Vilsack reflects on Obama’s foreign aid legacy


U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and President of the World Food Prize Foundation Kenneth M. Quinn examine the past eight years of agricultural development under the Obama administration’s leadership. Vilsack reflected on the legacy of Obama’s food, agriculture and rural infrastructure initiatives during an address at the 2016 World Food Prize Conference in Des Moines, Iowa.  (Photo by Sean McNealy)

By Nora Faris

DES MOINES, Iowa — Barack Obama was elected in 2008 as a world leader, promising hope and change. Nearing the end of his second term, Obama has established a legacy as a world feeder after the passage of the Global Food Security Act of 2016. The law codifies Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s international aid initiative, and requires the development of a comprehensive strategy to support the program.

In the past eight years, Feed the Future and other international aid programs have transformed nearly 200 million hungry people into hopeful people by catalyzing agricultural development around the world.

During an address at the World Food Prize conference on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Feed the Future works because the program lets nations decide their own food futures.

“Feed the Future is focused on country-led efforts,” Vilsack said. “This is not the United States coming in and telling folks what we think they ought to do. It’s us coming in and asking how we can be of help.”

Feed the Future, authorized in 2009, operates in 19 focus countries to improve nutrition, engage private sector investors, build local marketing capacity, implement climate-smart agriculture techniques and equip female farmers with production resources.

In those countries, Feed the Future has increased incomes and shrunk rates of childhood stunting.

Between 2012 and 2014, Feed the Future elevated Hondurans’ incomes by an average of 55 percent, partly due to increased market access and improvements in agricultural production. In Ghana, childhood stunting decreased by 33 percent between 2008 and 2014.

Vilsack said the Feed the Future initiative is not only a matter of food security but also a matter of national security.

He cited two common denominators that are present in the world’s most divided, dangerous regions: the absence of a functioning agricultural economy and populations of hungry, impoverished people.

Programs like Feed the Future that facilitate independence in food production fill stomachs and lead to more fulfilling lives, he said

In Syria, for example, the U.S. directs aid to the development of agricultural micro-economies in refugee camps. By introducing small-scale food production in the camps, individuals are empowered to feed themselves and trade with their neighbors by fostering agricultural growth.

“We do not fully appreciate the power of agriculture and its capacity to make peace,” Vilsack said.

He applauded Congress’ bipartisan support for the Global Food Security Act, which strengthens America’s commitment to funding Feed the Future and international agricultural development.

In accordance with the new law, the U.S. government issued its comprehensive Global Food Security Strategy earlier this month. The document outlines the roles and goals of executive agencies, private sector partners and academic institutions in the implementation of the Global Food Security Act.

When Obama took office, eliminating hunger by 2030 seemed like an insurmountable goal. But now, with a plan in place, many in the agriculture industry say “Yes, we can” when it comes to achieving a food-filled, hunger-free future.

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Value chain key in soybean intensification



Robert Easter of the University of Illinois and Michael Robinson of Syngenta Foundation listen as Robert Bertram of USAID addresses the conference audience on soybean intensification. (Photo by Sean McNealy)

By Sean McNealy

DES MOINES, Iowa — The Soybean Innovation Lab, funded by U.S. Agency for International Development as part of the Feed the Future initiative, researches and implements better ways to produce soybeans to make rural communities healthier in tropical regions of Africa and Asia. Soybeans, one of the worlds’ healthiest foods with high protein, vitamin and mineral content, are emphasized for their nutritious properties for humans, animals, and soils.

Resilient legumes such as soy, Robert Bertram of USAID said at the World Food Prize, result in more biomass which results in reslient soils and produces higher and more reliable crop yields. The demand for soybeans make the crop culturally sound, Robert Easter of the University of Illinois said, so that soy can be an attractive opportunity for impoverished farmers.

SIL works toward non-staple soybean intensification, which involves using capital, such as technology and labor, to raise crop productivity in a specific area. Communities with high rates of poverty and low rates of education benefit from the SIL’s techniques, said Brady Deaton, who is on the SIL advisory board.

“There is human talent that we don’t want to waste,” he said. “We want to ensure that every family gets an education.”

Soybean intensification requires that all components in the agricultural production value chain — from seed innovators and distributors to marketers —coordinate and cooperate to support farmers in the tropics. SIL strives to tackle challenges in the value chain of soybean production so that soybean development is seamless and successful.

“Access is an important step in the value chain,” Michael Robinson, chief science advisor of the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, said. He pointed out that even the smallest of farms can benefit from the improved technology.

However, Robert Bertram, chief scientist in USAID’s Bureau for Food Security, said there are limits to intensification itself as challenges like climate change threaten productivity.

Resource-use efficiency, prudent use of inputs and continuing collection of information and knowledge can help in the short-term, but scientists need to recognize long-term implications of crop intensification.

“We can’t just intensify forever,” Bertram said.

Intergrating the soy value chain does, however, offer a targeted tool in the fight against poverty, under nutrition and hunger.

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Dehydrator designed to reduce food loss



Elise Kendall, Clayton Mooney and Mikayla Sullivan, three of the four founders of KinoSol, run a booth at the World Food Prize on Friday morning and share the group’s ideas about dehydration and reducing food loss. (Photo by Maria Kalaitzandonakes)

By Maria Kalaitzandonakes

DES MOINES, Iowa — It was mango harvesting time in Kamluli, Uganda, when the KinoSol team first tried out their new sun-powered dehydrator. The team hoped its technology would reduce food loss for subsistence farmers.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 40 percent of food losses occur at postharvest and processing levels in developing countries.

KinoSol, based in Ames, Iowa, conducted their first successful field trial of their dehydrator in Uganda in the summer of 2015 and performed another in El Salvador in February of 2016. Now KinoSol has units placed in 18 countries.

The organization prides itself on being simple. Putting together a KinoSol unit takes about 5 minutes to set up and weighs about 8 pounds. No tools are needed for assembly.


The KinoSol dehydrating unit displayed on the organization’s booth at the World Food Prize. (Photo by Maria Kalaitzandonakes)

The unit has four round, metal slatted shelves to dry grains, fruits, insects, veggies — and most recently — fish in Cambodia. The outside sheathe is a thick Lexan plastic that retains heat from the sun, which dries the food inside using natural convection. No electricity is necessary.

“Obviously the speed of drying depends on what food is being dried and how strong the sun is,” Clayton Mooney, one of KinoSol’s founders, said. “A pepper and a mango, for example, will take different times to dry.”

The unit also has a storage space underneath to keep dried food safe from pests, and each KinoSol comes with Mylar bags that can be reused to store food, too. The storage bags preserve dehydrated food for between three to six months.

“We realized that (farmers) really needed a place to keep their foods out of moisture, light and away from pests,” he said.

The project started as an idea from an agriculture brainstorming session in Ames, between the four founders: Mooney, Elise Kendall, Ella Gehrke and Mikayla Sullivan. Then, Mooney and his father built their first prototype in his father’s wood shop.

“We started really simply,” Mooney said. “We knew it just needed to work. It just needed to make bananas into banana chips.”

The team nervously showed the product to faculty at Iowa State University in September 2014, Sullivan said.

“Everyone tried really hard to be supportive — but (the prototype) was pretty rough,” she said. “It is pretty crazy to think about how far we’ve come.”

KinoSol partners with U.S.-based organizations that are working in developing regions to carry out more field testing. The organizations are given between one and five free KinoSol units to take on their trip. The field agents send back data describing what foods were dried, how long it took to dry and, perhaps most importantly, whether there were any problems.

This information has been invaluable, Mooney said. For example, the testing group in El Salvador found locals didn’t understand why bananas and plantains did not maintain their yellow color after being dehydrated. They associated the color loss with nutrient loss. This feedback helped KinoSol plan educational materials to show families that the slow-sun dehydration process removed very little of the nutrients.

“The community we worked with in El Salvador was completely new to dehydration,” Sullivan said. “It was cool to see how excited they became when they could see the benefits. It really was a morale boost for all of us because it meant we could introduce the units in places that had never heard of dehydration before.”

Most of KinoSol’s partners use micro-loan systems, Mooney said, so that the participants have some “skin in the game.”

Kendall said the unit could also be used as a business, not just for family use.

“People can sell the food they dehydrate or store, which could open up a lot of paths for them,” she said.

In the coming years, Mooney said he thinks KinoSol will create region-specific units to accommodate changes based on climate differences and set up local production to reduce costs and ensure local jobs.

Today, KinoSol hopes to start production for dehydrators in the U.S. and Europe. The company’s Kickstarter campaign for the local units project will begin October 20th.

“We decided there was also a huge need for the units in our own backyards,” he said. “There is an insane amount of food waste occurring.”

Thirty-one percent of the U.S. food goes uneaten at the retail and consumer level, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.  That’s 133 billion pounds food.

The group hopes its new, easy-to-use, solar-powered tech can help to reduce food waste and food loss around the world.

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African Development Bank Group dedicated to ending malnutrition


Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank Group, told Borlaug Dialogue attendees how malnutrition and stunting are major issues affecting not only human health but countries’ economies as well. (Photo by Kristen Reesor)

By Kristen Reesor

DES MOINES, Iowa – When President of the African Development Bank Group Akinwumi Adesina visited Madagascar, he saw a small boy among the crowd.

“I was so sure he cannot be more than 5 years old,” Adesina said. “To my shock, Antonio said he was 13.”

The problem facing Antonio and millions of other Africans is stunted growth due to malnutrition. Twenty of the 24 countries that have stunting rates of more than 40 percent are in Africa, Adesina said at the 2016 World Food Prize Conference.

Stunting reduces national GDP because malnourished children do not get enough healthy food for their brains to grow normally and then become less able to contribute to local economies through the workforce as adults.

Malnutrition also causes millions of children to become blind due to vitamin A deficiency causing them to drop out of school.

“These things should not be,” Adesina said. “No child should ever go hungry.”

Adesina said countries must invest in what he calls “gray-matter infrastructure,” which are policies devoted to improving nutrition, which in turn can spur brain development.

Adesina said an estimated $7 billion a year for ten years is needed to address malnutrition globally. The African Development Bank Group has pledged $24 billion towards that goal to agriculture, food and nutrition programs in Africa, but that is not enough, he said.

Nutrition social impact bonds would help, Adesina said. These bonds allow countries to raise money to finance better nutrition for their people.

“Stunted children today mean stunted economies tomorrow,” he said. “It is that simple.”

Adesina also wants to create an African nutrition accountability index that would rank countries based on their progress. In May 2016, the African Development Bank Group created a body of people called African Leaders for Nutrition to begin promoting  the implementation of nutrition policies. Kenneth Quinn, World Food Prize president, joined the global panel.

The Bank group launched Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa so African women can get loans to start their own businesses and earn more income.

“A healthy mother who is economically empowered will nourish her children,” Adesina said.


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A farewell to farms: Why some youth don’t consider a future in farming


Joas van Oord (right) talks farming with a fellow member of the Global Farmer Network during a series of Iowa farm tours preceding the 2016 World Food Prize conference. (Photo by Maria Kalaitzandonakes)


By Nora Faris

DES MOINES, Iowa — Farmers once prided themselves on the length of their days and the strength of their work ethics. But one Canadian dairy farmer said the sun is setting on the days when farmers worked from dawn to dusk.

Joas van Oord, 36, cultivates about 200 acres of cropland and milks 55 cows twice a day, every day. But he says all work and no play would make him dull. While Van Oord’s dad measured his farm’s success by the work he put in, Joas measures his success by the work he doesn’t put in — and the amount of time he gets to spend hiking, fishing and enjoying his family.

“Younger generations are really more concerned about having a good work-life balance, and young farmers are no exception,” van Oord said.

Van Oord was the first farmer in New Brunswick to adopt a fully automated milking and feeding system in his dairy. The technology cut his daily chore time in half.

Van Oord said he fears that youth don’t pursue production agriculture careers because they equate farming with drudgery and hard work. He acknowledges that earning his bread and butter from the dairy industry still isn’t an easy job, but it is profitable.

“We have to stop being afraid to say we’re profitable as farmers,” van Oord said. “When young people see opportunity in the industry, they’ll be more likely to take the risk and get into it.”

In 2012, the average age of a U.S. farmer was 58 years old. But as farmers age and retire, proactive succession planning could be the key to ensuring success for the next farming generation because for some young people a home on the range can be out of the price range, another factor steering them away from production agriculture.

The average value of U.S. cropland was $4,130 per acre in 2015. Coupled with equipment and capital investments, land purchases can bankrupt prospective farmers before they’ve even begun farming.

Ellie Grossnickle, an FFA officer and college student from Maryland, grew up on a dairy farm. She said she’s contemplated staying on the farm, but her brother will most likely be the one to continue the operation.

Grossnickle said she knows peers who’ve abandoned their career plans in production agriculture because of the expense of starting a farm.

“If the farm’s not handed down to you through family, then it’s nearly impossible to go in on your own and start out,” Grossnickle said.

Van Oord was able to buy his farm from his parents when he was 28 and his dad was 52. His dad was chided by family friends, who laughed at his “early retirement.”

But van Oord still remembers his dad’s words of wisdom and foresight: “Yes, I may be too young to retire, but soon, my son will be too old to take over.”

Van Oord said retiring farmers have the opportunity to help youth begin their operations.

“Most farms are going to have to transfer hands in the next 10 years,” van Oord said. “The older generation is going to very quickly see that they can’t charge full dollar for their operation. They’re going to have to give someone a hand.”

By reaching out to youth, current farmers can help grow opportunities for our world’s future food producers.


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Orange-fleshed sweet potato research takes top agricultural award


The four World Food Prize winners will be receiving recognition for their work in biofortification tonight at the Iowa capitol (Photo by Kathryn Cawdrey)

By Maria Kalaitzandonakes

DES MOINES, Iowa — The women of the village were dressed in orange, dancing and singing “This is the sweet that gives health,” Maria Andrade said of the International Potato Center’s vitamin A-packed, orange fleshed sweet potato.

Andrade, Howarth Bouis, Jan Low and Robert Mwanga will be honored with this year’s World Food Prize for their work in biofortification of at a Iowa’s state capitol tonight. The staple crops the laureates have worked on will reduce micronutrient deficiencies around the world.

Andrade and Mwanga are both plant scientists in Mozambique and Uganda, who worked to breed the enriched orange sweet potato. The sweet potato variety provides up to 100 percent of vitamin A needs and increases farmers yields by about 15 percent. Vitamin A deficiency weakens immunity, can lead to blindness and can cause death.


The four World Food Prize laureates speak about biofortified staple crops at the Borlaug Dialogues in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Sarah Goellner)

Mwanga said the orange-fleshed sweet potato has come a long way since his university days. When he was stationed at a research plot in Uganda many crops were stolen, though sweet potatoes would only get stolen once. They were too watery and soft for the local palate. Mwanga and Andrade worked with many scientists to accelerate the breeding process and develop the desired product.

Low focused on the nutrition studies and planning programs to convince farmers to plant the unknown variety. “Branding,” she said pointing  to her orange outfit, jewelry and notebook.

When Low first started on the orange-fleshed sweet potato project, she thought the color might be a detriment to its implementation. But she made the color work for them. Their orange message is emblazoned on vehicle and market stalls.

“People love the orange color now,” she said. The center linked the color with the idea of good health.

Bouis is the founder of HarvestPlus and has led the charge to enrich many staple crops: including iron and zinc fortified beans, rice, wheat and pearl millet and vitamin A-enriched cassava, maize and sweet potato. For much of his career, Bouis said, he was told that increasing production of staple crops were the rid the world of hunger and malnutrition.

Today, many, including these four laureates, are focusing on the quality and nutrition of the world’s daily staples.

Through the combined efforts of these four, over 10 million people are now positively impacted by biofortified crops, with a potential of several hundred million more having their nutrition and health enhanced in the coming decades, according to the World Food Prize.

This evening’s ceremony will mark the 30th World Food Prize awarded. The award was established by agricultural advocate and Nobel Prize winner, Norman Borlaug. The winners will also receive 250,000 dollars, split equally.

The group is working to make resilient, high yielding biofortified crops that can hold up to increasingly volatile weather and will be highly adopted by farmers.

Orange, is in.

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One Acre Fund: taking it straight to the farmer


Jenya Shandina, business development manager for One Acre Fund, gives opening remarks at a panel discussion on Thursday morning. (Photo by Sarah Goellner)

By Sarah Goellner

DES MOINES — One Acre Fund has worked with farmers since 2006 to help improve crop yields. Now, they are beginning to look past the harvest to nutrition and health outcomes for the small-holder farmers and their families. Four years ago Jenya Shandina, business development manager of One Acre Fund, joined in their journey to alleviate extreme hunger and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

One Acre Fund currently works with farmers in Africa by providing credit “bundles” each growing season, along with training support on how to get the most out of their supplies. Each bundle includes financing for inputs, seeds, fertilizer distribution information and facilities to market the harvest for maximum profit.

The organization is monitoring both outcomes of the growing season and the impact of the bundles on a consistent basis.

“Impact is our North star,” Shandina said.

One Acre Fund began 10 years ago helping  40 farmers in just one country. By the end of 2016, they project assisting 420,000 farmers in six countries: Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi and Tanzania.

“There has been phenomenal growth,” she said. 

One Acre Fund is constantly changing and evolving, and is currently working on pilot programs in Myanmar to expand the profile of their small-holder farm assistance program. They are also working on potentially launching a trial in India.

When looking at getting One Acre into a new country or region, they first research whether or not services are actually needed. They must then decide if it is the best place to invest time and resources in order to get a good outcome for both the farmers and organization.

While the country and needs may change, the program model stays fundamentally the same. One Acre Fund’s underlying theme is to always put the farmer first. The program model has also recently added a soil fertility element. This will allow farmers to see the long-term impact of the crops on their soil based on the Fund’s research, trials and results.

One Acre has an impressive goal of helping 1.2 million farmers by 2020.

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