THREE scientists were awarded the World Food Prize this year for their independent, individual breakthrough achievements in founding, developing and applying modern agricultural biotechnology.
Marc Van Montagu of Belgium and Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T. Fraley of the U.S. were named winners of the 2013 World Food Prize during a June 19 ceremony at the U.S. Department of State.
"During the last 60 years, the science of molecular genetics, also referred to as new genetics, has opened up uncommon opportunities for shaping the future of agriculture, industry, medicine and environmental protection," said Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, chairman of the World Food Prize Laureate Selection Committee. "It is, therefore, appropriate that the World Food Prize is being awarded this year to some of the pioneers of the new genetics who have opened up opportunities for achieving a balance between human numbers and the human capacity to produce adequate food."
Van Montagu, Chilton and Fraley each conducted groundbreaking molecular research by building on the scientific discovery of the double helix structure of DNA in the 1950s.
Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, president of the World Food Prize, emphasized the impact and potential of the three laureates' work.
"Their research is making it possible for farmers to grow crops with improved yields, resistance to insects and disease and the ability to tolerate extreme variations in climate," Quinn said.
The first biotech crop was planted commercially in 1996. Since then, worldwide acceptance of the benefits of agricultural biotechnology has grown rapidly in a short period of time.
Fraley currently serves as chief technology officer at seed powerhouse Monsanto. He joined the company in 1981 as a senior research associate, and in 1983, he and his team announced the creation of the first genetically modified (GM) plants. Since that time, millions of farmers globally have benefitted from this pioneering research in biotechnology and the ongoing focus on developing advanced breeding technologies.
Fraley said he is deeply humbled by the award and shares it with his team at Monsanto. "I really believe we have just scratched the surface on what is possible in bringing innovation to farmers who deliver food security to consumers around the world," he said.
Chilton's molecular research showed how bacteria could be adapted as a tool to insert genes from another organism into plant cells to produce crop varieties with innovative new traits. As a direct result of her work, in 1996, Ciba-Geigy (now Syngenta) became the first company to commercialize a GM trait in corn.
In the late 1960s, Van Montagu and colleague Jeff Schell (1935-2003) started working with the plant disease known as crown gall. They were the first to discover, in 1974, that Agrobacterium tumefaciens, the plant tumor-inducing soil microbe, carries a rather large, circular molecule of DNA, which they named "Ti plasmid."
They demonstrated that this plasmid is responsible for the formation of the plant tumor. Later, they, Chilton and her research team at the University of Washington demonstrated that a segment of this plasmid, the T-DNA, is copied and transferred into the genome of the infected plant cell.
The recipients will be formally awarded the World Food Prize Oct. 17 during the 27th annual Laureate Award Ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa.
Fraley noted, "The World Food Prize provides us with an important platform to engage in a new global dialogue around enabling farmer access to advanced agriculture tools while ensuring a sustainable food supply for all."
Currently, 870 million people — or one in eight — are hungry. Quinn said scientific advancements will play a critical role in addressing the global challenges of the 21st century of producing more food in a sustainable way while confronting an increasingly volatile climate.
Anti-biotech groups already have started questioning the laureate selections, with the Union of Concerned Scientists claiming that "there is a clear conflict of interest when the World Food Prize is being awarded to scientists who are employed by the companies that sponsor the prize." The group also claims that biotechnology "has had only minor impacts on productivity."