Three pioneers in the development of biotechnology-derived crops have been named as recipients of the 2013 World Food Prize.

The winners of this year’s prize, created by the late Dr. Norman Borlaug to honor leaders in the fight to defeat world hunger, were announced at a ceremony at the U.S. State Department where Secretary of State John Kerry was the keynote speaker.

The scientists – Marc Van Montagu of Belgium and Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T. Fraley, both of the United States, will be awarded the World Food Prize at the 27th annual Laureate Award ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines on Oct. 17.

“Hunger is a trap that prevents people from realizing their God-given potential,” Secretary Kerry said in Washington Wednesday (June 19). “Food drives life. And the struggle for food is a struggle for life. This makes hunger an economic issue, a national security issue – and without a doubt a moral issue.”

The selections are expected to create controversy among organizations working to end hunger, some of who have opposed the increasing adoption of genetically modified or GMO crops of corn, soybeans and cotton.

Independent study

In announcing the names of the 2013 Laureates, Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, President of the World Food Prize, emphasized the impact and potential of their work.

“These three scientists are being recognized for their independent, individual breakthrough achievements in founding, developing, and applying modern agricultural biotechnology,” Quinn said. “Their research is making it possible for farmers to grow crops with improved yields, resistance to insects and disease, and the ability to tolerate extreme variations in climate.”

In a written statement, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, an Indian scientist and chairman of the World Food Prize Laureate Selection Committee, said the award is especially fitting this year.

“2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA Molecule by James Watson, Francis Crick and Morris Wilkins,” he said. “During the last 60 years, the science of molecular genetics, also referred to as New Genetics, has opened up uncommon opportunities for shaping the future of agriculture, industry, medicine and environment protection.”

Building upon the scientific discovery of the Double Helix structure of DNA in the 1950s, Van Montagu, Chilton, and Fraley each conducted groundbreaking molecular research on how a plant bacterium could be adapted as a tool to insert genes from another organism into plant cells, which could produce new genetic lines with highly favorable traits.

The revolutionary biotechnology discoveries of these three individuals – each working in separate facilities on two continents – unlocked the key to plant cell transformation using recombinant DNA. Their work led to the development of a host of genetically enhanced crops, which, by 2012, were grown on more than 170 million hectares around the globe by 17.3 million farmers, over 90 percent of whom were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries.