And The Winner Of The World Food Prize Is ... The Man From Monsanto

Jun 19, 2013

Ever heard of the World Food Prize? It's sometimes called the "Nobel Prize for food and agriculture," but it has struggled to get people's attention. Prize winners tend to be agricultural insiders, and many are scientists. Last year's laureate, for instance, was Daniel Hillel, a pioneer of water-saving "micro-irrigation."

This year, though, the World Food Prize is likely to get some publicity, some of it in the form of anger and protests. The prize will go to three scientists who played prominent roles in creating genetically engineered crops: Marc Van Montagu, Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert Fraley.

Of the three, Fraley is by far the youngest, but also the most pivotal and divisive. He's spent his entire career at Monsanto. He was hired in 1981 as one of the company's very first molecular biologists, led the company's intense drive to sell genetically engineered crops in the 1990s, and is now the company's chief technology officer. In fact, if there's a single person who most personifies Monsanto's controversial role in American agriculture, it's probably Robb Fraley.

(A bit of self-promotion: I told much of this story in a book about the origins of genetically engineered crops, Lords of the Harvest, published in 2001. During research for the book, I also interviewed Fraley, Van Montagu and Chilton.)

The winners were announced Wednesday at the U.S. State Department, with Secretary of State John Kerry contributing his own remarks. It's hard to imagine a similar event taking place in Europe, where government authorities have refused to approve the planting or importation of some of these GMO crops.

Today's event reunited former scientific rivals. Thirty years ago, at a scientific meeting in Miami Beach, each of the award winners separately presented the results of experiments showing their first success in inserting genes into plants.

At the time, Van Montagu was at the University of Ghent, in Belgium, and Mary-Dell Chilton was at Washington University in St. Louis. Both were far more prominent in scientific circles than Fraley. They also later worked with biotech companies (Plant Genetic Systems and Syngenta, respectively), but neither had as much impact in the business world as Fraley.

The World Food Prize Foundation is a private, nonprofit organization with its headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa. It was set up in 1986 at the suggestion of Norman Borlaug, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the "green revolution" that increased grain harvests worldwide. Major funding for the prize, which is worth $250,000, was provided by John Ruan, a prominent Des Moines businessman. In its early years, the award was sponsored by General Foods.

The prize has been criticized in the past for close relationships with agribusiness companies. Last year, activist groups opposed to genetically modified food staged an "Occupy World Food Prize" protest during the formal awarding of the prize in Des Moines.

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