By Robb Fraley, Monsanto Chief Technology Officer
Movie lovers tingle with excitement about the release of the list of films nominated for Academy Awards. Sports fanatics get all worked up over their fantasy drafts.
But for a chief technology officer like me, none of that matches the excitement of today, when Monsanto announces its annual update of our Research & Development pipeline. And biased though I am, I have to say I think our update is a lot more important.
That’s because the role of innovation in agriculture has never been more essential than it is now. Over the next 35 years, farmers will need to grow as much food as they did in the past 10,000 years combined. And they’ll need to do it on a planet where resources like water and soil are even more precious and the climate is clearly changing across most of the world’s regions.
These circumstances represent one of the great challenges of our time. But we can meet that challenge together if we keep delivering the kinds of advances we’ve been helping to produce over the last several decades.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. A few years ago, Field to Market, an alliance of companies in the agricultural supply chain, published a report on U.S. soybean production between 1980 and 2011. During that period, the report showed, total production rocketed up 96 percent, as yields (bushels per planted acre) climbed 55 percent and the number of total planted acres rose 24 percent. Meanwhile:
- Soil erosion, in tons per bushel, fell 66 percent
- Irrigation water (volume per bushel) dropped 42 percent
- Energy use declined 48 percent, and
- Greenhouse gas emissions, measured as pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents per bushel, fell 49 percent.
These are terrific numbers, because they point to an agricultural system in which farmers are producing and conserving more while using less. And they’ve only gotten better since 2011; in 2015, soybean yields achieved a record 48.3 bushels per acre, the USDA reported. Farmers will need to keep producing strong harvests if we’re going to feed a rapidly growing world population — about 2.5 billion more people by just 2050 — while preserving our environment for future generations.
Our R&D pipeline this year features a broad range of innovations to support the kind of sustainable agriculture we need to achieve these goals. Here are some highlights:
- Reducing the footprint of global ag production through bigger harvests:
To help farmers grow more food without a commensurate increase in farmland, Monsanto is working on a number of innovations, including:
- New developments in plant breeding, which will help farmers sustainably grow more crops on each acre by planting seed more densely.
- Early-stage research in plant biotechnology, which is expected to boost the inherent potential output of corn and soybean crops.
- Advancements in digital agriculture tools, which collect and analyze data to help farmers increase their productivity.
2. Protecting the footprint of global ag production from increasing threats:
Monsanto is also developing a number of innovations to help farmers cope with challenges from insects, weeds, and diseases, all of which are now exacerbated by climate change. These innovations include:
- Next-generation weed control technologies. By offering greater flexibility in weed management, these technologies can facilitate the adoption of conservation tillage practices, which reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save on fuel consumption.
- New insect-protection technologies, which not only can offer farmers new ways to protect their crops, but can also help them minimize their use of insecticides.
- Corn-disease control, which is leading to the discovery of genes that may someday offer corn plants broad resistance to damaging plant diseases. The company’s collaboration with Bayer Crop Science has also led to the development of a new corn seed treatment that is expected to help manage infections in the early stages of the growing season.
3. Delivering continuous improvement to global ag production:
Meanwhile, we’re also developing novel approaches that will improve harvests, while preserving the planet’s natural resources and biodiversity. This work includes:
- Research to promote the health of honey bees. The Varroa mite is killing honey bees — which are critically important to our food system — by directly acting as a pest on bee larvae and adults, as well as indirectly affecting honey bees by introducing viruses into their hives. Monsanto is researching the use of a biological approach to targeting this devastating threat.
- Research in soil microbials, which farmers can use to increase the overall productivity of their soil ecosystem and their harvest opportunity. This research is being conducted through The BioAg Alliance, Monsanto’s collaboration with Novozymes. It’s demonstrating that microbial growth along plant roots can improve nutrient access and unlock yield potential.
- Advancements in digital tools, which are helping to uncover ways for farmers to optimize the use of inputs like nitrogen.
- Continuous innovation in chemistry, which is generating new breakthroughs that will provide farmers with higher-concentrated, lower use-rate product options — increasing farmers’ flexibility and reducing the product’s shipping and packaging footprint.
These are only a few of the highlights from our 2016 pipeline. I’ll discuss all of its contents as the month unfolds, with one Tweet each day about a different product. With each daily message, I think, it will become more and more clear why we’re so excited about the innovations we have under way. And, more and more people, we hope, will come to see the benefits that these innovations can bring — not only to farmers and consumers, but to the one planet we all share.
Dr. Robert T. Fraley is the Chief Technology Officer of Monsanto. Raised on a family farm and an avid gardener, in 2013 Robb was awarded the World Food Prize along with two other pioneers of developing genetically modified plants. With a passion for agricultural innovation and dialogue, you can find Robb onTwitter, The Huffington Post and LinkedIn Influencers.