What I Learned At World Food Prize Symposium

Iowa Farm Scene

Hungry people don't worry about GMOs.

Published on: October 28, 2013

The three 2013 World Food Prize Laureates—recognized as pioneers of agricultural biotechnology—on October 18 addressed a crowd of over 1,000 people at the annual World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue, urging the world to accept biotechnology to help feed the growing population.

Over 1,500 people came to the World Food Prize International symposium October 16-18 in Des Moines from over 70 foreign countries. They listened to speakers and panel discussions of experts discuss agricultural and food policy issues related to solving the world's hunger problems. One of the topics discussed was genetically modified organisms or GMOs. That is, genes of a different species put into crops, using biotechnology methods, to make crops resistant to insects, diseases and herbicides; or to make crops drought tolerant. The purpose of GMO crops is to improve yields and produce food for a hungry world.

WORLD FOOD PRIZE LAUREATES: From left in photo--Robert Fraley, Mary-Dell Chilton and Marc Van Montagu answered questions at a press conference at the 2013 World Food Prize symposium in Des Moines. They also took part in a panel discussion and were presented the prestigious award at a ceremony at the Iowa Capitol.
WORLD FOOD PRIZE LAUREATES: From left in photo--Robert Fraley, Mary-Dell Chilton and Marc Van Montagu answered questions at a press conference at the 2013 World Food Prize symposium in Des Moines. They also took part in a panel discussion and were presented the prestigious award at a ceremony at the Iowa Capitol.

Outside on the street there were a half-dozen protestors carrying signs that said biotech companies exaggerate the ability of biotechnology to feed hungry people. And biotech crops are poisoning our food and the environment. And biotech seeds support corporate agriculture and not small-holder farmers.

A starving child doesn't care if the food has been grown organically or is a GMO

I didn't attend the entire symposium, but I did listen to several sessions and interviewed several speakers for an article in Wallaces Farmer. A number of scientists pointed out that GMO crops and food products have been in use for nearly 20 years now and there have been no documented health problems. I came away with this thought: Hungry people don't worry about GMOs. And a starving child doesn't care if the food he/she needs has been grown organically or is a GMO.

This year's winners of the $250,000 prize are Dr. Marc Van Montagu of Belgium, and Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton and Dr. Robert Fraley of the United States. Von Montagu is founder and chairman of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach in Ghent, Belgium; Chilton is a distinguished science fellow and a founder of Syngenta Biotechnology. Fraley is executive vice president and chief technology officer at Monsanto. The three laureates worked independently on research leading to biotech crops, but also collaborated with each other on occasion.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

They were officially awarded the 2013 World Food Prize during a ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, in the home state of Dr. Norman Borlaug, founder of the World Food Prize and a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Borlaug, who died in 2009, was born in 1914 on a farm at Cresco, Iowa and became a plant breeder who went on to earn fame as the Father of the Green Revolution.

The theme of this year's Borlaug Dialogue was "The Next Borlaug Century: Biotechnology, Sustainability and Climate Volatility."

Video footage of the Laureate ceremony as well as presentations at the symposium and much more information about this year's event is available at the World Food Prize website. Here are some quotes from the three Laureates at the award ceremony at the Iowa Capitol, as they accepted their awards:

Mary-Dell Chilton: "Our work, which began as curiosity-driven, fundamental research, now finds worldwide application in agriculture with great promise of benefitting all mankind. Nothing could be more gratifying than that."

"The choice of plant biotechnology researchers for the World Food Prize 2013 recognizes the valuable contribution of this science to agriculture. When I began this work, I scarcely could have imagined the profound effect it would have on agriculture today. Neither could I have imagined the controversy that has accompanied our discoveries and advances. It is my hope that we can put to rest this misguided opposition and convince the public of the safety, benefit and ecological value of this new and useful technology. It is a wonderful tool for plant breeders to help them grow food for a hungry future. We will need it."

"I also thank the committee for its role in increasing the recognition of the contribution of women to science and innovation. I also hope that school-age girls around the world will be encouraged to pursue science and know that their achievements can make important contributions to society."

Robert Fraley: "I also like to thank the selection committee, Ambassador Quinn and Mr. Ruan for recognizing biotechnology. That took courage. And we really appreciate the forum it provides to have this really important discussion about the role of innovation in technology and agriculture."

"I'd like to accept the award on behalf of the plant scientists across the industry and academia who have worked so hard to get us to this point and importantly are going to work so hard to get us to where we need to be in the future."~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

"It just seems like yesterday that I was in the laboratory, trying to figure out how to put genes into petunia plants and now we've got biotech crops growing in 30 countries around the world. And there's so much more potential to come. We're going to need it because we need to double the food supply to feed 9 billion people by 2050. I think we can do it. But it's a tremendous challenge. And it is the greatest challenge facing us and all mankind in the future."

"You know, I think if Dr. Borlaug were here this evening he'd be pretty proud of the scientific progress we've made. The first thing he'd ask is, 'How are we doing on that rust gene in wheat?' And then he'd ask me, 'Now how does that drought gene really do this year in field trials?' And before he did anything else, he would look around and he would probably have a conversation with every student who's in this beautiful place, because he loved youth. And then it would take about one second and Norm would say, 'We've got a lot of work to do, let's get on with it."

Marc Van Montagu: "I'm very, very grateful to the World Food Prize Foundation that they have recognized plant genetic engineering as a tool that will bring and has already proven it can bring progress for feeding those who need it most. But I'm frustrated that it take so long before this technology can help those who need it most."

"And I hope that with the effort that the foundation has done, with the former laureates and with all the colleagues that are here, that we can mobilize to explain why biotechnology is needed. I want to stress that from fundamental research, looking how in nature bacteria makes transgenic plants, that start should for many bring, that it is the priority to do outstanding fundamental research and be ready and have the structures, that this science can then be applied. And for that, people in fundamental research should have close links with breeders. And that is what the World Food Prize is about, bringing molecular biologists and traditional breeders together."