Respecting the Spirit of the World Food Prize: Addressing Hunger Through Science

by Michael Michener, Director of Sustainability Policy

The World Food Prize, held each October in Des Moines, is both a celebration of Norman Borlaug’s life and work, and a forum for advancing the science of agriculture. Reflecting on this year’s event, after hearing from a very diverse group of voices from all over the world, it seems more important than ever that the plant science industry and civil society work together to solve the global hunger challenge.

In other highly debated discussions that impact public health — climate change, vaccines — the voices of science and emotion often find themselves in opposition. This is occurring in the debate around food as well, and was on display at World Food Prize. Certainly, those approaching the dialogue from the side of emotion have a right to their own opinion and to make their own choices.

Things become problematic when emotional positions affect other people’s health. In the case of vaccines, those who choose not to vaccinate affect herd immunity and can put others at risk. When it comes to plant science, putting pressure on the UN and other public bodies, as well as private corporations, denies food to people who really need it.

If we want to really address hunger on a global scale, we need to start engaging each other and find a way to include a range of voices, approaches and opinions in the discussion. Civil society brings a personal and passionate approach to solving problems; while the plant science industry brings technology solutions that can produce more food in a sustainable way. Together, we can provide more choice and a range of solutions for sustainable farming and improved access to nutrition.

The need to promote respectful discourse among opposing viewpoints came up repeatedly during the sessions, panels and discussions at World Food Prize. Many people with whom I spoke noted that opinion leaders in the developed world who criticize biotech and crop protection technologies need to be open to the perspectives of those from the developing world who can benefit from the science to feed their populations. As one speaker from Africa put it, “for you, this is a choice; for us, this is the difference between feeding people, and not having enough.”

We need to move to a model where those who choose organic and pesticide-free food can do that — and be willing to sometimes pay a premium for it. At the same time, those in the developing world that need an accessible, affordable food supply should be able to access plant science technology. Farmers should be free to make the choices that help them to meet demand and improve their own business and livelihood.

One of the reasons that the World Food Prize continues to be so valuable and important is that it is a safe place for science. That’s what Norman Borlaug was all about and that’s what the Award and event promote. Let’s continue this work and promote conversations that encourage everyone across the spectrum to find solutions that address hunger in a scientifically valid way.