When Dr. Robert Fraley talks to a group, his message remains on point: Ag technology will be important for the future. He's Monsanto's Chief Technology Officer, and has a long history of speaking to groups about technology. He was involved in the development of the first glyphosate tolerance trait in crops, and has been involved in the rapid rise of Monsanto's biotech efforts, but these days he's as like to talk about climate impact on crop mix as he is about RNAi technology.
He spoke at the recent Agricultural Bioscience International Conference, and discussed some of the challenges ahead.
One key message is the challenge ahead - help create a global food system that can not only feed 10 billion people that will be on the planet by 2050, but the changing nature of the diet demand that food producers will face. And that 9 billion number farmers used to hear has creeped up due to advances in African population health, Fraley says.
"We're going to have 3 billion more people join the Middle Class, which along with the growing population is a combination that will require a 60% to 100% increase in food production," he says. "That's more food that has been produced in the history of the world. It's a tremendous challenge."
He adds that this challenge is complicated by the forces of climate change, which has led to more soybeans and corn grown in the Dakotas. In fact Cass County, N.D., is the No. 1 soybean producing county in the United States.
Fraley explains that a key message that's not being shared is the improving environmental impact of agriculture and that this is an "important part of the message to amplify. Our company is so invol ed in the discussion of climate change, and global warming," he notes.
But the big question - can we feed the 10 billion? "Absolutely, without a doubt," he says. But he adds that it depends on policy makers making the right decisions for the right reasons.
He points to the fact that in agriculture today we have seen two of the "greatest scientific advances in our lifetimes - the ability in biology to understand plants and animals to the individual gene; and seeing the digitization of every farm using data science tools." These advances will be transformational and will be part of the next green revolution as the biology feeds advances in data science and those advances feed genetic improvement for the future.
Alluding to the Bayer-Monsanto proposed merger, Fraley says one of the driving forces behind this is that biology/data connection. While he was one of the first to help develop a commercial GMO crop, Fraley says he took a step back and notes that potentially the greatest impact has been the ability to "use the combination of advances in biological and data science to change breeding."
The tech has evolved so that today plant breeders can not only breed gene by gene, but seed by seed and identify those "rare recombinants to give the yield boost needed for the future."
We live in a GMO world
Fraley looks ahead to new tools like gene editing and RNA-interference, called RNAi and how these tools could impact future plant development, and dealing with plant pests that are yield robbers. "We live in a GMO world," he observes. "The first GMO was insulin, which allowed genuine pristine lab-produced insulin. And 60% of new drugs launched are biotech based."
It's this message that Fraley says is being missed with the public. They're getting biotech benefits they don't even understand. And the enzymes that make it possible to wash jeans in cold water, or make more wine, or genetic tricks that make glow-in-the-dark tropical fish are all popular with consumers. Do they know they're biotech?
"There are incredible benefits from this technology and these are tools that have changed how we farm. On the weed control side we've reduce erosion and water loss by allowing no-till and conservation tillage," he points out.
And he points to something not often shared in the GMO conversation. That these crops are raised on more than 400 million acres and there have been no issues of food safety. "This is strong science. We are working with genes and we all have genes," he says.
Bottom line - the tech has value and work will continue on these technologies for the future. From enhanced weed control, to improved insect control to better quality crops with improved output traits. All will bring benefits to farmers. But sharing with consumers that these technologies benefit the environment is important too.
Fraley is with Monsanto. The future of that company, which may be purchased by Bayer, may be changing, but the march of crop technology is unlikely to slow down.