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DES MOINES, Iowa — On a chilly Wednesday evening downtown, about 100 people watched a stage where a procession of dance troupes representing nations across Africa performed. Made up largely of members of the city’s African community, the crowd stood outside the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, awaiting the arrival of research scientist Charity Mutegi, who was being honored for a technique she developed to fight deadly grain mold in Kenya.
Nancy Mwirotsi, a Kenyan who runs a small magazine in Des Moines, was excited about the positive reaction from the youths in attendance.
“They’re refugees,” she said. “They know hunger. They want to know someone is fighting for them.”
The event was one of the opening-day highlights of this year’s Borlaug Dialogue, the World Food Prize’s annual symposium, named for Iowan Norman Borlaug, who is considered by many the father of the Green Revolution and founded the prize a decade and a half after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his efforts fighting famine in the developing world.
Often hailed as the Nobel Prize of food, the World Food Prize has received as much attention this week for its ties to industrial agriculture and genetically modified (GM) crops as it has for honoring those who feed the world’s poor. The prize has been a lightning rod for international criticism since June, when it announced as one of its laureates Robert Fraley, an executive at the biotech corporation Monsanto, which has been at the center of a number of controversies over GM crops. Fraley shared the honor with Syngenta scientist Mary-Bell Chilton and Plant Genetic Systems co-founder Marc Van Montagu, fellow pioneers in the development of high-yield GM crops resistant to disease, pests and harsh climates.
“To me, from a PR perspective, it was a bad decision to have all three of the recipients of the award from the corporate world,” said Frederick Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames. “They should have expected this was going to raise serious questions about whether or not they were giving the impression that the solution (to fighting hunger) is just intensifying industrial agriculture.”
The foundation’s other major advocates and funders, which include the United States government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have supported the modern equivalent of the industrial agriculture model that ushered in the Green Revolution in the 1960s. Borlaug won the Nobel Prize for his work fighting famine in the developing world before the advent of GM crops through large-scale, single-crop farming techniques similar to those promoted by Monsanto. These techniques, critics argue, reduce biodiversity and require excessive use of pesticides while focusing too little on local food systems.
“I don’t like what Monsanto does to foist themselves on other countries and on our farmers ... turning agriculture into just another get-rich scheme,” said Janet Klaas, a retired reference librarian from Ames.
In a Des Moines Methodist church sanctuary on Wednesday, she listened to Texas populist Jim Hightower rail against corporate agriculture behind an Occupy banner with an image of a raised fist clenching a carrot and ear of corn.
Last year in Brazil, a court ruled that Monsanto owed farmers $2 billion for unjustly collecting royalties on soybeans grown with patented herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready seeds developed by Fraley. Monsanto is appealing the decision. It has faced similar push-back in other countries, including India, from farmers who have been fearful of ceding their autonomy to a multinational corporation.
“The predominant position of big corporations — that’s a concern people have that isn’t actually connected with the technology itself,” said Gary Munkvold, a seed science professor at Iowa State who believes the World Food Prize was justified in recognizing Fraley. “I wish we could do a better job of separating those issues.”
On Wednesday, 30 protesters affiliated with Occupy and other progressive groups donned devil masks and held signs with slogans like “Monsanto seeds poison us” outside the Hall of Laureates, protesting both issues at once.
David Kaufman, a Des Moines rabbi involved with the city’s Sudanese community who was at the nearby gathering awaiting Mutegi, said he understood the protest’s message but disagreed with it.
“Without GMOs, you’d have 10 million dead people,” he said. “That’s the reality.”
Because GM foods have been on the market for only two decades, scientists are cautious about making sweeping statements about their safety. For now, the world’s top scientific and regulatory agencies and most peer-reviewed research consider them safe for human consumption. Contrary research, such as a notorious study that found tumors in rats fed Roundup Ready corn, has been strongly criticized by the scientific community.
“There are a lot of misconceptions and a lot of problems that get (wrongly) blamed on biotechnology,” Munkvold said.
Deborah Vanko, a local activist who helped organize the protest, wasn’t convinced. Like a majority of Americans, she favors laws mandating GM food labeling.
“Humans are lab rats,” she said. “We’ve been eating these foods for years, so we feel that we’re slowly being poisoned.”
On Monday the World Food Prize laureates spoke at Iowa State, which boasts one of the nation’s top agriculture programs. They aggressively defended their research against claims that GM crops are unsafe.
“A terrorist — I think he could find some easier way to be antisocial than by modifying crops,” Chilton joked.
Kirschenmann isn’t opposed to GM crops but believes the World Food Prize could do more to distance itself from what he calls industrial agriculture’s single-tactic paradigm.
“If they want to be respected in the long term,” he said, “they’re going to have to be more open to a variety of approaches.”