Why Adesina’s Election is Important for Agriculture

By Marshall L. Matz, as published in Agri-Pulse

In a surprise upset, Dr. Akinwumi (Akin) Adesina was elected to be the next President of the African Development Bank (ADB), defeating seven rivals in six rounds of voting.  Adesina holds a PhD in agriculture economics from Purdue and has been serving as the Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria since 2011.

Adesina is the first agriculture economist to become President of the ADB.  He is a dynamic leader with a passion for rural development (and bow-ties).  According to The Guardian, under his leadership in Nigeria, “food production increased by 22 million tons and food imports dropped more than a third,” creating some three million jobs.

The ADB is one of Africa’s largest lending institutions, making Adesina one of the continent’s most prominent financial leaders. Africa now has six of the world’s fastest growing economies and, as agriculture becomes more efficient, the economy will grow even faster. Over 65% of the population farms or is engaged in agriculture. However, yields are so low that feeding a family takes 70% the its disposable income and Africa must spend $35 billion to import food.

Adesina’s goal is to make Africa globally competitive.  Upon his election he said, “A big thing for us in Africa is to create an inclusive model with jobs for Africa’s youth, jobs for Africa’s women, revive Africa’s rural areas and have regional integration for shared prosperity.” He also noted that “there is no developing Africa without empowering women.”

The challenge Adesina faces will not be easy.  Political stability varies widely in Africa’s 54 sovereign nations as does infrastructure, education and health care, but things are clearly changing and changing fast.

Adesina will have some important allies to work with in his new capacity:

  • The Chairperson of the African Union, Dr. Nikosazana Diamini- Zuma, is asking all African countries to invest at least 10% of their respective national budgets in agriculture.  The program, called the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP), is having an impact.
  • Dr. Agnes Kalibata, the new President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) holds a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts in entomology.  She was the Minister of Agriculture in Rwanda and was widely considered to be one of the most successful agriculture ministers in sub-Saharan Africa.  At AGRA, Dr. Kalibata is working with African experts in some 18 counties to fulfill the vision of food self-sufficiency.
  • Strive Masiyiwa, the Chairman and CEO of Econet Wireless, is the “Bill Gates of Africa” according to Forbes, but is focusing the attention of Africa’s private sector on agriculture through his work with AGRA and Grow Africa.
  • Former Secretary General Kofi Annan, Chairman Emeritus of AGRA,  says “it’s time to turn hoes into tractors,” and is committed to helping through the Kofi Annan Foundation.

These African leaders are working closely with the G-7, G-20 and key leaders closer to home here in the United States. Those leaders include: Gayle Smith, who is an Assistant to President Barack Obama and Senior Director at the National Security Council. In that capacity, Smith is responsible for global development and helped to craft the Camp David Accords creating a commitment to African agriculture.

During the Clinton Administration, Smith was Senior Director for African Affairs at the National Security Council.  President Obama has now nominated Smith to be the next Director of the Agency for International Development (AID). Smith is well-qualified for the AID position and hopefully, the U.S. Senate will quickly confirm her nomination.

While there are many others committed to growing Africa out of poverty, in the U.S., special recognition must also go to Pamela Anderson at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Judith Rodin at the Rockefeller Foundation.

All of these people are coming together for Africa. The Renaissance is underway and the election of Dr. Akin Adesina is the latest very important development. According to Dr. Adesina, “The kind of Africa we need today is an Africa where the young people want to stay, not a place they want to move away from…and an Africa we can all be proud to call home.”

As Adesina knows, agriculture development must be at the center of the African Renaissance. As modern seeds and inputs, along with education, reache the stallholder farmers, production and profitability will improve. That will drive the African economy to new levels of success and, in the process, move Africa and the world toward food security.

The African Development Bank made an inspired choice.

Marshall Matz specializes in agriculture and food security at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.  He also serves as the DC representative for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

Mike’s Legacy

By Marshall L. Matz, as published in Agri-Pulse

Michael B. Jandreau, the visionary leader of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota for almost 40 years, passed away last month at the age of 71.  Known to all as “Mike” he believed that Indian Tribes had to establish a private sector economy on the Reservations if they were to participate in the American dream. The historic treaties of the 1800’s between Tribes and the United States, while still very important, were not enough to prepare Indian people for the 21st century.  For rural Tribes, that means a focus on agriculture.

Jandreau testified before Congress and the South Dakota Legislature many times in support of Tribal sovereignty but he also believed that the treaties were not a business plan. The Tribes needed to develop a private sector economy to benefit all Tribal members.   In 2004, he made history as a Tribal Chairman by telling the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs: “Sovereignty is the key to tribal existence.  But, in the long run, for sovereignty to survive, there must be economic sovereignty as well.  We must develop a private sector economy.”

Jandreau again emphasized the importance of the private sector when he addressed the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs a few years later: “It is painful to read The World is Flat and to read that the United States is outsourcing jobs to China and India when many Indian Reservations have an unemployment rate over 80% and a third world standard of living.”

Tribes located in the Missouri River Valley may face the most difficult challenge of all Reservations given their remote locations.  The unemployment rates on rural Reservations, along with social indicators like infant mortality, diabetes, and suicide rates, are closer to those of the third world than those of the United States.  Tribal members face the Hobson’s choice of leaving their families and culture or staying on the Reservation and a life with less potential than other Americans.  Only a private sector economy can solve these problems and agriculture has the best potential in these rural areas.

USDA photo by Ken Hammond.

USDA photo by Ken Hammond.

Mike foresaw the reservation’s agriculture potential not only in growing larger volumes of agricultural commodities on Tribal and Reservation lands, but also in adding value to those commodities on the Reservation itself.  Processing the commodities created good jobs for Tribal members and pride in what was produced in the name of the Tribe.

Under Jandreau’s leadership, Lower Brule established a successful Farm Corporation and one of the most diverse and innovative economies of any Reservation in the Nation. The Lower Brule Farm Corporation grows edible beans, has a commercial buffalo herd and is the largest producer of popcorn in the country.  The farm has expanded to some 40,000 acres with 10,000 acres under irrigation. They sell popcorn nationwide to the major brands and also market under their own brand name “Lakota Foods.”

As important as agriculture is to Lower Brule, Mike also understood that agriculture alone could not raise the standard of living for Tribal members to parity with surrounding non-Indian communities. He shrewdly recognized that the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 empowered tribes to team up with the private sector to develop off-reservation businesses that could supplement on-reservation services.  It took a full decade and trips to the Supreme Court to bring land into trust near the Reservation on Interstate 90 in South Dakota that can be developed into Tribal businesses.

Jandreau successfully urged the Congress to enact the Lower Brule Infrastructure Development Trust Fund Act, the Wildlife Habitat Restoration Act and the Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place, among other pieces of legislation.  Wakpa Sica seeks to help all Tribes of the Great Sioux Nation by providing support for Tribal Courts in order to attract investment to the Reservations.

His unfulfilled dream was an Indian Agriculture Act (IAA). Upon his motion, the National Congress of American Indians passed a resolution urging the United States Congress to “make the Indian Agriculture Act a title in the 2012 Farm Bill.”

While pieces of an IAA were included in the last Farm Bill, Jandreau always looked to the future. Rural, agriculture-based Tribes need extension services, loan guarantees, irrigation, infrastructure, and better internet, among other things, to underpin a farm economy.  South Dakota State University and Mike were working together to improve extension services on all South Dakota Reservations.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been very responsive to Tribes, but to solve a challenge of this magnitude, it will take a Presidential initiative that brings together all Departments of Government.  The White House Rural Council has established a focus on Tribes for this exact reason.

Jandreau proposed paying for increased services by using a portion of the revenue from the sale of electricity generated by the dams along the Missouri.  His thinking was that the water belonged to Indians (under the Winters Doctrine), the dams flooded Tribal land and, therefore, the revenue should be shared with the Tribes.  The Western Area Power Administration, WAPA, earns a billion dollars a year from the sale of electricity.  The revenue is not shared with the Tribes and, in fact, the Tribes have to pay for electricity.

Mike received many awards and commendations over his life but his true legacy lies not in the past but in his vision for the future: A comprehensive Indian Agriculture Act, completing the Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place, attracting private capital to the Reservations, and distributing the Keepseagle vs. USDA litigation funds to the farmers who were damaged.  As Mike noted in closing his testimony to Congress, “The Reservations are a part of the United States, but we are not a part of the U.S. economy.”

Marshall Matz started his career with South Dakota Legal Services on the Crow Creek Reservation before moving to the Senate Committee on Agriculture.  He currently specializes in agriculture at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.

The Vilsapp: Secretary Vilsack’s High Tech Solution to Labeling

By Marshall L. Matz, as published in Agri-Pulse

The March edition of the National Geographic Magazine, in its cover story entitled “The War on Science,” notes that “there’s no evidence that GMO’s are harmful to human health.” A recent Pew poll found that 90% of all scientists believe GMO’s are safe but only 37% of the public agrees. In short, the public is skeptical and is seeking more information about foods made with genetic engineering. We live in an era of transparency, open data and the world-wide web. It is difficult to deny consumers the right to know what is in their food. And given the safety of genetic engineering, there is no reason to block that information.

The question on the table is how to do this in a nationally-uniform, unbiased manner? To allow each of fifty states to have its own labeling scheme would be confusing, very expensive, bad public policy and, in my opinion, unconstitutional. It would be as crazy as having fifty different Dietary Guidelines or fifty different Nutrition Facts panels on the foods we buy.

Secretary VilsackAgriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has a better idea: a smartphone application that can scan a bar code on the food package and tell the consumer what is in the product. He took his idea to Congress last month. His idea is a very modern and clever solution to address the desire for more information about the foods we consume.

There is only so much room on the food label. So, Secretary Vilsack is suggesting a symbol on the food label that connects to a database that can tell those consumers who want such information whether there is an ingredient in the food produced with genetic engineering. According to a recent edition of the Economist, “about half of the adult population owns a smartphone; by 2020, 80% will. Smartphones have also penetrated every aspect of daily life.” For those without smartphones, there could be in-store computers or scanners.

Dr. Cathy Enright, VP for Agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), posted a blog last month that said:

“I also support a right-to-know. In 21st century America, consumers are increasingly asking questions about how their food is grown and made. We all need to be working together to provide that information, in a way that doesn’t misinform consumers. Have you seen USDA Secretary Vilsack’s idea….using a bar code or other code on a food package or sticker?”

Last year, Cardinal Peter Turkson, speaking on behalf of the Vatican, said we must use biotechnology to feed the world’s expanding population, but also supported the idea of transparency to provide information to consumers who desire such information. The Vatican seems to be in agreement with the Secretary and those who believe in both the safety of genetic engineering and the moral imperative of using science to feed the hungry, but also the consumers’ right to know.

Nutrition FactsUSDA and HHS will issue a new edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans later this year. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and the FDA are seeking to put more information on the actual food label. It is time to use technology to expand the physical size of the label.

Every industry seems to be using technology to the maximum possible extent. The food industry should follow suit. There are questions that would still have to be resolved as with any app: who would maintain the data base? What would be the definition of genetic modification and would there be some threshold that triggers the GE designation? What happens with foods that used a GE ingredient where it was then processed out of the product and there is no trace in the final food?

These are all challenging questions that would have to be resolved. But this much is clear, there must be federal preemption of state labeling schemes and a uniform national system established. To date, the labeling campaign has been pushed as an attack on genetic engineering as a part of the larger war on science. Information should be provided, not as a scare tactic and warning, but just as factual information for those who care.

Perhaps there is a better idea than the Vilsack App, but this idea sure deserves serious attention. On March 5th, at the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing to review the FDA budget, Dr. Hamburg reiterated that FDA does not see mandatory labeling as appropriate if there’s not a significant change to the product. If the process changes the nature of the product, then it would have to be labeled. She also said FDA supports individual companies that want to voluntarily label products and plans to issue a guidance to guide them in the near future. Dr. Hamburg should include the Vilsapp as a way of providing consumer information and include it in the guidance that FDA issues.

The Wall Street Journal recently published a guide to some of the terms being used on supermarket egg cartons. They include Organic, Cage-Free, Free-Range, All Natural, Pasture Raised, and Vegetarian Fed and Omega-3. The Vilsapp could help the confused consumer better understand these terms as well.

In short, the Vilsapp is a creative idea that could provide the transparency deemed important by consumers and also preempt the need for state legislation. The need for state preemption is paramount and was emphasized by all of the witnesses at the House Agriculture Hearing on March 24th.

Dr. Nina Fedoroff, the Senior Science Advisor at OFW Law, concluded her testimony with the following: “We will need to produce more crops per drop of water and square meter of land” in order to feed 9 to 10 billion of people. Genetic modification is not a magic bullet but is safe and an important part of the arsenal needed to defeat food insecurity.

A patch quilt of different state labeling schemes would be a barrier to global food security. Transparency and full disclosure is reasonable but it must be done with a national system that is based on sound science and provides objective information.

Mr. Collin Peterson, the Ranking Member, summed it up best: “When it comes to labeling, we need to be able to find a smart way to balance the consumer demand with what we know about the safety of the foods that our farmers produce.” Sounds like a Vilsapp.

Marshall Matz, formerly Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, specializes in agriculture and nutrition at OFW Law.

Trade is Critical to Rural America; Agriculture is Key to TPA

By Marshall L. Matz and former USDA Secretary John R. Block

Trade policy may present an opportunity for the Obama Administration and the Congress to work together in a bipartisan manner but it is sure not unanimous.   While Agriculture Secretary Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative’s Chief Agriculture Negotiator Darci Vetter are making the case for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), Senator Ron Wyden, the Senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, is arguing for more negotiating transparency to be required by TPA before signing on.  In addition, while there is very strong support for TPA in the agriculture community, it is not unanimous.

TPA is a critical tool in the effort to complete the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and down the road the European Union Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations.  These trade agreements support U.S. jobs while helping American agriculture compete more successfully in the global marketplace. TPA will help ensure that America’s farmers, ranchers, and food processors receive the greatest benefit from the TPP, TTIP, and future trade negotiations.

These agreements could have an important economic impact on specific commodities and American agriculture more generally.  Secretary Tom Vilsack recently spoke out on the importance of trade to agriculture:

“It is no surprise that agricultural producers are joining the chorus of voices calling on Congress to renew Trade Promotion Authority. The past six years were the strongest period for agricultural exports in the history of our nation, despite the fact that many other countries’ markets are not as open to American products as our markets are to theirs. New trade agreements that help level the playing field for agriculture will build on the success we’ve seen in the agricultural economy since 2009 and help producers create more new jobs across the country. What makes the agricultural economy stronger makes our entire nation’s economy stronger. It is imperative that Congress act on Trade Promotion Authority early this year.”

Fiscal years 2009 to 2014 represented the strongest six years in history for U.S. agricultural trade, with U.S. agricultural product exports totaling $771.7 billion. Agricultural exports last fiscal year reached $152.5 billion, the highest level on record and supported nearly one million jobs here at home, a substantial part of the nearly 11.3 million jobs supported by exports all across our country.

USTR’s Office of Agricultural Affairs has overall responsibility for U.S. government trade negotiations and policy development and coordination regarding agriculture.  Darci Vetter and other USTR officials, works closely with relevant U.S. government agencies, particularly USDA, as appropriate.

In a recent letter to Congress a broad range of groups outlined the benefits of trade as follows:

“As a result of trade agreements implemented since 1989, when the U.S. began using bilateral and regional trade agreements to open foreign markets to our goods, U.S. agricultural exports have nearly quadrupled in value and now stand at a record $152.5 billion (fiscal 2014).  During that period, earnings from U.S. agricultural exports as a share of cash receipts to farmers have grown from 22 percent to over 35 percent.

“These farm and food exports have a positive multiplier effect throughout the U.S. economy.  Every $1 in U.S. farm exports is estimated to stimulate an additional $1.27 in business activity.  Off-farm activities and services include purchases by farmers of fuel, fertilizer, seed and other inputs as well as post-production processing, packaging, storing, transporting and marketing the products we ship overseas.  Exports of $152.5 billion in fiscal 2014 therefore generated another $194 billion in economic activity in the U.S., bringing the total benefit to the economy to $347 billion.”

The chart below shows the percentage of production that was exported, by commodity, in the most recent year for which there are numbers:

Commodity Percent
Wheat 50%
Corn 11%
Soybeans 62%
Beef 14%
Pork 26.5%
Diary 15.4%

In short:

1. Exports are critical to the agriculture economy; and

2. Agriculture’s political power may be the key to passage of TPA and the trade agreements being negotiated.

While only one percent (1%) of all Americans farm and the conventional wisdom is that agriculture has lost power, production agriculture still has an important role to play in making the case for expanded trade and TPA, as the farm economy has a major impact on all those who live in rural America.  From farm implement dealers to car dealers to rural bankers and the local coffee shops, what is good for farmers is good for rural America.

TPA gives us an opportunity to put economics before politics.  The farm groups who have signed the TPA letter to Congress are well positioned to make the case for expanded trade with both Democrats and Republicans bridging the urban-rural divide in America.

Marshall Matz specializes in agriculture policy at OFW Law.  He was formerly (Democratic) Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.  John R. Block was Secretary of Agriculture under President Reagan.

The NAS is Examining GE Crops

By Marshall Matz and Dr. Nina Fedoroff, as published in Agri-Pulse

The new study on genetically engineered (GE) crops now being conducted by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, deserves your attention. It has the potential to impact the agriculture economy, food prices and global food security.

The NAS is committed to sound science and has been a consistent supporter of GE technology. Its 2010 report on GE technology stated: “To date, crops with traits that provide resistance to some herbicides and to specific insect pests have benefited adopting farmers by reducing crop losses to insect damage, by increasing flexibility in time management, and by facilitating the use of more environmentally friendly pesticides and tillage practices.”

While President Obama has spoken clearly on the importance of biotechnology and GE, the public, many in Congress and in the State Houses are once again questioning the safety, acceptability and necessity of GE crops. Hence, the opinion of the NAS is very important.

There have been several open meetings to date, the most recent having taken place January 15-16. The public meetings are webcast live and recorded versions are accessible here. The next meeting in March will examine food safety.

The study’s objectives:

“Examine the history of the development and introduction of GE crops in the United States and internationally, including GE crops that were not commercialized, and the experiences of developers and producers of GE crops in different countries.

“Assess the evidence for purported negative effects of GE crops and their accompanying technologies, such as poor yields, deleterious effects on human and animal health, increased use of pesticides and herbicides, the creation of “super-weeds,” reduced genetic diversity, fewer seed choices for producers, and negative impacts on farmers in developing countries and on producers of non-GE crops, and others, as appropriate.

“Assess the evidence for purported benefits of GE crops and their accompanying technologies, such as reductions in pesticide use, reduced soil loss and better water quality through synergy with no-till cultivation practices, reduced crop loss from pests and weeds, increased flexibility and time for producers, reduced spoilage and mycotoxin contamination, better nutritional value potential, improved resistance to drought and salinity, and others, as appropriate.

“Review the scientific foundation of current environmental and food safety assessments for GE crops and foods and their accompanying technologies, as well as evidence of the need for and potential value of additional tests. As appropriate, the study will examine how such assessments are handled for non-GE crops and foods.”

The study is being conducted by the National Research Council (NRC), the operating arm of the NAS, a private, nonprofit institution chartered by Congress to provide science, technology, and health policy advice to the government. The NAS Act of Incorporation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1863 with 50 charter members. President Lincoln created USDA and the land grant universities the previous year, 1862.

The NAS is not part of the U.S. government. The National Research Council enlists leading scientists, engineers, and other experts to answer scientific and technical issues facing the United States and the world. Members of study committees serve as volunteers and are not paid for their service. As of 2013, the National Academy of Sciences included some 2,200 members.

The NRC website gives the following explanation for the current study: “Consumers in the United States and abroad get conflicting information about GE crops. Proponents tout the benefits while opponents emphasize the risks. There is a need for an independent, objective study that examines what has been learned about GE crops, assesses whether initial concerns and promises were realized since their introduction, and investigates new concerns and recent claims.”

While GE technology is not a magic bullet in the fight for global food security, it is a critical component, along with improved hybrid seeds, modern irrigation, mechanization, crop loss technology, fertilizers and communication devices. Perhaps most important of all are extension services that can deliver these technologies to smallholder farmers.

The NAS study deserves your attention and input. The study has the potential to be quite important in the current debate on GMO’s and the public’s confidence in the integrity of GE technology.

The NAS is accepting comments here.

Click chart to enlarge it.

 

Marshall Matz, formerly Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, specializes in global food security at OFW Law.

Dr. Nina Fedoroff, the former Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State, is the Senior Science Advisor at OFW Law.

Two Obama Nutrition Leaders Move On

By Marshall L. Matz

Dr. Janey Thornton, the USDA Deputy Under-Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, has resigned her post effective at close of business Friday, January 9, 2015.  She will be returning to Kentucky to turn her attention to important family needs.  Also, Sam Kass has left the White House as Executive Director of Let’s Move! and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy.

Over the nearly past six years, these two individuals have demonstrated their commitment to improving the nutrition of our nation’s children by encouraging better nutrition habits, motivating physical activity, and pursuing significant changes in school lunch, school breakfast and all foods served throughout schools.

Debra “Deb” Eschmeyer will replace Kass as the White House Executive Director of Let’s Move! and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy.  Janey’s successor is yet to be named.  But two things are certain: both of these individuals will be vitally important as Congress moves ahead with the reauthorization of child nutrition programs this year, and both will have big shoes to fill.

2015: The Year of Soils

By Marshall L. Matz, as published in Agri-Pulse

The United Nations-Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. The year kicked off on December 5, 2014, with events in Rome, New York and Chile, all in an effort to raise awareness and promote more sustainable use of this critical resource. “Healthy soils are critical for global food production, but we are not paying enough attention to this important silent ally,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva.

The specific FAO objectives for the Year of the Soils are to:

  • Raise the awareness among society and policy makers about the importance of soil for human life;
  • Promote effective policies and actions for sustainable management and protection of soil resources;
  • Promote investment in sustainable soil management; and
  • Encourage soil health information and monitoring at all levels of government.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) joined nations from across the globe to kick off the International Year of Soils in an effort to highlight the importance of soil in everyday life. Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie will address members of the 68th United Nations General Assembly, which designated 2015 for the yearlong celebration.

“We are excited to be working with the United Nations to help raise awareness and promote the importance of conservation of our soil resources,” Bonnie said. “USDA is embracing this unique opportunity to tell the world about the importance of soil conservation and how we’ve worked with private landowners since 1935 to protect and improve this priceless natural resource.”

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service published an interim rule on December 12, 2014, which outlines how it will improve the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), one of USDA’s largest conservation programs. The interim final rule includes program changes authorized by Congress in the 2014 Farm Bill.

Over the last 50 years, the world’s population has increased from 3 billion to 7 billion people, but the amount of arable land has remained constant.  Dr. Andreas Weber, of the Cluster of Excellence on Plant Science, has calculated that the amount of arable land per person is currently .4 acres (40 meters x 40 meters per person).  By the year 2050, there will be between 9-10 billion people on the planet, which means there will be 30 percent less arable land available for food production.

Taking Dr. Weber’s calculation a step further and recognizing that consumption patterns are also changing with increased wealth, more calories will have to be produced per unit of land to feed the planet.  Coupled with the FAO’s estimate that a third of all soils are currently degraded due to erosion, compaction, soil sealing, salinization, nutrient depletion, acidification, pollution and other processes caused by unsustainable land management practices, we have a very serious global food security challenge.

Chart by Dr. Andreas Weber

In short, we need to stop treating soil like dirt. Soil is a living thing; it needs to be respected and cared for in order for soil to be sustainable.

Dr. Bashir Jama is the Director of Soil Health Program at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).  He recently noted that “We have not been caring for soil as we should. As a result, in many parts of the world, including Africa, soil has lost many of its important biological and physical properties. Erosion from wind and rain has meant we have lost valuable top soil, and as we have taken nutrients from the soil to grow our food, we have not replaced them.”

Man owes his existence to a 6-inch layer of topsoil.  Just as a balanced diet is important for our health and wellbeing, we need a balanced, integrated approach for managing our soils.

There is a scientific consensus that we need to double agriculture production by 2050 to meet the challenge of global food security.  Further, it must be done while using fewer resources….less water, fertilizer and inputs.  Simply stated, we cannot begin to meet this challenge without healthy top soil.

As you can see from the chart below, fertilizer use varies widely from country to country. Some countries need improved seeds to reduce the use of other inputs; other countries desperately need greater access to fertilizer, improved seeds, and other inputs.

Access to these inputs must come with effective extension services to teach smallholder farmers how to use the modern tools of agriculture.  It is important to develop agricultural technology, but it is equally important to reach out to smallholder farmers through extension services and educate them on the proper use of inputs.  Quoting Dr. Norman Borlaug, unless we “take it to the farmer,” the development of modern agriculture technology cannot reach its full potential.

During 2015, the FAO, in conjunction with allied nations, will be holding a series of events to further the objectives outlined above, including:

3rd International Conference on Natural Resource Management for Food and Rural Livelihoods

First Global Soil Biodiversity Conference

Third Global Soil Week

Global Soil Security Symposium

Marshall Matz, formerly Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, specializes in global food security at OFW Law.

The Ghost of Thanksgiving Future

By Nina Fedoroff, Ken Cassman and Marshall L. Matz, as published in the Des Moines Register

The Ghost of Christmas Future is the most fearsome character in “The Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens’ beloved Christmas story, giving Scrooge a glimpse of his bleak future. Horrified, Scrooge changes his selfish lifestyle in a heartbeat.

An abundant Thanksgiving 2014 is almost upon us. But like Scrooge, we’ll need a dramatic change in our beliefs if we’re to have a plenitude of healthful food not just for us, but for all of the 9 or so billion expected at the global dinner table on Thanksgiving 2050.

The beliefs and narratives that need rethinking are those around GMOs and organic food.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are crop plants and animals improved by modern molecular techniques, rather than older, often less precise methods. GM crops, such as insect-resistant corn and cotton, have been in commercial production for almost two decades. They are now grown in 27 countries on more than 400 million acres by 18 million farmers, more than 90 percent of whom are resource-poor, small-holder farmers.

GM crops have increased farm income, reduced pesticide use, soil erosion and carbon dioxide emission, and benefited consumers by decreasing fungal toxin contamination of corn.

It’s a fact that neither people nor animals have been harmed by consuming food or feed containing GM ingredients. Even decades ago, we thought that people would be reassured as evidence grew, as it has, that GM crops are safe. But that’s not what happened. Instead, more and more people have come to believe that they are dangerous.

America’s Thanksgiving 2014 will be a plentiful feast. Farmers have gotten very good at coaxing food from the land. Over the second half of the 20th century, the number of people on Earth doubled, yet the amount of food tripled. Mechanization, plant genetics, irrigation and synthetic fertilizers all contributed to the today’s food abundance.

But the notions that organically grown food is more healthful than food produced by conventional methods, and that organic is the only sustainable agriculture, are gaining traction, as is the idea that conventional agriculture and synthetic fertilizers are somehow bad.

So what are the facts? Organically grown food is not more healthful than conventionally grown food. Plants don’t care whether their nitrogen comes from manure or a sack of fertilizer. Organic produce is more expensive because organic farming is less productive than conventional farming. Nor is it sustainable on a global scale. Indeed, if the whole world relied on organic farming, we could feed about half of today’s 7 billion people.

What’s the forecast for Thanksgiving 2050? Although they had little effect on the world’s affluent city-dwellers, food price spikes since 2008 unleashed food riots in many poor countries and brought down governments. Indeed, the Arab spring started with food riots. This means that today’s abundance has a razor-thin margin.

It’s been estimated that to meet the challenge of global food security, the world’s farmers will have to produce more food in the next 50 years than all they’ve produced in the last 10,000 years combined. Can they? There’s deep reason for concern.

Important crops are reaching their yield plateaus in major food-producing countries. Because demand continues to rise, much of the recent increase in food production has come from putting more land under crops. Yet we’re beginning to understand that our planet’s resources are finite and that its biodiversity is precious.

We need instead to slow and stop conversion of natural ecosystems to cropland.

In developing countries, particularly in Africa, farmers can still grow much, much more. Organic farming is what most African farmers do now, and most of them are devastatingly poor. They need good seeds, fertilizer, agri-chemicals, training and information to triple their yields, not organic ideology that seeks to prevent access to modern farming inputs. They also need the entire infrastructure that supports modern food systems and the training to run it.

That’s what will put them on the road out of poverty.

Our belief systems and narratives matter, perhaps more than ever in the age of electronic social media. The organic food industry supplies a mere 4 percent of our food, but amplifies its message by promulgating the myth that organic food is more healthful and environmentally sound.

As well, GMO story-telling and fear-mongering have intensified in recent years, driven by individuals and organizations that profit from persuading people they are dangerous. This is influencing politicians worldwide and impeding the development and introduction of more nutritious, hardy and environmentally friendly GM crops and animals.

Belief systems are notoriously resistant to facts, even mountains of them. And real people don’t change their minds and hearts as fast as characters in stories.

But we urgently need to change our beliefs about food to realize the benefits of investing in advanced, science-based food production systems that can address the difficult challenges of making our agriculture both more sustainable and productive even as our numbers continue to grow.

About the authors: Nina Fedoroff, Ph.D., is a plant biologist and served as science and technology adviser to the Secretary of State from 2007-10. Ken Cassman, Ph.D., is an international agronomist at the University of Nebraska. Marshall Matz was counsel to the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee specializing in nutrition and food security.

Feed the Future: A Bipartisan Opportunity

By Marshall L. Matz, as published in Agri-Pulse

The “Feed the Future” initiative is aimed at improving agriculture productivity and economic development around the world. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the both the House and Senate to make this discretionary program permanent. The legislation (H.R. 5656; S.2909) has the support of private sector corporations as well as non-profit public interest organizations.  To use an old phrase, the initiative teaches people how to fish rather than just distributing fish. It deserves our attention.

For generations, the United States has been a leader in providing agriculture development assistance across the globe to alleviate suffering and build shared progress and prosperity. But global food price spikes and resulting instability in 2007 and 2008 were a wake-up call that more needed to be done.

Feed the Future was borne out of President Obama’s pledge at the 2009 G-8 Summit in L’Aquila to mobilize at least $3.5 billion towards global food security—spurring commitments of $18.5 billion from other donors. But the United States has, in fact, thanks to tremendous bipartisan support, surpassed its goal and committed $5 billion in the fight to end hunger and malnutrition.

In 2010, the Administration launched “Feed the Future” (FTF), an initiative designed to expand and better coordinate the United States’ investments in improving global food security. Feed the Future is a whole-of-government approach from USDA to AID and State. It focuses on the dual objectives of improving farmer productivity, income, and livelihoods in developing countries while fighting hunger with a special focus on women and children in particular.

On September 18, 2014 Chairman Chris Smith with Rep. Betty McCollum in the House introduced the Global Food Security Act of 2014 in the House. In the Senate, the legislation was introduced by Senators Casey and Johanns with Senators Coons, Isakson, Cardin and Boozman.

The Global Food Security Act is based on the premise that global food insecurity impacts not only the economies of developing nations but also the international economy and U.S. national security. The bill recognizes the key role that agriculture development plays in economic growth.

There is broad bipartisan support for sustaining Feed the Future due in large part to tremendous gains made over the past few years—

WORLDWIDE: Last year, Feed the Future helped more than 7 million smallholder farmers’ access new tools and technologies to help them improve yields and boost incomes. Feed the Future also reached 12.5 million children with nutrition interventions.

ZAMBIA: Feed the Future played a key role in the record maize harvest for the 2013/14 cropping season (3.4 million metric tons – a 32 percent increase over the previous year’s total) through policy advocacy and by helping smallholder farmers’ access agricultural inputs such as improved seeds and fertilizers through private sector providers.

ETHIOPIA: Feed the Future and other U.S. Government programs are making progress toward achieving real reductions in stunting in Ethiopia. A recent nationwide survey shows stunting rates declined by over 9 percent over the past three years, even as the population grew, resulting in 160,000 fewer stunted children.

HONDURAS: More than 4,300 families are now well above the $1.25-per-day poverty line, thanks in part to Feed the Future’s efforts, which increased horticulture sales by 125 percent last year.

BANGLADESH: Feed the Future reached 3.3 million smallholder farmers with improved seed, fertilizer and farm management practices, helping farmers increase rice yields by as much as 20 percent and creating additional rice sales of $25 million.

SENEGAL: Feed the Future introduced a new breed of high-yielding, high-protein rice that helps smallholder farmers’ triple yields in a single year.

TANZANIA: Feed the Future helped increase horticulture yields by 44 percent and rice yields by more than 50 percent among farmers. The initiative assisted the Government of Tanzania in its efforts to turn the nation’s fertile south into a breadbasket.

Dr. Raj Shah, AID Administrator

Dr. Raj Shah, AID Administrator

“Through Feed the Future, we are harnessing the power of science, technology and innovation to unlock opportunities in agriculture for the world’s most vulnerable people,” said USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah. “By creating and scaling cutting-edge solutions to our most pressing agricultural challenges, we can help the world’s most vulnerable people move from dependency to self-sufficiency—and out of the tragic cycle of extreme poverty.”

USDA’s expertise is also critical in this effort. From research and extension to market development and trade, USDA must play a central role for Feed the Future to be successful.

Secretary Vilsack has executed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa to help transfer research and extension expertise and that is a building block for Feed the Future.

Feed the Future is not just a commitment of money, it is a new multi-department approach. Instead of merely providing food aid in times of crises, it establishes a new model to turn agriculture into a business—one that especially works for women.

In short, the Global Food Security Act of 2014, the Smith (R-NJ) -Casey (D-PA) -Johanns (R-NE) legislation, compliments the successful PEPFAR program initiated by President Bush and uses our expertise in agriculture as the best possible foreign policy. The Global Food Security Act of 2014 presents an excellent opportunity to come together behind a piece of bipartisan legislation that puts our best foot forward as a country.

Marshall Matz, formerly Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, specializes in global food security at OFW Law. He serves on the Board of Directors of the World Food Program—USA; the Congressional Hunger Center; and the Food Research Action Center (FRAC).

Family Farms in Africa

By Marshall L. Matz and Peter B. Matz, as published by the National Farmers Union

Kudos to National Farmers Union for recognizing the link between family farming and meeting the challenge of global food security. Family farms are indeed the key to ending world hunger.

First, for purposes of this blog, let’s define a smallholder farmer as anyone tilling less than two hectares, or 5 acres. In most of the world, family farming means smallholder farming, usually by women.

Africa is an important case in point. Let’s look at some numbers—

  • Half of all the underutilized and unused agriculture land in the world is in Africa;
  • 65% of all Africans are involved in farming and food production;
  • 70% of disposable income is spent on food;
  • Most of the smallholder farmers are women using a hoe; and
  • Yields for maize are 20 bushels per acre, or one ton per hectare.

These numbers paint the picture of a significant challenge, but they also demonstrate a major opportunity. African farming is on the cusp of great change and its own unique green revolution. African farmers can double production in the next five years and triple production in the next ten.

The technology is coming on line. Seeds are being created for Africa’s climate and soil. Markets are developing and iPhones are being used for extension services (Africa is very advanced in communication technology).  Soil health is a priority. And the African Union, with the support of the G-7 and G-20, has made agriculture a priority for all African nations. Several African nations are very close to being self sufficient in food production.

U.S.-Africa Ag ComparisonIn the U.S., technology is a modern tractor with GPS and an air-conditioned cab, which is connected to the Chicago Board of Trade. In Africa, “technology” is a rope that shows farmers how far to space out rows and seeds, and how far from the seeds to put the fertilizer. The biggest challenge in Africa is getting the new technology to smallholder farmers and teaching them what to do with it.

That is where the “agro-dealer” has stepped in. Agro-dealers are private sector businesses located in rural villages that sell hybrid seeds, fertilizers and other inputs to smallholder farmers. They also conduct classes for the farmers…the African extension service. There are now some 20,000 agro-dealers in the key countries that comprise Africa’s two major bread baskets. We need 200,000 agro-dealers.

Much of the progress in Africa is being coordinated by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). AGRA was started less than ten years ago by the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, and was originally chaired by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. Mr. Annan is now the Chair Emeritus and the current chairman is Strive Masiyiwa. Mr. Masiyiwa is also chairman of the telecommunications giant Econet, but is the first to say that agriculture is the key to Africa’s economic development.

And that brings us to the last point: Increasing production for smallholder farmers is the way to eliminate hunger, but it is also the way for Africa to grow itself out of poverty. Six of the ten fastest growing countries in the world are in Africa. Africa holds the key to the future on many levels. It is important for the U.S. to recognize this and continue establishing/improving economic and political relations with Africa’s 54 countries—which comprise 25% of all the votes in the United Nations. African farmers are on the rise, and so is Africa.