Sep. 5, 2017
Op-ed by Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, President, World Food Prize as it appeared in the Des Moines Register:
In 1959, at what was the most dangerous moment of human history as Soviet and U.S. nuclear weapons were poised to be fired at each other, an event on a farm in Iowa contributed indirectly, but crucially, in keeping those missiles from ever being launched.
With new North Korean missile tests and the rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington escalating, Iowa's agricultural legacy, and specifically that of Dr. Norman Borlaug and the World Food Prize, may once again offer a means to deescalate tensions and prevent war.
As the artwork that accompanies this essay and hangs in our World Food Prize Hall of Laureates in Des Moines shows, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev traveled to Coon Rapids on Sept. 23 of that year to visit the Roswell Garst Farm. Standing at the corn crib and holding an ear of hybrid corn, the Premier asked Garst why he couldn't have corn like this in the Soviet Union.
Garst responded by sending his nephew John Chrystal on multiple trips to Russia over the next three-plus decades as an unofficial ambassador of agriculture, sharing aspects of Iowa technology.
While Chrystal and his Soviet agricultural counterparts never discussed anything that had to do with nuclear weapons, what they did demonstrate was that there could be positive interaction between the two superpowers that could promote mutual understanding and cooperation. Their work built a buffer that helped reduce tension and contributed significantly to preventing nuclear weapons from ever being fired.
With so few good options to defuse the current situation over North Korea's enhanced strategic capabilities, including possible nuclear-weaponized long-range missiles, using agriculture as a vehicle to reduce tensions would seem worth a try. And, given the unique personal connection of Chinese President Xi Jinping to U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad and the state of Iowa, there is a chance to once again thrust Iowa agricultural heritage to center stage while also involving distinguished scientists from Africa, South Asia, Europe and Latin America in an endeavor to build a buffer into the U.S.-China-North Korea equation.
The World Food Prize is a $250,000 award presented each October in the Iowa State Capitol to an individual(s) who has made a Nobel-like breakthrough achievement that increases the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world, and thereby alleviating hunger, poverty and malnutrition. In the 30 years since the Prize was created by Iowa native Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, 46 individuals from 18 countries have been honored as winners, or laureates.
Together with Borlaug, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, the World Food Prize laureates represent the all-star team that initiated and has led the Green Revolution - "the single greatest period of food production and hunger reduction in all human history." Their stories demonstrate that confronting famine and food insecurity can bring people and countries together across even the broadest differences in ethnicity, religion, politics and diplomacy.
In 2012, for example, the Secretary General of the United Nations came to Des Moines to join in presenting the World Food Prize to an Israeli irrigation pioneer who had been nominated by three Muslim scientists from Arab countries.
Borlaug's legacy represents the clearest example of how alleviating human suffering and eradicating hunger can build bonds of friendship and understanding. Statues of Borlaug, in addition to the one installed in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol, can be found in Obregon, Mexico, where it was erected by local farmers, and in New Delhi where Indian agricultural scientists honored him.
Most amazingly, a biotechnology research institute in Iran sought to purchase a copy of Iowa's statue of Borlaug to place on their campus outside Tehran as part of honoring his legacy.
In China, the Xi family has a historic connection to Iowa, which includes the World Food Prize. In 1980, it was my privilege to escort Governor Xi Zhongxun, the father of President Xi Jinping, on a tour of Iowa agriculture. In February 2012, I recounted that experience to President Xi as he entered our Hall of Laureates to deliver a keynote address at the U.S.-China agricultural summit that we hosted. The president was very taken with the connection I represented to his family and Iowa.
Given this background, the World Food Prize could assemble a team of its international laureates to travel to North Korea to assess how that country's agriculture could be rapidly and dramatically uplifted.
Imagine a delegation assembled that might include laureates from across four decades such as:
*M.S. Swaminathan, of India, the first laureate (1987)
*Per Pinstrup-Andersen, an agricultural economist from Denmark (2001)
*Pedro Sanchez, born in Cuba, a leading soil expert (2002)
*Catherine Bertini, former head of the U.N. World Food Programme (2003)
*Yuan Longping from China, the "father of hybrid rice" (2004)
*Gebisa Ejeta, a sorghum specialist from Ethiopia (2009)
*Marc Van Montagu, a pioneer of modern biotechnology from Belgium (2013)
*Sanjaya Rajaram, a leading global wheat expert from Mexico and India (2014)
*Maria Andrade, a leader in bio fortification in Africa from Cape Verde
Based on an assessment this group might make, interested countries could contribute to a long-term program to bring new technology and enhanced agricultural productivity to the North Korean people over the next decade. And, perhaps, we might imagine North Korean scientists being invited to Des Moines to attend the annual World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue symposium and visiting Iowa farms.
Given the Xi family connections to Iowa, and President Trump's appointment of Branstad as our Ambassador in Beijing, it seems that the situation may be right for Iowa's agricultural heritage to again be center stage in the effort to defuse a dangerous nuclear confrontation.
The World Food Prize Foundation is a small organization of only 10 persons located in Des Moines, but with Borlaug's legacy at its core, it may be one of the institutions with the best chance of lessening tensions and enabling all sides to step back from the current nuclear crisis.