Food is a great global connector. Farmers in Saskatchewan know their pulse price can be affected by crop conditions in India. Canadian scientists take plant material to South America to help speed up their genetic research. Governments in Africa cooperate with North American aid workers as they grapple with how best to distribute food to those in dire need.
In the midst of what seems to be a field of enormous challenges lies a program designed to put a spotlight on the victories. The World Food Prize — informally described as the “Nobel prize” for food and agriculture — has blossomed into an entity with global impact.
The prize itself was established by the late Dr. Norman Borlaug (1914- 2009), a Nobel Peace Prize winner and one of agriculture’s most passionate and well-known scientists. Raised on a farm in Iowa, Borlaug’s research work took him first to Mexico, then to other places around the globe in his quest for disease-resistant and high-yielding wheat varieties. Along with improved crop management practices, his work is credited for sparking what’s known today as the “Green Revolution.”
Borlaug initiated the idea of The World Food Prize, to “honour outstanding individuals who’ve made significant contributions to improving the quality, quantity or availability of food throughout the world.” The prize, which includes $250,000, was first presented in 1986 and subsequent laureates have come from more than 15 different countries.
Thanks to the sponsorship of Iowa businessman John Ruan, the prize became a foundation, which now hosts the annual Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium and several programs focused on inspiring the next generation to work in the global agriculture industry.
Dr. Kenneth Quinn has been the foundation’s president for the past 15 years. He spent more than 30 years in the U.S. Foreign Service and is a former ambassador to Cambodia.
Quinn is a self-described “city kid” who had virtually nothing to do with agriculture. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service with visions of attending receptions in chandelier-filled ballrooms in exotic locales. Instead, he found himself in Vietnam in 1968 in the midst of war. He was there when some improved rice seed arrived at the local villages.
“I saw how the combination of this new agricultural technology and improved rural roads transformed village life in every imaginable way,” recalls Quinn. “It lifted people out of poverty, and at the same time, undercut the ability of guerillas and insurgents to recruit young people. It got at the heart of the Viet Cong movement, and contributed to helping end the war.”
Quinn was so taken with what he saw that he turned down his dream assignment in western Europe, choosing instead to stay on in Vietnam during the war. “That shaped the rest of my career,” he says. “I came to see how the power of agriculture and rural development was so essential to key diplomatic and foreign policy goals.”
The link between agriculture and peace was a new concept at the time, but it was one Quinn put to the test again 25 years later as ambassador to Cambodia. Using a limited budget, he applied the same formula of new seed, new agricultural technology and decent rural roads as a way to defuse the deadly insurgence by the Khmer Rouge.
Quinn’s passion to reduce hunger remains vibrant and has sparked the growth of The World Food Prize from a small, one-day awards event, to a weeklong series of discussions and initiatives at The World Food Prize Foundation headquarters in Des Moines, IA, which, last year, attracted 1,200 people from more than 60 countries.
“We’re carrying forward Dr. Borlaug’s legacy,” says Quinn, pointing out there are statues honouring the scientist both in Mexico and India, where his “miracle wheat” is credited with saving hundreds of millions from famine and starvation.
Last year, to mark the centennial of Borlaug’s birth, Quinn was the first and only former American ambassador invited to Iran to be part of a special celebration honouring Borlaug. “I spoke at the Iranian government conference, and talked about his legacy and the role biotechnology could play,” Quinn says. Like Borlaug, the Iranians are huge supporters of biotech.
Quinn also talked about the possibility of the U.S. and Iran working together to deal with wheat rust. “Borlaug’s dream was that one day, using biotech, scientists could discover what it is that keeps rice from ever getting rust disease, and implant it into wheat,” he says. As a result of that trip, an Iranian scientist came to Iowa last year to be part of a panel discussion on the subject.
Quinn cites other examples of the power of agriculture to break down barriers to peaceful interaction: from Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev visiting an Iowa corn breeder during the height of the Cold War, to three Muslim scientists from Arab countries successfully nominating an Israeli Jewish scientist — a pioneer in micro-irrigation — for the 2012 World Food Prize, and joining in the celebration.
“(I see) the role that agriculture can play in building bridges between adversaries; between people who have huge chasms separating them,” Quinn says. Agriculture can help build trust, which can develop into further understanding and help diffuse tensions, he adds. “That legacy is embodied in our tradition here at The World Food Prize. We need to have our national leaders, beyond the ministers of agriculture, understand that powerful role.”
A walk through The World Food Prize Hall of Laureates is to take an inspiring trip around the world, to meet people from a broad array of functions, across the entire food production, processing and distribution chain. Those honoured range from the founder of Heifer International — a charitable organization working to end hunger and poverty around the world — to former presidents of nations, along with renowned biotechnology pioneers.
“There are so many incredible stories,” says Quinn. “The way I refer to The World Food Prize laureates is that they are the all-star team of the single greatest period of food production and hunger reduction in human history. And Norman Borlaug is the team captain.
“What we need now is the next team of all-stars, who are going to be the leaders and innovators and contributors to what has to be, once again, the greatest period of food production and hunger reduction in human history. We have to do it all over again.”
That’s why, 20 years ago, The World Food Prize started a Global Youth Institute to inspire students by making them aware of the global issues the planet faces. There are also several international internships and fellowships that connect young people with current leaders in the field. And there’s even the Borlaug Field Award, honouring scientific achievements in agriculture and food production for those under 40.
It’s easy to get caught up in the dayto- day challenges and individual roles in the agricultural industry. But The World Food Prize encourages everyone involved to step back and think about the greater good, to encourage achievements in agriculture and food that have worldwide implications. Quinn believes that will make all the difference.
“Science is, after all, the multiplier of the harvest,” he said. “That’s what is critical to uplifting poor people — multiplying the harvest.” FF