Thursday, June 27, 2013

My Munchable Soapbox: A Genetically Modified Food Prize

For the past 27 years, an annual prize is awarded to outstanding individuals who have made vital contributions to improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food throughout the world. The World Food Prize emphasizes the importance of nutritious and sustainable food for all people; sounds good. Now for those of you who don't know, the prize was the brainchild of Norman Borlaug, the so-called Father of the Green Revolution. This period from the 1940's through the 1970's saw the creation of high-yielding varieties of major cereal crops, the development and proliferation of chemical fertilizers and pesticides (more on these in a later post). The idea was that these innovations would solve the looming crisis of a hungry world population, remedying food shortages that plagued the developing world. And to a large extent they have improved the food security and nutrition of a large segment of the population in Asia and Latin America.

So why is this year receiving a little more attention than usual from the mainstream media? For one, the model for agricultural development, food, and nutrition has more recently experienced a shift from almost an exclusive focus on technology to considering the role of the environment and the strengths of local people. While there are definitely still more than a fair share of crop breeders and agricultural technologists, winners in the past decade have also included agroforestry champion, Pedro Sanchez and grassroots organizers (of sorts) David Beckman and JoLuck. The three Laureates (as they are called) for 2013, though, sit on the edge - or perhaps even firmly amid - one of the primary controversies in agriculture today.

As NPR put it candidly, "the man from Monsanto" took home the prize. All three of the winners hold prominent places in furthering bioengineered crops - Robert Fraley being the chief technology officer at Monsanto - advancing the state of the art genetically modified food stuffs. Although GMOs are prevalent in the US, particularly for an award that draws upon a global pool of leaders and deals with international issues of hunger, blatantly aligning with the GM side of the coin seems like an alienating move. Beyond the local and organic food movement's opposition to GMOs, the potential applications of GM crops in the context of alleviating hunger have been quite polarizing. 

Ok, ok; I've rambled on quite enough about how this year's Laureates are a little out of the norm (although not out of line with the Borlaugian spirit). So to conclude, I would just like to highlight a lovely piece written by Mark Bittman in his Opinionator column, in which he rapidly lists off a slew of accomplished food systems people who are making a difference without GMOs front and center. He notes, "the real heroes in the world of food are those who ... work to improve the kind of low-input agriculture upon which the majority of the world’s people — and the vast majority of farmers — rely." Well said, Mr. Bittman, well said. Perhaps next year, the World Food Prize folks will take note; they already have nominees galore!

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