The World Food Prize Foundation

Biotechnology, Genetically Modified Crops and the Greatest Challenge in the History of Agriculture

President, The World Food Prize Foundation
 

My friend Rekha Basu wrote a tough column in the June 30 Sunday Register that was sharply critical of the World Food Prize for recognizing three pioneers in biotechnology as our 2013 laureates. It was headlined “World Food Prize Goes Too Far in Honoring Monsanto,” reflecting that one of our laureates is the chief technology officer of that company.

From the title of Rekha’s article, you might think that the World Food Prize is giving our award to the Monsanto company. That is not the case. The World Food Prize does not recognize any company or university or organization with which any of its laureates are associated. I wish that had been made clear in her article.
 
Rather, what we are recognizing this year is the basic science these three individuals, working separately on two continents in the
1970s and ’80s, accomplished to help us better understand how plants work, how their cells and genes function, and how their traits are manifested in nature.
 
What we are recognizing is that their research led to new technologies that are now integral to plant breeding, which result in crops with better yields, increased resistance to pests and weeds, and greater resilience to adverse environmental conditions (such as those that held up under last year’s drought in the Midwest).
 
I have high regard for Rekha and respect her views and passion. In this case, I think her argument is with the late Dr. Norman Borlaug, the founder of the World Food Prize, Iowa’s greatest hero, and the man who saved millions from famine and death in India and Pakistan. I was sorry she did not mention him by name, because his legacy and his passion to alleviate human suffering is critical to this debate and our decision to recognize these individuals.
 
If he were here, Dr. Borlaug would remind us that just over 7 billion people currently inhabit this planet, but one in eight do not have enough food to eat. Estimates show that by the year 2050, our population will have climbed to 9 billion. Ensuring adequate, nutritious food for all of these people in a sustainable way represents the single greatest challenge in the history of human agriculture.
 
It is a challenge made even more difficult as the world’s farmers experience increased demands on our finite water supply and increasingly volatile shifts in weather, which can bring droughts, floods or both. Dr. Borlaug believed that biotechnology plays a critical role in meeting this challenge, and before he died, he specifically told our selection committee that he endorsed these three individuals by name to be our laureates at some point in the future.
 
I had Norm’s views in mind on June 19 as I stood with Secretary of State John Kerry at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., to announce that the World Food Prize is honoring three pioneers in biotechnology as our 2013 laureates: Marc Van Montagu of Belgium, and Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T. Fraley of the United States.
 
As we face these critical challenges of the 21st century, I believe that Dr. Borlaug would tell us it is our responsibility to use the power of science, as these laureates have, and to work collaboratively with others around the globe to find solutions. And he would add that it is our responsibility to innovate in all the best possible ways to nourish mankind, especially the nearly 1 billion people who are still suffering from hunger and food insecurity every single day.
 
The question was posed about whether contributions made to our foundation by two companies with which our new laureates are associated may pose a conflict of interests or have led to their selection. It is a fair question. My staff and I do raise money from companies and foundations to fund our youth education programs, our symposium and operation of our Hall of Laureates.
 
I want to make it absolutely clear that neither I nor anyone on my staff has any vote or voice in the selection of our laureates. This is done precisely to avoid any conflict of interests from occurring. Rather, our laureates are chosen by the World Food Prize Laureate Selection Committee, which is comprised of a diverse array of highly distinguished experts from around the globe. It is chaired by the most respected agricultural scientist in India, and possibly the world, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan. I was disappointed that his role in this process was not mentioned in Rekha’s article.
 
Many who are critical of our choice of laureates are also adamantly opposed to crops that are enhanced or genetically modified through biotechnology. To them, I think Dr. Borlaug would urge that they think about the hard-working farmer in sub-Saharan Africa who, although she works day after day, cannot grow enough food to feed her family because of pests, disease, heat waves or drought or saltwater intrusion as the seas rise. Think about how her life might change if she suddenly has access to seeds and plants adapted by biotechnology to the harsh conditions she experiences.
 
So the bottom line question that Dr. Borlaug would ask Rekha and all others is this: Are you really prepared to completely exclude biotechnology and genetic modification as a possible way to assist that poor farmer and all of the poorest farmers in the world as they face these enormous environmental challenges?

 

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