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And the winner is ... hungry people!

Published on December 31, 1969 3:01AM

Last changed on September 9, 2013 7:09AM

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

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The World Food Prize stirred up a hornet's nest last week when it recognized three scientists who have helped develop genetically modified crops.

The prize, which is likened to the Nobel Prize for those who work in agriculture, was given to Marc Van Montagu, founder and chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium; Mary-Dell Chilton, founder and researcher at Syngenta Biotechnology; and Robert Fraley, chief technology officer at Monsanto.

The mere mention of the word "biotechnology" was enough to elicit knee-jerk reactions from the likes of Mother Jones magazine, the "Occupy" movement and other GMO haters, who believe that growing genetically modified crops to feed a hungry world is somehow wrong.

"We could not ask for a better poster child for what's wrong with the prize than the recipients of this year's World Food Prize," Frank Cordaro, who organized an Occupy World Food Prize protest last year, told the AP. "It's all part of the very same system of the corporate elite. The problem is not with the recipients, the problem is with the system that gives the 1 percent all the power and corporate agriculture is built on that system."

He believes the prize is skewed to big companies like Monsanto and Syngenta. He is wrong. A review of the 34 food prize recipients in the past 27 years shows that they have done more to feed the world than the Occupy movement, all the anti-GMO activists and all of their hangers-on ever will. Here are some of the recipients and what they did:

* Daniel Hillel of Israel helped the desert bloom using microirrigation.

* John Agyekum Kufuor of Ghana and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil developed government policies to alleviate hunger and poverty in their countries.

* David Beckmann of Building Bread for the World and Jo Luck of Heifer International help feed impoverished people around the world.

* Gebisa Ejeta of Ethiopia helped develop Africa's first sorghum hybrids that are resistant to drought and parasites.

* Bob Dole and George McGovern, both former U.S. senators, helped lead a worldwide effort to feed schoolchildren.

That's just going back to 2008, but it's obvious by any measure that criticism of the food prize as being a shill for Big Agriculture is unfounded.

Much of the criticism is generated by the fact that this year's recipients are associated with genetically modified crops. Genetically modified crops produce more food using less pesticides. GM crops resist droughts so farmers and the people who depend on them for food and animal feed will not go wanting.

And, yes, they allow farmers -- the people who do the work -- to make more money.

The fundamental fact that anti-GM parties ignore is that no farmer would ever buy a single GM seed if all of that weren't the case. No one forces farmers to grow GM crops.

Yet GM crops are grown on more than 420 million acres in nearly 30 countries by over 17 million farmers, according to the World Food Prize Foundation, which added that more than 90 percent of those growers are small, resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

Oh, and we left out something. No health problems have ever been associated with any GM crop.

In announcing the winners of the food prize, Secretary of State John Kerry mentioned something else that the critics don't. "Nearly 870 million people, one-eighth of the world's population, suffer from chronic hunger," he said.

He also mentioned the challenge that lies ahead for agriculture.

"The challenge is that by 2050, the world's population is going to grow to 9 billion people," he said. "That is going to demand at least a 60 percent increase over our current agriculture production."

There exists no cause more important than feeding people. The farmers who grow the food, the plant breeders and scientists who develop high-yielding varieties of crops and increasingly efficient irrigation systems and the people who promote anti-hunger programs around the world all deserve recognition for the roles they play in averting mass starvation.

Norm Borlaug received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his efforts in the "Green Revolution," which averted a global food shortage. He in turn established the World Food Prize to recognize the many others who work to feed a hungry world.

If some people don't like the food prize and what it stands for, they not only lack the facts, they lack a heart.


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