Ambassador David Lane Gives Remarks at Loyola University Rome Center on the Occasion of Hunger Week

Lane speaking to a group
Ambassador David Lane Gives Remarks at Loyola University Rome Center on the Occasion of Hunger Week

Good evening, and thank you for inviting me to speak to you during Hunger Week.  I understand this is a long-held, honorable tradition at your university and one that you should be proud of: a week of awareness-raising, volunteering and fundraising around hunger issues.  I am honored to be here with you, and eager to hear what you are up to this week.

As you have seen yourselves, people suffering from hunger can be found almost anywhere, even here in Rome, most visibly among the homeless in this beautiful city.  It is an important lesson you are learning: that abundance of food in our households or on store shelves sadly does not translate into adequate and nutritious food for all.

Not here in Rome and not even in the United States, where 47 million low-income Americans are able to better access healthy and nutritious food thanks to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, an important U.S. social safety net.  Caritas and other organizations play a similar function in Rome.

Hunger is everywhere, abundance or not.  But hunger and malnutrition are especially serious in the developing world where rural families often have little or no purchasing power and rely far more heavily on what they can grow to survive.  Although we have made significant progress – and I will explain more about that later on – the number of hungry or undernourished people in the world is still shockingly high: about 795million people globally.

That figure means that one in every nine people is likely to wake up in the morning hungry and may not know where the next meal for themselves or their family will come from. Add to this that poor nutrition is the underlying cause for almost half of childhood deaths in the world.  It is inexcusable.

This has been an issue close to my heart throughout my career and is the focus of my work as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Agencies in Rome.

Let me quickly explain, for those of you who might not know or who find my title confusing, that there are actually three U.S. Ambassadors in Rome.  There is Ambassador John Phillips, who is the Ambassador to Italy, Ambassador Ken Hackett who heads a separate Embassy to the Vatican, and then myself -the Ambassador to the US Mission to the UN Agencies in Rome.

I lead a team of about 25 people, which includes representatives from the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and we make up the U.S. Missionto the UN Agencies in Rome.  We are called a Mission and not an Embassy because we don’t work with a single country – Italy or the Vatican – but with the United Nations Agencies in Rome: and the multitude of countries represented there.

While the United Nations has its headquarters in New York, there are many UN Agencies in various cities in the world: Geneva probably has the most, dealing with human rights, global health, economic development and many more; Vienna has the UN agency dealing with atomic energy-IAEA, Paris has culture and education in the form of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization); and Rome has food.  Fitting, right?  Where else?

Seriously – Rome is well-known for its excellent cuisine, but it is also increasingly known as central to international efforts to eliminate hunger and malnutrition around the world.  Some of you may already be familiar with the three UN food agencies in Rome:  the FAO – the Food and Agriculture Organization, WFP – the World Food Program, and IFAD – the International Fund for Agriculture Development.  Each agency has a different mandate and a key role to play in building the capacity of countries to feed their people.

WFP – the World Food Programme – comes to the rescue when people are in crisis, either because of natural disasters (floods, droughts, earthquakes) or because of conflict.  In recent years, WFP has worked with partners to provide food to, on average, more than 80 million people in 75 countries.  They save lives by getting food to the hungry in a timely manner.

And they have amazing logistics capabilities.  They have food supplies stored around the world and coordinate thirty ships, seventy aircraft, and five thousand trucks to move food and other humanitarian supplies to people in need.  At present, WFP is responding to the highest number of humanitarian emergencies since WWII, mostly to help people displaced by conflicts in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, and Iraq.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, focuses more on long-term development by sharing knowledge about agriculture world-wide, making sure that up-to-date information about hunger and malnutrition challenges and solutions are available and accessible. FAO also monitors food availability worldwide, which, when combined with vulnerability mapping undertaken by WFP and others, enables the international community to predict where food assistance will be needed and better prepare for emergency situations as they arise.

They strive to help small farmers in poor countries improve their productivity and find better ways for rural populations to cope with agricultural and environmental challenges.

IFAD, The International Fund for Agricultural Development, is a financial institution – like a smaller version of the World Bank, but it’s focused on agriculture and rural development.  Working closely with governments, it finances agricultural development projects in developing countries to improve agricultural practices and production in rural settings throughout the developing world.

795 million hungry is a very big number, but it reflects significant progress over the past decade as countries worked hard to halve the proportion of hungry people.

So how did this happen?  This progress can be attributed, in part, to the international response to the global food price crisis in 2007-2008, which further impoverished many people and led to higher levels of malnutrition.  For some countries, many of which were already unstable, this food crisis contributed to civil unrest.

After that wake-up call to the urgency of global hunger, a number of influential world leaders came together in 2009 at the G8 summit here in l’Aquila, Italy, to discuss this and other issues.  President Obama and leaders of the G8 and other countries launched a battle to end hunger and pledged $22 billion over three years toward investments in agricultural development and improved global food security.

In making this pledge, the United States doubled its assistance to agriculture and food security, committing its $3.5 billion share and creating the Feed the Future initiative, which aims to help countries transform their agricultural sectors to grow enough food to sustainably feed their people.

Another element of this progress was the renewed focus on and commitment to address hunger through the Millennium Development Goals.  These ambitious goals, agreed to in 2000 by world leaders at the UN, aimed at reducing extreme poverty by the year 2015.

Well, 2015 is here, and I am excited to say we have made remarkable advances.  Here in Rome we have focused on goal number one toEradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty, and the results are encouraging:  73 out of 129 of countries monitored – the majority – have achieved the goal of cutting in half the prevalence of undernourishment since 1990.

In addition, the global percentage of people living below the poverty line has been slashed by more than two-thirds since 1990; the rate of child mortality dropped more than half; and the proportion of malnourished children has fallen by nearly as much.

The successes are measurable and news is promising – we are on the right track – but we still have a very long way to go to eliminate hunger and poverty in the world.  In fact, the challenge is growing.  The global population is predicted to reach at least 9 billion by 2050, which means we will have at least 2 billion more people needing healthy food to survive and thrive than we do today.

This means that, by FAO estimates, we will have to increase food production by 60 or 70 percent by 2050 to meet the growing food demand.  And we will have to do it on the same amount of land, with fewer resources, and in the face of climate change.

As a follow on to the Millennium Development Goals, in September at the UN General Assembly in New York, world leaders chartered a new course for the next 15 years by adopting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, also known as Global Goals or Agenda 2030.  These goals present a path forward not only to eliminate poverty and hunger, but to help ensure a better and sustainable future for all by promoting prosperity, protecting the environment, incorporating rule of law, and ensuring the inclusion of women and girls.

The new ‘hunger’ goal – goal number 2 – is more specific than the previous one.  It is: End hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

Three out of every four poor people in the world live in rural areas, and there is broad consensus that reducing global poverty and hunger requires growth in the agriculture sector, especially for small-scale producers in developing countries.  Research suggests that agricultural growth is, on average, at least twice as effective in reducing poverty compared to growth in other sectors.

We know we must also concentrate our efforts on improving nutrition.  Millions of people around the world are undernourished, stunting the growth of both children and economies, and perpetuating the cycle of poverty and hunger.

We must increase investment, especially private sector investment, in agricultural growth, with a special focus on small farmers in developing countries; we cannot do it with public money alone.  Strategic alliances with the private sector address core business interests and also address key development objectives. We must continue to assist and encourage private companies to invest sustainably in emerging markets, which will be critical in reducing poverty, fighting hunger, and improving nutrition.

Using the power of innovation will also be key.  An American priority includes collaborating with universities and research institutions both in the United States and the developing countries to find new solutions to challenges in agriculture and food security.

And we cannot ignore the enormous impact of climate change. As Secretary Kerry said when he spoke at the Milan Expo a few weeks ago, “climate change is perhaps the most significant threat to global food security today.”   We will be unable to maintain present production levels, much less increase them to the extent we need, if farmers and fishers are finding it even more difficult to grow crops, fish or raise livestock.  The global community must come together to address climate change and the challenges it brings: droughts, floods, and extreme weather.

We must all practice what we are calling “climate-smart agriculture,” which focuses on three things;

  • That we increase agricultural productivity in a way that is sustainable over time.
  • That we make sure our food systems are able to adapt to the climate impacts that we’re already experiencing.
  • Three, that we find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural sources. Most people don’t realize that agriculture as a sector itself emits a quarter of all global emissions.

We must empower women.  That is absolutely key.  It is so important that there is a separate Sustainable Development Goal just for this: Number 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. 

In fact, we know that issues affecting women and girls are important in all aspects of development, and this is reflected in all 17 Sustainable Development goals.

We can only achieve success and meet the all the Sustainable Development Goals if women and girls are deliberately made central to our efforts, including in agriculture and nutrition.

Women are involved in all aspects of agricultural production.  On average they form 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries. And yet they produce 30 percent less than men.  And this is surely not because they work less.  It is because they are at a disadvantage: they have less access to key agricultural inputs –namely fertilizer, tools, quality seeds, and, perhaps most importantly, they often do not own or control the land they farm.

The FAO estimates that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent. This increase could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12–17 percent, up to 150 million people.

When women’s productivity and incomes increase, the benefits amplify across families and generations.  Women tend to devote a larger fraction of their income to their children’s health and nutrition, laying the foundation for their children’s lifelong cognitive and physical development.

History shows that when we invest in women and girls, we see a ripple effect on their potential as individuals, as well as the potential of their families, communities, and society as a whole.

This is why the United States advocates for policy changes to increase women’s land ownership, and increase their access to financial services.  We also encourage female farmers to adopt new agricultural technology aimed at increasing productivity and reducing unpaid work, and provide training on improving nutrition for themselves and their families.

And there is the question of all the food we waste.  Did you know that one-third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally?  That adds up to 1.3 billion tons a year, says FAO. Hunger is still one of the most pressing development challenges, and yet we are producing more than enough food for everyone. Recovering just half of what is lost or wasted would be enough to feed the world.  Most of the food is “wasted” in wealthy, developed countries.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food waste in the United States is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply. Recognizing this, the USDA together with the Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a goal of reducing food waste in the US by 50% by 2030.

In developing countries food loss is the problem.  Food that is spilled or spoiled before it makes it to the table.  This happens because of problems with harvesting, storage (no refrigeration, for example), and transport, marketing and more.

That was a run-through of the complexities and challenges of the hunger problem.  So what can you do?  Well, one initial and very practical thing you can do is to waste less food.  Be aware of what you buy, how much you consume and what you throw out.  Encourage your friends and family to do the same.

And continue what you are already doing.  Get actively involved.  Continue to raise awareness, not only about hunger in the streets of your home towns but also about hunger in the less developed, less fortunate countries around the world.  Change perceptions and attitudes about the causes and consequences of hunger.  This isn’t “their” problem.  It is “our” problem.  We all benefit –socially, economically and politically— when communities and countries are free from hunger.  Help create the political will to solve this problem.

You can also go to the websites of these organizations: the WFP, FAO, IFAD and learn more.  Get involved.  Follow the U.S. Mission on Facebook and Twitter.  And consider a career in the Foreign Service or development, or a job in one of these UN Agencies in the future.

Finally, I just want to say that I am encouraged.  It is an exciting time to be in Rome working on these issues that are a priority for President Obama, and indeed for the United Nations.  We know more than we’ve ever known, we are focused on the issues, we have more political interest, and we’re making progress.  I look forward to continuing to work on the vitally important issue of feeding all the people of the world, and am excited that some of you in this room may join me in this effort.

There is still a lot to be done, but I strongly believe that we have set a good course with our new goals.

Thank you.