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Clinton Global Initiative: The elite agenda on food and agriculture

By JERRY HAGSTROM

NEW YORK CITY — Small farms versus large, nutrition in the first thousand days of a child’s life, the potential of cassava as a food, conservation and waste are all topics of interest, even obsession, to the international elite if sessions of former President Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative meeting last month are an indicator.

Food and agriculture were once considered boring, old-fashioned topics for the world’s elite, but with rising concern about how the world will feed 9 billion people by 2050 and interest in organic and local agriculture versus industrial-scale production, food and agriculture seem to be cropping up in all kinds of forums.

At the Clinton Global Initiative meeting September 23 to 25, an annual event where heads of state, CEOs, nonprofit leaders, and other global luminaries gather to talk about the most important topics of the day and get public credit for making commitments for charitable projects around the world, there was a session called “The Future of Food.”

Early childhood nutrition was a key element in another panel called “The Early Years: An Irresistible Opportunity,” and many companies made commitments to improve agriculture and food security in developing countries.

The sessions often seemed like a scatter-shot, but they give an idea of what people who don’t pay regular attention to agriculture are hearing and thinking about.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton
Clinton himself started off the discussions of agriculture by telling a luncheon audience that he wanted to make an explicit point about something that “has not been made explicit here.”

Africa, he said, is facing the question of whether smallholder farmers and fisher folk will be able to provide the continent’s food in the future or whether land will have to be leased for large-scale, mechanized production.

“I believe the former course is better and believe General Mills is giving us a path forward,” Clinton said, as he announced that General Mills would continue to link its technical and business expertise with small- and medium-sized mills and food processors in sub-Saharan Africa, with the goal of improving those companies’ ability to produce high-quality, nutritious, and safe food for both food aid and local retail markets.

“This is a potentially profoundly important commitment,” Clinton said.

Clinton was referring to General Mills’ partnership since 2009 with the Office of United States Global AIDS Coordinator and the Agency for International Development (USAID) to link the technical and business expertise of General Mills employees with small and growing food processors in sub-Saharan Africa. And, last year General Mills, Cargill and DSM launched Partners in Food Solutions, with 400 volunteers working with 35 food processing companies on 82 projects impacting 100,000 smallholders farmers in Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi.

Other corporate commitments were announced throughout the meeting, but a series of experts also discussed a range of topics.

Jay Naidoo

Jay Naidoo
On the “early years” panel, Jay Naidoo, a South African businessman who has served as a government minister and now chairs The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) based in Geneva, said he became interested in early childhood nutrition when he realized at a day care center that children could not learn without proper food.

“What we know today is the first thousand days from conception to two years is the window of opportunity,” Naidoo said. “Even if the family wins the [lottery], if it did not have proper nutrition the damage is irreversible. The link is proven.”

GAIN, he said, is looking at ways of making early childhood nutrition financially sustainable. One method is to encourage mothers to breast feed, he noted, but children older than six months need additional food. But he said there are solutions. In Bangladesh, he noted, sachets containing nutrients that can be sprinkled on food cost of only $1 per month.

Jason Clay

Jason Clay
On the “Future of Food” panel focusing on how to feed 9 billion people by the year 2050, Jason Clay, the vice president for market transformation at the World Wildlife Fund, noted that 80 countries are growing at a rate of 5 percent or more and are consuming more animal protein with “no end in sight.”

Eight countries, he said, produce most of the oilseeds and grains in the world, and four of them had a drought this year.

“We have to produce more with less unless we want to see food production sprawl all over the planet,” he said. Trade will be important to provide food in some parts of the world, but increasing productivity is important too, he added.

“It takes one liter of water to produce one calorie of food, we need to do better,” Clay said.

“We need to start measuring what matters, soil erosion,” he said. “It is also about old technologies. The better farmers produce 100 times what the worst farmers do. It is about moving the bottom. The private sector can move the top. We can see that. But how do we engage government to move the bottom?”

Akinwumi Adesina

Akinwumi Adesina
Nigerian Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Akinwumi Adesina said, “Agriculture has the greatest potential to get millions out of poverty.”

Noting that in the 1960s Nigeria was a food exporter and is now an importer, Adesina said that agriculture must be taken “out of development” and considered a business. When the Nigerian government bought and distributed fertilizer to poor farmers, “it walked away to the rich farmers,” he said.

“We had to take that on to make sure farmers get access to fertilizer,” he said. “Today Nigeria is not in the business of buying and selling fertilizer.”

The role of government, Adesina said, “is not to be in production, but to provide infrastructure, extension, education.” The World Bank, he noted, had said “let the private sector do everything,” but that did not work.

“Nigeria is the largest importer of rice because the private sector did not invest in milling technology,” he said. “That is why as a government we were able to get low interest financing for the private sector to establish rice mills so Nigeria can process the rice it has.”

Adesina noted that Nigeria is the biggest producer of cassava in the world, and that cassava flour could replace wheat flour and reduce the need for wheat imports from the United States. Cassava could also be used for chips and to make high-fructose cassava syrup to make up for imported sugar, he added.

“Man does not live by bread alone,” he quipped, but “that does not mean wheat bread.”

“We have to look at science,” he added, to create better quality maize, and sweet potatoes with better carotene.

“Biotechnology gets a bad rap because people think in terms of [genetic modification] but in terms of added nutritional value it is huge,” he added.

Clay added that researchers are still focusing on crops grown in temperate areas when they should be focusing on tropical crops such as bananas and yams. “Tree crops have less impact on the soils,” Clay said. “You can make bread out of bananas.”

Judith Rudin

Judith Rudin
Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rudin, who chaired the panel, said she is worried bout overfishing. Clay noted that the World Wildlife Fund is a partner in protecting wild fisheries and in aquaculture.

“That involves setting standards to make sure it is done appropriately and sanctioning ion those that don’t,” he said. “Otherwise you really are going to be weaning people off seafoods and pushing people to diets that are not as healthy and have negative environmental implications.”

Irene Rosenfeld

Irene Rosenfeld
The panel also showed great interest in the subject of waste.

Irene Rosenfeld, chairman and CEO of Mondel─ôz International, the snack food company formerly part of Kraft Foods, noted that Wall Street “is increasingly rewarding corporations for sustainability” with sustainability indexes.

Kraft, she noted, has had an extensive campaign in the United Kingdom offering coffee in refillable bags.

Clarence Otis Jr.

Clarence Otis Jr.
Darden Restaurants CEO Clarence Otis Jr. said his company has “an ambitious goal to reduce waste,” noting that when Clinton was president he signed legislation that made it legally easier for companies to donate food not served to guests to local food banks.

About a third of Darden’s waste is food, Otis noted, but it has managed to divert about 14 percent. The biggest challenge, he added, is that commercial composting is available in only about 5 percent of the places where Darden, the owner of Red Lobster and other restaurants, does business. People in the West, Darden said, “need to be more conscious of how we handle food.”