Monsanto CTO engages STIA students over GMOs and the future of the food industry

On Tuesday night, Monsanto’s Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Robert Fraley spoke to an audience of Georgetown students, perhaps quite aptly, in the Reiss Science building about global food security and agricultural technology. The Lecture Fund also invited fifteen students to a roundtable discussion with Fraley before the event.

In his remarks, Fraley emphasized the importance of agricultural research to supporting the food supply for a population that is growing and getting wealthier. “Judging by the average age of this room, by the time you’re my age, the decisions, the policies that we take in agriculture will determine both the picture in 2050 on food security, and also, in many ways, the planet and the environment that we live in,” he says. “That means that [by] 2050, we have to be able to produce more food than we have in the entire history of the planet.”

Future advances in biology will focus not on genetic modification technology and creating better seeds, but on understanding soil environments. “Now, the science of DNA sequencing, genome characterization, screening and selection are allowing us to identify which microbes can really help enhance plant growth, and how do we identify those microbes and use them, literally, as a probiotic for crops,” Fraley said.

In the Q&A session, students asked him contemporary concerns about Monsanto’s work and its impacts on, among other issues, the European Union, international income distribution, genetically modified organism labeling, and biodiversity. Fraley countered one student’s question that increasing GMOs would create a monoculture of crops, saying that her assertion was “absolutely not true.”

“A GMO is the ability to put a gene in a corn plant that normally wasn’t in the corn plant, so what does that mean? We’ve dramatically enhanced the genetic diversity by increasing the kinds of genes that can be used in a crop … One of the benefits of biotech is that it expands the gene pool opportunity for crop improvement,” Fraley said.

In another question, a student told Fraley to convince her that Monsanto’s work on GMOs is better for the planet than the organic movement. Fraley said that he did not want to “demonize” what he called a production system where crop growers could grow a diverse selection of crops.

“We’re spending way too much time talking about one particular tool often to the expense of talking about the bigger challenge of food security and the environment, and that’s where we need to take the dialogue,” Fraley said. “Here’s what I don’t like, and I’ll just be blunt … there’s a view out there that there’s this monolithic corporate farm. If you look at the USDA numbers, 96 percent of farms in this country are family-owned.”

There were so many questions, in fact, that the Lecture Fund had to cut the discussion abruptly to end the event.

Vox observed that Fraley stood very close to students during the Q&A session and couldn’t help but wonder whether friendly vibes were trying to win over the generation that would be living in a Monsanto world in 2050. Well, Monsanto almost won Vox over at the end of the event when an employee handed him a cute, corn-shaped USB drive, albeit loaded with documents and a movie about biotechnology and crop research.

Photo: Katherine Landau/Georgetown Voice

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