Earlier this year, the African Union, FAO, and the U.S. Government came together to launch an initiative we call the “Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils,” which you will hear referred to by its English acronym, “VACS.”
Today, I’d like to tell you about this initiative, what it is, what it isn’t, and why we think it is so important. First, however, I want to explain the analysis and the underlying assumptions that led us to come together in this effort.
While relevant to multiple regions of the world, VACS will initially be focused on Africa, where both the need and the potential are greatest.
We’re aware of the challenges: Climate, Conflict, Covid, low stockpiles, disruptions to trade, high input and food prices, and the cumulative effects of years of soil degradation.
Regarding climate: This year as we experience an El Niño event, we are beginning to see the effects of what is more likely than not to be a strong El Niño – higher temperatures and the onset of drought conditions in parts of Africa and elsewhere. Some say that this is the new normal. But, perhaps the new normal lies in the future. Last month was the 535th consecutive month in which the global average temperature for the month exceeded the 20th century average, September in this case. If the climate continues to change as predicted by the models, the best and most ideal growing seasons of the future will be as bad or worse than worst of the past. That could be the new normal.
Globally, more than 700 million are food insecure. This intolerable situation could get worse, because food demand will increase 50-60% by 2050 simply due to population growth. The world is not on track to meet this need for increased production. The small, incremental, staple crop yield increases of recent years will leave us considerably short of the goal. In fact, if you factor in the effect of climate change, not only will we not see a 50-60% increase in production, but we may well see a substantial decrease in yields. I have seen estimates that climate change may reduce maize yields in Africa as much as 24%. Moreover, according to a report released just ten days ago, global “Total Factor Productivity” – a measure of how much is produced with the same amount of land, labor, capital, inputs, etc. and thus a measure of our effectiveness in coaxing more production out of our agricultural systems – rose at just 1.12% annually over the last decade. To meet 2050 food demands, it now needs to increase just a bit less than 2% a year. That’s globally. How about sub-Sahara Africa? Its growth rate was 0.18%, far, far below what is needed to avoid a sharp deterioration in the status quo.
The high rate of childhood stunting – more than 30% in many countries in Africa – tells us something important. Good agricultural systems supply more than calories. They supply vital macro- and micronutrients year-round to all parts of society, especially women and children. In other words, a good and a resilient agricultural system is one that is not over-reliant on a single crop, but supplements the staple crop – for example, maize – with other foods – vegetables, pulses, fruits, nuts, roots & tubers, and even animal and fish products, to provide complete nutrition.
Africa is blessed with hundreds of traditional and indigenous crops. – more than 300. The African Unions’ “Common Position on Food Systems” points out, however, that these crops have suffered from years – decades/centuries – of “massive underinvestment.” They have great potential to contribute to agricultural resilience and nutrition and even to help rebuild soils, but the words we use to describe these crops tells the story: We call them neglected, minor, underutilized, orphan crops, as if they are somehow inherently inferior. They are not. They are opportunity crops! The AU’s Common Position on Food Systems argues that this history needs to be reversed and that these crops deserve serious attention and investment, which is why our Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils focuses on these crops.
The AU, FAO and U.S. Government outlined a three-step process to tackle this challenge, this opportunity. The first task was identify the traditional and indigenous crops that had the most potential for adding nutrition. We took each of the AU’s five African sub-regions one-by-one. We considered the need for nutrition year-round for everyone. And we looked at each category of food crops: cereals, legumes, vegetables, fruits, roots and tubers, nuts and seeds and tree crops. We built on the pathbreaking efforts of the African Orphan Crops Consortium and others. FAO led this nutrition-related work and assembled a considerable amount of information and data including quite a lot uncovered by “Havos AI” through artificial intelligence. All of this was considered in a series of consultations culminating in an in-person meeting of experts in Rome – predominantly African nutrition, plant breeding and climate experts and chaired by the president of the African Nutrition Society. By the way, many said it was the first time that experts from these fields had ever gotten together in the same room to work on something concrete. At the conclusion of the meeting, we had a priority list of 60 crops spanning all regions and crop categories.
These crops have names! Some you are familiar with: sorghum, cassava, tef, okra. Some may be new to you (even if they have been grown in Africa for thousands of years): pigeon pea, lab lab, African yam bean, grass pea, Bambara groundnut (all legumes that will help build soils), fonio, finger millet, African custard apple, moringa, spider plant.
The next step logically is to assess how those 60 nutrition-rich, opportunity crops will perform in the future climates of Africa. For much of the last year, AgMIP, an international consortium of modelers led by Cynthia Rosenzweig, last year’s World Food Prize laureate, has been doing climate modeling on these crops in collaboration with FAO. Next month, a group of climate, plant breeding and nutrition experts will again assemble – this time at the Rockefeller Foundation – with the aim of arriving at an indicative list of high-potential crops. This will give us the basis for making rational decisions about future plant breeding investments. It will be the first time in history this has ever been done on such a scale prioritizing nutrition and climate adaptation. The point is to maximize effectiveness and impact. It is our hope, of course, that this work will serve as a catalyst and guide for future investments. I want to underscore, however, that our indicative list is not meant to be exclusionary. We would be overjoyed to see even more than 60 crops receive new attention. It’s indicative because we want to emphasize the importance of providing farmers and consumers with more choices that prioritize good nutrition, and climate resilience.
Turning to the question of soils, we recognize that many soils in Africa are degraded. Erosion rates are high, up to 100 times higher than replenishment. Climate change will exacerbate the problem. This is not sustainable. Think about it – poor soils will never provide food security. Fertilizer alone is not the solution. We need to restore the health and fertility of soils. The first step is to know more about the soils themselves, to map, analyze and model them and to provide governments with the information they need to make good decisions about where to encourage planting of crops and to provide farmers with the information they need for better farm management: what to plant, what system to use and how to adjust management within a season in response to changes in weather. Productive and sustainable agriculture requires good soil management. How could it be otherwise? The VACS framework outlines an approach to this. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID’s) Feed the Future program has what they call a Space-to-Place initiative integrating satellite mapping with on-the-ground information, and FAO is playing a key role. They’re getting that information to governments and farmers.
The final step is to put all of this work on a solid financial foundation and to begin to make the kind of multi-year commitments necessary. The International Fund for Agricultural Development has established a multi-donor funding platform for VACS. The United States will be a founding donor to it. We earnestly seek contributions from others. Earlier this year, we allocated $100 million to VACS work on crops and soils through USAID’s Feed the Future Program. Some donors will contribute to the IFAD funding platform. Others will provide support through the CGIAR or through FAO directly. Great! And others will provide in-kind contributions, assistance with crop breeding for example. Also great.
I said at the beginning that I would tell you what this Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS) is and is not.
It is decidedly not a short-term fix. It is not an answer to all questions or a solution to all problems. It is not a “project” in the traditional sense of that term, though there will be projects or streams of work. It is not controlled by us or the other partners. We don’t own it. It’s also not an abandonment of work on current staple crops such as maize, wheat and rice. It’s certainly not about dictating what people eat or don’t eat.
The Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS) is a vision based on an analysis and a set of assumptions that I have outlined. It is an analysis, an initiative, a framework, a rallying cry. It’s a recognition of the magnitude of the challenges we face, and a plea that we focus on the most basic of prerequisites for achieving food security and nutrition: fertile soils and a broad array of adapted crops. It is about providing additional options in a fast-changing world, about addressing systemic problems with sustainable solutions. We believe investing in soils and investing in these crops offers a tremendous benefit-to-cost ratio, that the work is inherently and easily scalable, and that the benefits will accrue year after year and be sustainable.
VACS lies at the intersection of food security, climate, nutrition, and gender issues. Success will require partnerships, not just funding. It will require collaboration. It will require creating an enabling environment and the right incentives. It will require challenging business-as-usual and short-term thinking.
Last month during the UN General Assembly, our Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, put it this way (I quote): “Our ability to provide sufficient, affordable, and nutritious food in the future…depends on making some significant decisions today…if we don’t get this right, I actually don’t think anything else really matters.” (end of quote)
We all want African food systems to be productive and sustainable and to provide good nutrition. We – the African Union, FAO, and the U.S. Government (and I believe many others) – think VACS can contribute to that. But, in closing, let me pose the counter-factual to this proposition: Can we achieve these things – can we have a productive, resilient, sustainable agricultural system that provides not just calories but complete nutrition without fertile soils and without adapted, nutrition-rich, indigenous crops? If your answer to that question is “no, we can’t, we’re going to need good soils, and nutritious as well as climate ready cereals, legumes, fruits and vegetables” then join us. Together, with African leadership and perhaps a little help from friends, we can make change that is both transformational and intergenerational.
Official news published at https://www.state.gov/special-envoy-fowlers-remarks-at-the-2023-world-food-forum-in-rome/