The private non-profit foundation, which is in part funded by biotechnology companies, refused to shy away from the controversy surrounding genetically modified crops that organic food advocates say are harmful to people and the environment.
"If we were to be deterred by a controversy, that would diminish our prize," said the foundation's president, Kenneth Quinn, a retired U.S. diplomat.
This year's award goes to Marc Van Montagu, founder and chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium; Mary-Dell Chilton, founder and researcher at Syngenta Biotechnology; and Robert Fraley, chief technology officer at Monsanto.
Van Montagu and Chilton independently developed the technology in the 1980s to stably transfer foreign genes into plants, a discovery that set up a race to develop tools to genetically engineer plants. It allowed other scientists to incorporate genetic traits in plants to better withstand drought, extreme heat and to fight off pests and disease. Fraley was the first to successfully transfer immunity to specific bacteria into a plant.
Fraley genetically engineered the first herbicide-resistant soybean in 1996.
The foundation lists Monsanto and Syngenta Foundation among its annual donors, along with other agribusiness corporations such as DuPont Pioneer, Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill.
The award drew immediate condemnation from opponents of corporate farming.
"We could not ask for a better poster child for what's wrong with the prize than the recipients of this year's World Food Prize," said Frank Cordaro, who organized an Occupy World Food Prize protest last year. "It's all part of the very same system of the corporate elite. The problem is not with the recipients, the problem is with the system that gives the 1 per cent all the power and corporate agriculture is built on that system."
Genetically enhanced crops are grown on more than 420 million acres in nearly 30 countries by over 17 million farmers worldwide, the foundation said. More than 90 per cent are small, resource-poor farmers in developing countries.
Many U.S. farmers credited genetic modifications in corn with saving last year's crop from all but total devastation as half of the nation endured the worst drought in 60 years. Modern corn plants are more stable and can withstand a wider variety of climate conditions because of genetically improved leaves, roots and reproductive capability.
Fraley said biotechnology will enable the farming industry to meet the needs of a growing global population.
"We know we need from a demand perspective to double food production around the world in the next 30 years," he said.
Some organic farmers warn that widespread planting of genetically modified crops could contaminate organic and traditional crops, destroying their value. Others are concerned about the uncharted long-term impact for those who eat products such as milk and beef from animals raised on genetically modified plants.
"GMO crops have led to the loss of food security worldwide and for small farmers, they have led to the development of factory farms and have destroyed biodiversity in food we do produce and consume," said David Goodner, a community organizer for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, an environmental and human rights activist group that opposes corporate farming. "The World Food Prize by selecting these people to honour shows that it cares more about corporate profits than it cares about truly feeding the world with healthy food."
Van Montagu said the food prize award should raise understanding of the safety of genetically modified crops.
"We just have to explain to society the science fact and that is not the slightest risk has been identified. These crops are as safe, if not safer, than food that comes from traditional agriculture," he said. "If somebody denies that we bluntly can say they are misinformed."
The World Food Prize was created in 1986 by Norman Borlaug, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to fight hunger. Borlaug was honoured in 1970 for work that boosted agricultural production in what has become known as the "Green Revolution."
Recipients will receive the prize, which includes $250,000, at a ceremony in October at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines attended by hundreds of scholars and agribusiness leaders from around the world.