When Robb Fraley, son of Bob Fraley, an Eastern Illinois farmer, left the farm to attend the University of Illinois, starting an agricultural revolution was not on his mind. Yet, his choice to major in science rather than agriculture was the beginning of a process that would change the way farming was done — not only in the Midwest but around the world. After receiving his doctorate in microbiology and biochemistry at the U of I, he went west for post-doctoral work at the University of California-San Francisco where he got involved in early stages of biotechnology research. By the 1980’s, he was in St. Louis at Monsanto where he and his colleagues started a revolution that would change agriculture forever.
One day in the early 1980s, not long after Robb Fraley arrived at Monsanto, he met with two veterans of the company’s pesticide business. One of them suggested a project for Fraley’s team of genetic engineers. The company, he said, had found some bacteria that appeared to survive in the presence of Roundup, Monsanto’s new herbicide. Why didn’t Fraley and his gene wizards somehow find the gene responsible for this and splice it into plants? Plants that could similarly tolerate doses of Roundup could open up vast new markets for the herbicide. In the summer of 1985, Monsanto successfully created petunia plants tolerant to small amounts of Roundup. It took collaboration between Monsanto, Asgrow, and Pioneer to finally perfect the Roundup Ready Soybean that hit the market in 1996. The first season Asgrow sold every bag of seed they had, enough to cover about 1 million acres. Within a short period of time, over 80% of US soybeans were produced with this technology, and other nations started adopting the system.
This technology earned Fraley the World Food Prize and earned Monsanto a fortune. It also earned the company a special spot of loathing in the hearts of those who oppose technology and modern farming. While farmers sang the praises of the system, activists decried it as a spoiler of food, a poisoner of the environment, and, of late, a cause of cancer. While it was only the beginning of the biotech revolution in agriculture, it remains at the center of the debate over the use of biotechnology in food production.
Fraley told me in a recent interview that one of the mistakes they made in 1996 was not addressing the issue of public opinion. “We were so excited about this technology and how it would benefit farmers, we sort of forgot about the public and their concerns,” he said. “As a company and an industry, I don’t think we have done a good job over most of the past 20 years in addressing the public lack of understanding of the technology.” He added, however, that this has changed in the past few years at Monsanto and they now spend a lot of energy reaching out to the public. “I think there is an opportunity to tell the public about the technology and how their food is produced,” said Fraley.
As Chief Technology Officer for Monsanto, Fraley spends much of his time being an advocate for biotechnology. He says there is a great story to tell about Roundup. According to Fraley, since the adoption of the Roundup Ready system, pesticide and herbicide use on crops has declined over 30%, while crop yields have increased by 20%. Going forward biocenology will play a major role in climate change as crops help fix carbon in the soil and make possible food that can be produced in changing climate conditions.
Once cloaked in secrecy, Monsanto is now making their research results public. Fraley himself has proven an effective advocate, winning several high profile debates on GMOs — and even winning over Bill Nye, The Science Guy, who is not a supporter of GM technology. “One of things I have learned is that the science isn’t sufficient. When we are talking to consumers, building trust and having a dialogue is as important,” said the soft spoken 62 year old, who is often called the father of the biotech revolution.
It may take another 20 years to get the public to accept biotechnology, but it is vital to our food production system and to our environment that innovation in this area continue.
By Gary Truitt