World Food Prize Foundation President Kenneth Quinn, a former U.S. ambassador, says he has been inspired by the vision of agronomist and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug. Quinn spoke during the DuPont Pioneer “In the Field of Discovery” Media Event.
World Food Prize Foundation President Kenneth Quinn, a former U.S. ambassador, says he has been inspired by the vision of agronomist and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug. Quinn spoke during the DuPont Pioneer “In the Field of Discovery” Media Event.
DES MOINES, Iowa — Former U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Quinn learned a lesson about agriculture early on and has carried that message with him throughout his career.

Quinn, an Iowa native who has served as president of the World Food Prize Foundation since 2000, began his distinguished career with the Foreign Service in 1968 as a rural development adviser in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.

Quinn, one of the most decorated Foreign Service officers of his generation, reflected on the “road” to his current post during a Pioneer media event at the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates.

The World Food Prize is an annual ward recognizing the breakthrough achievements of those who have improved the human condition by increasing the quality, quantity or availability of food for the world.

“I learned the lesson of my life. Why I am here today is because I had eight villages I was working with, and at that time we were doing two things,” Quinn, former U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia, said.

“We were fixing up the old French roads that went to all eight villages, and we were bringing in the IR8 rice that had been developed at the Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. We were taking out ag advisers to try to convince farmers to start planting it.

“What I saw and what I learned was however far we had fixed the road, people started using the new rice and it transformed them almost literally overnight. People had more income, people were happier, they stayed in school and the child mortality went down.

“Where the road stopped, nobody used the new rice and things were as bad as before. They hadn’t changed in a 100 years.

“It was a combination of roads and agricultural technology, the same formula that transformed this state and probably every state where all of you are from, but I think Americans kind of forget the lesson that it was those farm-to-market roads that let the Extension workers from Iowa State and the agents from Pioneer to get out with their new hybrid seeds and be developed. That lesson has stayed with me all through my life.”

Inspired by the vision of Norman Borlaug, founder of the World Food Prize, Quinn took those life lessons one step further as president of the World Food Prize Foundation.

Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for a lifetime of work to feed a hungry world.

Although a scientist with outstanding contributions, perhaps Borlaug’s greatest achievement was his unending struggle to integrate the various streams of agricultural research into viable technologies and to convince political leaders to bring these advances to fruition.

It was on the research stations and farmers’ fields of Mexico that Borlaug developed successive generations of wheat varieties with broad and stable disease resistance, broad adaptation to growing conditions across many degrees of latitude, and with exceedingly high yield potential.

These new wheat varieties and improved crop management practices transformed agricultural production in Mexico during the 1940s and 1950s and later in Asia and Latin America, sparking what today is known as the “Green Revolution.”

Because of his achievements to prevent hunger, famine and misery around the world, it is said that Borlaug has “saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived.”

After taking the helm, Quinn endeavored to build the annual World Food Prize to a $250,000 award into “the Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture.”

“I am so blessed to have had the gig to carry on Dr. Borlaug’s legacy,” he said.

With the support of the John Ruan family, Quinn has led the campaign which successfully raised $29.8 million to restore the historic Des Moines Public Library and transform it into the World Food Prize Dr. Norman E. Borlaug Hall of Laureates.

He provided the personal leadership to have the building designed to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum certification, the highest possible level of energy efficiency and resource conservation.

“Raising $30 million to do this building is a tribute to him. The World Food Prize has grown. When I came we had one employee. Today, we have 10,” Quinn said.

“The annual World Food Prize Laureate Award ceremony, ‘Borlaug Dialogue’ international symposium and Global Youth Institute have grown in size and stature under his direction and will be held Oct. 16-18. Last year, we had 1,100 to 1,200 people from 65 countries.”

In looking toward agriculture’s future, Quinn said, “If America is going to remain the preeminent country in the world in agricultural research and if we are going to be the preeminent country in leading the world the next 50 years, we have to inspire the next generation of young Americans to be interest in these subjects.

“That’s what Norman Borlaug wanted to do. That’s what we are endeavoring to do.”