including here in America – forced to leave their land.

The result will be mass migration, growing food shortages, loss of social cohesion, and even political instability.

So we must hope that the Climate talks in Durban next month move us towards a universal and fair framework to tackle climate change.

We need concerted action to reduce global emissions and protect citizens and countries against the impact of climate change.

Key to such an agreement, of course, will be recapturing the sense of common purpose based on shared values – something we seem to have lost in recent years.
This is also necessary to drive the increased co-operation needed to deliver food and nutrition security.

We have to find the courage to redress the unacceptable inequality in the governance of agricultural policies and unfair trade rules.

We have to find the commitment required to reverse, even in these tough financial times, the short-sighted cuts in development assistance.

This has fallen, according to Oxfam, by 70 per cent in real terms over the last two decades.

The amount given now is equivalent to around one dollar for every 80 richer countries spent on supporting their own farmers – often at the expense of those in the developing world.

It is re-assuring that both national governments and international organisations understand this trend has to be reversed.

The US ‘Feed the Future’ initiative is a welcome example of the sort of initiative needed.

It demonstrates an understanding that feeding those most in need is not simply a moral imperative, but a necessary means to global growth, prosperity and international stability.

We need to make sure that all these promises of extra support from richer countries are kept and involve additional funds rather than the repackaging of existing financial commitments.

There is a pressing need for these funds to be invested in research and development – something that is at the heart of this Centre’s work.

Despite improvements in the productivity and efficiency of the global food system brought about by agricultural research, nowhere near enough resources are dedicated to the agricultural challenges of the developing world.

New crops and techniques are critical to boosting harvests and ensuring land stays productive despite climate change.

We need a much greater focus from institutions, such as this Centre, on working with your African counterparts.

Indeed, it is partnerships which hold out the greatest hope of finding solutions to the challenges we face and rolling them out to the farmers in the fields.

Through our work with AGRA, I have been able to see for myself just what effective partnerships and networks can achieve.

We are co-operating closely with governments, UN agencies, financial institutions, foundations, and members of the private sector to develop Africa’s breadbaskets and support smallholder farmers.

In collaboration with national and international research systems, for example, we are providing better seeds for farmers.

With the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, we are working to double Africa’s rice production by 2018.

And together with local commercial banks, AGRA and its partners have already mobilized significant amounts in affordable loans through credit guarantees.

But there is much, much more to be done.

Reshaping the global agricultural system in ways that alleviate hunger, end poverty, and promote sustainable development, requires us to work together more effectively.

The survival of one billion people – the weakest and most vulnerable on the planet – depends upon us finding answers to hunger now.

The future of nine billion plus people depends on us putting in place the right policies and systems to deliver food security in an environmentally sustainable manner within a few decades.

And the fate of our global community, our hopes for a just and peaceful world in which we work together to achieve shared goals, depends on us finding the courage to work for the benefit of all.

With the inauguration of this Centre you have placed yourselves at the forefront of these efforts.

With this facility, and the creative thinkers and inquisitive minds for which Stanford is famous, you are well equipped to undertake research which advances our knowledge, and helps to shape our response to the many global challenges we face.

And with the resources at your disposal, you also have the capacity to actively engage to influence policy, implement solutions, and make a tangible and significant contribution to the lives of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

So I wish you courage and vision, and above all, success, in all your future endeavours.

Africans must be at the heart of the agricultural revolution we need to see