The advent of biotechnology was equal parts friendly competition and direct collaboration, as three distinguished scientists led teams focused on transforming plants and providing farmers with powerful new tools to feed a growing global population.
Those three scientists will be honored as the 2013 World Food Prize Laureates next week. They are each receiving the prize in recognition of their individual breakthrough achievements in founding, developing, and applying modern agricultural biotechnology.
Collectively, their research has made it possible for farmers to grow crops with improved yields; resistance to insects and disease; and the ability to tolerate extreme variations in climate. The World Food Prize organization recognizes the contributions their work has made in advancing agriculture and food production.
Growing up in Belgium during the Second World War, Dr. Montagu saw how food rationing created hardships. Montagu’s work with fellow researcher Jeff Schell (1935-2003) in the new science of molecular biology led to the development of the first technology to stably transfer foreign genes into plants. This discovery set up a race to develop workable tools that could genetically engineer an array of plants and greatly enhance crop production worldwide.
Montagu went on to found two biotechnology companies known for their work on insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant crops and the genetic engineering of agronomic traits for the global commercial corn and rice seed markets.
Van Montagu remains a tireless, influential advocate for the transfer of plant biotechnology for the economic, environmental and health benefits of emerging and developing nations.
Chilton’s life-long work in molecular genetics and plant biotechnology provided evidence that plant genomes could be manipulated in a much more precise fashion than was possible using traditional plant breeding. Building upon the work of Montagu and Schell, Chilton and her colleagues made a breakthrough discovery that led to the potential of gene-transfer into higher plants.
Chilton established one of the world’s first industrial agricultural biotechnology programs, leading applied research in areas such as disease and insect resistance. She has spent the last three decades overseeing implementation of the technology she developed and further improving it.
Hired by Monsanto in 1981 as a research specialist, Fraley led a plant molecular biology group that worked on developing better crops through genetic engineering—to give farmers real solutions to critical problems such as pest and weed infestations. His early research built upon the discoveries of Chilton and Montagu as he focused on inventing effective methods for gene transfer systems.
With his team of researchers, Fraley developed more elaborate plant transformations, which led to the widespread accessibility of genetically modified seeds with resistance to insects and herbicides, and with tolerance to changes in climate such as excessive heat and drought.
Fraley has played a key role in Monsanto’s research directions that have led to a range of new products, and the technical and business strategy that ensured wide availability and benefit to farmers both large and small around the world.
Over its 26-year history, the World Food Prize has honored many passionate individuals who have committed their careers to improving lives and inspiring change. Congratulations to this year’s laureates.