Should the 'Nobel Prize for Food' Go to GMO Geniuses?

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World Food Prize (This combination of undated photos provided by The World Food Prize Foundation shows, from left: Robert T. Fra
AP, The World Food Prize FoundationFrom left: Robert T. Fraley and Mary-Dell Chilton of the United States, and Marc Van Montagu of Belgium.
In 1986, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug created The World Food Prize in an effort to recognize, "the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world." Though it's a big deal in the agricultural community, the prize is rarely talked about in mainstream media.

But this year, everyone's abuzz about the selections, especially the two from the U.S.: Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton of Syngenta (SYT) and Dr. Robert T. Fraley of Monsanto (MON).

They, along with Marc Van Montagu, a Belgain biotech and GMO pioneer, are being awarded the prize on Oct. 16 for their work in developing genetically modified organisms, mainly in the form of crops that are resistant to insects and diseases.

Why the Controversy?

Folks say that one shouldn't talk politics or religion at the dinner table, lest a fight break out. These days, you can add GMOs to that short list of ultra-touchy topics.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%The dawn of genetically modified food began in America in the 1990s with the approval of a GM tomato. Since then, a number of cash crops have quickly been converted to GMOs -- including corn, soy, rapeseed (pressed to make so-called "canola" oil), and cotton. The byproducts of these crops can be seen in a dizzying number of options at any local grocery store.

Proponents argue that the benefits of GMOs speak for themselves: improved crop yields, resistance to insects and disease without use of as many pesticides, the ability to withstand extreme variability in climate, and added nutritional value (when they're designed to have it).

Those against GMOs argue that this sort of fundamental tinkering with Mother Nature is inherently a recipe for disaster. They cite the arrival of super weeds and super bugs resistant to GMOs, the unintended effects on insects and wildlife (especially bees), and the possibility of human health problems -- ranging from allergies to endocrine disruption -- as symptoms of a process that's causing more trouble than it's worth.

What's on The Line?

In this context, the World Food Prize takes on added importance, because it could bestow greater legitimacy to GMOs. And while it might seem to U.S. consumers like that legitimacy has already been established, given the ubiquity of GMOs in our food supply, the same cannot be said for most of the rest of the world.

Large swaths of the European Union and, increasingly, developing countries from Central and South America have banned some, if not all, forms of GMOs. Along with Monsanto and Syngneta, fellow GMO suppliers DuPont (DD) and Dow Chemical (DOW) would have a lot to gain by opening up these markets to their products.

Indeed, in its latest earnings report, Monsanto disappointed investors by reporting a 38 percent drop in sales of its GM soybean seeds, and lowered guidance for the rest of the year. DuPont and Syngenta have had seed cultivation approval requests waiting in limbo from the EU for years.

Opponents of the proliferation of GMOs, however, don't intend on allowing these seed manufacturers to benefit from this good publicity without a fight.

Protests are already planned to take place in Des Moines, Iowa -- where the prize will officially be presented; and on-line petitions have been circulating demanding the World Food Prize Foundation to reconsider.

It's highly unlikely that these actions will strip the prize out of these scientists' hands, but what's more important is how this will all play out in the public sphere, and what effect -- if any -- it all has in the minds of international legislators deciding the fate of GMOs in their respective countries.

Should the 'Nobel Prize for Food' Go to GMO Geniuses?
Though Hepatitis A was responsible for a nationwide outbreak in 1997, 80 percent of all cases of illness from contaminated berries were a result of Cyclospora. The illness is caused by a parasite that infects the intestines and causes stomach problems, including diarrhea.
Sprouts may look harmless, but they can harbor both Salmonella and E. Coli, which have caused outbreaks over the years. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that seeds can become contaminated before sprouting. The second is that they grow in warm and humid climates, which are perfect conditions for bacteria to flourish.
As with sprouts, Salmonella is the most common culprit in tomato-related outbreaks, followed by the norovirus. Tomatoes can become contaminated either through their root systems or small breaks in the tomato skin. Be sure to cook your tomatoes thoroughly before eating, and be careful when ordering them when eating out: 70 percent of reported illnesses were contracted through tomatoes served at restaurants.
Even kids who hate to eat their fruits and veggies aren't immune to food-borne illnesses. A 1994 Salmonella outbreak was traced an ice cream company using the same truck to transport raw unpasteurized eggs as it used to move ice cream mix. Pregnant moms need to take extra care, as well, as the Listeria bacteria can survive on metal surfaces like those used in ice cream shops.
As with ice cream, the dangers in cheese are primarily traceable to two culprits: Salmonella and Listeria. Soft-cheeses are particularly prone to harboring Listeria.
Believe it or not, potatoes themselves are almost never to blame for outbreaks. Instead, people get sick from all the things that potatoes come into contact with between being pulled from the ground and served up on your plate. Salmonella, E. Coli, Shigella and Listeria have all caused outbreaks in the past. Contamination from other ingredients in things like potato salad, as well as from bacteria that live on deli counters, is often to blame.
Not surprisingly, seafood causes many sicknesses. Oysters are the second-most common culprits in seafood-related illnesses. The creatures are sometimes harvested from waters containing the Norovirus, which causes intestinal inflammation. But the more dangerous Vibrio bacteria can cause a host of illnesses, including -- in people whose immune systems are compromised -- fevers, chills, skin legions, and even death.
When it comes to contamination, tuna ranks as the most dangerous seafood for human consumption. Almost all cases of sickness were caused by Scombrotoxin, which is not caused by a bacteria or virus, but rather is the result of tuna decaying, due to not being refrigerated immediately after being caught. Scombroid poisoning can lead to nausea, cramps, and diarrhea, and the toxin can't be eliminated through cooking or canning.
Between them, the top two foods on this list have caused more illnesses than the rest of the list combined. Not surprisingly, Salmonella is the most common culprit in egg-linked outbreaks. Salmonella survives in the intestinal tracks of chickens, and can only be assuredly killed by cooking eggs thoroughly.
Though leafy greens might seem harmless -- and indeed, healthful -- it actually makes sense that they account for so many outbreaks since greens are rarely cooked at temperatures that kill harmful bacteria. Norovirus was responsible for 64 percent of the reported cases, and is often transmitted when handlers have not washed their hands. Salmonella and E. Coli each accounted for 10 percent of the outbreaks as well.
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Motley Fool contributor Brian Stoffel has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.
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