Inaugural John Ruan III Keynote Address by Suzanne P. Clark, President and CEO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Remarks As Prepared
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I am honored to be here with you today.
I want to thank the World Food Prize Foundation for hosting this dialogue—I can’t think of a time when bringing together the smartest people from around the world to discuss global food security has been more urgent.
I want to congratulate this year’s laureate, Heidi Kuhn, whose work is such a timely and powerful example of how agriculture and farming can be instruments of peace and prosperity.
And I want to recognize the Ruan family—Janis, Rachel, John IV, Ben, Allison, and in spirit my dear friend John—for their many years of support for this Foundation and its vital work.
In thinking about how to deliver this address to honor the legacy of John Ruan III, my mind immediately went to the wonderful book by Michael Novak—“Business as a Calling.” In it, Novak writes that most people only have to look back a generation or two to find poverty—or to identify the first seed of opportunity that was planted and ultimately flourished into a successful business or enterprise.
Many of you know the story of how John Ruan Sr. sold the family car during the Great Depression to buy a single truck, which he used to haul gravel and waste oil. With business smarts and an entrepreneurial spirit, he grew that one-truck company into a great American success story.
And John Ruan III took the reins of the company his father built, and he took the idea of business as a calling and made it a guiding mantra of his life.
He answered the call by helping grow the family business to a thriving enterprise across multiple industries—and employing thousands of people across the country. He answered the call by revitalizing and enriching the city he loved through economic development and philanthropy. As Rachel mentioned, he answered the call by generously giving his time and expertise to help all American businesses by serving on the U.S. Chamber Board, including as Chair.
The greatest example of this is why we are all here today. In fact, we literally wouldn’t be here at all if not for the support and leadership of John Ruan and his family.
For those of you who don’t know the history of the World Food Prize—it is a remarkable story. Dr. Norman Borlaug—the namesake of this dialogue—is credited with saving a billion people, more than anyone else in human history. His work to develop disease and drought resistant strains of wheat that could grow in more arid regions of the world earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. This led him to create the World Food Prize and inspire future generations to solve global problems by bringing together science, technology, and industry.
As we’ve heard, some years later, the Ruan family endowed the World Food Prize Foundation—essentially saving it so it could fulfill that vision and mission into the future. And John helped grow what used to be a one-day event into the internationally recognized symposium that it is today—drawing leaders and thinkers from around the world.
Business is a calling—and today, business leaders are being called upon to solve some of the biggest problems we’ve ever confronted during some of the most complex times.
Can you think of a moment in history when the work of this organization was more urgently needed? The challenges we face are cascading and compounding. The scale and scope are staggering.
The pandemic sent shockwaves through our global supply chains and caused increased economic hardship among the poorest communities. Natural disasters have occurred with increasing frequency and intensity, resulting in catastrophic damage to arable farmland—particularly in some of the most at-risk areas such as the Horn of Africa. Armed conflict, such as the horrific attacks by Hamas on Israel are creating grave humanitarian crises. Russia’s war in Ukraine has slowed the flow of grain and fertilizers, leading to the highest price increases since the 2008 financial crisis.
Meanwhile, global population growth trends mean we’ll need to produce 60% more food to feed nine billion people by 2050. And it will require increasing the 20% of food that crosses borders to ensure it moves from places of abundance to places of scarcity where it is needed most.
It would be easy to look at the scale, scope, and stakes of this challenge and feel pessimistic. But as Dr. Borlaug once said, “pessimism has no place in action”—and I am actually optimistic.
First, I’m optimistic because as President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, I have a bird’s-eye view of all the things that businesses are doing to lift communities and solve global problems.
At the Chamber, we get to talk to CEOs every day, we listen to them, and we represent the interests of businesses of every size and sector. From that unique vantage point, the Chamber touches on every aspect of the food value chain, from plants to plates and everything in between. We see firsthand that when it comes to solving hunger, some of the most impactful solutions are being pioneered by innovative businesses determined to help feed a growing and changing world.
Let me highlight just a few examples.
I am proud to serve as a member of the board of AGCO—a global leader in the design, manufacture, and distribution of agricultural equipment. Like the Chamber, AGCO touches every aspect of the agriculture value chain. And through their “Farmer-First strategy,” AGCO helps producers maintain or enhance yield, improve profitability, and minimize environmental impact—all in a sustainable way.
Faced with the challenge of population growth and rising demand, AGCO’s precision agriculture tools are enabling farmers to produce more with less. One example is targeted spraying, where vision cameras and AI can identify and isolate a weed from a crop, only spray the weed, and save farmers up to 70% of the chemical used in the process.
Additionally, AGCO’s intelligent, network-connected tractors and precision technologies help farmers enhance the health and resilience of their soil. And the latest planting technologies from AGCO allow farmers to achieve optimal seed placement with minimal soil disturbance—that means better germination, crop emergence, and utilization. Meanwhile, their highly efficient Power CORE engine is compatible with renewable diesel and achieves a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
With all of these innovations, AGCO is looking at sustainability not as a series of one-at-a-time actions, but as a fundamental way of operating—it’s the mission behind their work. And AGCO is just one example of ways businesses of all sizes are tackling these challenges through private sector leadership and innovation.
John Deere is well-represented here this week. Through their core business and their Foundation, John Deere supports and enables food and nutrition at every stage—from empowering farmers to partnering with local food banks to ensure those in need have access to nutritious food.
Worldwide food leader Cargill has launched a three-year, $10 million partnership with CARE called PROSPER, which stands for “Promoting a Sustainable and Food Secure World.” The aim is to improve food and nutrition security, increase incomes, and reduce poverty. The program successfully reached more than two million people in 11 countries and is credited with cutting food insecurity by 16% and poverty rates by 19% in the communities in which it operated.
Abbott and Abbott Fund launched a Healthy Food Rx program in 2021—one of the largest “food as medicine” programs for people with diabetes. Through Healthy Food Rx, healthcare workers provide prescriptions for people with diabetes to receive recipe-based food boxes, delivered directly to their door. The program has effectively improved diabetes control and self-management, diet quality, and food insecurity for participants.
PepsiCo tackled student food insecurity in Arizona ahead of Super Bowl 57 by funding and delivering school meals to local high-need schools. Through the initiative, PepsiCo provided access to more than 8.5 million meals and helped over 31,000 students in Arizona.
These are powerful examples of how some of our larger members are using their resources and expertise to address these challenges. Across the world, across the country, and across our economy, we are relying on the biggest thinkers, the scrappiest innovators, and the most generous philanthropists.
But at the heart of this work is our family farms, ranchers, and local producers. The vast majority of the Chamber’s members—90%—are small businesses and state and local chambers. Representing them is one of the most impactful things we do.
And, importantly, this innovation and entrepreneurship is enabled and empowered by our free enterprise system.
I’ll tell you a second reason I’m optimistic, even in the face of significant challenges. I get to do something about it.
Through our work at the U.S. Chamber, we get to help businesses serve customers, solve problems, and strengthen society. The Chamber is the only organization that optimizes the relationship between government and business at scale, across the economy, and around the world.
We do that at the local level, engaging with small businesses and state and local chambers of commerce to address the challenges in their communities.
We do that at the national level, advocating in the halls of Congress, in state capitals, and in courts across the country to ensure businesses have the environment they need to deliver innovations that lift our economy and our nation.
And we do it at the global level, providing our members a seat at the table with government leaders, a voice in the debate in multilateral institutions, and a team of experts in every major market to ensure private-sector solutions can scale around the world.
Ultimately, we advocate for the benefit of all businesses and the preservation of free enterprise. It is our role to help leaders in government understand the needs of business and support smart policymaking so American farmers, ranchers, and business leaders can do all the things society trusts, expects, and needs them to do.
Top of mind is a market-opening trade agenda.
We are fortunate enough to be in the breadbasket of the world—and not just here in Iowa. Across the country, American farmers and ranchers are so productive that, on average, one farm produces enough food to feed 166 people annually. It’s no wonder then, for many crops, including wheat, almonds, and more, over half the U.S. harvest is sold abroad.
While these vital food sources for millions of people around the world are homegrown—so is a growing threat to food security. The Chamber is advocating for our federal leaders to reduce barriers to trade so American businesses can reach the 95% of the world’s customers who live beyond our shores.
Elsewhere, trade restrictions are one of the biggest contributors to food instability globally. Export restrictions caused the terrible 2008 global food price spike that plunged millions into hunger and poverty, and they’ve reappeared in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We need governments worldwide to renew their commitment to reject export restrictions on food.
In addition to fighting against misguided policies that would negatively impact global food security, the Chamber advocates in our nation’s capital for pro-business policies that help harness private-sector innovation to fuel our economy and feed the world.
- Reforming America’s outdated permitting process so projects can get built with the speed and efficiency needed to support growing agriculture and food programs;
- Modernizing our nation’s infrastructure and making sure our supply chains are resilient to ensure food that is produced actually makes it from the farm to the table;
- Securing our borders and modernizing legal immigration so businesses can hire the workers they need—from farms and ranches to small businesses that rely on seasonal employees, to cutting edge companies in need of high-skilled workers;
- Providing clarity and certainty in our energy policies to meet the world’s growing demand for affordable, reliable energy and access to food to drive the transition to decarbonize our economy;
- Developing smart, balanced, nuanced regulations on emerging technologies like AI to foster innovation;
- Defending against government overreach and policies that would create needless uncertainty and endless red tape businesses have to navigate;
- And using the opportunity to reauthorize the Farm Bill to advance the important connection between innovation, climate progress, and food security.
As everyone in this room knows, ensuring global food security will take a whole-of-society effort.
That is a difficult enough challenge—without government making things harder. Unfortunately, too often, that’s exactly what happens.
Despite all the external challenges businesses have faced over the past decade—including all the risks and shocks I’ve already mentioned—it is actually public policy risks that have increased the most.
Constant power shifts in Washington, a partisan approach to governing, and a willingness by both parties to enact policy through regulation have made it incredibly difficult for businesses to operate, invest, and plan for the future.
That is why the Chamber exists—to advocate for a government that works, that rejects gridlock, and that chooses governing. Only then can businesses solve the greatest challenges facing society.
That process is powered by business innovation, and it is enabled by free enterprise. And it is that process that John Ruan believed in deeply, that he advocated for fiercely, and that he demonstrated continually throughout his life.
As I mentioned, John served as Chair of the Chamber’s Board of Directors—and he was a longtime member of the board before that. He saw free enterprise as a driver of opportunity for people to put their talent and ideas to work through employment, for businesses to invest and grow and innovate, and for stronger economies that create more security and stability for people around the world.
It’s one thing to talk about the virtuous cycle of free enterprise—it’s another thing to live it, as John did.
I mentioned that John was a dear friend, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t share a glimpse into who he was as a person.
John was passionate about agriculture in every possible way—from the role Ruan trucks play in safely transporting food across the country, to the John Deere tractor seats he manufactured and collected, to the hunting trips he hosted and his deep respect for this land and its bounty, to the simple joy of hosting dinners and bringing people together around a meal, and most importantly, to his commitment to changing lives and strengthening communities through food security.
I think John would be proud of this moment—not because his name is on something, but because his life meant something. He used everything he had to help as many people as he could—and that, I think, is the essential spirit of this Foundation and its work.
I’m reminded of a quote by Winston Churchill, where he said: “Some regard private enterprise as a tiger to be shot. Others look upon it as a cow they can milk. Only a handful see it for what it really is—the strong and willing horse that pulls along the whole cart.”
That is only possible because of people like John—who understand and appreciate the opportunity our American free enterprise system provides, and who use their role and their voice to drive solutions to global problems and create a brighter collective future for all of us.
It’s a privilege to be able to honor John’s legacy—and to continue to live by the example he set of harnessing the power of business to build a brighter tomorrow.