Dr. Julie Howard—Senior Advisor, Michigan State University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)—is speaking at the third annual D.C. Food Tank Summit, Let’s Build a Better Food Policy, which will be hosted in partnership with George Washington University and the World Resources Institute on February 2, 2017.
Dr. Howard’s responsibilities include advancing MSU’s international strategy and providing leadership in the area of economic and skills development for youth. Previously, she served concurrently as the first Chief Scientist in the Bureau for Food Security at USAID and as Senior Adviser to the USAID administrator on agricultural research, extension, and education. As Cheif Scientist, she directed the research, policy, and human and institutional capacity development programs of Feed the Future.
Food Tank had the chance to speak with Dr. Howard about her background, interest in agricultural technologies, and hope for the future of global agriculture.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Julie Howard (JH): As a college junior, I realized I wasn’t ready to follow many of my classmates into the Foreign Service. Peace Corps offered the opportunity to experience life in a developing country at the village level while trying to do something useful. Friends persuaded me to apply for the rural extension program. My bachelor’s degree in international affairs didn’t really qualify me to be a rural extension agent, but my Dominican friends were patient and forgiving teachers. Through our work together building countless latrines, household gardens, and chicken houses, I found a passion that has fueled my work for more than three decades.
FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?
JH: Three-quarters of the world’s poor live in rural areas and rely on agriculture to make a living. So helping people earn more from agriculture is one of the most important ways we can reach “the bottom of the pyramid.” Improving local agricultural systems not only helps farmers out of poverty but has much broader and dynamic impacts on rural communities and cities. Farmers invest their proceeds locally, creating more jobs. We are only now beginning to understand the relationship of nutrition to child development and lifelong health, and why it is so important for rural and urban children to have a sustainable, local source of fresh and nutritious food.
FT: Who inspired you as a kid?
JH: Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie books. I was very sorry to have missed out on being a pioneer settler.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
JH: Youth and technology. Youth are less weighed down than my generation by the conventional wisdom on how to do things and by classic disciplinary boundaries than my generation, and, of course, they have unparalleled access to information. This new wave of problem-solvers is mixing and matching solutions from diverse sectors in very innovative and potentially transformative ways. For example, my Michigan State colleague Prof. Dave Kramer sits in the College of Natural Sciences, but his lab is populated by a blend of young biologists, engineers, and computer programmers. Together they have come up with MultispeQ, a handheld device with sensors and an online data-sharing and analysis platform. They are giving away these patentable devices at a nominal fee and building a global group of citizen scientists. This group—all ages—is tackling tough problems as varied as increasing drought-resistance in beans in Malawi to combatting coral bleaching in Fiji.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero who inspired you?
JH: I remember having lunch with Norman Borlaug in Washington a couple of years before we lost him. He was fully engaged in his last campaign—plotting with us to raise awareness and resources to combat a very virulent form of wheat rust threatening Asia and Africa. Dr. Borlaug was one of the first agriculturalists to recognize how important it is for scientists to work directly with policymakers. He persuaded leaders from Indira Gandhi to Meles Zenawi to lend their personal and political support to transforming agriculture in their countries. They changed policies, increased national investments in agriculture, and—most importantly—galvanized their citizens to scale the adoption of critical new agricultural technologies. Dr. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his pathbreaking efforts, and is credited with saving perhaps a billion people from starvation.
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
JH: I’d rather talk about the most amazing unexploited opportunity: increasing youth employment and entrepreneurship in agriculture. Our recent work at MSU shows significant potential to expand youth employment in agriculture across sub-Saharan Africa. These opportunities relate to modernizing traditional agriculture, and range from on-farm service provision (e.g., tractors for hire, input dealers) to food processing, marketing, and the expansion of food away from home products and services. Most African youth still live in rural areas, and creating more employment is critical because Africa has the youngest population in the world—in Tanzania, for example, three-quarters of the population is under the age of 35. Not creating more and better economic opportunities for the growing cadre of young people will pose an increasing threat to stability.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
JH: Take actions every day to reduce your carbon footprint, including the amount of food you waste.
FT: What advice can you give to President Trump and the U.S. Congress on food and agriculture?
JH: Maintaining U.S. leadership to increase global food security is critical. Hunger and extreme poverty around the world contribute to violence and instability that threatens U.S. national security. Congress took historic and bipartisan action last summer in passing the Global Food Security Act. Support by President Trump and the U.S. Congress to fully fund the GFSA will, in turn, prod other donors and the private sector to work with us to help reduce food insecurity and improve incomes for the nearly 800 million people worldwide who suffer from chronic hunger and poverty.