A study conducted by an international biotechnology advocacy group revealed that 2012 marked the first year that developing countries produced more biotech crops than were grown in industrial nations.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, or ISAAA, a record 17.3 million farmers grew biotech crops last year. Over 90 percent of the growers were small, resource-poor farmers in developing countries. And the ISAAA claims the adoption of biotech seeds has enhanced food security and reduced poverty in some of the world’s most vulnerable regions.
Nevertheless, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are shunned by some critics who believe the biotech products pose risks to health and the environment.
So when the World Food Prize was awarded this week to three pioneers from the biotech industry, raucous debate was heard on both the PITFALLS -- and the POTENTIAL -- of genetically engineered crops. John Nichols explains.
The United Nations estimates that there are 842 million undernourished people in the world today. While the number has declined slightly in recent years, more than 20,000 people die every day due to hunger.
While wars and natural disasters create food shortages and starvation, poverty remains the chief cause of hunger -- and the cruel irony is that the world is full of food. For decades, planet Earth has provided enough food to sustain every man, woman and child.
Dr. Norman Borlaug: "You know, when people become very elite, they think differently..."
For generations, scientists like Dr. Norman Borlaug have dreamed of ending world hunger. In the 1940s and 50s, Borlaug developed successive generations of wheat that enabled impoverished farmers to harvest more grain from fewer acres. This "high-yield" agriculture, as it came to be known, is credited with keeping starvation at bay for millions of people in Third World countries. Borlaug's humanitarian efforts earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Since the Nobel Foundation had no prize for food or agriculture per se, Borlaug envisioned an award like the Nobel Prize to individuals making significant contributions to the issue of food security... and in 1987 the World Food Prize was born. Borlaug passed away in 2009, but his legacy lives on.
And with global population expected to swell to 9 billion by 2050 the need to produce more food on less land has never been greater.
Amb. Kenneth Quinn, President, World Food Prize Foundation: “Norm Borlaug was very pleased by your nomination and I know he’s thrilled with your selection. Because he believed biotechnology will be so critical in meeting the challenges of the future.”
While advocates point to biotechnology’s critical role in fighting hunger, critics blame genetically modified crops for everything from health risks to soil erosion.
So when this year’s World Food Prize was awarded to individuals with close ties to biotechnology, demonstrators sounded the alarm.
Deborah Vanko, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom: “We feel that giving these scientists the prize is honoring what’s wrong with biotechnology. We really see the World Food Prize as propaganda. We see it as a way to convince the people… kind of like, ‘we’re giving them the prize, so the food must be safe. Rest assured: It’s okay.’”
Critics of genetically modified crops gathered outside the World Food Prize Headquarters this week on several occasions to voice their disapproval of the awarding of this year’s prize to scientists who developed technologies to breed transgenic traits into plant DNA.
The protestors demonized corporate agriculture and said Monsanto – the world’s largest seed producer – is wreaking havoc on the environment all over the world.
Rosnel Jean-Baptste, Haitian Farmer: “We are struggling against Monsanto because Monsanto has distributed their seeds all over the world to destroy nature.”
While critics claim GMOs pose threats to human health and the environment that are not yet fully understood, proponents say biotechnology is absolutely essential to feeding a burgeoning global population.
And this year, the World Food Prize was awarded to three individuals who helped genetically engineer crops to improve yields and increase resistance to insects, disease and adverse environmental conditions.
Dr. Marc Van Montagu, 2013 World Food Prize Laureate: “I’m very, very grateful to the World Food Prize Foundation that they have recognized genetic engineering as a tool that will bring – and has already proven that it can bring progress for feeding those who need it most.”
Dr. Marc Van Montagu of Belgium founded the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach with the mission to assist developing countries in gaining access to the latest biotech developments.”
Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton, 2013 World Food Prize Laureate: “It is my hope that we can put to rest this misguided opposition and convince the public of the safety, benefit and ecological value of this new technology.”
Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton of the United States spent the past three decades implementing technology she developed to be used in the introduction of new and novel genes into plants.
Dr. Robert Fraley, 2013 World Food Prize Laureate: “You know, I tell you that my company and my industry has struggled with public acceptance, but we understand that and we’re changing that.”
And Dr. Robert Fraley who grew up on a small Midwestern grain and livestock farm and was a personal friend of Norman Borlaug.
Fraley is the chief technology officer at Monsanto and he led the introduction of soybeans that were genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate.
Dr. Robert Fraley, 2013 World Food Prize Laureate: “We’ve got biotech crops growing in 30 countries around the world. And there’s so much more potential to come. And we’re gonna’ need it. Because we need to double the food supply to feed 9 billion people by 2050. I think we can do it. But it’s a tremendous challenge and it is the greatest challenge facing us and all mankind in the future.”
For Market to Market, I'm John Nichols.