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Biotech crop benefits only just beginning for agriculture

Biotech crop benefits only just beginning for agriculture

Robert Fraley of Monsanto says advancements in biotechnology, plant breeding, and agronomic practices must work in harmony to maximize future crop yields. With technological advancements, Fraley says, “We will see more changes in farming in the next 20 years than we have probably seen in the last 50 years.” Crop yields need to double to triple in the decades ahead to reach a world population expected to top 8 billion to 9 billion people by around 2050.  

Nothing sounded sweeter to the ear and more macho in the early 1970s than the rumbling of a souped-up engine in an Oldsmobile 442 muscle car with dual exhaust. The 455-cubic-inch V-8 engine purred in complete harmony at standstill until a stomp on the accelerator launched a lion’s roar and a long stretch of rubber on the pavement.

The same type of harmonization of integral components are required for global agriculture to feed the world population expected to top a record 8 to 9 billion people around 2050.

Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technical officer, says three major sectors of agricultural technology must be integrated to double or triple crop yields in the decades ahead to meet the rapid growth in consumer demand.

Fraley says these advancements include plant breeding, biotechnology, and agronomic practice improvements including GPS.

Fraley discussed this technological three-legged stool during the 2011 American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers’ annual meeting in Phoenix, Ariz., in November.

With the unison of technology, Fraley says, “We will see more changes in farming in the next 20 years than we have probably seen in the last 50 years … I can’t image a more incredible period to be in agriculture.”

Plant breeding

Plant breeding is a key cog in the wheel to generate monumental change within the plant. Monsanto has genome sequenced almost every gene in corn, soybeans, and cotton over the last five to seven years.

“This has turned the breeding world on its ear,” Fraley said. “The way we breed today with tools and technologies is different than five years ago. Breeding is going through tremendous change.”

Monsanto has purchased about 30 seed companies around the world to advance plant breeding.


“Biotechnology is the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of agriculture,” Fraley told the crowd.

Fraley is sometimes called the ‘father of biotechnology.’ During his 25-year Monsanto career, he launched Monsanto’s biotechnology program including his co-inventor role in Roundup Ready soybeans in the late 1990s. Biotechnology has truly revolutionized agriculture in the U.S. and abroad.

Fraley has authored more than 100 publications and patent applications relating to technical advances in agricultural biotechnology.

Today, biotechnology is utilized on 20 percent of the world’s farm land. Farmers in 30 countries, located in each of the world’s major agricultural production areas, grow biotech crops. Every Latin America country has adapted biotechnology.

Fraley says agriculture is at the very beginning of the many benefits to be derived from biotech in the decades ahead. Thus far, biotechnology has provided “step changes” in weed control with Monsanto’s introduction of the Roundup Ready gene in crops.

Similarly, technology for insect control with Bt genes will further spur yields by providing advanced plant protection through drought resistance and better nutrient utilization.

In the next 10 years, Fraley says Monsanto will launch over 30 new biotech products. In the coming decades, the company will unveil innovation to tap into bug and weed control genes, develop genes to better manage drought stress, and improve fertilizer uptake efficiency.

Agronomic practices

Improvements in agronomic practices are the third leg of the technology stool. Farmers will adapt new ways to derive agronomic improvements.

Precise soil maps will become more accurate as farmers analyze the history of the farm and better utilize GPS and auto steer using complex computer calculations. This will occur through “sophisticated management — foot-by-foot and meter-by- meter” — across the farming operation.

“Today is the era of computerization of the farm,” Fraley said.

Precision technology implemented in the defense and engineering industries is adaptable to agriculture. Technology used on the battlefield for remote vehicles, sensing, positional information, and detection is applicable to crop production. Computational capabilities utilized to model bridges and predict weather patterns also have farm adaptability.

“Equipment design has to catch up and automation has to be simpler and more usable,” Fraley said. “We are heading down that path fast.”

World demand

These technological areas must hum in unison to meet the megatrends reshaping agriculture. The trends include record world population growth, increased protein demand, ecosystem impacts on climate change, biofuel demand, demands for a healthier diet, water availability, and global food security.

“Over the next 30 to 40 years, we have to produce twice as much grain as we do today to meet demand.” Fraley said. “We’ll have to double to triple productivity on existing land … The answer is driving production and productivity.”

Related changes

Since the 1970s, technology has doubled average U.S. corn yields from 75 bushels per acre to 154 bushels per acre today. A milestone in this accomplishment was increasing the per-acre-plant population from 18,000 plants to 30,000 plants and narrowing corn rows from 38-to-40 inches to 30-inch rows.

Fraley says agriculture’s genetic revolution will further shrink corn row width to 20-inch rows or twin rows to accommodate 50,000 plants to 60,000 plants per acre. He expects U.S. corn acreage to increase 20 percent to 100 million acres in the next 10 to 20 years. This will drive changes in farm equipment.

“The economics of corn, demand, and the genetic flexibility to move the Corn Belt further North and further West will be there,” Fraley said. “We are targeting a national average of 300 bushels per acre. Growers in the upper Midwest will push 350 bushels to 400 bushels per acre.”

A bag of corn seed in the future will have 15 to 20 biotech traits. Seed treatments could include 15 to 20 active ingredients, plus several biological agents to improve nitrogen uptake.

In fertilization, new hybrids with completely different genetics will take up nitrogen far later in the corn plant-growing season. Fraley says side dressing applications will continue along with the potential to apply nitrogen by air and other foliar-application methods.

Biotechnology is expanding into specialty crops. The science has been launched in sugar beets and more recently in sweet corn. Companies worldwide are implementing biotech advances in dry beans in Brazil and egg plant in India.

Yet the limit for biotechnology is not further developing the science. Government is a key obstacle.

“(Biotech) Tools have been developed and are broadly applicable across multiple crops,” Fraley explained. “The barrier to adoption is not technology. The barrier is government policy and regulations that can be too restrictive. That is the challenge.”

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