At a glitzy awards ceremony this evening at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, three individuals will be awarded the prestigious World Food Prize. To the dismay of many, all three are experts on genetic engineering and pioneers of its early use in agriculture. Two actually work for agribusiness giants—Monsanto and its Swiss rival, Syngenta—that develop and sell this technology.
My colleague Doug Gurian-Sherman wrote about the winners back in June, when they were first announced, noting that “[while] these awardees have made some important contributions to science, it has not translated into major positive contributions to agriculture and food security—the supposed purpose for awarding the World Food Prize.”
According to the World Food Prize Foundation, the prize is about acknowledging and celebrating “the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.” And the Associated Press this week quoted the foundation’s president invoking world hunger as justification for naming these recipients:
“We’re entering the period that Norman Borlaug worried about. We are facing the greatest challenge in human history, whether we can sustainably feed the 9 billion people who will be on our planet by 2050,” foundation president Kenneth Quinn said.
But here’s the problem: There’s no good evidence that the technology to which these three scientists have devoted their careers is up to that very real challenge. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that it isn’t.
My colleague Mardi Mellon wrote earlier this fall about why the whole notion of “feeding the world” is inappropriate. But whether you agree or not, the fact is that genetic engineering technology hasn’t increased yields substantially.
The tool doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to sustainability, either. As we have shown, it hasn’t helped farmers use fertilizer more efficiently, and it hasn’t significantly improved drought tolerance. And instead of achieving long-term pesticide use reductions, the widespread use of the technology—in particular, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seed and herbicide system—is driving pesticide use way up.
A better prize for Monsanto?
The choice of Monsanto’s Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Dr. Robert Fraley as a prize recipient is particularly galling. Fraley is the man behind Monsanto’s Roundup Ready system of crops engineered to withstand the company’s Roundup herbicide. It was supposed to make weed control easy, and for a while it did.
But while Roundup Ready crops have been enormously popular, they are now proving to be particularly problematic, as Nathanael Johnson reviewed over at Grist just this week. That’s because massive use of Roundup has made many weeds resistant to the chemical, creating “superweeds” that are hard to control. This in turn has led farmers to use ever more herbicides to kill them.
In essence, instead of truly solving farmers’ weed problems, Monsanto and Fraley have made them bigger…“supersized” them, if you will. Perhaps it would have been better to give Fraley and Monsanto a “Supersize Prize” rather than a World Food Prize.
To highlight the superweed problem and other shortcomings of Monsanto’s products, UCS developed an ad campaign rebutting the company’s own advertising claims. I wrote about the ads last year when we launched them here in Washington, DC. And today, World Food Prize recipients and attendees are seeing the ads around Des Moines. We hope it will help people who care about the global food system to understand what little benefit Monsanto is really offering to farmers and hungry people around the world.
What would a true World Food Prize winner look like?
Meanwhile, it’s fair to ask what sorts of achievements would be a better fit for a World Food Prize. Mark Bittman offered a long list of more deserving candidates in the New York Times in back in June. Surely there are many others.
This past spring, UCS unveiled a vision for “healthy farming” that lays out key principles and practices that need to be the focus of agricultural science if we are to meet the dual goals articulated by the World Food Prize representative above—productivity and sustainability. You could boil it down to this:
If you agree, help us spread the word.