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

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festivali
X
April 24, 2015 4:09 AM
Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Keeping Washington Airspace Safe Is Tall Order

Being the home of all three branches of the U.S. federal government makes Washington, D.C. the prime target for those who want to make their messages and ideas heard. Unfortunately, many of them choose to deliver them in unorthodox ways, including from the air, as a recent incident clearly showed involving a gyrocopter landing on the Capitol’s West Lawn. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.

VOA Blogs