Special Event: Dinner of Extinction—A Taste of Climate Action

Tuesday, April 23, 2024
Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters

Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Food Systems for the Future; Former Executive Director, UN World Food Program; Former U.S. Ambassador, Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations; CFR Member

Special Envoy for Global Food Security, U.S. Department of State; CFR Member

Former Senior Advisor for Nutrition, Executive Office of the President (Obama Administration); Partner, Acre Venture Partners 


Senior Fellow, Polar Institute and Environmental Change & Security Program, Wilson Center; CFR Member

Introductory Remarks

President, Council on Foreign Relations

The “Dinner of Extinction” will address the dangers the world faces due to climate change and rapidly deteriorating ecosystems. Sam Kass, former White House Chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition to President Barack Obama, will open the dinner with an introduction to the courses that will be served, highlighting the importance of the ingredients used. Those ingredients and other resources people rely on and enjoy will be depleted, if not extinct, within the next few decades if human beings do not act effectively and quickly.

The dinner program will also include a panel discussion on the future of climate change and what can be done to protect food security and the world’s fragile ecosystems. 

Please note the audio, video, and transcript of the discussion portion of this event will be posted on the CFR websitePlease note there is no virtual component to this meeting.

**Space for this event is limited. Please respond to this invitation at your earliest convenience by clicking the Register or Decline button, responding to this email, or calling the Meetings Response Line at 646.558.8656. 

FROMAN: Well, I hope you all enjoyed that. There’s more to come. Enjoy your last chocolate dessert for millennia. (Laughter.) Look, I have to say, one of the great things that I enjoyed about being U.S. Trade Representative was learning about agriculture, because before that I always thought food just came from the grocery store. (Laughter.) Turns out, there’s some stuff that goes on behind the scenes that makes that possible. And I really enjoyed spending time with agriculture experts, food experts, farmers, and ranchers to learn—to learn their business and what was important to them. And I still believe that there’s no more global a group of people than farmers. They know exactly what’s going on all over the world and have a very keen sense of how America’s interests are very much tied with the interests of what’s going on all over the world.  

It is a real pleasure for me to introduce this panel, because I was looking around the table where we were sitting. This is, like, literally a panel of my heroes. I mean, I am so privileged to be able—you’ve already heard about Sam, who is one of my—one of my heroes. But we also have Cary Fowler, special envoy for food security at the State Department. Now that doesn’t even begin to describe Cary Fowler. What I love about Cary Fowler is he is the father of the International seed vault at the North Pole, and is the one behind setting up this incredibly—(applause)—this incredibly important international asset that every country can rely on in extremists when they need access to those seeds.  

We also have Ambassador Ertharin Cousin, another hero of mine. Former executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, former U.S. ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization as well. And now founder and CEO of Food Systems for the Future. Really one of the most longstanding contributors to food policy over the last, well, I won’t say how many decades, so over the last few years. And we’re delighted to have her here as well.  

And to preside over the panel is an old and dear friend Sherri Goodman, former deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security. I have to say, when she was undersecretary of defense for environmental security, it was, like, the first time that people recognized there was a link between what was going on with the environment and climate and national security. And that was in large part due to Sherri’s work. She’s now a senior fellow at the Polar Institute and Environmental Change and Security Program at some other think tank called the Wilson Center. (Laughter.)  

So I’m very much looking forward to the discussion. Let me invite the panelists to join us. Dessert will be served while they’re talking. Please continue to eat and enjoy the meal and what’s left of the wine on the Earth. (Laughter.) And why don’t you guys—why don’t you guys come up and—for the panel. Please welcome them. (Applause.) 


GOODMAN: OK. Good evening, everyone. It’s really a pleasure and an honor to be here with all of you. And I want to start by thanking and congratulating Mike for his one year at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mike and I actually were law school classmates together. (Laughter.) And we were teaching fellows for a class on, I think it was, nuclear weapons and global security, right, Mike, for the Chayes—Toni Chayes and Abe Chayes. And when you think about, that was sort of the big global policy class that was taught at Harvard Law School in our day. And now, fast forward, I am sure there are classes taught on climate and law, and climate and law and food security. So the world has come a long way. And, Mike, thank you for your brilliant leadership at the Council and elsewhere in your career. And I just also want to recognize Mike’s wife, Nancy, a longtime friend. Goodman, although we’re not related—(laughter)—but very much a partner there in that team.  

And really, we have such a great panel here tonight. I think this is so interesting because so much of the climate discussion for a long time has been about water as the frontline of the climate crisis—too much water, too little water, in the right place, the wrong place. And I think that indeed is really important. But also now we know food is really the frontline. And let’s hope this isn’t our last supper. But we learned so much tonight. 

And I want to start with Sam, our brilliant chef, who we’ve already learned so much from, and ask you about—it was so great to hear you start out your exposition on the foods we’re eating with the crab and about the seafood, because I often find I’m in discussions where we bring up food and climate and people are talking about the land, and they’re not always talking about the marine life, sort of the whole food ecosystem. So speak to us a little bit about what you’re observing in sort of the migration of marine species because of warming waters, and how that is going to affect the food system. 

KASS: I mean, I would say, first of all, these are two of my heroes too, Mike. I just want to be clear. (Laughter.) So we’re really—I’m really humbled to be on this panel with you all.  

It occurred to me a few years ago, I had a guy sort of accost me at this event. (Laughter.) And he was really adamant about how closed-minded and inherently biased all of us are, essentially, and I was in my presentation I gave, to the land. And that not only is the ocean dealing with and absorbing and taking on a much bigger portion of carbon and of climate, but it is so much more vastly efficient in solving the problem. So it holds so much more potential in sequestering far greater amounts of carbon and more sustainable ways that don’t, you know, hurt the ocean environment. And it is the foundation of, you know, billions of people’s ability to live and survive.  

And like, you know, I just looked at him and I was, like, you are so right. I am completely, like, biased because I spend most of my time on land. (Laughs.) And I think we all have—(laughter)—and it was just, like, he was so right. I was, you know, don’t yell at me but I agree with you. He was really angry with me. (Laughter.) And, and I think we all—like, many of us. Not all of us, of course. There’s many people who have dedicated their lives of the oceans and live, you know, from it. But I think a lot of us, and from a policy standpoint too, we have a pretty biased sense of the land, towards land.  

In the oceans, you are seeing a mass—you’re seeing in migration north and south of both plants and animals. So you’re seeing plants moving north and animals moving north. So when I was—like, when I went to see some of those fishermen about the crab and the salmon up in the Pacific Northwest, they were starting to catch species that were tropical. And, like, didn’t know what the laws were because there’s no quotas because they’ve never seen some of these species before. You’re now growing corn and, like, North Dakota. Thirty years ago, there wasn’t a single ear of corn in North Dakota. Now it’s a thriving corn state.  

So you are seeing this mass migration with some of these plants, like corn, you know, it’s not that hard for the current system to absorb. Trees are harder, right, to move. They’re more disruptive. They take longer. There’s more infrastructure to build. So I do think there’s a lot of upheaval economically and culturally from the shift in the oceans, and as you watch lobster move north, for example. Like, you know, Massachusetts, it’s not going to be known for lobster that much longer. It’s going to be sort of up in Canada, and they’re going to be—they’re already starting to be flown down. So, yeah, I think when you—we have—we are missing big opportunities when it comes to investing in—both protecting our oceans and investing heavily in them as core parts of the solution. 

GOODMAN: Mmm hmm. Well, thank you very much for underscoring that, Sam, because as someone who is in New England, or has a home in Massachusetts, and loves lobster, it’s a very horrifying thought. (Laughter.) And I understand they’re now talking about growing—having vineyards in Vermont and Massachusetts. So we need—we need to think of the whole food ecosystem. And thank you for that. 

COUSIN: Can I just add on to that?  

GOODMAN: Please do. 

COUSIN: Because I think what Sam mentioned, the blue food—the fish and the— 

GOODMAN: The blue economy, mmm hmm. 

COUSIN: And the impact that the warming of the ocean is having. One of the issues that we don’t talk enough about is the different seaweeds in the ocean, and the opportunity for seeding the ocean for sequestering carbon, and for producing additional consumable foods—highly nutritious, consumable foods. And so as we think about not just the problems but the answers, the oceans provide us with a significant opportunity to address some of those degradation or—and reductions in production on the land, by increasing production of what we consume from the seas. 

GOODMAN: Great. Well, thank you, Ertharin. Let’s continue with you. So you’ve been working on scaling up investments in our food systems. Can you talk about why we’re underinvested in what we need to do, given your vast experience in so many areas of food and agriculture at the highest levels?  

COUSIN: Well, thank you very much for the question. Sam mentioned that he is now working on investing in startups and innovation that can make a difference. What we are doing at Food Systems for the Future is working to attract capital to scale up the investments that you start up.  

KASS: Great. (Laughter.) 

COUSIN: Because the challenge is that less than 4 percent of all of the climate finance dollars today go to the food system. The reality of it is that historically the climate community did not consider the food systems community as part of the solution. They saw it was part of the problem, but they didn’t recognize the potential for investing in food systems transformation as a solution to addressing climate. But when you know that 30 percent of the greenhouse gases that are emitted on an annual basis, and now over 50 percent of the methane that is emitted, is from the food system, the land food system, you know that if we want to address climate, we must address the reduction in those greenhouse gases.  

The other number that should drive more capital into the food system is that 30 percent of the fossil fuels that are used on an annual basis are used to drive the food system. And when we talk about the reduction in fossil fuels, you don’t often hear about what is necessary to support the food systems transformation and moving to more renewables in the production of food from—not just at the farm level, because some 23 percent of what—the energy that is consumed in the food system is consumed at farm level—but all the way across the food system. Because in production there’s some 15 percent of energy, the fossil fuels, are used to produce food. And then one of the big issues, of course, is transportation.  

We have very long value chains now, which means that we are moving food from places where it’s grown to places where we eat. And we saw this during COVID. We recognized how long our value chains were. That we didn’t have local and regional processing and production that would reduce the cost of transportation, that would also increase the opportunity for more efficiencies in the system. And those are all businesses. Every single challenge that I’ve identified is a business opportunity.  

But I will end by saying that the capital that we need, particularly the private sector capital that we need in the food system, is not your traditional VC capital. Because as I heard one asset manager say recently, we don’t grow unicorns on farms. And so when VC—Silicon Valley VC is looking for unicorns, you’re not going to find much of that in the food system.  

KASS: I disagree.  

COUSIN: Well, we can have a debate about that, because you had 85 food and ag companies go bankrupt last year trying to chase VC capital. And so there’s—we need smarter money investing in food systems transformation. 

KASS: I agree with that. 

GOODMAN: OK, I wanted to—thank you. Thank you. And, Cary, in addition to being—having the strategic foresight to create the seed vault in Svalbard, which I count myself among the privilege who’s actually been there and been inside it to see what a treasure—global treasure it is. You now have said that you came out of retirement to take this new position at the State Department as special envoy for global food security. And I’ve had the privilege of learning from you there. My State Department hat, on the Secretary of State Advisory Board. And so tell us—talk to us about what difference that office and you are making in it, and how that’s going to change, and also speak to this matter of opportunity crops that I heard you on NPR the other day talk—explain to us what those are as well. 

FOWLER: Sure. Thanks, Sherri. Well, some of you might ask the question of why is food security important to the State Department. And, of course, agriculture and food is a major part of all economies. But we have 750 million people in the world that are food insecure right now. And probably half of them. close to half, really don’t know where the next meal is coming from. But, you know, those are impossibly high numbers for us to really relate to as human beings. The one part of it that that I relate to most strongly is that in many countries in Africa you have childhood stunting rates of 20, 30, 40 percent. Twenty, 30, 40 percent of the children under five mentally and physically stunted, and will be for the rest of their lives.  

So if you think about the developmental, economic, political challenges caused by that level of under and malnutrition, you can understand why the United States and the State Department would be interested in that. Because we’re interested in having a peaceful world. And we know that food insecurity and conflict go hand in hand both as cause and effect. So when I came to the State Department, I remember—and, yes, I did come out of retirement. And they did call me up and ask me to take this job, which I did not know existed at that time. I had my first meeting with Secretary Blinken. And he said, well, what do you want to do? And I didn’t want to hit him with what I’m about to hit you with, but I said—(laughter)—I said, well, I want to do something that has a huge impact, has a great cost-benefit ratio, that’s sustainable, and that can’t easily be undone by any future administration that happens not to believe in food security or climate change.  

And he kind of—(applause)—thank you. You should applaud the next sentence in the story, which is Secretary Blinken smiled and laughed a little bit, and he said: Go for it. (Laughter.) So my idea was that we needed to get back to basics. Food systems are really complicated, and they’re wonderful, and they’re intriguing, and you can get excited about every aspect of the food system—as witnessed by this panel. Fundamentally though, there are a couple of things we just got to get right. One of them is we got to have good, healthy, fertile soils. And we have to have crops that are adapted to climate change. If we don’t have those two things, the rest of the food system collapses and we don’t have sustainable food security.  

So we thought, well, where’s the—where’s the biggest problem and where’s the biggest opportunity? The biggest problem? Africa. Biggest opportunity was with the African traditional and indigenous crops. There are hundreds of them. They have not been invested in historically. The African Union has highlighted the fact that there’s been massive underinvestment in these crops over the years. So if climate change is changing agricultural systems around the world, very much in Africa. And, by the way, last month was the 542nd consecutive month in which the global average temperature exceeded the twentieth century average for that—for that month. Fife hundred and forty-two consecutive months of above-average temperatures, if you will. Looks like a trend to me.  

So if you if you look at Africa and you realize that African systems are being transformed, well, how do we get in the driver’s seat of that? And what’s the starting point? I think the starting point is to do something kind of revolutionary, which is to say, well, let’s start with figuring out what would provide good nutrition for everybody. That’s the starting point. You want to have good nutrition for everybody. So we focused on these African traditional and indigenous crops. We went through a process—I’ll end with this little story—that I don’t think has ever been done before.  

We got together the world’s leading experts in these crops and in nutrition, we put them in the same room, at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. in Rome, with climate change modelers, with plant breeders, and ag economist. And they all said, this the first time we’ve ever been in the room with those folks. And we ask ourselves one question: What are the crops that have the most potential for providing extra nutrition and getting that into the diets in Africa. Particularly, I must say, most of these traditional crops, indigenous crops, were domesticated by and are currently grown by women. And so upping the production of those crops gets that food into the mouths of these children who are being stunted.  

So the first question was, which are the most important crops for nutrition? And the second question, which we assembled the same group of people and some others at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, was to say, well, OK, how are they going to do in a climate changed world? So we engaged in modeling, climate change modeling, to figure out how these are going to react to climate change. And I’ll just give you one comparison. I’ll end with that.  

Maize, corn, is one of the major staples in Africa. If you look at what climate change is going to do to maize by 2050, it’s not pretty. I’ve seen projections anywhere of a minus 4 percent yield hit to minus 24 percent. In the face of a pretty quickly growing population, you don’t need a negative hit to production. But some of these crops have enormous potential for providing nutrition. And if we just put some investment in them the production could be ramped up too.  

So we’re not in the business at the State Department for sure of telling people what to eat or what to grow. I think we are in the business of trying to help African countries and African farmers and consumers have viable options when the time comes, choices. So that’s what we’re doing on the crop side. We’re working with soils and some other things, but I’ve spoken too long and I’ll turn it back. 

GOODMAN: I now want to try that African eggplant that heard you talk about. OK, Sam, you want to jump in? And I was supposed to tell you all before that we’re going to start at 8:00 with questions. So get ready. And this discussion is on the record tonight. (Laughter.) Just so you know. 

KASS: I think underpinning, you know, the work that you’re doing, that I just—I think it’s important just to point out is part of the risk that we’re carrying as a globe when it comes to food production in the future is just the fundamental lack of diversity in what is constituting most of what we eat. So, what is it, twelve plants and animals consists of 70 or 80 percent of the calories— 

COUSIN: Three is 60 percent. Corn, wheat, and rice. 

KASS: Three is 60 (percent)—and rice is 60 (percent). And then you get to twelve, it’s, like, I think, 80 percent of the calories consumed on the planet. And, you know, and also remember, like, every year we produce a big mound of grain, essentially, with about a six-month buffer that is the difference between mass starvation and life on Earth. But it is in so few crops and such a limited genetic diversity, that if you use a scenario—like an investment scenario, like, you know, a portfolio manager wouldn’t invest in just a few companies. Then you’re, like, live or die on just a few things. And that’s from the food system, basically what we’ve done. We have all of our eggs in essentially one basket.  

And fundamental to this work is to try to reinvest in—or, for the first time invest in—a much greater genetic diversity, which inherently mitigates the risk we’re carrying, as some crops will do better when there’s—you know, it’s too wet, other crops will do, you know, better when it’s, you know, really hot but still moist, and others when it’s really hot and really dry. Like, and we need to embed, at scale, a dramatic amount more diversity into the system. So fundamental to, you know, this work, and it’s really just deeply inspiring, is trying to get just more foods on the table that can give us more options when things start to go bad.  

FOWLER: Can I just add one thing to that? 

GOODMAN: Please.  

FOWLER: Taking that approach is not just good for other people and not just good for other countries, particularly developing countries. It’s good for ourselves. There are plenty of studies out there, interestingly enough, that show that our U.S. expenditures promoting Foreign Agricultural Research—in other words, research aimed towards other people, other farming systems, is net beneficiary to ourselves at a rate of about ten to one. You wish you could go on the stock market and make that kind of investment, right? But this is where doing good for other people is also doing good for ourselves. 

COUSIN: Yeah. And I’ll just add on, that why I think it’s so important the work that you’re doing, Cary, is because of that 60 percent of three crop—three grains, there 50,000 different legumes, fruits and vegetables, grains out here, that have much more nutritional value than those three crops. And the opportunity to address that number of 3.1 billion people who can’t afford a diverse, nutritious diet, as we’re sitting here today, and that number becomes even greater affecting both the economics of the countries, the movement of population, the future GDPs, all of the reasons why this is an important foreign policy issue. 

GOODMAN OK. Well, with that we are at—(laughter)—food is national security and climate is national security. OK. That won’t be news to anybody in this room. So now we’re going to open it up for questions. And I think we have mics around the room. I’m going to start with this gentleman here, and then we’ll go to Louise in the front. Thank you. 

Q: Thank you. Franklin Moore. 

GOODMAN: Yes, please identify yourself. 

Q: Here’s my question. So, Cary, you’ve talked mostly about things that are in the line for production. We’ve talked mostly about the production of some things. My question is about commercialization. Because what one finds, particularly in the African situation, is that if there is commercialization that has taken place around food crops, it probably only is rice and corn. And you know that commercialization of corn in East Africa has created some problems, where we have Mali as a case, parts of Kenya as a case, that produce so much maize that they thought they didn’t need to worry about what was going on. And their children ate so much maize, and we’re no longer hungry, that they became malnourished because they were only eating that maize. That’s in the commercial sector. All the other things that they should be eating are not commercialized yet. So I would like to have you all talk a bit about the concept of commercialization.  

FOWLER: Yeah. Well, I’ll just say two things very briefly. One is that I think by increasing the production and the qualities of some of the traditional and indigenous vegetables, fruits, roots and tubers, legumes, a lot of that production is going to stay home. Most production of fruits and vegetables stays in the local area, particularly in Africa. So that part of what we’re trying to do, I think, will stay at home, so to speak, and be consumed, and improve nutrition and diets. I think there is a need to scale up and get—move some of these foods into the commercial production area. And that’s a complicated topic.  

One starting point for that, Franklin, I think is through school feeding programs, where you can provide a market for farmers to produce a substantial quantity of food. You can get that food into the—onto the plates of children, and you can at the same time support local cultures. We have to realize that these crops, some of which we in this country might look down on, have been part of African cuisine and cultures for literally thousands of years. They were domesticated there. So I think it’s not an overnight solution. There’s no pill to take. But I think we’re moving in the right direction now. 

COUSIN: Yeah. The only thing I’d add is that we need to bring consumers along with us, because part of the challenge is that as countries advance they adopt Western diets. And much of why you see the increase in consumption of maize is not only because of the availability, but because of the demand for it from consumers. And so the—only are those—many of those domestic and local crops looked down on by those in America, they’re oftentimes looked down on by those in the countries where they’re grown. particularly those at higher income levels. And so it becomes quite important that we’re not just investing in the crops, and the scale up of those crops, and ultimately the commercialization of those more nutritious crops, but the communication and the pathway to ensuring consumer demand for those products. 

Q: Just one comment. I would say, although it stays local, that doesn’t mean it’s not being sold. And that doesn’t mean there’s not potential to commercialize it. And it probably is the lack of commercialization at local levels that has kept commercialization from taking place abroad.  

COUSIN: Yeah, but that’s a—and, Frankly, we could have a very long conversation, because it’s not just about what you grow, it’s about transportation, it’s about storage, it’s about processing. All of those things come into play when you start talking about commercialization. 

GOODMAN: Thank you. OK, Louise, and then the gentleman in the middle. 

Q: I’m Louise Shelley. I run the Terrorism Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University.  

And you may say, what the hell do you have on this issue that relates to this? (Laughter.) And I would say that is we’re talking about a Dinner of Extinction, the only—it is not just the problem of climate change that is contributing to extinction. One-third of the wild-caught fish that enters the United States is illegally caught. And it is illegally caught off Baja California, and off the coast of Peru, and off the coast of West Africa. And it is decimating those communities.  

And apart from that, something that we never talked about is the problem of counterfeit pesticides. When we talk about all the farmers killing themselves in India, it’s because one-quarter of the pesticides that are sold in India are counterfeit and destroy the soil, as well as the counterfeit seed. And the fact of counterfeit pesticides is already 10 percent of the pesticides used in Europe. So I think we need to think about what we do to control these forces in our society that, apart from what’s going on with climate, are destroying our food supply. 

GOODMAN: Well, I’ll just say, thank you, Louise. I’m familiar with your work. And it’s been very foundational and important in this area, because we need to understand, particularly as you noted for fish, but also for wildlife, how much illegal trade there is and overfishing. And— 

COUSIN: The only thing I would ask, if I may, is, one, when we talk about the transformation of the food system, in addition to investment in research and what we’ve been talking about in investment in scaling up, it is also in policies and regulation. And if we don’t have adequate policies and regulation at the national level that are—that’s implemented at the local level, we will not achieve a food system transformation that that supports environmental health and human health. You can’t do it without the appropriate guardrails across the system. 

GOODMAN: Exactly. And that’s why just in recent years our climate—our security assistance and security cooperation authorities have been updated to encompass illegal fishing, so that we can also help our allies and partners in Africa, and Latin America, and elsewhere have the resources they need to combat the illegal and unreported fishing.  

Gentleman in the middle, and then we’ll take the two at this table. 

Q: Peter McPherson. I ran AID during the ’80s for several years. Great discussion.  

Let me bring up the question of GMOs. There’s the community, which I think rightfully, works hard at bringing the climate change problem to our attention. Also has many that are a little uneasy about GMOs. But I think GMOs are a critical component of handling this food situation. We can—with GMOs, we can bring crops to market years earlier. We can do things like iron in rice, the fortification, that we can’t do with normal breeding. And iron it’s such a problem with so many people that eat rice. So you mentioned corn reductions because of less rain and weather and so forth. We know quite a lot about breeding drought tolerance and so forth.  

So I think it’s important for the climate change important community to grapple with this as a key component. I also think that these vegetables and this work that Cary has been such an effective advocate for is so important. But I know Cary appreciates that corn, wheat, and the other—and rice, and you might add to that beans, the key staples are going to feed the world in substantial part. What we’re talking about is an additional component but not the thrust. So we have to have more than one variety of wheat. We can have a whole range. In fact, we already do. Anyway, I would—I think a discussion about GMOs, because this is the community, some of them here, that would benefit, I think, from a good discussion about GMOs. Thank you. 

COUSIN: Can I take a personal point of privilege first? Dr. McPherson, you won’t remember, much of what I know about particularly agricultural development, I was on the BIFAD when you were the chair. And so—(laughs)—I learned a great deal from you, just as I learned from Dr. Fowler. So thank you very much.  

But, and in all honesty, full open the kimono—(laughter)—I sit on the Bayer board. And so—(laughter)—and so recognize the value of GMOs, and not only for all of the reasons that you’ve just described, but I would say we also need to look at where the science is taking us. Because gene editing and CRISPR is giving us new answers that we could not have even imagined when we were back on the BIFAD and GMOs were being introduced. Science will be a big part of helping us solve the challenges that were described by Sam earlier.  

And the seeds that that Cary discussed, we must recognize that the—having direct seeded rice, that Bayer is implementing in different parts of the world today, and other new crops that are coming online that reduce emissions, increase production, and are drought and wind tolerant, is critical. Because we need to—as Mike was saying before during dinner—the problems are here on Earth, but the answers are also here on Earth. And we need to allow the science to lead us towards those answers. 


KASS: I’d absolutely defer to you. I have something to say, but I will let him go first. (Laughter.) 

FOWLER: Of course, you know, the United States government’s position on this as a science-based position. It’s a very pragmatic position. I must say, personally, I tend to try to avoid discussions of GMOs. And it’s because it’s so emotional. It’s rarely biological oriented or economics oriented. It ends up being, you know, quite emotional. It seems to me that a larger question that’s being drowned out by—sometimes, by the GMO issue—is the larger question of agricultural research. You know, on an inflation-adjusted basis, our public expenditures for agricultural research are, guess what, where they were fifty years ago—fifty years ago. 

This is before anybody was talking about climate change. This is before we had a couple of billion people on Earth, anticipating a couple of billion more. The small, incremental gains that we get in productivity every year, which we’ve come to count on, I’m not sure—and I think Sam would agree with this—maybe we shouldn’t be counting on those small incremental gains. But they will be woefully inadequate for meeting food demand by 2050. So one of the things that we need to do is, I think, move to a higher level in this debate about GMOs and agricultural research and development, and realize that as a society we need to make making the proper investments. And to me, that means having a long-term view. I must admit, government really functions best when it’s talking about short term, doesn’t it? (Laughs.) And what we can do to solve a problem today with a snap of finger. But we need to be thinking more long term and being willing to make the kind of consistent investments that agricultural research needs if it’s going to be paying off.  

I’ll just mention one other thing, that if you go back to the mid-1980s, you would see that China accounted for about 0.8 percent, less than 1 percent, of global total agricultural expenditures. Twenty-four percent today of global expenditures, ahead of the United States for the first time in history. We haven’t made a commitment to the kind of—not just the incremental gains that we’re getting and we need to fund, but at this point we need to be thinking about, frankly, more bold, more aspirational increases in agricultural production. And one of the things we’re certainly talking about at the State Department now is the need to invest in moonshots, really aspirational, game changing, transformational kinds of research. 

Q: Just a quick response. I think that that’s a—the research is totally inadequate. And we need to have dramatically more increases to make these adjustments. But I think time is of the essence, as the people have said here. And I think if you want to look at this in terms of what tools do we need to use to get there in time, then you back into these new tools, CRISPR, GMOs, et cetera. So maybe that’s the back end of the discussion. Yeah, this is a community that should— 

GOODMAN: Thank you very much. Unfortunately, we have run out—Sam, I’m going to give you the last word. But then we’re at 8:15, and I know that the Council always likes to end on time, so. 

KASS: It’s the only dinner I’ve ever been to that ends at 8:15. (Laughter.) But I know where I am. I know where I am. 

GOODMAN: Well, you can ask Mike’s permission. 

KASS: I know where I am. I mean, I’m no longer in government so, you know, I get to—I get to speak, you know, entirely free. I think—so I think the question we should be asking ourselves is how are these—not whether a tool is good or bad, but how it is applied and to whom it benefits. I think the answer on GMOs is decidedly mixed in that regard. It served—almost entirely GMO application was to spray herbicides, which increased production and efficiency on farm, which had a huge transformational impact. There’s no question about that. I think there were some negative unintended consequences, many of which we are, you know, not directly, but indirectly talking about here, in terms of lack of diversity in the system, degradation of water and soil, et cetera.  

I think we have—though we have come into a problem in the debate whether it’s, like, a tool is evil or not. And that’s just, like, a really unproductive and perilous conversation, particularly to what you just said, given the magnitude of the challenges that we face. I do think part of what’s exciting me about CRISPR, and we have invested in a billion-dollar CRISPR technology—just saying, Ertharin—(laughter)—that is using these tools to improve yields—dramatic step-change improvements in yields, as well as drought resistance, less water needs. Part of the challenge with GMOs, which is I think we’re now thankfully kind of moving past—and all the big guys are obviously spending a lot of money on these tools—is they were extraordinarily expensive and took a really long time, a decade or more, per trait.  

And so that meant that it only made sense to make that kind of investment in a couple of crops. And then a couple of crops more, because there’s only a few crops that we plant enough have to justify that kind of work and time and capital needed to get those traits on farm. CRISPR, I do think holds the potential to lower the time—it does lower the time dramatically, and lower the costs, which means that it will make more sense to address crops that don’t necessarily have such a big market, that could potentially start addressing some of the very work that you’re doing in Africa for crops that haven’t gotten not a single dollar of development. And so I’m very excited about the future of what these tools hold. 

But we should hold ourselves accountable to who benefits from these tools. And ultimately, if it is not producing—if the outcomes are not more sustainably produced in a less resource-intensive way to improve the nutrient density, particularly of those who need it the most, then I would say those tools are falling short. And I think we need to continue to have a healthy debate around how we’re using these tools, and move past the good or bad. Because I agree with you, sir, like, that has been very detrimental to making progress, you know, on a lot of fronts. And we just simply cannot afford not to have every tool at our disposal, frankly, including GMOs, as we try to face the daunting task that we have ahead. And food, understandably, has a real aversion to tech in in our food, right, even though of course, it’s throughout our food. But I agree, I think it’s a—it’s an important challenge to take on as we try to sort through these challenges. 

COUSIN: Before you tell us to get off the stage—(laughter)—I’m not going to go there, because— 

GOODMAN: I guess you know who’s in charge. 

COUSIN: I just think—I want to thank Mike and the Council on Foreign Relations for bringing this conversation to this community. When I first started working in this space, I was told, you know, Ertharin, those in the real foreign policy really don’t care about these issues. You know, that that these are ag issues, they belong at USDA, they don’t belong in the foreign policy conversation. But the recognition that this is not only national security, but this is about our life and our future on this planet, and as we talk about how the global community works together we must have these conversations in these rooms. So I thank you.  

GOODMAN: Well, and I want to thank—(applause)—yeah, I’m going to echo that. Because for a long time climate as well was not mainstream in foreign policy and national security circles. And now it really is, thanks to your work, Ertharin, and all of you here. So it’s moved, as we say, to the big kids table. In fact, tonight it is the table. (Laughter.) And so I’d like to say we’ve also moved from considering it as a threat multiplier, the title of my book coming later this year, to an opportunity multiplier. (Laughter, applause.) 

KASS: Nicely done. Nicely done. 

GOODMAN: With that, let me thank all the staff. It took a lot of teamwork to get this dinner on tonight that doesn’t usually happen. Let’s have a round of applause for the staff. (Applause.) Thanks to all the panelists. Thank you. 


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