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Ben Chrepta: Humanitarian agri-scientist has his roots near here

June 1, 2018 GMT

When I gaze upon the fields of corn and soybeans surrounding Rochester, I am reminded of one of the most inspirational people I studied during my high school years. It was especially fitting that he had close ties to this area.

I had the opportunity to read “The Man Who Fed the World,” a biography of Dr. Norman Borlaug. Known as the “Father of the Green Revolution,” Dr. Borlaug was a scientist born in Cresco, Iowa, a small town just over an hour from Rochester. He attended the University of Minnesota, where he became a plant pathologist.

During his life, he worked to address the issue of global food insecurity by breeding varieties of maize and wheat that could be grown in challenging agricultural settings around the world.

Although a scientist by training, he was able to successfully enlist the cooperation of academia, industry, philanthropic institutions, and numerous governments around the world in initiatives to improve global nutrition. His efforts are credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation in the 1960s and 1970s.

Dr. Borlaug joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Elie Wiesel, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa as a member of the select group to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his humanitarian contributions.

Dr. Borlaug also initiated two programs, The World Food Prize (WFP) and the WFP Global Youth Institute (WFPGYI) that remain important in the fight against hunger today. The WFP, considered the “Nobel Prize for Food,” is awarded at an annual Symposium in Des Moines, where experts in science, agribusiness, and public policy, such as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, the U.N. Secretary General, and Gates and Buffet Foundation members meet to discuss global food security issues.

I was fortunate to be selected to participate in the WFPGYI, which is composed of approximately 150 high school students worldwide who are selected to present papers. While attending the symposium, I learned about the challenges facing our food and water supplies, food insecurity around the world and about all the efforts underway to address these challenges.

I was especially impressed by the important role new technology can play in improving agricultural productivity, in transporting crops, and in manufacturing and distributing food around the world.

During this symposium, I also learned about how scientists transformed the humble sweet potato, typically a staple at Thanksgiving tables across the country, to provide a new role in alleviating hunger and malnutrition in developing countries. Scientists and agronomists in the region noticed that a lack of Vitamin A and micronutrients in the diets of children resulted in night blindness and other developmental issues.

By breeding a new variety of orange fleshed sweet potatoes containing these micronutrients and in turn teaching people in developing countries how to grow these crops, several hundred thousand children and adults have been positively impacted.

It is amazing and inspirational to see how Dr. Borlaug’s vision to improve global food security, which continues today, has its roots so close to home.