10/25/2010 10:55 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Playing for Keeps: Students Who Rock Hunger

Last week, as Midnight Madness showcased college basketball players with visions of massive wealth and self-indulgence written all over their faces, 113 high school and college students gathered in Des Moines, Iowa to think about how they can change the world.

As western culture -- particularly American culture -- struggles to find a balance between what matters and what doesn't these exceptional students have taken a leap ahead of their peers in recognizing the difference. They were selected to participate in a distinguished program called the Global Youth Institute in which they spent three days conversing with Nobel Prize winners and World Food Prize laureates at the internationally acclaimed World Food Prize Symposium.

The Symposium has emerged over the past two decades as a one of the most important forums to address food security, agricultural development, and the effects of climate change on food production. It draws more than a thousand subject matter experts from government, the private sector, humanitarian organizations, research institutes, universities, and farms.

The Global Youth Institute is a spin-off of the Symposium. Students compete for sixteen scholarships named after the World Food Prize's founder, Dr. Norman Borlaug -- a Nobel Peace Prize laureate -- and its long time benefactor, the Ruan family of Des Moines.

Each Borlaug-Ruan Intern participates in original research projects with acclaimed scientists throughout the world. This hands-on experience gives them a unique insight into food security issues and nutritional problems in poverty-stricken areas of the developing world. Each returns to the next year's Institute to present a brief on their work to younger students competing for that year's Internships.

Their work is brilliant. They demonstrate a command of their subject matter and an understanding, respect and appreciation of other cultures which, in and of itself, distinguishes them at a time when so many citizens of western countries have withdrawn within themselves, gravitating to demigods offering simple answers that are built on false patriotism and misplaced anger. These students defy the odds with their eagerness to explore a world full of mysteries and solutions.

A visitor at one of the break-out sessions marveled at the deft familiarity one 14-year old 10th grader demonstrated in relaying observations made during a month with his family in Costa Rica. They searched out "smallholder" farmers to explore the effect of climate change on crop production. Presenting the results of his research before a panel of distinguished experts in soil science and food processing his comments were precise, measured, thoughtful.

What makes the participation of these young leaders so important are the difficult challenges facing developing countries - and, by extension, the entire world -- in producing enough food by the time the world's population doubles in 2050. In fewer than two generations we will require twice the amount of food now being grown. That is in addition to the demands for animal feed, fiber, and bio-fuels.

Unfortunately we will have to produce this output on less land, with less water, and while enduring greater oscillations in weather patterns than anything we have experienced to date. In fact, the non-partisan and highly respected Farm Foundation, NFP has created a statistical reference point for estimating how much food we'll need. Their "Total Factor Productivity" measurement indicates that food production is growing 1.4% a year, but that it will have to grow 1.75% a year (a 25% increase in run rate) to meet the demand. Countries like China and India, and the Persian Gulf countries, have been banking land in Africa and elsewhere for years, getting ready to grow food for export back home. That should go over well with Africans starving and dying of thirst in 20 years.

American ingenuity can help, which is why Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was hosting the Agriculture Ministers of Pakistan and Afghanistan on a farm near Des Moines, waxed so eloquent last week about the role that this administration -- and successive administrations -- must play in technology transfer and improved farming techniques for developing countries. But beyond the mechanical advantages of such advances as precision farming is the strategic thinking that will create policies business and governments will need to avoid food riots.

Toward that goal we have to hope these kids don't become cynical before they become powerful and simply abandon their idealism. Western nations have to allocate taxpayer funded research to increase our own agricultural output as well as that in the developing world. In the United States Americans are going to have to come to grips with the idea that the educational advances in BRIC nations are surging while our school boards argue over political nuances in textbooks and debate whether Creationism should be taught as a valid alternative to actual science.

There's certainly a place in life for admiring the gyrations of facsimile student-athletes who are interning on our college campuses for jobs in professional sports. But, the sweet sixteen Borlaug-Ruan Interns who are selected each year to advance the cause of mankind, can run circles around them.