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

Cambodia Seeks Official UN Maps for Vietnam Border

Notice of request comes as 2 countries open border talks Tuesday after a clash last month More

From South Africa to Vietnam, Cyclists Deliver Message Against Rhino Horns

Appalled by poaching they saw firsthand, sisters embark on tour to raise awareness in countries where rhino horn products are in demand More

Uber Wants Johannesburg Police Protection

Request follows recent protests outside ride-hailing service's Johannesburg office More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Implant Could Help Restore Movement to Paralyzed Limbsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
Maia Pujara
July 07, 2015 10:01 PM
A half-million people suffer spinal cord injuries each year because of car accidents, serious falls and diseases, according to the World Health Organization. Researchers are now working on a soft but strong spinal cord implant that could one day restore movement in paralyzed individuals. VOA’s Maia Pujara reports.
Video

Video New Implant Could Help Restore Movement to Paralyzed Limbs

A half-million people suffer spinal cord injuries each year because of car accidents, serious falls and diseases, according to the World Health Organization. Researchers are now working on a soft but strong spinal cord implant that could one day restore movement in paralyzed individuals. VOA’s Maia Pujara reports.
Video

Video Getting it Done Beyond a Nuclear Deal

If a nuclear deal is reached between Iran and world powers in Vienna, it will be a highly technical road map to be used to monitor nuclear activity in Iran for years to come to ensure Tehran does not make nuclear weapons. Equally as complicated will be dismantling international sanctions that were originally intended to be ironclad. VOA’s Heather Murdock talks to experts about the key challenges any deal will present.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.

VOA Blogs