Biotech top of mind at symposium

World Food Prize event will highlight role of biotechnology, sustainability and climate volatility in feeding the world.

ALL eyes will be on Iowa during the three-day World Food Prize symposium that coincides with the centennial observance of Dr. Norman Borlaug's birth in 1913.

More than 1,000 scientists, policy experts, political leaders, humanitarians and business leaders from more than 65 countries will gather in Des Moines, Iowa, Oct. 13-16 to discuss "The Next Borlaug Century: Biotechnology, Sustainability & Climate Volatility."

It has been called the "premier conference in the world on global food security," and this year, it again looks to live up to the claim with a schedule of events and speakers that hope to keep to the legacy first planted by Borlaug to look ahead to the next century of advances in agricultural research and application and focus on the issues Borlaug would have viewed as critical in striving to nourish the world's growing population.

The event won't be without its controversy this year, though, which is stemming from an earlier announcement of the recipients of the World Food Prize Laureate Awards to three pioneers of agricultural biotechnology, putting a spotlight on the debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The selections have "led to sharp criticism and engendered significant debate," Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, president of the World Food Prize, said in an editorial in the Des Moines Register Oct. 4.

Winners of the prize for 2013 are Marc Van Montagu of Belgium and Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T. Fraley of the U.S. Their discoveries have enabled farmers to feed more people by growing more crops with improved yields that use less water and bear resistance to disease, insects, heat and drought.

Van Montagu, Chilton and Fraley will speak in multiple venues and will be honored during a ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol on Oct. 17 for their independent, individual breakthrough achievements in founding, developing and applying modern agricultural biotechnology.

Fraley currently serves as chief technology officer at seed company powerhouse Monsanto. Chilton is founder and distinguished fellow of Syngenta Biotechnology.

Anti-biotech groups have claimed that the appointments call into question the corporate influence over the event.

An anti-biotech group known as Occupy the World Food Prize is planning demonstrations and picketing of the World Food Prize symposium. Led by former Texas agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower, the group also plans to host one of the featured speakers at the event, Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice & Peace at the Holy See in the Vatican.

Turkson, of Ghana, has gone on record as opposing GMOs. Since 2009, in serving for the Vatican, he has focused on the importance of addressing food security issues long term by respecting the land and rural populations and promoting agricultural development in poorer countries. He will give the luncheon address on Thursday during the Borlaug Dialogues.

Quinn said one critic of biotechnology from the "occupy" movement, with whom he met for 2.5 hours, said there is no middle ground possible on the topic. "In her view, genetically modified crops undercut the sustainability of the Earth's resources and can be harmful to humans," he said.

Nevertheless, the question that will be debated at the World Food Prize is "whether we are really prepared to exclude a technology that may help these poorest, poverty-stricken farmers," Quinn said.


Conference highlights

Former Prime Minister of Great Britain Tony Blair, in his current role as patron of the Africa Governance Initiative, will speak on a panel titled "40 Chances," which represents the number of growing seasons a farmer can expect during his or her lifetime.

With the theme of "Redefining the Fight Against Hunger, Poverty & Suffering," this panel will also include Howard G. Buffett, farmer and president of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and Ritu Sharma, founder and chief executive officer of Women Thrive Worldwide.

The panel will focus on the drivers of food security, including aid effectiveness, trade, private-sector investment and technological innovation. It will also announce new joint programming designed to foster market-based solutions for addressing global challenges related to hunger, poverty and conflict.

"With an eye on wiping famine off the face of the Earth, the World Food Prize serves as a catalyst to promote dialogue and acceptance for sustainable stewardship of biotechnology and natural resources," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) said in an editorial ahead of the event. "From food and agriculture science and technology to manufacturing, marketing, nutrition, economics, poverty alleviation, political leadership and the social sciences, the World Food Prize focuses all eyes on feeding the hungry."

Volume:85 Issue:42

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