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Ag's global meetup

DANIEL LOOKER 09/30/2011 @ 9:33am Business Editor

At the Community Food Security Coalition meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, in October 2009, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack drew boos when he disagreed with an activist who called crop biotechnology dangerous and ineffective. “You all see one answer. I talk to other people who see completely different answers,” Vilsack responded.

Two days later, the World Food Prize gathering in Des Moines heard from one of those other people – billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates.

Gates said idealists have tried to restrict the spread of biotechnology into sub-Saharan Africa, ignoring how it could reduce hunger and poverty.

“Productivity or sustainability. They say you have to choose. I believe it's a false choice,” said Gates.

It was a groundbreaking speech for the founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which aims to help the three fourths of the world's poorest people who farm small plots of land.

Gates made his first major speech on agriculture at the World Food Prize. The annual awarding of a $250,000 prize to researchers and leaders who have battled hunger draws the brightest and most powerful in agriculture – from farmers, to the CEOs of Cargill and ADM, to this year's winners, the past presidents of Ghana and Brazil. It also attracts side events like the Community Food Security Coalition at the same time.

Building on a dream

All this means that the World Food Prize has become a global meeting ground for agriculture. It may not change every food activist's views, but it's a place for powerful cross pollination of ideas.

“Bill Gates can probably give that speech anywhere in the world that he wants to. He and his staff chose us,” says former ambassador Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize.

From the time Quinn took over as president in 1999, the event has grown from about 50 out-of-state visitors to more than 1,000. Last year farmers from 60 nations joined them.

“We need to build more hotels in Des Moines just for October,” Quinn says.

The World Food Prize seems to have achieved the dreams of its founder, Norman Borlaug, and main supporter, John Ruan.

Borlaug, a farm boy from Cresco, Iowa, became a plant breeder. He developed high-yielding wheat varieties in Mexico and is called the father of the Green Revolution. The Atlantic Monthly says, Borlaug “saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived.” Estimates of how many he saved from starvation run to one billion.

For this work, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

He didn't rest on his laurels. Borlaug thought others who improved the world's food supply should be honored with a separate Nobel Prize for agriculture. When he couldn't convince the Nobel Foundation to do that, he eventually persuaded the CEO of General Foods Corporation to start a new World Food Prize. The first was awarded in 1987 to M.S. Swaminathan of India, a plant scientist who led the introduction of high-yielding rice and wheat to his country.

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