Wednesday, June 19, 2013
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Surprise: 3 Scientists Win Award for Genetically Engineered Plant Research

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Three scientists whose work in the field of biotechnology laid the foundation for the genetically-engineered crops that now dominate American agriculture were awarded the World Food Prize Wednesday.

The award went to Marc Van Montagu, a Flemish plant scientist; Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer; and Mary-Dell Chilton, a science fellow at Syngenta Biotechnology, Inc.

The World Food Prize is an international award established by Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, to celebrate the achievements of people involved in increasing, improving, or protecting the world’s food supply. The $250,000 award has gone to a diverse group of people over the years, from scientists to social justice leaders to policymakers.

Chilton’s work kick-started the field of plant biotechnology in the late 1970s, when her research uncovered a way to insert DNA into plant cells. Working independently of each other, Montagu and Chilton were the first to produce genetically-engineered plants in 1983 while working with the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens. Their method of inserting genes into a plant to change certain characteristics of the plant dramatically altered agricultural practices by setting off decades of genetic crop engineering. Fraley was among those who seized upon the technology, and in 1996, he produced the first commercially available biotech crop — glysophate-resistant seeds, known as RoundUp Ready crops.

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) estimates that crops which have been genetically engineered for resistance against insects, pesticides, or abiotic stresses like drought and heat are now grown on 240 million acres in 28 different countries. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates GE seed varieties account for 94% of all U.S. cotton acres, 88% of all U.S. corn acres, and 93% of all U.S. soybean acres.

This World Food Prize validation of biotechnology comes at an interesting time, when several states are considering labeling genetically-engineered ingredients (as many European countries already do) as part of a larger movement that is critical of the safety and regulation of GE products. The award also comes only days after a report in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability roundly criticized the GE-driven U.S. agricultural system as “not exceptional in yields or conservative on environmental impacts.”

In the last decade, the ubiquity of GE crops in the U.S. has contributed to a new problem: the rapid emergence of insects and weeds that are resistant to the GE technology developed to control them.

However, many industry leaders and scientists praise GE technology as a global hunger solution and the future of crop technology throughout the world. In 2012, for the first time ever, developing countries planted more GE crops than industrial countries like the U.S., according to a report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.

In an AP article, Fraley said biotechnology will enable the farming industry to meet the needs of a growing global population. “We know we need, from a demand perspective, to double food production around the world in the next 30 years,” he said. “The exciting thing is we have the tools available to enable that to happen.”

Both Montagu and Chilton expressed hope that the award would help lessen food safety concerns and promote the spread of GE technology. “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,” Montagu said in a news release from VIB, a Belgium life sciences research center where he is an adviser and former director.

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