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Agricultural Biotechnology Helps Growers Stem Environmental Damage

Robert Fraley
Monsanto's Robert Fraley said more and better communication about the benefits of biotechnologies being used in agriculture is needed to gain public trust and support. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

The latest biotechnologies are helping the agricultural industry lighten its environment footprint by making global food production more efficient, said Robert Fraley in delivering the 2017 AAAS Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture on Thursday evening.

Over the last two decades, Fraley said advances in biotechnology’s precision gene-editing techniques, earlier genetic engineering methods and data science are transforming the way crops are bred and the advances are “protecting and driving productivity” necessary to meet the food needs of a global population projected to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050.

“It’s estimated that in 2015 alone, biotechnology spared nearly 50 million acres of wetlands, forests and prairies from conversion to farmland that would have been needed to grow the same amount of food if the technology was not available,” said Fraley in his “Joining Forces to Protect the Future of Agriculture and the Planet” lecture held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Washington headquarters.

Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Monsanto, the agribusiness giant, said use of the technologies kept 430 million acres of land from being cultivated, according to a 2017 report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, a global non-profit that promotes biotechnology and draws support from philanthropic foundations, government organizations and Monsanto.The amount of land left undisturbed is an area equivalent in size to “more than all of the land in my home state of Missouri,” he added.

Less cultivated acreage reduces carbon dioxide emissions, helps soils retain more water and nutrients, limits erosion and promotes biodiversity, he said. The upshot is the equivalent of removing 26.7 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a statistic equal to removing about 12 million automobiles from the roads for a year, Fraley stated, citing a 2017 report by PG Economics Limited, an agricultural consulting firm.

In addition, advances in data science have put computing technology, sensors, drones and satellites in the hands of farmers, enabling them in real-time to monitor moisture and nitrogen levels in the soil, track the health and growth rates of crops, more precisely target  the use of irrigation, predict weather conditions and even receive data updates from equipment deployed in the fields.

“Enabling farmers around the world to address these challenges – by providing them with better tools and technologies – will require significant increases in productivity fueled by accelerated R&D investment and increased collaboration across the agricultural and food sector,” Fraley said. “Importantly, we will need to facilitate public discourse, policies and regulations that support the research and adoptions of new technologies.”

2017 Riley Lecture panel
Following the lecture, Fraley, center, joined a panel, from left, made up of Lisa Ainsworth, Gregory Bohach, Mary Bohman and Andrew LaVigne. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

The 8th annual Riley lecture, in memory of the prolific 19th century writer, artist and chief of the Federal Entomological Service, honors scientists who have advanced agricultural sciences and is co-sponsored by the Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation in collaboration with the World Food Prize Foundation. It also is supported by the Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, Economic Research Service, Forest Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture as well as Mars Incorporated.

Among his multiple honors, Fraley was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1998 – the nation’s highest honor for technological achievement that the president can bestow – and was named the World Food Prize Laureate in 2013. He earned a PhD in microbiology and biochemistry from the University of Illinois and an executive degree in business management from Northwestern University.

A panel discussion led by Lisa Ainsworth, a research scientist at the Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Research Service and associate professor of plant biology at the University of Illinois, followed Fraley’s address. Gregory Bohach, vice president of Mississippi State University’s Division of Agriculture, Forestry, and Veterinary Medicine; Mary Bohman, administrator at the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service; and Andrew W. LaVigne, president and CEO of the American Seed Trade Association joined Fraley and Ainsworth.

During his address, Fraley underscored the importance of introducing such technologies to small-scale farmers in developing countries, calling it critical “to bridging the innovation gap to ensure farmers have access to the best agronomic tools and advice.” Monsanto has given 4 million farmers in India access to a free mobile phone platform that provides weather and seed and planting information, he said.

Fraley called for greater federal investment in agricultural R&D research even as private sector spending has picked up in some areas such as food production and manufacturing. “Research by the private sector does not replace basic foundational research by the public sector,” he said. “Private-sector R&D focuses primarily on taking results from public sector research and creating marketable products for growers and consumers.”

In the coming years, Fraley said innovation startups and public and private collaborations will be necessary to support the next generation of academic research programs, train skilled workers and foster discoveries to further address challenges posed by food security and growing pressure on the environment.

In the early 1980s, Fraley helped Monsanto develop genetically modified crops to fight pests and weeds shrinking crop yields. Yet, he said the way the innovation was introduced to the public rendered it “the poster child for a science that is widely misunderstood.”

“I will readily admit that part of the blame for that belongs with Monsanto,” he said. “When we launched the first commercial GM seeds in the mid-1990s, we focused our communications on our customers – farmers – and didn’t work hard enough to help consumers understand the benefits. This was a big mistake.”

The most pressing imperative for scientists, including those in agricultural disciplines, is the necessity to improve communications with the public, by describing in clear terms the science behind innovations and their benefits to people, he said. Listening to customers, being transparent, offering in-person events and actively participating in online networks and on social media, in particular, are now required, said Fraley.

“If we can’t find ways to communicate and engage the public better, nothing else will matter,” he said.