World (Genetically Modified) Food Prize

21 Oct 2013

October 16 was an important day for anyone who follows developments in the food industry or food policy. On the one hand it was World Food Day, an annual event to mark the day the FAO was founded, celebrated with different initiatives to raise awareness of sustainable food systems (the event’s official theme for 2013). To mark the day, and draw attention to the related issue of food waste, hundreds of young people came together in different cities to organize and take part in a series of activities in what became known as Disco Anti Food Waste Day.

On the other hand, it was also the day that the World Food Prize, sometimes referred to as the “Nobel Prize for Agriculture”, was being awarded. Shockingly, but maybe not surprisingly, this year it went to three scientists working to develop genetically modified organisms (GMOs): Marc Van Montagu, professor emeritus at the Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries, Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert Fraley, whose names are linked respectively to the two chemical giants: Syngenta and Monsanto.

The first signs of trouble came with their nomination back in June, which was followed by widespread condemnation around the world from independent scientists and activists. On closer inspection, however, the allocation of the award begins to make sense. As many have pointed out, the sponsors of the World Food Prize include names that have little to do with sustainability in agriculture, at least in the way we understand it. They include Dupont, Pioneer, Cargill, Walmart, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Syngenta and Monsanto, which in 2008 gave the prize 5 million euros. On the prize’s website you can also read how the award was established by Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and the father of the “Green Revolution,” an immense push for innovation imposed on agriculture around the world to increase productivity. A revolution whose questionable, or at least controversial, results have often been the subject of debate.

Borlaug, Monsanto, Syngenta, World Food Prize… The connection between these names brings the prestige of the prize into doubt or, at the very least, makes us think that the type of agriculture it promotes is worlds apart from what we as Slow Food are defending. Even though the terminology used is similar, if not identical, for example “sustainability”, we know the proposed solutions regarding the future of food are in complete opposition. We also know that Monsanto is very skilled in its choice of words. So skilled that, as Marie-Monique Robin explains in Our Daily Poison, in the last decades the word “pesticides” has been gradually abandoned, and replaced by the more reassuring “plant production products,” “phytopharmaceuticals” or “agropharmaceuticals”, emphasizing their supposedly curative role.

Although somewhat deceitful, these communication strategies are highly efficient. Despite many being outraged at the recent announcement, many others will assume Monsanto was fairly awarded the “Nobel Prize for Agriculture.” However, it could maybe do with a bit more finesse: Isn’t it a little crass to award a prize to yourself?

So, what to do? How to react? In this case, it may be better not to react. After all, bad press is still press. It would be more beneficial to acquire a better understanding of the image Monsanto wants to give itself. And then to look elsewhere: to Mexico, for example, where an important legal battle has just been won against Monsanto or to all those young people who celebrated World Food Day by battling food waste; and to the Group of 4: a national alliance from Haiti that promotes good farming practices and advocates for peasant farmers, which recently won the Food Sovereignty Prize: with less fanfare and a lot more honesty.

Silvia Ceriani

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