Speech tijdens gastcollege Wageningen University

SPEECH staatssecretaris Ben Knapen tijdens gastcollege Wageningen University, maandag 28 februari 2011

Ladies and gentlemen,

Before coming here, I did a bit of research in the Lexis Nexis news database. It turns out that last year Wageningen University was mentioned in the international press more than 650 times. This shows what a tremendous reputation your university has around the globe.

I recently saw at first hand how your reputation goes before you. During my visit to a potato farm in Ruhengeri, a little hill town in the north of Rwanda, farmers praised the university for its knowledge and vision.

These farmers were extremely pleased that in the coming years Wageningen University will help enhance the size and profitability of the potato supply chain, in close cooperation with the Dutch and Rwandan governments.

Potato blight is an enormous problem for farmers in Ruhengeri and elsewhere in the country. Experts from Wageningen will help them produce more crops and increase their combined incomes by millions of dollars a year. It is big business in the future.

This project shows the essence of Dutch development cooperation policy. Food security – one of our four priorities – is vital to economic growth in developing countries. And by doing a good job in Rwanda, Wageningen and our country will enhance our reputation there even more.

What’s good for them is good for us.

It is no accident that food security is one of four Dutch priorities in development policies. The number of people without access to sufficient, nutritious food is unacceptably high. High and unstable food prices are root causes of almost all the sociopolitical crises in the world today. Think of Tunisia and Algeria, Egypt and Yemen. Food security is crucial in achieving the hunger reduction targets of the World Food Summit and Millennium Development Goal one. And with the knowledge of Wageningen University and others, our
country can make a difference in this area.

Let me give you my definition of food security. Food security is about production, accessibility and nutritional value. And about ensuring that those who do not produce food have the income they need to buy it. This requires action on all fronts.

Let me give a quick overview.

Farmers’ response to increasing demand and higher prices has been excellent in recent years. And of course Mother Nature has helped a lot, resulting in bumper crops and full silos.

Unfortunately, ever-growing demand combined with somewhat disappointing harvests – remember the droughts and fires in Russia, the floods in Pakistan and the relatively low production in the Southern Hemisphere – is now causing even higher food prices.

Moreover, unstable and unpredictable prices at national level are preventing farmers from consolidating their investments. In fact, the insufficient buying power of farmers producing for a local market in developing countries is preventing them from investing at all.

In other words, there is work to be done.

As I just said, our most important tool for progress in developing countries is economic growth. Only growth can help people help themselves. But conditions in developing countries are far from ideal for private sector development.

The private sector plays a crucial role in economic growth and food security. In horticulture, dairy farming or livestock rearing, Dutch companies have built a strong reputation. And they are eager to be partners in development. Multinationals like Unilever and Heineken, Ahold and Cargill, DSM and many others are participating in successful public-private partnerships.

But of course, local businesses are even more important for economic growth and food security in developing countries. And farmers in particular.

Generally speaking, developing countries have a lot of farmers. Many of them, especially in Africa, lack market information, banking services, credit facilities and insurance. And fertiliser and seeds. All these are crucial. A good farmer has to be a good entrepreneur. That is why we are helping farmers become more businesslike.

By providing production safety nets and social transfers.

By promoting market access and sustainable production chains.

By investing in inclusive finance and infrastructure.

And by sharing our knowledge about markets, organisational strategies, and research and development. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working closely to achieve these goals with the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, and – even more relevant for you – with the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation. In the next few months we will come up with a plan to streamline the efforts of local, international and Dutch players in the field of food security.

Now back to you. Research institutions like Wageningen University should seize the opportunity to liaise with developing countries and offer solutions tailored to specific, real-life problems. Solutions devised by the countries themselves. That is why I am happy to see that Wageningen University – with our support and in cooperation with a number of multinationals, with African farming enterprises and with Sokoine University of Agriculture in Arusha, Tanzania – has recently established the African Agribusiness

And there are more opportunities.

To mention only one: the Dutch are world leaders not only in food security, but also in water management. Water is another of our priorities. If the universities of Wageningen and Delft can join hands for development, I am certain that both our food security programmes and our water management programmes will reach an even higher level of excellence.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Back in 1798, Thomas Malthus set out his classic view that population grows geometrically and food production arithmetically. So productivity gains, Malthus said, will be neutralised quickly by ongoing population growth.

In his book Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, the well-known economist Jeffrey Sachs argues that there is more room for optimism. Firstly, because the world population is likely to stabilise in this century. And secondly, because technical progress will probably be faster than in the past. But, says Sachs, this is no reason to sit back and relax. He wonders whether the world is organised enough and cooperative enough to meet the challenges it faces.

I agree with Sachs that there is room for improvement. So let’s start working together today. I have noticed that Wageningen University announced my lecture on Twitter. Although I don’t believe in Twitter Revolutions, it is clear to me that social media can bring people together on important issues. So I call on the university, I call on all of you to twitter the following message after my lecture:
We can feed the world in a sustainable way. Even with 9 billion people in 2050. Let’s do it. #foodsecurity Thank you for listening. I will be more than happy to take any questions.