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Speaking at IFAD

A Vision for Productivity and Prosperity

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the global agriculture community, and I want to thank President Nwanze for inviting me.

Our foundation and IFAD have independently funded many of the same projects because we share many of the same goals. This morning, we signed a partnership agreement, and I am looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish when we work hand-in-hand with President Nwanze, Kevin Cleaver, and their colleagues.

I also want to recognize Graziano Da Silva, the new director general of FAO. I wish you success in your new role and offer our foundation’s support as you begin the process of reinvigorating the organization.

Finally, I want to applaud Josette Sheeran for your innovative leadership of WFP—and to welcome incoming executive director Ertharin Cousin.

The men and women I have just mentioned represent an exciting new generation of leaders with the ambition to revitalize the international agricultural system.

This system has been very successful in the past. When I was a high school student, the biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote a best-seller predicting that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in the next decade. In fact, world food production doubled and hunger and poverty declined almost everywhere. It is worth pausing a moment to reflect on this accomplishment. Investments in agriculture are the best weapons against hunger and poverty, and they have made life better for billions of people.

But if we are honest, we also know that in recent years, the international agriculture community has not done as much as it should have to fight hunger and poverty. In South Asia, the pace of productivity growth has been slowing down. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is improving much too slowly.

The world’s agriculture and food system is now outdated and inefficient. Countries, food agencies, and donors aren’t working together in a focused and coordinated way to provide the help small farmers need, when they need it.

Today, however, we have strong leadership at all three food agencies. We also have the world’s attention, with agenda-setters like the African Union and the G20 focused on agriculture. And so—today—we have the opportunity and the obligation to imagine a different future.

This future will begin with another revolution in agricultural productivity. Sustainable yield increases will lead to a better living for farm families; they will also make food more accessible and cheaper for the growing number of poor families living in cities. In short, more productive small farmers are the key to achieving the Millennium Development Goals on hunger and poverty. If you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture.

According to estimates from our team at the foundation, it is possible for small farmers in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa to double or almost triple their yields, respectively, in the next 20 years—while preserving the land for future generations. This is an ambitious goal. To meet it, farmers in both regions will have to increase productivity three to five times faster than they have been doing over the past 20 years.

In human terms, the impact of these productivity increases will be massive. They translate into 400 million people lifting themselves out of poverty.

The poverty line is an abstraction, but the advantages of being above it are very concrete. People who escape poverty are no longer just keeping their bodies alive; they are building assets for the future. These assets will purchase a doctor’s care or a school uniform. In the end, you have a self-sufficient family that can invest in the next generation. This should be the future we imagine.

With this vision in mind, I urge IFAD, FAO, and WFP to work together to create a global productivity target for small farmers—and a system of public scorecards to measure how countries, food agencies, and donors are contributing toward the overall goal of reducing poverty.

The Millennium Development Goals have been a huge success because everyone can understand what the development community is trying to achieve. It is easy to measure progress—and to see who is succeeding and who isn’t. As a result, countries are focused on their statistics. Politicians know they are being compared to their peers, and that motivates them to apply more talent and allocate more money to reach the goals.

A system of public scorecards will help the international agriculture community organize itself to achieve a global productivity target. Scorecards will help each part of the system focus on its key contribution to the overall goal, diagnose problems as they arise, and spread the most effective interventions. As it stands, we don’t really know what’s working and what isn’t. Consequently, we can’t separate the good policies and strategies from the bad ones—and leaders who consistently get poor results also consistently remain in their posts.

But public scorecards indexed to a global productivity target will empower this community to proceed with conviction.

The work of setting a global target and organizing a system of scorecards will be complicated, but I believe it can be completed in this calendar year if you commit to it. Our foundation will support this process in every way we can.

The necessity of focus and coordination

In theory, each piece of the world’s food system has a clear role to play. The country programs should set sound priorities by developing evidence-based national plans. Donors should contribute funds and provide technical assistance. The multilateral agencies and research centers should support the national programs in their respective areas of expertise—research and development, data and policy analysis, emergency relief, and financing.

But in practice the lines separating these roles have become blurry. Some developing countries have organized their national plans around policies that are popular with voters but don’t improve yields. (Many developed countries, including my own, have been doing this for decades.) Meanwhile, many donors have forced recipients to change priorities to suit political realities in their home countries. The food agencies have taken on projects that weren’t strategic because they needed any funding they could get simply to stay in business.

These distortions in the system are understandable, but they are no longer acceptable. They undermine the mission you have dedicated your careers to advancing.

Take the example of Purchase for Progress, which I think is a terrific program. The idea is simple. When you provide emergency food relief in a poor country, you buy the food from small farmers nearby. P4P has had a big impact already, purchasing a whole year’s worth of food for 1.3 million people. But that impact would be so much greater if we were better coordinated.

Right now, WFP runs nearly every aspect of the program, with a little guidance from FAO and a little funding from IFAD. But in an ideal world, you would collaborate to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. WFP would focus on what it does best: logistics and procurement. IFAD would handle the financing. FAO would provide advice to the farmers, standards to make sure they produce high-quality food, and market information to facilitate negotiations.

There are real efficiencies to be gained by spelling out a clearer division of labor among the three agencies. Doing so would help each agency develop its core strengths, eliminate duplication, and coordinate more effectively with ministries of agriculture and other key partners. We urgently need a way to translate this need for coordination and efficiency into a decisive plan of action backed up by mechanisms that hold everyone accountable. That is what public scorecards can do.

Ultimately, your ability to improve the system will determine whether small farmers will be able to turn their hard work into a better life for themselves and their families.

Capturing the digital dividend

To meet any appropriately ambitious productivity target, we have to think hard about how to start taking advantage of the digital revolution that is multiplying the rate of agricultural innovation. From genomic science to information technology, new discoveries are making it possible for us to solve old problems. A huge part of the job we share is bringing today’s breakthrough agricultural science and technology to poor farmers.

The existing system wasn’t designed to seize these opportunities. It couldn’t have been, because the changes we are witnessing were science fiction at the time the agencies were created. But we can take steps to expand our capacity for innovation.

Take seeds. Advances in genomics are fundamentally changing the way breeders do their work. It took researchers 13 years to sequence the human genome. Now they can do it in 27 hours. The cost of sequencing a genome has been literally decimated—reduced more than 10-fold—in the past five years.

Cassava is a powerful example of what breeding—powered by the revolution in genomics—can do. It’s hard to breed cassava. The plant doesn’t flower easily. We don’t have pure-breeding lines. The heritability of key traits is very low. As a result, every breeding cycle takes five years, which means it usually takes a full decade to release a new variety.

But scientists can now use computer algorithms to link sequence data from the cassava genome to the performance of cassava plants in the field. This technique was first developed to predict levels of milk production in cows. As DNA sequence information becomes much cheaper and easier to come by, we can do the same for agriculture. Breeders in developing countries will be able to predict how a tiny cassava seedling will perform. Consequently, the breeding cycle can be shortened from five years to two years. And it’s not just a shorter cycle. It’s also higher-quality, because breeders can focus on the most desirable traits early in the process.

In a world where climate change and plant diseases are threatening small farmers who are already planting low-yielding varieties, these new techniques can be the difference between suffering and self-sufficiency. The only question is, Will they benefit the people who need them most?

The digital revolution also applies to farmers’ daily work in the fields. Technology as simple as a digital video camera can remake agricultural extension. In India, a group of women farmers started videotaping themselves providing training in farming techniques. They called the project Digital Green, and they have a plan to reach 1 million farmers across 10,000 villages in the next three years.

The video does two things. First, it makes extension much more scalable: The number of people who can watch a video is exponentially larger than the number who can watch a live presentation. Second, video makes it possible for actual farmers to be extension agents, which has the potential to improve the adoption of improved practices.

The digital revolution also provides opportunities to collect better data. In an age when a satellite can determine instantly how much wheat is in a field, it is a shame to ask countries to use limited resources to send enumerators around with pen, paper, and tape measure. What we get is a lot of wasted time and inaccurate or incomplete data. The digital revolution can improve the quality of critical data while freeing up people to do other high-impact work.

The problem is that the country programs, agencies, and research centers don’t have expertise in digital agriculture, and they don’t have the time to build it from scratch. The real expertise lies with private sector companies, and with rapidly growing countries like Brazil and China where the agricultural sector is booming.

One of the most promising global trends of the past several decades has been the diffusion of innovation. More people in more places are coming up with promising ideas for improving the world. Many recent advances in plant science, for example, were borrowed from medicine. The satellite imaging currently transforming farming practice was originally developed for defense purposes. But these innovations have spread across boundaries and had an impact on many domains of life. The international agriculture system needs to learn how to form partnerships with this expanding universe of new innovators, no matter who they are or where they come from.

At our foundation, we are committed to helping make sure this happens. Melinda and I are big believers in innovation. It is the concept on which we founded the foundation. For years, we saw the impact that innovation in the computer industry had on the richest half of the world. The way people communicate, learn, and work has been reinvented. In other industries, the cutting edge advanced just as rapidly, changing life was we knew it over and over again.

But at the same time, the poorest half was hardly benefitting from innovation at all. The market forces that spread innovation in developed countries were blocked by the poverty of developing countries. Some of the most important leadership in clearing away these obstacles and linking the poor to innovation will come from all of you.

The stakes could not be higher for poor farmer families. If our community can’t find a way to channel the digital revolution, they’ll fall generations further behind. If we do connect breakthrough science to the people who need it most, they will leapfrog generations of innovation they missed.

Scaling up what works

When Melinda and I started our foundation more than a decade ago, we initially focused on inequities in global health. But as we spent more time learning about the diseases of poverty, we started to realize that the poorest people in the world shared an occupation in common: They were small farmers. The conclusion was obvious: They could lift their families up by growing more food.

So six years ago, we decided to complement our global health investments with investments in agriculture. Since then, we have committed more than $2 billion to help small farmers in developing countries. It is some of the most rewarding work we do.

When you put the right tools in farmers’ hands, the results can be magical. A submergence tolerant seed capable of surviving in flood waters can grow into a rice surplus that sends a sick child to the doctor. A micro-irrigation system can boost yields and send her to school. And when that child grows into a healthy and educated young mother, the future is bright.

Today, I am announcing almost $200 million in grants to fund agricultural development that works. Several of these grants extend projects that are already getting great results for farmers. For example, we are re-investing in projects that:

  • supported the release of 34 new varieties of drought tolerant maize;
  • delivered vaccines to tens of millions of livestock;
  • and have trained more than 10,000 agro-dealers to equip and train farmers.

The goal is to move from examples of success, to sustainable productivity increases, to hundreds of millions of people moving out of poverty. If we hope to meet that goal, it must be a goal we share. We must be coordinated in our pursuit of it. We must embrace more innovative ways of working toward it. And we must be willing to be measured on our results.

Last summer, I met a cassava scientist in Tanzania named Joseph Ndunguru.

Dr. Ndunguru told me he is, quote, a product of cassava. His mother grew cassava and sold cassava chips to pay for his schooling, walking as far as 30 kilometers to get to her customers.

Now, Dr. Ndunguru has turned down lucrative offers from labs in South Africa, Europe, and the United States to stay in his home country and help more farmers like his mother give their children hope.

Let’s make sure that all the products of cassava—and there are millions of them—have the opportunity to grow up strong, get an education, and build a future of productivity and prosperity for everyone.

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