My delight at being told that I was one of 2018’s World Food Prize Laureates was matched only by, well, sheer surprise. After all, I have not led a team of scientists to develop a breakthrough technology like the founder of the Prize, Dr Norman Borlaug. After talking to Ambassador Quinn, the President of the World Food Prize Foundation, it became clear that the contribution being recognised was the ability to be effective in multiple roles in order to help elevate nutrition to the “top table” of development. In other words, to help convince powerful decision makers that good nutrition is fundamental to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
My capacity to connect the roles of researcher, policy influencer, organisational leader and communicator of the issues to broader audiences was helped by a number of things, and shaped by the thousands of colleagues with whom I have worked.
First, somewhat freakishly, I have been interested in both nutrition and agricultural economics from the age of 18. My undergraduate degree at the University of Reading, UK, was a joint one: in food science and food economics. I followed these dual interests throughout subsequent studies at the University of Massachusetts and at Stanford University. Being an economist, and striving to see the bigger development picture – and where nutrition might fit in – has been invaluable for me as a champion for nutrition.
Second, the first three years of my post PhD work was in starting up a new MSc in Quantitative Development Economics at the University of Warwick, UK. I loved the “start up” feel of setting up the course and it was there that I learned to teach properly and communicate more clearly and effectively. However, being a clear communicator is necessary but far from sufficient condition for being persuasive. Influencing is key.
So the third thing that helped elevate nutrition on the agenda was the experience of trying to convince a wide range of people that nutrition matters – learning what they are interested in and finding ways to connect nutrition to that. Interestingly, being a member of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in the 1990s helped develop that skill. Back in those days there was not much interest in nutrition—just in crop and animal productivity enhancement. We had to think hard about ways to engage the agronomists and economists on nutrition. Working at GAIN involves helping to effect change with decision-making constituencies working in a newer area – the way governments and businesses think about what and how they can do together to advance nutrition.
Finally, being forced to become a blogger at the Institute of Development Studies (in my role as Director) required me to write more succinctly, on a wider range of topics, and to leave the comfort zone of research to venture opinions based, as far as possible, on evidence (my Twitter account descriptor is “an evidence based champion of efforts to end malnutrition”).
Since the call with Ambassador Quinn, I have been refreshing my knowledge of Norman Borlaug. As Leon Hesser’s excellent Borlaug biography - "The Man Who Fed the World" - makes clear, Borlaug was unstoppable in his pursuit of improved varieties to stave off hunger in Mexico, Asia and Africa. His sheer hard work, relentless drive and single-minded focus –in the fields, labs, classrooms, boardrooms and Ministerial chambers – helped to bend the world to his view. His vision was forged on getting the ground level details right, always framed within a big picture political economy view. Connecting these two levels is a very unusual ability. His focus on capacity building, on organisational arrangements and on communications to help sustain his efforts is inspiring. It was a revelation to see how instrumental he was—working with the Rockefeller Foundation— in the creation of the CGIAR. Without him, IFPRI—where I learned how to be a policy researcher and was inspired by some of the great policy influencers—probably would not have existed and the course of my own career would probably have been very different.
The world that Norman Borlaug wanted to help feed in the 1950s-70s is both similar and different from today. It is similar in that, unfortunately, hunger is still with us. But while the absolute numbers of hungry people have not declined enough, they now account for a much smaller share of the world’s population and this is testimony to the work of Dr Borlaug and many others. But it is different too. Dr Borlaug surely could not have anticipated the explosion in obesity, diabetes, hypertension and other diet-related noncommunicable diseases we have witnessed in the past 40 years. If he were alive, I am sure he would now be arguing for improving the productivity of non-staple foods such as fruits, vegetables, pulses, eggs, dairy, fish and poultry. The prices of these foods, which are high in micronutrients such as minerals and vitamins, are increasing and productivity improvements would help drive their prices down. In the absence of such a focus, low and middle-income households are being priced out of nutritious food and lured into cheap, empty and unhealthy junk food calories. Good diet is fundamental to the prevention to malnutrition in all its forms.
So the central issue of our time is this: not how to feed the world, but how to nourish it. Were he here today, I am sure Dr Borlaug would have been at the forefront of this fight, perhaps recast by some as “The Man Who Nourished the World”. In his absence, we have to come together across government, research, business, foundations and civil society to pick up the mantle and focus on actions to nourish the world so we can end malnutrition by 2030.