U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was in Kenya Tuesday touting a new U.S. global food security initiative. The agriculture secretary will attend the African Growth and Opportunity Act Forum, which is also being attended by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Secretary Vilsack visited a number of sites around the Kenyan capital to talk with local farmers and agricultural specialists. He also visited a school in the Kibera slum where student meals are being provided with support from the United States the World Food Program.
The sites toured by the U.S. official included a small agricultural supply store, a small family farm, and an agricultural research institute.
Vilsack used the meetings to discuss a new initiative by U.S. President Barack Obama to help improve food security in struggling countries. The President has asked Congress for $1 billion in 2010 for the global agricultural development program.
Vilsack stressed that while emergency food aid is often necessary for humanitarian purposes, the far more sustainable alternative for the long term was to help developing countries build up their own agriculture sectors.
He told the Kenyans that he was not here to prescribe solutions, but to listen to their specific challenges and needs.
"I think that President Obama was very clear when he came to Ghana and talked about the need for transformational change, which is taking what we have been doing, which has been providing food assistance - which is still an important component of our approach - and broadening it," Vilsack said. "Partnerships entail first and foremost listening to what our partners need to tell us and having an understanding of what their needs are."
The secretary's was making his rounds as the country awaited the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the African Growth and Opportunity Act Forum.
The annual summit is mandated by a U.S. Congressional act and alternates location each year between Washington, D.C., and an African city.
AGOA lowers certain trade barriers between the United States and a number of African countries to help open up U.S. markets to African exporters. The act mainly affects the apparel and textile industry, but some agricultural industries such as flower and nut products also receive a boost.
But the AGOA act has little effect on the continent's basic agricultural industry, comprised of such staples as maize, beans, and wheat. Food deficits often force African countries to import rather than export crops, while subsidized farm production and stringent U.S. import standards limit most African agriculture from access to the American market.
Secretary Vilsack said that issues regarding barriers constructed by Western agricultural subsidies will be tackled in the context of wider global trade relations at the World Trade Organization negotiations.
"On the one hand, developed nations like the United States have to take a look at the financial structure that they have that supports farmers and makes adjustments," Vilsack said. "On the other hand, there has got to be an expectation and understanding that developing nations have to be more willing to let their markets be more open to developed nations. It's a two-way street."
Mr. Vilsack, who was an orphan as a child, offered the Kibera students encouragement and asked them not to let poor circumstances keep them from following their dreams.
The support for the food meals comes through the U.S. McGovern-Dole program, which offers nutritional support to food-deficit countries committed to universal education.
The residents of the Kibera slum in Nairobi are having a difficult time affording basic meals as food prices have risen sharply in the past year. Free lunches offered at some schools are often the only meals the children will receive.
The agriculture secretary was joined at the school by the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger. The visit was Vilsack's third trip to the continent.