Three scientists who helped introduce biotechnology into crop production will share the 2013 World Food Prize. The Iowa based award is often referred to as the “Nobel Prize for agriculture.”
Marc Van Montagu, Mary-Dell Chilton, and Robert Fraley will be formally awarded with the World Food Prize at the Iowa State Capitol on October 17, but they were identified as this year’s winners today during a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
The 60-year-old Fraley is an Illinois native who’s worked on genetic engineering of crops for Monsanto since 1981.
“The biotechnology area has been really exciting and it’s also had some controversy, so the fact that the World Food Prize chose to recognize the three individuals who really helped move biotechnology into crops is really special,” Fraley told Radio Iowa.
Among other things, critics of biotechnology in agriculture have raised concerns about the safety of food produced from genetically modified crops.
Fraley believes supporters and critics of GM crops should find common ground in the challenge of doubling food production in the next 30 years to keep up with the anticipated population boom.
“I think the only way to really do that is to use technologies like biotechnology, molecular breeding, and new information based technologies that can provide growers with new tools,” Fraley says.
The biotech crop debate has always been a hot topic during the World Food Prize festivities, but Fraley says it will obviously be ramped up a notch this year.
“I really look forward to kind of resetting the stage and the important dialogue around new technologies in agriculture,” Fraley said. For roughly three decades, Mary-Dell Chilton has been in a bit of a battle with Fraley as she works for Monsanto’s top competitor, Syngenta. Chilton notes more countries are beginning to accept GM crops from the U.S.
“I think it helps to emphasize the safety and normalcy of genetically engineered crops,” Chilton said. The “easy work” on agricultural biotechnology has been completed, according to Chilton. While scientists continue to alter plants cells to produce more food, Chilton said they can also make food more nutritious.
“An example of that would be the vitamin A enrichment in the golden rice crop and projects of that kind,” Chilton said. “We certainly know how to do that sort of thing and if we can persuade the public that’s an acceptable food crop, I think much more of that will be done in the future.”
While Chilton and Fraley are from the United States, Marc Van Montagu is from Belgium. He’s the founder and chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University. The World Food Prize was created in 1986 by Cresco, Iowa native Norman Borlaug, who’s known as the “Father of the Green Revolution.” Borlaug died in September 2009 at the age of 95.