Dr. Fraley is Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto Company.
It is no secret that the world’s demand for grain is accelerating as both population and per capita consumption increase at an unprecedented rate. The quest to grow food to meet that demand and feed the global population will continue to be one of the most important issues of our time. To put it in perspective, in order to meet the needs of more than 9 billion people by 2050, farmers will have to grow as much food as they have in the last 10,000 years, combined!
As a farm kid growing up in central Illinois, and a scientist by training, the challenge to help farmers grow better and higher yielding crops has been my passion for almost 50 years. Farmers provide not only crops for food, but for animal feed, fiber and fuel as well, and as they farm, they face the onslaught of bugs, weeds and extreme weather. Add to that the fact that farmers want to protect their land for future generations and make agriculture as sustainable as possible in order to conserve precious resources such as water and fuel. It’s an incredibly tall order, and one the whole world is counting on.
As I write this, the U.S. is coming off the worst, most extensive drought in the last 25 years. Farmers’ crop yields were down, but they could have been much worse, and advances in agricultural technology played a big part in a tough year. Just to give you some perspective, in the devastating 1988 drought, corn yields averaged a little over 80 bushels per acre. This year they averaged over 120 bushels per acre even in what many considered to be an even more severe drought. That difference is due to impact of technology.
Scientific innovations have led the way in revolutionizing agriculture, such as the development of irrigation techniques, farm equipment, fertilization, and plant breeding. One of the most revolutionary agricultural innovations has been the development and use of biotechnology to increase crop protection and yield. Today, farmers in more than 30 countries around the world are planting seeds containing biotechnology traits. Seeds that utilize new breeding and biotechnology advances have helped these growers increase yields, reduce inputs and dramatically improve their profits. Importantly, this is true for large corn and soybean farmers in the U.S. Midwest as well as for small cotton farmers in India farming only a few acres. The exciting part is that there are even more scientific advancement opportunities to bring to the field. Monsanto’s DroughtGard corn seed, the first corn seed that contains both germplasm that was selected for its drought-tolerant characteristics, and a biotech drought trait, was trialed by 250 farmers during the drought last year. Their results were an impressive yield advantage of more than five bushels per acre.
Another innovation that is coming to the farmer is precision agronomics or what we call Integrated Farming Systems (IFS) at Monsanto. This research brings together the understanding of the genetics of how corn hybrids perform in different field environments and combines that with precision farming equipment and advanced field data analysis. Basically, the farmer will have a “prescription” which we call a “FieldScript” that can be delivered to the computer on the farmer’s tractor and planter to direct planting seed at the exact population that will provide optimal yield at a given spot in the field. This will allow for more precise production using the finite resources available on the farm. Farmers trialing FieldScripts this past season saw a 5-10 bushel per acre increase in their corn yields.
Research in biologicals is another area of scientific innovation that is coming to the farm. Agricultural biologicals are typically topical or seed treatment products that are made from microorganisms or contain materials found in nature. Agricultural biological products on the market today include bio-insecticides, fungicides, nematicides and nutrients that complement or replace agricultural chemical products. This technology could eventually be used to identify new opportunities for current herbicides, create better insect control options, and offer new virus and disease control tools for farmers to protect their yields.
This is just a quick glimpse into an exciting wave of new technologies that will help farmers produce more, while conserving more resources. Monsanto is working to do its part to maximize the yield and profit potential of every seed, but we can’t do this alone or in a vacuum. Much of the advances require a “systems approach” – combining the advances in breeding, biotech, farm equipment and nutrition into an integrated agronomic system. That is why we hold our collaborations in such high regard.
Collaborating and combining expertise across multiple organizations will be key to meeting the demand for doubling yields. For example, the drought gene in our DroughtGard product that trialed so well this past season was a gene developed through a long-standing collaboration that we have with BASF. The dicamba tolerance trait that will be part of our dual mode-of-action Roundup Ready Extend soybeans was licensed from the University of Nebraska.
In summary, for the farmer, the Ag industry, or the scientist focused on agricultural innovation, the most important word that holds both challenge and promise and makes us strive harder than any other, is YIELD. Without the backdrop of scientific innovation that comes from public and private investment in agricultural research, getting higher crop yields is like trying to play the lottery without buying a ticket. It just isn’t going to happen. And I do not want feeding the world to be a gamble, and it won’t be with continued scientific innovation in agriculture. That innovation tremendously increases our chances to live in a world where there is enough food for everyone. My friend and hero, Norman Borlaug, once wrote: “Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.” I believe the corollary is that we have the moral obligation to utilize the scientific advances and innovations to increase crop YIELDS to produce enough food for a growing planet.
Dr. Fraley oversees Monsanto’s integrated crop and seed agribusiness technology and research with facilities in most world areas. He has been involved in agricultural biotechnology since the early eighties and has been with Monsanto for more than 25 years. Dr. Fraley has contributed to years of agricultural development through a number of significant activities, including authoring more than 100 publications and patent applications relating to technical advances in agricultural biotechnology. He is technical advisor to numerous government and public agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Science Foundation, Office of Technology Assessment, Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, Agency for International Development, National Academy of Science, and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. He also is a member of several scientific journal editorial boards. Dr. Fraley’s educational background includes Fellowship from the University of California, San Francisco, a Ph.D in microbiology/biochemistry from the University of Illinois and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Illinois.