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Robert "Robb" Fraley, the executive vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto Company, chats with attendees at the 55th International Sugarbeet Institute at the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D. Photo taken March 22, 2017, in Fargo, N.D. (Mikkel Pates/Agweek)

Monsanto exec: Gene editing tool is big

FARGO, N.D. — Gene editing may be the tool of the future for genetically adjusting crops for better production, said Robert "Robb" Fraley, the executive vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto Company,speaking March 22, at the 55th International Sugarbeet Institute at the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D.

Fraley oversees Monsanto's global technology division, which includes plant breeding, plant biotechnology, ag biologicals, ag microbials, precision agriculture and crop protection. He was one of the key developers of genetically modify organisms in the early 1980s.

GMOs are a key factor in sugar beet production. In 2007, U.S. sugar beet producers started using Roundup Ready beet seed, a GMO. The industry in the Red River Valley since then has become almost entirely Roundup Ready. After fending off various legal challenges against the technology in beets, the industry in the past few years has faced increasing pressure from candy manufacturers who say some consumers don't want to buy products with GMO ingredients.

"I don't think that there is any state that is more of an example of the important benefits of techniques like biotechnology have represented," Fraley said.

Soybean, corn and sugar beet producers were quick to adopt the GMO technology. Beet producers started using it in 2008 and were almost entirely converted to it in three years' time. "It's really had a very dramatic and positive effect on North Dakota agriculture,” Fraley said.

He said the world continues to need GMO crops, even though the recent highly productive weather years have produced bumper crops. The world stores of food were about 64 days after the 2012 drought and after three bumper years of production, the stores are only about 75 days, so the difference is only about 10 days, he said.

"We recognize there are some weed resistance challenges (related to GMO crops and herbicides), and that's why we're working with KWS (Seeds Inc.) to develop a next-generation product that has additional modes of action to be resistant to glyphosate, glufosinate and dicamba,” he said.

Biotechnology will continue to be important in sugar beets, Fraley said, despite growing consumer concerns about GMOs. He acknowledged that Monsanto and other technology providers didn't reach out to consumers early enough in their development of products.

"That gave others the time to position the technology not often in a positive light," he said.

Twitter talker

Fraley himself has become more active on social media in the last three years and invites people to find him on Twitter, @RobbFraley. During his talk, he played a series of television advertisements that Monsanto is supporting, titled The ads feature insects such as bees, and ag technology's ability to manage habitat so there are milkweeds for monarch butterfly breeding and bees, or solutions to diagnosing and treating bees for varroa mite parasites of honeybees.

The company has demonstrated in the laboratory to use RNAi (RNA interference) technology to overcome the resistance of certain weeds to chemicals like glyphosate (Roundup) which farmers use to protect crops. That's in the early stages of development, but research investments will continue to be important to get those developments to market.

Fraley said gene editing — rather than GMO, which involves adding genes — is proving to be more acceptable to consumers. Monsanto works in tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and about 20 vegetable crops. Molecular breeding tools are being applied to all of those, and he thinks the "great promise" for those is the editing tool because of a less onerous regulatory process. It can take $150 million to get registration of crops for commodity crops like corn or soybeans.

"No vegetable crop could stand that kind of a cost structure for investment," Fraley said. The editing techniques can help develop resistance to disease, viruses and to modify color, taste and nutrition. The company will also produce microbes — seed treatments — and data science tools, he said

Good numbers

The sugar beet institute trade show counted a healthy attendance of 1,700 visitors in its first day, as sugar beet producers took a look at $5 million in products and exhibits. Among the exhibits were a $600,000 self-propelled sugar beet lifter and a string of products by Amity Technology Inc., of Fargo. The event is free and runs from 9 a.m. to mid-afternoon on March 23., with free parking.

A second educational seminar topic is at 10:25 a.m., March 23, titled, "Know Your Airspace — Rules for Drone Operators and Unmanned Airplane Systems Update, Applications for Agriculture," presented by Matt Henry, mission manager and pilot at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, and John Nowatzki, an agricultural machine specialist with North Dakota State University in Fargo, working together with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site.