* Winners include Syngenta executive, Belgian researcher
* Laureates say award validates biotech as food source
* Prize regarded as the Nobel of agriculture
* U.S. still searching for source of biotech wheat in Oregon
WASHINGTON, June 19 (Reuters) - An executive with Monsanto Co and two other pioneers in agricultural biotechnology said their selection as winners of the $250,000 World Food Prize on Wednesday should encourage the wider use of genetically engineered crops.
The Iowa foundation that administers the prize, created by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug, said genetically modified crops offer higher yields and more resistance to pests, plant disease and harsh weather.
It was the first time the award, often regarded as the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for agriculture, has gone to a creator of GM crops.
While engineered varieties of crops like soybeans and corn are popular among U.S. farmers, they are not approved for cultivation in Europe. Some U.S. consumer groups also say genetically modified foods should be labeled, despite government assurances that the foods are safe.
Named as winners were: Robert Fraley, the chief technology officer at Monsanto; Mary-Dell Chilton, founder of Syngenta Biotechnology ; and Marc Van Montagu, founder of the Institute of Plant Technology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium.
"These three scientists are being recognized for their independent, individual breakthrough achievements in founding, developing and applying modern agricultural biotechnology," said Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation.
The Food Prize was announced as the U.S. Agriculture Department's search for the source of unapproved biotech wheat found on a farm in Oregon in April continued. The strain was developed years ago by Monsanto, but abandoned in 2005 due to worldwide opposition to engineered wheat.
Van Montagu said he hoped "that this recognition will pave the way for Europe to embrace the benefits of this technology, an essential condition for global acceptance of transgenic plants."
Genetically engineered crops were grown on 430 million acres(170 million ha) around the world in 2012, said the food prize committee. Despite the "gene revolution," though, the committee noted estimates that 870 million people - one in eight of the world's population - are hungry.
"The World Food Prize provides us an important platform to engage a new global dialogue around enabling farmer access to advanced agricultural tools while ensuring a sustainable food supply for all," said Fraley.
Chilton, who helped produce the first genetically modified plants in the 1980s, said agricultural biotechnology "which started as curiosity-driven fundamental research, has now found worldwide application."