The winner of a prestigious prize for fighting world hunger is… a Monsanto executive who has played a major role in developing genetically engineered crops.
Yes, that is correct.
The World Food Prize was first given in 1986 to recognize some who improves the “quality, quantity or availability” of food in the world. Norman E. Borlaug, the founder of the “Green Revolution,” was the creator of the prize.
This year, Monsanto executive vice president and chief technology officer Robert T. Fraley is sharing the prize (and it’s a $250,000 cash prize) with two scientists, Marc Van Montagu and Mary-Dell Chilton. The three were once rivals: 30 years ago, each separately presented research about their experiments inserting genes into plants. Van Montagu and Chilton have both worked for biotechnology companies.
The choice of Fraley, who was hired as a molecular biologist in 1981 by Monsanto, has drawn far more attention than ever to the prize. Last year, its recipient was Daniel Hillel, a longtime advocate of micro-irrigation, a new mode of bringing water to arid regions. “In foodie terms, [Fraley winning the prize] is like a commercial blockbuster winning best picture rather than an independent, artsy film,” the New York Times comments.
Fraley has been heavily responsible for marketing and promoting GMO crops, which could be called Monsanto’s latest “commercial blockbuster” product. While GMOs have been widely touted as the solution to world hunger, it is clear that they deliver something a bit different than expected. For quite a few reasons, this casts more than a bit of doubt about the choice of Fraley (and others whose work has been in developing GMOs) for the World Food Prize.
1. No one knows how GMO food will affect our health.
A recent study found that pigs fed GMO corn and soy feed had a notably higher rate of severe stomach inflammation. A study published last September found that rats fed GMO corn developed tumors and died prematurely.
No extensive studies have yet been done on the effects of GMOs on humans. Some potential risks include the introduction of new allergens in our food supply and the development of antibiotic resistance.
2. Some insects are already evolving to become resistant to GMOs.
Rootworms are becoming resistant to GMO crops — disturbingly, as one of the”advantages” of GMOs was supposed to be that insecticides would not have to be used on them. Indeed, sales of corn insecticide made by Syngenta (the company that Chilton is a scientist at) more than doubled in 2012 as a result of “increased grower awareness” of rootworm resistance in the U.S.
3. Monsanto has contributed generously to the the World Food Prize Foundation.
In 2008, Monsanto gave the foundation a pledge of $5 million. The World Food Prize Foundation has also been previously criticized for favoring industrial agriculture; giving the prize to a Monsanto executive seems unlikely to change such criticism.
4. It is illegal to import GMOs to some parts of the world, due to concerns about their safety.
The European Union, Japan and other countries do not allow GMO seed or crops to enter their borders. The EU categorizes GMOs as “new foods” which must be subjected to extensive scientific testing on a case-by-case basis by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). After an illegal strain of GMO wheat was recently found on a farm in Oregon, Japan was so concerned that it suspended some wheat imports from the U.S.
GMO seed has been imported to and cultivated in countries in Africa and Asia (including India and China). But millions of small-scale farmers in Africa have repeatedly objected to using GMO crops and want their governments to ban them.
5. GMO crops could wipe out seed diversity.
Farmers in Africa are rejecting GMO crops not only because of the little that we know about them. As Million Belay and Ruth Nyambura write in the Guardian, small-scale African farmers are more than wary about how GMO crops could affect traditional farming practices developed over centuries.
Traditional African farming systems have indeed “developed an incredible diversity of seed varieties, which are able to deal with the multiple challenges of farming.” Many types of seeds have been bred for flavor and nutrition and have also “evolved with local pests and diseases and are adapted to different soils and weather patterns.” Using them, Belay and Nyambura emphasize, is “a far better strategy of resilience than developing a single crop that is bound to fail in the face of climate change.”
Even more, because companies like Monsanto make saving GMO seed illegal, small-scale farmers in Africa could face a huge dilemma. 80 percent of farmers in Africa save seed, say Belay and Nyambura, and “how are they supposed to protect the varieties they have developed, crossed and shared over generations from GM contamination?” Maintaining seed diversity and promoting healthy soil ecology are essential to “real food security” and a strategy more than worthy of recognition — maybe the World Food Prize Foundation will take note of such when choosing future prize recipients.
Photo credit: Thinkstock
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