As farmers, scientists, students and educators have been meeting in Des Moines for the annual Borlaug Dialogue and celebration of the 2013 World Food Prize, we asked 2013 World Food Prize laureate and Monsanto Chief Technology Officer Robert Fraley for his thoughts on the event and the role of innovation in helping to feed a growing population.
Q: How do you feel about this year’s World Food Prize recognition of biotechnology?
A: I think it’s an important recognition of the value and importance of biotechnology, which is a safe and a very important tool as we collectively seek to address some of the world’s biggest challenges. With the controversy surrounding biotech, it’s also a courageous move by the World Food Prize to recognize it this year. I see this week’s event as a very important opportunity for us to extend discussion and education around biotechnology. It’s a chance for us to address misperception and misunderstanding, and to refocus the discussion on what matters most: how will agriculture feed a growing population, and do so sustainably.
Q: What do you believe is society’s biggest challenge relative to food today?
A: I agree with Ambassador Ken Quinn, the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, that food security is among the greatest challenges facing our planet today. Our population is projected to grow from 7.1 billion today to about 9.6 billion people on the planet by 2050. The population in Africa is expected to triple during that period.
If we don’t work cooperatively and quickly to provide farmers with new tools to feed a growing planet, we will be facing a crisis that has three fronts: First, there would be a humanitarian crisis, with the very real probability of famine in developing countries – which will be compounded by the effects of climate change. Second, we’re looking at an ecological crisis if we are forced to plow forests and other natural habitats to expand farmland, and don’t come up with new ways to conserve water use in agriculture. Finally, we know that hunger saps hope and triggers political instability.
Simply put, if we’re able to grow more food efficiently and effectively, it not only sustains life, but it supports our natural environment, our safety and overall quality of life.
Q: What innovations will help agriculture ensure food security over the next 30-40 years?
A: Biotechnology has been an amazing innovation, but we have only started to realize its potential for increasing yields and combatting pests and weeds. It’s really a gateway technology for increasing food production, and I’m very excited for the younger scientists who will be extending biotech, breeding and information technology to new levels. We’re also just beginning a new era of using information about crop genetics, geospatial field data and plant genomics to make decisions in labs and fields alike. Leveraging the latest information, plant and soil sciences will pay big dividends for farmers in the years ahead.
Of course, there are innovations we don’t know about yet. We will continue to be relentless in searching for new tools to feed the world and forging public-private partnerships to address food security challenges.
Q: When you look at the future of agriculture, what is the biggest challenge we face today?
A: Misunderstanding and misinformation is the biggest challenge. I am very confident that we will develop the right tools and processes to increase food production to support our growing population. But we’ll need to foster public understanding, answer questions and build support so that these tools can be put to full use.
I personally need to do more to share information and foster discussion. I’ve been meeting with a wide range of organizations and individuals in Des Moines this week, and we’ll make similar discussions a regular part of my schedule in the months to come. Others at Monsanto will join me in this effort, and I hope that others in the scientific and agriculture communities will do the same.
Q: What do you think Dr. Norman Borlaug would say about the current state of innovation in agriculture?
A: Norm Borlaug was my great friend and personal hero. His work to improve wheat yields in Mexico, India, Pakistan and across the globe is credited with saving more than a billion lives.
Norm would be both excited and impatient about today’s big innovations. He’d be excited to see what biotechnology has and can accomplish, but he would be asking all of us – companies, NGOs, and governments – why we aren’t moving faster.