New prize in food and agriculture highlights need for scientific innovation

By Kathryn Cawdrey

DES MOINES, Iowa — Sixth generation Iowa farmer Pam Johnson experienced the benefits of agricultural innovation firsthand on her land. She hopes more young scientists will join the field.

Thanks to plant science, Johnson, member and past president of Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, produces better and more crops than her parents and grandparents.

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Pam Johnson takes her leave from the podium after relaying her experiences as a sixth generation Iowa farmer. (Photo by Kathryn Cawdrey)

To encourage discovery in agriculture and food production to help farmers around the world like Johnson, the National Academy of Sciences, The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have started a new annual prize. The three organizations will award the new NAS Prize in Food and Agriculture in April to a mid-career scientist who has made an extraordinary contribution to agriculture. Currently there are 33 nominees for the prize. The winner will receive a medal and $100,000.

Ronald Phillips, a member of the NAS, said the prize aims to:

  • Incentivize younger scientists to redirect their gaze on agriculture
  • Find new agricultural breakthroughs, such as discoveries in genome sequencing to improve crops.
  • Give new scientists affirmation, recognition, invitations to important conferences and workshops and the opportunity to inspire the next generation
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Left to Right: Ronald Phillips of National Academy of Sciences, Pam Johnson and Sally Rockey of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, and Lawrence Kent of Gates Foundation  announce the new NAS Prize in Food and Agriculture to be awarded in April. (Photo by Kathryn Cawdrey)

The idea for this prize came to Phillips and his colleagues Jim Cook and Harris Lewin when they attended an awards ceremony for the Public Welfare Medal. The three discussed their concern that NAS did not have an accolade specifically for agriculture.

They pitched the idea to Bill Gates to see if his foundation would fund an initiative to promote cutting-edge ideas in the field.

“You could feel the wheels turning in Bill Gates’ head,” Phillips said. “He looked up at the ceiling in thought.”

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Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, wants the issue of food security and production on the national agenda, topic he discussed during a Wednesday panel during the World Food Prize. (Photo by Kathryn Cawdrey)

Phillips offered to write up the idea for Gates to look over, but the philanthropist said he understood. Shortly after, the prize was created and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated $1.75 million and Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research contributed another $1.75 million.

At the World Food Prize Conference, speakers highlighted the need for new innovations in agriculture, which the prize seeks to encourage.

“The new prize is there because we need all the inspiration, all the recognition, all the attention to these issues,” Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, said.

He discussed Norman Borlaug’s belief that science is the multiplier of the harvest.

 

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