Who’s who at the World Food Prize

DES MOINES, Iowa – A multitude of agriculture enthusiasts from around the world gathered at the World Food Prize (WFP) to share their contributions to global food security.

Nora Tobin, executive director of Self Help International was quick to show her passion for the action-oriented projects that the organization prides itself on.


Nora Tobin, executive director of Self Help International at the 2014 World Food Prize

“Self Help International alleviates hunger by helping people help themselves.” she said.

Founded in 1959, the Iowa-based organization worked with Dr. Norman Borlaug, a key advisor and board member, from the beginning. Borlaug’s legacy of hands-on agricultural study helped establish the organization’s role of disseminating academic research through farmers in the field.

Currently Self Help works with women’s micro-credit programs based on the work of Muhammad Yunus, 1994 WFP Laureate and founder of the Grameen Bank.

Another project focuses on using the innovation of Daniel Hilell’s micro-irrigation systems to improve water access for regions with arid land. Hilell was named 2012 WFP Laureate for his irrigation work in the Middle East.

Tobin’s belief in the importance of connecting research to action is reflected in the organizations core mission.

“Self Help International takes World Food Prize laureate research to the farmer,” said Tobin.

However, there would be no transfer of knowledge in the first place without researchers. Which is why Stephanie Zumbach, undergraduate student coordinator for the Department of Agronomy at Iowa State University attended this year’s WFP.

“The World Food Prize is working to end hunger,” said Zumbach “We are definitely going to need agronomists to help.”

Through the university’s “I’m an agronomist” campaign, Zumbach educates university students on how agronomy, as a field of study, has an imperative role in solving issues of food security.

Agronomy combines the study of plants, soils, meteorology and environmental conservation aspects of farming. All of these elements, when studied in unison, “make sure we are caring for the land while we are farming it,” said Zumbach.

Current research at Iowa State University focuses on crop breeding, soils, foraging and bio-energy, especially the use of grasses like miscanthus to generate energy.

For Zumbach, the multi-disciplinary approach is important in finding viable solutions to food insecurity and she is enthusiastic about her ability to encourage more students to become agronomists.

Respect for diversity of perspective, much like respect for multi-disciplinary research plays a part in addressing global food issues. ActionAid is an international organization that places diversity at the heart of its work. The organization held a compelling session at the WFP discussing issues of maintaining diversity within our food system.

“ActionAid takes a human rights approach to addressing poverty and hunger, said Doug Hertzler, a senior policy analyst on land rights issues for the organization.

ActionAid operates in 45 countries around the world with headquarters in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Hertzler emphasized the importance of advocating for the right to food and land.

“The right to food is the most basic right in many ways,” said Hertzler. “Part of the right to food, especially for rural people is to have the ability to produce their own food and the right to land.”

Small-scale farmers, he said, face difficulties in accessing suitable land to grow food. Some of the difficulty results from the price of land, but a significant portion of arable land is currently being used to grow bio-fuels. The amount of land being used for this, Hertzler said, threatens the ability of rural farmers to feed their families. “Biofuels are not the answer.”

Through his work with ActionAid, Hertzler encourages more awareness of these tough social choices when addressing global food security.

Land access continues to threaten the livelihood of small-scale farmers around the world and Outreach, International recognizes this problem as well.

Two years ago Outreach, a non-profit corporation located in Union, Iowa, purchased 2,000 acres in the Tanga region of Tanzania. Currently they are in the process of building a research-based demonstration farm to benefit local small-scale farmers in the area.

“Our work is development-focused around agriculture and lifestyle,” said Rick McNary, vice president of strategic partnerships.

In 2014, Gene Stevens, professor of plant sciences at the University of Missouri helped Outreach run a preliminary soil quality survey to help establish crop production on the farm.

In the future, the farm will host a training center for agribusiness that both indigenous and international students will benefit from.

“Attending the World Food Prize exposes us to the international community who care deeply about agricultural development. Especially in sub-Saharan Africa,” said McNary.

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One-on-one with Robb Fraley

DES MOINES, Iowa — Robb Fraley, 2013 World Food Prize laureate and chief technology officer of Monsanto sat down with Mizzou student journalists for a Q&A Friday.


Robb Fraley, shown here with Natalie DiNicola, vice president of sustainability and signature partnerships at Monsanto.

How has Monsanto evolved since you’ve been with the company?

Historically, almost all of our research has been on how we improve the crop, whether it’s a corn plant or a soybean plant or vegetable. But science now is enabling us to look at what’s in the soil. The microorganisms that live in the soil can often help the crop grow. So we’re looking at how we can use our skills in biology to help improve …the soil by coating the seeds with a microbe that might have a specific benefit, and use that as a way of replacing some of the chemicals that are used or some of the nutrients. I’m excited to see the company getting into some brand new areas because that’s the key; the world’s moving fast, needs and opportunities are moving fast, and we really need to be able to change and respond. A lot of companies talk about transforming themselves, but I watched it happen (at Monsanto).

Do you see Monsanto moving toward big data?

I hope so. I would love that last transformation that I’m involved in to be taking us from a seed company into information technology. I’m excited. We’ve got all these advances that are coming to make better seeds, and now the information and the data science technologies are letting us computerize and digitize the farm.

It [computerized interaction] has revolutionized communication entertainment. It has revolutionizing our financial industry. Agriculture is really the last industry to be touched by data science; we’re now experiencing what it means for a farmer to have every bit of their fields mapped with GPS, tractors that have the ability to drive themselves through the field. Having that capability is just going to make farming more precise. We’ll have sensors that tell us exactly how much fertilizer to use, exactly when we need to water, when we’re over watering, and I think these tools are really going to help with enhancing the sustainability of farming on a global basis.

Africa is leading the world in terms of how it’s using the cell phone, because the cell phone in the hands of a small African farmer becomes the way that they understand which village is paying the highest price (for their farm produce), so they use it for market discovery. You think about it, here’s a farmer who’s never seen a consultant, never seen an agronomist, probably never seen a weather report in their life, and now suddenly they can get a text message that’s giving them vital information about agriculture.
These kinds of tools are changing farming around the world.

How does Monsanto plan to keep traditional farming methods alive while incorporating more technology?

I always start with the premise that there’s nobody who knows the land any better than the person who’s farming it. There’s no one who’s a better steward of the land, because in many parts of the world land is all that farmers have, and the next generation depends on the decisions of the grandfather, the father, the son and the grandson make. They are smart businesspeople who are aware of what they’re doing, very innovative and very creative. I’ve always viewed our role as giving the farmer as many tools and choices as we can and letting them use them most effectively. They are absolutely desirous to produce more and secure more for their family. We need to preserve the parts of their culture that are important, but we cannot fail to make sure that they have as many options and choices as any other farmer to better their lives.

What is Monsanto’s reaction to the increased interest in organic farming and practices in the United States, and globally?

I absolutely believe that one of the strengths of U.S. agriculture is that we deploy multiple farming practices. There’s GMOs, conventional, organic agriculture, and all of those have a role to play. Almost all of our (Monsanto’s) vegetables are non-GMO, and many of those vegetable seeds are used by organic farmers. I think the challenge to meet that market for consumers whose preference is an organic product is terrific, and we try to support that. I think the reality that still needs to be addressed on a global scale is if that kind of intensive agriculture can be consistent with doubling the food supply and feeding nine and a half billion people. Because as much as it’s grown in the U.S., it’s less than 1 percent of the farmland, and the challenge is scalability in terms of the additional labor and types of materials that need to be provided.

How does Monsanto address protestors who view The World Food Prize as a PR stunt for biotech research?

The World Food Prize was founded by Dr. Norman Borlaug, and if anybody in the history of agriculture stands for taking technology to the farmer and the smallholder, it’s Norm. But one of the things I’ve realized in the last year since being a recipient of the World Food Prize and having a chance for lots of dialogue is that I think we’ve done a terrific job of talking to farmers about the technology, that’s why biotech crops are grown in 30 countries around the world. We didn’t do a very good job of communicating with the consumer. I think we felt that was somebody else’s job in the food chain, not ours. In the last year or so we’ve really rethought that, and now we realize that we own the responsibility of communicating with the consumer. When we were absent from that we created a vacuum that could get filled by people who don’t like the technology, who don’t like Monsanto, who don’t like farming, and there’s just a huge amount of misinformation and misunderstanding. We have an obligation to do more, and the good news is that there’s a great receptivity to that.

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Digging into the soil renaissance

By Lebo Moore

DES MOINES, Iowa­­­ – It can take hundreds of years to create just one inch of topsoil. And yet, due to development and erosion we have allowed half of the topsoil on the planet be lost in the last 150 years.

This staggering problem has not been lost on Bill Buckner, president and chief executive officer of The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation a non-profit institute based in Ardmore, Oklahoma that works to assist farmers and ranchers through plant science research and agricultural programs.

“We didn’t perceive the value of our soil like we should have over the years,” said Buckner.

Three years ago, Buckner, who has a background in crop inputs, began to change operations on his own conventional farm in Missouri in order to help the soil and address some of the climatic issues on the horizon.

Now Buckner is an ex-officio member of the Soil Renaissance – a collaboration between The Samuel Roberts Nobel Foundation and the Farm Foundation, a non-advocacy public charity located in Oak Brook, Illinois, which aims to provide objective analysis and innovative ideas to address the critical future of agriculture.

The goal of the Soil Renaissance is to reawaken the public to the importance of soil health for enhancing healthy, profitable and sustainable resource systems.


Soil Fact Sheet courtesy of soilrenaissance.org

One way to illustrate the value of soil is through case study research, like that of Janice Theis, Cornell University soil ecologist. As a researcher Theis works with farmers around the world to establish better soil monitoring practices to be used as a tool for improving soil health.

“For so long we have focused on chemical aspects of (soil) evaluation. And I will submit to you that it is not adequate. There is a lot more going on with this.” Theis said.

In addition, Theis emphasized the importance of understanding the biological aspects of soil. Her work in South Africa with ZZ2 Farm, the largest tomato cultivator in the country, highlighted the importance of paying attention to every aspect of soil management.

ZZ2, which operates in many regions of South Africa, cultivates mammoth proportions of food—1600 hectares of tomatoes, 500 hectares of onions, 400 hectares of avocados and 60,000 hectares of livestock.

But ZZ2 had a problem. Despite an increase in fertilization, crops at ZZ2 were failing and the company came to the realization that they had virtually killed their soil.

Dead soil is not something that such a heavy weight in South African agriculture could afford. Their solution: a natural farming biological practice called the Natuurboerdery® System.

As part of the plan, ZZ2 moved toward integrated pest management and they switched from overhead sprinkler systems to drip irrigation. They also began to focus on crop rotation, minimal tillage and cover cropping in an attempt to increase carbon content in their soil.

In 2010, Theis and eight Cornell students travelled to ZZ2 as a multi-disciplinary applied research team to learn about the natural farming system.

Essentially ZZ2 had begun to practice conservation agriculture, Theis said. After evaluating the system, the research team aided ZZ2 in creating a systematic soil health rubric in order for the company to develop consistent measurements and evaluation of their soil health.

But soil health is important for small-scale farmers as well. Theis has also conducted research with small-scale farmers over four rainy seasons in Kenya. These smaller test plots were used to measure how different inputs of organic matter effect root development.

Experimenting with bio-char and worm composting showed great yield and overall increased plant growth. In addition Theis found that using hands-on tangible methods, while working with the farmers was an “extremely visual way to interact with these folks on the ground,” Theis said.

According to Theis, the research addressed delivering biological measurements that could be seen by the farmers. Having the ability to hold a healthy and a sick root in your hand and then connect back to the way you had managed your soil, strengthened the learning cycle by using visual examples.

Theis’ work is a prime example of soil renaissance. Her research recognizes the integral role soil has for small and large scale agriculture but also for human health and livelihood.

Through research and education, the Soil Renaissance works to encourage a public re-awakening on the importance of soil health, the base of the world’s nutrients.

As Theis flew into Iowa to attend the World Food Prize conference she could not help but notice the patchwork of farms out the airplane window. For Theis, soil health is an incredibly visible threat that needs to be addressed. “You can literally read the landscape and see these problems just right from the airplane window,” said Theis.

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A multi-crowned approach necessary to save pollinators

By Ann Millington

DES MOINES, Iowa – Many variables contribute to pollinator loss and each must be adjusted to save them.

Varroa mites, pesticides, large expanses of monocultures, and diet all were mentioned as issues during a panel on bees at the World Food Prize on Wednesday.

“If a pollinator is found in a poor landscape where all they have to forage is on is one single crop that is not very healthy for them to eat, their entire immune system may be weakened,” said Amy Toth, assistant professor of ecology at Iowa State University.

Top and left to right; Jerry Hayes, director of Beelogics at Monsanto, Gabe Dadant, principal of Dadant and Sons, Bob Curtis, associate director of agricultural affairs at the Almond Board of California, and Amy Toth assistant professor of ecology and Iowa State University pose for a picture.

If a pollinator is also sickened with disease or challenged with a pesticide, the chances of surviving are much smaller.

Jerry Hayes, the director of Beelogics at Monsanto calls this ‘multifactorial.’

Hayes contributes much of the honeybee decline to the Varroa mite. Miticides, sprayed into beehives to kill the parasitic mite, have side effects.

“You have collateral damage,” said Hayes. “Bee’s wax is a chemical sponge, so the bees are exposed to (miticides) 24/7,” he said.

Other pesticides are a clear danger to bee and other pollinator’s health as well.

“Problems with how we’re applying pesticides can have a non-target affect,” said Toth. “You will sometimes see really obvious pesticide kills where the bees have been exposed to large levels.” Toth described seeing large numbers of dead bees the day after dense backyard spraying. Homeowners, farmers, and parks and recreation departments can all be more responsible with pesticide use, said Toth.

More natural foraging areas with native and diverse plants, such as in backyards or un-mown highway medians, can diversify pollinator diets and boost immune systems. But the ideal bee diet is largely unknown.

“We know how to feed every animal in the Des Moines zoo,” said Hayes. “There are no nutritional complete supplemental diets to feed honeybees.”

Seventy-five percent of crops and $217 billion globally require pollination, according to the Center for Native Pollinator Conservation.

“There isn’t going to be one single thing that solves the problem,” said Toth.

Being mindful of when spraying pesticides and fungicides, and planting native and diverse plants is a local implementation to help bee populations.

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Science education key to public technological understanding

By Breanne Brammer

DES MOINES, Iowa — Science education is key to societal understanding and acceptance of technology according Michelle Gowdy, director of community and academic relations for DuPont Pioneer.

Gowdy said many of the conversations with GMOs come back to a central issue: are people science literate?

“If our population does not have a general understanding of science it puts us at risk in many aspects of our lives,” Gowdy said. “What we don’t understand we fear.”

DuPont Pioneer began supporting agriculture science education curriculum in 2012. Within four years Pioneer has provided 500 grants to high schools nationwide.

Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education grants range from $2,500 to $5,000, and provide teacher training, equipment, materials and end-of-course assessment to programs. According to the website, the goal is to position students to help end world hunger.

“What we need today is more people engaged in the science of agriculture,” Gowdy said. “We need more agronomists, communicators, legal and financial persons that have an understanding of agriculture.”

Gowdy said education is fundamental to understanding science especially when you talk about difficult issues like GMOs, she said. Science education can help bridge the gap.

For example, when it comes to addressing anti-GMO supporters, we should be having conversations instead of combat campaigns, Gowdy said. Science and technology have a profound influence in our lives and without it we would lack many comforts.

But these comforts come with a cost. While large companies are often criticized, Gowdy said that economies of scale are important for achievement. She said research and development is very expensive and investments have to continue in order, for example, to produce better hybrid seeds.

Technological innovation has led to DuPont Pioneer to invest in projects abroad. The company has engaged with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to aid technological advances in Africa. A current project focuses on producing more nutritious sorghum, a staple African crop.

The sorghum variety has higher Vitamin A content, more beta-carotene and stays fresher longer. It is currently undergoing field trials in Nigeria, but there are years of regulatory process ahead, she said.

Within her role, Gowdy has traveled throughout Africa and witnessed the hardships of living without scientific innovation.

“People may hold up a picket sign in Des Moines, Iowa to say ‘we oppose GMOs,’” Gowdy said. “But, a mother in Sub-Saharan Africa just wants to feed her children.”

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Profile of a protester: a hidden voice at the World Food Prize

Maggie Rowland, 85, protested use of biotechnology outside the 2014 World Food Prize in Des Moines. (Photo by Ann Millington)

Maggie Rowland, 85, protested use of biotechnology outside the 2014 World Food Prize in Des Moines. (Photo by Ann Millington)

By Breanne Brammer

DES MOINES, Iowa — Maggie Rowland used to believe in the World Food Prize. Then, last year Robert Fraley, Monsanto Co.’s chief technology officer, was awarded the prize.

That was the final straw for Rowland.

“The World Food Prize is about money, not about food,” Rowland said. “What the World Food Prize represents is industrial agriculture.”

Rowland, an 85-year-old Des Moines resident who tries to buy organic foods, is concerned about how biotechnology affects natural resources and human health. Her worry is that future generations will be more susceptible to Parkinson’s disease and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, she said.

She was one of about 40 demonstrators from many groups positioned outside the World Food Prize headquarters at the Marriott Downtown Hotel on Thursday. Rowland was with Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, a Massachusetts-based organization whose mission is to achieve equal rights for women and social justice.

The groups are in Des Moines in conjunction with the Food Sovereignty Prize, an organization focused on building relationships between people and the land. This is the first time the group has held its meeting at the same time and place as the World Food Prize, Rowland said.

About 40 protestors from many groups gathered outside the Marriott Downtown Hotel in Des Moines Thursday. They were part of an alternative meeting, the Food Sovereignty Prize, a conference focused on people’s relationship with the land. (Photo by Ann Millington)

About 40 protestors from many groups gathered outside the Marriott Downtown Hotel in Des Moines Thursday. They were part of an alternative meeting, the Food Sovereignty Prize, a conference focused on people’s relationship with the land. (Photo by Ann Millington)

The Food Sovereignty Prize supports small farmers and respects cultures while still feeding people, she said. There are good farmers, but they are not at the World Food Prize, Rowland said.

The World Food Prize claims its mission is to feed people, she said, but it does not show the negative effects of industrial agriculture, like water, air and soil pollution. Rowland said she is demonstrating because she wants the world to know biotechnology is not the only answer to feeding the world.

The gray-haired Rowland stood proudly with her homemade sign, “It’s about $$$ not feeding the world,” at the corner of the World Food Prize conference headquarters.

A man in a suit yelled, “Enjoy starving,” and told Rowland she can’t feed the world without biotechnology.

“Rich people never go hungry,” Rowland said. “It’s the poor people who suffer because of biotechnology.

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President of Sierra Leone gives keynote address from abroad

By Jessica Vaughn


Ernest Bai Koroma, president of Sierra Leone, gives his keynote address via satellite Thursday. At podium is Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize.

DES MOINES, Iowa — President Ernest Bai Koroma of Ebola-embattled Sierra Leone expressed faith in his country’s youth during his keynote speech at the World Food Prize Thursday.

“I believe in the youth of my country and I believe in the youth of the world,” Koroma said.

Koroma spoke to the crowd via satellite from his desk in Sierra Leone. He had been scheduled to give the keynote speech in Des Moines but remained in Sierra Leone because of the Ebola epidemic there.

Ebola has been the main focus of media coverage in his country since the first case was diagnosed there in May of 2014. The president addressed the impact it has had on the agricultural economy and the population.

“A disease that strikes youth and farmers is a disease that destroys food production,” he said.

He emphasized the importance of sustaining the wellbeing of the young population in order to sustain his country’s success.

“The Ebola disease is a disease against agricultural production; it is a disease against youth,” he said. “It is a disease that compromises the roles of youth in agriculture.”

Koroma said that the epidemic needs to be addressed globally to eradicate the sickness and help the economies of the countries affected. He cited the namesake of the World Food Prize as a theoretical proponent of the fight.

“The founder of the Food Prize, Norman Borlaug, was a man who would have supported the fight of Ebola,” Koroma said. “He was a man who loved food production. He was a man who loved youth.

“In the 1940s, when the scientists were trying to split the atom bomb to cause destruction, Norman Borlaug was attempting to split wheat to feed millions.”

Although the near future of Sierra Leone appears to be dim, Koroma is depending on younger generations to turn the situation into a positive one. If the youth don’t contribute, the effect on the economy could be severe.

“Without their participation, their health and their positive role our nation is doomed,” he said. “There will be no president and no future.”

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