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How the World Food Prize Put DSM USA on the Global Map

World Food Prize Beginnings in DSM USA

October 3, 2017

In early 1990, Greater Des Moines (DSM) visionary John Ruan Sr. entered into a unique bipartisan, public-private partnership with Republican Governor Terry Branstad and Democratic legislative leaders Senators Elaine Symoniak and Leonard Boswell to bring the World Food Prize to Iowa and DSM.

The Beginning

Ruan had just met Iowa native and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, the founder of the then New York based three-year-old General Foods World Food Prize, at an event organized by Michael Reagen, the leader of the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce (now the Greater Des Moines Partnership).

Borlaug and Ruan, born one month apart in 1914 in small Iowa towns, were 77-years-old. The truck driver and the farm boy may have seemed like the ultimate odd couple, but their dreams fit together in an improbable but tantalizing vision: Borlaug hoped that the Prize he had created might come to be seen as the "Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture;" while Ruan wanted DSM and Iowa to be the Food and Agricultural capital of America.

Ruan had envisioned a towering skyscraper that would be the World Agricultural Center and believed that having some type of prize to award would embellish his proposal. Borlaug was desperately seeking a new sponsor to keep alive the nascent award he had created in New York in 1986 with the General Foods Corporation, which was about to disappear in a corporate merger.

The Formation of Essential Partnerships

Ruan was willing to put in money and take over the legal ownership of the Prize, but wanted a partner. Enter Democratic State Senator Elaine Symoniak, who had a positive relationship with the elder Ruan despite their being from different political parties. She spoke with then fellow state legislator Leonard Boswell, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the decision was made in conjunction with Republican Governor Branstad to include $250,000 in the state budget for the World Food Prize.  

It frankly was a gamble with considerable uncertainty about what if anything would ever come of it. Except for John Ruan being at the center of Iowa Republican politics and with Downtown Des Moines (DSM) revitalizing, it is hard to imagine that this idea could have ever drawn any support or funding.

Building up the World Food Prize

For the next nine years, the World Food Prize roots sank deeper into the Iowa soil aided by Ruan's extremely generous endowment of $10 million and an annual appropriation by the Legislature, no matter which party held control or was in the Governor's office. 

Since 1999, it has been my privilege to lead the World Food Prize Foundation and to work with our Chairman John Ruan III to continue to build upon and fulfill his Dad's and Norm Borlaug's vision. With the continued bipartisan financial support of the State of Iowa, as well as generous contributions by our many donors, over my last 18 years, the World Food Prize, including our Borlaug Dialogue international symposium, has grown to become what Sir Gordon Conway has called “the premiere conference in the world on global agriculture.” 

Speakers at our World Food Prize events in Iowa have included: Vice President Xi Jinping of China; U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon; former Prime Minister Tony Blair; African Green Revolution leader Kofi Annan; and Bill Gates who, in 2009, launched his multi-billion-dollar global effort to abolish poverty and uplift Africa from the stage of the World Food Prize.

The reason Mr. Gates had chosen DSM for the place to inaugurate his historic endeavor is that his staff had told him that they "had met a more diverse array of people at the World Food Prize than at any other conference they had attended anywhere in the world."

Award Presentations

In addition to our conference, which now draws more than 1,000 participants a year, the $250,000 prize that we annually present in the magnificent Iowa State Capitol has grown exponentially in prestige and awareness. It is now considered the most significant international recognition for individuals who have increased the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world, thereby reducing hunger. 

International visitors who are blown away by the grandeur of the setting, have been heard to say that our Laureate Award  Ceremony (telecast live on Iowa Public Television) matches or surpasses the Nobel presentations in Oslo and Stockholm. Others have referred to it as the "Oscars of Agriculture."

Youth Education

Beyond those two parts of our annual events, the World Food Prize youth education programs for high school students have grown from an initial youth institute in 1994, which had just 13 Iowa students, to an array of programs that stretch across the U.S.A. and on to China, Latin America and Africa. They now inspire thousands of students each year to pursue college majors and careers in food technology, agriculture, nutrition, science and STEM subjects.

When I first assumed the role as president of the World Food Prize in 1999, I had a staff of just one person and only about 50 individuals came to Des Moines for what was essentially a one-day event. In building the World Food Prize over the last two decades, my staff and I have endeavored to shape our programs so that they promote economic development for the state of Iowa, provide unique educational opportunities in STEM for young Iowa high school students, and promote tourism through our spectacularly restored Hall of Laureates.

Upcoming Events

As will be seen this coming October, the World Food Prize is now a week-long series of events beginning with the Iowa Hunger Summit on Monday October 16 through the Borlaug Dialogue international symposium and the Laureate Award Ceremony on October 19 at the State Capitol to the Global Youth Institute at DuPont Pioneer on Saturday October 21. 

This October, the eyes of the world will once again focus on DSM as we present what world leaders now call the "Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture."  We once again expect over 1,000 participants will come from 40 to 50 countries drawing global attention to our community. 

I am very pleased to be able to report that the initial $250,000 investment by Governor Branstad and the State Legislature in 1990, and the ongoing annual support provided by the state of Iowa thereafter has generated an extremely rich return on investment for Iowa taxpayers. 

Over these past two decades the World Food Prize has:

  • Injected over $100 million into the Iowa economy through our own annual program outlays, the spending of the thousands from around the world who have traveled to Iowa to attend our symposium over the past two decades and the more than $30 million we spent to restore the century-old Des Moines public library building. It has been transformed into a spectacular Hall of Laureates, preserving Iowa's agricultural and humanitarian heritage attracting over 50,000 visitors.
  • Brought more agribusiness CEOs and senior food company executives to Iowa than any other entity. In 2017 alone, there will be eight CEOs taking part in our symposium, plus three other senior Vice Presidents.
  • Made unique educational opportunities in STEM subjects and agricultural science available to Iowa high school students, including making over 500 scholarships to Iowa State University available every year.

Iowa and DSM can thus take great satisfaction that the speculative investment in the World Food Prize has provided a great return on investment. Not only by paying rich economic and educational dividends to the people of Iowa but, also as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Congressman Tom Latham both said, by putting Iowa and DSM on the global map.

I hope Iowans will take advantage of the many opportunities to share in our celebration and events, including:

  • Free open house at our Hall of Laureates on Sunday, Oct. 15, Noon-4 p.m.
  • Free Iowa Hunger Summit from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 16 at the Marriott Hotel, which will feature five former Secretaries of Agriculture. Register at iowahungersummit.org/hsregister
  • Free lectures at 15 to 20 universities and colleges around the state, including the Norman Borlaug Lecture by 2017 World Food Prize Laureate Dr. Akinwumi Adesina at Iowa State University in Ames on the evening of Monday, Oct 16
  • The broadcast of the Laureate Award Ceremony live on Iowa Public Television at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 19. 

Learn more about other Attractions and Events happening in Greater Des Moines (DSM).