Laureates stress biotechnology

Oct 18, 2013

— Scientists remain puzzled by resistance to biotech crops

The three scientists named laureates at the World Food Prize were honored last week for their work developing genetically engineered crops. The scientists spent most of last Wednesday defending the technology.

The World Food Prize, which touts itself as the Nobel Prize of agriculture, is honoring work in biotechnology with a three-person award this year to Robb Fraley, executive vice president for Monsanto Co., Marc Van Montagu from Belgium, chairman of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach, and Mary-Dell Chilton, a plant biotechnology researcher who is a founder and now distinguished fellow at Syngenta Biotechnology Inc.

Speaking at a press conference Wednesday, all three of the World Food Prize award winners said more biotechnology work will be needed to feed the growing global population. Just recently, the United Nations raised projections for population in 2050 to more than 9.5 billion people.

“There are going to be a lot of hungry people here,” Dell-Chilton said. “I hope that you will at least give a balanced view of the safety, the utility of these biotech tools. We’re going to need them, believe me.”

Fraley said gene mapping has changed crop breeding from the trial and error that Borlaug faced as he labored to produce a better wheat variety. “Literally, today, plant breeders have complete knowledge of every single gene in a crop. With that information, they can breed more precisely, they can breed faster and they can create new combinations. Really, today breeders are molecular breeders. That’s why the advances of technology in the green and gene revolutions have really converged.”

Biotech labeling was raised with the laureates. The laureates argued that labeling was used in Europe to build resistance to the technology. They resisted mandatory food labels.

“We already have organic labels,” Dell-Chilton said.

“What more do we need than that?” She added, “I think it would be the death of the technology in an obligatory sense if we have mandatory labeling.”

Van Montagu said more research is needed to examine other crops, particularly those critical to nutrition in developing countries. Unfortunately, Van Montagu said there is a scientific regression in some parts of the world.

“In many countries, especially in Europe, the reaction against GMOs is so strong that people don’t get grants anymore to do even fundamental science,” Van Montagu said. “That is dramatic and it will lead to further delays.”

Van Montagu hoped that biotech potatoes could influence views in Europe. The wet climate in Europe causes constant problems with fungus. Researchers are trying to create a fungus-resistant potato.

“Breeding is essential to making the plant, but it is too slow in bringing the innovations we will need to help feed the population and solving ecological problems,” Van Montagu said.

“We need to push hard and communicate and make sure people understand these technologies have been thoroughly tested and their safety has never, ever been compromised,” Fraley said. He reiterated that in 20 years of commercial use, there has not been a single incident proving genetically engineered food or feed was unsafe. “The science has an incredible track record of benefit and safety, and that’s really the key.”

Van Montagu said biotech supporters also have to understand there is a group of people who will never trust the science. Further, most people see biotechnology as only helping farmers, even though improved yields lower retail prices of food. “They (consumers) have to see there is something in it for them.”

Fraley noted rumor and resistance has always surrounded agricultural innovation. Borlaug was challenged in India and Pakistan by people who said growing Borlaug’s wheat varieties from Mexico would turn lands sterile. Or eating the wheat would make kids sterile.

“It seems kind of silly today to have those kinds of conversations, but you see them occurring,” he said. — Chris Clayton, DTN