Young, innovative and poised to change the world

June 24, 2020

Inspired by Norman Borlaug, 55 high school students gathered virtually for the Minnesota Youth Institute to develop and discuss ideas for ending hunger and poverty

Malnutrition. Political turmoil. Water crises. These are just a few of the many factors contributing to conditions of extreme hunger and poverty in countries across the planet. From Columbia to Cambodia and Kenya to Kashmir, these problems run so deep that tackling and solving them requires the intellect and energy of many people with a wide variety of backgrounds, expertise and ideas, including our world leaders of the future—today’s youth. 

Meet the participants of the 2020 Minnesota Youth Institute (MNYI)—fifty-five high school students from across the state who took hunger to heart and put their passions for ending it on paper as part of a virtual education program hosted by the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences (CFANS) this spring. 

MNYI is a program of the World Food Prize, created in 1986 by scientist Norman Borlaug, PhD, the CFANS alumnus credited with saving more than one billion lives. In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for a lifetime of work to feed a hungry world. 

To participate in MNYI, the students each researched and wrote a paper on a global challenge affecting food security. They were asked to choose a developing country, research a typical family in that country, select a topic and analyze its impact on food security. From there, they explored and proposed solutions to present and discuss at roundtable discussions, allowing them to reflect on their unique role in addressing challenges related to agriculture, policy, science, industry and hunger relief efforts in the United States and abroad. Typically, this annual event is held in person at CFANS and includes hands-on science immersion experiences. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was held virtually but was equally rich with ideas, innovation and dynamic discussions.  

The vision of Norman Borlaug 

“If he were here, he would tell each one of you that you are the future hunger fighters,” said Jeanie Borlaug Laube, keynote speaker, influential advocate for research and science, and daughter of Borlaug, referring to her late father’s belief in students and teachers. “You will be called upon to come up with solutions for global hunger and food security, and the University of Minnesota continues to lead this charge,” she said, adding that students are never too young to change the world.

“Daddy changed agriculture in his 30s by developing shuttle breeding. The text books, his professors and his boss said it could not be done. By doing so, he made Mexico self-sufficient in wheat,” said Borlaug Laube. “My point is, go for your dreams!” No matter what field of study they choose, she said, students must remember that the challenge of hunger runs across all disciplines and collaboration is extremely important to be effective and successful. “My daddy had to be a statesman as well as a scientist, mentor and humanitarian to make it all work. So I encourage you to work hard, strive for excellence and fight for your ideal vision of a world without hunger and poverty.”

Inspired to end hunger 

The visions these students put forth were ambitious, innovative and inspiring. Pavithra Premsai, a student at Woodbury High School, posed the question: Without any to drink will India sink? noting that an estimated 21 percent of communicable diseases in India are water related, and approximately 163 million people in India lack access to safe drinking water. Premsai proposed the initial implementation of an incentive program that administers water consumption trackers and rainwater harvest systems in every corner of India to address the urgency of the issue and provide the data necessary for the future to brainstorm more innovative solutions. 

A number of other student papers also pertained to India, with ideas around creating a better transport infrastructure for small-scale farmers, and using agrivoltaics, which combines land use for agriculture with the production of electric energy using photovoltaics (a method for generating electric power using solar cells).

Like Premsai, several other students focused their ideas on water issues across continents as well, including in Kenya, Cambodia and Columbia.

In a paper titled A better form of aid for Haiti, Hannah Schlough of Chesterton Academy notes that Haiti has had an especially difficult time climbing out of poverty due to numerous natural disasters in the past decades. Schlough suggests that by implementing new types of foreign aid—such as direct investment in local Haitian businesses and money dedicated to farms in the form of advanced equipment—the country’s economy could be improved. “Artisan work is also a growing sector in the careers in Haiti,” says Schlough in the paper, suggesting investment in those businesses along with an increase in Haitian exports of coffee, rum and cacao.  

The 55 Minnesota high school students are now recognized as Borlaug Scholars and are eligible for special scholarships, internships and other professional opportunities. A select few may advance to the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute, a gathering of more than 1,000 world leaders working to advance food security, agriculture and human development. 

Referring to her legendary father, the words of Borlaug Laube sum it up best, “I know that he would be proud of you students that are participating in the Minnesota Youth Institute. My daddy loved visiting with young people like yourselves. He would also thank your devoted, hardworking teachers.” 

Congratulations to all of the MNYI participants—the world looks forward to your leadership!