Ben Laufer '18 addresses World Food Prize dignitaries.
Ben Laufer ’18 has a keen interest in food. What started as a passion for the array of ethnic foods readily available during his childhood in Brooklyn, soon gave way to something much greater.
“I spent my freshman summer interning at restaurants in Connecticut, New York City, and Martha’s Vineyard,” said Ben. “They were farm-to-table-type restaurants, which got me more interested in agriculture, and where our food comes from. That blossomed into a general interest in sustainability and environmental issues.”
Ben is an eco-mon at Taft—a student leader and ambassador for the environmental programs and initiatives across campus. He received a Poole Grant last summer to attend the Dartmouth Environmental Leadership Institute, and to study permaculture in Costa Rica. He is also a Global Leadership Institute Scholar, a Global Studies and Service Diploma candidate, and part of Taft’s inaugural AP Capstone program, which explored, in part, the relationship between population and environmental sustainability. But it is his work outside of Taft that has earned him acclaim on the global stage: Ben was recently a delegate and presenter at the youth summit of the 2016 Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium, part of the World Food Prize event in Des Moines, Iowa.
The Road to Iowa Begins in Philly
Ben’s path to the Borlaug Symposium started more than a year earlier, when he first heard about the Ideas for Action 14-18 competition, sponsored by the World Bank and the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The competition invited teams of two to five students to submit solutions to global problems. Zach Mariani ’18 saw that Ben had liked a Facebook post about the Ideas for Action competition; interest piqued, the two reached out to Lauren Pelosi ’18, a friend and able wordsmith.
“With Zach’s acumen in finance and credit markets and Lauren’s skill as a writer, I knew we had the potential to develop and present a very good proposal,” said Ben.
And they did. The team drafted a proposal for a pilot program blending modern microfinance, traditional agriculture techniques, and ongoing education to optimize the productivity of small-scale farmers in Ethiopia. The problem in Ethiopia is staggering, but not unusual in developing nations: Approximately 80% of the population is engaged in agriculture, yet 31 million Ethiopians suffer from malnutrition and food insecurity.
“A large number of Ethiopians engage in subsistence farming and livestock production,” explained Ben, “but they lack the education and monetary resources they need to yield harvests of more than six to nine months worth of food for themselves and their families. There is not enough to get them through the year, let alone excess to sell in markets. They have no way to generate income that could be reinvested in their farms, so the cycle continues.”
Added Zach, “We chose to center the project in Ethiopia primarily because of the stability of the Birr deflation (in comparison to the dollar), and the steady GDP and population growth. I brainstormed ideas on how to reliably get capital into our model; Ben was able to help come up with ideas on how to put the money to good use, and Lauren was able to help us merge the two in writing.”
The model, which proposes improving agricultural productivity by bringing small scale irrigation and water lifting devices to the region, relies on the coordination and cooperation of government agencies in Ethiopia, and the initial financial backing of philanthropic organizations. Ben, Zach, and Lauren met weekly over the course of four to five months, constantly researching, refining, and reassessing their proposal.
“As is true with most good ideas, the key was in presentation,” said Lauren. “My role on the team was mainly to help articulate our complicated economic ideas. In communicating the modifications of standing economic concepts that we were proposing, and with so many parts to our long-term plan, it was important to write well and concisely. We needed to mix precision with succinctness, and completeness with clarity.”
The team was named one of six finalists in the inaugural Ideas for Action 14-18 competition. All of the finalists saw their papers published online by Wharton, with an abstract published in documentation related to the annual proceedings of the World Bank. They also traveled to Penn, where they presented their proposals to a panel of senior fellows and professors at Wharton, as well as World Bank dignitaries.
“When Ben and Zach invited me to help them develop an essay dealing with the economics behind sustainable farming in Ethiopia, I was initially apprehensive,” said Lauren. “I considered myself to be more of a writer than a businesswoman; to me, economics and humanities were distinct schools of thought. Ideas for Action and our trip to Wharton taught me that interests in the two are not mutually exclusive: they're in fact inextricable. A good plan for global change requires an empathetic understanding of others' condition. It requires cooperation. When an idea is being put to action, it requires clear and persuasive argumentation.”
Ben, Zach, and Lauren have continued to work on their proposal, building on suggestions from the panel that heard their presentation at Penn. They were also invited to judge next year’s competition. But Ben felt compelled to continue exploring the common question raised throughout the team’s Ideas for Action research: How can countries continue sustainable development and still decrease their dependence on foreign aid? He initiated a new project, this time studying Rwanda. It was that research that earned Ben an invitation to the World Food Prize event in Iowa.
Established in 1986 by Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, The World Food Prize is a prestigious, international award given each year to honor the achievements of agricultural scientists working to end hunger and improve the food supply. It is often referred to as the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture.” Over the past 30 years, The World Food Prize has been awarded to laureates from Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, China, Denmark, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Israel, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. Laureates are named each year at the Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium, held this year in Des Moines, Iowa.
“During my first two days in Iowa I was able to attended a number of the Dialogue presentations. I listened to the US Secretary of Agriculture, the President of the African Development Bank, the current President of Mauritius, and Joyce Banda, the former President of Malawi, considered the "most powerful woman in Africa,” said Ben.
The program culminated in the youth summit, where 200 student delegates prepared proposals. Ben was chosen by his group to present their findings before a panel of 75 dignitaries that included several World Food Prize laureates, the former President of Malawi, the President of the World Food Prize, distinguished scientists, and university professors.
“These experiences have helped spark a greater passion for learning in general, Ben said. “I come back from the conferences eager to do more research and reading on the topics and sustainability initiatives I heard about there. It has also made me more appreciative of the situation I am in, and reminds me how fortunate I am. While I am not certain whether I want to work on the policy side or the research side of sustainable development and economics, or sustainable development and environmental advocacy, I do know I want to go into a field dedicated service—a field where I have the opportunity to make some kind of a global impact.”