Editorial: GMO prize well deserved


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Americans have always been fascinated by the latest technological upgrades. From the steam engine to the iPhone, progress has generally brought better living conditions and more efficient ways to utilize resources.

But one area of scientific progress has faced backlash from groups around the globe: genetically modified organisms.

On Oct. 17 in Des Moines, the World Food Prize, an award given to “individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world,” was awarded to three researchers who are known for their substantial contributions to the development of genetically modified crops.

The winners — Marc Van Montagu of Belgium and Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T. Fraley of the United States — are leaders in the controversial movement backing genetically modified crops. Fraley is the executive vice president and chief technology officer at Monsanto, an oft-vilified pioneer of the biotechnology industry.

The event, held at the Capitol, sparked protests by some groups. The Center for Food Safety and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, among others, delivered petitions signed by more than 345,000 people.

The numbers of those opposed to these crops are large, and it’s easy to see why. In the early days of research, companies engineering these crops struggled to deliver the message of exactly what they were, what they would change, and how they held promise for the people of impoverished nations.

In addition, unscrupulous practices by companies such as Monsanto turned many off to the idea of genetically modified crops themselves.

But progress has been made since those days. Today, these crops may hold the key for alleviating or even solving world hunger, and it would be foolish to shut down research into this life-saving technology.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., 842 million people are undernourished, most of them in developing nations. That hunger kills more people every year than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. Crops that can be modified to give more yield, cost less to grow, and extend the period that the food remains edible can be a godsend.

Genetically modified crops can also grow in a wider variety of conditions, which is especially important in areas in which arid climates and unsuitable soil can create barriers to growing crops.

The unfortunate reality is that the opposition to genetically modified crops at this point has more to do with politics and less with concern for health. In an October 2012 report, the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science weighed in definitively on the safety of GMOs.

“The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe,” the report said.

Despite the science, powerful lobbying from anti-modification groups scared policymakers, especially those in impoverished nations, to impose overbearing restrictions on genetically modified crops that has stifled their effect.

Groups that provide resources and aid to developing nations are scared to touch these crops, at least until the resistance to them tapers off. But with accolades such as the World Food Prize going to these particular researchers, it seems its only a matter of time until the latest in food technology gets its turn to shine.

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