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Top USDA official warns: Denying the promise of science will exacerbate global food security crisis

11 February 202412 min reading

Daniel Whitley
The Administrator of the U.S. Department of
Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural
Service (FAS)

Interview: Namık Kemal Parlak

Daniel Whitley, the Administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), shared insights in an exclusive interview with Miller Magazine. With over two decades of experience, Whitley highlighted the dynamics of global agriculture, emphasizing its critical role in addressing challenges such as food security, climate change, and sustainability. He underscored the importance of embracing science, technology, and innovation to meet the growing demand for food, emphasizing the significance of sound agricultural practices on a global scale.

Embarking on an enlightening conversation with Miller Magazine, Daniel Whitley, Administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), underscores agriculture as the single most critical sector to the planet’s well-being. As the world witnesses rapid transformations, Whitley sheds light on the contributions of the global agricultural community and the initiatives undertaken by FAS to shape the future of this vital sector. From food security to climate change, Whitley’s perspective reveals the transformative power of agriculture.

The interview covers key aspects, including the current state of the U.S. agricultural economy, challenges faced by U.S. agriculture on the global stage, and the pivotal role of FAS in addressing these challenges. Whitley provides valuable insights into the acceptance of science, technology, and innovation in agriculture, emphasizing their role in meeting the growing food demand of the future. Discussing the recently established USDA’s Regional Agricultural Promotion Program (RAPP), Whitley anticipates its impact on market diversification, focusing on markets beyond China, Mexico, Canada, and the EU. 

Looking ahead, Whitley expressed confidence in the U.S. remaining a major global agricultural supplier, citing its advanced technology and abundant arable land. With the global population anticipated to surge to 10 billion by 2050, Whitley underscores the perpetual demand for food, positioning the United States as an indispensable contributor to the world’s agricultural production and exports.

Mr. Whitley, with over two decades of experience in your career with the USDA, how has this extensive background shaped your perspective on the dynamics of global agriculture and trade?

The world is changing fast, but one constant is the reliance on the global agricultural community to feed the world and provide solutions.  The world is getting bigger and more solutions are needed.  Fortunately, agriculture is the solution to many critical issues we face.  From food security to climate change to sustainability to transportation, you name it... Agriculture is making a difference.  So what I’ve learned over my career is agricultura is THE most critical sector to the planet and it is important we give global agricultural producers the recognition they deserve!

What is the current agricultural share of the overall U.S. economy, and how has it evolved in recent years?

While U.S. agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting (value added) represent 1 percent of U.S. GDP, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, I think the more important side of agriculture is the people. There are millions of people involved in food and agriculture production in the United States and growing export opportunities contribute to economic growth and development throughout the nation. Further highlighting this point is the fact that the U.S. is the largest exporter of agricultural goods. Between 2021 and 2023, U.S. agricultural exports reached record levels, and they are expected to remain high in 2024.

URGENT NEED FOR SCIENCE-DRIVEN AGRICULTURAL PRACTICES

Agriculture faces various challenges, including climate change, trade tensions, and geopolitical developments.  In your opinion, what are the most pressing challenges for U.S. agriculture on the global stage, and how is FAS addressing these challenges?

The acceptance of sound science, advanced technology, and innovation in production agriculture is one of the most important issues the entire planet should care about.  The global population is estimated to reach 10 billion people by 2050 and the number one question is: “how do we feed everyone”.  But, we can’t wait until 2050 to answer the question.  We must start now and it starts with embracing science, technology, and innovation.  I feel strongly that is the only path forward to meet the growing food demand needs of the future.  

Trading partners who reject sound science puts everyone at risk.  We are expending vast resources on educating our global trading partners on issues such as gene technology, regulatory standards, climate smart commodities, veterinarian drugs, etc. These are vital tools for producers everywhere.  Through technical assistance and trade capacity building projects that promote these tools, we are helping to improve agricultural productivity in Africa, Latin America, South Asia and many more places.  But we still have trading partners who are prohibiting their producers from accessing these tools we know are safe and they work.  And that’s the concern, continuing to deny the promise of science, technology, and innovation will only exacerbate and already alarming food security situation.

Climate change also presents a big challenge to U.S. agriculture.  Increasingly sustained drought, floods, and heat threaten our food security as well as the environment. However, FAS is providing critical leadership on the global stage through our efforts to negotiate international agreements on climate issues, to knock down inadvertent trade barriers, and to promote U.S. climate smart commodities globally. 

Together with the United Arab Emirates, the United States launched the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, also known as AIM4C. This initiative seeks to address climate change and global hunger by uniting participants to significantly increase investment in, and other support for, climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation. 

The United States is also leading the Coalition on Sustainable Productivity Growth for Food Security and Resource Conservation (SPG Coalition), which was launched in 2021 at the United Nations Food Systems Summit. The coalition aims to accelerate the transition to more sustainable food systems through productivity growth that optimizes agricultural sustainability across social, economic, and environmental dimensions.

We are also committed to sharing U.S. climate-focused innovations and expertise among partners worldwide through the International Climate Hub. We launched the hub last year as a platform to share research, tools, collaborative efforts, and best practices on a global scale to improve the world’s ability to adapt to climate change and mitigate its impacts. We trained participants at COP28 this winter on how to utilize the International Climate Hub tool. 

FAS plays a crucial role in enhancing both global food security and export opportunities for U.S. agriculture. Can you elaborate on the key initiatives FAS has undertaken in this regard, and what impact have they had on a global scale?

Through trade capacity building programs, FAS works with trading partners to strengthen their sanitary and phytosanitary policy and regulatory systems. This work not only helps to tackle non-tariff trade barriers for U.S. agricultural imports, but helps these countries to tackle important food safety or plant health issues such as aflatoxin or wheat rust. 

In addition to the trade capacity building programs mentioned earlier, we also support fellowship and exchange programs for scientists, regulators, representatives from agribusiness, and other agents of change from within the global agricultural sector. Under these programs, fellows from eligible countries participate in training and research that is both within their respective areas of interest and are of mutual benefit to the United States - such as improving agricultural productivity or adapting to climate change.

And through FAS’s McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition (McGovern-Dole) program and the Food for Progress program, donations of U.S. agricultural commodities and technical assistance are used to support school feeding programs and agricultural, economic and/or infrastructure development programs to address the nutritional, educational, and food security gaps, as well as improve agriculture productivity to expand the trade of U.S. agricultural products. In 2023, Food for Progress and McGovern-Dole purchased and donated nearly 350,000 metric tons of U.S. commodities, and the programs benefited more than 5 million people worldwide. 

Our impact with these programs has been widespread, from the expansion of new markets for U.S. exporters in Southeast Asia, to the development of improved food safety frameworks in Africa, to hundreds of thousands of lives touched with critical nutritional assistance. 

FAS’s work to promote U.S. agricultural exports enhances global food security by providing affordable, high-quality U.S. agricultural commodities to our trading partners. In turn, FAS’s trade policy and capacity building initiatives help partner countries develop sustainable food and agriculture systems and participate in international trade. For decades, FAS and our partners have leveraged USDA’s domestic programming to provide global leadership in areas like school food, plant and animal health, soil and water conservation, and agricultural climate science.  

RAPP FUNDING OPENS NEW AVENUES FOR U.S. EXPORTERS

You recently mentioned that establishing the RAPP program was the biggest agency accomplishment you’ve seen in your career. Could you share specific insights into how this program will benefit U.S. agricultural exporters, especially in terms of market diversification? Do you anticipate a shift in the geographical distribution of U.S. agricultural exports over the coming years?

FAS market development programs are facilitated through a successful public-private partnership between USDA and the U.S. agricultural community. These programs are effective at generating a positive return on investment and substantially increase the amount of U.S. agricultural exports annually. But when we look at U.S. trade partners, nearly 60 percent of our exports go to just four countries – China, Mexico, Canada, and the EU.

The new RAPP funding will focus on the markets outside of these top 4 and will ensure that U.S. agricultural industries are able to build upon the market development relationships they have formed in key markets around the world, and will enable exporters to expand into new markets and increase market share in growth markets. With additional tranches of funding expected in the coming years, this $1.2 billion in new funding will provide the critical investment needed to support U.S. agriculture over the coming decade and do the research, identify buyers, address barriers, and promote our exceptional products in growing markets around the world. 

We are also exploring the effectiveness of RAPP’s Reverse Trade Missions that seek to export commodities to new markets, facilitate collaboration between international buyers and domestic commodities sellers, and contribute to reducing food insecurity. Through Reverse Trade Missions U.S. producers will meet active buyers from less traditional markets with the anticipation of generating increased sales of food and agricultural products. The staging ground for these interactions will occur in select trade shows across the US, ranging from the National Restaurant Association event in Chicago, to the Winter Fancy Food event in Las Vegas. This is an all-of team effort, from our international Posts who will help identify and recruit appropriate buyers, to our local logistical teams who will procure contracts, engage with US industry, and organize networking events for prospective buyers. 

USDA’S TRADE DIPLOMACY

Are there specific regions or issues that you are currently prioritizing to enhance U.S. agricultural market access? 

One priority area for the Biden-Harris administration is to rebuild trust with and within the global trading system. We accomplish that in our daily meetings with government and business representatives both at home and abroad to continue expanding access to export markets for American producers. Strengthening and expanding our relationships with global trading partners is vital as we strive to ensure that everyone impacted can have access to services and food they desperately need. As part of this effort, USDA has scheduled six trade missions this year in Korea, India, Canada, Colombia, Vietnam, and Morocco to boost U.S. agricultural exports and highlight export opportunities. We also engage with international organizations and coalitions as they provide key opportunities to amplify U.S. messaging about “best export practices,” climate-smart and sustainable production practices, and the quality and cost-competitiveness of U.S. products. These efforts set the table for the market development and export promotion activities that directly benefit American farmers and their communities.

With the increasing interest in sustainability from consumers worldwide, how is the USDA supporting U.S. agricultural industries in promoting their sustainability efforts?

USDA and FAS are working to increase consumer awareness of the sustainability efforts of U.S. agricultural industries through several of its marketing programs and through the International Climate Hub. This new hub showcases U.S. climate smart expertise in all of its tools, webinars, and events. In 2024, the International Climate Hub plans to give even more visibility to U.S. industry’s sustainability efforts through global Farmer to Farmer exchanges, outreach to international youth, and featured industry innovations on its website.

U.S. TO CONTINUE AS A MAJOR PLAYER IN GLOBAL FOOD PRODUCTION

How is the USDA addressing the challenges posed by climate change on U.S. agricultural output and exports? 

USDA helps its foresters, ranchers, and farmers maintain their productivity by providing tools and information to help them adapt to a changing climate. This is accomplished many ways, but one targeted effort is through USDA’s network of Climate Hubs. For a decade, these regional hubs have been providing practical, science-based information to help the natural resource decision makers in their regions predict and adapt to changing climate conditions. The hubs share information, convene producers, and create decision support tools to help U.S. industry maintain their productivity and export capacity in the face of climate change. In the past these hubs were focused on U.S. producers, but last year we launched an International Climate Hub to share our scientific research and climate-smart practices with other countries. 

At USDA, we offer science, data and information, programs, and decision-support tools that help U.S. producers cope with their respective climate risks and FAS helps take these resources to the international arena. The Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities is an example of how USDA is investing in climate solutions at home and investing in the monitoring, measuring, and verifying of climate smart practices to be able to share lessons learned with global partners. Concurrently, USDA engages in international forums to help encourage international collaboration on climate solutions. 

How do you see the future outlook for the country’s importance as a global agricultural supplier?

The United States is expected to remain one of the world’s largest producers and suppliers of agricultural goods to the world well into the future. With the global population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, and global economic growth forecast at near 3 percent over the next decade, more global consumers will enter the middle class. Therefore, the demand for food will remain strong and the major global suppliers will need to increase production and exports to meet this growing demand.  Given its abundant acreage of arable land and advanced agricultural technology, the United States is expected to remain one of the world’s largest and most important agricultural producers and exporters.

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