World Food Prize protests bring forth GMO debate

Varad Diwate

The World Food Prize was in controversy this year as a small group of protesters demonstrated outside the Capitol during the award ceremony in October in Des Moines.

The protests brought forth the debate over genetically-modified seeds and crops. GM crops and plants have had their DNA artificially modified for a particular outcome, such as resistance to pests.

The few dozen people gathered protested against the World Food Prize and genetically-modified crops as the three laureates this year are associated with biotechnology companies.

The protest was attended by 50 people including peasants from Haiti and Brazil, said Frank Cordaro, an organizer of the protest labelled Occupy World Food Prize. Two protesters were arrested by state police officers.

According to the World Food Prize website: “The World Food Prize is an international award recognizing … the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.”

The prize was established by Nobel Prize laureate Norman Borlaug.

“The problem is the prize and not the recipients,” Cordaro said. “This year, the people in corporate agriculture named three GMO architects to be their recipients which exposed the lie that it is a World Food Prize. … In recent history, it has been the corporate world food prize

“The prize is a branding tool to win the hearts and minds of people in the Third World to buy into this model.”

The World Food Prize said it has given space to critics and invited people on both sides of the issue.

We understand there are strongly held views about biotechnology, but believe protests directed at World Food Prize are misdirected,” said a spokeswoman from World Food Prize organization via email.

She said the prize has been awarded to a “wide array of people … including people who have worked on biocontrol and agro-ecology” and that the conference “includes stage farmers from around the globe” and “grassroots leaders.”

Cordaro said the prize recipients have worked for or have been dependent on corporate agriculture. The prize has been tied to the corporate system and in Iowa that means agriculture. He said GMOs can exist only in a corporate system and are responsible for degradation of the environment.

“We are facing a lot of challenges in agriculture,” said Patrick Schnable, distinguished professor of agronomy at Iowa State. “Weather is becoming variable with global climate change. Crops aren’t designed to handle this instability.”

Schnable said his research areas include genetics, molecular biology and plant breeding.

Proponents of biotechnology also argue for increasing food production through technology to feed the growing world population.

We need these technologies to build the crops of the future to have stable and relatively abundant food production,” Schnable added. 

Schnable said GMOs are not different in the sense that seeds and plants have always been modified. However, GMOs have a “precision” which was previously not found.

In the past, native crops were cross-pollinated with cultivated crops to build up resistance in successive crops, he said. This procedure brought a lot of genes which were not useful in the cultivated crop.

Genetically-modified seeds have a particular strand of the DNA that is manipulated to make a crop resistant to bugs, pests, drought and other natural causes. However, GMOs cannot help with the arms race between pests on crops and human efforts to conquer them, Schnable said. 

“Pests will develop resistance to natural genes or GM technology genes. This will go on forever. We are not going to eliminate that,” Schnable said. “This is why we need corporations to invest in R&D. If we quit the race,  the pathogens will win.”

Other concerns include patented seeds which means farmers would have to buy new seeds for every plantation cycle.

“The question of how this [agricultural model] gets implemented is different from the technology. We should debate as a society how intellectual property rights are enforced, but that is a different debate,” Schnable said. “We shouldn’t be afraid of technological advancements, per se. ”