The U.S. Department of Agriculture is being recognized for encouraging young people to choose careers that will help farmers combat climate change and feed more people.
Since 2011, USDA has partnered with the Des Moines-based World Food Prize to offer fellowships in Washington, D.C. for agriculture students.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa Democratic governor, returned to Des Moines to accept the World Food Prize Medallion on behalf of his department. He spoke directly to students in the audience about the legacy of Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner who founded the World Food Prize.
"I'm challenging you to think big, to think bold," Vilsack said. "To think like Norman did, how can I help? How can I be part of the solution? How can I bridge the gap between those who understand agriculture and those who don’t? How can I make a safer world though agriculture? How can I feed the hungry? How can I be a great humanitarian?"
Vilsack has served as President Obama’s agriculture secretary for nearly eight years and during that time has traveled to many countries.
He talked about children in Kenyan whose favorite part of going to school was the meal they were provided and reminded the room that the United States is food secure, meaning it could feed all of its people without importing anything. That's unique, he said, and the reverse is one of the major preconditions to instability.
He said countries struggling with unrest have two things in common.
"One, they have a food insecure nation, in other words they don't have the capacity to feed all their people. They have millions of hungry people," he said, "and two, they don't have a functioning agricultural economy."
Vilsack encouraged the young people at the ceremony to use science and the spirit of humanitarianism to find solutions to farming challenges and global hunger. Alumni from the Carver-Wallace Fellowship program flanked Vilsack and Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize, as they signed an agreement to extend the fellowships for another five years.
Vilsack, getting emotional at times and eschewing his signature note cards, used the opportunity to thank the many in Iowa who have supported him throughout his years in public service.
"If you ever doubt the greatness of this country, don't," he said. "Because somebody like me starts out in an orphanage and ends up being in the State Room of the White House with the president. It's an amazing country."
After nearly eight years at USDA, Vilsack has demurred on the question of what he will do next. But in a shout-out to his colleagues in law, he mentioned he’s been keeping up with required continuing education.