We Spoke to a Monsanto Exec About Solving the World's Food Crisis

Best known for its genetically modified seeds, Monsanto is increasingly styling itself as an information technology company. And it may well hold the future of a hungry humanity in its hands.

Nov 5 2014, 6:23pm

Photo via Flickr user theo_reth

Can we sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050?

That was the question asked at last month's World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue—a kind of Davos for farmers—which hosted big-name panelists from organizations and corporations as diverse as PepsiCo and Iranian agricultural researchers. Organizers of the event deemed the issue of feeding a growing world "the greatest challenge in human history," using the kind of grandiose language that many professions employ during annual conventions, but this one happens to be based on an indisputable and frightening fact: Population growth truly is outstripping food production. If we don't figure out how to raise twice the amount of food we currently produce in just 35 years, the world will face the type of grim dystopian future Hollywood hacks like Roland Emmerich write about.

For better or worse, the agriculture giant Monsanto—ranked America's third most hated company in a 2014 Harris poll—may hold the future of a hungry humanity in its hands. Best known for its genetically modified, weed- and pest-resistant seeds, the corporation has been increasingly styling itself as an information technology company. Monsanto's Chief Technology Officer Robert Fraley believes such technology holds the key to feeding billions by 2050. MUNCHIES caught up with him recently to talk about how.

MUNCHIES: Sir Gordon Conway, the famed agricultural ecologist, is pessimistic about humanity getting its act together in time todouble food production by 2050. What's your prediction? Robert Fraley: I'd be the last person to downplay what it means to double the food supply. I know how challenging that is, and climate change is a real factor that we'll need to make sure we can offset and mitigate. But the part of the equation I think often gets missed in a conversation like this is the incredible "technification" of food and the opportunity for innovation to change agricultural production.

Arguably the two greatest innovations of our lifetime are advances in biology—what they've done for human health, what they're doing for agriculture in terms of better seeds—and information technology. Information technology has transformed every industry in the world, and agriculture's probably the last one being touched by it, but it's being touched in a very dramatic, very global way that's really changing farming and food production.

My optimism comes from being able to glimpse into the future and see how these tools are going to transform agriculture. And that's one of the reasons I'm so optimistic that we can achieve that doubling in food production that we will need for food security.

So imagine nothing gets done and we keep the status quo. What's the worst-case scenario you could see happening? You mentioned some scary forecasts coming out of the Pentagon linking food shortage to armed conflicts, but what about from an agricultural point of view? A worst-case scenario is we don't innovate or invent any more, and we farm in 2050 the same way we're farming today.

In the climate change arena, investor John Doerr has said, "If you've seen what I've seen in these labs across the country, you would be less pessimistic about solving climate change." Is there any technology you're privy to that makes you optimistic about food security? If I had to pick something right now, I'd say that the precision ag tools are going to be game-changing because they suddenly give growers the same kind of tools to support their decision-making that that accountants and engineers have been using for decades. A farmer makes about 40 or 50 decisions throughout that year that determine the yield of the crop. Now imagine that each one of those decisions is supported by models and data so that each decision can be made smarter and better.

So the "Internet of things" is coming to the farm? And it's the Internet of things that tie together to create that capability. It will change farming globally. There will be one model that will work in the US or Brazil, and there will be another model that's gonna transform smallholders in India and Africa—all based on information technology.

Have you talked to agricultural officials in China, or leaders in Europe, about GMOs? Do you find their opposition to your work perplexing? With a few exceptions, European farms are not allowed to grow biotech and GMO crops. But what a lot of people don't appreciate is that because Europe doesn't produce enough corn or soybeans, they import them from the US, from Argentina, from Brazil, and those are all GMO crops.

It's really an unusual and quite divergent system. The farmers typically aren't allowed to plant, but the food and feed importers are bringing the biotech grains.

Yeah, but China willsend back corn and soybeans if the crops came from GMO seeds. China's agricultural systems are evolving very quickly. They've been one of our first countries where we've used biotech cotton, and that's been very important for China to improve its cotton production. China's a major importer of both US and South American soybeans. Those are all biotech soybeans, produced in Argentina, Brazil and the United States. China's on the verge, I think, of releasing its own domestic products for the market. We see China as a great business opportunity. When I think of China, I think of what Brazil looked like 20 years ago. It's about that same size of production. It's a cross-section of corn and soybean and cotton and other crops, all of which could have their yields improved with the use of these new tools.

If Monsanto's now a tech company, do you ever fear that maybe you're the IBM and that outside somewhere out there the next Bill Gates is working on an ag tech version of Microsoft? I'm always worried about all those smart guys at the University of Illinois and what can they do. On a very serious note, one of the things I've always focused on is external collaboration and networking, and as a company, we have a great internal R and D program, but one of the things that a lot of people don't realize is we've collaborated with universities, and small companies, and large companies, all around the world.

You've learned from IBM's mistakes? The trick is to stay very externally focused, to recognize that there's a very large number of bright people around the world, and it's always good to look for ways to partner and network with them. Nobody can do this by themselves.

One of the things that's not well understood about Monsanto is how much our approach to open architecture has been key to our success. We have thousands of licensing and collaboration agreements with other companies, from individual professors to large companies like BASF, and we just did a partnership with a Danish company called Novazymes.

Early on, when we had first invented these biotech traits back in the early '90s, we wrestled with whether to keep this technology just in our own seed brands or whether to practice an open architecture model and broadly license. One of the reasons that the adoption of biotechnology traits around the world has been so prolific is because we've licensed to hundreds of companies around the world.

What are your thoughts on Modern Meadow, the company trying to disrupt the meat industry by growing beef from cow cells? Could you see Monsanto getting into that business? If somebody could make me a good burger, I would go for it.

There are huge opportunities for innovation to improve the way we farm and how we produce food, and we're going to need all those kinds of innovations. The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing again and again—what you've always done. We can't afford to produce our food in 2050 the way we do today. We need innovation, and that's absolutely critical.

Thank you for talking with us.

Additional research by Lauren Rothman.