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Published June 20, 2013, 09:33 AM

Executive at Monsanto wins World Food Prize

This year, the prestigious award went the mastermind behind Monsanto’s big move into genetically modified crops. In foodie terms, that is like a commercial blockbuster winning best picture rather than an independent, artsy film.

By: Andrew Pollack, New York Times New Service

When it comes to agriculture, the World Food Prize is the equivalent of the Oscars.

This year, the prestigious award went the mastermind behind Monsanto’s big move into genetically modified crops. In foodie terms, that is like a commercial blockbuster winning best picture rather than an independent, artsy film.

Started in 1987, the prize aims to recognize people who improve the "quality, quantity or availability" of food in the world. The founder of the award, Norman E. Borlaug, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 as the father of the Green Revolution, which vastly increased grain output.

On Wednesday the World Food Prize Foundation said the honor and the $250,000 cash prize would be shared by Robert T. Fraley, Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer, and two other scientists, Marc Van Montagu of Belgium and Mary-Dell Chilton of the United States. The foundation said the work of the three scientists, who helped devise a way to insert foreign genes into plants, led to the development of higher-yielding crops that can resist insects, disease and extremes of climate.

The prize has some public relations value for Monsanto and other supporters of bioengineered food. But the choice is also likely to add heat to an already intense debate about the role biotechnology can play in combating world hunger.

Genetically modified crops are grown on 420 million acres by 17.3 million farmers around the world. More than 90 percent of them are small farmers in developing countries, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, an organization that promotes use of biotechnology.

But the crops are shunned in many countries and by many consumers, who say the health and environmental effects have not been adequately studied. The crops’ role in increasing yields and helping farming adapt to climate change is still subject to some debate. One study organized by the World Bank and United Nations concluded in 2008 that genetically modified crops would play only a small role in fighting world hunger.

The World Food Prize has been criticized in the past for favoring industrial agriculture. The foundation that administers the prize has received contributions from companies, including a $5 million pledge from Monsanto in 2008.

Eric Holt-Gimnez, executive director of Food First, a food policy research organization in Oakland, Calif., said the World Food Prize’s "growing obsession" with biotechnology "ignores the documented successes" of nonindustrial methods of farming.

Kenneth M. Quinn, the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, defended the choice, saying that crop biotechnology had "met the test of demonstrating it would impact millions of people and enhance their lives." Quinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, said that contributions had no influence on the selection of winners.

"The view of our organization and our committee is that in the face of controversy, you shouldn’t back away from your precepts," he said. "If you do so, you are diminishing the prize."

The winners of the 2013 prize were part of teams that independently developed methods three decades ago for putting foreign genes into the DNA of plants.

The key was a soil microbe called Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which can inject its own DNA into plants, causing a tumorlike growth called crown gall disease. The researchers disabled the tumor-causing part of the bacterium and inserted the gene that they wanted to be carried into the plant’s DNA.

Scientists from the three teams, which were fiercely competing with one another, presented their results at a conference in Miami in January 1983.

Van Montagu, who did his research at Ghent University, founded two biotechnology companies, Plant Genetic Systems and Crop Design. Chilton, who did much of her research at the University of Washington and Washington University in St. Louis, became the core of the biotechnology team at Syngenta, where she still works.

Monsanto started later than the other two teams. But the company helped finance their work and was therefore able to learn from them and catch up, eventually dominating the crop biotechnology business, according to "Lords of the Harvest," a book about Monsanto by Daniel Charles.

A big reason was Fraley, who was hired by Monsanto as a molecular biologist in 1981 but soon moved beyond tinkering with plant cells as he rose up the ranks.

He harbored "oversized ambitions and visions of a business empire in the making," Charles wrote. The book described Fraley as "preternaturally self-confident" and driven, a Midwest farm boy who did not want to go back to the tractor and instead preferred the perks of corporate life, like fancy clothes and sports cars.

Fraley said on Wednesday that he was "humbled" by his selection for the award. He said the fact that so many farmers plant genetically engineered crops was the best evidence of their importance.

"It’s been the fastest-adopted technology in the history of agriculture," he said in an interview. "Farmers are smart and economical, and they won’t adopt and use the technology unless it improves their profitability."

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