woman first prize trophy
Shutterstock

In a move that has disturbed many anti-hunger advocates, including the 81 global leaders of the World Future Council and laureates of the Right Livelihood Award, the World Food Prize — often known as the Nobel prize for food and agriculture — has given this year’s award to three chemical company executives, including Monsanto executive vice president and chief technology officer, Robert Fraley.

Fraley shares the prize with two other scientists responsible for launching the “technology” behind the biotech business three decades ago, after developing a method for inserting foreign genes into plants. For an award that claims to honor those who contribute to a “nutritious and sustainable food supply,” genetically modified organisms miss the mark on both counts.

GMOs do not create a more nutritious or sustainable food supply. Twenty years after the commercialization of the first GMO seed, almost all are limited to just two types. Either they’ve been developed to resist a proprietary herbicide or engineered to express a specific insecticide. (No surprise, since the product development is led by chemical companies like Monsanto and Syngenta.) While these crops have proven profitable to the companies producing them, they’ve been costly to farmers. And for the cash-poor farmers, who make up 70 percent of the world’s hungry, this technology worsens dependency on purchased seeds, fertilizer, and chemicals. As GMOs exacerbate farmers’ dependency on these inputs — all at volatile and rising prices — many small-scale farmers are driven to despair.

In terms of sustainability, GMOs also do nothing to reduce the agriculture sector’s reliance on fossil fuels, mined minerals, and water — all natural resources that will only get more costly as they become more scarce.

While the genetic engineers promise that their technology can deliver, experts I’ve interviewed here and around the world are doubtful. Instead, they point to the studies showing the productivity and resilience of organic and agroecological methods, especially in the face of drought and other extreme weather. Organic production methods outperform chemical methods in drought years [PDF] by as much as 31 percent. Other benefits? Organic methods can use 45 percent less energy and produce 40 percent less greenhouse gases [PDF]. Real numbers, real solutions.

Further evidence from some of the world’s most important institutions — from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization to the World Bank — is showing how ecological methods outperform GMOs, improve nutritional qualities of crops, and benefit biodiversity and soil health, all without leaving farmers in debt and dependent on companies for ever-more expensive inputs. In India, for example, agriculture systems that have turned away from the synthetic inputs GMOs require are hitting record highs in productivity. Thanks to research from around the world, including a three-year groundbreaking study involving over 900 participants from over 110 countries, a growing consensus exists: We know what’s working to improve crop yields, nutrition, and farmers’ livelihoods. And despite the PR talking points from the industry, it’s not GMOs.

Much of the public relations spin revolves around “feeding the world.” Let’s be clear: Global hunger is not the result of a lack of food, but perhaps more importantly, a lack of democracy, as my mother Frances Moore Lappé and her colleagues at Food First have been arguing for four decades. Today, despite the planet producing more than enough food for every man, woman, and child, 870 million people on the planet suffer from extreme, long-term undernourishment, according to the United Nations.

Biotechnology fails to address the roots of this persistent hunger — which include poverty and inequality, and fundamentally a lack of choice over how food is grown, where it’s grown, and who has access to it. A technology like genetic engineering, which has been developed and is controlled by a handful of companies, does nothing to transform this dynamic. Indeed, the technology serves to further concentrate power over our food system: An estimated 90 percent of U.S.-grown soybeans and 80 percent of corn and cotton crops are grown from Monsanto’s seeds. Crops that don’t nourish the world, but instead end up in the gut of a cow, the tank of a car, or the ingredients list of processed foods.

Finally, Monsanto and Syngenta have a long history of working to silence scientists and farmers who are critical of their products, including one case that hit close to home.

In the late 1990s, my father, the scientist Marc Lappé, decided to investigate Monsanto’s claims that the technology would increase yields. He found that the company vastly overstated the potential of the technology. He wrote up his findings in his book Against the Grain, but just before printing his publisher received a threatening letter from Monsanto lawyers. The message: Print at your own risk. The publisher balked. My father eventually found a small progressive press in Maine who had the courage to publish his book, but he lost the imprimatur of a larger publisher. This is just one anecdote of intimidation among many — including the recent buy-out of a research firm linking Monsanto to the global bee crisis known as “colony collapse disorder.”

In its choice this year, the World Food Prize has placed itself decidedly out of step with the international community’s assessment about agricultural biotechnology and the proven approach to promoting nutrition and sustainability.