“Other countries are engaged in that kind of public research. China will invest more money in that type of agricultural research than the U.S. Here we have an area where the U.S. has been, without question, the global leader in feeding the world. This has come through the work of scientists, researchers, companies, farmers and producers and our providing assistance to take ag technology and know-how beyond our borders. Yet, it appears that collectively our society is deciding – perhaps by not making decisions – that we are not going to continue this trend line, that we may forgo that leading role.”

                                                         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.

Amb. Kenneth M Quinn Headshot
Dr. Kenneth Quinn. Credit: World Food Prize.

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: You provide leadership for The World Food Prize, an organization that carries forward the legacy of Dr. Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in improving global food security. What are the challenges and gifts of this kind of legacy?

Ambassador Quinn: I’ve always thought about the powerful example of his legacy, the themes of his life and the aspects of agriculture that he stressed. But now, as I’ve thought about the issues of global food security and human nutrition, I’m struck by something else. That’s the fact that there is now a question, perhaps not articulated as such, but which is nonetheless very real. And that question is: to whom do we (individuals, institutions, universities, states, countries) have obligations? As we look at what will be the guiding principles for our national food policy and the interests of all those who are engaged in global food security issues, where and to whom do we perceive our obligations to be?

I worked with Dr. Borlaug for over a decade. If he were asked that question in 2016, I believe he would answer it by saying that our highest obligation would be towards those 800-900 million people who live with chronic hunger and food insecurity. While mindful of hunger at home – Dr. Borlaug first witnessed extreme poverty during the Depression in Minneapolis – his top goal would be to eradicate hunger from the face of the earth. Dr. Borlaug would point out that the great majority of these hungry people could be found in Africa, South Asia…and their numbers will only increase as the global population increases toward the 9 billion number by mid-century. And these people will have even greater difficulty sustaining themselves, much less increasing food production, because of the challenges presented by climate volatility, water scarcity, drought, rising sea levels and new diseases. (For example, the recent Ebola outbreak had a devastating impact on agricultural production in Liberia and Sierra Leone).

The challenge is to define that question – to whom do we have obligations? – as we look at nutrition needs in our own country and global food security need around the world.


Q: Biotechnology and genetic modification play an important role in the WFP’s work. What insights can you offer?

Ambassador Quinn: The World Food Prize Foundation was a pioneer in bringing issues of obesity and malnutrition at home and abroad to the fore. If you look at that matter of national food issues in the United States, you don’t always end up in the same place in regards to agricultural research. Usually, a sort of dividing line exists between shaping global policy and national policy…and that dividing line is the role of biotechnology and genetic modification. Both of those approaches look at nutrition and the food system in our country versus needs internationally.

I would say individuals on both sides of this question are motivated by the highest ideals, wishes and desires for positive outcomes. The challenge is how to put these approaches together so they are not adversarial, but rather complementary.

Biotechnology and genetic modification sits on the fault line. Dr. Borlaug would say it’s difficult to imagine how poor farmers in developing countries – the majority of them women – would ever be able to feed growing families, increase production and find a pathway out of poverty without the tools of modern science and agriculture. Biotechnology might improve their ability to deal with drought, flood, rising sea levels and other challenges.

The big challenge I see is in carrying forward Dr. Borlaug’s legacy in regard to the use of science and public research.


Q: Public investment in agricultural research is declining. What are your thoughts?

Ambassador Quinn: When I retired from the U.S. State Department and came home to Iowa to take over the WFP in 2000, I had a staff of only one person. But, we had Dr. Borlaug and ten of the living WFP laureates who all came to the first symposium I organized.

I held a press conference to highlight our award and our laureates. And the leading issue they all agreed on at that time was the critical importance of enhancing and increasing investment in public funded agricultural and food research.

That voice has not been heard in terms of looking at results that come from federal funding. It’s very evident when you compare the federal government’s investment in health research versus agricultural research. In fact, the funding of agricultural research from the year Dr. Borlaug founded the World Food Prize (1986) through 2016 – our 30th anniversary – is a straight line. This means in effect that the amount of money available has declined as costs have increased.

During the same 30-year period, federal investment in medical research related to diabetes and other diseases and health issues has gone up dramatically. You see great work being done at American universities in the health area and great breakthroughs. There’s not comparable work being done on the agricultural side…much of the research work is being done in the private sector. There is a problem with that, because private companies will focus their research where they can develop commercial products that can be sold at a profit.

Public funding of research – by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, land-grant institutions, CGIAR centers – are the places where the public research was so vital. Research in those institutions led to the single greatest period of food and hunger reduction in world history – in the last 60 years. Those advances came largely from that funding. Dr. Borlaug would say we have reaped the benefits but forgotten that they came from that public research.

Other countries are engaged in that kind of public research. China will invest more money in that type of agricultural research than the U.S. Here we have an area where the U.S. has been, without question, the global leader in feeding the world. This has come through the work of scientists, researchers, companies, farmers and producers and our providing assistance to take ag technology and know-how beyond our borders. Yet, it appears that collectively our society is deciding – perhaps by not making decisions – that we are not going to continue this trend line, that we may forgo that leading role.


Q: You worked in rural development for USAID. What were your experiences? And in your opinion, what are the most effective and impactful ways to structure agricultural foreign aid?

Ambassador Quinn: I started my State Department career – having grown up as a city kid – with a desire as a diplomat to be assigned to Western Europe. I envisioned fancy parties in chandeliered ballrooms in London, Paris or Vienna.

However, in 1968 I was assigned as a rural development officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, in the middle of the war. I was responsible for overseeing a variety of assistance programs for eight villages. Something significant occurred at that time; that was the introduction of the very first crop of “miracle rice”, known as IR8. IR8 had been developed at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in part through the work of Hank Beachell in the Philippines. Beachell was from Nebraska; he’d been a USDA employee and then went to IRRI. The IR8 rice was fast growing…90 days as opposed to six months with traditional varieties. And it was high yielding. It was the birth of the Green Revolution.

Photo in Iran
The Iran photograph is Ambassador Quinn pictured with Iran’s Minister of Agriculture, Mahmoud Hojjati (left) and their Deputy Minister of Agriculture (right). The rug in the photograph was presented to Ambassador Quinn after he spoke at a special ceremony during the 13th Crop Science Congress of Iran, hosted by the Agricultural Biotechnology Research Institute of Iran in August 2014. Credit: World Food Prize.

At the same time, quite by chance, – through an engineering assistance program – we were upgrading an old French farm-to-market road that ran through all eight villages. We had completed the upgrade through four of the villages. What was amazing for me to behold – and it became my lifelong greatest lesson – was that only in the villages that had the new road was that new IR8 rice being planted.

In that case, new agricultural technology traveled overland on the roads. The road, with all of its infrastructure capabilities and transportation enhancements, provided an essential catalyst for the rice to be adopted. In those villages – with the improved road and the IR8 rice – there was a profound impact on eliminating poverty, enhancing nutrition, decreasing childhood mortality and keeping girls and all children in school longer. But it had a security element to it, too, in that the combination of new rice and upgraded roads caused the Viet Cong insurgents to evaporate in a way that more traditional military components could not achieve.

The lesson of the combination of roads and new agricultural tech should have been well-known and seen as essential components by aid designers, because it’s the lesson of how America was transformed.

In Iowa, the new farm to market roads enabled Henry Wallace’s hybrid corn and Iowa State University’s extension workers to get out to farmers. You name the state and this same lesson is probably true in most.

I used this lesson twenty years later, in 1990, when we began a small assistance program in Cambodia. There were still 25,000 Khmer Rouge across the countryside controlling much of it. We used most of the aid money we had to build roads and bring new agricultural know-how and opportunity into these remote, rural areas where the Khmer Rouge held sway. Nine years later as I was preparing to leave the country at the end of my ambassadorial assignment, the last Khmer Rouge surrendered. We had eradicated one of the world’s worst genocidal territorial regimes of the second half of the 20th century through enhanced roads and new miracle rice. Roads were a critical factor in Vietnam and Cambodia.

In 2008, in a meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, I recounted this story about roads and rice. He interrupted me to say every one of his commanders in Afghanistan had told him the same thing: where the road ends the insurgency begins.


Q: You delivered a keynote address at the UN’s World Food Day. In it, you stressed the importance of roads. What was your thinking then…and has it changed in any way?

Ambassador Quinn: In 2013, I was invited by the Director General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Dr. Jose Graziano de Silva to deliver the keynote address at the United Nations World Food Day observance in New York. In that address, I suggested that a productive analysis could come from taking the United Nation’s hunger map of the world and laying it flat on the table. If you put on top of that another transparency of the world conflict map – with shaded areas showing where there was political turmoil, instability, conflict and terrorism – you’d find these areas to be in many instances very similar. Conflict aligns with hunger and poverty. If you then put on top of those two maps – if it exists – a world highway and rural road map, I believe you’d see that where the rural roads end, hunger, poverty, political instability, conflict and terrorism all begin.

Look at the world in 2016…the places of greatest food insecurity are also areas that have the least road penetration. For example, Africa has about 40% road penetration as opposed to Southeast Asia, which is now at 95% and largely hunger free.

Perhaps the biggest example of rural roads being upgraded with the dramatic impact is China. In this period – 1980-2015 – China has gone from having 60% of its population below the poverty line to only about 10%. That’s also the result of many other things, including changes in policy, research and the restructuring of economic systems, but China also significantly upgraded its rural roads infrastructure during that period.

We face the greatest challenge agriculture has ever had: I believe the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, which is to sustainably and nutritiously feed nine billion people. And one of the most important things to be done to meet this goal – I would say it’s urgent – is to upgrade, fix and extend rural road systems all across the globe. Dr. Borlaug famously said: “If you want to feed Africa, build roads.” His very last words were “Take it to the farmer.” All of the research that is done will only have an impact if it is able to get out to the farmer on new and improved roads.


Editor’s Note: Check back Thursday for part two of our interview with Dr. Quinn.