“I explained how, in 1959, at the height of the Cold War and, arguably the most dangerous moment in human history, Nikita Khrushchev visited Iowa. A discussion he had with a farmer at a corn crib led to exchanges over the next several decades between American and Soviet agricultural experts. This process had nothing to do with the number of nuclear weapons we were pointing at each other but had everything to do with building some sense of understanding and being able to work together. Agriculture was the vehicle that helped defuse the situation and promote peace.”
– Dr. Kenneth Quinn
About the World Food Prize (WFP): The World Food Prize is an international award that acknowledges the achievements of individuals who have “advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.” The award was created by Dr. Norman Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in global agriculture. The WFP organization is based in Des Moines, Iowa; it is sponsored by John Ruan, a businessman and philanthropist. The organization sponsors a variety of programs, including youth institutes and fellowships.
About Dr. Kenneth Quinn: Kenneth M. Quinn is the president of the World Food Prize. A former U.S. diplomat – he served as Ambassador to Cambodia – Dr. Quinn had a distinguished 32-year career in foreign service with the U.S. State Department. During his diplomatic career, he worked as a rural development advisor in the Mekong Delta, on the National Security Council staff at the White House, as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and as chairman of the U.S. Interagency Task Force on POW/MIAs. Dr. Quinn negotiated the first ever entry by U.S. personnel into a Vietnamese prison to search for U.S. POW/MIAs. He is widely acknowledged for his expertise on Indochina, international security and global food issues. His doctoral dissertation examined the origins of the Pol Pot regime.
Dr. Quinn is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Secretary of State’s Award for Heroism and Valor for his efforts to protect American citizens exposed to danger in Cambodia. He is the only civilian to receive the U.S. Army Air Medal for his participation in combat operations in Vietnam.
Q: What is inspiring you?
Ambassador Quinn: What inspires me most is the role that promoting agriculture and fighting hunger can play in preventing conflict between nations and particularly in providing the opportunity for people, countries and societies to come together across great differences and find a way to work together.
For example, in 2012, the World Food Prize was presented to an Israeli pioneer in micro-irrigation named Dr. Daniel Hillel. Dr. Hillel was nominated by three Arab-Muslim scientists from three Middle Eastern countries. When Hillel received the World Food Prize, the Secretary General of the United Nations came to Des Moines. A Muslim princess and an Arab sheikh stood and applauded for this man whose work bridged the great gulf that exists between Israel and many of its Arab neighbors…between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East.
It reminded me of being at the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize centennial observance, where I saw Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, who spoke at a Lutheran church. He believed that despite their religious and historical differences, people who could come together, stand together, sing together, cheer together…and could live in peace together. It was a very inspiring moment for me. I recalled it in 2014, when we observed the centennial of the birth of Dr. Borlaug…and on the day on which the state of Iowa unveiled his statue in the U.S. capitol. I chaired the committee that raised the money and selected the artist to fabricate the statue. It was a great moment for Iowa and a great moment for American agriculture.
A few months later, I received an email telling me about another celebration of Dr. Borlaug’s centennial – numerous were held around the world – in Mexico and India and Uganda. These were all places where he’d worked. I received an invitation to another one…an invitation that was striking and unexpected. It came from the Agriculture Biotechnology Research Institute of Iran. They were holding an observance of Borlaug’s birth and a celebration. They also wanted to purchase a copy of the Borlaug statue in the U.S. Capitol. I was quite stunned.
As a former diplomat, I was a bit hesitant, but I accepted, put in my application for a visa and it came through. I showed up in Iran in August 2014 and I gave a talk there about Dr. Borlaug, his Iowa roots and the historic role of agriculture.
I explained how, in 1959, at the height of the Cold War and, arguably the most dangerous moment in human history, Nikita Khrushchev visited Iowa. A discussion he had with a farmer at a corn crib led to exchanges over the next several decades between American and Soviet agricultural experts. This process had nothing to do with the number of nuclear weapons we were pointing at each other but had everything to do with building some sense of understanding and being able to work together. Agriculture was the vehicle that helped defuse the situation and promote peace.
Finally, I told that Iranian audience that Dr. Borlaug had a secret and ardent hope: that using biotechnology, scientists would one day be able to extract those traits from the rice plant which keeps rice from ever developing rust disease, and would transplant them into wheat and barley, thus forever eliminating rust disease. I invited the Iranians to send top experts to our World Food Prize symposium in Oct 2014 to join the discussions about eradicating rust disease…and they did just that.
Q: A recent study showed a big gap between how scientists view the safety of GMOs and how consumers view the issue. What gives?
Ambassador Quinn: The Pew study to which you refer measures the gap in perception about the safety of GMOs and reactions by consumers to food products that include them. It’s significant to note, in my view, that often this opposition will come from highly educated parts of our society, as is the case in Europe. This response may come from the notion that somehow any food that has been improved or altered is somehow less healthy or less safe than that which was not. The inclusion of genetically modified foods in that discussion, as well as the initiatives to require GMO labeling, highlights how significant this movement has become. The worry about it is that in giving such emphasis to domestic food issues, that we as a society may be undercutting much of the agricultural research…research that would be needed to produce and grow the seeds needed by poor farmers in Africa and South Asia and other places in order to successfully deal with climate volatility and other challenges they face.
I feel a certain poignancy in the fact that biotechnology and genetic modification, which can be such a divisive issue in the U.S. and Europe, might provide one of the most significant opportunities to help improve estranged relationships with other countries such as Iran.
Q: What do you see as the contributions of land-grant universities?
Ambassador Quinn: What’s most striking to me as someone who doesn’t have a background in agriculture or food science – and having never attended a land-grant institution – is that U.S. created the single greatest assemblage of agricultural science ever put together in all world history.
The land-grant university system is one of America’s greatest achievements. Yet, it receives very little notice or appreciation in our country, aside from those who are active members of those universities. The collective voice of the land-grant institutions could be – and should be – the single most powerful element in the deliberative process about biotechnology and GMOs. My hope in reflecting the wishes of Dr. Borlaug (and I would offer that in terms of life achievements, he’s the most significant graduate of any land grant institution since Justin Morrill came up with the idea in 1862) is that the university research system would be able to have that powerful impact.
We have the expertise and the scientists. We should follow the science. It will lead us to doing those things that will most help us eradicate hunger and poverty in the world and most help guide us and our society to a healthier diet and healthier members.
So, the bottom line question is: How do we have that land-grant voice more powerfully articulated and more clearly heard?
Editor’s Note: Part One of our interview with Dr. Quinn is available here. In it, he discusses a range of issues, including global food security and the connection between food security and national security. Dr. Quinn also shares his experiences working as a diplomat in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.