Perspective: Reflections on the 2018 World Food Prize

By Modesta Nnedinso Abugu

October 22, 2018

Participating in last week’s 2018 World Food Prize event for the first time was an emotional and eye-opening experience for me, as a young African woman just starting a career in science communication. I wondered what difference I could possibly make among so many people who were already doing the very important work of developing tools to improve agriculture.

As I walked into the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, admiring the aesthetics of the gigantic building, a quote on the wall by World Food Prize founder Norman Borlaug struck me: “Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.” Reading these words over and over, I became convinced that I was at the right place, doing the right thing and can really make a difference.

It is no longer news that the world is in dire need of increased food production to meet the needs of over 9 billion people by 2050. During the Borlaug dialogue, most of the attention was focused on ways to meet this pressing need, especially for the food insecure countries of the world. Much was said about how to improve access to tools for farmers in developing countries. I felt the humility, passion and interest of those involved, from the farmers to the policy makers and politicians present.

One thing stood out for me during the Borlaug dialogue, and that was the need to both develop tools for smallholder farmers and engage them to ensure that these new tools are meeting the challenges they face. Tools like biotechnology and gene editing were mostly highlighted. I particularly recall a panel discussion titled “The Fall Armyworm: Advancing Threat to Global Food Security,” which addressed the extensive harm these insect pests are now inflicting on agriculture.

One of the panellists, Dr. Mandefro Nigussie of the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture, said that the impact of the fall armyworm is not just on agricultural productivity, but also on the market, education and future generations. It has invaded over 87,000 hectares of maize in just that country, where maize is a major source of income and food for Ethiopian farmers.  Fighting fall armyworm the wrong way affects people and the environment, he continued.

The fall armyworm is worsening food insecurity at a global level, added Dr. Eluid Kireger, director general and chief executive officer of Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization. In Kenya, it has greatly impacted the economy, causing about 50 percent yield loss every year. “Our farmers have been trying many things to solve this challenge, like using excessive insecticides and other agronomic practices, all to no avail. We need to find better ways to control this insect.”

Various countries in the developing world use cultivars with some pest resistance, and others are considering the use Bt technology to manage the pest, but more needs to be done. There is no one solution that fits, explained Martin Kropff, director general of CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) in Mexico. “What we need is to go for integrated pest management to make plants as resistant as possible.”

Another impactful speaker during this dialogue was Patience Koku, a commercial maize farmer from Nigeria who described her experience with the fall armyworm and subsequent crop losses. Impatient with the fact that she couldn’t access Bt maize for her farm — Nigeria has not yet approved release of that genetically modified crop — she called on all those involved to reduce the talks about solutions and instead spring into action to make sure that the menace is properly dealt with. “We know that Bt would greatly reduce this problem. Africa not having access to Bt really is a crime against humanity,” she proclaimed.

As I learned at the World Food Prize, there are thousands of people who care deeply about using improved technologies to feed the world’s hungry. However, a joint effort and proper collaboration among all stakeholders is vital. The role of communication cannot be underestimated as we all rise to the global challenge of feeding and healing the world.

Image source: Sienna Turner, University of Florida