The World Food Prize recognizes and encourages innovations to increase the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.
The World Food Prize is awarded for exceptionally significant individual achievements that lead to demonstrable increase in the quantity, quality, availability of or access to food. (ipopba/iStock/Getty Images)
Food can be many things—a necessity for survival, a precious resource, a joy to study and prepare, a focal point for family and community. But food can also be an area where world-changing innovations take place.
Many of these innovations are recognized by the World Food Prize, a coveted honor that nine scientists of Indian heritage have won since 1987. M.S. Swaminathan was the first recipient and was recognized for his valuable contributions to the Indian Green Revolution in the late 1970s.
Rajendra Singh Paroda, former director general for the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), describes the award as the equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize in the field of agriculture. “This is the foremost international award recognizing individuals who have increased the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world,” he says.
The World Food Prize was created by Norman Borlaug, an American scientist who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in global agriculture, and is awarded every year in Des Moines, Iowa. The World Food Prize Foundation exists to “elevate innovations and inspire action to sustainably increase the quality, quantity and availability of food for all,” says Victoria Chia, the Foundation’s senior director for international dialogues. “Access to quality, nutritious food is a fundamental issue for human existence, and is imperative for life as we know it.”
Through the World Food Prize, the Foundation aims to not just honor recipients, but also bring together “the brightest minds and greatest innovators” in the worlds of food and agriculture, and support organizations and government officials who are committed to like-minded goals, says Chia.
In 2020, the World Food Prize was awarded to Rattan Lal, a renowned soil scientist, who currently researches and teaches at The Ohio State University. His work is based on a simple but powerful philosophy: when it comes to health, the earth’s soil, plants, animals, people and overall environment are inseparable.
“My goal is to transform agriculture, and make it a solution to climate change, water quality, biodiversity and human health,” says Lal. “People are mirror images of the land they live on. When people are miserable, they pass their miseries to the land and the land reciprocates. We must break the vicious cycle.”
In practice, Lal’s work focuses on ways of keeping soil healthy, allowing it to produce more food with fewer resources. He describes this approach as a fundamental departure from the way India grew food during the momentous Green Revolution that began in the 1960s.
While the Green Revolution became successful with the use of rice and other crop varieties that responded well to high levels of fertilizer and water, “globally speaking, we are using 10 times more nitrogen, five times more phosphorus, potassium and pesticides, and five times more irrigation water than prior to the Green Revolution,” he says. When it comes to agriculture, he adds, “the focus should be on efficiency, rather than rate.”
Lal’s research on soil health has helped usher in what he describes as a “soil-centric revolution” dedicated to maximizing food creation—while minimizing the resources used to make it happen.
Creating a sustainable, food-rich future is more than the work of world-famous scientists. For those who aspire to follow Lal’s example, Chia recommends education, perseverance and action. “Start locally, and identify the main sources of food insecurity and agricultural problems around you,” she says. “Use creativity and knowledge to think about solving those issues.”
For instance, consider whether a scientific approach to local agricultural problems would make things better, or is increased funding the fix that’s needed? Would a better-organized food distribution system solve a community’s problems, or do local farmers need more training and specialized knowledge? “Do an analysis, recommend solutions, and enter the agriculture or food security space for your career, so you can continue delving deeper into these issues,” Chia advises.
Whether looking locally or globally, problems of agriculture, sustainability and food access can feel vast and overwhelming. But Lal urges young people to stay involved regardless. “There are eight billion of us on the Earth, and each of us is both a culprit and a victim,” he says. “If everyone in India were to commit to reducing the amount of carbon and water they use by even five percent, multiply that times 1.4 billion, and the impact is enormous.”
Environmental sustainability has been at the core of human life for thousands of years, and respecting nature is a deeply ingrained cultural value in India. “We’ve just forgotten,” he says. “Now is when we need to teach our children, from the very beginning, to remember.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.