In the mid-1980s, I was Senior Vice President and Chief R&D Officer Worldwide at General Foods Corp., a leader in processed foods innovations. Into this picture came Norman Borlaug, someone I did not know and who represented accomplishments in agriculture, an area I respected as vital in the chain of supplying food to large numbers of people. He was clearly a man of vision and determination. Borlaug “fathered” the Green Revolution through his many accomplishments in breeding new wheat varieties and in his ability to convince others to bring modern agricultural practices to “the farmers,” as he always explained.
Norm was recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of has agricultural leadership, but it bothered him that he “had to pass through the window of Peace” because there was no award for agriculture. Typical of Norm, he did not let it rest there, so starting with the Nobel organization and everywhere else his travels took him, he tried to convince others to establish such an award to recognize the vital importance of agriculture to human civilization. But it wasn’t until the late 1980s that he found support in perhaps a most unexpected place—General Foods Corp. But even then his prize for agriculture was not to be because his potential sponsor was interested in a food prize that would recognize all of the links in the food chain from the farm to the table. Typical of Norm’s ability to accept new ideas, he immediately embraced the broader concept and in 1986 The General Foods World Food Prize was announced. He has said many times to me how happy he was to finally see his dream come true.
That was the good news, but there were many pieces that had to be put in place: an organization, a system of operation, and a selection of worthy and inspiring laureates. As Chair of the Council of Advisors, I could dedicate myself to the organization and system, since I was newly retired. Norm assumed the responsibility of finding great laureates as Chairman of the Selection Committee.
And all went well during the start-up years until 1990 when the realities of the business world struck! After a series of acquisitions and mergers by Philip Morris Cos., a new parent, Kraft General Foods, emerged and the new Kraft management decided to drop sponsorship and ordered the termination of the Prize.
Norman Borlaug was deeply saddened and felt abandoned by the move, as did I and the Council of Advisors, but he and I and the leadership of the Winrock Foundation, the Secretariat of the Prize, vowed that we would either convince Kraft not to drop the sponsorship or find another sponsor. That all had to be done in the midst of the 1990 award year.
Norm did not quit easily, nor did I, and we refused to see his dream perish in adolescence. We knocked on company doors, we contacted moneyed friends, we visited countless Chambers of Commerce, anyplace where we might find a new life. While we were greeted with sympathy and even some promises, no one stepped forward to adopt the Prize. While he was very discouraged and fearful that the Prize might die, Norm never gave up the search and he was an inspiration to me and his dream became my dream, too. We did manage to scrounge enough money to go forward with the 1990 award not knowing if there would be another.
Then in 1990, Norm and I went to Des Moines, Iowa, at the request of its Chamber of Commerce to plead our case. Norm presented his dream and I presented the organization’s history and accomplishments. We struck a resonate chord with a very generous individual, John Ruan, a wealthy Des Moines banker who had entertained thoughts of such a prize on his own and shared our dream. Ruan pledged to adopt the Prize and the rest is Iowa history. (To read a comprehensive article on the creation and history of The World Food Prize, please click here.)
While I continued as a member of the Council of Advisors, Norm was reunited with his ancestral history as a native of Iowa. For the past 19 years until Norm’s death at 95 this past September, he has lived his dream over and over again as an administrator of The World Food Prize and a member of its Council of Advisors.
He is one of only five people in the world to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Nobel Peace Prize.
All his life, he retained his faith in agriculture and the wisdom of the farmer. I am told that when on his deathbed he was advised of a new technology in agriculture, he said, “Take it to the farmers!”
IFT President 1993-94
Council of Advisors – World Food Prize
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