Dr. Robb Fraley grew up on a farm in Illinois. There, he developed his love for agriculture and his desire to help science make farming easier for farming families. His dream of combining science and agriculture first came to fruition in 1996 with the commercial launch of Roundup Ready® soybeans – a product he developed along with three other Monsanto scientists and an effort that led to them receiving the U.S. National Medal of Technology in 1998.Today, as Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer, he’s responsible for the products in our R&D pipeline. Today, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Dr. Fraley was one of the recipients of the World Food Prize.
By Dr. Robb Fraley
Monsanto Chief Technology Officer
I remember my days on the farm well. I can’t forget the excitement on my dad’s face when we were harvesting a big crop. I knew he was thinking of everything he could provide our family that year with the income he was going to make. But I also saw him sitting at our kitchen table on a hot, dry summer, watching a rain cloud roll 10 miles too far to the north – wishing it would have been a little further south, and thinking yields wouldn’t be as good that year.
These experiences have always resonated with me. I know the joys of farming and the challenges. Growing up, I saw that emotion. I experienced it. I know what it’s like to rely on nature for your success. It can be an incredibly rewarding or an extremely helpless feeling.
These memories have helped me in my career because I tend to view agriculture technology through the lens of what’s the real benefit for farmers. If farmers don’t see the value, no marketing magic will fool them. They can’t be fooled. They put their lives into their crops. They live and succeed based on the success of the products they plant. So, the products we develop and sell have to work – and farmers have to see value in them.
Beginnings of Biotechnology
When I look at agricultural biotechnology today and where it can go in the future, I’m astounded. It’s something I always hoped for in the early days of my career, and while I was confident and optimistic, it’s certainly exceeded any early expectations I had.
I’ve always been thrilled by science. In the late 1970s and 80s, when I began my career, scientists were making advances in gene transfer methods. That’s where my farm and agricultural background kicked in, and I became focused on applying what had been done in bacteria, yeast and animal cells to plants and crops. It wasn’t so much that I, as a scientist, wanted to do good academic science – I wanted to do good science that would directly benefit farmers around the world.
Early in my career, I created and saw a lot of scientific firsts. It was exciting to see the first transgenic petunia and tobacco plants containing a new gene in our Creve Coeur greenhouses, and the transformation of the Roundup Ready technology from test tube to greenhouse to first field trials was phenomenal. Just as I’ll never forget watching my dad on the farm, I’ll never forget watching the first Roundup Ready and insect-resistant crops perform in the field. Participating in the transition of science into technology and then products was breathtaking!
Building a Pipeline of Innovation
It all started with Roundup Ready soybeans in 1996, and since then we’ve launched numerous products – at least one a year – that have provided unsurpassed benefits to farmers around the world. The rate of innovation and the discovery of new things continue to amaze me – and it’s made it a continuous and thrilling journey.
Monsanto’s moving forward, and we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible. When you look at the products in our pipeline – crops that withstand drought better than crops today, crops that use nitrogen more efficiently, crops that inherently produce more yield – you’re looking at how agriculture will continue to feed and fuel a growing population while also reducing the impact farming has on the environment. It’s because of these types of products in our pipeline that I know we’ll meet our commitment to help farmers double yields, reduce inputs and improve lives around the world.
It’s already happening. When I was on our family farm in Illinois in the 1970s, a 100-bushel corn crop would put a smile on my dad’s face. In that same part of the country today, in 2009, it takes a 180- or 200-bushel corn crop to produce that smile. In that short amount of time, we’ve effectively seen yields double. With the technologies of the future, we’re going to continue to see remarkable advances in crop yields.
Because of all of this, my job is a constant thrill. I’ve seen a lot of really cool science, and I know I’m going to see more in the future. But for me, one of the ongoing questions is, what’s next? We’re at that point. We have never-before-marketed products in our pipeline, so now we need to be looking for the next wave of those technologies. We need to be thinking about new investments, new genes, new technologies, new crops and new countries. It’s an ever-expanding suite of opportunities, and the key is picking the right ones.
And that’s what our company focuses on – what’s the balance point between innovation and guiding a product that matters to farmers or some component of the ag industry? The answer’s not always obvious, but whenever I’m in doubt, I put on my farmer hat, I think about my days on the farm – past and present – and I make a decision. Or if all else fails, I ask a farmer.
World Food Prize announcement on the 2013 Laureates
World Food Prize news release