The awarding of the 2013 World Food Prize to three Monsanto scientists has sparked a lot of debate and reactions from people within and outside of the industry.
The Global Food Prize, awarded since 1987, was conceived by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug, and emphasizes the importance of a nutritious and sustainable food supply for all people. The backlash that took place is understandable if one considers all the legal actions, investigations and ethical battles in which Monsanto has been involved.
The three scientists in the field of biotechnology, who are honoured with the prize, Dr. Robert T. Fraley, Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton, and Dr. Marc Van Montagu, deserve it. Their work and dedication in their field are in line with the very principles of this award.
The endeavours of all three scientists have been motivated by a well-defined idea: to create plants that are more resistant to diseases and/or unfavourable conditions in nature, in different countries all over the world. They are pioneers of DNA engineering in the agro-industry.
Meanwhile, experts from all over the world expressed their critical view towards the nominees. This is due to their views and concerns on the role of biotech on the environment, both short and long-term. It looks like the main issue brought up was whether a Monsanto executive has the right to receive this prize or not, due to the company’s practices.
However, it is not the Monsanto executive that received the prize. It’s the accomplished scientists.
Fraley is an academic who has a PhD in microbiology and biochemistry from the University of Illinois, and landed at Monsanto first as senior research specialist in 1981. Essentially, Fraley climbed the career ladder at Monsanto, and became responsible for the research and development departments of this company. His position is clearly stated as executive vice president and chief technology officer whose direct responsibilities are to oversee Monsanto’s integrated crop and seed agribusiness technology and research. He is essentially responsible for a lab, but on a bigger scale, and has nothing to do with the patent battles or anti-trust investigations.
The same thing has to be said about the two other nominees.
Chilton holds a PhD in chemistry also from the University of Illinois. She is a distinguished science fellow at Syngenta Biotechnology, Inc., another biotech company also working to solve the issue on growing more crops from fewer resources.
Van Montagu has a PhD in organic chemistry and biochemistry. He is the founder and chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach, which is a biotech company that specializes in the development of insect-resistant transgenic plants.
We live in a society in which words like ‘biotechnology’, ‘transgenic’, and ‘genetically modified’ are still associated with a futuristic world struggling under apocalyptic consequences. It will take a few generations in order for this mentality to disappear.
The breakthroughs these scientists have made concern the farmers, the producers of those goods we comfortably find on the shelves. Thanks to new biotech tools, farmers can secure the planned yield despite the risk of the corn or rice they planted being affected by insects, diseases, or an unexpected draught. They are the ones who are in need and can appreciate the advantages from those crops.
These scientists merit the prize, not the response they are receiving. They are true role models and are scientists who decided to tackle an issue that affects many head on.