Borlaug Biography Inspired Catherine Leafstedt to Build on Science to Fight Food Insecurity

Norman Borlaug was an Iowan who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for improving crop productivity and saving more than one billion people from starvation.

It was his life story that inspired Catherine Leafstedt to pursue an agronomy major at Iowa State University. She grew up in West Des Moines and wasn’t interested in agriculture until she read about Borlaug. 

“It was such a cool experience to learn about someone who applied science and was able to have such an incredible impact,” Leafstedt said. “His biography got me interested in the World Food Prize programs and the use of science to grow food and help others.”

The World Food Prize Global Youth Institute in Des Moines was Leafstedt’s next destination. She participated and was awarded a summer internship at the International Potato Center in Peru. There she saw firsthand the forces that cause food insecurity. While she worked with researchers trying to solve problems, she witnessed problems caused by limited resources and technology.

“When driving to our research fields in the arid Peruvian lowlands, I saw the failing potato crops. It brought it home to me – that if you can’t get the innovations out to anyone, it won’t make a difference,” Leafstedt said. “It’s important to understand the science, but it’s also important to understand that scientific innovation is not the sole answer.”

Last summer Leafstedt interned for The Context Network, a global consulting firm, that is managing seed systems projects for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Nigeria, Mali and Burkina Faso. The projects are focused on improving food security for millions of West Africans.

“It was a unique experience, I worked in three countries, with four crops, using six different approaches in four weeks,” Leafstedt said.

Last spring, she added global resource systems as a second major. That will take her to Uganda in January where she’ll evaluate the implementation of biofortified crops, specifically sweet potatoes with vitamin A and high-iron beans. In Uganda, she’ll utilize knowledge gained during her 2016 internship at DuPont Pioneer, when she contributed to the Africa Biofortified Sorghum Project. 

“It’s the idea of not only having enough food, but having the right kinds of food,” Leafstedt said. “I geek out over the science of nutrition and breeding nutritive quality into crops.”

Laura Good, assistant director for Nationally Competitive Awards and University Honors Program, said Leafstedt works diligently towards a goal that combines several disciplines to use science to fight food insecurity.

“One of the things that struck me about Catherine is the clarity she has in seeking her goal and how she has not stopped working to achieve that goal,” Good said. “Everything she’s done has better positioned her to make a real difference someday in the fight against hunger.”

Leafstedt combined several areas of studies with hopes of pursuing a master’s degree in development studies. It’s an interdisciplinary program that weaves together different perspectives to understand issues facing developing countries.

“To have an understanding of the complexity of a problem and appreciate it will make me a better leader in agricultural development,” Leafstedt said.

She’s being rewarded for her work. She was the only Rhodes Scholar candidate selected and endorsed by Iowa State this year, which hasn’t happened since 2013. The final selection for scholars takes place in December. She’s also the only applicant at Iowa State to be selected to apply for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

Leafstedt says that her mother encouraged her to read Borlaug’s biography and she thinks it should be required reading for every Iowan. In early October, she served as a group leader for a third year at the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute where she encouraged students to learn about Borlaug and the opportunities available through the institute.

“I know having a college student share their experiences really helped me,” Leafstedt said. “I tell students that they may not be interested in science, but they can pursue a different avenue and still help support development efforts for people around the world.”