DES MOINES - The World Food Prize Foundation on Wednesday took the bold step of awarding this year's prize to three pioneers of plant biotechnology whose work brought the world genetically modified crops.
The private nonprofit foundation, which is in part funded by biotechnology companies, refused to shy away from the controversy surrounding genetically modified crops that organic food advocates say are harmful to people and the environment.
"If we were to be deterred by a controversy, that would diminish our prize," said the foundation's president, Kenneth Quinn, a retired U.S. diplomat.
This year's award goes to Marc Van Montagu, founder and chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium; Mary-Dell Chilton, founder and researcher at Syngenta Biotechnology; and Robert Fraley, chief technology officer at Monsanto.
Van Montagu and Chilton independently developed the technology in the 1980s to stably transfer foreign genes into plants, a discovery that set up a race to develop tools to genetically engineer plants. It allowed other scientists to incorporate genetic traits in plants to better withstand drought, extreme heat and to fight off pests and disease. Fraley was the first to successfully transfer immunity to specific bacteria into a plant.
Fraley genetically engineered the first herbicide-resistant soybean in 1996.
The foundation lists Monsanto and Syngenta Foundation among its annual donors, along with other agribusiness corporations such as DuPont Pioneer, Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill.