World Food Prize controversy

Awarding the prize for developing biotech crops has reinvigorated debate over benefits of genetically modified crops.

Syed Mohammad Ali October 24, 2013
The writer is a development consultant and a PhD student at the University of Melbourne

The decision of awarding this year’s World Food Prize to scientists who were at the forefront of developing genetically modified crops has become the subject of intense controversy.

The World Food Prize is dubbed the Nobel for agriculture, and is meant to be awarded for increasing quality, quantity or the availability of food in the world. The need for such work remains vital given that one in eight people around the world is still suffering from chronic hunger. Yet, the decision to award the prestigious prize to three scientists — two of whom are affiliated with agribusiness corporations (Monsanto and Syngenta) — for developing biotechnological crops has reinvigorated an ongoing debate about the benefits of genetically modified crops and the transnational corporations which own them.

Justifications for awarding these scientists recognise their contribution to producing higher-yielding crops, which can resist insects, disease and extremes of climate. Millions of farmers around the world are now using genetically modified seeds to grow crops.

However, the overall impact of genetic modification of crops remains uncertain. Agribusiness corporations like Monsanto have recently faced pushbacks in countries like India due to disappointing yields using genetically modified cotton. Last year, a Brazilian court decided that Monsanto should pay farmers $2 billion for unjustly collecting royalties on soybeans grown with its patented seeds. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready product line, which was marketed as an easy fix for weeds, has been blamed for an epidemic of herbicide-resistant superweeds, which has driven up total herbicide use and provoked use of more toxic formulations.

The Union of Concerned Scientists in the US points out that genetic engineering has not dramatically increased yields in comparison to agri-ecological practices including conventional crop breeding, cover cropping, crop rotations, and integrating livestock and crop production to balance productivity. These alternatives are also less expensive and more environmentally friendly.

While promotion of agro-ecological techniques is considered capable of producing sufficient food for the world, farming policies favour technological solutions offered by transnational agribusiness concerns not only in developed countries like the US, but in developing countries as well due to the influence of development agencies like the World Bank.

Monsanto alone is estimated to spend an enormous amount of funds to secure political favour. Monsanto and other agricultural companies are also generous sponsors of the World Food Prize itself, which seems to create a conflict of interest when scientists affiliated with such business concerns become award recipients themselves.

The World Food Prize itself was set up by Norman E Borlaug in 1984. Borlaug had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for having launched the ‘Green Revolution’, which vastly increased grain output, but did so with the help of large and middle-sized farmers, who could afford to invest in mechanisation and increased use of fertilisers and pesticides. Large-scale, single-crop farming techniques of the Green Revolution bypassed poorer farmers and had adverse effects on the environment.

The growing obsession with biotechnology poses similar threats. The role of genetically modified crops in fighting world hunger thus remains uncertain. But then again, if Obama could get a Nobel Peace Prize prematurely solely for his rhetorical assertions, even before he commenced his first term in the most powerful office in the world, why not award a prize to influential agribusiness corporations, which make similarly bold claims about the virtues of genetically modified crops.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 25th, 2013.

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Ali Tanoli | 10 years ago | Reply

noble is controversial by its self since the its birth and why third world give so importence to this i dont care and never will.

Toba Alu | 10 years ago | Reply

Good that you question and report on this hugely important subject. Last paragraph meant to be cynical but it does not actually read like it.

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