Des MOINES, IOWA -- As he pulled away from the Des Moines airport, the shuttle driver asked if we were in town for the World Food Prize and said he'd been warned to avoid routes downtown that might intersect with "the protesters."
"And I'm thinking, like, how could anybody protest food?" said the affable Larry, a pastor's son who was born in Tennessee, raised in British Columbia, took his military training in Texas and now drives for an executive car service in Iowa.
Larry is no food expert, but a lot of people who are were asking the same thing here last week as hundreds of delegates from all over the world gathered in this midwestern U.S. city for annual World Food Prize/Borlaug Dialogues. It seems even something as innocuous as an award celebrating individuals who have contributed to world food security has become mired in the murky controversies around agriculture and food.
Organizers stirred up a stew of protest over the decision to award this year's prize to three scientists credited with pioneering genetically modified crops: Marc Van Montagu, the founder of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach in Belgium, Mary-Dell Chilton, founder of Syngenta Biotechnology Inc. and Robert Fraley, the chief biotechnology officer for Monsanto. "Their work has made it possible for farmers in 30 countries to improve the yields of their crops, have increased incomes, and feed a growing global population," the citation says.
For the biotech industry, the award represents the triumph of science over mythology. But opponents of genetically modified foods were outraged by what they see as a symbolic sellout of the world's food supply to corporate interests controlling an unnatural and unproven technology.
"We're not lab rats," one of the protesters told the Des Moines Register during a March Against Monsanto organized by Occupy World Food Prize.
The fact opposition to biotechnology, specifically genetically modified organisms (GMOs), remains as strong as it is nearly 20 years after they were commercialized is confusing and frustrating to this year's laureates.
Van Montagu said there is a segment of the population that will never accept the technology, and that is their choice. "There are people who believe in horoscopes, there are people who believe that space ships come here. That is not problematic," he said.
But he said the anti-GM movement is paralyzing the ability to develop and deliver new technologies to areas of the world where food security is a pressing issue.
"If you cannot use science in society anymore because of these crazy beliefs, then there is a problem; I would even say there is a war going on that is much more serious than we were thinking before."
In these scientists' view, the greatest challenge to feeding the world's growing population is not finding the science to boost production, it is persuading the public to accept it.
This year's theme for The Borlaug Dialogues, a three-day marathon of panel discussions named after Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, confronted that issue head-on, with sessions exploring the role science could and, many say, must play in feeding a world population now expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050.
Jeff Wolt, who heads the Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products at Iowa State University, said opponents of GM crops often cite the risks, even though scientific consensus is clear they pose no unreasonable risks to the health of humans, animals or the environment.
"There are very well-trained, very knowledgeable experts that work for activist organizations that go throughout the world and sow seeds of distrust and fear in terms of this technology. That's just the way it is," Wolt said.
"Some of them have very honest concerns about the technology, some of them might be anti-multinational companies, others might hold very traditional views. It's no one thing, which is why it is so difficult to address.
"There are a host of things that are important culturally and economically, but they do not relate to whether these products are going to harm you or I or the environment," he told journalists.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: email@example.com