by Priya Bapat, Humanitas Global
Today at the Department of State, Ambassador Kenneth Quinn announced the recipients of the 2013 World Food Prize - Dr. Marc Van Montagu, Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton, and Dr. Robert T. Fraley. All three scientists were honored for their achievements in advancing and revolutionizing the field of agricultural biotechnology.
As Ambassador Quinn stated in the opening remarks, "Their work led to the development of a host of genetically enhanced crops that are now grown on 170 million hectares by over 17 million farmers worldwide...Our new laureates have truly used science to multiply the harvest."
All three Laureates independently researched and made discoveries that led to the development of gene-modifying technologies for plants.
- Dr. Marc Van Montagu is a Belgian biochemist. In addition to his research in developing GMO technology, he has founded two biotechnology companies, Plant Genetic Systems and CropDesign, and is the founder and current director of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach, an organization dedicated to transfer biotechnology access and capacity to developing countries.
- Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton is an American molecular biologist. Her work in academia and in the private sector have led to the discovery of the potential for cross-species gene transfer in plants, and the development of disease and insect resistant crop varieties. She is currently the Vice President of Biotechnology and Principal Scientist at Syngenta.
- Dr. Robert T. Fraley is an American molecular biologist. His research and work was focused primarily on the application of biotechnology to agriculture; he led the development of "Roundup Ready" crops, which were resistant to the high-powered herbicide Roundup, allowing farmers to more easily eliminate weeds without damaging their crops. He is currently Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto.
While these three recipients have made clear contributions to crop science, their selection is controversial. The World Food Prize has firmly been in the pro-science, pro-technology camp since its inception. The Prize seeks to continue the work of Dr. Norman Borlaug whose work to develop hybrid varieties of wheat is credited with saving the lives of around one billion people around the world. This year, however, is different.
Awarding the World Food Prize to scientists at Monsanto and Syngenta (albeit highly accomplished, recognized scientists who have revolutionized and changed crop science forever) is a significant move. This elevates the platform for the discussion on the potentials and pitfalls of GMOs. Are they the solution for ending global hunger and malnutrition or are they "frankencrops" that are endangering our health and promoting monoculture and harmful agricultural practices?
This is a discussion that we as a society need to have. GMOs are here to stay and as they become a part of our food system, we need to find ways to not only educate consumers about their potential and safety, but also ensure that agricultural systems are not degraded and that GMO crops are thoroughly tested for safety. Biotechnology is a tool - it is not a moral force for good or evil in this world. It is our responsibility to ensure that this technology is used to improve not only global food and nutrition security, but also global well-being.
One thing is certain. This year's World Food Prize Laureates have used their skills and talents to look for solutions to help fight global hunger and malnutrition. Their efforts deserve to be recognized and we congratulate them for their committment and dedication to create a hunger-free world.
For the full bios on each of the 2013 Laureates, please visit the World Food Prize 2013 Laureate page.