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Robert Hormats


Innovating Our Way to a Second Green Revolution

Posted: 06/22/11 05:13 PM ET

Nearly one billion people -- one seventh of the world's population -- suffer from chronic hunger. Because of extreme hunger and poverty, children, adults, and indeed entire societies are prevented from achieving their full potential. But, through the work of many, progress is being made.

Today, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, Ambassador Kenneth Quinn of the World Food Prize Foundation, and I honored the former President of Ghana, H.E. John Agyekum Kufuor, and the former President of Brazil, H.E. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, as recipients of the 2011 World Food Prize. Their commitment and visionary leadership have propelled Ghana and Brazil toward meeting Goal 1 of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals -- to reduce the prevalence of poverty and hunger by half by the year 2015.

This year marks the 25th Anniversary of the World Food Prize. It recognizes the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world. In preparations for the awards ceremony, I was reminded of the visionary work of Dr. Norman Borlaug, the founder of the World Food Prize, and the crucial impact of innovation in addressing global hunger. Dr. Borlaug's life story and dramatic successes merit our ongoing respect and appreciation, and should inspire use to better address the food security challenges that we face today.

Two hundred years ago, the English economist Thomas Malthus reasoned that food production could never keep up with population growth. This theory continued into the late 1960s, when Paul Ehrlich in The Population Bomb similarly forecast mass global famine. Ehrlich also argued that India, with its rapidly growing population, was incapable of becoming self-sufficient in food production. The work of Norman Borlaug proved otherwise.

In 1944, Dr. Borlaug began work as a plant geneticist in Mexico. There, over the course of twenty years, he perfected a variety of high-yielding short-strawed, disease-resistant wheat. Through a collaboration with the Indian agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan (recipient of the first World Food Prize in 1987), Dr. Borlaug's dwarf wheat was adapted to India's local conditions. As a result, wheat yields for the country increased from 12.3 million tons in 1965 to 20.1 million tons in 1970. And, contrary to Paul Ehrlich's prediction, by 1974 India was self-sufficient in the production of all cereals. U.S. - India collaboration helped spark the "Green Revolution" of the 1960s and '70s, which led to a dramatic improvement in agricultural productivity not only in India but also throughout much of Asia and South America. For spearheading this achievement, Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Although Dr. Borlaug passed away in 2009, his contributions to agriculture continue to save countless lives. Yet there remains more work to be done. The world desperately needs a second Green Revolution, and in particular one that extends to Africa. Having lived and worked in Africa, I am deeply aware of the tragedy of chronic hunger and the need for global collective effort to resolve this enormous moral challenge.

The United States and the international community are extending support for sustainable, agriculture-led growth that will help people suffering around the world to lift themselves out of poverty. Sustainable agriculture is a powerful tool to increase the availability and accessibility of quality food and reduce poverty. Momentum is building for global action, and the leaders of developing countries have also recognized the need to invest more in their own food security. Achieving a second Green Revolution will depend on policy changes such as those implemented in Ghana and Brazil by Presidents Kufuor and Lula, respectively, as well as agricultural innovation through science and technology development.

Innovation is key to help solve the challenge of producing and distributing food more efficiently to meet the needs of a growing global population while, at the same time, adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change. I am excited by the breadth of talent that is being brought to bear on the challenges of food security. Ranging from low-tech options such as a treadle pump that is improving irrigation and access to water in villages across Africa, to high-tech geographical information systems utilizing the latest satellite technology and cell phones that allow smallholder farmers to benefit from access to market data, timely weather forecasts, and crop advice.

Governments and the private sector are also beginning to recognize that agricultural innovation must extend all the way from seed to market so that improvements in farm productivity are matched by post-harvest and preservation technologies. For example, the single most important problem facing the Indian agricultural industry -- and that of many emerging economies -- is the highly inefficient supply chain. In India, it is estimated that over 40 percent of the nation's farm output rots before it gets to the market. Therefore, improvements to post-harvest processes such as with cold chain storage and transportation technologies are also vital to achieve food security. We are beginning to explore these opportunities with the Indian government and hope to work with other governments in the future. And, we plan to work with American companies with great expertise in food storage and distribution.

There is no silver bullet that can be implemented to meet the world's food needs. Hence, it is vital that we support sound food security policies and the development and dissemination of food-related technologies to address these issues. It is also fitting that we celebrate and draw inspiration from innovators such as Norman Borlaug and visionary leaders such as this year's World Food Prize laureates.