Remarks at the World Food Prize Laureate Announcement Ceremony

By:  John Kerry
Date: June 19, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

SECRETARY KERRY: Ken -- excuse me -- thank you very, very much. Welcome everybody to the Franklin Room, to the State Department, and to this wonderful celebration of creativity, commitment, audacity, all at the same time.
And I'm particularly grateful to be introduced by Ken Quinn. I was sitting there thinking, listening to Ken, General MacArthur said old soldiers never die, they just fade away. Well, old Foreign Service officers never die either, but they don't fade away, obviously. (Laughter.) They just go on to take on new, terrible tasks. And this is a man who knows how to do it. (Applause.)

I -- what an amazing -- honestly, what an amazing journey we have shared together -- a great deal of it together, but some of it hidden. We didn't even know it. He was sitting there a moment ago and he said, "Did you ever get to Sa Dec?" I think that's the way we pronounced it anyway. And I said, "Yes, I did." And back in 1968, when I was in Vietnam, I got up to this tiny little hamlet on the Mekong River -- beautiful, beautiful little place, rice paddies all around it and everything. It was really wonderful. And Ken was informing me that he spent a whole year there or so, I guess, as a Foreign Service officer and actually going out on missions with some of our boats and so forth. So we've been intersecting for a long time, and it's an honor to be here with him.

Ken is the only Foreign Service officer to receive both the Army Air Medal and the State Department's Medal for Heroism and Valor. And that tells you a lot, folks. (Applause.) He went on to become the State Department's leading expert on the Pol Pot regime and widely acknowledged really as the first person anywhere to report on the genocidal Pol Pot regime's initiatives.

And as he mentioned, we had the privilege of working together on the POW-MIA issue, which I have to tell you, that was viewed as one of those impossible missions, not unlike the effort to end poverty or reduce hunger or eliminate hunger. And Ken, who already had gone out to the dangerous places, took on this mission also when he was at Hanoi. And I think the words "impossible" and "intractable" sort of go with his DNA somehow, and he knows how to work through them.

Nobody could have imagined that John McCain, John Kerry, Bob Kerrey, Bob Smith, and a bunch of others -- Tom Harkin, a whole group -- could come together and find a common ground, despite different ideologies, and actually wind up making peace with Vietnam. And I think equally people could never have imagined a day when a guy named Ken Quinn could actually negotiate the ability of Americans to go back into villages only 20 years after a war and go into prisons and search for American POWs in 1990s, secure the rights for helicopters to come again with Americans in them out of the sky and land in hamlets unannounced to determine whether the truth had been told about prisoners of war.

It was a remarkable experience, a remarkable period, and I mention all of this because right now he is really doing on hunger what he's done all his life, is take on what are perceived to be these impossible missions, but what in truth, I think, actually do have solutions. And that's what he is trying to prove.

I want to thank the generosity and the vision of John and Janis Ruan for their role. This award would not be here and this impetus, this inspiration, wouldn't exist if it wasn't for their commitment and their generosity.

And no surprise, folks, this kind of all begins in Iowa, which some of us know a lot of things begin in Iowa. (Laughter and applause.) I think I put in enough days in Iowa to qualify as an Iowa citizen. (Laughter.) So I, too come from Iowa -- (laughter) -- not just Norman Borlaug and Ken Quinn and the others here. And I shouldn't be astonished by it at all. It's the place of one of the greatest movies, obviously, "Field of Dreams," which we love, which I visited and got to hit a baseball in and run around and dip my finger into the corn.

But I learned just now from Ken that Norman Borlaug not only was responsible for the Green Revolution, but here is the documentation, folks. This is from him. He is responsible for the lifting of the curse of the Bambino, and the Red Sox won because Norman Borlaug threw out the first pitch and exorcised the demons from Fenway Park. We are eternally grateful -- (applause) -- so a special gratitude today. (Laughter.)

I also want to thank my colleague, my classmate, Tom Harkin for being here. There is no more dedicated individual to the cause of human aspirations and to eliminating human suffering than Tom Harkin. He has passed the granddaddy of legislation of the last years when you think of social legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act. He is the father of that and the leader of that. And he puts his considerable skill to the task of making sure we address this concern of hunger. So Tom, thank you and Barbara thank you for being here on behalf of Chuck, who we all expect will continue to be as irascible as ever. Is that correct? (Laughter.) And I want thank you for coming. And Jim Leach, thanks so much for coming and being here, former congressman.

I do have special memories of Iowa, and I learned, frankly, how to measure the passage of time by the height of the corn and the color. And I knew -- yeah, I really did -- I spent enough time there to be able to give you a lecture on agriculture and tile farming and a whole bunch of other things. But I did come to have this remarkable, healthy respect for our family farmers and for farming and for our ability to feed the world.

And so I want to thank all of you who've come here to celebrate this. This is going to be much more important than just today. And I want to thank the colleagues from civil society and those of you from the ten different agencies that are involved in these initiatives, all of whom come here and do this under the leadership of USAID.

As was remarked by Ken, this is the 27th year of the World Food Prize, and it will be officially awarded in Des Moines. I join in congratulating each of the winners -- Marc Van Montagu, Mary-Dell Chilton, and Robert Fraley -- for their pioneering efforts and their tremendous contributions to biotechnology and to the fight against hunger and malnutrition.

And we obviously have a -- it's hard, as I think about it today, and I'm learning this more and more as I serve in these early months as the Secretary of State, having made the transition after 29 years in the Senate. This disconnect between things that really matter to people on this planet and the amount of time that is consumed talking about things that don't make that much difference.

And the challenge today to all of us in a world that is facing the threat of climate change, which is more real than unfortunately some people want to acknowledge, and what that may do to hunger and refugees and devastation and to food supplies -- these are really challenging times and this is a significant moment, which is why I said a moment ago more than you know in terms of the future. Because despite all the world's technological advances, today nearly 870 million people, one-eighth of the world's population, suffer from chronic hunger -- chronic hunger.

And it is obviously a trap that prevents people from realizing their God-given potential, but more than that, places people in extremis, places communities in extremis. It can actually feed into terrorism. It feeds into failed states. It feeds into all of the challenges that we face in terms of building order and creating stability on this planet. And the struggle for food is, in the end, a struggle for life itself.

So the stakes are really high and the challenge is beyond what we face today in terms of all of the statistics and what they tell us. The challenge is that by 2050, the world's population is going to grow to 9 billion people. That is going to demand at least a 60 percent increase over our current agricultural production.

We also live, as I mentioned earlier, on a planet that, with respect to that agricultural production, is increasingly strained by the changes that are taking place, the movement of the ability to grow from one place to another, literally. Ask something as apolitical as the Audubon Society about what their members tell them about whole swaths of America where things that used to grow no longer grow, or species that used to exist no longer appear.

President Obama, I'm pleased to say, understands this challenge. And as he has said, combating hunger is a moral imperative. And when he took office, he put food security at the forefront of the development agenda. And I think he laid out a very bold and visionary plan for all of us to try to address this challenge. He has rallied global leaders to reverse the three decade decline in agricultural investment, and he's put forth new initiatives like Feed the Future, which instead of giving out food seeks to empower people in agriculture with the skills and resources to be able to improve their lives and produce food. Through Feed the Future, we are making progress. We're mobilizing resources to combat malnutrition in children, especially during those pivotal first thousand days of the start of a woman's pregnancy until the child has a second birthday. As a result of those efforts, 2 million kids will now not be stunted in terms of their growth and development.

Last year, President Obama, along with African leaders, announced the formation of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. And that is a way to seek to engage the private sector, and it has a goal of lifting 50 million people out of poverty in the next 10 years. And in just the first year of its existence, it has already secured nearly 4 billion in investment commitments. And just -- you can already see what this is doing in Ethiopia, where I was just a few weeks ago for the African Union 50th anniversary. There, they are distributing better seeds to about 15,000 maize farmers, and that will potentially increase their productivity by 50 percent.

So obviously we have to continue efforts like these. We have to grow existing efforts. We also have to continue to innovate. And that's why we are supporting research and development into climate-smart crops that can withstand drought, withstand floods, actually improve nutrition at the same time, and help protect precious national resources. It is simply true that biotechnology has dramatically increased crop yields. It has dramatically decreased loss due to pests and disease, and it allows us to feed more people without converting tropical forests or fragile lands in order to do so. And these crops will allow farmers to reduce their use of pesticides that all of us know -- you can look at the nitrate overload flowing down from the Missouri into the Mississippi and out in the Gulf, or any other parts of the world, to see the consequences of what happens when the wrong things mix with water. So we save money and we save the environment and we save lives. It is a virtuous circle.

And through innovation, we believe we can help alleviate the level of hunger and malnutrition today. But more than that, we can hopefully live up to our responsibilities for the future. The President would like to see dramatic progress in this, and that is why in this year's State of the Union Address, he laid out a goal of eradicating extreme poverty in the next two decades. I believe that that can be done. I really believe it's achievable.

And the work of our winners -- Marc Van Montagu and Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert Fraley -- shows us we have the ability to do exceptional things. We can break the cycle of poverty. We can actually end under nutrition. And a lot of people may call that impossible. I don't think Ken does, or any of you here do. We have to take this mission out globally.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of speaking at the tenth anniversary of PEPFAR, a program that I'm proud to say Bill Frist and I initially wrote the first AIDS legislation for back in the early 1990s, and managed to pass it with the help of Jessie Helms, which everybody considered impossible; passed it unanimously in the United States Senate, and today we are on the verge of seeing a new generation that could actually be AIDS-free. Everybody thought that was impossible. I will confess to you that back when we started, I wasn't sure. I knew we had to try, but I couldn't say to you with certainty that that wasn't so overwhelming that it gave you a sense of being that speck on the universe that didn't have the ability to move back the forces of nature. Well, we did, and we are, and we will continue to.

And so it is here. This is not a matter of capacity. It's a matter of willpower. This is a matter of political people, leaders, statespeople applying their energies and efforts to make sure we make the right decisions and the right commitments. And I think that all of us know that people who don't have to worry about where their next meal comes from are people who have a greater ability to be able to fulfill their dreams and help to be constructive, contributing citizens of the world.

That's what this is about, and I thank all of you for being so committed to it today. I promise you the President and I, for the duration of this term, will remain committed to advancing this cause as far as we can. Thank you very, very much. (Applause.)