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The Partnership's Essential Role in Bringing the World Food Prize to DSM

World Food Prize 2020

October 5, 2020

As October 16, World Food Day around the globe, approaches, it is important to note that here in Iowa it is also Dr. Norman E. Borlaug / World Food Prize Day. It is at this time each year that more than 1,500 people from 40 to 50 countries would regularly descend on Downtown Des Moines (DSM) for the annual week-long series of World Food Prize events, including the Laureate Award Ceremony, Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium, Iowa Hunger Summit and Global Youth Institute.

That the World Food Prize has become an iconic element "putting Iowa and Des Moines on the global map" is a tribute to Norman Borlaug's vision in establishing "the Prize" in 1986 and John Ruan Sr.'s intervention to rescue it in 1990.

A Historic Opportunity

What is less well known, however, is the absolutely critical role in the historic process to relocate the World Food Prize to DSM that was played by the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce (as the Greater Des Moines Partnership was then known) and its then president Michael Reagen.

When on Christmas Eve, 1989, Mike Reagen read an article in the Des Moines Register explaining that the General Foods Company in New York was ending its role as the founding sponsor and that the World Food Prize was about to go out of existence, he sensed an opportunity. Acting quickly, Reagen invited Dr. Borlaug and Al Clausi, a senior vice president of General Foods and the first president of the World Food Prize, to come to Des Moines to explore possibilities of keeping the annual $250,000 award alive.

Around the table at the Chamber headquarters, Reagen arrayed the leaders of the region’s food and agriculture industry to interact with Borlaug and Clausi. Among them was John Ruan Sr., who at the time envisioned a project to create a towering skyscraper that he believed could make DSM the food and agricultural capital of America.

John Ruan and Norman Borlaug, born just one month apart in small towns in Iowa in 1914, had taken very different routes to national prominence during the hardscrabble era of the Great Depression. Borlaug became a Nobel winning plant scientist whose new wheat varieties saved millions from starvation in Mexico and India. Ruan, starting with just one used truck, had built one of the largest transportation companies in America. Now at age 76, sitting across the table from each other, they were meeting for the first time.

As Michael Gartner, the former editor of the Register, would explain, Ruan had envisaged having some type of prize or award as part of his comprehensive vision. Thanks to Mike Reagen and the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce providing the absolutely essential catalytic connection, suddenly there was such an opportunity right before him. Ruan invited Borlaug and Clausi to his office to discuss possibilities.

There Democratic State Senator Elaine Symoniak, a good friend of Republican mega-donor Ruan, joined in the discussion. She next approached then State Senator Leonard Boswell, chair of the Appropriations Committee, to provide $250,000 in State support to get the project started. Ruan would eventually provide a $10 million endowment. The deal was made. The World Food Prize was saved and transplanted from New York to Iowa's fertile soil, where it began to flourish.

Ruan's son and new Foundation Chairman John Ruan III convinced me to return to Iowa in 1999 to assume leadership of the World Food Prize. One of the first people I met with was Mike Reagen. Over the next 20 years, with continued generous bipartisan support from the state of Iowa, multiple corporate sponsors and private donors and ongoing encouragement of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, we grew the World Food Prize in size and stature.

As I noted in my retirement remarks at the end of 2019, I am so proud that, fulfilling the dreams of Borlaug and Ruan (and Mike Reagen's instinct), the World Food Prize is now recognized around the world as "The Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture."

In addition, the annual Laureate Award Ceremony held in the Iowa State Capitol is referred to as the "Oscars of Agriculture." The Global Youth Institute and Borlaug-Ruan International Internships are called the "Crown Jewel of the Iowa high school experience,"; and the Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium is described as "the premiere conference in the world on global food security."

The World Food Prize has drawn a stunning array of global leaders to Downtown DSM to speak at the Borlaug Dialogue including: UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Princess Haya bint Al-Hussein and Bill Gates who launched his multi-billion dollar initiative to eliminate global poverty from the World Food Prize stage at the Marriott Hotel in 2009.

The World Food Prize in 2020

While this year, the Laureates and speakers at the symposium will be participating virtually, the lineup of events and panels put together by new World Food Prize President Barbara Stinson and her team is just as impressive and internationally diverse.

For The Partnership and the business community, the economic bottom line is often the acid test about a development project. With that in mind, it is important to note that the return on investment by the World Food Prize over the past 30 years has been truly remarkable with:

  • Over $100 million contributed to the central Iowa economy;
  • Dozens and dozens of agribusiness CEOs and senior executives brought to the state;
  • International internships and other educational opportunities in STEM made available for thousands of Iowa high school students, including over $300,000 in scholarships to Iowa State University;
  • Fulfilling the vision of John Ruan III, a $36 million restoration of the former Des Moines Public Library Building was carried out transforming it into the LEED Platinum Norman Borlaug Hall of Laureates, an iconic centerpiece of the Principal Riverwalk.

None of this would have happened except that Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce President Mike Reagen read the newspaper on Christmas Eve and seized on an what he correctly perceived as an extraordinary opportunity — an approach to development being continued three decades later by Jay Byers and his highly effective team at The Partnership.

The Greater Des Moines Partnership is the economic and community development organization that serves Greater Des Moines (DSM), Iowa. Together with 24 Affiliate Chambers of Commerce, more than 6,500 Regional Business Members and more than 365 Investors, The Partnership drives economic growth with one voice, one mission and as one region. Through innovation, strategic planning and global collaboration, The Partnership grows opportunity, helps create jobs and promotes DSM as the best place to build a business, a career and a future. Learn more at DSMpartnership.com.