How will humanity feed 9 billion people in the year 2050? That's the question that helped harvest this year's World Food Prize recipients, including Marc Van Montagu, Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert Fraley, from the field of food researchers. The trio will be honored at the 2013 Borlaug Dialogue, a symposium on agricultural research that is kicking off today in Des Moines, Iowa. The event is named for Norman Borlaug, who's been coined the "father of the Green Revolution," and received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

The honored group thinks that feeding the world’s growing population can be achieved through understanding how to tweak a plant's genetic code to improve crop yields, resist insects and disease, and tolerate climate change. Or, put more simply, through agricultural biotechnology and genetically modified crops.

"This year's winners are being honored in an effort to demonstrate that biotechnology and genetic modification are potentially directly linked to both ensuring sustainability and ameliorating the adverse impact of climate volatility,” World Food Prize President Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn wrote in an email to me. “...In particular, the bottom line question would seem to be: whether farmers, particularly poor small-holder farmers in developing countries, can adjust to or overcome the annual fluctuations caused by draughts, floods, salt water intrusion, diseases, and pests without crops developed using biotechnology and genetic enhancement."

The choice for this year's winners is drawing accolades and disapprovals alike. Those in support, such as university research groups, agricultural associations and various stakeholders associated with the biotech industry, think that genetically engineered crops are key to feeding the globe's rapidly growing population through improved yields and resilience. For them, the Prize and the Dialogue conference support the determination that genetically engineered plants are an important, positive breakthrough for modern agriculture. The prize also helps to reinforce claims and research suggesting that GM crops are safe.

Detractors, such as those behind Occupy the World Food Prize and the Food Sovereignty Prize, don't consider such biotechnology benign. The concern is that genetically modified crops are harmful to the environment and possibly to human health as well. Therefore, much of the opposition calls for further research before disseminating crops into open-air systems. There is also a concern that the large seed and chemical companies, such as Monsanto and Syngenta, which employ two of the Prize winners, are forcing smaller-scale farmers, organic farmers and farmers who save their best seeds from year-to-year out of business.

The GM crops debate continues to rage here in the U.S. and around the world. To learn more about the prizes and ceremonies mentioned above, please check out:

  • The Food Sovereignty Prize Ceremony: took place October 15. Watch it live here.
  • The World Food Prize's Borlaug Dialogue, kicks off today. Read more here.
  • Occupy the World Food Prize takes place all week. Learn more about it here.

Photo Courtesy of PLoS October 2003