The innovation for which Dr. Verghese Kurien received the 1989 World Food Prize was not a scientific discovery, but his recognition that feeding the world’s citizens includes coordinating breakthroughs in production with effective management and distribution strategies. Dr. Kurien’s career was dedicated to streamlining those strategies with the skills and knowledge of rural and small-scale producers, for which World Food Prize founder Dr. Norman Borlaug called him “one of the world’s great agricultural leaders of this century.”
In India, around two-thirds of the population is involved in agriculture. Most are small farmers, and many work on other people's land. Even these landless laborers, however, keep a few buffalo or cattle to produce milk. In the late 1940s and earlier, private dairies, middlemen, and inefficient collection and distribution systems resulted in milk of varying quality being erratically available across the country, often at high prices to consumers but with little profit for the producers.
Dr. Kurien was born on November 26, 1921, in Kerala, India. He received a Bachelor of Science degree from Madras University in 1940 and went on to receive a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering from the same university in 1943. He received a Master of Science and Mechanical Engineering degree with distinction from Michigan State University in 1948 while on a government scholarship. He also completed special studies in engineering at the Tata Iron and Steel Company Institute at Jamshedpur, Bihar, in 1946 and did nine months of specialized training in dairy engineering at the National Dairy Research Institute of Bangalore.
With his extensive background in mechanical engineering, Dr. Kurien began work for the Dairy Department of the Government of India as a dairy engineer in Anand, Gujarat at the Government Research Creamery in 1949.
In 1965, Dr. Kurien was named chairman of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB). While serving as chairman, he developed a dairy program known as “Operation Flood”. He continued serving in this position until his retirement in 1998.
In 1973, Dr. Kurien set up the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) to market the products produced by the Indian dairies (Amul brand) and served as member and chairman until his resignation in 2006.
The cornerstone of Dr. Kurien's endeavors is the individual dairy producer. In collaboration with farmers, cooperative managers, and public officials, Dr. Kurien successfully established the dairy program known across India as "Operation Flood” that, between 1970 and 1996, allowed dairy farmers to own and operate milk production, processing, and marketing for the urban areas around the country.
Dr. Kurien used his experience to work with the manager of the local Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union to build an in-house processing plant and organize the cooperative to handle its own marketing directly to consumers.
After years of initial struggle, the cooperative began to produce dramatic results, involving over two million farmers. This led to the birth of Amul, the largest food product business in India. Based on the cooperative’s successes, Prime Minister Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri created the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) in 1965 to replicate the model nationally. The Prime Minister cited Dr. Kurien's "extraordinary and dynamic leadership" upon naming him chairman.
When Operation Flood began in 1970, total annual milk procurement was only 190,000 tons, with 278,000 farmers involved in the program. By 1998, at the time of Dr Kurien’s retirement as chairman, the NDDB’s programs involved more than ten million dairy producers in 81,000 cooperatives, supplying almost five million tons of milk annually to over 1,000 cities and towns throughout the country. Reaching nearly 250 million people, Operation Flood was the largest agricultural development program in the world. India emerged as the largest producer of milk in the world in 1998, surpassing the United States.
During the last 40 years, India's annual milk production has increased from 23.3 million tons (1968-69) to 100.9 million tons (2006-07) and is projected to reach 113 million tons for 2010-2011. The NBBD hopes to raise milk production to180 million tons by 2021-2022. Daily per capita milk consumption in India has more than doubled from a low of 107 grams in 1970 to over 230 grams; the country’s dairy supply has been growing about 4 percent annually, while the population has been growing by less than 2 percent, thus increasing the per capita availability of dietary proteins, especially in areas identified as suffering from nutritional deficits.
As a result of Dr. Kurien’s leadership, domestic milk prices have stabilized, India's towns and cities now receive an adequate supply of hygienic milk, and the 12 million small farmers and landless laborers who make up the majority of dairy cooperative membership now have a regular source of income. In addition, 95 percent of the equipment used in NBBD cooperatives is domestically produced.
Despite these achievements, perhaps Dr. Kurien’s greatest contribution with Operation Flood was to put the farmer in command as the owner of his or her own cooperative – a pivotal factor in the program’s success. "These cooperatives created a grassroots foundation underpinning India's democracy," said Lalit Mansingh, Charge d'Affaires for the Embassy of India in the United States. Endowed with decision-making capacities, some leaders in cooperative-member communities have built facilities like libraries and healthcare centers with their profits. The success of the Operation Flood management model led to its application to other commodities. Fruits and vegetables are now produced and marketed through a cooperative system involving a network of over 250 farmer-owned retail stores in Delhi.
Dr. Kurien held positions ranging from the Chancellor of the University of Allahabad to a member of the Advisory Committee of the South Asian Network on Fermented Foods to chairman of the Viksit Bharat Foundation. He also served as chairman of the National Cooperative Dairy Federation of India Limited.
His honors and awards are numerous, but most notable are the Carnegie Foundation’s Wateler Peace Prize in 1986, International Person of the Year Award by the World Dairy Expo in 1993, Ordre du Merite Agricole by the Government of France in 1997, the 1999 Padma Vibhushan Award- India’s second highest civilian honor, and the 2000 Regional Award from the Asian Productivity Organization in Japan. Known as the Father of the White Revolution and also as the “Milkman of India,” Dr. Kurien received over 15 honorary degrees from universities in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and India.
“Innovation cannot be mandated or forced on people,” Dr. Kurien said. “It is everywhere, a function of the quality of the people and the environment. We need to have enough skilled people working in a self-actuating environment to produce innovation.” To this end, Dr. Kurien was instrumental in establishing the Institute of Rural Management in 1979, which has trained over 8,300 specialists in the management and development of rural cooperatives, non-governmental organizations, and civic groups.
"Without effective methods of distribution, food has no way of reaching the tables of the world's population," Dr. Borlaug said upon conferring the 1989 World Food Prize on Dr. Kurien. With almost 60 years of dedication to improving the practice and teaching of effective food distribution, Dr. Kurien educated and inspired food producers around the world.
Kurien wrote a book entitled An Unfinished Dream which includes his speeches, and which begins with a foreword by World Food Prize Founder Dr. Norman Borlaug.