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World Food Prize laureates win praise, disdain

The World Food Prize announcement Wednesday that the 2013 World Food Prize will go to three pioneers in the field of biotechnology has garnered praise from Secretary of State John Kerry and the Biotechnology Industry Association but condemnation from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

World Food Prize Foundation President Kenneth Quinn announced in a ceremony at the State Department on Wednesday that the winners are Marc Van Montagu of Belgium, and Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T. Fraley of the United States.
VanMontaguMarc ChiltonMaryDell FraleyRobert
2013 World Food Prize winners, from left, Marc Van Montagu, Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T. Fraley

Montagu is founder and chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium. Chilton is founder and distinguished fellow of Syngenta Biotechnology, and Fraley is executive vice president and chief technology officer of Monsanto.

They will be formally awarded the World Food Prize at the 27th Annual Laureate Award Ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines on October 17.

<br />John Kerry

John Kerry

“The work of our winners — Marc Van Montagu and Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert Fraley — shows us we have the ability to do exceptional things,” Kerry said at the ceremony. “We can break the cycle of poverty. We can actually end undernutrition.”

“It is simply true that biotechnology has dramatically increased crop yields,” Kerry continued.

“It has dramatically decreased loss due to pests and disease, and it allows us to feed more people without converting tropical forests or fragile lands in order to do so,” he said.

“And these crops will allow farmers to reduce their use of pesticides that all of us know – you can look at the nitrate overload flowing down from the Missouri into the Mississippi and out in the Gulf, or any other parts of the world, to see the consequences of what happens when the wrong things mix with water. So we save money and we save the environment and we save lives. It is a virtuous circle.”

Jim Greenwood

Jim Greenwood

Jim Greenwood, President and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) applauded the selection in a news release.

“These individuals have dedicated their lives to scientific discovery and feeding the world,” said Greenwood. “Their contributions have helped improve the lives of farming families around the globe, while increasingly the availability of safe, healthy and affordable food. Their achievements are not just scientific, but — more importantly — humanitarian.”

Greenwood noted that agricultural biotechnology is the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of agriculture with 17.3 million farmers in 28 countries growing biotech crops on 420 million acres. Ninety percent of these farmers are resource-poor farmers in developing countries, where hunger, malnutrition and poverty are most dire, he said.

Doug Gurian-Sherman

Doug Gurian-Sherman

Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist for food and the environment for the Union of Concerned Scientists, acknowledged in a blog posted this week that the three scientists “have made some important contributions to science," but said that the value of genetic engineering is questionable and that the selection may have been influenced by Monsanto's contributions to the World Food Prize organization.

Gurian-Sherman said that genetic engineering has “provided some benefits, such as a reduction of chemical insecticide,” but that “most of the yield increases for small farmers are from cotton, a low-value crop, which is unlikely to pull these farmers out of poverty” and that “weeds resistant to herbicide used on Monsanto’s crops have reached epidemic proportions in the U.S., ” while “insects resistant to Bt are emerging around the world.”

Gurian-Sherman also said that Kerry “overstated” the case about genetic engineering’s impact on yields.

“Biotech has made some narrowly-defined progress on a very few crop traits, but they have been underwhelming when examined in the context of better alternatives like breeding and agroecology,” Gurain-Sherman wrote. “Given all of the real problems surrounding the use of this technology in the real world, how could the caretakers of the prize possibly present it to these scientists?”

Gurian-Sherman’s conclusion was that the “caretakers” of the World Food Prize had probably been influenced by donations from Monsanto and others, and that at the very least the award “fails the appearance test miserably.”

“This is, unfortunately, all a part of the perverse influence that multinational industry money is having on science,” he wrote. “The role of private money in leveraging influence on science is exacerbated by congressional ideologues that have been hacking away at productive public sources of funds for decades, making scientists at public research institutions more and more dependent on handouts from the private sector that come with long strings attached.”

Kenneth Quinn

Kenneth Quinn

Quinn responded in an email to The Hagstrom Report that what Gurian-Sherman appears to argue with is the impact of these achievements.

“Have they contributed sufficiently to the increase in the quality, quantity and availability of food in the world in order to receive our prize? Our selection committee determined that biotechnology has met this standard to an extent that it is worthy of recognition with the World Food Prize.”

“What is disappointing, however, is the allegation that our foundation would dishonor Dr. Borlaug by giving our prize in return for financial contributions,” Quinn said, referring to Dr. Norman Borlaug, the founder of the prize.

“There is a specific reference to one company’s contribution to our foundation. Dr. Borlaug would never do such a thing, nor would any of us. I want to be sure it is understood that our prize is given to individuals for their achievement and not to institutions, organizations or companies.”

Quinn acknowledged that it is “not unreasonable” to ask about contributions and conflicts of interest, but that, to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest, “neither the president of the foundation [who is the chief fundraiser] nor any members of its staff have any vote or voice in determining the laureate.”

“To further ensure that there is no conflict, the decision on the choice of the laureates is made by a separate, independent Laureate Selection Committee, chaired by an eminent and respected scientist,” Quinn said. “It is then ratified by our independent council of advisers, made up of respected figures from around the world.”

Monsanto was one of four separate organizations that contributed $5 million each to the transformation of the historic Des Moines Public Library into a building in honor of Borlaug, and is one of the 80 donors that contributes each year to prize programs.

“Each year, we understand that there may be controversy about our choice of a laureate,” Quinn said.

“However, the most damage to the reputation of the prize would come if we refused to honor an individual who had met the precepts for receiving the prize [as Robert Fraley does] simply because we feared we would be criticized or create controversy. So our basic approach is that no one should ever receive the prize nor be denied the prize simply because they are associated with a donor to our programs or might bring about controversy.”

Quinn also noted that the October 16-18 Borlaug Dialogue would be titled “The Next Borlaug Century: Biotechnology, Sustainability, and Climate Volatility,” and that he would invite Gurian-Sherman to be there “to add to this critical discussion.”