Des Moines is home to the World Food Prize-a celebration of the achievements of Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug for his 60 year contribution to advancing the scientific basis of actions that have reduced hunger. Each year leaders from the worlds of agriculture and nutrition gather to discuss ways of advancing Borlaug’s vision; a world free from hunger. This year was especially poignant given his death at 95 just weeks before the event.
Without being there it is difficult to appreciate the extraordinary depths of love and appreciation for Borlaug that permeates the events. As a son of Iowa it was impressive to witness the Governor, the US Secretary of Agriculture and senior representatives from the State Department, Senators and leading politicians, leaders of corporations linked to agriculture including Archer Daniel Midlands, John Deere and Monsanto, academic heads of agriculture from the state and beyond open their arms to Ministers of Agriculture from several African and Asian countries as well as Canada.
Heads of food and security think tanks provided current updates on the relationships between food, hunger and national security. A senior retired Admiral described why climate change demanded urgent attention at the highest levels of government. Leaders from agriculture discussed how best to improve governance of the field to include a stronger role for the private sector. Discussion around rapid implementation of scientific findings that showed Singapore remained the only country to develop economically without first strengthening its agricultural sector commenced.
So why was PepsiCo there and did we have anything to contribute?
Two reasons: to inspire and to learn.
Indra Nooyi followed important presentations by Bill Gates and Jeff Sachs. Gates outlined how his Foundation will act on their commitment to build capacity for agricultural research in Africa and India and called for governments to “unleash the power of the private sector” through smarter policies. Sachs challenged the food industry to do more to address certain negative impacts their work had on the environment and nutrition.
Indra Nooyi’s speech elevated the debate and emphasized the need for the worlds of agriculture and nutrition to work closer together; for the capabilities of the private sector-especially in relation to distribution, R&D and consumer insights-to be better harnessed; and called for a commission to address these issues. The response from diverse groups including USDA; State; IFPRI (the world’s premier food policy group and part of the 17 centers of the CGIAR system); the World Economic Forum; other corporate heads and intellectual leaders in the field was enthusiastic. Many immediately wanted to get behind the idea of an action oriented commission. They were challenged to rethink the role of corporations in tackling hunger and left with a clear message of commitment.
We learned just how complex it will be to bridge the agriculture-nutrition divide; who to engage as we move forward; and which arguments are most likely to succeed. We met passionate agricultural scientists seeking collaboration, corporate heads offering to team up and the Iowan political leadership who proudly offered Des Moines as the hub for any possible commission work. People understood better that for PepsiCo to play a stronger role in addressing world hunger, our core products remained the engine of growth even as the portfolio evolves.
My enduring image of the meeting will be to witness a man, Gebisa Ejeta, from a small hut in a remote village in Ethiopia be honored as the 2009 Borlaug World Food Prize Laureate. The award was for his work in transforming sorghum to allow it to overcome drought resistance and plant disease, thereby feeding millions who would otherwise starve in Africa. President Obama’s message of congratulations and the celebratory dances led by an Ethiopian group of artists drove home the message that his work would benefit both his community and the world.