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.
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.