Remarks by Dr. Agnes Kalibata – Spring Convocation, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences McGill University
June 5, 2019 – I want to start by acknowledging Chancellor Meighen; Principal and Vice-Chancellor Fortier; Mr. Panda, Chair of the Board of Governors; members of the platform party, proud parents and guests; and most of all, the graduating class of 2019 in whose honour we are here.
As a scientist with a lifelong commitment to agricultural research, it is an incredible honor to be part of the convocation of one of the world’s leading lights of scientific excellence.
I can sense the desire to make the world a better place in all of you graduating today and I know I am in good company. Making the world a better place has been my own lifelong mission. I am a daughter of smallholder farmers and my being here is thanks to their unrelenting effort. Just like all your parents, my parents worked hard to send me to school to seek a better life. I had the good fortune to get an education and go on to earn my PhD at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. What makes my story slightly different than yours today is that the odds that I would make it through college, let alone graduate with a PhD were very slim. See, neither my parents nor I, had a vision of what that looked like growing up on a small two hectare farm in rural Uganda.
But I will tell you what my parents knew. They knew that they had to do everything in their power to ensure that my 14 siblings and I would never have to farm a piece of land to make a living. For them, farming the land was a poverty trap. An education for your child even without a clear sight of where that led was what you had to do to send them off the farm. Many people my age saw their parents or their grandparents making these type of choices.
After graduating with a PhD, I returned to Africa where I first worked as a crop scientist and later became Rwanda’s Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources. I now work as president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa or AGRA. This is an organization devoted to transforming smallholder farming from a solitary struggle to survive like my parents did, to a business that allows them to thrive and be part of growing economies in their countries. We do that by ensuring that they have access to good seeds, and other inputs that are critical for good farm yields..
I consider myself very fortunate, I have been given the means and the opportunity to do something about farming in Africa and how it impacts people’s lives and the choices they make for their children. I am being asked to ensure that rural households don’t struggle the way my family did to raise and send children to school. That answer for me comes from many places but I will talk about the power of science and the power of courage.
For all of you graduating today, and for your families who have come here to be with you, today is a day focused on the future. And I know many of you are asking yourselves the same questions I asked myself when I was graduating: how will I make my mark on the world? You will find out soon because you have something to do. Today just enjoy your day. If you are like me, you probably don’t celebrate a lot – and that is because your success defines your next challenge as you will learn soon enough. For me the answer in retrospect, was about knowing that if anybody can do it I could, I just had to think hard enough. It was knowing I had survived hundreds of lab hours as many of you did and came out on top. It was about knowing that in those lab hours I had actually come up with more answers than I had going in. In the end it was about courage and determination.
The world is hungry for the skills and knowledge you have acquired. My continent, Africa, has been described by many as the last frontier for global businesses: the market with the greatest unexplored potential. I am here today to encourage you to consider the role you might play in the future hopes and dreams of the people where I live and on the issue that is my passion: the unique power of agriculture to transform Africa. The science but also the education you have acquired here has prepared you very well. The power of the two combined is a dynamite.
My father was determined that I would never be a farmer. Technically I am not. But my career is focused on agriculture because I believe farming is Africa’s path to the prosperity we see in other parts of the world including here in Canada. Of course what my father did not know was that farming is a science and only does well where technologies like good crop varieties and good fertilizers are brought together under good soils and water conditions. In these very words, it sounds like a perfect science and this is actually true and you see it every day on the plains of Canada, one of the biggest agricultural countries of the world.
Increasingly, in places like Rwanda, Ethiopia and Ghana, farming today is emerging as a source of wealth and hope where there was once only poverty and despair. Farmers are gaining access to inputs, skills and resources increasing their yields and incomes. This is enabling them to earn a decent living—good enough to put food on their tables, send their children to school, and pay for medicines and a visit to the doctor. And because so many Africans are farmers, if enough succeed, that can lift the fortunes of entire economies, just as it did for millions of people in places like China and South East Asia.
In Rwanda for example, investing in agriculture has already played a big role in lifting over 2 million people—20 percent of the population—out of poverty while in Ethiopia, poverty is falling at a rate of 4% per annum. Similar progress is happening in many other countries. Together with my colleagues at AGRA, we are on a mission to convince governments, donors, and investors that for Africa to redefine the future of its people and thus economies, it will need to invest in agriculture so that there is massive access to good seeds and other inputs but also to ensure that there are good markets through processing of agriculture goods and through regional trade opportunities. The bottom line is, agriculture is a business and governments need to work had to ensure people can make money from this business especially farmers.
But now I have to tell you we are facing a major threat that could destroy this dream. While Africans have played a very small role causing climate change, climate change is already doing significant damage to our farms. And it will only get worse. In Kenya, where AGRA is headquartered, unusually long periods of drought over the last four years have crippled production of maize, Kenya’s most important food crop leaving millions unable to provide their own food. This year, South Africa is likely to harvest 20 percent less maize. Scores of livestock have perished.
Scientists now warn us that, even if the world dramatically reduces emissions, the changes already baked into the atmosphere will continue to produce rising temperatures, weather extremes and sudden changes in rainfall patterns. Of course these shifts will be even more intense if emissions continue to rise. Harm to food production on a continent working to build its economy can easily drive one to despair.
But I refuse to accept defeat. I choose instead to place my hope and faith in the power of science and innovation to bring Africa what it needs to adapt to climate change.
There are many ways our farmers can survive and even thrive in difficult conditions. There are new varieties of drought-tolerant maize, flood tolerant rice, and more becoming available that can survive conditions that would kill most other crops. There are new varieties of nutritious sweet potatoes, millet and sorghums developed thanks to the CGIAR, specifically for different farming conditions in Africa that can grow in abundance in fields where other crops die.
But for these innovations to be accessible and for new ones to be developed,
we need the world to understand the critical importance of adaptation and to support our farmers’ efforts to cope. And so we look to you, the world’s educated and ambitious youth, to take the lead, to demand that the world curb the emissions that are already causing so much misery and insist on a global effort to adapt to the changes already underway. We look to because you are young and smart and will be bring fresh ideas and eyes but we also look to you because this is the reality you are inheriting and for me it can only get better. Getting worse is not an option. I talked about courage and maybe I should add daring, both are going to be important in how you push your brain, your body, your community and the world around you.
If you look across the world today, from Africa to Europe to North America, young people are forcing political leaders to make climate change a priority- so you won’t be alone.
Recent polling shows about 43 percent of Canadians view climate change as a serious threat. But it climbs to 55 percent among those 18 to 34. My guess is that in this audience, it’s far higher–and that fills me with optimism.
Our concern in Africa is that even for those committed to doing something about climate change, the focus today primarily is on mitigation—on reducing emissions. That is critically important, but so too is adaptation.
I am now serving on a new Global Commission on Adaptation. And we are seeking a global movement to support resilience and adaptation, including new investments for Africa’s farmers. If nothing else, this is a matter of fairness and justice. Africans account for less than four percent of the world’s carbon emissions. But our farmers are now among those suffering the worst impacts. Yet only 20% of the funding devoted to addressing climate change is being invested in adaptation. This leaves the African farmer and the continent highly exposed to the impact of climate change. Of course the same is true for Island nations where people go to bed every day wondering whether they will see the light the next day because of rising seas.
Those of you graduating from elite institutions like McGill have a special opportunity—and maybe even a responsibility— to address this imbalance. The world is looking to you to make a difference.
That same survey of climate attitudes included a question asking Canadians who they trust on climate change and global warming. And scientists at universities were by far the most trusted source—much more so even than the United Nations or the news media.
You also can be the source of new ideas—new ways of producing food that work for the way we farm in Africa, the conditions our farmers face, and the crops our consumers prefer.
Be courageous, don’t be afraid to say and test what you know works. Work hard enough to stay ahead of every challenge and every opportunity. In all however, be kind, be helpful and share knowledge. You will discover that in the end this will be your biggest strength- the number of people you touch with what you know and how they move on to be part of changing the world. In whatever you do build good networks around you- it is a global village especially in science and development- everybody seems to know everybody else. You want to be known for the right reasons. If you want to make money go to business, there are lots of opportunities to do well by doing good. The profit motive is an under exploited yet powerful force for good in African agriculture.
Whether it is what President Kagame is doing in Rwanda to turn the country around or what Norman Borlaug did to help feed the world. Or what Bill and Melinda Gates are doing to save millions of lives from diseases and hunger and malnutrion- it all starts with a brief. For these people one thing is common: they all believe that mankind deserves better, that each of us as an individual matters and that we, each as individuals, can do something about it.
Yes, the world has big problems and climate change is one of the biggest- unlike any the world has ever faced. What is also true is that you are the smartest generation to inherit the world today. This is the time in your life where thinking big and aiming high, often called ‘innovation’ is most critical and you are most prepared to occupy and deliver on that position.
Your time at McGill has prepared you well for building a better world. You are our hope that we can overcome adversity. No pressure. Looking at all of you in this room, I am reminded that youthful energy and educated minds remain the world’s most important renewable resource.
To the class of 2019, thank you for letting me be a part of the start of the rest of your life. And congratulations on your achievements of today, and the many more to come.