By Gabriella Cruz: Elvas, Portugal
When I first met Marc Van Montagu at a meeting of farmers in Brussels, I didn’t know who he was—but I was immediately impressed by his views on biotechnology. He was both honest and intelligent, and best of all he knew what he was talking about. Only later did I learn what he had accomplished as a scientist.
Now everybody else can know too, because Marc was just named as a co-recipient of the 2013 World Food Prize, noted as the ‘Nobel Prize" for agriculture.
The World Food Prize will honor Marc and two others for their significant body of work and research that has helped the Green Revolution blossom into the Gene Revolution.
Truth be told, genetically modified crops hardly need the accolade. They’ve been confirming their worth for nearly a generation, allowing farmers around the world to control weeds and pests and promising even greater advances in the future. Since their commercialization, farmers have planted and harvested more than 3.5 billion acres of biotech crops and people eat food derived from it every day.
About 12 percent of our planet’s arable land is planted with GM crops and more than 17 million farmers use biotechnology. Roughly 90 percent of those farmers are smallholders who choose GM crops because they make economic sense for themselves and their families in a manner that is sustainable for the environment and socially.
So it’s wonderful that three of biotechnology’s heroes will receive formal recognition from the World Food Prize. I’m hopeful that the attention they deserve and will now receive will provide a listening global audience, if only because they have so much to say—especially to the biotech skeptics in Europe who still must overcome irrational fears of a proven technology.
In addition to Marc, who is Belgian, this year’s winners are Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton and Dr. Robert T. Fraley of the United States. Working separately in the 1980s, they discovered through molecular research the key to plant cell transformation using recombinant DNA.
That’s the scientifically-correct way of stating that they discovered the key of how to produce crops that grow more food on less land—and all of it safe, as every serious scientist, organization, and regulatory agency around the world that has studied them will attest.
"Our new laureates have truly used science to multiply the harvest," said Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation. He announced the winners last week, at a ceremony hosted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who hailed the recipients "for their pioneering efforts and their tremendous contributions to biotechnology and to the fight against hunger and malnutrition." The formal award will take place in Des Moines, Iowa on October 17.
Marc grew up in Belgium during the Second World War, when his country rationed food. So he knows what it’s like to scrimp on meals, and why biotechnology is a key to fighting hunger—as well as why his native continent must rethink its ways.
"For me, [the World Food Prize] emphasizes the importance of GMO technology as a contributing factor to sustainable food production," he said. "I hope that this recognition will pave the way for Europe to embrace the benefits of this technology, an essential condition for global acceptance of transgenic plants."
Originally from Illinois, Dr. Chilton began her academic career at the University of Washington, but has worked at Syngenta for the last 30 years, helping the company develop seeds for farmers.
"The committee’s decision to award the World Food Prize to biotechnology researchers will help convey to consumers the value, utility, and safety of genetically modified crops," said Chilton.
Dr. Fraley, also from Illinois, worked at the University of California-San Francisco before Monsanto hired him in 1981. He has been there ever since, and led the company’s effort to develop the "Roundup Ready" crops that have proven so productive and popular.
"I really believe we have just scratched the surface on what is possible in bringing innovation to farmers who deliver food security to consumers around the world," said Fraley. "While there are those who may not support our advanced research in biotechnology, the need for food security and the opportunity for farmers around the world to meet the growing demand is much more important than any differences of opinion."
Let’s hope that these differences of opinion continue to wither away, as Europe and the rest of the world embraces the promise of biotechnology.
Maria Gabriela Cruz manages a 500 hectare farm in Elvas, Portugal that has been in their family for over 100 years. Growing maize, wheat, barley and green peas, they use no-till or reduced till methods on the full farm. She has grown biotech maize since 2006. Ms. Cruz is President of the Portuguese Association of Conservation Agriculture, a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network and the 2010 Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award recipient (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.