The World Food Prize Foundation

Secretary Kerry's Remarks at the 2014 Laureate Announcement Ceremony


John Kerry, Secretary of State
Dean Acheson Auditorium, Washington, DC
June 18, 2014


Ken, thank you very, very much for reminding me of the years that have passed. (Laughter.) And first, let me begin with a profound apology to everybody here. I don’t make it a practice to run over your schedules; unfortunately the world is not cooperating with mine today. (Laughter.) So I was not able to get down here in time, and I’m going from here upstairs for the unveiling of former Secretary Condoleezza Rice’s portrait, which was supposed to start about half an hour ago. So you see what’s happening. This is sequential.

I’m very, very grateful to all of you, and I understand you had a young piano player – I just met him a few minutes ago who entertained you for a good period of time, and I think everybody should say – I don’t know where he is, but I’m looking for him. (Applause.) A profound thank you. There he is. I’ll just let you all know that in the brief time I had to say hello to him, he let me know he plans to be Secretary of State. So – (laughter) – good plans.

Ken, thank you. It really is special for me to be able to be here with Ken Quinn – Ambassador Quinn. All the way back to Ken’s six years working as a rural development advisor in the Mekong Delta – six years – he has really understood how closely food security is connected to peace and to stability. And last year, Ken and I had an opportunity to reminisce a little bit about the time we did spend together, 45 years ago now, in a beautiful, beautiful community called Sa Dac. It’s a little hamlet on the Mekong River, where we were both serving during that period of time – the difficult time in Southeast Asia. And our friendship has endured and I’m so happy to see that he, like the energy bunny, is just still at it. He never stops. So thank you, Ken, very, very much.

I want to thank Assistant Secretary Charlie Rivkin, also the son of a Foreign Service officer, a former ambassador, for bringing this remarkable group of diplomats and development professionals together – people from all over the world who are committed to the fight against hunger and to the fight to lift men and women out of poverty – and I’m delighted that they are here. And your excellencies, our various ambassadors, and distinguished guests, thank you for being here with us.

I particularly want to single out my friend Tom Harkin, who is here. Tom and I came to the United States Senate together – the class of 1984, elected in ’84, sworn in ’85. We came with a couple of guys named Al Gore, Mitch McConnell, Paul Simon – a great class, and Tom and I took our maiden voyages as freshman senators overseas to Central America in 1985. And in between Tom’s accomplishments as chairman of the agriculture committee and his efforts to support innovation and research, not just for Iowa but across the world, he will leave an extraordinary legacy in the Senate – the Americans with Disabilities Act – and also really the leader in the Senate on the issue of food security. So Tom, we thank you for your incredible service in the United States Senate. (Applause.)

And Barbara Grassley, thank you for being here, indeed, and making this a bipartisan affair, which is great, and that’s in the Iowa best tradition. I want you all to know, I grew incredibly fond of Iowa. I spent a lot of time – (laughter) – lot of time in Iowa. Loved it. I celebrated New Year’s Eve way back in 2003, 2004 with my 300 best friends in Sioux City, and we had a great time. We had a great time. I actually learned to measure my life by the height of the corn while I was there. (Laughter.) It was a lot of fun.

There is no group of people more committed, obviously, to the challenge of food security than all of you who are here in this room today. So this an opportune, appropriate moment for me to make an announcement of my own about the person who will be leading our food security efforts here at the State Department going forward. She’s someone that I turned to 18 years ago when AIDS in Africa was an issue that very few people talked about – very few people dared to talk about. And no one had really constructed a policy. She was the person who led my efforts, who worked with me and Bill Frist on the first AIDS bill that passed the Senate. We went to Jesse Helms, actually got his support, managed to pass this bill at a different point of time of the United States Senate, unanimously in the United States Senate. And I’m proud that this bill ultimately became PEPFAR as we know it today.

When I first sat down with President Obama to talk about being Secretary of State, he told me then that food security was one of these looming, emerging issues that he really wanted to make a mark on, that he wanted to address. He felt compelled to for a lot of different reasons. And Nancy Stetson was the first person that I thought of to lead that effort at the State Department, so I want you all to welcome with me my new Special Representative for Global Food Security Dr. Nancy Stetson, who is right here in the front row. Thank you. (Applause.)

Actually, it’s a little bit of irony here playing out today – serendipity. Both Nancy and Ken have actually crossed paths before, which is great in terms of working on this, because they were both absolutely pivotal in our efforts to ultimately make peace with Vietnam. And by that I mean to really put to bed the residual issues of that war, which were encapsulated in the issue of POW/MIA and the fact that we still had an embargo. And Nancy did unbelievable work in that effort. I saw so many of the benefits of that work and how closely we worked together when I visited Vietnam for the first time as Secretary. I’ve seen the product of that.

And on that visit I had a chance to go down the Mekong again, where 45 years ago the threats on the Mekong, as Ken has alluded to, came from snipers and came out of spider holes and ambushes. Today it’s a place where there’s a very different kind of threat and a very different kind of atmosphere. For farmers and fishermen along that river, threats from climate change are not a gathering storm, they’re here. The consequences are already being felt. They’re threatening food supplies and they’re threatening the way of life for millions of people.

I just want you to think about what’s happening here. This is a waterway, the Mekong, that has been the lifeblood of an entire region for thousands of years, one of the great rivers of the planet. Today its ability to supply food to the millions who depend on it is under serious strain; could conceivably be eliminated, depending on what we choose to do. And what I saw along the Mekong River recently is not too different from what we see in our rivers, in our lakes, in our oceans. We just had a two-day conference here on the oceans. The vitality of these ecosystems and their ability to be able to provide food to billions across the planet is under stress like never before. With our ocean conference, we brought leaders from across the world to discuss how we meet these challenges, especially threats to food supplies. We have billions of people who depend on their protein – about half of the world, really, of today’s population, depends on significant source of protein from the fish that they can catch.

So I was proud to announce yesterday an initiative that will make all seafood sold in the United States traceable, allowing all consumers to see that the fish that have been caught was caught sustainably, that they know where it came from, how it came to the market, and how long ago it came to the market. That is how we are going to use the size of our market to drive changes and attitudes and behavior around the world. And it’s just one step. But for the more than three billion people across the world who depend on fish for protein, we are committed to doing whatever we can to preserve their access to it.

Now, as all of you know, there is a lot of work left to be done. Just last month, the Chicago council released a study showing how hotter temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, and more intense weather events could slow food production by 2 percent a decade for the rest of the century. That report came on top of findings from an elite group of retired U.S. military leaders who said that because of frequent drought and depleted crop yields, climate change is already, now, a catalyst of global conflict. People fighting over water; it’s already happening. In some parts of Africa you can find tribes that fight over water, and this will grow worse if that water supply grows – diminishes.

Now, frankly, we shouldn’t need to be told what happens when food becomes scarce and food prices spike. It obviously can plunge millions of people into poverty. It can feed vicious cycles of desperation and violence. And that is why the struggle for food is truly the struggle for life itself. Because when access to food is limited, so is what we can achieve by investing in public health, which we try to do. So is what we can accomplish by investing in schools or in infrastructure or in conflict prevention. That’s why the work to promote food security is, in fact, so vital to every single thing that we try to do here at the State Department and at USAID.

Everyone in this room knows, and Ken alluded to it, when Norman Borlaug accomplished to spark a Green Revolution. By inventing hardier crops and new species, he was able to save – that effort saved nearly one billion lives on our planet. And when you do the math, when our planet needs to support two billion more people in the next three decades, it’s not hard to figure out that this is the time for a second green revolution.

That’s why Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram is being honored now with the World Food Prize, and we’re grateful for the hundreds of new species of wheat that Dr. Rajaram has developed. These will deliver more than 200 million more tons of grain to global markets each year. And Dr. Rajaram has helped to feed millions of people across the world through his lifetime of research and innovation.

That’s what President Obama’s feed the food initiative – Feed the Future Initiative is all about: bringing the full force of American research and innovation to the global food markets; funding research at universities like Kansas State and Washington State to make crops more resilient to climate change, to climate shocks; supporting scientists and students at Michigan State who are connecting farmers to markets and strengthening global food chains.

This research is really a small piece of how Feed the Future is working to fight global hunger and to promote food security across 11 different U.S. Government agencies. These efforts were born out of the President’s commitment at the 2009 G8 Summit, when a commitment was made to mobilize at least 3.5 billion in public funding for global food security which leveraged more than 18 billion from other donors.

Last month, I had the pleasure and the privilege of being in Ethiopia, and I visited one of these partnerships at work. Working with DuPont and 35,000 small farmers in that country, we’ve been able to increase maize productivity by 60 percent. Feed the Future is also improving access to nutritious food where it’s needed most, where pregnant women and their children are at the risk of not getting proper nutrition. Feed the Future emphasizes nutrition during the thousand days from a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday. And the science shows us exactly how critical, how important that outcome is. When children don’t receive the nutrition that they need during that critical period, their chance of success at school is dramatically reduced. That’s proven. And as adults, if that happens, you wind up with a chronic deficiency through your life. You never make up for it, and it’s harder, then, to compete for fair participation in society to compete for a good job.

That’s why targeted investments in prenatal and early childhood nutrition are in fact a moral imperative. That’s why we invested more that 12.5 – we invested to provide more than 12.5[i] children with nutritional support and higher quality food options for 2013. And when we know that agriculture is often the most effective way to pull people out of poverty, investing in food security is obviously also then an economic imperative.

The growth of food supplies means the growth of the middle class. That means larger markets for American products, more jobs, and ultimately that means a stronger middle class right here at home in the United States.

At the G8 Summit two years ago, President Obama announced a new effort to grow the world’s middle class by supporting agriculture in Africa. It’s called the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, and here is how it works – let me just take a moment to share it with you. Partners from the private sector outline plans to make responsible investments in agriculture within African nations. The nations themselves commit to making reforms that attract private investment. And by bringing these partners together and attracting support from global donors, the New Alliance aims to lift 50 million people out of poverty by 2022. The New Alliance has already attracted $7 billion in pledges, and from the private sector another 700 – 970[ii] million was invested last year alone.

Across Africa, agricultural productivity remains unnecessarily low, while hunger and under-nutrition remain dismally high. In partnering with African countries, Feed the Future and the New Alliance obviously have incredible potential. Harnessing that potential – especially in the face of climate change – will be a critical part of President Obama’s African Leaders Summit this summer, in the early part of August, first week of August. We will have more than 40 African leaders coming here to the State Department for a two-day summit – very, very, critical, and this will be one of the major subjects that we will broach.

So when it comes to food security, make no mistake: Our challenges are great, yes. But so is our capacity to meet them. When I think of what is required to strengthen global food security, I do think back to what I saw years ago in the Mekong Delta and what I saw last winter, the differential. But I also think about a Vietnamese proverb that Ambassador Quinn may know quite well – and he speaks Vietnamese fluently; I don’t, but I can get by with this. It’s: Cai kho lo cai khon. It means that adversity breeds creativity; the necessity, the mother of invention. And what that really means for all of us is actually quite simple: Innovation and invention are the way forward and the way that we can face the challenges of food security and climate.

When it comes to climate change, when it comes to food security, we are literally facing a moment of adversity – perhaps even dire necessity. It’s hard to convince people – hard to convince people of a challenge that isn’t immediately tangible to everybody particularly. But it is clear to at least 98, 99 percent of all the scientists in our country that to confront these challenges, we must invent and we must innovate, and most of all, we need to work together and we need to get to work. I have every confidence that we can do that. That is our mission. It’s our call to conscience as citizens of this fragile planet, and I am convinced that with people like Ken and all of you and the others who committed to this effort to feed people on this planet and to strengthen our unity as a consequence of those efforts, we can and will make the difference.

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

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