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

Turkey: No Ransom Paid for Release of Hostages Held by IS Militants

President Erdogan hails release of hostages as diplomatic success but declines to be drawn on whether their release freed Ankara's hand to take more active stance against insurgents More

Audio Sierra Leone Ends Ebola Lockdown

Health ministry says it has reached 75 percent of its target of visiting 1.5 million homes to locate infected, educate population about virus More

US Pivot to Asia Demands Delicate Balancing Act

As tumult in Middle East distracts Obama administration, efforts to shift American focus eastward appear threatened More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Towni
X
Deborah Block
September 21, 2014 2:12 PM
A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Alibaba Shares Soar in First Day of Trading

China's biggest online retailer hit the market Friday -- with its share price soaring on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares were priced at $68, but trading stalled at the opening, as sellers held onto their shares, waiting for buyers to bid up the price. More on the world's biggest initial public offering from VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid