October 17, 2014

Norman Borlaug Centennial Q&A with Margaret Catley-Carlson

This post was originally published by the World Food Prize Foundation. The World Food Prize 2014 Borlaug Dialogue international symposium is being held from October 15 – 17 in Des Moines, Iowa to address the question: “Can we sustainably feed the 9 billion people on our planet by the year 2050?”

Norman Borlaug Centennial Q&A's with Experts

In order to shine a spotlight on the amazing agricultural work being done today, and in honor of the Borlaug Centennial year, The World Food Prize invited 2014 Borlaug Dialogue speakers and experts from around the globe to respond to questions regarding their work, their goals and their inspiration.

Margaret Catley-Carlson, Water Expert and Member of the World Food Prize Council of Advisors

If Norman Borlaug posed the following questions to you- what would you tell him?

Q. What’s the one thingthe single most importantthat we need to address to solve food insecurity?

A. There is no single thing—that’s why it is so difficult. Are there roads? Is there any access of ag inputs? Is water supply reliable? Any access to improved seeds? Any access to credit? Is it blocked by ownership arrangements for females? And on and on.  Each one of these can be THE single most important, depending on the circumstances—and they interact.

Q. Do you think we can feed 9 billion people by the year 2050? If so, why? If not, why not?

A. We could but we probably won’t. Problems of the poor just aren’t that interesting to the relevant national governments.

Q. Where are the biggest gaps right now in the food system?

A. I really think Extension services—either new forms of electronic communication if they work and really talk to people and are accessible, or more classic forms. Next would be rural roads.

Q. What’s one piece of advice you would give to young people?

A. If you want to help, start by listening. Don’t start by bringing solutions to problems. Understand problems.

Q. How would you explain what you do, and why it’s important, to a 10-year-old?

A. Many people in the world don’t have access all the time to the water they need for their families and to grow food. All over the world, there are groups and people and governments trying to help them; I try to make these more effective and efficient.

Q. Within your area of expertise, what is one misunderstood or neglected topic you could shed some light on for readers?

A. Genetically modified foods, and the need to pay for water services or systems will suffer.

Q. What is the most interesting project going on right now – yours or someone else’s - that more people should know about?

A. Fertilizer Deep Placement—2 million Asian farmers have increased yield and decreased fertilizer use AND therefore water pollution.  It could work for the Toledo reservoir and reduce hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico, too.

Q. What’s one thing the general population could do to make an impact on global food security?

A. Stop wasting food—today—in restaurants, from lunch boxes, from your own refrigerator. If 40% of the food grown is wasted or thrown out, that’s the equivalent of throwing out 40% of the water we use to grow food (and 70%+ of our water use goes to food).

Q. What is one of your favorite quotes or words to live by?

A. "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein

Q. Share with us one of your most unique life experiences and what it taught you.

A. Sitting on a hillside in India, looking at a valley that was restored simply by changing the social arrangements to give the rural people access and ownership and the ability to gain livelihoods—and therefore interest in protecting it. As I sat in the warm autumn sun, a spring which had reappeared after being non-existent for years glinted in the sun—and a peacock swooped down and washed his extended tail feathers in the sparkling water. Four years earlier, the little valley was desertified and the spring was dry.  What it taught me?  Ask what the problems are before rushing in with solutions.  They may be very simple—but since power relationships are always involved, very difficult.


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

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA