RPT-INTERVIEW-USDA to play "modest" role in hunger plan-Shah

(Repeats, fixes typo in last paragraph)

* USDA to take lead from developing countries, State Dept

* USDA to help with agricultural research, education

* State, USDA to eye how to optimize food aid

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON, Oct 21 (Reuters) - The U.S. Agriculture Department will play an "important but modest role" in the new U.S. plan to fight world hunger, but will take its lead from developing countries and the State Department, a senior USDA official said on Wednesday.

The USDA plans to tap into its own network of scientists as well as researchers funded by grants to help developing countries on agricultural research and education, said Rajiv Shah, undersecretary in charge of the USDA's research arm.

"This is fundamentally about asking countries what they want and need ... and then working under the leadership of the State Department to help fill those gaps," Shah told Reuters.

"We're really saying this starts with (developing) countries doing their own work about identifying plans and priorities," he said.

The Obama administration has said it will make food security a key plank in its foreign policy, and wants to spend $3.5 billion over three years on projects to help farmers boost food production.

"It's an exciting new approach to using agricultural development to help systematically reduce extreme poverty and hunger in some very vulnerable parts of the world," said Shah.

Shah, who was in charge of agricultural development efforts for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation before joining the USDA, is part of an interagency team working on the plan, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"She's been focused on a core strategy that is amazingly refreshing in that it is fundamentally about focusing on smallholder farmers and the most vulnerable producers in the world," he said.

The United States is working with other rich nations, which together have pledged more than $22 billion to improve food security.

The plan will be led by developing nations themselves, and coordinated with other donors and institutions, he said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last week he hopes about 10 percent of the U.S. funding will go toward agricultural research. [ID:nN15325264]

Shah declined to speak about funding, and said it was too early in the planning process to talk about what kind of research the USDA would contribute, and in which countries.

"We're not a development agency," said Shah.

"We are providing unique expertise and technical support to help make sure this succeeds in a whole-of-government partnership," Shah said.

The USDA has more than 2,200 scientists, and also funds research at a network of U.S. institutions. Shah is spearheading an overhaul of research at the department, which will include a focus on food security issues. [ID:nN08538848]

"We have a deep technical expertise on developing crops that address ... stresses like heat sensitivity and drought tolerance and soil salinity," Shah said.

Aside from the hunger initiative, the USDA has almost $1.7 billion in its 2010 budget to spend on the main U.S. food aid program. [ID:nN21238446]

Vilsack said last Friday the administration wants more flexibility in how it uses food aid dollars. [ID:nN16369181]

Shah said the State Department and USDA are looking at how to make the most of food aid, the bulk of which traditionally has been U.S.-grown crops shipped overseas.

"The principle of, 'We want to follow country plans and priorities' ... will offer guidance as to how we should adapt and optimize food assistance programming, to be consistent with that," Shah said. (Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by David Gregorio)