Biotech Front and Center

November 8, 2013 06:51 PM
Biotech Front and Center

Technology took center stage at the World Food Prize 

Photo from left to right:

Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, chairman of the World Food Prize Selection Committee;
Laureate Dr. Marc Van Montagu of Belgium;
Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, president of the Republic of Iceland;
Laureate Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton of the U.S.;
Laureate Dr. Robert Fraley of the U.S; and
John Ruan III, chairman of the World Food Prize.

In a move that validates how vital  genetically modified (GM) crops are to feeding our world, the 2013 World Food Prize was recently awarded to three trailblazers who have played prominent roles in developing the technology. The three people honored as World Food Prize Laureates, and sharing the $250,000 prize, were Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert Fraley from the U.S. and Marc Van Montagu from Belgium.

As a little girl, Chilton dreamed of being an artist. Today, the Indiana native is a distinguished fellow and founder of Syngenta Biotechnology. Fraley, who hails from an Illinois farm, is the executive vice president and chief technology officer of Monsanto Company. Van Montagu, who grew up in Belgium during World War II and the days of food rationing, is the founder and chairman of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach.

As stated by the World Food Prize organization, the revolutionary biotechnology discoveries of these three—each working in separate facilities on two continents—unlocked the key to plant cell transformation using recombinant DNA. Their work led to the development of a host of GM crops, which by 2012 were grown on 420 million acres around the globe by 17.3 million farmers, more than 90% of whom were small-holder, resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

The awards ceremony and the 2013 Norman E. Borlaug International Symposium brought nearly 1,200 attendees from more than 60 countries to Des Moines, Iowa. The global recognition of biotech’s role in following in Borlaug’s legendary lead to stamp out hunger was a lightning rod for activists. Even so, the winners hope the record attendance and the civil dialogue regarding GM crops will be a stepping stone to more widespread global acceptance of the technology.

"My hope is this will put to rest the misguided opposition to biotech-nology-developed crops," Chilton said after receiving the award. She called GM organisms a wonderful tool in the fight against hunger.

The week’s events drew a melting pot of speakers and perspectives. Those speaking ranged from Borlaug’s granddaughter, Julie, to former British prime minister Tony Blair; the president of the Republic of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson; Howard G. Buffett and numerous company CEOs, scientists and food security leaders.

The group offered diverse opinions throughout the week. For example, luncheon keynote speaker Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson of Ghana told the crowd that the Catholic Church supports the use of biotechnology to feed the world. The technology, he said, must be married to ethics, compassion, morality and prudence. He also warned against too much emphasis on profit and too little access to the technology in developing countries.

World Food Prize

Former British prime minister Tony Blair, Ritu Sharma and Howard G. Buffett participated in a lively panel discussion about their hunger relief efforts.

Strong voice for farmers. Navigating the intersection between fighting hunger and biotechnology, Buffett brought perspective to the issues as only someone rooted in many aspects of the hunger landscape can. Buffett is the chairman and CEO of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, a private family foundation working to improve the standard of living and quality of life for the world’s most impoverished and marginalized populations.

In addition to philanthropic work, Buffett operates a 1,500-acre family farm in central Illinois and oversees three Foundation-operated research farms: 1,400 acres in Arizona, 4,000 acres in Illinois and 9,200 acres in South Africa. Buffett’s boots-on-the-ground perspective is broadened by his extensive travel in more than 130 countries.

"I’d love to have a magic map where you can take Africa and draw the places where our [U.S.] farming practices work and then use them there," Buffett told the conference crowd. He added that he’d also like to use a magic wand to create a land-grant university system for Africa.

While taking questions from the press after the panel, Buffett made the point that agriculture is as important to the U.S. as the Department of Defense. "Many don’t realize it and respect it, but if you can’t feed your country, you’re vulnerable to lots of things," he said.

Farm programs, he noted, are critical for any country striving to establish and safeguard food security. "There’s not a country in the world that I’m aware of that has a powerful agricultural system that did not use subsidies to get there," he said. "I don’t think it is whether you have subsidies but what they are, how they are used and how equitable they are distributed."

When asked about the acceptance of GM organisms around the world, Buffett said that the debate needs to be driven by science not emotion. He shared that he’s been farming 35 years, and the technology has increased his yields. "Farmers need to be given knowledge and choices—and then allowed to make choices," he said. 

You can e-mail Charlene Finck at

You can find Farm Journal Media’s full-circle coverage of the World Food Prize event at

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