It is an intriguing question, and some potential answers may readily come to mind: Discovering the New World; going to the moon; conquering cancer; preventing nuclear war?
But to me, the single greatest challenge in human history is whether we can sustainably feed the 9 billion people who will inhabit our planet by the year 2050, an estimate that is exponentially higher than the 1.6 billion people who lived on Earth just 100 years ago. And the most significant and controversial issue related to this question is what role biotechnology and genetically modified crops will play in confronting this challenge.
That is the question I will pose at the opening of the 2013 World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue international symposium on October 16 (World Food Day) in Des Moines, Iowa, appropriately titled as we kick off Norman Borlaug’s Centennial, “The Next Borlaug Century: Biotechnology, Sustainability, and Climate Volatility.” A record 1,500 individuals from over 70 countries will be in Iowa for our three-day gathering that has been called “the premier conference in the world on global agriculture.”
The debate on biotechnology is made even more poignant by the selection of this year’s World Food Prize laureates – three of the pioneers of agricultural biotechnology: Marc Van Montagu of Belgium and Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert Fraley of the United States.
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Father of the Green Revolution and the founder of the World Food Prize, believed that biotechnology would be critical in enabling developing countries to produce sufficient food to feed their burgeoning populations. The World Food Prize Laureate Selection Committee, chaired by Dr. M.S. Swaminathan of India, chose these three laureates and noted that their designation was especially appropriate on the 60-year anniversary of the discovery of the DNA double helix, which provided the foundation for the breakthrough in agricultural biotechnology by our laureates 20 years later.
With the impacts of climate volatility on farming becoming increasingly evident, the importance of developing seeds and other aspects of farming that can effectively deal with drought, floods and saltwater intrusion seems more important each day. At the same time, critics of biotechnology urge its rejection for a variety of reasons including concerns regarding adverse impacts on human health and the environment.
The World Food Prize seeks to be the forum at which these opposed ideas can contend. In the year 2000, which was the very first symposium that I organized, I identified the main topic as “The Safety of GMOs and Their Role in Feeding Developing Countries.” For the past 13 years, we have endeavored to bring to our conference individuals who can reflect both the importance of agro-ecology as well as biotechnology.
This year we have an amazing lineup of speakers to address this question. Included are Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the President of Iceland; Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson, the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the Vatican; and a special panel featuring former Prime Minister Tony Blair and Howard G. Buffett. There will be conversations featuring ministers of agriculture from Africa and Mexico, CEOs and business leaders, NGO heads and research scientists, and farmers from around the world.
A unique feature of the World Food Prize is our Global Youth Institute, which adds 150 high school students and their teachers to the mix of ministers, laureates, CEOs and scientists. They have the opportunity to interact with these global leaders and then have a day-long conference at which they present their own papers addressing topics in global development. They can compete for one of the 22 slots as a Borlaug-Ruan International Intern next June, assigned to a renowned agricultural research facility in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Interns describe it as a life-changing experience. To Norman Borlaug, the Global Youth Institute was his favorite part of the entire week.
The high point of the week will come on Thursday evening, October 17, when the three laureates are formally presented the sculpture emblematic of their selection and breakthrough achievement. It will also bring the debate on biotechnology and genetically modified crops to its highest point in history by asking its relevance in terms of meeting our greatest challenge.
There will also be significant representation of the “next-generation” in global development with conversations between dynamic young leaders and an award ceremony honoring Dr. Charity Mutegi, a Kenyan researcher and the winner of our Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application, Endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation, for scientists and extension workers under the age of 40.
The bottom-line question of this three-day debate would seem to be whether, as many critics would argue, GMOs should be restricted or altogether banned; or given that the impact of climate volatility will fall hardest on poor smallholder farmers, should it not be the case that we use all of the available technologies, both very sophisticated and very basic, in order to alleviate that potentially devastating impact and uplift these poorest farmers out of poverty.
For the past three centuries, science has been the multiplier of the harvest. Now, as the world needs increased food production more than ever in order to confront our greatest challenge, it would seem critical to use all of the tools that science has provided, including biotechnology.