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Dr. Robert T. Fraley Headshot

The Future of Agriculture Requires Dialogue

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It's a great honor to have shared in the World Food Prize this year with two of my longtime friends, Dr. Marc Van Montagu, of Belgium, and Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton, of the United States. But it will be a far more important honor if the decision to honor the three of us helps reset the discussion around innovation in agriculture.

Working separately, we helped pioneer agricultural biotechnology some 30 years ago by figuring out how to transfer genes from one organism into another. Today, genetically modified (GM) crops are being grown on about one-fourth of the world's farmland. GM crops are helping farmers fight drought, insects, and disease. They lower farmers' costs, improve their yields, and increase profitability. They even improve the environment.

And contrary to what many people think, they're not only being grown in the developed world. In fact, the majority of farmers planting GM crops are now in developing countries. The latest advances in gene sequencing and molecular breeding are all packed into a single, small object -- a seed. And there's nowhere in the world where farmers don't know what to do with seeds.

Now climate change and population growth are accelerating the need for a broad range of agricultural innovations, including GM crops. A draft report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that climate change will reduce global agricultural production by as much as 2 percent a decade for the rest of this century. Meanwhile, the global population is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 -- an increase of 2.4 billion, or about one-third. Combined with rising wealth and the larger and more diverse appetites it creates, this increase will raise food demand by 70 percent by 2050, the UN says. Other groups say food demand will double.

In other words, at the very same time the demand for food is skyrocketing, food production is under severe pressure from climate change. It is fair to say that this represents one of the greatest challenges in the history of humanity.

But it’s one that GM crops can help meet. In fact, they’re already being called on to do so. In Africa, for example, climate change is leading to more frequent and more severe droughts, which are threatening the continent’s staple maize (corn) crop. In response, Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), a public/private partnership, is helping to improve food security and the livelihoods of smallholder maize producers in Africa by developing new drought-tolerant and insect pest-protected maize hybrids. WEMA is providing the technology royalty-free to African seed companies for distribution to smallholder farmers. The WEMA project is led by the Kenyan-based African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF) and involves Monsanto, CIMMYT (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and five National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa.

But water-efficient maize and the other advances we have already made are only the tip of the iceberg. Seeds that offer even better drought resistance, nutrition, higher yields, and many other benefits are now under development by scientists around the world.

In fact, continuing the advance of science is not really the issue. The bigger challenge is the social and policy barriers that block many of the potential innovations.

We should not be surprised by the presence of these challenges. Innovation in the food supply has evoked strong reactions throughout recent history. It happened when milk was first pasteurized a little more than a century ago. And it happened when Dr. Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution and founder of the World Food Prize, introduced his newly bred Mexican wheats to India and Pakistan. Some of Dr. Borlaug's field trials were sabotaged. When others succeeded, rumors spread that growing the Mexican wheats would make the land sterile, or children who ate them would become sterile. In fact, these wheats ended up saving hundreds of millions from starvation.

Dr. Borlaug used to say it all the time: "You must be prepared for opposition." I think those of us who believe in the promise of biotechnology have not prepared the way we should have.

I think all of us engaged in the struggle to feed the world need to create more understanding of the fact that the safety of our products never has been and never will be compromised. GM foods are the most thoroughly studied food products ever launched commercially. The issue has been examined in more than 1,700 studies by hundreds of independent research groups and reviewed by the world's leading scientific and medical authorities, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, the European Commission, and the World Health Organization. The consensus is clear. As the European Commission's review concluded, there is "no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms." Yet doubts remain, and we in the scientific community need to engage in meaningful conversations to address them.

Although we have done a good job communicating with farmers, we haven't connected as well with consumers. I am confident they will at least be open to listening to us if they know we're listening to them.

I believe we can find common-ground solutions. They'll be found around agriculture that minimizes the environmental impact of water and land use and that reduces the risk of political disruption.

By validating biotechnology as one of the innovations that can help solve the 21st century's challenges, the World Food Prize has performed a great service. But that service just helps set the stage for the hard work to come.

And for that hard work, a collective effort is needed - by NGOs, governments, universities, and companies. All of these different parties need to do whatever it takes to move the dialogue forward. Our ability to bridge the differences between ourselves and those who oppose the innovations we seek will make a huge difference in the food security of 9.6 billion people and the environmental wellbeing of our planet.

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Dr. Robert T. Fraley, a co-recipient of the 2013 World Food Prize, is Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Monsanto

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