Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

In praise of this year’s World Food Prize Laureates

By David Zilberman

We recently learned that the 2013 World Food Prize was awarded to three biotechnology scientists, Marc Van Montagu of Belgium, and Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T. Fraley of the United States, for developing methods of inserting genes from various organisms to plant cells. I find this recognition to be justified and long overdue. The committee took the long-view approach in recognizing breakthrough achievements that allowed for the unleashing of the potential of molecular biology on food production. Applications of molecular biology in medicine have introduced new therapies and thus been recognized by the Nobel committee. The development of transgenic methods has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and address problems of hunger, food availability, energy and address climate change. One can view the development of the GM to be akin to the introduction of an enabling technology, such as the smartphone- and every new variety it generates is akin to a new app.

The methods developed by these scientists have already been widely applied. In 2012, genetically modified [GM] varieties were utilized by 17.3 million farmers on over 170 million hectares. My own research suggests that they contributed to the increase in the supply of corn by an estimated average of 10%, cotton by 17.5% and soybean 20% in 2010. We further found that without these technologies, the price of corn would have been higher by an estimated 20% in corn, 26% in cotton and more than 40% in soybean. These lower prices that resulted from GM, benefited mostly the poor. The price of food would have been even lower, had it been applied to rice and more widely to corn. Moreover, these new methods have opened up discoveries of various genes are likely to lead to further development of new varietal improvements that can enhance food supply and quality, while contributing to the goal of making agriculture more environmentally sustainable. These new methods also have obvious environmental benefits: they contribute to the reduction of the agricultural food print by increasing yields, and lead to the reduction of use of toxic chemicals. Of course, GM is not a perfect technology, but all major national academies of science do not find them to be more harmful than conventional farming (as well as organic). For me, the most important environmental contribution is the potential of new varieties that can quickly adapt to climate change. To me, climate change is an existential threat, and effective capacity to mitigate and adapt to it, is of immense value.

Thus far, transgenic technology has not met its full potential. Even though it has done wonders for the few crops to which it has been applied, only 25% of the cropland of corn uses these technologies and for the rest of the corn cropland located mostly in developing countries (where the yield effects could be much more significant), have not benefited at all from these technologies. There are hundreds of traits that have been introduced but they are ‘on the shelf’ because of the reluctance of industry and governments to invest in technologies with an uncertain fate. Hopefully this recognition will help to streamline the acceptance of these technologies.

Two of the laureates were associated with major agribusiness; Fraley is Chief Technology Officer of the big villain Monsanto and Dell-Chilton is a founder of Syngenta Biotechnology. One objection to trangenics is that they are produced by large multinationals, but the nature of the technology and the regulatory systems require large investment, complex organizational capacity and honestly the private sector could not have developed by itself in the same way that the private sector did not independently develop the personal computer, cellphones, medicine, etc. I especially appreciate that companies like Monsanto who were vilified and threatened, had the conviction to pursue a controversial technology that provided a tool that has the potential to benefit humanity from years to come. This does not mean that Monsanto is perfect; it must be regulated. Society’s challenge is to regulate industry, not kill it. We need to channel the power of creativity of the private sector to benefit humanity and give up on modernity as we face new challenges. Rather find a way to use the political and regulatory system and civil society to take advantage of the new tools and advanced institutions we have. Biotechnology is only one tool. And it can be applied rigorously and compatible with organic farming, precision farming and can even enhance the movement from monoculture to integrated systems.

The World Food Prize was established due to the efforts of Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution has been also vilified because it failed to solve some problems, it was associated with monoculture in many places, poverty is still with us; but the Green Revolution also saved millions of lives. When I was growing up, leading scholars suggested that we may not have a choice but to leave many in Asia and Africa to perish because of the limited carrying capacity of land. Borlaug showed that with ingenuity and technology, we could indeed feed Africa, Asia and now it is flourishing. I still believe that population, together with climate change are two major challenges facing humanity, however modern science and the courage to pursue is one way to address these challenges. Like the Green Revolution, the Gene Revolution launched by the three laureates, is far from perfect. But it is awesome, and well deserving of the recognition of the World Food Prize.