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.

'Significant' contributions

From their work in the laboratory to applying biotechnology innovations in farmers’ fields, the combined achievements of the 2013 World Food Prize Laureates have contributed significantly to increasing the quantity and availability of food.

Van Montagu is founder and chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium; Mary-Dell Chilton is founder and Distinguished Fellow of Syngenta Biotechnology; and Robert T. Fraley, is executive vice president and chief technology officer of Monsanto.

Estimates show the global population growing to 9 billion by 2050. Currently, 870 million, or 1 in 8 people, are hungry. Scientific advancements will play a critical role as the world faces the global challenges of the 21st century of producing more food in a sustainable way, while confronting an increasingly volatile climate, Quinn said.

“We have a great responsibility to continue to move science forward and to utilize it in the best ways possible to nourish mankind, especially those who are suffering every day,” Quinn said. “As our founder, the scientist Norman Borlaug, said, we are going ‘from the Green Revolution to the Gene Revolution.’ Our international symposium this October will focus on three intertwined issues: biotechnology, sustainability, and climate volatility. I invite people across the globe to engage together in rational debates and solution-based dialogues to identify ways we can harness technology for the greatest benefit to mankind and our environment.”

“The World Food Prize recognizes achievements extremely precious for society,” said Van Montagu. “I’m very honored to be selected as a laureate. To me, this emphasizes the importance of GMO technology as a contribution toward sustainable food production. While I’m pleased with the Prize, I realize that there is still a long way to go to before this technology is fully established to produce the orphan crops and varieties essential to the food security of smallholder farmers in less developed countries. I hope that this recognition will pave the way for Europe to embrace the benefits of this technology, an essential condition for global acceptance of transgenic plants.”

'Convey value'

Chilton also said she was deeply honored, both personally and on behalf of the colleagues and collaborators with whom she has shared “this intellectual adventure. It is gratifying that our work, which started as curiosity-driven fundamental research, has now found worldwide application in agriculture with the promise of benefitting all mankind. The committee’s decision to award the World Food Prize to biotechnology researchers will help convey to consumers the value, utility and safety of genetically modified crops.”

“I am deeply humbled by this extraordinary honor from the World Food Prize and joining the ranks of so many accomplished Laureates who have come before me,” said Fraley, who led the effort to develop Roundup Ready and Bt corn, soybeans and cotton at Monsanto.

“As a farm boy and scientist who has spent his entire life and career working in agriculture, it is incredibly gratifying that billions of acres of crops have been planted by tens of millions of farmers around the world that have benefitted from our research in advanced molecular breeding and biotechnology methods.

Fraley said he believes scientists have just scratched the surface on what is possible in bringing innovation to farmers who deliver food security to consumers around the world.

“My friend and mentor, Norm Borlaug, said, “The world has the technology – either available or well-advanced in the research pipeline to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers or ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology?”

 

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While there are those who may not support this advanced research in biotechnology, the need for food security and the opportunity for farmers around the world to meet the growing demand is much more important than any differences of opinion that exist, said Fraley. “The World Food Prize provides us an important platform to engage in a new global dialogue around enabling farmer access to advanced agriculture tools while ensuring a sustainable food supply for all.”

The World Food Prize was created by Dr. Borlaug in 1987. Dr. Borlaug, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, wanted to recognize individuals whose achievements have advanced human development by increasing the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world. The prize was endowed by John Ruan Sr. Continuing his legacy, Iowa businessman John Ruan III now serves as chairman of the organization. A Selection Committee of experts from around the world oversees the nomination and selection process, and is chaired by Prof. M.S. Swaminathan, who was also honored as the first World Food Prize Laureate.