Editor’s Note: At the time of his presentation to the 2010 National No-Tillage Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, Howard G. Buffett (son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett) had been no-tilling since 1992 on 16,000 acres in Illinois and Nebraska as well as another 6,000-plus acres in South Africa. Buffett’s foundation has funded 45 agricultural projects globally, primarily in Africa and Latin America, all of which are based on the concept of no-till. As a U.N. Ambassador Against Hunger for the World Food Program, his address to no-tillers covered the role of U.S. farmers in global food assistance. Following is a transcript of his presentation, which you may also listen to FREE below.
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I can see my job is going to be to keep everybody awake. I think it's kind of late here. But Frank Lessiter, first I want to tell you, and I really mean this in all sincerity, it's an honor to be here. This is a group of men and women that, in their own way, have served this country. I'm going to talk a bit about how important you are in the global scene tonight. Even as many more people are more educated on no-till, it’s amazing that most of us come to the conference and we've learned something new. That's a pretty great thing.
I do want to tell you I learned one thing from my dad, Warren, a long time ago. He used to always tell me by the time he gets done speaking, he's usually offended almost everybody in the room. I counted 9 sponsors that I'll probably offend tonight, so get ready. And I think it's very unfair for you to put Dan Towery up here because I see there's a salad next to him with tomatoes in it and he can hit me from there.
What a World Food Ambassador Does
Somebody earlier asked me what I did as an ambassador for the World Food Program. I get asked that once in a while, but I never have a good answer. I heard my son, who's here tonight with me, explaining it to somebody. So, I thought I'd use his example to tell you what an ambassador does.
The story goes like this. There's a gentleman who wanted to buy a parrot, so he goes down to this pet shop. He finds the salesperson who takes him back to the back of the shop where the parrots are and starts explaining all these different parrots.
He says, "I see there's three over here." The salesperson tries to talk him out of those three and he said, "No, I want to know about those three." He says, "Well, they're kind of expensive." He says, "What's the first one cost?" He says, "That parrot is $2,500." He says, "That is expensive. What do you get for a $2,500 parrot?" He says, "He farms using no-till. He analyzes genetically modified enzymes. And it trades derivatives."
He says, "Wow. That's an impressive parrot. I see there's another one next to him." He says, "Let's just not even go there." The guy, "I want to know what that parrot does." He says, "That parrot, he does everything the first parrot does plus it advises farm credit services, he reads No-Till Farmer Magazine, has produced a thesis on sustainable agriculture, has a master’s in soil science from the Univ. of Nebraska." The guy says, "Wow. That's an amazing parrot. How much will it cost?" The guy says, "It’s $5,000."
He says, "Wow. That's a lot of money for a parrot. What about the third one?" He says, "No, that parrot costs $25,000. He's out of your league." He says, "Wait, what does he do?" He scratches his head for a bit and he says, "I've never seen this parrot do anything but the other two parrots call him Mr. Ambassador." So that's the hard-working job I have.
A Different Kind of No-Till Talk
Tonight, I'm going to talk about a few things that might not be normal conversation, certainly not around the roundtables that we have here or at the conference in general, but there's also a few subjects I'm going to talk about that some of you here are experts on, which means I'll get myself in trouble. And I hope I can provide a little broader context of the role that U.S. agriculture plays on a global scale and how important your contribution is to the world both in helping to feed people.
And also setting an example of how important it is to be innovative, take risks and challenge old assumptions -- because that's what almost everyone in this room has done, some of you for 30 or 40 years. To do that I want to discuss three areas. I want to talk about the changing landscape of U.S. agriculture, our role in addressing global food security, and then finally our obligation to meet the immediate needs of hungry people.
First, I want to identify a few things we can probably agree on to set the stage of where I want to go. World population continues to increase. Global protein demand is rising. World farmers are going to need produce more, probably most of it from higher yields. I know my Syngenta guys like that. The number of hungry people in the world continues to increase. Food security in poor nations is definitely more volatile today than it was even 5 years ago. And technology's going to contribute to some of those solutions. Technology is one I'm going to get into a little deeper in a minute because it's one that I think ought to be the best understood and probably at times the most debated.
5 Times More Corn on 20% of the Land
You're going to know most of these statistics, but I think it's important to repeat a few of them to point out why the role you play is important. We know U.S. farmers grow 5 times as much corn as they did in 1930 and on 20% of the land. Think about that. Five times more production on 20% of the land. That's a pretty impressive thing when you think about what we've done in agriculture since the early 1900s.
Yields between the Civil War and the Dust Bowl stayed stagnant at about 25 bushels an acre through that entire time. Now, since that time, we're up to about 163 bushels an acre as an average. In 20 years, productivity in the U.S. increased 40% for corn and 30% for soybeans. Over the past 20 years, minimum tillage has reduced soil erosion by about half and saved probably almost 500 million gallons of diesel fuel. And this is also quite a statistic -- farmers grow 70% more corn per pound of fertilizer than they did in the 1970s.
Those are amazing statistics. Somehow, we don't tell our story very well because most people don't know many of those statistics. We're usually on the other end of the arguments. But U.S. farmers contribute significantly to meeting both the demands of a more affluent world and also feeding hungry people.
Reliant on Technology
We've become more reliant on technology. Technology has become more important and that's including genetically modified crops. When I look at my operation and I think about, "What are the things that I need to think about and consider when we watch the technology develop and things change as fast as they are?" I think, "How does it affect our future choices?" I think that's a big one and an important one.
Does it contribute to best practices? How does it reshape the dynamics of our business? And finally, will it contribute to profitability? Because that's not one that's always as easy to identify.
The answers today look different than a few decades ago, especially in the seed business, both because technology developments have been driven by private companies rather than public institutions and changes have developed very rapidly.
These four questions become more important. One large reason is that seed technology developed by private companies obviously is driven for the benefit of shareholders where public investments are designed to benefit exactly what it says: the public. The flip side of that, of course, is that private companies only succeed if they provide the products their customers want or ask for.
There's an exception to this, which are those businesses that are regulated and those that are consolidated and really create concentration. I personally believe the concentration we've seen in different parts of our industry could be one of the biggest threats that we've faced for our own businesses.
The question about choice has always been important to farmers, but it may be more relevant today. What are some of the choices we have? Well, all of you guys know these but I'm going to go through them real quickly. And first I have to give you this disclaimer that my wife has always said... she's never shy about this either. It kind of hurts my feelings sometimes. But she always says I'm low tech and high maintenance. That's kind of true, unfortunately. But I have learned a few things.
“You’re the ones setting an example of how important it is to be innovative, take risks and challenge old assumptions -- because that's what almost everyone in this room has done, some of you for 30 or 40 years.” — Howard G. Buffett to the attendees at the 2010 National No-Tillage Conference
The other place I run into trouble is when I get going in the spring. My son, Howie, comes back to help me plant, and I'm going to admit something that also is a little embarrassing, but I don't use a computer. I don't do my own email. It's job security for a couple of people that are here with me. Every time I start trying to learn how to do anything they just take it away from me. I know how to turn a computer on and off and I know how to go look for my images, but that's about the extent of my knowledge.
So, I get in the tractor and I'm trying to set up my mapping because I've split my planner. I'm getting all ready so I can map everything and Howie's just sitting there shaking his head. He has this disgusted look on his face. I said, "What? This is cool stuff." He says, "Dad, you always tell everybody you can't use a computer and you can't learn. You're up here. You're pushing all the buttons. You're programing everything. You're pathetic." You know you've reached a new high when your son thinks that you're pathetic. But anyway, mapping, is an amazing thing. Think of the field comparisons we can do today that we couldn't do before. It's a great tool.
Guidance Systems: Hooked!
I got to tell you this story. About 4-5 years ago when guidance systems started coming out -- auto steer and whatever. I thought, "What the heck do I want one of these for? It makes me obsolete. I'm going to drive that tractor. That's what I do.”
Two years ago, I got a new farm of 120 acres. We were going to go out in February and we were going to do the new perimeter map. Lucas comes down from the Sloan Implement dealership and we get in the tractor. We're doing the perimeter and we get to this corner. He says, "Howard, do you think that line's pretty straight south?" I said, "It should be." Since then, I've found that many lines are not straight, anything but. So I planted corn into my neighbor's field thinking my 180 degrees is right. I had to go apologize to one of my neighbors.
Anyway, he's in the buddy seat with his little GS2 screen and my screen and he's like numbers and... "Hit that resume button. Take your hands off the steering wheel. Keep them off the steering wheel. Let the clutch out."
OK, I can't tell you if it was 20 feet or 30 feet but I put the clutch in and I said, "What's all this stuff cost?" Right there on the spot, I said, "You know what? A guidance system to a farmer is like cocaine to a drug addict. This is unbelievable."
There I was, hooked. How can you go back? You can't. Row command clutches; I ordered a new planter. How amazing is it that you can have this planter? I'm only a little with a 16 row. I know a lot of you guys are 24 row planters, and there's value in this. That's the neat thing about it in the end. You're not picking silage on the end rows and you're buying a few less bags of corn that are a little expensive these days. I mean, if you think about what we can do today and then add on to the seed traits that are going to be coming along with drought tolerance and continue improvement on disease and pests. It's amazing technology.
I mean, I get excited about it even though I'm not technological. I see it as really bringing true precision agriculture, creating more efficiency and more opportunity. But the thing I think we have to be careful about is technology can't solve everything. In fact, it can fail.
Howard G. Buffett giving the keynote address at the 2010 National No-Tillage Conference in Des Moines, Iowa
Three years ago, when I planted Bt corn, I had some fields that suffered pretty poorly, quite a lot, from corn borer and there were actually articles about how a lot of guys in Illinois had that problem. I don't know what happened to it, but I can tell you one thing: I never got reimbursed for the technology I paid for and I never got a good explanation about why it failed or what happened.
We all know when a herbicide fails it's pretty easy to grab your guy from the FS or wherever we do business, grab him by the collar and take him out in the pickup truck and say, "You guys screwed up." We get something for that typically: at least if you whine enough you do. But it's pretty hard to know when a trait in a seed corn hasn't really worked and what you've paid for.
It's going to get challenging going forward because we've gone, from $70 to $300. It depends on what you're buying and everything else but a bag of corn in the last 5-6 years ago, it was under $100. It's going to be a challenge to know that we're getting what we've paid for, and I think that's going to be something that we're going to have to all wrestle with. But this spring, talking about technology, I downloaded all my data as I planted and in the fall I went to get my variety locator and make everything work and it turned out that on almost all my soybean acres, for some reason, the variety locator just wouldn't work. Obviously, as a result, I couldn't get that information. Thank goodness on some of the corn ground it did but you lose all that data you paid and you invested in this system -- that's one of the reasons you invested.
Technology’s No Match for Mother Nature
This fall -- obviously everybody knows this story, there wasn’t any technology that could've helped us get in or out of the field with the rainfall we had. Technology is absolutely no match for Mother Nature.
Don't get me wrong, I think that technology is amazing in what it's going to offer. But I think you have to recognize its limitations and what we all have to be concerned with is the assumptions that come from any kind of an attitude that technology is going to overcome all obstacles, because it won't. The human factor is still there and Mother Nature is still there. I think we have to be careful of that.
We also have to make sure, and this is where I'm not very good, that our investment in technology has real financial benefits. I used to, in the early days, be really proud of this. Now I kind of hang my head. But I go up to my John Deere dealer, Tom Sloan, and he said to me once about 9-10 years ago, "Howard, you should know one thing." He says, "You're my best customer per acre." I thought about that. I thought, "Don't tell my wife, please." I shouldn't say this because I'm going to be a hypocrite. We need to do the best we can to make sure that our investment is a financial investment that's going to return something that we need.
Population, Food Security
I want to return quickly to a couple of points about a growing population, reduced food security, and a need for farmers to produce more. How will farmers meet this challenge? Technology will provide some of the options but it's amazing to think about what has been discovered. Just recently they accounted scientists had mapped the genetic code of corn. I imagine that's going to hold some exciting opportunities as well.
However, it's going to take more than U.S. farmers and our production here at home to solve the challenge of food security, malnutrition, and chronic hunger. When you look at the barriers of feeding people worldwide -- the lack of infrastructure, widespread corruption, poor distribution, limited institutional capacity, and I could go on with 20 other items.
In fact, oftentimes access is what really prohibits our help regardless of what our intentions are. If look at the FAO, they estimated that it's going to take $83 billion of investment every year for the next 4 decades -- that's $3.3 trillion -- to feed the projected population of 9 billion in 2050.
So what are some of the answers? Before we know the answers for farmers in other parts of the world, especially for small, poorer, resource-limited farmers, we need to be able to understand their environment, their culture, their constraints. All those things are different and they're very different from what we face here at home. And then there's other circumstances.
To me, one of the most staggering statistics that I learned when I started getting educated on hunger a while back was that 60% of all the hunger in Africa is caused by conflict. Those are difficult, complex problems. Not easy to solve. I'll tell you, it's also a different part of the world.
When I was negotiating with four pensioners to relocate from our property in South Africa, they accepted our offer. The Land Affairs Agency from the South African government agreed to it. That took like two years. We transferred money to their bank accounts, and thought we were all done. We went over there with our lawyer to meet the four guys again and f clean it all up and they get in this heated argument.
My lawyer looks at me. I asked, “What's going on?" and he told me to shut up. I thought, "Whoa. This is bad. I thought we had a deal.” Finally, he gets turns to me and he says, "We have a problem." He says, “The witch doctors said they can't move."
There's no class in Harvard or Iowa State that tells you how you deal with the witch doctor. When you're dealing in geographies and different cultures it creates unknown hurdles.
Poor Farmers’ Needs
When we talk about precision agriculture here at home, I've already said why I think we see a really exciting world. But what is precision agriculture to a poor farmer? About 70% of all poor people in the world are resource-limited farmers. In Africa alone, that affects 400 million people. It's a sizeable number. How can they contribute to increasing their own food security? For these farmers, access to almost everything and anything has some kind of barriers.
When you live in these circumstances, you aren’t thinking about 6 months from now or 3 months from now. You're thinking about today and then you think about tomorrow. That has a huge impact on your options and your thought process and what you do every day you get out of bed.
This is what I've learned from these trips, and the next couple things I'm going to say are really important if anybody's going to really understand how to do something with small farmers that really need help in the world.
Poor small-scale farmers are a net buyer of food. That is a complete major paradigm shift for a U.S. farmer because according to USDA we grow enough food for 163 people every year.
A farmer in Africa, most likely a woman along with her family, suffers from hunger periods between harvest. That's another paradigm shift for everyone in this room because we have multiple grocery stores and we've never seen empty shelves in those stores.
If you think about in this country, we spend over a $1 trillion a year on retail food, these families live and survive oftentimes on less than a $1 a day. But if you ask a mother how she decides which child will eat and which one's going to go hungry, that's a difficult question to ask a mother. Sometimes interpreters won't even ask it. And this is another paradigm shift for us because all of us here put our children to bed at night but we've never, ever, night after night, had to worry about watching their little bodies wither away.
Different Solutions Needed for Different World
It's a different world and it takes different thought processes and different solutions. There's also a financial cost to all of this; the cost of hunger, medical expenses, lost productivity, and lower education is estimated to exceed over a $1 trillion in a generation's lifetime.
These are farmers that have no access to inputs. They replant seeds year after year. I've talked to farmers that have replanted seeds for 30 years. They farm small, scattered plots maybe an acre in size, sometimes two acres. They have no extension services. They don't even know what a soil sample is. They don't even know what it is.
They might even live a 2- day walk to the closest market. That's the circumstances you're trying to deal with; again 75% of the poor people in this world fit these circumstances. That's a lot of people.
To get food security right, we need to reach out to those who live this challenge every day: to farmers who can tell us things that we don't know, that we don't understand, because we've never experienced them. We can't make the mistake to believe that we know how to solve their problems with our solutions because if we do we will fail and that means we fail them.
So, what's precision agriculture to these farmers? It's learning the importance of consistency, depths, seed spacing, row spacing, understanding plant population and density, the very basic agronomy lessons. It's having access to new knowledge and recommendations of how to improve their soil, something they've never had.
As I'm saying this, I remember looking up a number for a meeting we had a couple weeks ago in eastern Africa, in today's world the average yield for corn is 24 bushels an acre. That's less than what we averaged in this country in 1900. That's what the challenge is.
The first priority, and this is something that took me a while to learn too, is that for the subsistence farmer it isn't about yield, it's risk aversion. That is also a big shift for us to think about. So, to focus on technology is great for farmers who can benefit from it but it leaves millions of farmers, literally millions of impoverished farmers, without any solutions.
Investing for Future Solutions — Extension-Type Services
Our foundation is investing in technology. We hope it contributes to future solutions. One project we have is a virus-resistant sweet potato that we're working on with Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. We have two projects we've co-funded with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for drought-tolerant maize for Africa. We also have 9,200 acres, 22 center pivots.
In South Africa, we're working with Simplot, the preeminent world leader in corn and wheat resource in the world. Penn State and the Rodale Institute are all there working. But these solutions won't reach millions of farmers today. Hopefully they will in the future. But the future doesn't feed people today.
So, what are the appropriate solutions? It's improved extension services. In most places extension services don't even exist in these countries. It's farmer schools. It's use of cover crops, introduction of improved seeds, and honestly, it's the expansion of minimum and no-till techniques. Some of them are very low input-type systems but the benefit that we get here in this country from no-till is no different than the benefit that they get.
Some of their circumstances are a little more difficult to deal with. In a tropical zone, it's not the same as a temperate zone, but the benefits are there if you can find out how to do it. Inorganic fertilizers, can and should play a role but if the strategy becomes, as is happening today in some places, to take the poorest populations in the world and create a dependency on fertilizers from fossil fuels, that's just not responsible.
“Talking about planting soybeans back then was as foreign as talking about large-scale cover crops for Midwest agricultural production is today. We can do it; we've done it in the past. There are another 100 examples like that.” — Howard G. Buffett at 2010 National No-Tillage Conference Banquet
At a project in Mozambique we the farmers there doubled the yields in 2 years without a single new input and they did it by changing their farming system to a kind of a pothole no-till system that was discovered in Niger. It's very simple but it's imaginative.
Once we get it to that point and we believe that there are other options and have worked on other options, think what happens when you can get that soil fertility improved and you can then at some point maybe provide improved seeds. It's significant. There's a lot of potential there.
Future of Our Own Farms
I think it's clear we have to use every option we have if we're going to feed more people. We need poor farmers in developing countries who produce more to meet their own food insecurity needs. And we need farmers in the U.S. to produce more to meet a growing global demand. They're certainly not your competition, I can tell you that.
An important component of U.S. farmers' ability to achieve this goal is how the future of our farms look. They have to look different if this objective is going to be reached. Standing here tonight, saying what I'm going to say, I'm preaching to the choir.
It is what I think needs to be said. And then we must figure out how we get it done and done the way we need to. But just like no-till from farmers who remain innovative and persistent -- some people would say stubborn -- by not giving up on making probably the oldest form of farming part of mainstream farming.
Some of you guys are right here tonight that made that happen. There are guys like Jim Kinsella in Illinois and others that have spent a lifetime, part of their profession, to transform what agriculture looks like today. I'll tell you what. The progress today ... Frank Lessiter, I'll tell you, look at what this no-till conference looked like 18-19 years ago to what it looks like today.
It's impressive what's happened in this country. We're going to be the farmers that must contribute those same ideas and solutions in this next generation.
About 20 years ago, and here goes one of the offending comments to one of your sponsors, John Deere didn't make a piece of no-till equipment. In 1990 when the 750 no-till drill came on the scene, I would say it changed the face of conservation agriculture in this country, and many people have come along with that. You now have incredible amounts of opportunities to add and change with manufactured equipment. It’s much easier to get, much easier to repair, much easier to replace.
I just purchased a John Deere. I know a lot of you guys don't use anhydrous. For those that do, I think this is an amazing tool as a no-tiller for what I want to do in the future. It gives me a completely different set of options and it's going to solve one of my real soil erosion problems which is when I knife in anhydrous in the fall and I go down my 8 inches and the frost is coming out and I get just the right kind of rain and I go around my field. Where I've got slopes, wherever that knife went, that's where my soil disappeared from. This tool is going to help me solve that problem.
Spirit of Ingenuity Needed on Input Side, Too
It was about 20 years ago when there was a little revolution of some of you farmers out there right here tonight that helped take from your workshop to mainstream agricultural manufacturers. It has helped with carbon sequestration and improve soil fertility and a significant reduction of soil erosion. The same's got to happen on the input side. I don't believe we'll ever be independent of inorganic inputs but we need to develop a system and we need to develop policies that allow farmers more flexibility and better options.
I mean, half this conference has been about cover crops, but how do we get cover crops to scale? I go home and I got a whole bunch of neighbors that think I'm a nut for what I do just no-tilling. When I start planting cover crops, growing radishes or whatever I do, they're going to think I've really gone off the deep end.
So how do we do that? We know what cover crops provide to us in terms of soil fertility and organic matter and all the improvements that we get from it, but how do we do that so that the farming community in general has adopted that on the kind of scale that's going to make a significant difference?
There are not new ideas. In fact, many of them have been perfected from people here, but we've got to embrace it and we've got to figure out how to take it from an individual basis and, probably one of the best things about this conference, is you sit down and start talking to people who go, "You did that? You had that problem?" I mean, this is an incredible learning experience. But there's only 750 people here. There are 1 million farmers out there that we got to talk to.
Change: We Must Do it For Our Farms
So how do we do that? We must do it because if we don't, our farms aren't going to be profitable in 30 years and our farms aren't going to be healthy in 30 years. I believe that. We have to find out how we get rotations and cover crops to scale and the things.
Where are the incentives? We've had incentives to do a lot of things in this country, but we haven't had them for that. The fact is we're probably going to be forced to do it at some point because three quarters of farming's nitrous oxide emissions result from manmade fertilizers. I will stand here today and tell you we built, in this country, one of the most dynamic, reliable production systems in the world and we've done it by using inorganic fertilizers.
I'm not ashamed of that. But I'll tell you that the status quo won't work and it's coming faster than you'd think because it's not going to be adequate to meet the future environmental regulations. Or at some point along the line, the consumer requirements or demands.
In fact, U.S. agriculture has critics in new places. But I'll tell you one thing: all those critics have full stomachs. Somehow, we got to get that message across. We see ag getting hit by energy, climate change, food safety, obesity, animal production, human health, animal welfare, water quality. I'm not picking on the USDA, but they have their own initiative: Know your farmer, know your food. Somehow that implies to me a negative connotation about us because it makes us sound as if we're, number one, responsible for the end product, which we're not, and, number two, that local food is better than the existing alternatives.
It isn't about what's good or bad, it's about what's practical. Local food is fine. That's great. I know a few guys who have been very successful with that and it's a few guys. Not many of us have that option. Most of the movement today in production agriculture isn't going to take you in that direction. I'm not against it. I'm all for it. But it's got to be practical. It's got to work.
We’ve Done It Before — Soybeans Example
Change in isn't anything new for U.S. farmers. But if you look at history of the soybeans. In 1804, the Yankee Clipper comes back and forth between China. What do they have in it for an inexpensive ballast? They have soybeans. When the ship got to the U.S., they dumped the soybeans. That's what they did.
Then in 1829 there was probably some crazy “no-till farmer” type decided to try planting soybeans. If you try to tell me that somebody was here, Frank, I'm not going to believe you. Forget it, you can get another corn hat.
They started planting soybeans in 1829. In 1919, there were 112,000 acres of soybeans planted in the U.S. and in 2009 the number reached 76 million. Production in 1919 was barely over 1 million bushels. Today it's 3.25 billion bushels. The value's gone from $4.5 million to $32 billion.
Howard G. Buffett at the 2010 National No-Tillage Conference in Des Moines, Iowa
Back in 1919, talking about planting soybeans back then was as foreign as talking about large-scale cover crops for Midwest agricultural production is today. We can do it. We've done it in the past. There's another 100 examples like that.
But we've done it. Look what a major crop soybeans are today. It can happen. It can change. A lot of you know because you've been part of that change and processors, farmers all through the system, many of us embrace that innovation and change and I think we'll do it better in the future. We've done it pretty well, I think we'll do it better in the future.
Time is Now to Address Hunger
So everything I've talked about now is going to take years, some decades, to get accomplished. That means we still need to address the immediate needs of hungry people. Let me go through the same exercise I did earlier because I think it's important that we can agree on a few things.
We live in the wealthiest country in the world. You can always define that differently, but I think we do. We have one of the most abundant and safe food systems available. I know Time Magazine might not agree with that, but I'll tell you we do. All you need to do is travel outside this country and it's obvious.
We have one of the most abundant, safe food systems available. We pay about the lowest percentage of our income for food than any other country in the world. We have more choices for food than almost anywhere in the world and we have access and availability of all types of food.
I have, on the back window of my pickup, and I have for years, a sticker that says, "American farmers: we feed the world." A lot of us are proud of that, but what's it really mean? Does it mean that we export more corn than any country? Does it mean that we're the most efficient in production? Does it mean that we have the highest yields per acre?
I believe what it should mean is we have the moral responsibility to do exactly what those simple words say: feed the world. When I travel to different countries, I'm proud when I see USA oil cans and USAID food bags. To me, they're a gift of life and to the people that receive them they are literally a gift of life. Could our system be better? Absolutely. Can it be more efficient? Yes. In fact, in a document entitled A Roadmap to End Global Hunger, there are a number of great suggestions on how to improve what we do.
I'm going to make one point. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 is implemented and managed through 12 departments, 25 agencies and 60 government offices. How's that sound? Like a nightmare to me. The USAID. It's Title II food programs. It's development assistance. It's economic security funds, international disaster and famine relief programs, the MCC country compacts, USDA's Food for Progress, Food for Education child nutrition, and there's even more. Obviously, all these programs kind of have their own rules and procedures and it's a pretty inconsistent message of the world and it's a pretty inefficient way to do it. We can do better with better coordination and more effective implementation.
More Yet to Do
Regardless of our shortcomings, I'm proud. The U.S. has served over half of the global food assistance for 55 years. That's an impressive record. I mean, I turn 55 in December. But for 55 years we've been a leader globally in what we've provided and helped people who are hungry. It means that we've done a good job in the past. It means we've helped millions of people in emergencies like in Haiti today. It means we've provided a lot of development assistance that have brought people out of poverty. It means that we've helped refugees and internally displaced people return home after conflict.
But there's still a lot to do. If you look at the 2007 number value of U.S. food assistance the USAID provided globally it's a little over $2.1 billion. That represents almost $1,000 for each farm in the U.S. and if you break it down and you take the farmers whose principal business is farming and you get down to under 1 million farmers. That's about $2,100 for each farmer, which is probably everybody sitting in this room, or at least most of you. So, let's improve our system but while we're doing it let's not forget what we've done, what we've already accomplished.
The only part that kind of disappoints me is that it's easy to put Wall Street firms or a car manufacturing company ahead of a hungry person. There are reasons that's happened. I realize that. And we're dealing in a recession, I don't make light of that. A lot of American families have suffered.
But there are populations that will never experience a recession because they don't have a single possession to lose. I think we need to remember that. There are a lot of farmers that help. I know them. There's a lot of people, a lot of farmers, that make sacrifices, or communities make sacrifices, to help.
But I believe we need to double our food assistance commitment to the World Food Program. US NGOs that deliver food on behalf of the U.S. We need to provide additional options. Some of it's for cash for purchase. Some of its innovative programs like Purchase for Progress, an innovative program working in 20 countries where they establish a better network and marketing opportunities for small farmers to try to become part of the economy. It's what's got to happen eventually.
And I never underestimate of what new approaches can do. Between 2004 and 2008 the delivery of any kind of food assistance to 10 sub-Saharan countries took an average of 147 days. Think of that. You're a hungry person. It's going to take you 147 days to get food. Local and regional procurement took 34 and 41 days respectfully. So we can do better.
If you're a child, that 100 days is a long time. If your child is hungry, that's a long time. We need to do more because we can't do enough when there's 1 billion people hungry and another 2 billion people suffering from other malnourishment or undernourishment. I hope you'll seriously think about what can you do as a farmer. You're already doing a lot, but what can you do?
But I will tell you this. We live in the greatest country in the world. There's no question about that.
- Howard Buffett: Stronger Laws Would Foster More Ag Conservation: Farmer/philanthropist Howard Buffett said Tuesday that stronger government action is needed to encourage farmers into compliance with better fertilizer, tillage and other conservation and environmental practices.
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