The winners of this year's World Food Prize continued Wednesday to press their case that biotechnology research and innovation is necessary to keep food production in step with a growing world population.
The three scientists, recognized as pioneers in the development of genetically modified organisms, made their case to reporters at the three-day World Food Prize symposium underway in Des Moines.
They will share the $250,000 award that they are to receive in a ceremony at the Iowa Capitol on Thursday.
One winner, Robert Fraley, chief technology officer at Monsanto, said biotechnology and information technology are helping farmers globally improve crop production and can help solve the problem of a growing population with too little food.
"Whether it's a small farmer in India with a cellphone message that wind currents are changing ... or planter in Iowa that says, 'Change the way this field is planted every 10 meters to optimize yields,' science has so much potential," he said. "The challenge that's going to come is: Are we going to limit it by policy and regulation?"
Opponents of genetically modified crops say they are harmful to people and the environment. Some organic farmers warn that widespread planting of genetically modified crops could contaminate organic and traditional crops, destroying their value. Others are concerned about the uncharted long-term impact for those who eat products such as milk and beef from animals raised on genetically modified plants.
Another winner, Marc Van Montagu, founder and chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium said some of the fear of GMO crops is absurd. He used the example of papayas in Hawaii, which he said were saved through genetic modification.
The third winner, Mary-Dell Chilton, founder and researcher at Syngenta Biotechnology, said all the discussion by critics of biotechnology should be directed at the coming problem of widespread hunger as the population grows to 9 billion people by 2050.
"There are going to be a lot of hungry people here," she told reporters at a news conference. "I hope that you will at least give a balanced view of the safety, the utility of these biotech tools. We're going to need them, believe me."
Environmental groups and activist organizations offered opposing views by holding their own press conference at the same time the food prize laureates were speaking.
Cherie Mortice, a retired teacher from Des Moines and a member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, an action group that fights large-scale farms, said the prize "is the grand promenade of corporate control over food production that undermines the independent family farms that are capable of producing a diversity of healthy foods that can actually make it to our dinner plates.
"We are told in Iowa that we must feed the world, but feeding people is not a supply problem — the problem is distribution and economic inequality," she said. "The solution to feeding the world is to bust up big ag, and empower women, immigrant and young farmers."
Wednesday evening the Occupy World Food Prize organization was hosting former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, who was to deliver a speech entitled: "From Factory Farms to GMOs, the Upchuck Rebellion is Taking Root."
The group also planned peaceful protests, which last year led to the arrest of several of the group's members as they tried to enter the World Food Prize headquarters.