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Monsanto’s chief technology officer discusses future of ag research

corn field
NEW DAY, NEW CROPS: Monsanto's Robb Fraley believes new technologies such as genome editing will produce corn and other crops that have improved traits and higher yield potential.
Robb Fraley says he’s excited about the possibilities of a new day in ag research and food production systems.

Monsanto Co. recently unveiled a snapshot of its research pipeline. At the same time, The Climate Corp., owned by Monsanto, debuted a large number of digital projects underway to help farmers capture and better use data on their farm. The result was a futuristic view of how agriculture could progress as it moves toward 2050 and 10 billion people to feed.

Robb Fraley, chief technology officer for Monsanto, shared why he’s excited about the future. His excitement starts with enthusiasm for one of the biggest tools in the company’s research pipeline: genome editing, sometimes referred to as gene editing. Monsanto announced in September that it had licensed CRISPR genome editing technology for specific uses from the Broad Institute. This technology allows researchers to alter existing genes within the genome without introducing genes from another organism. That distinction separates it from traditional GMO-biotech programs.

Fraley made comments and took questions from the media. Here are his key comments.

On the significance of gene editing.There are a lot of tools under development in this field. These tools will allow scientists to look at possible changes to every gene of every crop. It is the next-generation biotech tool. We will still need adequate breeding and testing programs. Long term, we will be discovering new traits with this technology. We will change plant breeding with these tools."

On possible backlash similar to that seen with GMOs in the '90s. "CRISPR technology has profound potential for advancements in plants, animals and human medicine. It’s an exciting change for biology as we know it, and it is safer than existing technology. We made a mistake when GMOs were introduced by not communicating more clearly with consumers and government leaders. We are already having conversations now about this new technology with both consumers and government leaders. One big difference is that with gene editing, we’re changing a gene within the plant, but we’re not introducing a new gene from a different organism, as was the case when GMO-trait development began.”

On Bayer acquiring Monsanto. “From a research and development standpoint, this will lead to new innovation for farmers. It will open up incredible opportunities to create better integrated systems for farmers. I believe it will actually increase competition and drive innovation.”

On synergies between Bayer and Monsanto. "Bayer is largely focused on chemistry and biology. At Monsanto, we have focused on developing traits and getting them to farmers. It takes Bayer about eight to 10 years to develop a new product. It takes Monsanto eight to 10 years to develop traits for the product once it’s developed. By working in cooperation with each other, I believe we can shave years off the development time for a project. That will be great for farmers, because we can get new technology into their hands sooner.”

On the future of the ag industry. “I see so many great things happening here. The combination of advances in biology and the ability for farmers to better use information through digital technology, such as that coming from Climate Corp., is exciting. There are 400 to 500 startup companies in this space already. Lots of these efforts will lead to new tools in biology and to digital advances.”

On consolidation in agriculture. “I believe we will see important and healthy consolidation in our industry. This is an exciting time to be in agriculture. We are going to see changes happening around the world.”

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