News / Science & Technology

GMO Pioneers Win World Food Prize

GMO Pioneers Win World Food Prizei
X
October 17, 2013 12:28 AM
It's perhaps the most controversial pick in the history of a respected award. Three pioneers in the science of genetically modified crops are receiving this year's prestigious World Food Prize, Thursday, Oct. 17 in Iowa. According to the prize citation, 17 million farmers worldwide grew these 'GMO' crops in 2012, more than 90 percent of them small-scale farmers in developing countries. It says the technology increased yields, reduced harmful pesticide use, and will be a key tool to feed the nine billion people expected on Earth by 2050. But critics of the technology question the role of genetically modified organisms in fighting world hunger. VOA's Steve Baragona looks at where GMOs came from and where they're going.
It’s perhaps the most controversial pick in the history of the prestigious World Food Prize.
 
Three pioneers in the science of genetically modified crops are receiving this year's award Thursday in Iowa. 
 
The choice has drawn criticism from opponents of genetically modified organisms, who question the role of GMOs in fighting world hunger. 
 
But one of the winners, Mary-Dell Chilton at seed and chemical company Syngenta, describes the prize as “the frosting on the cake” of a long and enjoyable scientific career.
 
When Chilton started out in the 1970s, she believed that a microscopic bacterium and a stalk of corn were much too different to be able to exchange genetic code.
 
“I was soon to find out that this very deep-seated belief was just wrong,” she says.
 
That revelation came as Chilton was studying a plant infection called crown gall. Caused by a bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens, crown galls are ugly lumps of prolific plant cell growth. 
 
Another of this year’s World Food Prize winners, Belgian scientist Marc Van Montagu, had previously identified a particular section of bacterial DNA was responsible for that growth.
 
Putting bacteria to work
 
Chilton’s surprising discovery was that the bacterium inserts that piece of its DNA into the plant cell’s genes, and that DNA becomes a permanent part of the plant cell’s genetic makeup - something that had never been seen before. 
 
She says she had done the conclusive experiment intending to convince herself it did not happen.
 
“I was very surprised,” she adds. “I was blown away. That was a big deal.”
 
The DNA that Agrobacterium inserts into plant cells instructs its host to make food for the bacteria.
 
“Agrobacterium was really being a genetic engineer,” Chilton says.
 
One page in a library
 
Chilton and Van Montagu, and Rob Fraley with the agribusiness company Monsanto, quickly realized that scientists could put these tiny genetic engineers to work making plant breeding more flexible and precise than ever.
 
Every plant’s genome is like a library of hundreds of books’ worth of information: genes for productivity, flavor, heat tolerance, and much more - including harmful or toxic traits.
 
Conventional breeding produces offspring with a random assortment of those books, good and bad.
 
But scientists compare genetic engineering to inserting just a page's worth of information into that huge genetic library.
 
Fewer insecticides
 
One of the most widely used examples is instructions for a protein that kills insect pests but is safe for people.
 
“That means that you do not have to put insecticides on those corn plants to protect them and enhance the yield that you get,” Chilton says. “That’s a good thing.”
 
Nearly all the corn and cotton grown in the United States contain this type of gene, reducing insecticide use by at least 50 million kilograms per year, according to one estimate.
 
According to the World Food Prize citation, 17 million farmers worldwide grew GMO crops in 2012, more than 90 percent of them small-scale farmers in developing countries.  It credits the technology with adding 328 million tons of food, feed and fiber to global production from 1996 to 2011.
 
Plant biotechnology “can play a critical role as we face the global challenges of the 21st century of producing more food, in a sustainable way, while confronting an increasingly volatile climate,” the citation concludes.
 
But when Chilton, Van Montagu and Fraley receive their World Food Prize, not everyone will be applauding.
 
Hans Herren won the prize in 1995 for using natural methods to control a devastating insect pest outbreak in Africa. When he heard who won this year’s prize, “I was rather shocked, actually,” he says.
 
Herren says the benefits of GMOs go mainly to the companies that produce them.
 
Critics note that one of the most popular crop genetic modifications, adding genes for herbicide resistance, has dramatically increased the use of weed killers.
 
Herren heads the sustainable development organizations Biovision in Zurich and the Millennium Institute in Washington. He says genetically modified organisms are not the best way to fight hunger.
 
“I think the cause of the food shortages in some places have nothing to do or cannot be fixed with GMOs,” he says.
 
 
Educating developing-world farmers on best practices and improving soil fertility would be a more sustainable solution, rather than continuing the current model of water-, fertilizer- and pesticide-intensive agriculture.
 
Herren says that’s a dead end.
 
“We need to change the paradigm,” he explains, “because we are running out of fertilizer.  Fertilizer production produces a lot of (planet-warming) CO2.  Water is limited, and will be even more limited in the future.  We have to find better solutions.”
 
Herren says more research is needed on the health, environmental and social impacts of GMO crops that are rapidly spreading around the world.
 
Opposition to them is also spreading. GMO-free products are among the fastest growing categories at U.S. supermarkets. Several U.S. states have passed or are considering laws requiring foods containing GMOs to bear labels.
 
Protests occasionally spill over into violence. This August, protesters in the Philippines uprooted test fields of rice modified to produce vitamin A.
 
But Chilton does not think opponents will derail the technology.
 
“I think the technology will be fine,” she says. “We need it. There are too many people in this world and we need to feed them in order to keep them from fighting with each other."
 
Meanwhile, the fight over the best way to accomplish that goal is sure to continue.

You May Like

Hezbollah Chief Says Does Not Want War But Ready for One

VOA's Jerusalem correspondent reports that with an Israeli election looming and Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, neither side appears interested in a wider conflict More

Multimedia VOA SPECIAL REPORT: Despite Danger, Best US Minds Battle Deadly Virus

Scientists at America's premier biological research center race in military confinement to find effective drugs, speedier tests and a safe vaccine amid the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in history More

Kurdish Poet Battles to Defend Language, Culture

Kawa Nemir's work is an example of what he sees as an irreversible cultural and political assertiveness among Kurds in Turkey More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unresti
X
Heather Murdock
January 30, 2015 8:00 PM
Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Threat of Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Residents of the small town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii face an advancing threat from the Kilauea volcano. Local residents are keeping a watchful eye on creeping lava. Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Creatively Promotes 'Patriotic' Propaganda

As Russia's President Vladimir Putin faces international pressure over Ukraine and a failing economy, unofficial domestic groups are rallying to his support. One such youth organization, CET, or Network, uses creative multimedia to appeal to Russia's urban youth with patriotic propaganda. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Mobile Infrared Scanners May Help Homeowners Save Energy

Mobile photo scanners have been successfully employed for navigational purposes, such as Google Maps. Now, a group of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the same technology could help homeowners better insulate their houses and save some money. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Filmmakers Produce Hand-Painted Documentary on Van Gogh

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Issues or Ethnicity? Question Divides Nigeria

As Nigeria goes to the polls next month, many expect the two top presidential contenders to gain much of their support from constituencies organized along ethnic or religious lines. But are faith and regional blocs really what political power in Nigeria is about? Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid