Fraley: ‘Exciting times ahead in modern agriculture’

FFA students hear an optimistic ag outlook

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Robb Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Monsanto, recently spoke to a group of FFA students at the Northwest Iowa Ag Outlook event in Spencer. Fraley said the ag industry is expanding quickly with 1,000 new start-up companies in the ag and food sector.

SPENCER — Robb Fraley told a large group of grain and livestock producers and FFA students at the Northwest Iowa Ag Outlook event in Spencer last month to remain optimistic about agriculture in the years ahead.

“There has never been a more exciting time to be in agriculture,” Fraley told FFA students. “We need to double the world’s food supply in the next 32 years — it’s one of the greatest technical and important challenges facing the world. There are so many exciting career opportunities, so jump into it, and jump into the conversation.”

Fraley is the executive vice president and chief technology officer at Monsanto. Sometimes referred to as the father of agricultural biotechnology, he oversees Monsanto’s integrated crop and seed agribusiness technology and research.

During his presentation, Fraley addressed issues such as needing to dramatically increase food production to meet a growing world population, the genetics needed to get that job done and the digital technology that farmers will be using in the future to make their farms more efficient.

Gene editing is commonly used in the pharmaceutical world, and has now entered the ag playing field.

“We’re entering into an exciting time for plant breeding, and our research facilities in Iowa are right in the center of this,” he said. “The next generation of tools based on gene editing will prove to be (very) transformational.”

Fraley added that gene editing uses bio-tech tools to be able to change genes in a seed, but doesn’t introduce new genetic material.

“So technically, it’s not a GMO, and that gives us lots of optimism that it will be a technology that will have a lower cost of development,” he said, “and will be applicable to crop production in countries that currently don’t accept GMO, or applicable to crops like vegetables and minor crops, where they can’t afford the cost of developing a new biotech tool.”

New gene-edited ag products continue to become approved by regulatory agencies, and he said gene editing will continue to improve crop yields.

Fraley said Monsanto is close to launching some new corn, soybean and weed control products. Some products are a couple of years off yet, and at least one — with a trait that uses three modes of action to better control caterpillars — will launch this year. Monsanto’s ExtendiMax product has been approved in 33 states and was launched last year on 26 million acres, making it the largest biotech-worthy launch in the company’s history.

Looking to the 2018 growing season, Fraley said his company expects to see soybean acreages using that product nearly double to 40 million acres, due to its ability to control weeds.

Despite misleading information, Fraley said the company is continuing to develop next-generation weed technology, most currently by introducing the dicamba trait into corn.

“You’ll be able to use higher application rates and have the benefit of the broadleaf weed control in corn and the residual activity that you see at higher rates,” he said. “We’re also developing herbicide tolerance traits for several of the PPO and HPPD chemistries.”

Fraley said their third-generation soybeans will contain three modes of action.

“… and just like in corn, we’re developing the PPO and HPPD tolerance that will be in the fourth and fifth generations that will be in the market place in the next decade,” he said.

Digital technology

Fraley said the science and progress coming in the digital world is remarkable and fast-moving, and added digital tools and technology have changed the way the world works, including farms.

He expects to eventually see the complete digitalization of the farm.

“Agriculture is the last real industry to be digitized, and it’s happening very fast,” he said.

Digital tools allow producers to analyze enormous amounts of data, including more than 225 “layers” of data that can be analyzed on every square foot of any field. Fraley added that nitrogen can be managed just as accurately as a field nitrogen test, and this kind of “artificial intelligence” can be used to diagnose crop diseases.

“A farmer can now take a picture of a (corn) leaf, send it to our website, where it will be compared to millions of photographs, and the computer will come back with a specific diagnosis that will probably be more accurate than the best field agronomist,” he said.

Digital information helps in making key decisions, according to Fraley, with information at a producer’s fingertips. This includes precise knowledge of the environment, weather, seed genetics and the interaction with downstream crop products.

“Each decision can be better, and if you make 40 or 50 better decisions in the course of a growing season, you’re going to change the outcome for the crop,” he said.

The good news and the challenge

Fraley said the ag industry is expanding quickly. There are 1,000 new start-up companies in the ag and food sector and, since 2010, there has been nearly $20 billion of venture capital investment in it.

On the other hand, he said the ag and food industry lags behind dramatically in research and development spending, with other companies — drug, automotive and data science — far ahead of the curve, with Volkswagen and Amazon reaching nearly $16 billion. To date, the ag and food sector spends nearly $7.5 billion on research and development.

One thing Fraley said all growers can do is rethink their communication strategies with the “… changing and evolving consumer landscape.” With most people having no direct connection to a farm, and less than 1 percent of the population doing the farming, he said it’s imperative that the farm family tells their story on whatever platform they can. The most important, he said, is on social media, where the millennial generation can be found.

He said they are not likely to sit and read countless articles, but many of them get their information from watching television. Within one year, YouTube may be the most important avenue of communication with the public about where their food comes from and how it’s produced.

It’s important that producers need to place their information on a platform where it will be seen by the public in a way that they want to get their information, Fraley said.

“Back in the day it was enough to just talk about farming and meeting the need for food, feed and fiber, but times have changed,” he said. “Consumers are not only asking ‘what,’ but they’re asking how and where food is produced, and if it was produced organically or conventionally. We’re seeing emerging consumer trends around transparency, convenience and the need to provide additional information as we look to food and nutrition to help.”

Those in agriculture simply need to start the conversation.

“You don’t need to be an expert. You just have to talk about it from the point of view of what you’re passionate about,” he said.

Examples he cited include something happening on the farm, a new app to help farmers make better decisions, or finding new advances in breeding livestock or crops.

Fraley said people often pit conventional against organic or biotech, but he thinks the public should celebrate the fact that the U.S. has the most efficient, safest food supply in the world and that consumers have lots of choices, not fight over it.

There are 80 million millennials, the largest generation in U.S. history, according to Fraley, who are seeking convenient food experiences; food that meets their societal and social needs.

That generation, he added, is also concerned that the technology used to raise more food to feed a hungry world is not hurting the environment.

“A lot of these tools and techniques provide for tremendous benefit to the environment, and that’s something we need to do a better job of emphasizing, in terms of the ability to use less water and less inputs,” he said.

Summing up his thoughts, Fraley said there is an “unbelievable amount of innovation” coming into the food and ag sector, that a large part of communicating with the public has to be on the environment, and that growers have a responsibility to build public understanding and support to ensure that policy-makers, regulators and decision makers make the right decisions.

“That’s the biggest challenge we face if we’re going to deliver on food demand, based on the innovations it will take,” said Fraley. “(We need to start) a common ground conversation about how we use new agricultural tools to protect the environment — promoting the reduced use of pesticides, reduced tillage and erosion and protecting our topsoil and waterways, and working to promote food security not just here, but in other countries.”

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