Pioneers of bioengineering deserve their recognition

  • Updated: October 15, 2013 - 6:49 PM

There’s controversy because two recipients of the World Food Prize now work for corporations, but their research was developed in academia and has made a world of difference.

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This week, leaders from around the world will gather in Des Moines, Iowa, to honor the recipients of the World Food Prize. University of Minnesota alumnus Norman E. Borlaug, the celebrated crop breeder and Nobel Prize Laureate for Peace in 1970, envisioned the prize as a way to recognize creative individuals who have advanced the availability of safe and nutritious food for the world’s people. Since 1987, the prize has paid tribute to scientists, humanitarians, and leaders in politics, business and nongovernmental organizations.

This year’s honorees — Belgian Marc Van Montagu, and Americans Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T. Fraley — are being jointly recognized for key findings that enabled the genetic engineering of crops. Thirty years ago, the awardees independently discovered naturally occurring plant and bacterial processes that they harnessed for new technologies in plant genetics. These new tools swiftly led to the rise of plant biotechnology, changing agriculture by allowing scientists to modify plant traits and introduce novel ones.

The announcement of this year’s awards was met with controversy — in part because of ongoing public debate about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and in part because two of the three honorees currently work for large private companies, Monsanto and Syngenta. Further, some critics say the World Food Prize should have honored different achievements, recognizing solutions from agroecology, supply chain management, or development of policies that impact economic equality and access to food.

The colleges of agriculture at our public universities were established to investigate, teach and encourage discussion of complex disciplines and perspectives related to food production. While the prizewinners may not currently work at universities, all three received training from public institutions, and all three have continued to collaborate with scientists at universities and to have an impact on the public and private sectors. They are shining examples of how important it is to consider difficult scientific questions and to continue to grow our public-private collaborations.

Addressing the challenges of food security and hunger requires all types of innovation, including biotechnology. This is not a simple endeavor. Land and water resources needed to support food production are finite. Extreme weather events such as drought and powerful storms increasingly threaten food security. We need to increase yields while reducing inputs, adapt to a changing environment, mitigate environmental impact, and improve soil and water quality. Continued advances in science and technology can help.

The first and still most widely employed bioengineered traits are enhanced crop resistance to insects and tolerance to herbicides. Some 17.3 million farmers around the world grow enhanced crops. This means that corn, soybeans and cotton, the most widely adopted engineered crops, can be produced with less insecticide and less tillage, which improves soil quality and reduces erosion.

As with any technology, we must vigilantly evaluate effects. For example, herbicide tolerance in some weeds and insecticide resistance of some corn pests indicate that these traits need to be implemented with good stewardship practices.

The importance of the tools that Van Montagu, Chilton and Fraley developed extends well beyond genetic engineering of crops grown on broad scales. Biotechnology tools also have enabled new generations of biologists to test the function of plant genes and identify their functions. Now, with the vast amounts of data from genome sequencing of many plant species, it is possible not only to develop new engineered traits but to select the best traits for yield, drought tolerance, flavor and nutrient value.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the work of the three laureates enabled transformation of agricultural research not only in industry, but also in academia and beyond.

As Norman Borlaug said, “Producing food for 6.2 billion people, adding a population of 80 million more a year, is not simple. We better develop an ever improved science and technology, including the new biotechnology, to produce the food that’s needed for the world today.”

With global population having now topped 7.1 billion and still growing, it is imperative that we keep all the tools in the tool kit.

We are grateful to the World Food Prize committee for recognizing the contributions of Van Montagu, Chilton and Fraley. We know they, like previous World Food Prize laureates and Nobel laureate Borlaug, inspire our students. We look forward to the solutions our current and future students will develop as a result of their own discoveries.

Later this week, when political, business and humanitarian leaders — as well as scientists, farmers and students — convene in Des Moines from around the globe, they will continue a great discussion about how to improve nutrition and food security. These conversations will continue on our university campuses. We encourage everyone to join the inclusive conversation and imagine an end to hunger.

 

Allen S. Levine is former dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota. Kathryn A. VandenBosch is dean and director of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin. Wendy Wintersteen is endowed dean and director of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. This article was also submitted on behalf of Brian Buhr, University of Minnesota; John D. Floros, Kansas State University; Ronnie D. Green, University of Nebraska; Mark A. Hussey, Texas A&M University; Bruce A. McPheron, Ohio State University, and Thomas L. Payne, University of Missouri.

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