Laureates Bring the Discussion Back to the Science

By Rachel Zamzow

DES MOINES, Iowa —The scientific advantages of genetically modified organism (GMO) foods are often overshadowed by controversy surrounding food safety and policy, the 2013 World Food Prize laureates said Wednesday.

More than 1,000 scientific studies on the safety of GMO foods have been conducted and several studies have been re-reviewed, said Robert Fraley, the executive vice president and chief technology officer at Monsanto Co. The conclusion in the scientific literature is unanimous, Fraley said.

“There is no truth in the issues of food safety related to GMOs,” he said.

In a news conference, the laureates discussed their role in the development of biotechnology, which has shaped the landscape of U.S. and international agriculture.

“None of us imagined that this technology would be so rapidly adopted,” said Mary-Dell Chilton, science fellow and founder of Syngenta Biotechnology.

The laureates expressed surprise and disappointment with the negative response to GMOs.

“We did not realize the message was so emotional,” said Marc Van Montagu, founder and chairman of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach in Ghent, Belgium. For example, Van Montagu and other scientists were surprised at public reaction to some studies they consider flawed, such as one that reported GMO maize caused tumors in rats.

“We expected the public to see the nonsense in these papers,” he said.

The laureates answered questions about Initiative 522, a campaign in Washington state calling for labeling food products that contain GMOs. The laureates all expressed strong opposition to the campaign.

“Labeling GMO foods doesn’t make any scientific sense,” said Fraley.

Added Chilton: “It would be the death of the technology in a real sense.”

Fraley said he was grateful to receive the World Food Prize and called the award an opportunity to “reset the discussion on biotechnology.” He highlighted the significant contributions GMOs have made in plant breeding.

He also cited technology such as BioDirect, in which fragments of naturally occurring genetic material are added topically to crops to improve resistance to insects and viruses, that has proven beneficial not only for plants, but also bee health.

Yet, GMOs are still met with significant regulatory barriers, hindering further advancement of biotechnology, Fraley said.

“Are we going to limit the science with policy?” he said.

To feed the estimated 9.6 billion people who will inhabit the planet in 2050, policymakers cannot afford to delay the progress of biotechnology research, Fraley said.

Referring to GMO foods, Chilton said: “They’re great, they’re fantastic and we’re going to need them.”

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