UNLIKE the celebration the late Dr. Norman Borlaug received for encouraging farmers during the Green Revolution of the 1970s, the scientists and companies advancing biotechnology today are not receiving the same warm reception.
Heading into this year's World Food Prize, there was plenty of criticism about the naming of this year's World Food Prize laureates to three biotech pioneers who for 30 years helped lay the scientific foundation for the advancements seen today with increasing productivity using fewer resources.
In a keynote address to attendees at the World Food Prize Oct. 17, the Vatican's Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson questioned why there is such displeasure and distrust in the biotechnology movement today.
Turkson — who also spoke at a side event by Occupy World Food Prize, a group that opposes the use of biotechnology — said he promoted a dialogue that coincides with the principles of Christianity, which are to listen, show patience and have a willingness to be open to discussion.
Turkson encouraged a dialogue focused on advancing knowledge and science and the search for the truth regarding biotechnology. He said at the base of the biotech dialogue should be moral parameters.
That includes having a "spirit of courage" to face up to the challenge of hunger and recognize that more needs to be done on behalf of the poor. Ethics should also guide all human endeavors. Researchers should work to satisfy the respect of every human being, not just for profits.
This standard is exemplified by Mary-Dell Chilton, distinguished Syngenta scientist and one of this year's laureates. She comes into the lab each day with a desire to advance the knowledge of science, Syngenta's head of biotechnology Michiel van Lookeren Campagne told World Food Prize attendees. He, too, said each day, his motivation to go to the lab isn't for a paycheck but a desire to advance science.
Turkson suggested that researchers also need to be prudent and exercise a certain level of caution to take every reasonable step to avoid risk to human health and the environment.
He also said transparency is important, and consumers have a right to information, noting that "what makes us human is the power to choose."
Access is critical to allow for fair ways to ensure that developing countries have access to technology that can help them achieve a zero hunger objective.
Dr. Robert Fraley, another one of this year's laureates and chief technology officer at Monsanto, said the challenge the world faces over the next 37 years to double food production is a "daunting task," and as one of this year's winners, it has allowed a forum to "reset the discussion."
Fraley recognized that, as a company, Monsanto has not done a good job of reaching consumers and instead has focused on efforts to farmers, which has resulted in a key part of adoption of technology. "We've done more listening and trying to conduct more dialogues," Fraley said.
From feedback, he said the world doesn't see Monsanto as a seed company, but instead, consumers see the company as the first step in the food chain. In the future, he said Monsanto will be looking to increase the level of transparency and using different approaches to go with earning the trust of consumers.
Fraley said the dialogue is important, and understanding and building trust around the world is crucial so that the "technology can have the impact that we so much need from it."
Chilton noted that the initial biotech products were single genes that provided changes a farmer could appreciate, but not changes end users would appreciate. "I think, in the future, we are at a place change where more biological traits will affect the end product that consumers can appreciate," she said.
Fraley added that he's optimistic that the tools in biotechnology are incredible, with new genes and breeding scientific advancements just at the tip of the iceberg.
Marc van Montagu, the third 2013 World Food Prize laureate, added that science brings so many surprises. Although there is reluctance to use it in food crops today, situations such as citrus greening could change that situation.
"If someone rapidly comes up with a (biotech) solution to that disease, everybody will want those oranges," he said.
One of the most disheartening mistruths circulated regarding biotechnology is its safety. Fraley explained that each new biotech variety must be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, Food & Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture, whereas a drug requires approval only from FDA.
Fraley said that reinforces the fact that biotech crops go through one of the most rigorous regulatory systems. He cited more than a thousand studies confirming that the track record for safety is "impeccable."
However, the cost of approximately $150 million for regulatory work to achieve final approval of any new biotech trait prevents the advancement of new technologies being used for smaller crops and some of the most important crops from a smallholder perspective, Fraley added.