The World Food Prize for 2013 was presented October 17 at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines to three researchers who've played key roles in developing genetically modified crops. The music and history-filled ceremony highlighted the biggest and most controversial week in the 27-year history of the annual prize.
The three people who share the $250,000 prize this year are Marc Van Montagu of Belgium, Mary-Dell Chilton of the United States and Robert Fraley of the United States. Van Montagu is founder and chairman of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach in Ghent, Belgium. Chilton is a distinguished science fellow and founder of Syngenta Biotechnology. Fraley is executive vice president and chief technology officer at Monsanto in St. Louis, Mo.
This year's World Food Prize laureates called on the world to embrace the seeds they helped develop, despite the controversy and criticism that threatens to limit the future of biotech crops. Upon receiving the award at the ceremony, Chilton said, "My hope is this will put to rest the misguided opposition to biotechnology developed crops." She called genetically modified organisms a "wonderful tool" in the fight against world hunger.
Laureates say genetically modified seeds are needed to help feed a hungry world
Montagu said the World Food Prize recognizes these achievements as extremely precious for society. To him, this emphasizes the importance of GMO, or Genetically Modified Organism, technology as a contribution toward sustainable food production. He hopes this recognition will pave the way for Europe to embrace the benefits of the technology, an essential condition for global acceptance of transgenic plants.
Fraley emphasized the necessity of biotech seed in helping address "the greatest challenge the world faces" -- feeding a world population that will grow by one-third by 2050. However, he noted that Monsanto and the biotech industry have struggled to explain the importance and safety of biotech crops. He called on the public universities and nonprofits to help change that perception. "I can promise that my company will do what it takes. We'll collaborate and share," said Fraley.
Outside of the Iowa State Capitol building, about three dozen anti-biotech activists were protesting, holding posters with anti-GMO messages and handing out information accusing the World Food Prize Foundation of being a shill for corporate agriculture. A truck with an advertisement from the Union of Concerned Scientists circled the Capitol, proclaiming "Monsanto fails at improving agriculture." Two of the protesters were arrested for trying to enter the Capitol where the ceremony was taking place.
Outside the ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol, protestors carried signs advocating against GMO crops
Protesters carrying signs said biotech companies exaggerate the ability of the technology to feed a hungry world. The Center for Food Safety, Iowa Citizens For Community Improvement and other groups said they delivered a petition to the World Food Prize signed by more than 345,000 people opposed to GMOs.
This year's World Food Prize event comes 60 years after the discovery of the DNA double helix, which led to the laureates break-through research 30 years ago. Genetically modified seeds contain DNA that has been changed to express a trait such as resistance to insects, diseases or to a chemical weed killer. Since their commercial introduction in 1996, GMO crops have revolutionized agriculture and are now used in the U.S. and most of South America and Asia. But much of Europe and Africa have blocked the planting and use of GMO crops.
First time in 27-year history of World Food Prize that a current head of state attended
This year marked the first year in the history of the World Food Prize that a sitting head of state attended the World Food Prize events. The President of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, helped present the awards to the three 2013 laureates. Grimsson was one of the keynote speakers at this year's Borlaug Dialogue, the three-day symposium sponsored by the World Food Prize. He spoke on climate change and explained Iceland's recent conversion to "clean energy" sources.
The theme of this year's event was sure to attract controversial stands on issues. The theme was: "The Next Borlaug Century: Biotechnology, Sustainability and Climate Volatility." The World Food Prize was founded by Dr. Norman Borlaug, an Iowa native who was a plant breeder who gained fame as the "Father of the Green Revolution" and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. He was born in 1914 and raised on a farm at Cresco, Iowa. He died in 2009 and would have turned 100 last month.
It was Borlaug's idea to establish the World Food Prize. He envisioned the World Food Prize as a Nobel Prize equivalent for food and agriculture, to honor those who fight global hunger and poverty. The series of talks and discussion panels at this year's World Food Prize symposium, or Borlaug Dialogue, attracted a record crowd of more than 1,500 people from 70 countries to attend the week-long event in downtown Des Moines to listen to speakers and take part in discussions.
Borlaug Dialogue discussions explored many topics and issues beyond biotechnology
Several speakers cited the important role biotech crops play in feeding a hungry world. But the messages weren't always uniform. For example, Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson of Ghana, cited Catholic Church teachings in support of using biotechnology to feed the poor and afflicted people in the world. But he warned against too much emphasis on profit and gain and spoke in favor of labeling food that contains biotech-derived ingredients, which many biotech supporters oppose.
Exploring topics beyond biotechnology, other speakers at the Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium talked about how to meet the more basic needs of developing nations, such as efforts to reduce food waste and increase access to capital for small-holder farmers and providing small farmers with agricultural knowledge, training and information.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was another keynote speaker. He praised a new generation of leaders in Africa who are open to ideas to increase food production and economic growth. Blair called on the western world to be less bureaucratic and more creative in helping aid African nations. "We need to help governments to be smarter, quicker and far more attuned to what their priority needs are and to help them meet those needs," Blair said.
For more information, photos and archives of presentations go to www.worldfoodprize.org.