At the 2018 World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines recently, I visited with Robb Fraley who pioneered biotech innovations during his 37-year career with Monsanto. He helped develop the Roundup Ready weed control system, genetically engineering soybean varieties and corn hybrids to resist glyphosate herbicide. He also had a guiding hand in other biotech advancements and became Monsanto’s chief technology officer.
In 2013 Fraley won the World Food Prize, sharing it with two other scientists for achievements in advancing biotechnology to help feed a hungry world. Bayer, a global ag company, recently acquired Monsanto, also a firm with global reach. Helping with the transition, Fraley is working closely with Bayer’s top management. He plans to retire at the end of 2018.
At the 2018 World Food Prize symposium, Fraley gave a talk on a topic he’s passionate about: the need for technology to keep advancing to feed an increasing world population. And the need to farm and produce food sustainably, protecting soil and water resources.
“I grew up on a farm in Illinois,” he said. “I’ve watched technology advance and make farms more productive. The large amount of innovation and breakthroughs in ag today is unprecedented. There has never been a time like this; we are seeing advances in plant breeding, gene editing, digital tools, automation, robotics, etc.”
He added, “We need to do a better job of communicating the importance of technology and advancement in agriculture, so everyone understands the link between ag, nutrition and food security.”
Connecting ag and environment
Fraley sees a unique link between ag and the environment: “In the experience we’ve had with GMOs and other new technologies, what we found is consumers who may not be supportive of new tech for food production are supportive of the technology if it helps the environment. My point is, these new tools not only help the world from a food security perspective, but also help us farm better and smarter, use less inputs, use less land and less water. Those are key benefits.”
He added, “Farmers and agribusiness need to step up and communicate both the food production and environmental benefits of the technologies. That will help agriculture gain public support.”
After he retires, Fraley wants to serve in a role advocating for what technology can do. He said the breakthroughs now occurring in science and which occur the next few years will be nothing like we’ve seen in the past. “We already see it in our breeding programs,” he said, “increased crop yields and rapid adoption by farmers of digital tools. We have an exciting opportunity to take advantage of available tools, and their cost has diminished.”
Reaching out to consumers
In development of biotech and GMOs, “we didn’t do a very good job of communicating to the consumer,” Fraley said. “We did a good job talking to farmers around the world and that’s why a lot of these technologies were adopted. But to reach the consumer, we need to change our message on how these tools not only can help address food security and nutrition, but will have a tremendous effect on enhancing the environment.”
Everyone wants a food-secure world, he said. “Technology has changed health care and communications. It can change agriculture and do incredibly positive things. We need to make sure consumers understand and sense the opportunity. They need to be aware of the care we bring to ensure a safe, abundant, affordable food supply, and farming practices are getting increasingly better at reducing the impact farming can have on the environment.”
World Food Prize founder Norman Borlaug said, “Take it to the farmer.” Ag companies and farmers now need to “take it to the consumer.” There’s never been a more important or exciting time for agriculture. Important discussions center around food security, environment, everything from climate change to public acceptance of technology.
“We need innovation to solve problems,” Fraley said. “Consumers readily accept the next new iPhone and advancement in communication. They accept the role of innovation in medicine. We need to do a better job of explaining the benefits of innovations in agriculture.”
Less than 1% of the U.S. population is on the farm; the other 99% have a role to play in the acceptance and regulation of technology, he added. “We need to acknowledge both as an industry and as an ag group that we all have a role in carrying out this dialogue with consumers.”
What about dicamba?
The new dicamba herbicide used with Xtend soybean varieties with resistance to dicamba has resulted in spray drift and vapor drift problems, causing damage to or killing nearby fields of non-resistant bean varieties and, in some cases, trees.
“I feel good about our experience with the new dicamba herbicide and Xtend system, particularly in Iowa,” Fraley said. “Farmers are harvesting a record bean yield, and many are giving credit to the fact they don’t have competition with weeds, as this new technology is controlling the weeds. There’s increasing interest in Xtend beans and Xtendimax herbicide.”
Fraley also feels good about the training farmers and applicators received last year on the new dicamba system. A lot of the training was done by BASF and Monsanto, and state pesticide education. Regulatory programs were involved, too.
“The training has been a big success,” he said. “We doubled the dicamba soy and cotton acres from 2017 to 2018 in the U.S., and drift complaints were reduced by 90%. That’s a dramatic result showing that industry can train and work with growers and applicators. Looking at 2019, we see demand for dicamba technology continuing to grow.”
The new dicamba system gives growers a workable, effective way to control weeds that have become resistant to other herbicides, Fraley added. “I firmly believe if managed properly when used, the dicamba system for weed control on dicamba-resistant beans will be successful both for weed control and in avoiding drift problems.”