Three pioneers in the controversial field of genetically modified crops have won the prestigious World Food Prize, known as the Nobel Prize for agriculture. The award credits the technology they created with increasing the quantity and availability of food, and providing a tool to help meet the challenges of a growing population and a changing climate. But the selection has been criticized by those who say the benefits of modified foods remain to be seen.
In the 1970s, Belgian scientist Marc van Montagu discovered soil bacteria performing a kind of natural genetic engineering. Montagu says the bacteria insert a piece of their DNA into plant cells, which then produce chemicals that are good for the bacteria.
“Once we bacteria can insert DNA to give a new property to a plant, we were able to replace that part of the DNA with DNA that we want that gives new, useful properties to the plant,” van Montagu said.
Thus plant biotechnology was born. Mary-Dell Chilton and Rob Fraley produced the first genetically modified plants using that technology.
Fraley worked at Monsanto, where he is now chief technology officer.
“We were able to introduce genes that made it easier for farmers to control their weeds and to control insects, giving growers new tools,” Fraley said.
Fraley says those new tools let farmers grow more while using fewer or less toxic chemicals.
Farmers quickly embraced the new technology. They were first introduced in 1996. Today, about 12 percent of the entire world’s farmland grows crops that are genetically modified, according to the World Food Prize citation.
Mary-Dell Chilton is now principal scientist at Syngenta Biotechnology. She was amazed how quickly modified crops caught on.
“It really is astounding. And the reason for this acceptance is that the farmer has found that they work. They benefit him,” Ms. Chilton said.
Last year, a record 17.3 million farmers around the world grew genetically modified crops, and more than 90 percent of them were small-scale farmers in developing countries.
With the world expected to add another 2 billion people by 2050, demand for food and clothing will increase by at least 60 percent.
And biotech crops will help, said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, announcing the winners.
“It is simply true that biotechnology has dramatically increased crop yields. It has dramatically decreased loss due to pests and disease, and it allows us to feed more people without converting tropical forests or fragile lands in order to do so,” Kerry said.
But more than 15 years after the introduction of these crops, critics still question their safety. Senior scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman with the Union of Concerned Scientists says the technology could have benefits, but whether it will be critical for feeding the world remains to be seen.
“My understanding of the prize is you should be giving it to people that have shown major positive, unequivocally positive accomplishments in world agriculture. And I don’t see, so far, this technology being anywhere near that yet,” Gurian-Sherman said.
Gurian-Sherman says the technology has put too much control over the seed supply in the hands of a few companies like Monsanto and Syngenta – companies that he notes are sponsors of the World Food Prize.
The award will be presented at a ceremony in the midwestern U.S. state of Iowa in October.