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Q & A: Robb Fraley, Monsanto CTO
Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer, is excited about coming agricultural technologies, but he’s looking for new ways to explain these technologies to nonfarmers.
Robb Fraley and Monsanto are on a roll these days, as the St. Louis-based firm integrates its recent acquisitions with its existing seed and trait businesses.
The recent buying flurry started with the purchase of Precision Planting in May 2012. “It used to be some seeds at planting would land on top of the field, others would land below where you wanted to plant them,” says Fraley, Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer. “Now, we are talking about a planter precisely controlled by hydraulics, with picket-fence stands occurring.”
In 2013, Monsanto also expanded into biological technology with a Novozymes collaboration, and extensive weather data with its acquisition of The Climate Corporation.
“We are seeing all these technologies starting to integrate together,” he says.
Not all has gone smoothly, though. A Google search of Monsanto quickly turns up groups like March Against Monsanto and Millions Against Monsanto. Some weeds and corn rootworm are also resisting the firm’s weed-tolerant and insect-resistant technology. Even so, Fraley foresees a bright future. Here’s what’s on his mind these days.
SF: What excites you now?
RF: Microbials and biologicals. We are in the early stages of how useful they will be, but we see applications for control of insects, weeds, and viruses.
SF: Did weeds and insects that resist transgenic technology surprise Monsanto?
RF: From the day we launched Roundup Ready soybeans (in 1996), resistance was always on top of our minds as a possibility. We are always testing the next-generation product.
In the case of corn rootworm, the science moved quickly, and we were able to replace a single-gene product with dual-gene products with multiple modes of action. We are expecting RNAi technology to come into the market by the end of the decade. This will differ from the Bt technology now used in corn rootworm traits.
SF: What’s the state of the U.S. regulatory system?
RF: It’s getting more complicated. We are seeing more delays. The EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) that USDA requested for dicamba- (Monsanto) and 2,4-D-tolerant soybeans (Dow AgroSciences) has added another two years onto the time these products can get to market. We are complying, but we didn’t think it was necessary. The last two products we launched in Brazil took just two years to get government approval. We are able to launch Roundup Ready Xtend (dicamba-tolerant) soybeans in Argentina before we can launch it here.
SF: Aren’t there concerns, such as off-target movement, about these new weed-control technologies?
RF: I understand there are concerns. We and BASF are doing a lot of work in developing new formulations of dicamba. Dow is doing the same thing with new formulations of 2,4-D. These new formulations are incredible. I remember as a kid spraying Banvel and seeing volatility and drift. Newer formulations have dramatically decreased off-target movement.
SF: How is Monsanto working to ease concerns about genetically modified foods?
RF: We’re making a bigger effort to talk with consumers – in schools, with moms, with people who like us and people who don’t. We need different approaches.
Name: Robb Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto
Background: Grew up on a farm in Hoopeston, Illinois. Earned three degrees from the University of Illinois; did postdoctorate work at the University of California-San Francisco.
Monsanto Career: Started at Monsanto in 1981. With three other Monsanto scientists, he genetically modified petunias in 1983. Obtained the first of 11 coauthored patents in 1990. Assumed current position in 2003.
Honors: National Medal of Science, 1999; World Food Prize winner in 2013
What will you be talking about in five years?: “We will talk about how big of an enhancement Roundup Ready Xtend has made across soybean production. It is a great new tool for weed control.
“We’ll also be talking about adoption of probably the third or fourth generation of FieldScripts. These will build upon products that select the right seed for the field and for planting at optimal populations.”