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Robert Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto Company, said new science-based seed and chemical tools and better use should help farmers lick herbicide-resistant weeds by the year 2050, when they'll need to produce twice as much as today to feed a world population of 10 billion. Photo by Mikkel Pates, Agweek

Exec: High-tech ag will lead to next Green Revolution

FARGO, N.D. — One of the top players at Monsanto Company said he expects the herbicide-resistance issue in weeds to be eliminated by 2050, if farmers are able to adopt new technologies with triple modes of action.

"I think you're going to see an explosion of new trait tolerances," said Robert Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer, speaking Sept. 21, in Fargo, N.D., at an Agricultural Bioscience International Conference. He said there are exciting advances in machine technology coming into the picture to combat weed resistance.

"Once you get to the point where you have three (chemistry) modes of action on that field, your odds of weed-resistance development pretty much drop to zero,” he said. “I think the science now, for the first time, is letting us get ahead of some of these challenges. I'm pretty optimistic, pretty confident that we will address that."

Fraley, one of the featured keynoters for a three-day industry conference, said 75 percent of soybean fields across America already get three modes of action, which is "key to the durability of performance," and the company is "trying to accelerate that by introducing multiple herbicide tolerant traits," in soybeans. They are also working to study dicamba tolerance into sugarbeets, canola, corn and wheat.

Better tools, uses

Fraley said Monsanto is working with Sumitomo Chemical of Tokyo to develop a seed trait and a chemical at the same time. "This will be the first time in our history that we'll be able to parallel-track the development of a chemistry and a tolerance trait," Fraley said. The company is developing tolerance to the PPO inhibitor herbicides in corn. "This is an area where that combination of chemistry and biology is going to be transformational," Fraley said.

He said this chemistry-biology link is what is so important about the recently announced $66 billion merger with Bayer of Germany. He said farmers will need technology to grapple with climate change.

Diana Bietelspacher, executive director of the North Dakota Soybean Council, introduced Fraley and said technology brought by Monsanto and others has helped catapult North Dakota into the No. 4 position in soybean acres in the U.S., and into the No. 8 position for production. She said future advances will help feed the world, which is an increasingly challenging task.

10 billion

Some experts at the event said the world population could grow from today's 7.3 billion to 9 billion by 2050, but Fraley said his company is now planning for "10 billion-plus," with advancing African health care and an increase in people joining the middle class. Food production will need to double, he said.

On the other hand, Fraley said protecting the environment is as big of a concern to some as feeding people, which was a key goal Norman Borlaug, a cereal scientist known for the "Green Revolution" and whose image appeared in Fraley's slides and many other speakers at the conference.

Fraley noted the key benefit of Roundup Ready technology was the reduction of tillage, which reduces water loss, improves soil health and allows conservation tillage.

"We are fortunate in agriculture today to see two of the greatest scientific advances in our lifetimes — the ability in biology to create that understanding down to the individual gene and nucleotide in a whole variety of new genetic modification systems, and biological systems," Fraley said.

"On the other hand, we're seeing the digitization, basically, of every farm using ag science tools that are going to be incredible and transformational,” he said. “The point is, it's not just the either/or and the addition (of developments), but the conversion and synergy and how advances in biology are fed by the advances of data science tools, the understanding of the environment."

Minor crop help

Fraley said some of the same genomic tools can be used to "address some of the minor crops that are important to growers around the world" and accelerate breeding.

He said he looks forward to a new era that will emphasize gene editing — cutting genes from a species instead of adding genes from unrelated species, in GMO crops. This will be "transformational," he said, and added it's encouraging that regulatory officials around the world seem willing to consider regulating edited gene products "at a lower level than what we've seen" for GMOs.

Fraley talked about the Smart Stacks Pro technology, based on RNAi technology to be launched in a couple of years. Monsanto has sequenced the genome of a root worm. For example, they've lab-tested RNAI sequences that can knock out the specific root worm genes.

Last year Monsanto discovered more new Bt-based (Bacillus thuringiensis) insect control proteins last year than they had in the previous 30 years, because of improved technology and computerized searching of genomes.

They are also looking at sophisticated computer-assisted ways to analyze as many as 50 data layers on a field to know whether the crop needs more or less nitrogen, based on in-season analysis of heat and water available to a crop. The company's modeling is about 80 to 90 percent identical to what they'd find in a soil sample, he said.

"We analyzed 4,000 different fields across the Midwest and the U.S., and what we found was that about 10 percent of the time the grower didn't have enough nitrogen and was giving up a huge yield penalty toward his economic target, and then about 40 percent of the time they had too much," he said. "That's an opportunity for economic savings, and really thinking about the environmental impacts of nitrogen." That computer model will be available in 2017 at the "sub-field level, in case the grower wants to modify their inputs to the field."

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