Creation and History of the World Food Prize (Online Exclusives) October 1, 2009

Led by the vision of Norman Borlaug and founded by the General Foods Corp. in 1986, The World Food Prize, which recognizes outstanding contributions to the quality, quantity, or availability of the world’s food supply, moved to Iowa under the support of the Ruan Foundation in 1990.

By A.S. Clausi

The idea of a prize for agriculture originated with Norman Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who passed away at age 95 on Sept. 12, 2009. According to Borlaug, as honored as he was to be the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, it bothered him that he was being given the Peace Prize rather than being recognized by an agriculture prize for his accomplishments as the father of the “Green Revolution.” As he often stated, it perturbed him that the only “window” through which he could pass to receive recognition was that of Peace since there was no prize in the Nobel honor roll for agriculture.

This matter concerned him to the extent that he went back to the Nobel secretariat and suggested that a prize be created for agriculture, only to be turned down. There is no provision in Nobel’s will for such a prize and the secretariat was reluctant to depart from that position. While they had in the past accepted one additional prize, the Economics Prize, which is sponsored by the Swedish banking system, they made it very clear to Borlaug that in their opinion this was not a wise decision. They were convinced that by allowing additional prizes they would open up the floodgates to an unmanageable number of prize possibilities.

Undaunted, Borlaug continued to advance his idea at every opportunity, seeking other sponsorship for the creation of such a prize. While he met with modest agreement to the idea of an agriculture prize, no one stepped forward and offered to sponsor it. During his travels, he met Carlton Smith, who had many important connections and who had been involved in the establishment of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture. Borlaug’s search for an agriculture prize sponsor interested Smith. He said he would see what he could do to put him in touch with some people who might sponsor such a prize. After at least one unsuccessful interview arranged by Smith and perhaps others, a date was set to meet with potential sponsor James Ferguson, CEO and Chairman of General Foods Corp., whom Smith had met in his many travels.

As Borlaug related the story, the meeting was set for the Monday following Memorial Day in 1985. He and Smith were to meet for dinner at a hotel in Westchester County, N.Y., and then have lunch with Ferguson the following day to discuss the possibility of prize sponsorship. Borlaug appeared at the hotel dining room only to find that Smith wasn’t there. In fact, he did not appear at all which greatly surprised Borlaug because in all previous meetings, Smith was a very punctual individual. Borlaug immediately called Smith’s residence only to hear from his housekeeper that Smith had died in his sleep the night before.

Saddened and completely befuddled as to what to do the next day since he had not previously met Ferguson, Borlaug nevertheless went ahead and met him for lunch and told the sad story of what had occurred. Borlaug recounted the encounter with Ferguson that noon, “We looked at each other, finished our drinks, and decided that given the turn of events it was no time to continue to discuss prize sponsorship, but agreed to meet in another month.”

At the second meeting which was held at the General Foods corporate headquarters in Rye Brook, N.Y., Borlaug brought along with him an old friend and long-time supporter of the idea of a prize, Robert Havener, who was at that time the Executive Director of Winrock International, a non-governmental organization carrying out agricultural research and development around the world. Meeting with Borlaug and Havener were Ferguson and Andrew Schroder, General Foods’ Vice President for Corporate Affairs. Both Ferguson and Schroder listened intently to the idea of a prize since it had been a stated corporate objective of General Foods to increase its public service contributions and they were looking for a big and meaningful project that they could embrace. They promised to give the proposal serious consideration and said that they would get back to Borlaug after they had a chance to discuss the matter internally with other members of corporate management.

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