Robert Fraley, Mary-Dell Chilton, Marc Van Montagu (L-R)

Robert Fraley, Mary-Dell Chilton, Marc Van Montagu (L-R)

In 2012, roughly one-quarter of the world’s cropland used biotech crops. Although genetically modified crops, often called GMOs, have been in use for two decades, critics of the technology remain vocal.

This week, the Iowa based World Food Prize is being awarded to three scientists who helped introduce biotechnology into crop production. That includes Robert Fraley, an Illinois native who’s worked for Monsanto since 1981. “For me, it’s been breathtaking,” Fraley said of the technology’s growth. “You know, the first biotech crops – the Roundup Ready soybeans and the Bollgard cottons – were launched in 1996 and today those crops are being grown in 30 countries around the world by tens-of-millions of farmers.”

Fraley, Marc Van Montagu of Belgium and Mary-Dell Chilton, an Indiana native who works for Syngenta, will be formally awarded with the World Food Prize tonight in Des Moines. Chilton credits GMOs for reducing modern agriculture’s impact on the environment. “I really don’t understand the opposition to this technology,” Chilton said. “It’s a technology that reduces, and in many cases eliminates, the need for some agricultural chemicals.”

George Naylor, a member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, grows non-GMO corn and soybeans on a 470 acre farm in Greene County. “I believe that there is so much that we don’t know about what genetic modification does that will result in harmful effects to our health or the environment,” Naylor told Radio Iowa.

Fraley said he’s proud of the safety record of GMO crops. “This technology’s been in the marketplace for 20 years and there is not a single incident of food or feed safety associated with the technology,” Fraley said. “There’s no doubt that these are the most thoroughly studied and safest food products on the marketplace.”

Some critics of GMOs complain they’re created by large corporations that pressure farmers into longterm contracts for their seeds. “When I hear people say that farmers don’t benefit or they’re being coerced somehow to use the technology, I can tell you that is just absolutely false,” Fraley said. “Farmers are making these decisions very carefully. They’re smart businessmen and women and they’re doing it because it improves their operations.”

Fraley claims GMO crops will be especially important as farmers worldwide are challenged with doubling food production in the next 30 years to keep up with the anticipated population boom. “I think the challenges of food security – when you consider that demand, climate change and evolving pests – is the greatest challenge facing humanity today and I can’t believe anyone would not discuss that in the context of the need for innovations,” Fraley said.

Naylor, the farmer from Churdan, isn’t buying the argument. “That argument is intended to sway people’s thinking, but it’s not sound thinking whatsoever,” Naylor said. “Raising corn and soybeans is done to create livestock feed for chickens, dairy cattle, and beef cattle. So, we’re producing meat, milk, and eggs – which only the richest people in the world, basically, can afford to eat.”

Naylor also rejects proponents of GMOs who claim they’ve increased yields and reduced the need for pesticides. Naylor credits plant breeding techniques for improved yields. “The thing is, the pests become resistant to these technologies and you’re destroying a lot of biodiversity, you’re destroying important insects and important weeds,” Naylor said. “Now, you see the monarch butterfly is threatened because Roundup has so thoroughly killed milkweeds across the state.”

The scientists being awarded the World Food Prize say fighting weeds and pests has been and always will be a challenge for farmers. Van Montagu believes opponents of GMOs are misinformed. “Every time there’s an innovation in science, people want to tell scary stories and then people believe the scary stories,” Van Montagu said.