Have you ever heard of the World Food Prize? It is supposed to be an alternative ‘Nobel Prize for Agriculture’ that honors “outstanding individuals who have made vital contributions to improving the quality, quantity or availability of food throughout the world“. The 2013 laureates have just been announced, and have caused a splash – since they are leading biotechnological researchers working in the higher echelons of Monsanto, Syngenta and the like.
To me, it’s a little funny that this announcement has caused so much controversy since it fits perfectly in line with the ideological background of the Prize – its founder even received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for agri-technological advances. Dr. Norman Borlaug is frequently cited as the father of the Green Revolution, which was one of the first big ‘success stories’ of biotechnology.
Past laureates include researchers dedicated to the development of drought-resistant sorghum hybrids, innovations in freshwater aquaculture, and the improvement of the productivity and nutritional quality of maize – though also politicians such as the head of the UN World Food Programme or US senators that spearheaded school feeding programs. A mixed bag, for sure, but more frequently than not with a strong emphasis on the technological aspects of plant genetics and crop science rather than on, say, sustainability or permaculture focuses.
The 2013 laureates – Robert T. Fraley, Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer, Marc Van Montagu, who founded two biotechnology companies, Plant Genetic Systems and Crop Design, and Mary-Dell Chilton, who is at the head of the biotechnology team at Syngenta – were recognized for their achievements in inserting foreign genes, principally genes from the Agrobacterium tumefaciens, into plants, yielding them more resistant to droughts and pests. This development caused a turning point in farmers’ behaviors, leading to a widespread adoption of gene modified crops on 420 million acres around the world, especially in the US. However, as the New York Times article points out, more than 90 percent of the 17.3 million farmers around the world are small farmers in developing countries.
So if you subscribe to the view that (bio-)technological improvements are needed to feed the world, the researchers have certainly contributed a considerable amount to the field. And that is exactly the view the World Food Prize supports – its main donors include the state of Iowa (America’s corn capital), the Rockefeller and Gates foundations (which are pushing for a new green revolution in Africa), and among others Monsanto (which pledged $5 million in 2008).
What goes around comes around, I guess.
More interesting to me was the fact, as Mother Jones pointed out, that John Kerry, the USA’s Secretary of State, was the one announcing the Prize, though it is run by an independent foundation headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa. It seems the US are still continuing their biotech diplomacy strategy then.
Bonus: The Mother Jones article gives a great overview on the US’ policy strategy related to biotechnology, while NPR’s coverage goes a bit more in depth on the history of biotech innovation that lead the researchers to the heads of the corporations they are today – interesting!