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World Food Prize Laureate Announcement Ceremony

John D. Negroponte, Deputy Secretary of State
Remarks as Prepared fro Delivery
Washington, DC
June 13, 2008

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Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen: It’s an honor to welcome you to the Department of State and to tell you how much your presence is appreciated. Secretary Schafer, thank you for joining us.

Today’s World Food Prize Laureate announcement is a happy one, and a cause for optimism, but as we all know, it comes at a time when we are seeing the global food crisis deepen. It was a food crisis that gave rise to this award, when Dr. Norman Borlaug’s unparalleled work that led to the Green Revolution, saving a generation from starvation, demanded a recognition all its own. So this occasion provides an important opportunity to reflect on the magnitude of the crisis at hand, its causes, our responses, and our goals—issues that many of you understand better than I, but issues that can only be successfully addressed if all of us here work together as a unified force for change.

In many ways, the challenge we face in ensuring adequate, affordable food for the hungry is as complex as any policy problem on the global agenda. It is a conundrum with humanitarian, economic, political, and ecological aspects. It affects the lives of the most vulnerable—children, women, the elderly, the infirm—and the stability of states. It challenges our scientific and technological imagination, causing us to look for new ways to increase agricultural productivity, even as we resist falling back on economic policies that are likely to decrease agricultural productivity.

Year after year the World Food Prize has given us cause for hope, each laureate symbolizing the hard work and inspiration that everyone present has brought to the imperative of feeding the world’s hungry. But it is sobering to take stock of the realities we confront.

  • Global prices for cereals and oils roughly doubled from 2005 to 2007, with continuing increases—54%—in 2008.
  • This price explosion has spawned riots and protests in numerous countries over the last six months. Lives have been lost. Governments have struggled to preserve order and security. The list of affected nations includes smaller states such as Haiti and Burkina Faso and larger ones such as India, Egypt, and Indonesia.
  • Indeed, some developing countries have seen key staples double in price. At that rate, a country that suffers the misfortune of a poor harvest—such as Ethiopia or Somalia—or a country that is highly dependent on imports—such as Mauritania or Mozambique—finds its population in deep jeopardy.
  • Tragically, the people hit the hardest are those already living in poverty. In rich countries, people spend 10-20 percent of their income on food. In many poor countries, citizens already spend 60 percent, sometimes even 80 percent, of their budget on food.
    • The choices families in that category make aren’t really choices. They are eating less food of less nutritional value; they are pulling children, especially girls, out of school; and they are selling off productive assets, dooming their aspirations to escape long-term poverty out of short-term desperation.
    • Ironically, tight credit, expensive seeds, and high fuel and fertilizer costs are leading farmers in many developing countries to scale back planting just when market prices would reward larger harvests.
    • As a consequence, rising food prices are pushing people into deeper poverty and hunger. And for the 1 billion who were already living on less than a dollar a day, the question isn’t poverty, or hunger—it’s survival.

There are too many diverse causes of this crisis for me to describe them in detail here, but I would begin with three major causes on which there is general agreement

  • Droughts and natural disasters in key producing regions—Australia, for example;
  • A steady rise in demand, from both emerging and developed economies; and
  • Rapidly rising factor costs for energy and fertilizer inputs due to upward-spiraling oil prices.
    In addition, we must recognize that agricultural production has been growing slowly in many developing regions where previous market signals haven’t promoted investment or increasing production. Yes, recent price increases are steep, but they follow 30 years of steady decline. This means that in real terms, prices are still not what they were in the 1970s.  The result is that cereals production is up only 3% from 2005 to 2007, while demand has grown at twice that rate. 

Further, we observe market distortions impinging on the efficient flow of commodities from one country to the next. These distortions often arise from questionable governmental policies, notably export restrictions and high tariffs.

The Administration’s response to this crisis has been comprehensive and strong. The President made his views clear on May 1 when he announced he was calling on Congress to provide an additional $770 million to support food aid and development programs, adding to the $200 million he made available from the Bill Emerson Trust on April 14. At the same time, he emphasized that we must look to other nations, the G-8, multilateral lenders and regional development banks, and private industry and donors to do their part.

The President’s message has had a catalytic effect, as have chastening realities encircling the globe. Last week we saw an encouraging response at the UN World Food Security Conference in Rome. In July, we are challenging the G8 to enhance its commitment to food relief and agricultural development. The international community recognizes that the global food crisis must not be allowed to jeopardize the significant poverty reduction the developing world has achieved over the past decade—nor be allowed to undermine stability in fragile democracies the world over.

Over time, we believe that market signals will be an important part of the solution to this crisis. This should lead governments and private investors to change what has been a consistent under-investment in agricultural production in many developing regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. But in the immediate term, governments must act quickly to stem suffering and lay the groundwork for long-term solutions. The United States has done this. We are on track to provide nearly $5 billion to fight global hunger across 2008 and 2009 through State Department, USAID, and Department of Agriculture programs. 

Our strategy has three facets:

  • First, we must support an immediate and expanded humanitarian response that targets the most critical needs globally.
  • Second, we must support urgent measures to attack the underlying causes of the food crisis by increasing staple food production and availability in developing countries that have the capacity to rapidly increase production.  This will require innovative efforts by university, industry, and governmental research centers to help countries in need strengthen their agricultural base, increase harvests, improve food storage and distribution systems, and facilitate market connections between producers and consumers.
  • Third, we must address the policies and trade barriers that increase food prices by preventing access to food and to the best technologies available to produce food.

In the long term, we believe that sustainable food security will come from advances in science and technology and the creation of an efficient global market for both agricultural products and food production technologies.

We therefore are strongly encouraging countries to remove barriers to use of innovative plant and animal production technologies, including biotechnology.  Biotechnology tools can help speed the development of crops with higher yields, higher nutritional value, better resistance to pests and diseases, and stronger food system resilience in the face of climate change. 

Let me also mention biofuels. Are there negative food and climate change implications associated with increased demand for biofuels?  We think this has had minor impact but are dedicating substantial resources for research into cellulosic biofuel technologies – which are not derived from food crops --  to reduce that impact even more.

We also are working hard to conclude a successful Doha agreement that will reduce and eliminate tariffs and other barriers, as well as market-distorting subsidies for agricultural goods. Over 40 developing countries unwisely have put trade-restrictive policy measures into place (export restrictions, for example). These restrictions should be lifted. They have taken food off the global market, driven prices higher, and isolated farmers from the one silver lining of the rise in food prices: higher incomes for agriculture producers.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Now is not the time to step back from the very first of the Millennium Development Goals the global community has set for itself—to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. But we must understand that this goal is at risk, and failing to achieve it would endanger other key goals such as reducing child mortality and improving maternal health. A sound agricultural base, food sufficiency, and efficient markets are fundamental to human health, prosperity, political stability and peace. So the world food crisis presents us not only with moral imperatives but historic opportunities:

  • With expanded humanitarian assistance and other emergency responses we can ensure healthy food consumption levels in the near term, prevent further deterioration of health and security; and keep children in school.
  • By increasing staple food production and availability in developing countries we can jump-start productivity, create income-earning opportunities for the poor, and lower prices globally.
  • And by establishing sound trade policies we can create long-term opportunities for developing countries to once again see agricultural productivity as a path to sustained growth and poverty reduction.

These are the goals that have motivated the World Food Prize laureates for many years. They are achievable. With sound science, sound policies, and big hearts, we can reach them.  We know this because Dr. Norman Borlaug, creator of the World Food Prize, has proved it. Working together hand-in-hand around the globe, we can and must do our best follow his example.

Thank you very much.

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