DES MOINES, Iowa - The World Food Prize Foundation on Wednesday took the bold step of awarding this year's prize to three pioneers of plant biotechnology whose work brought the world genetically modified crops.
The private nonprofit foundation, which is in part funded by biotechnology companies, refused to shy away from the controversy surrounding genetically modified crops that organic food advocates say are harmful to people and the environment.
"If we were to be deterred by a controversy, that would diminish our prize," said the foundation's president, Kenneth Quinn, a retired U.S. diplomat.
This year's award goes to Marc Van Montagu, founder and chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium; Mary-Dell Chilton, founder and researcher at Syngenta Biotechnology; and Robert Fraley, chief technology officer at Monsanto.
Van Montagu and Chilton independently developed the technology in the 1980s to stably transfer foreign genes into plants, a discovery that set up a race to develop tools to genetically engineer plants. It allowed other scientists to incorporate genetic traits in plants to better withstand drought, extreme heat and to fight off pests and disease. Fraley was the first to successfully transfer immunity to specific bacteria into a plant.
The three scientists, who worked independently, reported the findings of their research at the 1983 Miami Winter Biochemistry Symposium. The announcements marked the beginning of a plant biotechnology era that has changed modern agriculture.
Fraley genetically engineered the first herbicide-resistant soybean in 1996, enabling farmers to spray the herbicide Roundup on their fields without fear of killing their soybean plants.
Since then the use of genetically enhanced crops has spread rapidly. They are grown on more than 420 million acres in nearly 30 countries by over 17 million farmers worldwide, the foundation said. More than 90 percent are small, resource-poor farmers in developing countries.
Many U.S. farmers credited genetic modifications in corn with saving last year's crop from all but total devastation as half of the nation endured the worst drought in 60 years. Modern corn plants are more stable and can withstand a wider variety of climate conditions because of genetically improved leaves, roots and reproductive capability.
Fraley said biotechnology will enable the farming industry to meet the needs of a growing global population.
"We know we need from a demand perspective to double food production around the world in the next 30 years," he said. "The exciting thing is, we have the tools available to enable that to happen."
The selection of the three scientists to win the World Food Prize is certain to draw criticism. Some organic farmers say widespread planting of genetically modified crops could contaminate organic and traditional crops, destroying their value. Others have raised concerns about the uncharted long-term impact for people who eat products such as milk and beef from animals raised on genetically modified plants.
Van Montagu said he hopes the food prize award will help people to understand the safety of genetically modified crops.
"Everybody can have his opinion. We just have to explain to society the science fact and that is not the slightest risk has been identified. These crops are as safe if not safer than food that comes from traditional agriculture," he said. "If somebody denies that we bluntly can say they are misinformed."
Chilton said it's time to address the critics straight on.
"I've grown up with this technology and there's nothing strange about it for me," she said. "The plants we make with this technology are certainly tested so that if anything unexpected were to crop up we would catch that in the testing process."
The World Food Prize was created in 1986 by Norman Borlaug, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to fight hunger. Borlaug was honored in 1970 for work that boosted agricultural production in what has become known as the "Green Revolution."
The prize has grown in stature in recent years. The recipients are announced each year at the U.S. State Department in Washington in June. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered the keynote address at Wednesday's announcement ceremony.
Recipients will receive the prize, which includes $250,000, at a ceremony in October at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines attended by hundreds of scholars and agribusiness leaders from around the world.
The private, nonprofit World Food Prize Foundation has received significant funding from major biotechnology companies, and its ties to DuPont, Cargill, Monsanto, and Syngenta have drawn criticism.
Protesters from Occupy Des Moines staged civil disobedience at last year's award ceremony and several were arrested. Organizer, Frank Cordaro said the prize is corporate agriculture's way of branding themselves in the minds of the American people as the good guys feeding the hungry when they're really just interested in profit.
Quinn said Borlaug knew the work of the three recipients of this year's prize and before he died in 2009 said he hoped they would be honored with the prize for their work someday.
"It is important to note that he was very strongly in favor of recognizing biotechnology and these three people in particular," Quinn said.