Q&A: Julie Borlaug
Julie Borlaug is fulfilling her famous grandfather’s wish.
He is Norman E. Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in global agriculture and founder of the World Food Prize, an international award given to individuals who increase the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world.
Newly appointed to the Council of Advisors at the World Food Prize Foundation, she is continuing the Borlaug legacy of food security and innovation in agriculture.
“My grandfather always wanted the family to be involved in the World Food Prize, and it is one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had,” Borlaug says. “I am passionate about agriculture, about the prize, and helping it grow and change over time.”
One of her goals at the foundation is to help broaden the World Food Prize beyond production ag and into a holistic perspective that is more inclusive on topics like livestock, nutrition, alternative proteins, gene editing, new food systems traceability, and more. She also wants to support the next generation of innovators who think outside the box and take risks, like her grandfather.
SF: Where are the opportunities for growth and innovation in agriculture?
JB: I follow many start-ups in agriculture. There is so much activity, whether it’s a company working with soil carbon sequestration, more natural ways to manage insects, carbon markets, or alternative proteins for feed or human consumption. We need to link everyone and be supportive because we’re all a part of the value chain.
SF: How do we overcome the challenges in the food supply system?
JB: If we do not speed up innovations, we will run out of time to find meaningful solutions to address hunger, malnutrition, climate change, and sustainability. We need to match the urgency and incredible pace that provided vaccinations to COVID-19. Moderna was a small company but because of its innovation, support from the government, and regulatory policies that didn’t lock out small companies, they were able to rapidly develop a solution. The same pace and urgency should be part of agriculture. We need to give startups a seat at the table and challenge all to quicken the path to innovate. And to listen and learn from the next generation who truly owns the future in 2050 is critical. My grandfather said he spent time with the university students because they challenged him to keep learning and kept him from getting too ivory-towered.
SF: What lessons do you carry with you?
JB: The biggest lesson I have ever learned is to listen to the farmer! One of the biggest gifts I’ve been given is the opportunity to travel to developing countries and work with small-holder farmers hands on. In those countries, small-holder farmers are the majority, and when you meet them, it’s important to ask what they need. A lot of times in the past, we presented and transferred a Western form of agriculture and thought it would be applicable and accepted culturally. But when you travel and talk to them, see what their needs are, and get their buy-in, that’s when collaboration and innovation become more powerful.
Additionally, taking our innovations to the farmer. There is no use in innovations that sit on the shelf for 10 plus years. Farmers cannot wait on political rhetoric or be held back by people and organizations that do not understand ag.
SF: What innovations have you seen internationally that have made an impact on global agriculture?
JB: If you look at how developing countries have implemented technology, they didn’t put in landlines, they went directly to the mobile phone. That radically changed their world because automatically they had direct market access and no longer had to work through a middleman; they could get information on weather, diseases, and more.
I’m involved in Thought for Food Challenge, which supports creative breakthrough solutions for food systems. In the challenge, we give a Borlaug Take It to the Farmer Award, and this past year, young innovators from Africa won who developed a way to do diagnostic analysis on poultry via an app. The tool has been life changing because producers can’t always get a veterinarian or afford one. It is a game-changing solution and technology that suits a localized need.
It’s exciting to see young companies’ bold and innovative thinking.
Name: Julie Borlaug
Background: Borlaug is VP of corporate communications and PR at Invaio, a tech company delivering natural solutions for crop quality.
Education: Borlaug received a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University in international studies and political science and a master’s from the University of Dallas.