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Ag's global meetup

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.

An early crisis averted

The Prize nearly died in 1990 when General Foods was merged with Kraft by its owners, the Phillip Morris Companies (now the Altria Group). The new management had no interest in supporting the World Food Prize.

Borlaug scrambled for supporters. Des Moines Register editorial writer Rox Laird wrote a Christmas Eve call for Iowans to continue the prize. It inspired a meeting of local leaders, including John Ruan, a Des Moines businessman and philanthropist.

“John Ruan wanted to make Iowa and central Iowa, the food and agricultural capital of the world,” says Quinn.

When Borlaug met with Ruan, the two hit it off. Both were born in 1914. Both had grown up on northern Iowa farms. Ruan had built one of the nation's largest trucking businesses as well as a bank. He and his family saved the World Food Prize with a $10 million endowment and by setting up a foundation for it.

Borlaug and Ruan expanded the work of the World Food Prize, almost until the end of their lives. Borlaug died at age 95 in 2009; Ruan died a few months later in 2010 at age 96.

Along with presenting the World Food Prize to one or more individuals, the organization hosts a three-day Borlaug Dialogue on timely issues facing agriculture. In 2001, its planners didn't know how relevant they were when they included agroterrorism on the program, months before the September 11 attacks on the U.S.

The event also includes a Global Youth Institute for 125 high school students. A few of those go on to become Borlaug-Ruan interns working at research centers around the globe.

Quinn says the October gathering draws government officials, food company execs, scientists, hunger advocates, farm commodity group leaders, ag college deans, and reporters “where high school students and teachers are thrown into the mix. So we have this bottle to shake well and stir well,” he says.

More farmers in the mix

Another group that holds a World Food Prize side event is Truth About Trade and Technology. This year it will host its sixth Global Farmer Roundtable, which brings to the event commercial farmers with a common interest in having access to technology and better markets. Some also join panels at the World Food Prize dialogue.

Dean Kleckner, former American Farm Bureau Federation president, is one of the farmers who started Truth About Trade and Technology. He's also been on the World Food Prize Council of Advisors.

Like Borlaug, Kleckner believes access to technology is crucial to ending hunger in Africa and other poor regions. Will the World Food Prize change minds? “Whether it convinces the doubters or not, I don't know, but it should,” he says.

Quinn thinks it's already bridging divides. “I like to think that it has,” he says, “because the World Food Prize is designed to be the place where everyone comes together.” 

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