GMO Battle Marks Choice of 2013 World Food Prize Winners

Corn is one of the most genetically modified crops. (Photo credit unknown)


WASHINGTON, DC, July 2, 2013 (ENS) – The 2013 World Food Prize has gone to three scientists turned chemical company executives who pioneered the development of genetically modified organisms, GMOs. For the first time, the jury’s selection has been met with “shock and outrage” from sustainable food and environmental advocates across the world.

World Food Prize Foundation president Kenneth Quinn responds that because “climate volatility is a game changer for farmers from Iowa to India” the biotech pioneers were selected to receive the prize to stimulate debate about “whether it would be possible to feed all of the people on our planet without biotechnology and genetically modified crops, especially given the dramatic challenges farmers may face from climate volatility.”

This year marks the 27th anniversary of the $250,000 World Food Prize, which recognizes individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.

2013 World Food Prize winners, from left: Marc Van Montagu, Mary-Dell Chilton, Robert Fraley (Photo courtesy World Food Prize Foundation)

Announced June 19 at the U.S. State Department, the prize will be shared by:

Marc Van Montagu, Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries, Department of Molecular Genetics at Ghent University, Belgium, whose work with the plant disease crown gall led to the development of the first technology to stably transfer foreign genes into plants.

Mary-Dell Chilton, Distinguished Science Fellow at Syngenta Biotechnology, Inc. in Triangle Park, North Carolina, whose work produced the first transgenic tobacco plant, providing evidence that plant genomes could be manipulated in a more precise way than was possible using traditional plant breeding.

Robert Fraley, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto Company in St. Louis, Missouri, whose early gene transfer research built upon the discoveries of Chilton and Van Montagu. In 1983, Fraley and three other Monsanto scientists were the first to genetically modify plants. Fraley led the introduction of genetically engineered soybeans that were resistant to the Monsanto herbicide glyphosate, commercially known as Roundup.

“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,” said the World Food Prize Foundation in a statement announcing their selection.

Announcing the winners, Quinn said, “Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and founder of the World Food Prize, the late Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, was a passionate believer in the power of science to ensure we will have sufficient food for all in the 21st century. He would be extremely pleased to see biotechnology recognized, both for what it has already provided in additional food for poor people, and also its potential in the coming decades.”

Corn is one of the most genetically modified crops. (Photo credit unknown)

But in the following days, scientists and activists throughout the world expressed their shock over the selection of winners responsible for the genetic modification of food crops.

They point out that Monsanto and the Syngenta Foundation are among the sponsors listed on the World Food Prize website.

Dozens of Right Livelihood Award laureates and members of the World Future Council jointly condemned this year’s choice of the World Food Prize Jury.

Global food expert and Right Livelihood Award Recipient Vandana Shiva of India said, “Not only are GMOs unsafe, they are destroying biodiversity, increasing farmers’ dependency on seed and chemicals and leading to the emergence of super pests and super weeds. This is a recipe for food insecurity and non sustainability.”

Frances Moore Lappé of the United States, Right Livelihood Award recipient and bestselling author of “Diet for a Small Planet,” said, “The honorees of the World Food Prize are contributing to the problems that keep us locked in a world where hundreds of millions of people are hungry while there is plenty of food.”

GMO seeds have not been designed to meet the Prize’s mandate and function say the critics, pointing out that GMOs impede progress toward the stated goals of the World Food Prize, which are “a nutritious and sustainable food supply for all people.”

In their joint statement, the World Food Prize critics say GMOs “threaten sustainability because they continue agriculture’s dependence on diminishing and damaging fossil fuels and mined minerals, as well as a wasteful use of water.”

“This award not only communicates a false connection between GMOs and solutions to hunger and agricultural degradation, but it also diverts attention from truly ‘nutritious and sustainable’ agroecological approaches already proving effective, especially in the face of extreme weather,” the critics say.

The critics cited a 30-year study by The Rodale Institute of the United States that found organic methods used 45 percent less energy and produced 40 percent less greenhouse gases and outperformed chemical farming during drought years by as much as 31 percent.

“Further evidence from around the world is showing how ecological methods dramatically enhance productivity, improve nutritional content of crops, and benefit soil health, all without leaving farmers dependent on ever-more expensive inputs,” the critics said in their statement.

In his speech to honor the 2013 World Food Prize winners, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke in support of Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative, created by President Barack Obama.

“Hunger is a trap that prevents people from realizing their God-given potential. Food drives life. And the struggle for food is a struggle for life. This makes hunger an economic issue, a national security issue – and without a doubt a moral issue,” said Secretary Kerry. “Through innovation, we can help alleviate hunger and malnutrition today – but more than that, we can help fulfill our responsibility to tomorrow.”

But Feed the Future’s research strategy funds and encourages biotechnology.

Written in May 2011, the Feed the Future research strategy states, “In strategic investments in biotechnology, in particular, sophisticated product development expertise is needed. Many of the genetic/production traits being addressed by industry are readily applicable in developing country crops and settings, making them strategic partners to researchers in developing countries.”

In their statement of objection, the critics say, “The choice of the 2013 World Food Prize is an affront to the growing international consensus on safe, ecological farming practices that have been scientifically proven to promote nutrition and sustainability. Many governments have rejected GMOs, and as many as two million citizens in 52 countries recently marched in opposition to GMOs and Monsanto. In living democracies, discounting this knowledge and these many voices is not acceptable.”

World Food Prize President Kenneth Quin announces the 2013 winners at the U.S. State Department. (Photo courtesy U.S. State Dept.)

On Thursday, Quinn answered his critics by saying, “In awarding the World Food Prize to three scientists who discovered the methods that permit the breeding of genetically enhanced crops, I understood we would receive criticism and become immersed in controversy from those strongly opposed to such crops.”

“Our Committee chose the 2013 laureates because the evidence has grown to show that biotechnology has indeed met our Prize’s criteria for significant impact,” said Quinn.

“Over 17 million farmers worldwide have planted genetically enhanced crops on over 170 million hectares with improved yields, resistance to insects and disease, and the ability to tolerate extreme variations in climate. Over 90 percent of these farmers are resource-poor individuals in developing countries,” he said.

Quinn pointed to the above average corn harvest despite drought across the United States last summer. “The corn harvest in the American Midwest was on average 40 bushels per acre higher than that which was previously attained in the face of an even more harsh heat wave. That increase occurred because of the drought-tolerant seeds that had been developed using the tools of modern biotechnology.”

“When that increased per acre yield is multiplied by the 95 million acres of corn planted in the U.S.,” said Quinn, “the total is an extraordinary increase in the quantity of food available.”

“Despite these statistics, there is considerable opposition to such crops and other agricultural products produced using biotechnology and genetic modification,” Quinn acknowledged.

Yet climate volatility impels us to address this fundamental question, he said. “If smallholder farmers, so many of them from poor rural areas, are to thrive in the face of these climatic challenges, can we afford to rule out, as critics suggest, using biotechnology and genetically modified crops to assist them?

“The World Food Prize believes it is essential to have this debate,” said Quinn, “and to this end we have entitled our Borlaug Dialogue international symposium, which will take place October 16-18, “The Next Borlaug Century: Biotechnology, Sustainability and Climate Volatility.”

The 2013 World Food Prize award will be formally presented in a ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa, on October 17.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.

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