Monsanto Executive Is Among World Food Prize Winners
Published: June 19, 2013
For the first time in its 27-year history, a prestigious award for enhancing the global food supply has gone to a creator of genetically modified crops, a top scientist at Monsanto. The choice is likely to add more heat to an intense debate about the role biotechnology can play in combating world hunger.
Robert T. Fraley, Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer, will share the $250,000 World Food Prize with two other scientists who helped devise how to insert foreign genes into plants: Marc Van Montagu of Belgium and Mary-Dell Chilton of the United States.
The announcement was made in Washington on Wednesday, accompanied by a speech from Secretary of State John Kerry.
The prize was started in 1987 by Norman E. Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for bringing about the Green Revolution, which vastly increased grain output, and who thought there should be a Nobel Prize for agriculture. The award is given to those who improve the “quality, quantity or availability” of food in the world.
The prize has some public relations value for Monsanto, potentially buttressing the case for bioengineered food, which has met with some resistance around the world.
The World Food Prize Foundation said the work of the three scientists led to the development of crops that can resist insects, disease and extremes of climate, and are higher-yielding.
Genetically engineered crops, which for the most part contain genes from bacteria, now account for roughly 90 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the United States. Globally, genetically modified crops are grown on 420 million acres by 17.3 million farmers, over 90 percent of them small farmers in developing countries, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, an organization that promotes use of biotechnology.
But the crops are shunned in many countries and by many consumers, who say the health and environmental effects of the crops have not been adequately studied. And the role the crops can play in increasing yields and helping farming adapt to climate change is still subject to some debate. One study organized by the World Bank and United Nations concluded in 2008 that genetically modified crops would play only a small role in fighting world hunger.
“I’m sure there will be some controversy about it,” Kenneth M. Quinn, the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, said in an interview before the winners were announced. “At the same time the view of our organization and our committee is that in the face of controversy, you shouldn’t back away from your precepts. If you do so, you are diminishing the prize.’’
Mr. Quinn, a former United States ambassador to Cambodia, said crop biotechnology had “met the test of demonstrating it would impact millions of people and enhance their lives.’’
Mr. Quinn is not a member of the committee that selects the prize winners. That committee is led by M. S. Swaminathan, an Indian geneticist and the winner of the first World Food Prize in 1987. The names of the other committee members are kept secret to shield them from lobbying.
The winners of the 2013 prize were part of teams that independently developed methods three decades ago for putting foreign genes into the DNA of plants.
The key was a soil microbe called Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which can inject its own DNA into plants, causing a tumorlike growth called crown gall disease. The researchers disabled the tumor-causing part of the bacterium and inserted the gene that they wanted to be carried into the plant’s DNA.
Scientists from the three teams, which were fiercely competing with one another, presented their results at a conference in Miami in January 1983. That essentially marked the birth of the crop biotechnology business, though it took more than a decade for the first genetically modified crops to come to market.
Dr. Van Montagu, who did his research at Ghent University, founded two biotechnology companies, Plant Genetic Systems and Crop Design.
Dr. Chilton, who did much of her research at the University of Washington and Washington University in St. Louis, became the core of the biotechnology team at Syngenta, where she still works.
Monsanto started later than the other two teams, but it helped finance their work and was therefore able to learn from them and catch up, eventually dominating the crop biotechnology business, according to “Lords of the Harvest,” a book about Monsanto by Daniel Charles.
A big reason was Dr. Fraley, who was hired by Monsanto as a molecular biologist in 1981 but soon moved beyond tinkering with plant cells as he rose up the ranks at the company.
He harbored “oversized ambitions and visions of a business empire in the making,” Mr. Charles wrote. The book described Dr. Fraley as “preternaturally self-confident” and driven, a Midwest farm boy who did not want to go back to the tractor and instead preferred the perks of corporate life, like fancy clothes and sports cars.
Monsanto’s biggest successes have been soybeans and other crops that can tolerate its herbicide Roundup, allowing farmers to kill weeds without harming the crop.
Dr. Borlaug, the founder of the food prize, who died in 2009, was a big supporter of the technology. Past winners have included scientists, politicians and leaders of advocacy and charity groups.
The prize was endowed by John Ruan, an Iowa trucking magnate and philanthropist who died in 2010. But the prize foundation also receives contributions.
Of the roughly $8 million in contributions received in 2011, Monsanto gave $40,000, Syngenta nearly $50,000 and DuPont Pioneer, a seed company, $280,000, according to the foundation’s report to the Internal Revenue Service. Far bigger contributions were received from the state of Iowa, where the prize foundation is based, and from some nonprofit organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation.