Recipients of the prize excel in their work anywhere along the food chain – from farm to table – based on quantifiable results. Past laureates have improved soil fertility, enhanced our understanding of nutrition, and developed new scientific methods for improving the quality and yield of rice and grains.
With approximately 870 million people suffering from chronic hunger in our world, a concerted international effort to support and recognize those people working in this important area is a truly worthy cause and effort. In addition to the formal ceremony recognizing this year’s laureates, The World Food Prize program includes The Borlaug Dialogue, a nearly week long series of speakers, panel discussions and scientific information sharing on solutions to our current global hunger challenges and on how to meet the food needs of our future population estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050.
This year’s laureates – Drs. Marc van Montagu, Mary-Dell Chilton, and Robert T. Fraley - were each selected for the contributions they have made in improving the productivity of plants though improved yields, resistance to pests and the ability to continue to thrive despite severe weather changes, all through the use of biotechnology. I encourage you to read about the incredible work of these three accomplished individuals here.
The Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application, established just last year, was also awarded during the week. This award’s purpose is to recognize a young (40 years or younger) individual whose science-based work in the field of agriculture emanates that of Dr. Borlaug in striving to eliminate global hunger. Dr. Charity Mutegi of Kenya received the award for her work to identify the cause of disease in grain which resulted in the death of 125 people in Kenya in the mid-2000s. Having identified the problem, Dr. Mutegi is using biotechnology to prevent future maize from becoming susceptible to the culprit, aflatoxin, a naturally-occurring mold. To learn more about her work in this area, follow this link.
It is clear that global hunger is a complex problem with a number of challenges that must be overcome in order to make real progress in preventing starvation and malnutrition, as well as child stunting. Those include land tenure reform, support for the small holder farmer who is often a woman, and access to quality seeds, technology and markets, to name just a few. However, with all four recipients of the awards at The World Food Prize being recognized for their work in the area of biotechnology, you can imagine that much of the conversation and many of the panel discussions focused around the topics of science and biotechnology. The topic is a timely one as consumers, activists and even entire countries and trade zones seem to be escalating their interests and concerns about biotechnology and genetic modification of seeds.
The most outspoken and committed speakers about the important and even vital role that biotechnology can and must play in order to meet the 2050 challenge were the scientists themselves. To me what validates their determination, however, is their insistence on sound science and responsible regulatory systems to serve as the appropriate processes for moving newly engineered seeds and crops into commercialization for farmers’ use if they choose. It was amazing to me to hear the commitment and confidence of scientists on panel after panel to the role that independent science can and should play in ensuring the credibility of biotechnology in seeds and crops. Among the most vocal was Dr. Charity Mutegi herself who called on scientists to step up to policymaking and regulatory roles so that sound science may truly be carried out. She warned that where there is a void, it will be filled. Furthermore, she challenged the audience that the void should be filled by people who understand the science and can communicate the truth about it.
At The Lugar Center, we, too, are committed to the important role that biotechnology must play in both feeding the 870 million hungry people in today’s world and the 9 billion person world that awaits us in 2050. While there is no magic bullet in solving this enormous challenge, what we do know is that it cannot be achieved without biotechnology. In the days ahead we plan to discuss our work in this area in more detail, and I hope you will follow our discussion.
Lori Groves Rowley is the Director of Global Food Security and Aid Effectiveness at The Lugar Center.