Published in The Des Moines Register, Oct. 9, 2013
By Steven Leath, President of Iowa State University; Phyllis Wise, Chancellor of the University of Illinois; and David Chicoine, President of South Dakota State University
Our three universities recently joined with many colleagues in a letter to the World Food Prize Foundation commending it for its commitment to sound science and biotechnology in the face of controversy. The decision by the foundation to award the 2013 World Food Prize to three pioneers in biotechnology took great courage and a clear understanding of what will be necessary to feed humanity in the years ahead.
In our letter we said, “Feeding a world population of nine billion people by 2050 in the face of increasingly severe weather and environmental conditions simply cannot be done without the full benefit of modern science and biotechnology. Today’s agricultural biotechnology is helping us to attain higher yields while using less water and fewer inputs, thus promoting sustainability by placing fewer burdens on the environment. These technologies are critical tools in meeting the challenges of global food security and climate volatility.”
While this opinion is widely shared within the scientific community, some consumers are put off by the term “genetically modified” (GM). As was noted by the Scientific American editorial board in September of this year, “We have been tinkering with our food’s DNA since the dawn of agriculture.” Farmers have been modifying plants and animals for thousands of years to improve yields and the quality of our food.
Last year, the United Nations’ High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability said, “New green biotechnologies can play a valuable role in enabling farmers to adapt to climate change, improve resistance to pests, restore soil fertility and contribute to the diversification of the rural economy.” England’s London Times declared in the headline of its editorial on June 21 that “Europe’s refusal to embrace GM crops is hypocritical, anti-scientific and potentially disastrous for the developing world.”
The United States has been the global leader in agricultural research. That is why we are setting records on food and agriculture exports. We must not give up our leadership position in agriculture and cede it to other nations that are embracing biotechnology with enthusiasm.
Because of modern approaches to genetic research, plant breeding is now more precise and predictable. After 20 years of widespread use of GM crops in the United States, no related food safety risks have emerged and foods can be fortified in ways that can’t be done through traditional breeding. Rice is being enriched with vitamins; beans are being fortified with iron. Grain crops are being modified for drought, heat and saline tolerance to enable them to better withstand the challenges of increasingly severe weather and other adverse conditions.
In addition, GM is enabling farmers to produce more using less land, fertilizers, chemicals, fuel and water. The positive impact on the environment can be immeasurable. In short, the genetic modification of seeds does not degrade the environment; it helps to sustain the environment.
The World Food Prize is the foremost international award recognizing those who have enabled society to improve the quality, quantity or availability of food. The prize acknowledges achievements in any field affecting the world food supply, including the field of biotechnology.
We commend the World Food Prize Foundation for its leadership in helping to debunk what has become a false debate about GM crops based on fear and misinformation.
Society has benefitted greatly by advances in modern medicine, communication and transportation. We have embraced modern science in all of these areas.
Over 70 percent of all processed foods found in our grocery stores contain genetically modified ingredients. We have all grown up with GM foods in the United States, and our life expectancy has increased. We should feel safe in also enjoying the benefits of modern science in the production of food.