DES MOINES, Iowa – Drs. Mary-Dell Chilton, Robert Fraley and
Mark Van Montagu were in Des Moines to be honored as the recipients of the 2013
World Food Prize.
The work that the three have done with plant biotechnology
has led to the development of genetically-enhanced crops that now provide food,
feed and fuel for billions of people around the world.
But what their industry needs to do better is not in the
field of science, but in the field of communication, the three said at a press
“It is absolutely important we have a dialogue and an
understanding and a trust with folks around the world so that the technology can
have the impact that we so much need from it,” said Fraley, chief technology
officer at Monsanto.
Monsanto has taken the lion’s share of the criticism for the
development and implementation of genetically modified crops. Fraley noted that
he regards the fact that Monsanto is regularly targeted by anti-agriculture
activists as an indication of success.
“I’m willing to share, Mary-Dell,” joked Fraley to Chilton,
founder and Distinguished Fellow of Syngenta Biotechnology, when asked why he
thought Monsanto received the largest share of criticism. “Sometimes that’s
frustrating. I always assume that means we’ve been really successful and people
see us as a leader. That’s OK. I think that’s part of the responsibility that
goes with it.”
Chilton said she didn’t have an answer as to why one company
is targeted over others, but did point out that the industry needs to reach out
more to consumers.
“I think we need to have good communications with the public
on the safety of what we make,” she said.
Fraley agreed, noting that while the seed industry has
focused on getting new biotechnology out to farmers, it has not focused on
talking to the consuming public about the safety of those products.
“What made us successful and why we’ve reached so many
farmers is we have a focus on farmers, and that’s been a key part of the
adoption of the technology. I think as we’ve done more listening and a lot of
dialogues with consumers and consumer groups and folks who like and don’t like
our technology, I think one of the things we get as a feedback is that the world
doesn’t see us as a seed company — the world sees us as the first step in the
food chain. We and our whole industry just have not done a very good job of
reaching out to consumers and that’s something we need to do and do very
differently and I think it means different approaches, different use of social
media, an increased level of transparency and all the things that go with
earning the support and trust of customers,” he said.
One area of the world where activists have been successful
in keeping farmers from growing biotech crops is throughout the European Union.
While EU nations can import GMO crops for feed from the U.S. and South America,
farmers in the majority of EU nations, excepting Portugal and Spain, are
prohibited from growing GMO crops.
Van Montagu, who founded and is the chairman of the
Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach at the Ghent University in Ghent,
Belgium, said he and others did not anticipate the level of emotion attached to
“We did not realize how emotional the message was and how
easily super lies and the disinformation have been spread. That touches people
and they believe this super disinformation,” he said.
He referenced the study by Gilles-Eric Seralini, a French
scientist, who sought to show that a Monsanto Roundup-resistant corn variety and
Roundup itself were toxic by feeding large doses of each to laboratory rats.
Seralini’s experiment methods and the study itself were widely criticized and
his conclusions largely debunked.
Van Montagu said he and his colleagues believed commonsense
would rule the day when the Seralini report was released in 2012.
“From a rational standpoint, we thought as soon as you saw
the tumors on the rats that Seralini showed, now he’s so overdoing it that it
will be clear that it is nonsense and people will change. No. People believed
Seralini because they have fear. Of course, you could call it an error in
communication, but I don’t think that points it out very rightly. We have to say
we are under a systematic attack and that is unacceptable for a society and that
society as a whole has to react and that our political leaders have to take up
the responsibilities,” he said.
Fraley expressed his frustration over continuing comments
about the food safety aspect of genetically modified crops. He spoke of “the two
rumors that hurt me the worst, that I find hard to understand.”
“When you hear educated people and educated reporters
talking about food safety, the safety of GMOs,” said Fraley, who noted that
thousands of studies and peer-reviewed research exists confirming the safety of
GM crops. “There is no truth to all of these stories and rumors regarding any
safety impacts of the technology.”
Fraley also spoke out about the myth that Monsanto is trying
to make farmers around the world dependent on its seed technology.
“My experience is farmers are really smart businessmen. The
idea that some company is going to sell them products that don’t work, that they
are going to come back and buy year after year and they don’t work and they
don’t create value is just sheer nuts. The reason this technology has been
adopted so much by farmers is because it works. It improves their yields, it
improves their profits and it makes farming easier,” he said.
In response to a reporter question about ongoing efforts to
mandate labeling of any foods containing GMO crops, Fraley said his company is
in favor of voluntary labeling. He said the labeling issues go beyond consumers’
right to know.
“This is about an effort that’s being funded by a certain
group to put mandatory labels that would be required,” he said. “We absolutely
support the consumer’s right to know. We absolutely support the companies’ right
for voluntary labels, but we can’t support misleading labels that infer that
there’s something unsafe about biotech products.”
Chilton expressed concerns that those who are pushing for
mandatory, nationwide labeling are seeking to limit the food choices that
consumers currently have.
“If a consumer chooses to eat non-GMO food, he has that
choice, but I want to keep my choice to eat GMO food if I want. If we start
having compulsory labeling, many companies will be unable to produce the GMO
products that they do now because of concerns about whether it is contained in
some product. I think it will be the death of the technology in a real sense if
we have obligatory labeling, and I am totally opposed to it,” she said.
In closing, Chilton spoke to the reporters gathered at the
news conference, representing both mainstream media, farm and ag media and local
and regional media.
“Whether or not you are concerned about Robb’s company’s
welfare or any company’s welfare, I want you to be concerned in writing your
articles about the welfare of the whole world because there are going to be a
lot of hungry people. As you write about this technology, I hope that you will
give at least a balanced view of the safety, the utility, of these biotech
tools. They are great, they are fantastic and we are going to need them, believe
me,” she said.