Commentary: Prize—and praise—worthy

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It’s easy for anti-industry activists to pour on the hatred for a big, impersonal corporation. Say, like Monsanto.

They can go off on the greed, the ruthless domination, the lust for profits that can be tacked onto pretty much any multi-national organization’s rap sheet. It’s a different story, however, when the task is to demonize accomplished, intelligent scientists who have devoted their careers to promoting the progress of agriculture and the growers and farmers who make their living in that oldest of professions.

Such is the case with the World Food Prize honorees named last week in a ceremony at the State Department in Washington, D.C. The 2013 prize was awarded to Marc Van Montagu of Belgium and Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert Fraley of the United States for their research on plant biotechnology.

That’s right: The dreaded “b-word.”

I can’t wait to see how the groups opposed to the agricultural applications of the science (and they rarely ever mention other, related research, such as developing newer and cheaper drugs that are essential to modern clinical care) try to demonize these respected, dedicated, indeed visionary scientists for striving to reach the goal of more and better food supplies for the multi-millions suffering from hunger and starvation.

And how about this: One of this year’s recipients happens to be employed by big, bad Monsanto itself.

If you’re a commentator waiting for somebody to say something dumb that can serve as fodder for a stinging rebuttal, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

One billion saved—and counting

The prestige associated with the World Food Prize stems not only from its longevity, having been awarded since 1986, but also from the fact that it was created by the late agronomist and humanitarian Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and chief architect of the “Green Revolution” that dramatically boosted agricultural productivity across much of the developing world in the 1960s and ’70s. During his lifetime, his research is credited with saving almost a billion people from starvation.

An Iowa native, Borlaug created the prize to recognize the work of individuals who have improved the quantity and availability of the world’s food supply. The World Food Prize news release noted that these scientists’ research will play a critical role in addressing the nutritional needs of a global population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, not to mention the impact of increasingly unpredictable climate changes on food productivity.

“The biotechnology products have not been without controversy,” said Fraley, a Monsanto executive vice president and its chief technology officer. “So having the prize recognize the three scientists and groups who really helped launch this modern era of plant biotechnology is special.”

Fraley, who earned a Ph.D. in microbiology and biochemistry from the University of Illinois, grew up on a farm in central Illinois with a passion for agriculture. He told the committee that, “This award says a lot for how important biotechnology is for the future.”

In the 1980s, Fraley began researching with his colleagues ways to introduce new genes into critical food crops, including corn and soybeans. His team was principally responsible for the commercial introduction of Roundup Ready soybeans in 1996. Genetically modified crops are now grown in 30 countries by 17.3 million farmers on more than 420 million acres.

The other prize recipients are equally accomplished.

Van Montagu, founder and chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium, was instrumental in developing the initial technology that reliably transferred genes into plants. He said he hoped the recognition he garners from the Food Prize would help encourage European countries to “embrace the benefits of biotechnology,” a political development he labeled as “essential” if GE crops are to be accepted globally.

 “While I’m pleased with the prize,” he said, “I realize that there is still a long way to go before this technology is fully established.”

Chilton, who began working at Swiss-based Syngenta in 1983, initially focused on disease and insect resistance. More recently she has been researching how to make the genetic transfers into plant cells more efficient.

“We can make some very significant changes in crops that will allow them to grow where they haven’t grown before and to give better yields,” she said—“even to improve their nutritional value.”

Therein lies the crux of the challenge facing not only scientists but policymakers: If genetically engineered crops are ever to achieve widespread acceptance—in Europe or elsewhere-- the varieties coming out of the world’s research labs need to provide different benefits than herbicide resistance. That’s great for farmers, but it’s a non-starter for the average consumer, much less a committed activist.

That’s a challenge that won’t be easily met.

However, Chilton did make one salient point in her comments, an observation noted here previously, as well: She explained that plant biotechnology is “still in its infancy,” as genetically modified plants carry only a few traits at most. But in the future, she said a single seed could be developed that contains multiple traits, such as being tolerant to drought and high temperatures and the ability to more efficiently absorb nutrients.

Given the need to virtually double the world’s food productivity within the lifetimes of most of us alive today, let’s pray she’s right, and that the future she’s referencing arrives in this—not the next—century.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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