The World Food Prize goes to biotechnology multinationals


19 June 2013. The US State Department in Washington announced this year’s World Food Prize laureates: geneticists Robert Fraley, Marc Van Montagu and Mary-Dell Chilton who will share the sum of $250,000.

The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered the keynote address stating the role of this three scientist in modern plant biotechnology, creating the fundamenta for pesticide and disease resistant crops, as well as crops resistant to extreme weather conditions and the possibility of resolving world hunger by increasing yields and food availability. The award was announced exactly sixty years from the discovery of DNA structure by biochemists Watson and Crick.

Robert T. Fraley (60), Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto said that he is deeply humbled and honored with this extraordinary award: “The world has the technology to feed 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers or ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology? 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 that any differences of opinion that exist.”

Marc Van Montagu (80), is the founder and Chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium. It is also founder of two biotechnology companies: Plant Genetic Systems and Crop Design. After the award, Van Montagu stated that he was honored to receive the award: “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”.

Mary-Dell Chilton (74) was a researcher at Washington University, the founder and Distinguished Fellows of Syngenta Biotechnology where she still works today.

Fraley, Van Montagu and Chilton independently carried out studies in which bacteria were used to insert genes into plant cells. The key microbe was Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which injects its own DNA into plants, causing tumor-like growths called crown gall disease. The researchers disabled the tumorous part of the bacterium and were able to insert desirable genes in selected plant cells. The three teams of experts presented their studies at a conference in Miami in 1983.


What do you need to know?

Ever heard of the World Food Prize? No?

This is because the prize is relevant to a small number of people, mostly scientists and experts in agriculture. Finally, a few days ago after years of struggling, the prize has become known to the public. Now, it comes close as the Oscar in agriculture, or a sort of agricultural Nobel Prize. The winners are the Monsanto CEO, the Danish scientist and the researcher at Syngenta. This year, the World Food Prize awards the idea of biotechnology, genetic manipulation of plants and its pioneers.

The World Food Prize was established in 1987. by American Norman E. Borlaug (Nobel Peace Prize 1970.), still known as the father of the “Green Revolution” which has significantly increased grain production – and consumption of pesticides too. The aim of the World Food Prize is to honor individuals who, through their work, improve the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.

You should know that the World Food Prize is often criticized for favoring industrial agriculture and biotechnology at the expense of non-industrial agricultural methods. It is a private non-profit foundation that is financed by donations from various companies (eg. General Foods). Monsanto itself admitted a $5 million pledge in 2008. Obviously, a skillfully investment.

This award has a PR significance for supporters of GM technology and Monsanto itself as recombinant technology and the corporation are placed in a positive light not even a month after the global protest “March Against Monsanto”. But at the same time, the reward just adds fuel to the fire in a fierce debate about the role of recombinant biotechnology in solving the problem of world hunger. It should be recalled that a study from 2008. that was financed by the World Bank and the UN has shown that GM crops play a marginal role in food shortages and world famine.

The place where this years winners were announced, the U.S. State Department, has been chosen carefully to maximize PR for recombinant biotechnology and the event assumed even greater importance. Bush “deregulation” in the 90’s, with less safety and environmental testing aimed to set up the U.S. as the global biotechnology leader. It’s hard to imagine the announcement of this prize somewhere in Europe.

Interestingly, Fraley was hired by Monsanto in 1981 as the first molecular biologist in the company. Soon he progressed beyond tinkering with plant cells as he rose up the ranks. He had great ambitions and visions of a business empire in the making. As Fraley team was way beyond Van Montagu and Chilton teams, Monsanto financed their work and thereby obtained information that has led the company to domination of biotech businesses. Fraley was also responsible for the intense drive to sell genetically engineered crops in the 1990s. If there is a single person who most personifies Monsanto’s controversial role in agriculture, it is probably Fraley.

Monsanto is known for manufacturing and patenting plant seeds and is the largest producer of pesticide glyphosate in the US. Many wonder if GM crops and patenting of plants are aimed to gain control over world food production and to increase the pesticide sales.

In 2012 genetically modified crops were grown on over 170 million hectares worldwide. The cultivation of GM crops (mainly soybeans, corn, cotton) gives work to 17.3 million farmers, over 90 percent of whom were small resource-poor farmers in. Buying GM seeds commits farmers to use specific pesticides, pay royalties, and they cannot save seeds because of patent infringement.

The New York Times


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