Crop geneticists receive World Food Prize
By Larry Dreiling
Amid a gathering of more than 800 people inside the Iowa House chamber, three geneticists who have been longtime leaders in the research and development of genetically modified crops were presented with the World Food Prize Oct. 17 at Des Moines.
The three scientists are Americans Mary-Dell Chilton, Ph.D., of Syngenta, and Robert T. Fraley, Ph.D., of Monsanto, along with Belgian Marc Van Montagu, Ph.D., of the European Institute of Biotechnology.
The award was presented to the recipients for their independent, individual breakthrough achievements in founding, developing, and applying modern agricultural biotechnology, said Kenneth Quinn, WFP president.
“Their research has made it possible for farmers to grow crops with improved yields, resistance to insects and disease, and the ability to tolerate extreme variations in climate such as excessive heat and drought,” Quinn said.
The selection of the three laureates is considered the WFP selection committee’s most controversial choice since the prize was first awarded in 1987, because of opposition in some corners to genetically modified crops.
That opposition spilled onto the streets of Des Moines, as about three-dozen protesters picketed the ceremony. According to The Des Moines Register, two people—noted as frequent protesters at previous WFP events—were arrested when they attempted to climb the steps of the Capitol, which had been under lockdown once dignitaries entered the building.
The three laureates were proud and even a bit defiant as they accepted the prize before dignitaries ranging from Gov. Terry Brandstad, R-IA, to Iceland’s president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson.
When she began her research into biotech crops, Chilton said, she had no idea of the impact it would have on agriculture, nor the ensuing controversies.
“It is my hope that this will put to rest all the misguided opposition and convince the public of the safety, benefit and ecological reality of this new and useful technology,” Chilton said after receiving the award, calling GMOs a “wonderful tool” in the fight against hunger.
Fraley emphasized the necessity of the seeds in addressing “the greatest challenge that all mankind faces.” Monsanto and the industry have struggled to explain their importance and safety, Fraley said, calling on the public, universities and non-governmental organizations to help change that.
“I can promise that my company will do what it takes. We’ll collaborate and share. We will do what it takes to make a difference,” Fraley said.
At an earlier news conference, Fraley admitted Monsanto must do a better job of responding to consumer concerns.
“We haven’t done a good job of reaching consumers,” he said. “We’ve been so focused on farmers.” Fraley said he and his team would work to do that, since global population is expected to grow to 9 billion people by 2050 and the food supply would need to double by that time.
Van Montagu said he hoped the scientific community and the WFP laureates in particular would join him in educating the public about the technology.
At the earlier news conference, Van Montagu said new biotech crops—such as potatoes that resist fungal disease—have been blocked in Europe because of anti-GMO activists.
“It’s too expensive and too time-consuming to bring them to market,” Van Montagu said. “It’s a very clever way it has been paralyzed.”
That set off a discussion about efforts in some states to label GMO food products. It’s an effort the three oppose. Organic labeling already exists, Chilton said, and many companies will not be able to sell GMO products if forced to label them.
“It will be the death of the technology in a real sense if we have obligatory labeling,” Chilton said.
The trio built on the discovery of the double helix of DNA in the 1950s. Each conducted groundbreaking molecular research on how a plant bacterium could be adapted as a tool to insert genes from another organism into plant cells, which could produce new genetic lines with highly favorable traits. They are credited with developing the first transgenic plants.
The discoveries of these three individuals, working in separate facilities on two continents, unlocked the key to plant cell transformation using recombinant DNA. The three scientists each presented the results of their independent research on the successful transfer of bacterial genes into plants and the creation of GMO plants at the Miami Biochemistry Winter Symposium: “Advances in Gene Technology,” in 1983.
Their work led to the development of a host of genetically enhanced crops that have been grown on over 420 million acres around the world by more than 17.3 million farmers in 2012, according to a WFP release.
Over 90 percent of those farmers were resource-poor smallholder farmers in developing countries.
The WFP presentation is a part of Des Moines’ Borlaug Dialogue, a series of speeches, panels, and outside events. The Dialogue brought a record of more than 1,500 registrants to Des Moines, many from foreign non-governmental organizations interested in hunger and development issues.
Outside the ceremony, activists protested and fired off press releases.
A truck with an advertisement from the Union of Concerned Scientists circled the Capitol, proclaiming “Monsanto fails at improving agriculture.”
The Center for Food Safety, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and other groups said they delivered a petition to the World Food Prize claimed to be signed by more than 345,000 people opposed to GMOs.
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by email at email@example.com.