The World Food Prize: Where are the women?


Jemimah Njuki

This year’s World Food Price has been awarded to plant scientist Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram, for his scientific research that led to a prodigious increase in world wheat production – by more than 200 million tons – building upon the successes of the Green Revolution. In the citation, Dr Rajaram has been awarded the prize for his breakthrough breeding technologies have had a far-reaching and significant impact in providing more nutritious food around the globe and alleviating world hunger. Dr. Rajaram succeeded Dr. Norman Borlaug in leading CIMMYT’s wheat breeding program, and developed an astounding 480 wheat varieties that have been released in 51 countries on six continents and have been widely adopted by small- and large-scale farmers alike.

The prize is the foremost international award recognizing the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world. Individuals are awarded without regard to race, religion, nationality, or political beliefs. But where are the women in the World Food Prize list of laureates?

Looking at the list of laureates from 1987 to 2014, a total of 40 individuals have been awarded the prize, from plant geneticists, breeders, policy researchers, livestock sciences, former presidents and even those that have worked on organizational transformation.

Of these 40 individuals only 4 have been women. And it took 13 year of the award for the first woman, Dr. Evangelina Villegas of Mexico to be awarded the prize in 2000. She was awarded jointly with Dr. Surinder Vasal of India for their work in improving the productivity and nutritional content of maize through the development of Quality Protein Maize (QPM) and advancement of its cultivation around the world. In 2002, Catherine Bertini was awarded the World Food Prize for her work in transforming the World Food Program during her 10 year tenure as the executive director. It then took another 7 years for the next woman to be recognized. In 2010, Jo Luck was awarded the prize for spearheading the effort to build Heifer International, founded in 1944, into one of the premier hunger-fighting non-profit organizations. She was awarded jointly with David Beckmann from Bread for the World. And in 2013, Mary-Dell Chilton was awarded the prize jointly with Marc Van Montagu of Belgium, and Robert T. Fraley of the United States for their ‘achievements in founding, developing, and applying modern agricultural biotechnology, making it possible for farmers to grow crops with: improved yields; resistance to insects and disease; and the ability to tolerate extreme variations in climate.’

So why so few women? Is it that there are not enough women in agricultural sciences? There is definitely an imbalance in the ratio of female to male scientists working in agriculture. In Africa for example, for every 5 agricultural scientists, only one is female and this ratio increases as one moves from scientists to agricultural leaders. Despite this, there are numerous female scientist making discoveries, breeding new varieties of crops, developing new livestock technologies, defining agricultural policies and leading organizations that are transforming agriculture research and food systems. Women are now in leadership positions in international agriculture research organizations, in national research organizations and agricultural universities, in continental farmer organizations mobilising hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers and in regional agricultural organizations. So why are these women not getting into the top of the crop for the World Food Prize?

Selection for the World Food Prize is based on nominations. Individuals and organizations can nominate potential candidates and a selection committee selects the winner. There is however no information available on who gets nominated or who makes a shortlist to know whether women are being nominated for the prize and not making it to the list of winners, or women are not being nominated at all. Much more transparency in the process might unravel the gender mystery in the World Food Prize winners, otherwise we may have to contend with 1 woman for every 10 winners of the prize, a situation that is definitely unsatisfactory.



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