It is a prize from Monsanto to Monsanto, says one NGO

A selection committee chaired by M.S. Swaminathan awarding the World Food Prize for 2013 to three scientists including American multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto’s chief technology officer, despite prevalent controversies and concerns over the technology of genetically modified organisms, has added fuel to the worldwide GMO debate.

The honour and cash prize of $250,000 is shared by Robert T. Fraley, Monsanto’s executive vice-president and chief technology officer, Marc Van Montagu, founder of Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach in Belgium, and Mary-Dell Chilton, Founder and Fellow of Syngenta Biotechnology.

In a written statement issued during a ceremony to announce the prize in Washington, Professor Swaminathan said the award was especially fitting this year. “The World Food Prize is awarded this year to some of the pioneers of the New Genetics who have opened up opportunities for achieving a balance between human numbers and the human capacity to produce adequate food.”

The World Food Prize Foundation said the work of the three scientists in biotechnological research (involving insertion of foreign genes into plants) had led to the development of a host of high yielding and pest-resistant GM crops.

Reactions

Non-governmental organisations, however, say that despite claims that genetically engineered crops can feed a projected nine billion people by 2050, in 17 years GM seed companies have not gone beyond a 4 per cent area globally. Even this has been in cash crops like cotton, corn, canola and soybean which predominantly only have non-food uses and do not contribute to food security.

In India, several civil society and farmers groups expressed dismay at the selection. Said Navdanya’s Vandana Shiva: “It is a prize from Monsanto to Monsanto because they are one of the sponsors of the award, as also is Syngenta. It comes at a time when genetic engineering as a tool for improving yields and reducing chemical use has failed and there is empirical evidence that there is no increase in yields but rise in superpests and superweeds. Data has shown that non-chemical ecological farming is producing more food and better nutrition.’’

Aruna Rodrigues, lead petitioner in a pending public interest litigation petition in the Supreme Court on GMOs, said: “The conflict of interest betrays an increasing confidence that genetic engineering companies can do what they like, cocking a snook at the science and official statistics which tell the real story — about Intellectual Property Rights, access to food by those who need it most, its production, distribution and sovereignty. In short, food security that is separated by a deep gulf from GMOs.”

Suman Sahai of the Gene Campaign said the World Food Prize is meant to encourage efforts to enhance the productivity of small farmers with the overall goal of achieving a better level of global food security. “It is not meant to reward aggressive promoters of biotechnology, which everybody recognises is not the answer to food security.”

“This mockery of the World Food Prize being given to corporate-sponsored biotech scientists shows a concerted effort to ensure that farmer-controlled sustainable alternatives remain invisible and unsupported,” said Kavitha Kuruganti, national convener of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture.

“This is like mortgaging farming to MNCs,” said Yudhvir Singh of the Bhartiya Kisan Union. “Has the father of the Green Revolution in India lost faith in established agricultural research and is now promoting genetically engineered crops?” he asked, referring to Professor Swaminathan.

Position in India

In India, a Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) has recommended a 10-year moratorium on open field trials of transgenic food crops until adequate regulatory mechanisms and safety standards are put in place. There is also opposition to the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill that calls for a single-window clearance to GM crops as well monitoring by the same agency.