Changed Lives: The World Food Prize

It isn’t often that you come away from an event knowing with certainty that lives have been changed. 


But in October, that’s exactly how I felt. One hundred and forty-six students from 27 states and 7 foreign countries assembled in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, for the Global Youth Institute, held in conjunction with the presentation of this year’s World Food Prize.

If you have followed my blog for long, you may remember that I wrote about the World Food Prize last spring. (See “Second Skin” and “Winners All.”) A colleague at my high school, a biology teacher whom I admire, had learned about the World Food Prize essay competition, a contest on the subject of world hunger. Students would choose a country somewhere in the world,  do research, and then write about issues of food insecurity in that country. My colleague asked me to help her coach the students who signed on to the challenge. The final  papers—as many as 10 pages long, single-spaced, thoroughly documented in MLA format—were written with no promise of any extrinsic reward and turned out to be far more complex than any the students had written before—even in AP classes.

At the end of  March, the five students we coached presented their papers before a panel of Purdue University professors, all of them connected in some way to agriculture and food science. One of our students—Caroline—had written about India and the issue of land law reform. If women owned land, she argued, agricultural improvements and increased food supplies would not only decrease hunger and malnutrition but would contribute to the elevation of women’s status and thus to a decrease in gender-based violence.

All of our students wrote papers like this—one was about hydroponic produce in the Gaza Strip, another was about water sanitation in Cambodia—but Caroline’s essay and  her subsequent oral defense of her work qualified her to attend the national conference—the 2013 Borlaug Dialogue—in Des Moines. Over the summer, she revised her paper, resubmitted it, and then waited for the event in October—the event that changed lives.

This was a full scale conference—called the Borlaug Dialogue in honor of the Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 1970, food scientist and humanitarian Norman Borlaug, “the man who saved more lives than anyone else on earth.” Working as a young scientist in Mexico in the 1940s, Borlaug developed a disease-resistant strain of wheat that made Mexico less dependent upon imported grain. His work was the beginning of the Green Revolution in India and Pakistan in the 1950s. His contribution to peace in the world—by increasing the world’s food supply and saving millions, perhaps a billion, from starvation—is unparalleled.

The conference, held in Des Moines, Iowa, was attended by food scientists, statesmen, NGO leaders, academicians, and agribusiness men and women. Attendees listened to thought-provoking speakers and panel presentations, ate delicious, eco-friendly, catered meals that concluded with keynote addresses or round table discussions, and viewed posters explaining work being done to fight hunger around the world by various NGOs.

The students took in most of this, but the Global Youth Institute, their conference, ran in tandem with the Borlaug Dialogue, and students followed its schedule, too: a farm tour, an opportunity to package food for Outreach International, a Hunger Dinner organized on Friday night by Oxfam. The climax was on Saturday morning when the students again presented their papers, this time to distinguished scientists who were attending the conference—scientists like previous World Food Prize honorees Dr. Philip Nelson (2007) and Dr. Gabisa Ejeta (2009) from Purdue University.

  • So what changed lives? Was it Howard Buffett, an international philanthropist (and son of Warren Buffett) whose interest is in agriculture? Buffet told the audience that we all have about 40 chances in our lives to do something for the world. We don’t get unlimited opportunities—40 years is about the span of our working lives. We have that many chances to “get it right,” whatever our goal. His is feeding the world.
  • Was it the President of Iceland, a learned and engaging speaker who told the students that the melting of polar ice will have a greater effect on their lives than anything else?  In a talk entitled “Ice, Energy, and Food,” he explained the geothermal aspects of the polar melt and outlined the subsequent effects on countries around the world.
  • Was it Tony Blair, explaining we need to pay attention to the priorities of the people in developing countries and to listen to them: They just might know more than we do.

P1040108Or perhaps it was at the Hunger Banquet.  Teachers and students drew cards as they entered the room and were sent, depending upon the color of their cards, to one side or the other or to a spot on the floor. On the right, tables had been set for an elegant multi-course meal—15% of the participants landed there. Another 25% were sent to chairs along the wall. That group, those who are barely “making it” in the world, got a dinner of rice and lentils, served on paper plates. The rest of the participants ended up on the floor. They represented the 60% of the world that is food insecure. Their dinner was rice only, served directly into their hands from great bowls placed on the floor.

People reacted in myriad ways. Some on the floor accepted their fate, some begged and even stole food, others bartered. Some of the 15% shared willingly or even tried to give their food away. Some people served as intermediaries between the rich and the poor.

The students voiced their reactions and their takeaways after the dinner. One student, an articulate young woman who had been a Borlaug Intern in India the previous summer (an opportunity yet ahead for this year’s crop of students) said to the group at the end of the dinner, “If we are going to help in the world, I believe it has to start with empathy.”

Maybe it was the World Food Prize winners themselves who changed the lives of the young people in the room. All of the laureates this year are microbiologists who have relentlessly conducted basic scientific research that has, after years of study, yielded advances in the genetically modified seeds. They spoke at lunch about their lives in science: about the curiosity that sparked their quest, about the discipline and persistence that science requires, about the mostly friendly competition among their labs, about the electricity—and the satisfaction—they felt when their experiments worked and new knowledge was born.  Any budding scientist in the audience had to have been inspired.

Or perhaps it was the same three scientists giving the students some advice at the end of the conference—passing on some life lessons:

  • Dr. Robert T. Fraley: Pretend that 37 years from now you are 56 years old and toward the end of you career. What will you be thinking about? It believe it will be your friends and colleagues and the few lasting contributions you will have made in the world—those moments that will come from deep inside you. Nothing else will matter.
  • Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton: Do what you want to do. Follow your love. That is the place where you will succeed.
  • Dr. Marc Von Montagu: Whatever discipline you go into, question the knowledge. Take a scientific approach.

Maybe it was the posters and presentations by Borlaug Interns—students from the previous year who had applied for and won the twenty coveted summer opportunities to conduct research on site in countries all over the world. That, by the way, is the prize for the students who attended the Global Youth Institute. P1040132Their work is distinguished enough that they’ve earned the right to apply for an overseas internship—while they’re still in high school. The students I heard presenting their papers and discussing the impact of their experiences abroad are all committed to the further pursuit of answers to the problem of hunger.

The last event of the Global Youth Institute brought students and distinguished scientists together in small groups. The students presented their papers orally (those summer revisions) and the scientists, including the new laureates and those from other years, like Phil Nelson and Gabisa Ejeta and M. S. Swaminathan (the first World Food Prize laureate of all), responded to them. The scientists asked questions, commented, praised the students and challenged them—much as the Purdue professors had done in the spring. Imagine the impact of a world class scientist listening to a high school student’s paper: This was the high point of the conference for our student, the piece that has motivated her to apply for an internship.

The event that changed lives. I don’t mean the Global Youth Institute/Borlaug Dialogue was a conversion experience—these kids already appreciate the seriousness and depth of world hunger. I don’t mean that they did an about-face on their career goals—most of them already know they want to go into agronomy or biology or engineering or such.

The change they underwent is more like a photographer putting a panoramic lens on the camera. Suddenly, the world is wider. “I saw there was poverty everywhere,” said one Borlaug Intern who saw it halfway around the world as well as here in America. “I see that technology can help,” said another, thinking perhaps of the cell phones that smallholder farmers in the developing world use to keep abreast of market value for their crops. Technology for this student is far more now than cool aps, the latest iPhone, or social networking.

At the same time, it’s as if each student has placed a close-up of herself in relief against that panorama–like a Facebook user uploads a profile photo against the banner on her page.  Each scholar stands in relief against that panoramic background, the student’s relationship to the wider world now more sharply defined. “My internship solidified what I want to do in college,” I heard one young woman say.  Because of their experiences at the Global Youth Institute, a biology major will narrow her options to plant pathology. An aspiring engineer will someday develop farm implements that can work the African soil. Someone interested in science generally will become a nutritionist.

It is in this way that lives have changed—and that the lives of those who live with hunger will change.

Norman Borlaug is still saving lives.

Visit the World Food Prize website:

Read the students’ papers:

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