Norman Borlaug — a renowned agronomist, wheat geneticist and humanitarian — founded The World Food Prize in 1986 as a way to recognize the accomplishments of people throughout the world who have bettered mankind by increasing the quantity, quality and availability of food throughout the world.
At its founding, it was intended to be a Nobel Prize of sorts for food security, to take place in mid-October around World Food Day on Oct. 16 after Borlaug himself won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Thirty years later it has cemented its place as the being the preeminent symposium of its kind, bringing researchers, administrators, policy makers and other key players in agriculture from across the globe.
We spent a day with members of the delegation from the College of the Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources to get a better idea of what goes on in a given day, to find out more about Borlaug and to see how the many degrees of CAFNR can stretch at such a multicultural and interdisciplinary meeting of the minds — and hearts.
Delegates make their way inside the doorway of the Des Moines Hall on the third floor of the Marriott in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, to take part in the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) Communication Award Breakfast and Panel Discussion on Agricultural Innovation.
Although the actual series of talks of the 2016 Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium will not start until 1 p.m., a series of side events like this one start taking place as early as two days ahead of time.
Among those who make their way to the breakfast are Ken Schneeberger, international training coordinator with CAFNR International Programs (CIP), and Christy Copeland, assistant director of CIP. Having attended his first World Food Prize in 1998, Schneeberger, who started working at MU in 1968, has been coming to the event longer than other CAFNR faculty or staff member.
“It has changed tremendously,” says Schneeberger of the experience of having attended 10 World Food Prizes total. “It has grown in scope and size. It’s been interesting at the variety of people who have received the award.”
He references the time in 2008 when former U.S. senators Bob Dole and George McGovern were both named World Food Prize Laureates in spite of being on opposite sides of the aisle politically.
“Those two were on both ends of the spectrum but they were both supportive of school feeding programs,” Schneeberger says.
As everyone takes their seats, Kenneth Quinn, president of The World Food Prize Foundation, provides some opening comments.
“Can we feed nine billion people? No, not without innovation, so that’s the message of The World Food Prize,” says Quinn, a former U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia who took on his current role in 2000.
The press room features several long rows, some of which are occupied by six students in the science and agricultural journalism program (affectionately known as “Ag J”) in the Division of the Applied Social Sciences.
Nina Furstenau, an instructor in the program, sits among them and waits to edit stories that the students will write based on the various lectures and talks taking place — with the help of a graduate student from the School of Journalism, Jennifer Para. The stories will post to muearth.wordpress.com and Agweb more quickly as the conference gets underway. A newly created Twitter account, @MIZZOUFoodMedia, also shares their work.
“Students start the day asking if they can go cover events.” says Furstenau, who has taken students for the previous two years to the event. “Usually by the middle of the first day, they are making their own coverage plans with notepad and camera in hand.”
In addition to the stories appearing on the WordPress site, the group is also covering the event for Farm Journal Media. The previous two years, the publication accepted one of the students’ stories as the main story in its print issue.
“It’s just a fabulous experience for the students as fledgling reporters, to really be here as press, not as student press and cover an international conference,” Furstenau says. “Until they do it, they don’t know what they don’t know.”
To understand the immense international nature of The World Food Prize, one simply has to look at the 50-plus flags that are draped on all three levels of the Marriott, each one representing the country of every participant at the event. This includes Guyana, the small South American country with a population of less than 800,000 and the homeland of Colwayne Morris, a graduate student in the Division of Animal Sciences, who was one of several CAFNR students in attendance.
“He was very impressed that his country flag was hanging there,” Schneeberger says of Morris.
Surrounded by all of the flags in the hotel lobby, Kellie Bray, who graduated from CAFNR in 1998, finds a familiar face in Kent Schescke, ’77, who became the executive vice president of CAST in 2015 following a 25-year tenure with the National FFA in Washington, D.C.
Bray, who is also based in D.C. as a senior director of government affairs for Crop Life America, frequently runs in the same circles as Schescke near Capitol Hill. She has been attending the event for five years.
“I love this event because every year it’s so inspiring and it really gets us all back to the heart of why we do what we do, which is to feed people,” Bray says.
She recalls the first time that she attended the CAST Communications Award Breakfast and how she was amazed at how everyone seemed to know each other in spite of living thousands of miles away from each other.
“It was like going to a family reunion,” Bray says. “It’s people from all over the world and they all were united in this same purpose of feeding people. It was so inspiring.”
Schescke has been going regularly to the World Food Prize for about the same time after the FFA started to place a large emphasis on global hunger and what students could do to address the issue.
“We started coming to the World Food Prize to figure out we can connect our students to this larger discussion,” Schescke says.
A little while later, a group of students from the CAFNR delegation begin to gather in the lobby to head over to the Embassy Club of the Ruan Building for the Borlaug Fellows Honor Luncheon. One of those students is Rachel Haggard, a senior majoring in sustainable agricultural from San Diego.
She was able to attend through the Willi and Dali Meyers Fund for Student International Engagement, named after the director of the CIP and his wife. The scholarship, one of four given out, provided shared lodging, conference registration fees and round-trip transportation to Des Moines. The Dr. Rodney and Bertha Fink Opportunities for International Women Scholarship also covered the same costs of two other students.
“One of my mentors said you have to apply for this scholarship and you have to go to this conference because this is where all the people in the field meet and so far it has been an amazing experience,” Haggard says.
“I just got out of a talk discussing food systems and nutrition and I loved it because for so many years food security has been focused on production and yields and not on nutrition and now we have this transition. It’s not just about feeding people. It’s about nourishing people.”
“It’s an honor for us at the University of Missouri to be with you. There’s a lot of brain power in this room.”
The words of CAFNR Vice Chancellor and Dean Tom Payne ring out across a large room with giant windows, providing an impressive view of the surrounding area from the 34th floor of the Ruan Building.
Payne invites the first table of those gathered for the Borlaug Fellows Honor Luncheon to make their way to the buffet line. Those at the table include Jeanie Borlaug Laube, the daughter of Norman Borlaug, as well three of the four 2016 World Food Prize Laureates: Maria Andrade, Jan Low and Robert Mwanga.
A half an hour later, Laube addresses the crowd which includes three types of Borlaug scholars: those from the Norman E. Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellowship Program, Norman E. Borlaug Leadership Enhancement and Agricultural Program (LEAP) Fellows and the Borlaug Higher Education for Agriculture, Research and Development Program (BHEARD) Fellows.
“You young scientists are the ones who will continue to advance my dad’s legacy,” Laube tells the fellows. “You are the hunger fighters.”
Before the festivities conclude, Payne asks the Borlaug Fellows to introduce themselves. One by one, students tell where they are from, what they are studying and the name of their host U.S. university.
“I think the thing that stands out the most is that our Borlaug Fellows are in awe of all of the events,” Copeland will later say. “They are the future of agriculture.” Copeland hands the microphone to each scholar.
Before becoming a Borlaug Fellow, Bounhar worked in Morocco as a plant protection engineer. She is at MU to learn more about plant pathology in regards in disease. In addition to being mentored by Schoelz, she will also spend time working with Walter Gassmann, professor of plant sciences; and Patricia Hosack, extension associate in plant sciences, later this semester.
“It was amazing, meeting all of those people and to get to know about their experience in the food security field and what they are doing to improve food security in their countries,” Bounhar says.
Schoelz, who is here for the first time, says that he wishes he would have attended The World Food Prize about 10 years ago.
“I usually go to plant pathology or plant biology meetings and so you go to something like this and it opens just a whole different world to see and to think about and so I’m thinking about what I can incorporate into my classes,” Schoelz says.
Before the end of the luncheon, Payne addresses the crowd one more time: “You honor us all by what you’re doing, what you have done and most importantly what you will be doing to help advance the issues that we face in this very complex time in the world.”
CAFNR has sponsored the luncheon for four years, after the USDA decided to end its partnership.
“I think this luncheon is just fantastic. I think that my dad would just be so happy to see this room full of energetic, young, international students working for the same reason: to help secure food for the world,” Laube says after all of the Borlaug Fellows gather around Payne, herself and the laureates for a photo opportunity.
“This is probably the most exciting thing that The World Food Prize has for me because I see all of the potential of what’s coming.”
Although the Borlaug Dialogue events are now well under way in the main hall, several attendees can be found perusing various booths that have been set up down the hallway.
Tom Spindler sits in front of a large poster board that was created by the Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation. He pulls up a photo on his laptop of Norman Borlaug’s one-room schoolhouse in Cresco, a small town located in the northeast corner of Iowa.
Spindler, a retired school teacher, has been involved with the foundation since 2004. As operations director, he takes care of the farm that Borlaug’s family owned, provides tours of the property and coordinates educational programming.
“He wanted to make sure the farms would be preserved because it was important to him,” Spindler says of Borlaug.
When it comes to Borlaug’s place in Iowa history, Spindler mentions a strange dichotomy about the man who has been called “the man who fed billions” as the founder the Green Revolution movement in the ’60s.
“You go from the extremes of probably considered one of the greatest Iowans of all time to people who don’t even know who he is because he was an agricultural scientist who worked behind the scenes,” Spindler says.
Across the way, two men sit in chairs at the Borlaug Training Foundation booth who knew Borlaug’s work quite well: Perry Gustafson, an adjunct professor specializing in wheat genetics in the Division of Plant Sciences, and Jesse Dubin, a long time researcher at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT from the Spanish translation) in Mexico. Although CIMMYT formed in 1966, Borlaug first started working in Mexico in the mid-40s with the financial support of the Rockefeller and Ford foundations.
The idea for the Borlaug Training Foundation originated at the 2014 World Food Prize following discussions by Gustafson, Dubin and others. The organization is in the closing stages of receiving its official non-profit status.
Its mission is to continue to train young agronomists by providing classes in Mexico and other locations and by supplying lecturers to various groups throughout the world. Wheat will be the initial focus of the foundation with the hope of expanding to other crops.
Gustafson, who has been at MU since 1981, and Dubin have been friends since 1967 when the two met as students at Colorado State University. They later both wound up as graduate students at the University of California-Davis. Gustafson first met Borlaug in March 1969 in Senora, Mexico, when he was looking for a thesis project at UC-Davis. As usual, Borlaug was pulling plants in the field.
“He rather sit down with students and farmers than he would administrators,” Gustafson says, who first started working with Borlaug in Mexico in 1969 and continued while as a member of the USDA-Agriculture Research Service, stationed in Columbia. “He was very comfortable in the field. He either lived in the field or on an airplane.”
“He cared very much to help the situation of the poor and he believed sincerely that all people should have good food, education and good health,” adds Dubin, who at one point worked on projects in six different countries with Borlaug. “That sums it up. His whole life was dedicated to that.”
While discussing Borlaug’s impact, Gustafson gives a pull of his tie, red with carrots and rabbits. It used to belong to Borlaug.
As the story goes, Borlaug hated wearing ties and dressing up in general. When he had to, though, he managed to come with a nice tie. After Borlaug’s funeral service in 2009, Gustafson asked Jeanie what she was going to do with all of her father’s ties. Three weeks later, he received a shopping bag full of approximately 100 ties that belonged to Borlaug.
“Every time I traveled somewhere, I’d say did you like Borlaug? Did you like working with him? Here’s one of his ties.’ And so this is the last one left,” says Gustafson, who was with Borlaug when it was announced that he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. “People are still upset if they didn’t get one.”
In 2002 when Borlaug came to MU to accept an honorary doctoral degree, a large gathering took place at Gustafson’s house with several members of the CAFNR community. Brady Deaton presented the degree to him as the Executive Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs at the time.
“He had sense of presence, stature and humbleness, too,” Deaton would later say. “He was a man who anyone in the world could talk to.” Earlier in the day, Deaton had led a public meeting of the Board for International Food and Agriculture Development (BIFAD) as the board’s chair since being named to the position by President Barack Obama in 2011.
In the lobby area, Richard Fordyce, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, talks with fellow attendees. Earlier in the day he had been on a panel of a two-day Global Farmer Roundtable centered around biotechnology with farmers from a total of 12 countries. Nick Kalaitzandonakes, MSMC Endowed Professor of Agribusiness Strategy in the department of agricultural and applied economics, served as moderator.
Fordyce has attended The World Food Prize for about five years as a representative of the United Soybean Board.
“We all felt this kinship because we’re all farmers,” Fordyce says of the roundtable. “No matter where you are in the world, you’re a farmer and so that was pretty neat.”
As he looks around the room, he notices his counterpart in Iowa across the room. He adds that several other state agriculture directors and administrators from fellow Midwestern states are often spotted at the event. Still he hopes that more farmers will attend in the future.
“There are a lot of more people who are not farmers than who are,” Fordyce says. “So I think farmers need to be more of an active participant.”
Given the elegant outside and inside of The World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, it may be hard to imagine the building as the former Des Moines Public Library — in a more dilapidated state. Walking into the main hall of the building, original tiles on the floor tell the story: “CITY LIBRARY.” It sits on the Des Moines River, a few blocks west of the Iowa State Capitol.
Jim Heemstra, a freelance photographer for The World Food Prize, grew up in Des Moines. He remembers how one room on the east side of the building, now the actual Hall of Laureates, used to be the magazine room.
“I would go there to study and the windows fit so badly that snow could come through the windows,” Heemstra says.
Heemstra has covered the World Food Prize for the last 20 years.
“They could have put the whole ceremony in that room and it would have been adequate,” Heemstra says of the first year he covered the event, pointing to the room in which this year’s Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application was given out an hour earlier to Kenyan economist Andrew Mude. “Every year it’s grown bigger and bigger.”
The first year of the Global Youth Institute consisted of 13 kids from central Iowa, Heemstra says. Now close to 300 kids from around the country and beyond show up to discuss food security on a global platform.
As Heemstra will tell you, Quinn’s work on overseeing a $29.8 million campaign to restore the building five years ago through the support of local businessman John Ruan and his family stimulated a large portion of that growth.
“Without him I don’t think it would see the kind of growth. He’s an incredible visionary but he’s also incredibly personal and personable,” says Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). “It’s all Ken Quinn’s single-mindedness that has attributed to this.”
Although the talks throughout the day had their share of pessimistic outlooks — such as the opening talk on achieving global food security in the Middle East — the story of Mude serves as inspiration to those listening.
On his birthday, Quinn informed him that he had been chosen for the award for his work as a senior economist at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, for his work in creating index-based livestock insurance (IBLI) for communities that herd cattle, goats, camels and sheep in remote and drought-prone areas in the Horn of Africa. These communities have never been covered by an insurance policy before.
“How can they reduce their reliance on reactive and expensive food and cash aid, and instead offer them a way to protect their valuable productive assets and secure their investments to ensure a dignified pathway out of poverty and into prosperity?,” Mude tells the crowd about the driving force behind the ILBI initiative.
As luck would have it, Quinn was going to be in Kenya for a previous endeavor, allowing him to make a formal announcement of the award on the day that happened to be the anniversary of the death of Mude’s father. Mude had mentioned that both Borlaug and his father were men of faith who often quoted scripture verses.
“So in the wake of this honor received, I reflected often on my father’s favorite verse from the Book of Luke that says this: ‘For everyone who has been given much, much will be required. And for him has been entrusted by much, even more will be demanded.’
“Borlaug’s footprint, his legacy, is immense and it is really humbling to be honored in association with him.”
In one of the booths of the Rock River Grill & Tavern on the second floor of the Marriott, a group of Ag J students continue to work on their stories well after the press room closed for the day.
When is the deadline for their stories?
“When they’re finished,” one of the students replies.
Further back into the restaurant, a group of MU/CAFNR faculty, staff, administrators, students, alumni and guests enjoy each other’s company as the first day of the World Food Prize comes to a close.
Dean Payne, as he will later inform the group, talks about how unfortunately his schedule has always had him traveling on international business during the week of The World Food Prize for the previous three years that CAFNR has been sending such a large delegation to the event.
The question is raised whether MU might have the largest delegation of all the universities present.
“I don’t know if we’re the biggest but we’re probably the most invested,” says Payne, who made the trip up north with Marc Linit, CAFNR senior associate dean, and Bryan Garton, associate dean and director of academic programs. “The heart and soul of our faculty, our staff and most importantly our students is extraordinary. You feel it. Missouri has a big commitment to this. Norman Borlaug is not a Missourian, but we feel like he’s part of our family.”
“It’s a wonderful acknowledgement of the contributions that some really talented, gifted people make to solving world hunger and food security,” says Linit. “The venue is spectacular. The hospitality is spectacular. It’s really a first-class event.”
The chatter filling the room dies down when Schneeberger knocks on a glass to get the collective attention of patrons, thank them for attending and allow Payne to make one more address.
“The University of Missouri and our College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources have been very happy to sponsor the luncheon and will continue to do so in the future,” Payne says. “I’m going to try ensure that in my last few months. So hopefully you all return next year and the years after that. And you are the future. Well some of you are…”
The crowd lets out a loud laugh.
“But the majority of you are youthful and you are the future of agriculture and trying to deal with food for people in the world so I applaud you and thank you very much.”
In spite of starting his day at more than 13 hours ago, Schneeberger still has the same twinkle in his eye as he did at 7 a.m.
“The first day is always an exciting day,” he says. “You can see it in the audience in the variety of people who were there, the variety of speakers, the energy that was a part of the day. This is just a place where international leaders congregate and so tomorrow will be another exciting day in culminating with the laureates being recognized at the state capitol building.”
All in a day’s work.