DES MOINES, Iowa, Oct. 21, 2015 - The 2015 World Food Prize ceremony and conference shined a spotlight on women and sustainable agriculture from start to finish. 

For starters, the World Food Prize went to Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of a Bangladeshi relief organization (BRAC) that focuses primarily on empowering women and girls. Since 1990, BRAC has helped nearly 150 million hungry, impoverished and disenfranchised individuals obtain healthcare, technical training, education and microfinancing for small businesses across 11 countries. Currently the non-profit operates a university, a bank, and several social enterprises that together employ over 120,000 people, making BRAC the world’s largest non-governmental organization.

The events held in Abed’s honor in Des Moines, Iowa, last week included a laureate ceremony in the Iowa State Capitol, presided over by the state’s long-time Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and attended by Iowa’s former governor, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The state’s female legislative leadership received special recognition from WFP Foundation President Kenneth Quinn, and they later joined an all-female chorus to sing Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” at the close of the ceremony.

Abed’s work to end poverty and empower women was honored at several luncheons peppered throughout the “Borlaug Dialogues – a series of informational discussions named in honor of Norman Borlaug, the American biologist and Nobel Peace Prize winner credited with saving the lives of a billion people with hybrid wheat he developed in the 1950s. Here are some highlights from the event.

"Women are a crucial, vital and necessary part of solving the challenge of alleviating hunger,” Chelsea Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation emphasized: About 800 million people "aren't getting the nutritious food they need,” she added.

Robb Fraley, technology officer at Monsanto, joined Clinton later for a panel discussion and said about 3 million kids in the country will graduate with degrees in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — over the next 10 years. But less than 175,000 will work in STEM jobs, which will total 2 million. "We're in a deficit," he said, while pointing out that “encouraging more women to become doctors, scientists and engineers will be critical to meeting challenges facing the country and the world.”

Reversing those signals can be challenging, Clinton said. "Starting in middle school, teachers both male and female, start calling on girls less in math and science classes, which sends a pretty clear message that their opinions just don't matter as much."

Cargill CEO David MacLennan said the Minneapolis-based company learned an important lesson decades ago that’s still relevant: "Change in the global food system is constant," he said. "But change also has created enormous gains for humanity."

Chris Policinski, CEO of Land O'Lakes, said a "war against science" is making it difficult for the agricultural industry to attract the talented workers it needs to meet the growing need for food. Policinski said consumers are getting much of their information about food from the Internet and it "has given rise to a situation where opinion and nostalgia, maybe a political or economic agenda, colors the discussion around our food supply."

DuPont executive vice president Jim Borel says the key to solving global food security issues is innovation. "We need to produce more food in the next 40 years than we have produced in the past 10,000 years," he said. And "we're currently living beyond our means. We consume 50 percent more natural resources than our ecosystems can replenish."

Panelist Howard Buffett, an American philanthropist and Illinois farmer, shared how employing sustainable farming practices – in particular cover crops, crop rotations and no-till – improves productivity on both small and large farming operations. “You can do amazing things (in agriculture) if you know how to use nature,” Buffett told the audience. Using conservation farming practices to minimize soil disturbance, like cover crops for instance, “is hard to figure out” – “that’s why a lot of farmers don’t do it,” he said, but it’s worth it. The cornfields on which he seeded cover tasseled out almost 15 days after the fields that didn’t have cover – accounting for a 20-bushel an acre difference in yield.

Sustainable agriculture was also the focus of this year’s Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) report, which was released by the Global Harvest Initiative (GHI). To increase ag production sustainably, the report recommends policymakers and agricultural producers use the latest conservation and management practices to simultaneously deliver greater yields and meet higher demand for protein, all while reducing agriculture's environmental footprint.

Sara Wyant contributed to this story.


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