In the next 35 years, farmers will have to produce more food than the world has produced in its history, a challenge some are calling the greatest challenge we've ever faced. However daunting it may seem, Robert Fraley is optimistic.
Fraley, the executive vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto Company who was part of a team of scientists to first genetically modify plants, spoke at the inaugural Henry C. Gardiner Lecture at Kansas State University on Monday. Fraley addressed the challenges facing agriculture in the coming decades and the resources needed to achieve food security.
"What excites me is a world in which we are smart about our innovation and take a bold step forward and use science," Fraley told the packed audience at McCain Auditorium.
Farmers, which account for less than 1 percent of the population, are expected to feed more than 9 billion people by 2050, while facing limited resources and changing climate conditions. Despite the challenges that lie ahead, Fraley points out that the agricultural industry has already made advances in increasing production because of two major breakthrough areas: biology and information technology.
Technology Changes Crop Production
"I know I'm expected to say genetically modified organisms are the answer to everything, but I think the most remarkable story is how our technology has changed the way we produce crops," Fraley said.
That technology now enables easier and more extensive management of fields and advances in biology change how scientists breed crops. Fraley says accessibility to technology also is changing the game for smallholder farmers, which account for more than 90 percent of agricultural production. In India, seven out of 10 farmers now have a cellphone, which Fraley says is a tool that gives them access to markets, credit and agronomic information.
However, he doesn't leave GMOs out of the equation for feeding a larger population. Fraley points out that these organisms, designed to withstand factors like climate and pests, have been consumed for 20 years and every major scientific body and regulatory agency in the world has concluded GMO products are safe. He says the misunderstanding about their safety comes from lack of scientific education for the general public.
"The biggest mistake Monsanto made was they were excited about the product and spent all their time talking to farmers and didn't talk to the public," Fraley said. "The combination of complexity and misinformation was never addressed, and now Monsanto is trying to do a better job of directly informing the consumer about these products because people want to know where their food comes from."
However, education about farming practices is not only a job for Monsanto, Fraley said. He encouraged the audience— filled with students, farmers and the general public— to educate the other 99 percent of the population not involved in farming.
About 1,000 people attended the first Henry C. Gardiner lecture, established in honor of the Kansas State University graduate who was a visionary leader in the U.S. cattle industry. The purpose of the lecture series is to bring leaders in the global food systems from throughout the world to present their views and provide a forum for open discussion.
"As the first lecture in the series, it was a spectacular success," said John Floros, dean of the College of Agriculture. "The presentation was in depth where it needed to be but broad enough that anyone can understand these agricultural issues. The questions from the audience were tough but thoughtful and Fraley did a good job answering those questions respectfully. I hope to follow up next year with another speaker as compelling."