The World Food Prize Foundation

A 4th of July Sidebar Discussion in Vienna


By: Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn

As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with his Iranian counterpart in Vienna, at some point, he might want to make a reference to an event that just took place at the State Department in Washington on July 1 -- the announcement of the 2015 World Food Prize laureate.

Known informally as the "Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture," this $250,000 award recognizes individuals who have made exceptional breakthrough achievements enhancing human development and confronting hunger by increasing the quality, quantity and availability of food in the world. Secretary Kerry has presided at this annual announcement during both of his first two years in office, but had to miss this year due to the current negotiations.

Nonetheless, with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack delivering powerful keynote remarks and Assistant Secretary of State Charles Rivkin hosting, the ceremony went forward. It was my privilege to announce that our World Food Prize recipient for 2015 is Sir Fazle Hasan Abed of Bangladesh, the founder of the global non-profit organization known as BRAC.

Over the last 43 years, under his direction BRAC has grown from a temporary typhoon relief organization in remote Bangladesh, to become the largest NGO in the world with over 100,000 employees operating a broad array of programs in 10 countries, including educating more than one million elementary school students each year.

In agriculture, in Bangladesh and five African countries, the BRAC poultry, dairy, hybrid seed technology and micro-finance programs affect more than a half million smallholder farmers (the majority poor women), who each year are being given the means to transition from subsistence agriculture to becoming commercial business operators.

The bottom line impact of our laureate's leadership is that over four decades of BRAC's programs, as many as 150 million persons have had the opportunity to embark on a pathway out of poverty with their lives improved and their food security enhanced.

At the heart of Sir Fazle's approach is the belief that a key to rural development is educating girls and empowering women. In reacting to his being named the 2015 Laureate, Sir Fazle said " ...we realised that women needed to be the agents of change in our development effort. Only by putting the poorest, and women in particular, in charge of their own destinies, will absolute poverty and deprivation be removed from the face of the earth."

But what does this have to do with Iran? You may be asking. The connection comes from the founder of the World Food Prize, Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, the late Nobel Peace Prize winner and "Father of the Green Revolution, whose miracle wheat had such dramatic impact in South Asia as countries there faced imminent mass famine in the 1960s. Millions were saved from starvation. The Iowa native, whose statue has been erected by farmers in Mexico and scientists in India, is hailed as " the man who saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived."

Borlaug created the World Food Prize in 1986 to recognize and inspire those breakthrough innovations needed to ensure that the world will be able to sustainably and nutritiously feed the nine billion people who will be on our planet by mid-century. Secretary Kerry has referred to Borlaug's legacy in his remarks at our World Food Prize ceremonies the past two years and in his keynote address to the African Summit in Washington in the summer of 2014.

Borlaug's commitment to biotechnology has also made him a revered figure in Iran. Indeed, in August, 2014, the Iran Agricultural Research Institute invited me to deliver the keynote address at a special ceremony it was holding to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Borlaug's birth, making me the only former U.S. ambassador invited to address an Iranian government conference.

When I told that audience of Borlaug's belief that confronting hunger through agricultural cooperation could bring people together across even the broadest ethnic, religious, political or diplomatic differences, I received a standing ovation from the more than 400 Iranian scientists led by the Minister of Agriculture. The Minister then unveiled an artwork depicting Borlaug that will hang at the research facility in Karaj.

It is remarkable to consider that the one person respected by the bipartisan leadership of the U.S. government and the top officials in Tehran is an American agricultural scientist whose statue stands in the U.S. capitol and who has received the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and (in 2000) a Gold Medal from the Iranian government.

What does this have to do with nuclear negotiations? Nothing directly, of course. But, as I told that audience in Iran, agriculture played a small but not unimportant role at the height of one of the most dangerous moments in human history -- the nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. The visit of Soviet Premiere Khrushchev to an Iowa farm in 1959, however, led to the beginning of a several decade long set of exchanges that helped build a modicum of trust and understanding that created an atmosphere for President Ronald Reagan's strategic negotiations.

So, Secretary Kerry might want to share with Foreign Minister Zarif that a man from a Muslim country was just honored at a ceremony at the State Department, just as Dr. Norman Borlaug, an American hero, was hailed at an event in Iran. He might even want to invite the Minister to join him in praising the choice of Sir Fazle Abed as the World Food Prize laureate and to the legacy of Norman Borlaug.

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