DES MOINES (AP) — The World Food Prize, an annual award in honor of Iowa-born Nobel winner Norman Borlaug, this year raised hackles around the world by citing three pioneers of plant biotechnology, whose work brought the world genetically modified crops — and protesters' complaints about “Frankenfood” and corporate might.
The World Food Prize Foundation, the private nonprofit group that makes the award, and which is partly funded by biotechnology companies, did not shy away from the controversy surrounding genetically modified crops.
“If we were to be deterred by a controversy, that would diminish our prize,” said foundation President Kenneth Quinn, a retired U.S. diplomat.
This year's award went to:
» Marc Van Montagu, founder of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium.
» Mary-Dell Chilton, founder of Syngenta Biotechnology.
» Robert Fraley, chief technology officer at Monsanto Co.
Van Montagu and Chilton, working independently, developed technology in the 1980s to transfer foreign genes into plants, a discovery that set up a race to genetically engineer food crops. It allowed scientists to give plants genetic traits to better withstand drought, heat, pests and disease.
Fraley was the first to successfully transfer immunity to specific bacteria into a plant. He genetically engineered the first herbicide-resistant soybean in 1996. Now such crops are widely planted, allowing farmers to kill surrounding weeds with the herbicide while sparing the crop.
The awards drew quick condemnation from foes of corporate farming.
“GMO crops have led to the loss of food security worldwide. And for small farmers, they have led to the development of factory farms and have destroyed biodiversity in food we do produce and consume,” said David Goodner of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, an environmental group. “The World Food Prize, by selecting these people to honor, shows that it cares more about corporate profits than it cares about truly feeding the world with healthy food.”
Some organic farmers say that widespread planting of genetically modified crops could contaminate traditional crops, destroying their value. Others are concerned about potentially unforeseen damage to those who eat products such as milk and beef from animals raised on genetically modified crops.
Genetically modified crops are grown on more than 420 million acres in about 30 countries by more than 17 million farmers, the World Food Prize Foundation said. More than 90 percent of those farms are small, resource-poor and located in developing countries, it said.
Many U.S. farmers, who use genetically modified crops extensively, credit their bioengineered hardiness with saving last year's corn crop from the worst drought in 60 years.
Fraley said biotechnology will help meet the needs of a growing global population, which will require farmers “to double food production around the world in the next 30 years.”
Van Montagu said the prize should raise public understanding about the safety of genetically modified crops.
“We just have to explain ... that not the slightest risk has been identified. These crops are as safe, if not safer, than food that comes from traditional agriculture,” he said. “If somebody denies that, we bluntly can say they are misinformed.”
Among the annual donors the foundation lists are two — Monsanto and Syngenta Foundation — with links to this year's prize winners. Other donors include large agribusiness corporations such as DuPont Pioneer, Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill.
The World Food Prize was founded in 1986 by Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his role as “Father of the Green Revolution,” the great post-World War II leap in ag production credited with saving millions from starvation in the developing world. Borlaug died in 2009.
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