World Food Prize laureates advocate genetically modified crops at Norman Borlaug Lecture

Caitlin Deaver

The 12th annual Norman E. Borlaug Lecture, “Scientific Discovery and the Fight to End Global Hunger,” was presented by the three 2013 World Food Prize joint recipients, Marc Van Montagu, Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert Fraley.

Borlaug, known as the father of the Green Revolution and as the “man who fed the world,” established the World Food Prize back in 1986. The prize recognizes the contributions of scientists to the world food supply and health through better nutrition.

Before the lecture started Monday night, Oct. 14, select agriculture students showcased their posters about the research they did while visiting other countries. The laureates went from poster to poster as each student presented their findings. At the end of the lecture, six students had their posters recognized.

“This interaction between scientists and future scientists working together is special,” said Wendy Wintersteen, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “The interaction of the laureates with our students is a real opportunity.”

Van Montagu, Chilton and Fraley, all advocates of genetically modified plants, made innovations in the world of agriculture through their work in molecular biology and plant science. These innovations improved crop yields to feed an ever-growing population.

Genetically engineered crops can now be resistant to disease and insects, tolerate varying climate changes and require less chemical fertilizer.

Van Montagu’s work is marked by his discovery of the Ti plasmid, a large, circular molecule of DNA, while working with the plant disease known as crown gall. This discovery led to the development of the first technology to transfer foreign genes into plants in a stable manner.

Chilton helped make the discovery that the crown gall tumors of plants are caused by the transfer of only a piece of DNA from the Ti plasmid into the host plant. It then becomes part of the plant’s genome.

Fraley’s work mainly focused on the success of “Roundup Ready” seeds. The seeds were resistant to the herbicide known as Roundup. When the fields were sprayed with Roundup, the Roundup Ready crops remained while the weeds were eliminated.

In the lecture, each laureate presented their thoughts on the future.

By 2050, the world’s population is estimated to be 9.6 billion. In order to support that many people, farmers must grow more for less, combating limited farmland and water supplies.

“The future of agriculture is both a very bright one and an important one,” Fraley said. “Food security and having the capability to produce food for, what people are saying, 9 [billion] to

10 billion people by 2050 is both a tremendous challenge and a great career opportunity.”

Being key scientists behind the creation of genetically modified crops, the lecture also focused on the benefits of such crops and how they produce higher yields and causing little, if any, harm.

Chilton said herbicide tolerance makes crops more green, insect control reduces the use of insecticides, genetically modified seeds save farmers money and stressed that no safety problems had been reported since their commercial introduction. She also contested that genetically modified food is safe to eat, nonallergenic and would have a small impact on the environment.

“We’re putting a gene in a seed,” Fraley said. “Every farmer knows what to do with a seed. If you can give them a better seed, you’ve really stepped up their ability to produce yields and that is what’s key.”

At the end of the presentations, ISU President Steven Leath presented each 2013 World Food Prize laureate with an individualized glass plate with their name engraved on it. Each had on it: “Civilization as it is known today could not have evolved, nor can it survive, without an adequate food supply,” a quote from Borlaug, engraved on it.