Even with the major advances achieved in crop bio-technology over the last 20 years, "we are still very much at the tip of the iceberg," said Robert T. Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto Company, speaking at Farm Journal Forum 2013.
Advances during the previous 20 years will "fuel decades and decades of advancement," said Fraley, the 2013 World Prize Laureate, noting that "we understand all 33,000 genes in a corn plant .... We understand the genetics of corn and soybeans so precisely that you can figure out which field it performs best in."
Fraley, who is sometimes refered to as the father of agricultural biotechnology, said Monsanto is hard at work developing seeds that capitalize on RNAi inhibitors that were only understood by scientists in the last 15 years. Monsanto is using RNAi interference, which supresses the activity of specific genes, to improve the oil in soybeans and attack corn rootworms.
Fraley, the first to isolate a bacterial marker gene and engineer it to express in plant cells, told the audience that there’s never been a more important time to be in agriculture. It is at the forefront of the most critical issues facing a world that will get thirstier, hotter, drier and more crowded as the global population grows and the earth’s climate changes.
"Agriculture can be viewed as the culprit, but it’s also the solution to many problems," he said. "Now is the time to really rally the support for agriculture, technology and innovation."
Fraley noted that the world will need to double production to meet food demand by 2050, as population grows from its current 7.1 billion to 9.6 billion, according to recently revised figures from the United Nations. That work will be easier now that crop breeding has become a global industry, Fraley said, with Monsanto and other companies testing seeds throughout the world.
Biotech crops, in the meantime, have made strong inroads into farming throughout the world. They were planted by more than 17 million farmers in 28 countries in 2012 on more than 400 million acres, according to Fraley's statistics. "That’s about 20% of the world’s farmland."
What Fraley said makes him proud is that 90% of the farmers who have planted biotech crops are small holders in developing countries. "There are very low barriers to adoption of bio-tech," he said. "Every farmer around the world knows what to do with a genetically modified seed."
Another source of pride for Fraley is GM seed’s "incredible track record of safety." In 20 years, he said, there hasn’t been a single documented case of food safety issues, noting that more than 1,700 peer review studies published on the topic by scientific journals. He left behind a thumb drive with links to these studies for attendees to review.
Meanwhile, a convergence of seed and communication technology is taking productivity to much higher levels. "The farm tractor today has more computer power than the first spaceship that went to the moon," he said, explaining that DeKalb will launch a FieldScripts program in 2014 that will help farmers vary planting within 10-by-20-meter grids. The program will match the best seed and planting rate with zones on a farm.
Even in developing countries farmers are using communication technology to make key farming decisions. Fraley noted, for instance, that vital information can be delivered on cell phones to farmers in India. They can be alerted to wind changes, or that a moth flight is coming in their direction or that insects could hatch within the next six days.
Fraley said that the key to feeding a growing world population will be changing the perception of GMOs and the policy barriers to deploying them. Agriculture needs to get the word out, he said. "We need to magnify our voice through cooperation. We need to use new media tools and a different approach," Fraley said.
Fraley is convinced that the public wants to hear from seed companies about food and food safety, rather than just agricultural technology. And it needs to hear that message through blogs, social media, and other modern forms of communication.
"The world views companies such as ours as the start of the food chain," he said. "We’re all in. We want to do whatever it takes."