DES MOINES, Iowa — Robb Fraley, 2013 World Food Prize laureate and chief technology officer of Monsanto sat down with Mizzou student journalists for a Q&A Friday.
How has Monsanto evolved since you’ve been with the company?
Historically, almost all of our research has been on how we improve the crop, whether it’s a corn plant or a soybean plant or vegetable. But science now is enabling us to look at what’s in the soil. The microorganisms that live in the soil can often help the crop grow. So we’re looking at how we can use our skills in biology to help improve …the soil by coating the seeds with a microbe that might have a specific benefit, and use that as a way of replacing some of the chemicals that are used or some of the nutrients. I’m excited to see the company getting into some brand new areas because that’s the key; the world’s moving fast, needs and opportunities are moving fast, and we really need to be able to change and respond. A lot of companies talk about transforming themselves, but I watched it happen (at Monsanto).
Do you see Monsanto moving toward big data?
I hope so. I would love that last transformation that I’m involved in to be taking us from a seed company into information technology. I’m excited. We’ve got all these advances that are coming to make better seeds, and now the information and the data science technologies are letting us computerize and digitize the farm.
It [computerized interaction] has revolutionized communication entertainment. It has revolutionizing our financial industry. Agriculture is really the last industry to be touched by data science; we’re now experiencing what it means for a farmer to have every bit of their fields mapped with GPS, tractors that have the ability to drive themselves through the field. Having that capability is just going to make farming more precise. We’ll have sensors that tell us exactly how much fertilizer to use, exactly when we need to water, when we’re over watering, and I think these tools are really going to help with enhancing the sustainability of farming on a global basis.
Africa is leading the world in terms of how it’s using the cell phone, because the cell phone in the hands of a small African farmer becomes the way that they understand which village is paying the highest price (for their farm produce), so they use it for market discovery. You think about it, here’s a farmer who’s never seen a consultant, never seen an agronomist, probably never seen a weather report in their life, and now suddenly they can get a text message that’s giving them vital information about agriculture.
These kinds of tools are changing farming around the world.
How does Monsanto plan to keep traditional farming methods alive while incorporating more technology?
I always start with the premise that there’s nobody who knows the land any better than the person who’s farming it. There’s no one who’s a better steward of the land, because in many parts of the world land is all that farmers have, and the next generation depends on the decisions of the grandfather, the father, the son and the grandson make. They are smart businesspeople who are aware of what they’re doing, very innovative and very creative. I’ve always viewed our role as giving the farmer as many tools and choices as we can and letting them use them most effectively. They are absolutely desirous to produce more and secure more for their family. We need to preserve the parts of their culture that are important, but we cannot fail to make sure that they have as many options and choices as any other farmer to better their lives.
What is Monsanto’s reaction to the increased interest in organic farming and practices in the United States, and globally?
I absolutely believe that one of the strengths of U.S. agriculture is that we deploy multiple farming practices. There’s GMOs, conventional, organic agriculture, and all of those have a role to play. Almost all of our (Monsanto’s) vegetables are non-GMO, and many of those vegetable seeds are used by organic farmers. I think the challenge to meet that market for consumers whose preference is an organic product is terrific, and we try to support that. I think the reality that still needs to be addressed on a global scale is if that kind of intensive agriculture can be consistent with doubling the food supply and feeding nine and a half billion people. Because as much as it’s grown in the U.S., it’s less than 1 percent of the farmland, and the challenge is scalability in terms of the additional labor and types of materials that need to be provided.
How does Monsanto address protestors who view The World Food Prize as a PR stunt for biotech research?
The World Food Prize was founded by Dr. Norman Borlaug, and if anybody in the history of agriculture stands for taking technology to the farmer and the smallholder, it’s Norm. But one of the things I’ve realized in the last year since being a recipient of the World Food Prize and having a chance for lots of dialogue is that I think we’ve done a terrific job of talking to farmers about the technology, that’s why biotech crops are grown in 30 countries around the world. We didn’t do a very good job of communicating with the consumer. I think we felt that was somebody else’s job in the food chain, not ours. In the last year or so we’ve really rethought that, and now we realize that we own the responsibility of communicating with the consumer. When we were absent from that we created a vacuum that could get filled by people who don’t like the technology, who don’t like Monsanto, who don’t like farming, and there’s just a huge amount of misinformation and misunderstanding. We have an obligation to do more, and the good news is that there’s a great receptivity to that.