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Robb Fraley's Next Move

The former CTO at Monsanto looks at his next career move.

Robb Fraley’s career in agriculture has been well documented, from pioneering biotech innovations to serving as chief technology officer at Monsanto, he is now in the late stages of his career, now that Bayer has acquired Monsanto. Fraley says his stint with Monsanto will end at the end of 2018. 

Successful Farming caught up with Fraley at the 2018 World Food Prize in Des Moines on October 18. Fraley was named a co-winner of the World Food Prize in 2013, along with Marc Van Montagu and Mary-Dell Chilton, for their achievements in advancing biotechnology.

SF: You have a unique lens into the Bayer-Monsanto deal. What does it mean from your perspective?

RF: You know, one of the exciting premises of the combination between Monsanto and Bayer was to be able to bring our digital, our breeding, and biotech together with the Bayer chemistry and the Bayer global footprint across agriculture. The integration is going really well. I have talked off and on for the last several years that what agriculture needs is companies and entities to step up and make bigger investments. You combine the capabilities of a Monsanto and Bayer in the ag space and create the ability. The success of this merger gets measured as the kinds of new products and innovations that we can bring farmers around the world. 

SF: How big will the R&D pipeline be for the new Bayer?

RF: I think you have the opportunity to avoid duplication. You have the opportunity to focus new dollars and new areas. What we're seeing around the world is all of these tools are now being developed and they're coming together. So, you know, if you're a farmer here in Iowa, you know, you've got a tractor that's got a large computer in it and you're taking data from the first pass through the field to till to harvest. You're using that information to make better decisions, you're planting seeds that have literally the latest advances in plant breeding to increase yields and disease resistance in productivity. And what's exciting is all of those tools in one way or another can benefit farmers around the world. 

SF: The pace of innovation seems to be accelerating in agriculture.

RF: We're seeing so much innovation across the biology space, across the digital space. This is unlike any other time in agriculture. I mean the amount of new tools that will benefit farmers is unprecedented. Part of the thing we need to do now is really take advantage of those innovations on a global basis both to address food security and nutrition. The other important factor is these new tools allow farmers to make better decisions to farm better and smarter and more precisely. And by doing that they can really enhance the environment. I think we need to make it clear to consumers around the world that these investments in R&D and agriculture not only address food security, but they're going to leave a legacy of how we contribute to enhancing that farming footprint around the world. 

SF: When will farmers see the benefits of the combined research capabilities?

RF:  Well, in some areas we're going to see that really quickly. A couple of the real obvious examples is the Monsanto pipeline has been built around better seeds and better traits. A lot of the Bayer pipeline has been built around better chemicals and pesticides. The ability now to bring those seeds into the marketplace that have not only the best breeding and biotech traits, but have the best seed treatments for protecting that seed against fungal attack. The other areas that I think are going to be critical is when you look at the geographic distribution of the businesses, the Monsanto business was largely North and South America. The Bayer business was much stronger in Europe and Asia. So being able to bring technologies quickly globally are going to be key. 

SF: How will the digital side of the business change?

RF: Clearly as we look down the future, the ability to invest more in the digital space is key. That's going to be such a powerful tool for giving farmers the way to integrate all these tools together. For many farmers, that's going to be the key. You know, I'm the biology guy in the company who started the biotech program. There's so many exciting things happening on the biology side, whether it's traits, the advances in molecular breeding, the sequencing tools that literally allow breeders today to create new seeds basically with the knowledge of every gene in that seed, which is terribly powerful. 

I look at what's happening on the digital side and the adoption of these tools by farmers in the use of the satellite imagery, the real-time analysis. What's exciting is we don't have to choose. We just can bring it all together and integrate it. And that's really the promise. 

SF: How do farmers make sense of all the innovation and change? 

RF: Well, I think two things. I had the experience of growing up on a small farm in Illinois. From my oldest memories, farmers are smart businessmen and entrepreneurs. They don't use any technologies that don't create a benefit. They're also one of the best at integrating new tools together. I think one of the real keys to making this technology successful is to make it work at scale and to work in a transparent way for farmers. Just like your cell phone has so many tools and capabilities, the more intuitive these tools are, the more rapid the adoption will be. 

SF: Is Climate Corporation still an important piece of the puzzle at Bayer?

RF: I think Climate is deeply embedded in the opportunity for the future because of the new products and technology in the digital tools. I see Climate as the integrating vehicle between seeds, chemistries, and grower information to use all that information and make the best recommendations. Having grown up on a farm, I can remember my dad making decisions based on what he wished he would've done the year before, what the neighbor was doing, or what the agronomic advisor said. But now farmers are going to have the ability to make the decision based on a knowledge of weather patterns that's really very precise; a knowledge of that field and the variability of that field; the knowledge of the genetics in that seed. I think they will make better decisions from both the productivity and profitability perspective. 

SF: What is your take on the Roundup lawsuit in California?

RF: Well, at a high level, what I would say is Roundup is probably the most thoroughly studied crop chemical in the world. There's been hundreds and hundreds of studies done by every major regulatory organization around the world and it's been shown to be safe and non-carcinogenic. It's unfortunate that IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) came around with an opinion that differed from all of those. And of course IARC is the same organization that's labeled meat as a carcinogen, and coffee. Of the thousands of molecules they've looked at, I think every one of them has been become a carcinogen. So that's unfortunate. I believe in the end, the science will win the day that this product, which we know from all the legitimate regulatory studies that have been done, is safe. 

In the end, I have to believe that science will prevail. 

SF: So, what’s next for you after you leave Monsanto?

RF: I want a role advocating what technology can do. What's so different at this point in time is the breakthroughs in science that are occurring and the confluence of bringing those all together the next few years are going to be nothing like the past. And we see it in our own breeding programs. The increase in yields, the rates of gain, the rapid adoption by farmers everywhere of the digital tools. I think we have an exciting opportunity to take advantage of the available tools and also the fact that the cost curve for these tools has diminished. 

The other part is reaching out to the consumer. We know from our own experience. You know, early on we dId not do a great job of communicating to the consumer. We did a good job of talking to farmers around the world. And that's why a lot of these technologies have been so dramatically adopted. But in order to reach the consumer, we really need to, I think change our messages and the ways in which we communicate. And, I think taking the message to the consumer about how these tools not only can help address food security and nutrition, but these tools are going to have a tremendous effect on enhancing the environment. And I think everybody, when they step back, wants to live in a food secure world. 

On the personal side, there's a lot of things I wanted to do in terms of travel and things that I haven't been able to do over the last 37 years that I've been in Monsanto. 

SF: The future is all about change, isn’t it? 

RF: I believe in the end, everybody wants to live in a food secure world for their families, for their friends. But they also are interested in a world that, for their kids and grandkids, is better. And I think, you know, we've seen how technology has changed healthcare. We've seen how it's changed communications. It can change farming and agriculture and do incredibly positive things. I think it's our responsibility to make sure that consumers understand that and that they sense the excitement and the opportunity. But also the care, the passion that we bring to ensuring that we have both a safe food supply – an abundant, affordable food supply. But one in which the farming practices are getting better and better and reducing the impact that the farming can have on the environment. 

SF: Norman Borlaug famously said, “Take it to the farmer.” It sounds like ag companies now want to “Take it to the consumer.”

RF: I think it's both. As I said, back in the early days of biotech we communicated well to the farmers but really missed the consumers. That's clearly something we need to do a better job of. I'd also make the point that nobody can do it alone. 

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