October 14, 2013

Commentary - Norm and Me: “From the Green Revolution to the Gene Revolution”

This commentary is part of a series organized by The Chicago Council's Global Agricultural Development Initiative and the World Food Prize to examine the relationship between biotechnology, sustainability, and climate volatility in the lead up to this year's Borlaug Dialogue.

By Ambassador Ken Quinn
President, The World Food Prize Foundation 

The title of this article comes from a presentation that Dr. Borlaug once made, but it also tracks my own career and how I ended up working with Norm for a decade as the head of the World Food Prize, the organization that he created to be the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture.”

My own experiences that have shaped a great deal of my professional life came when, in 1986, as a young American diplomat, I was assigned not to the ballrooms of Europe (as I had hoped), but to the remote parts of the Mekong Delta where I became engaged in village development during the Vietnam War. There I came face-to-face with the hunger and suffering of refugees, but also saw up close the incredible transformative power of new rice varieties and the upgrading of rural roads.

The new rice that was being introduced was called IR-8, named by researchers at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines that was then headed by Dr. Robert Chandler, the 1988 World Food Prize laureate. The two scientists who developed this breakthrough new variety were Hank Beachell of Nebraska and Gurdev Khush of India, who would later share the 1996 World Food Prize. It was the Borlaug approach to wheat adapted to rice, and it was the beginning of the Green Revolution that would soon spread across Southeast Asia, impacting hundreds of millions.

The farmers simply called it “miracle rice,” thanks to its short growing season - about 90 days - and high yields - double or triple that of traditional “floating rice.” As a result of these enhanced yields, the lives of farmers and their families improved dramatically as they began their ascent out of poverty with significantly increased incomes.

There was, however, one other factor that was key to the success of this new improved rice: rural roads. As I traveled from village to village, I observed that wherever we had upgraded the old farm-to-market roads, farmers began using this new agricultural technology with transformative results. But where the road ended, so did the use of miracle rice.

These two elements—new rice and new roads—combined to lift village after village out of poverty and to give the opportunity for a better life to farmers, and especially to children. Perhaps, even more importantly, whereever the roads and new rice were utilized, they led to a reduction in warfare and violence.

Twenty years later, I was working as a State Department official in Cambodia and shaping our efforts to counter the Khmer Rouge, the single largest genocidal mass murdering organization of the second half of the 20th century. Once again, I turned to that same formula: we built rural roads out into Khmer Rouge base areas that enabled new agricultural technologies to flow to the people. The result was that in a decade, the Khmer Rouge went from controlling almost all of the countryside to the last member of that terrible organization surrendering and going on trial.

When I came to the World Food Prize in 1999 after retiring from the State Department, our organization consisted of only two people, including myself, and our events were very small. Moreover, I found that very few leaders really paid attention to the issues of global food security and development.

This led me to want to build our symposium into a place where competing ideas could contend and we could focus on the vital issue of agriculture and development as a way of eradicating poverty and hunger. It was along these lines that Dr. Norman Borlaug and I found common ground and built a strong bond over our shared belief that the power of new seeds and new roads could be at the forefront of the next agricultural revolution.

At that time, the newest emerging technologies centered around biotechnology and genetic modification. But there were questions. Was it safe? And was it needed to uplift developing countries out of poverty as Borlaug’s “miracle wheat” and the “miracle rice” had? Those were the issues I posed at the first World Food Prize Symposium I organized in 2000.

Now, 13 years later, the World Food Prize will be awarded to three scientists who pioneered the development of agricultural biotechnology: Marc Van Montagu of Belgium and Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert Fraley of the United States. They showed that what took decades for Borlaug, Beachell and Khush to do through traditional plant breeding, could be accomplished more efficiently and effectively in a dramatically shortened time in the laboratory.

All of the farmers who were able to have a significant harvest during the 2012 drought—whether in Iowa or India—are grateful for this “gene revolution.”

But roads and seeds are not the only issues in development. If you look back over the 13 years while I have been president, you will see that the backgrounds of our laureates vary greatly and include achievements in many other critical areas such as: the two presidents who enacted anti-poverty programs to ensure wider distribution of food that uplift the poor; NGO leaders who built global programs and affected government policies; advocates for international school feeding programs that enhance nutrition; food technologists countering post-harvest losses; and directors of organizations that have channeled food to, and shared knowledge with, very poor women, seeing them as playing a key role in ensuring enhanced food security.

If we are going to prevail in what I have described as “The Greatest Challenge in Human History: Sustainably feeding the 9 billion people on our planet in the year 2050,” we will need breakthrough achievements in all of these areas and more. Norman Borlaug created the World Food Prize to inspire such accomplishments. Fulfilling his legacy is what motivates me and the entire World Food Prize organization.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

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End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

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One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

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WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


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