Each year in October, when the Iowa countryside transforms from gorgeous summer greens to harvest season hues of tan, some of the world’s top agricultural scientists and anti-hunger activists gather in Des Moines to compare notes.
The occasion is the presentation of the annual World Food Prize. It’s three days of conversations about the progress, or the setbacks, in the quest to adequately feed the world’s expanding population.
Last week, as in years past, the event brought 1,200 people from 50 countries to Iowa.
The highlight came Thursday night during a ceremony at the Iowa Capitol when the 32nd annual World Food Prize honorees were honored for their leadership and advocacy in working to reduce poor nutrition among pregnant women and their infants.
Lawrence Haddad and Dr. David Nabarro, both British citizens, were singled out for making a difference in the lives of millions of children whose growth and development was being stunted from the lack of adequate nourishment between conception and the age of 2.
One of the laureates provided a poignant, personal reminder of the importance of the helping hand in dealing with the effects of poverty. More about that in a bit.
The World Food Prize ceremony is an event that should make the chests of every Iowa swell with pride. People from around the globe squeeze into the spectacular chamber of the Iowa House of Representatives. Iowa Public Television cameras carry the pageantry, the speeches and the inspiration to an audience across Iowa.
While the spectators were there to applaud the new laureates, they also were there to celebrate the legacy of the greatest Iowan — Norman Borlaug, a humble farm kid from Cresco, who became one of the foremost plant breeders in world history. He died in 2009 at age of 95.
Beginning in the 1940s, Borlaug developed disease-resistant strains of wheat that produced high yields under a wide range of growing conditions. In the process, his breakthroughs saved an estimated one billion people from famine and starvation — an achievement that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
I wish more of our nation’s leaders were paying attention to what Lawrence Haddad said in his acceptance speech.
Haddad, 59, is the executive director of a nongovernmental organization, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. He was born in South Africa in 1959 to Lebanese parents. When he was not yet 2 years old, the family emigrated to England. His parents split up when he was 7, and his mother was left to raise Haddad and his sister.
“I was brought up by a warrior mother. She fought like a tiger for me and my sister,” Haddad said. “When we no longer had a father, she became both parents. When we had no money for new clothes, she got us good second-hand clothes. When it looked like I couldn’t get into a good state school, she made sure I did. And that is the power of mothers.”
He continued: “I was lucky to be brought up in a country like the United Kingdom with its powerful welfare system. Our small family qualified for a council flat” — a reference to government subsidized housing.
“I got free school meals, free prescription glasses and free university education, and that is the power of the state,” Haddad said.
His mother worked. but she also volunteered at a Save the Children charity store in London. She could not afford childcare, so she took her son with her to the store.
“While she was helping out, I took to the staff and was really inspired by their sense of purpose, their conviction that they would make a difference. That is the power of civil society.
“So, by age 18, I had powerful examples of the roles mothers, governments, civil society and businesses play in shaping destiny. But one in three people on this planet are denied a say in shaping their destiny because they are malnourished.
“That is outrageous. It is unacceptable, and it cannot be tolerated,” he said.
It will take everyone to end malnutrition, including government, civil society, businesses and families themselves.
Haddad had this admonition: “They have to come together because the things that converge to generate malnutrition are powerful — not enough food, not enough water, not enough sanitation, not enough health care, not enough time to take care of kids — and they must be vanquished by even more powerful alliances drawn from all corners of society.
“But even that’s not enough,” he said. “These coalitions, alliances and movements need a spark. They need a spark to catalyze the outrage.
“When I went to work in the Philippines and India as a young man, the fire was lit in me. … This is when I realized that malnutrition was about injustice, and it radicalized me.”
While Borlaug’s, Haddad’s and Nabarro’s work took them to impoverished regions of the world, Iowans should not think that these are just problems in poor nations. There are children and single-parent mothers fighting the same fight in the United States — and that exists not because of laziness or a lack of motivation.
This has been a struggle going back to biblical times. Lawrence Haddad’s life shows what a difference a leg up from government and society, along with a first-rate education, can do to lift a young man out of poverty and set him on a course in which he can make this world better.
That was the message from the World Food Prize ceremony I wish people from coast to coast could hear.
by Randy Evans