For turning 'mines to vines,' founder of Roots of Peace wins World Food Prize

A California peace activist who has worked to remove land mines from war-torn regions and replace them with grape vines, fruit trees and vegetables has been named the 2023 World Food Prize laureate

Scott McFetridge
Thursday 11 May 2023 15:31 BST

A California peace activist who has worked to remove land mines from war-torn regions and replace them with grape vines, fruit trees and vegetables was named the 2023 World Food Prize laureate Thursday at a ceremony in Washington.

The Des Moines, Iowa-based foundation awarded its annual prize to Heidi Kühn, founder of Roots of Peace. Since founding her nonprofit in the basement of her San Rafael, California, home in 1997, Kühn’s organization has helped remove thousands of mines and assist farmers in more than a half-dozen countries. The group recently signed an initial agreement to begin work in Ukraine.

Kühn, 65, said she formed the idea of starting her group after hosting an event at her home for dignitaries advocating for the eradication of land mines.

“Looking back on it, perhaps it was a vision of turning blood into wine, killing fields into vineyards and hatred into love,” Kühn said in an interview last week.

Kühn was named the winner of the prize, which carries a $250,000 award, at an event featuring Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Terry Branstad, the World Food Prize Foundation president and former U.S. ambassador to China. Kühn, who was visiting minefields in Azerbaijan when the award was announced, will be formally given the prize at an event in October in Des Moines.

“Her work shows the world the vital role that agriculture must have in the resilient recovery from conflict to restoration of peace," Branstad said during the announcement. "For making her mission to turn mines to vines, I am so pleased to announce that the 2023 World Food Prize laureate is Heidi Kühn.”

Kühn said she created her nonprofit after becoming sick with cancer at age 30 while heading a TV production company and raising three children, ages 1, 3 and 5.

“My little prayer was, ‘Dear God, grant me the gift of life and I will do something special with it,’” said Kühn, who survived the cancer and had another child.

After learning about the world’s estimated 60 million land mines, and in part inspired by Princess Diana’s efforts to ban the explosives, Kühn said she met with vintners in California’s Napa Valley and began a fledgling effort that has steadily grown over the decades.

Roots of Peace started in Croatia and then went on to establish programs in Afghanistan, Angola, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Israel, Iraq, Palestinian areas, and Vietnam.

Besides lining up crews to remove mines, Roots of Peace completes market assessments to help determine how farmers can make a living off the newly cleared land. In Vietnam, for example, the group helped plant more than a million pepper trees that resulted in a harvest of high-grade pepper that is now sent to the U.S.

While her organization has become established with funding from a variety of government and private sources, Kühn said, her transition from raising four young children to heading an international mine-clearing organization still can seem strange, even to her.

“It is rather bizarre to be raising four kids, and then their mother is going off to a mind field," Kühn said. "It is unusual.”

Norman Borlaug, an Iowa native who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work to alleviate hunger through wheat research and other efforts, established the World Food Prize in 1986. The award has been given to 52 people in honor of their achievements in improving the quality, quantity and availability of the world’s food supply.

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