News / Science & Technology

GMO Pioneers Win World Food Prize

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaks during ceremony June 19, 2013, to announce winners of 2013 World Food Prize Laureate. Listening are, from left, World Food Prize Foundation Chairman John Ruan II and Janice RuanSecretary of State John Kerry, speaks during ceremony June 19, 2013, to announce winners of 2013 World Food Prize Laureate. Listening are, from left, World Food Prize Foundation Chairman John Ruan II and Janice Ruan
x
Secretary of State John Kerry, speaks during ceremony June 19, 2013, to announce winners of 2013 World Food Prize Laureate. Listening are, from left, World Food Prize Foundation Chairman John Ruan II and Janice Ruan
Secretary of State John Kerry, speaks during ceremony June 19, 2013, to announce winners of 2013 World Food Prize Laureate. Listening are, from left, World Food Prize Foundation Chairman John Ruan II and Janice Ruan
TEXT SIZE - +
— Three pioneers in the controversial field of genetically modified crops have won the prestigious World Food Prize, known as the "Nobel Prize for agriculture." The award credits the technology they created with increasing the quantity and availability of food, and providing a tool to help meet the challenges of a growing population and a changing climate. But the selection has been criticized by those who say the benefits of GMOs remain to be seen.

In the 1970s, Belgian scientist Marc van Montagu discovered soil bacteria performing a kind of natural genetic engineering. Montagu says the bacteria insert a piece of their DNA into plant cells, which then produce chemicals that are good for the bacteria.

“Once we [saw] bacteria can insert DNA to give a new property to a plant, we were able to replace that part of the DNA [with] DNA that we want that gives new, useful properties to the plant,” van Montagu said.

Thus plant biotechnology was born. Mary-Dell Chilton and Rob Fraley produced the first genetically modified plants using that technology.

Fraley worked at Monsanto, where he is now chief technology officer.

“We were able to introduce genes that made it easier for farmers to control their weeds and to control insects, giving growers new tools,” Fraley said.

Fraley says those new tools let farmers grow more while using fewer or less toxic chemicals.

Farmers quickly embraced the new technology. They were first introduced in 1996. Today, about 12 percent of the entire world’s farmland grows crops that are genetically modified, according to the World Food Prize citation.

Mary-Dell Chilton is now principal scientist at Syngenta Biotechnology. She was amazed how quickly GM crops caught on.

“It really is astounding. And the reason for this acceptance is that the farmer has found that they work. They benefit him,” Chilton said.

Last year, a record 17.3 million farmers around the world grew genetically modified crops, and more than 90 percent of them were small-scale farmers in developing countries.

With the world expected to add another 2 billion people by 2050, demand for food and clothing will increase by at least 60 percent.  

And biotech crops will help, said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, anouncing the winners.

“It is simply true that biotechnology has dramatically increased crop yields. It has dramatically decreased loss due to pests and disease, and it allows us to feed more people without converting tropical forests or fragile lands in order to do so,” Kerry said.

But more than 15 years after the introduction of these crops, critics still question their safety. Senior scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman with the Union of Concerned Scientists says the technology could have benefits, but whether it will be critical for feeding the world remains to be seen.

“My understanding of the prize is you should be giving it to people that have shown major positive, unequivocally positive accomplishments in world agriculture. And I don’t see, so far, this technology being anywhere near that yet,” Gurian-Sherman said.

Gurian-Sherman says the technology has put too much control over the seed supply in the hands of a few companies like Monsanto and Syngenta - companies that he notes are sponsors of the World Food Prize.

The award will presented at a ceremony in the midwestern U.S. state of Iowa in October.

You May Like

Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Trigger Cyber War

Why Europe and the US may be "whistling past the graveyard?" More

Egyptian Court Jails 23 Pro-Morsi Supporters

Meanwhile, Egyptian officials say gunmen have killed two members of the country's security forces More

Pakistani Journalists Protest Shooting of Colleague

Hamid Mir, a host for private television channel Geo, was wounded after being shot three times Saturday, but is expected to survive More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid