Genetically modified crop pioneers honoured with World Food Prize

Laura Rance photo

Des Moines, Iowa / As he pulled away from the airport, our driver tells us he’s been warned to keep an eye out for the protesters who gathered the day before to picket against the recipients of this year’s World Food Prize.

“And I’m thinking, like, how could anybody protest food?” said Larry, the affable pastor’s son who was born in Tennessee, raised in British Columbia, took his military training in Texas and now drives for an executive car service in Iowa.

Larry’s puzzlement didn’t last long as he proceeded to fill us in on how this relatively small Midwestern city has become the headquarters for the country’s biggest insurance companies, Wells Fargo and seed giant Pioneer Hi-Bred.

And how it gets cold here, cold enough that he and his wife have considered moving elsewhere. The rest of Iowa is all about corn, soybeans and raising pigs. “That’s what it’s known for,” he said.

But his question lingered as I took a late-afternoon walk up the six blocks from the hotel to see the Dr. Norman E. Borlaug World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, a magnificent building surrounded by carefully manicured gardens in the city’s centre. Even the World Food Prize, an award celebrating individuals who have contributed to world food security, has become mired in the murky controversies surrounding agriculture and food.

I’m here for the week, tagging along on tours organized for foreign journalists by CropLife International and listening in on the Borlaug Dialogues, a confab to discuss world food security involving hundreds of delegates from all over the world held each year in the days leading up to the UN’s World Food Day Oct. 16.

GM developer recipients

This year’s food prize laureates, who will be honoured at a special ceremony later in the week, are three scientists who pioneered genetically modified crops: Marc Van Montagu, the founder of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach, Mary-Dell Chilton, founder of Syngenta Biotechnology Inc., and Robert Fraley, the chief biotechnology officer for Monsanto.

“Their work has made it possible for farmers in 30 countries to improve the yields of their crops, have increased incomes, and feed a growing global population,” says the citation.

It was an unpopular choice among those opposed to this approach to crop improvement. The Des Moines Register reported about 50 protesters organized a March Against Monsanto to kick off “a week of Occupy World Food Prize events” coinciding with what’s come to be known as the Nobel Prize of Agriculture.

Protesters were quoted as saying they don’t like being “lab rats,” and they want foods made from GM crops, which includes pretty much anything that contains corn and soybeans, to be labelled. But biotechnology has also become the lightning rod for growing concerns about corporate control over the food supply and big farming in general.

Farmers baffled

None of this makes any sense at all to the farmers who remain unwavering in their support for this technology since they first embraced it in the mid-1990s.

“It always amazes me at how people are accepting of the latest thing when it comes to cellphones and gadgets for our houses, but they won’t accept technology when it comes to the crops we grow,” Roger Zylstra, an area farmer and director of the Iowa Corn Growers Association. “I’m a little baffled by that.

“We see the advantages of this technology, we see it in the seed’s ability to grow a crop in the conditions we get,” he said, noting Iowa went from crippling drought to excessively wet spring planting conditions within months. “This technology is really one of the things that helps us stay competitive as producers.”

Gordon Wassenaar, who grows corn and soybeans on 1,500 acres on his farm located about one hour east of Des Moines, said genetically modified crops that offer better weed control are part of a bigger package that includes continued improvements in agronomic and yield genetics. But combined, they’ve had a huge effect on his farm’s productivity.

“In my lifetime, we’ve almost doubled the yields,” he said.

Jeff Wolt, who heads up the Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products at Iowa State University, said people and organizations opposed to GM crops often cite the risks, even though scientific consensus is clear that they pose no unreasonable risks to the health of humans, animals or the environment.

“There are very well-trained, very knowledgeable experts who work for activist organizations that go throughout the world and sow seeds of distrust and fear in terms of this technology. That’s just the way it is,” Wolt said.

“I think there are probably as many different reasons as you could count. Some of them have very honest concerns about the technology, some of them might be anti-multinational companies, others might hold very traditional views, others just might like — some people make their living doing that. It’s no one thing which is why it is so difficult to address.”

But Wolt said the debate is muddied by issues that are “what I consider to be the natural outcome of cropping systems and management.”

Issues such as herbicide-resistant weeds would have existed with or without genetically modified crops, yet are frequently used to condemn them.

“Even if there wasn’t GM crops… we have to deal with pests and the fact that pests build resistance,” he said.

“There are a host of things that are important culturally and economically, but they do not relate to whether these products are going to harm you or I or the environment,” he told a group of journalists.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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