Beating Hunger—The Biggest Prize


Last weekend in Des Moines, Iowa, two scientists were awarded the World Food Prize for creating a high-protein, high-yielding corn.

Said that way it sounds a little boring. But the accomplishment is hardly dull. Five million children a year have a better chance to live because of what biochemist Evangelina Villegas of Mexico and plant geneticist Surinder Vasal of India have done.

That's how many children the World Health Organization says die each year from malnutrition. And the so-called Quality Protein Maize, or QPM, bred by Villegas and Vargas will fill a huge nutritional gap in the diets of those children and around 800 million other people worldwide. Old-fashioned corn lacks key amino acids needed to provide the protein humans require to live.

To bring their miracle maize to market took Villegas and Vasal 30 years. One big reason for that is they for the most part relied on conventional crossbreeding techniques to develop their corn.

But they also used using modifier genes to counter the undesirable effects on yield in crossbreeding high protein corn.

In short, they engaged in genetic modification.

Over the past year, people have heard a lot of scare stories about that process. An extreme group of environmentalists, spurred on by European farmers bent on protecting their livelihoods from imports, has tried to make genetic modification of crops through biotechnology seem a dangerous enterprise. They've done so using junk science and scare tactics while ignoring basic scientific facts.

From Seattle, Wash., to Washington, D.C., they've protested against the Flavr Savr tomato, herbicide resistant soybeans and a host of other developments fostered by biotechnology. Some have gone so far as to go into experimental fields to destroy crops.

They've succeeded in attracting a lot of public attention, encouraging more government regulation and delaying the introduction of new products, much to the disdain of most of the scientists engaged in agricultural research.

Both Villeges and Vasal volunteered to Tech Central Station interviewers at the Des Moines conference that the concerns of the protestors were overblown. That was a view shared by almost all of the other World Food Prize laureates, and by Alan Larson, the U.S. undersecretary of State for Economics Business and Agricultural Affairs, who also noted that Europe, the source of much of the misinformation about biotechnology, runs the most protectionist agricultural systems of all. All said that biotechnology products are generally safe and that we need them to fight world hunger.

It is not difficult to understand why they think so, considering the time it took Villages and Vasal, using conventional crossbreeding to bring their corn to market.

Thirty years is a long time. Hundreds of millions of people, including more than 100 million children, died of malnutrition in the years it took Villegas and Vasal to bring their corn to market.

The longer protestors delay new advances in biotechnology, the longer it will take to introduce other nutritious foods and more productive farming practices.

False fears of "Frankenfood" may excite the public imagination, but the world can't afford to allow them to trump the needs of starving people worldwide.