What should we pay for with our foreign aid? In recent history, the American answer to that question has been simple — “health programs.” But then Obama named Raj Shah head of the United States Agency for International Development where it was his job to spend our foreign aid. Shah steered more money to farmers, especially small farmers, and over the course of five years saw the results all over the world: Some of the poorest people were able to feed their families, send their kids to school, and save up money.

In a recent interview, I asked Shah about that shift. Why focus on farmers instead of schools and vaccines? As he sees it, investment in agriculture is a necessary step for countries seeking to help people out of poverty.

Shah was the youngest USAID Administrator ever, and the highest-ranking Indian-American in any presidential administration. In our conversation, he talked about the importance of small farmers, how the debate over organic versus conventional food misses the point, and much else. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.