Doubling food production by 2050 to feed the world’s growing population is one of the greatest challenges facing mankind, shared Robert Fraley, Monsanto chief technology officer. But in order to do so, farmers need to be able to tell their story to build trust and understanding about the importance of technology that makes farming better and more efficient.
Fraley, speaking to a group of global farmers as part of Truth About Trade and Technology’s Global Farmer Roundtable, explained that from a science perspective, yields can easily see boosts around the world including doubling in the Americas and maybe even quadrupling in Asia and Africa.
“Science is essential and even critical to success, but by itself it’s not sufficient,” he said. Rather sharing about the work of farmers and those involved in agriculture more broadly to the public, regulators and policymakers is needed. “We have to reach out directly to consumers, regulators and policymakers to tell the story of agriculture and farming, and why it’s so important that we have new tools to continue to produce more food, more efficiently.”
Fraley was quick to admit when Monsanto rolled out its transformative Roundup Ready first generation biotechnology product over 20 years ago, they spent much of their energy talking to farmers to explain the tools. “We didn’t spend enough time talking to consumers. When we weren’t talking to consumers building the relationship and trust, other people, often critics, were creating myths and sometimes lies that undermined our creditability not just about GMOs, but about nutrition and food safety and understanding how food is produced.”
Fraley, who grew up on a farm in Illinois, recalled that when his grandfather began farming, half of Americans also farmed. Today fewer farmers produce the world’s food and in the United States less than 1% of the population considers farming their occupation.
There’s no better voice than a farmer, Fraley said. “The science and products are important, but not sufficient if we don’t have consumer understanding and trust in what we do.”
Next generation of technological advances
Technology advancements have come in many different forms. For instance in India today, Fraley shared a program called Farmers First which is reaching 4 million smallholder farmers with text messages containing agronomic advice and weather. “That kind of connectivity is a game changer,” he said, adding Monsanto and other companies recognize it creates opportunities with shared learning.
Cell phones can be as transformative as any other technology for farmers, he added. The combination of biology and data science available through cell phones can make a “gigantic global impact” which by equipping these smallholder farmers could have an impact disproportionately greater than for even larger farmers.
Fraley, who won the World Food Prize for his scientific work which led to the breeding process used in biotechnology today, said gene editing has great potential to make breeding even more precise. Biotechnology products currently take six to seven years to develop and millions of dollars, whereas gene editing can cut down time and costs.
Another exciting new area for the future is using tools to screen and identify the right microorganisms to put on the seed. Every field is different with different farming practices, but better understanding the relationship between the plant and microbes in the soil has the potential to unlock greater production.