Anyone who has done their research on biotech crops has likely come across the name of Dr. Robert Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto. Fraley has been with the company for more than 30 years, and currently oversees its global technology division, which includes plant breeding, plant biotechnology, ag biologicals, ag microbials, precision agriculture and crop protection.
His work in biotechnology led to his being named the 2013 World Food Prize Laureate. Other honors have included the National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton (1998) and the National Academy of Sciences Award for the Industrial Application of Science for his work on crop improvement (2008).
Farm Industry News met with Fraley in October, when he gave the 2015 Borlaug Memorial Lecture at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. The title of his talk was “2050: Agriculture’s Role in Mitigating Global Challenges.”
You talked about the challenge of global food security as the population grows to 9.5 billion people by 2050. What are some things Monsanto is doing to ensure an adequate food supply?
Two transformational technologies that Monsanto is working on today are the advances in biology and the advances in data science. Both of these tools are going to transform farming around the world, and by 2050, these technologies will enable us to achieve food security through increased yields. And as yields increase, we’ll also be able to farm less land around the world, which will be a good thing for the environment because it means we can cut down on the rate of deforestation and return sensitive lands that are in farming today and probably shouldn’t be back to better uses. So that’s exciting, and that’s what wakes me up in the morning.
What are some advancements in the area of biology?
From the biology and seed side, there are new biotech traits and new technologies and techniques in breeding, such as gene editing and RNA. The science is now at the point where we know every single gene in a corn plant or a pepper plant or a tomato plant, so that the breeders can make those genetic crosses and precisely identify the best seeds that will make the best plants for the future. The biological knowledge is literally changing the way we can breed and improve crops.
How about on the data science side?
On the data science side, we’re working with a number of institutions on doing detailed crop and weather modeling. For example, we now have an app that lets a farmer get field-specific wind and weather information. Once you enroll in our service, you also can get nitrogen amounts contained in the soil for a specific field and satellite images that show field health. We use data such as temperature, rainfall and the growth of the crop to model the level of nitrogen in the soil. That’s the kind of technology that farmers now have access to, and I really think it’s going to be game-changing. It will drive that boost of yield and productivity that we need for the future.
To what extent is the technology being used now?
Climate FieldView is being used on almost half of the corn and soybean acres in the United States — so about 75 million acres.
Where do you get the data used for modeling? Is it through USDA?
Some of the data comes from USDA information. But we also get it from satellite images and sensors embedded in the ground and on equipment. With those tools, you can start to get an image of plants in the field that can show yield-robbing health issues such as disease outbreaks, or you can get a field map that shows changes in elevation, which can affect the way water or nutrients move in the field. All of that can be modeled for every field.
Where does the weather data come from?
Our scientists at The Climate Corporation use radar, satellites and more than 10,000 automated weather stations to calculate average rainfall on grids that are matched to a farmer’s fields. This allows us to estimate rainfall totals across the entire field. Over the next three days, these rainfall estimates are further refined using data from roughly 20,000 additional weather stations and our advanced analytics, so we may provide farmers with the most comprehensive information possible. Our weather measurement is unique because we use a multi-sensor approach that offers the advantage of widespread radar coverage, plus the pinpoint accuracy of weather stations to feed our weather models.
How about the sensor information?
Many farmers have sensors on their planters and combines that capture planting and harvesting data, and we incorporate this into our digital agriculture models.
It sounds like sensors are a breakthrough technology that will make a lot of the advancements possible?
Yes. We’re just starting to see the explosion of sensors in the ag space. In the automotive industry, a typical new car has 4,000 or 5,000 sensors in it. There are sensors that monitor not only engine temperature or speed, but there are backup cameras, and cameras in the mirrors, and sensors that tell you if your steering wheel is too hot or cold. Those kinds of tools now are just starting to be applied to farm equipment to give farmers a real-time understanding of things like soil moisture.
What might a fully sensorized farm look like?
It could start with the planter. A planter might have a sensor for moisture detection, so that as it goes down the field, it can map that entire field for moisture or for organic matter. And at some point, it’ll probably be mapping it for nutrient content as well. Then you could have a UAV looking over the field, and with the imagery capability, it can literally spot insects on plants or see if there are brown spots developing or maybe even leaf discoloration due to a disease. The whole idea is that once you have that level of precision and you’re looking at that data on a real-time basis, you can understand immediately that this may be a disease outbreak and maybe spray that part of the field and not the whole field and be even more precise. Those are the things that I think are really exciting for the future.
What’s the next chapter for Monsanto?
I joined Monsanto in 1980, when Monsanto was basically an industrial chemical company. We made plastics and turned petroleum into different products for consumers. We’ve gone from a chemical engineering company to a biotech company to a seed company. And right now, with the acquisition of The Climate Corporation, 640 Labs, Solum and a few other companies, we’re leveraging data science in ways we never have before. We’re on that next level of using data science to make better seeds and better chemicals, as well as to help farmers gain a deeper understanding of their fields.
How does your new partnership with Novozymes fit into that?
Novozymes has brought us into a whole new area of soil health. We are using our tools in data science and biology to understand microbes in the soil that can either protect the plant or help it grow better. We can now literally sequence the genomes of the microbes in the soil and characterize which ones are present and which ones are promoting better growth of a crop. We can then pair the microbes with the seed through the use of seed coatings. Each pairing will likely be unique to each field because each field is a little different based on the cropping history and agronomic practices. So it’s a brand-new area of research for us and largely a brand-new area for the industry.