By Dr. Robb Fraley
Chief Technology Officer
Somehow, some way, a year has passed since I was awarded the World Food Prize with Mary-Dell Chilton and Marc Van Montagu. For me, the experience in Des Moines will always stand out as a career pinnacle. But more important, it helped reset the discussion about the use of new tools and technologies in feeding a growing planet.
That reset started with the simple, fundamental fact that the three of us were chosen for the award. In selecting the scientists who helped pioneer biotechnology, the World Food Prize made a bold and unambiguous statement about the significance of genetic modification techniques as we all work to prepare for the future. A statement like that — from a source like that — reverberates.
Since last October, I’ve noticed that the discussions (or debates) about modern agriculture have generally become more constructive. Some highly influential voices have begun to offer some thoughtful perspectives that were missing from the partisan bickering of the past.
When I accepted the World Food Prize last year, I promised we would try to foster this more thoughtful discussion in a number of ways. Here are some recent examples.
First, with Andrew Kimbrell, founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, and Nathanael Johnson, an influential writer at the online publication Grist, I participated in a panel discussion in San Francisco. Kimbrell and his organization have long been highly critical of GMOs and Monsanto, and it’s probably not the sort of event we would have participated in a few years ago. But here’s a part of what Johnson wrote afterwards:
“All of us agreed that Jonathan Foley’s five-point plan for feeding the world (most recently published in National Geographic) was spot on: Freeze agriculture’s footprint, grow more food on existing farms, increase efficiency, shift diets away from meat, and reduce waste.
“Think about that for a second: A Monsanto executive, an organic farmer, an anti-industrial farming activist, and a journalist all concur on the path forward. That represents a damn broad coalition. … And … If we’re all in agreement about where we should be headed, maybe it’s time to move past the GMO debate and get on with the journey.
Second, several Monsanto executives spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival , a leading annual platform for thought leaders sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Institute. Brett Begemann, our president and COO, discussed agricultural innovations, including biotech and advances in plant breeding; David Friedberg, CEO of The Climate Corp., discussed the increasing role of information science in agriculture; and I discussed some of the challenges of feeding the 2 billion additional people the world will have by 2050. Jerry Hayes, who leads our bee health business, spoke on the complexities of honey bee health and what we’re doing to help address bee health problems.
The Aspen Ideas Festival is the sort of place where people gather to think about big issues and share information. We learned a lot while we were there and I hope we shared some useful information.
Third, I’ve been writing pieces for the Huffington Post and for LinkedIn Influencers that explain our company’s point of view on some of the key issues in agriculture. These pieces reach large audiences, including people who might not otherwise be exposed to our perspective. They also enable us to receive feedback and engage in follow-up dialogue with readers. They’re part of our effort to use digital communications and social media to connect with people and help them get the information they need. Also part of that effort — we’re talking now with Moms, students, farmers, and others through Twitter and Facebook. More than ever, we at Monsanto are committed to being an active part of these online conversations.
Fourth, along the same lines, we launched Monsanto, a new website where we answer people’s questions about who we are and what we do. It’s a reader-friendly site where people can quickly gain an overview of a wide variety of topics and ask us tough questions.
All this is just a start, but in my view the dialogue has improved. We’re finding new areas of common ground, and collaborating more and more – on programs and communications efforts.
I’m especially pleased that we’re listening more. The challenges our world faces in the future will be too big for anyone to solve alone. Together, we can accomplish more – exponentially more.
Here’s Robb at the 2014 World Food Prize program in Des Moines this past week, talking about food and food security – and why he’s optimistic about the future of agriculture: