WFP’s biotech champ talks food
DES MOINES – Leave it to a small-town farm kid to come up with a big idea to revolutionize agriculture and food production.
“Biotechnology and food go together,” said Monsanto’s Chief Technology Officer Dr. Robert Fraley, who has been named a 2013 World Food Prize Laureate.
“As the global population is projected to reach 9.6 billion people by 2050,” Fraley said, “we’ll need to produce more food in the next 30 years than we have in the history of the world.
“This will have to involve biotechnology in agriculture.”
Fraley has spent more than 30 years developing better crops through biotechnology to give farmers worldwide solutions to control yield-robbing insect pests and weeds.
In 1996, he led the introduction of Roundup Ready soybeans that are resistant to glyphosate.
Fraley’s contributions were honored during the 2013 World Food Prize ceremonies this week in Des Moines.
“During the last 60 years, the science of molecular genetics has opened up uncommon opportunities for shaping the future of agriculture medicine and environmental protection,” said Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, chairman of the World Food Prize Laureate Selection Committee. “It’s appropriate that the World Food Prize is being awarded this year to pioneers like Dr. Fraley who have opened opportunities for achieving a balance between human numbers and the human capacity to produce adequate food.”
Fraley’s passion for helping farmers grow better, higher yielding crops was shaped by his experiences growing up on a grain and livestock farm in central Illinois in the 1960s.
“Growing up on a farm was a great experience,” Fraley said. “I learned the cycle of life early on.”
Fraley said his interest in the scientific complexities of living organisms blossomed during his undergraduate education and graduate training in microbiology and biochemistry at the University of Illinois. It also influenced his post-doctoral research in biophysics at the University of California-San Francisco.
Hired by Monsanto in 1981 as a research specialist, Fraley led a plant molecular biology team that worked on developing better crops through genetic engineering.
His early research built upon the discoveries of two other 2013 World Food Prize Laureates – Dr. Marc Van Montagu, founder and chairman of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach in Ghent, Belgium; and Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton, a founder and distinguished science fellow with Syngenta Biotechnology Inc.
A breakthrough occurred when Fraley and his team isolated a bacterial marker gene and engineered it to express in plant cells. By inserting that gene into agrobacterium, they were able to transfer an immunity trait into petunia and tobacco cells.
Fraley said he could see the potential for this emerging science offered to farming operations of all sizes around the globe.
To better understand farmers’ needs regarding the application of biotechnology to agriculture, he said he went out into fields to observe local agronomic practices and talk with farmers to better understand their needs.
With his team of researchers, Fraley developed more elaborate plant transformations of an array of crops, leading to the widespread accessibility of genetically-modified seeds with resistance to insect and weed pests and tolerance to excessive heat and drought.
Larry Sailer, of Iowa Falls, said he appreciates Fraley’s efforts to ensure that growers have more tools than ever to grow higher-yielding crops.
“It was great to meet Dr. Fraley and learn about his background,” said Sailer, who participated in an invitation-only “tweet up” in Des Moines on Oct. 14 with Fraley, Iowa economic development specialists and other leaders helping tell agriculture’s story through social media.
“Millions of farmers have benefitted from his research,” Sailer said.
Deb Brown, executive director of the Webster City Chamber of Commerce, helped coordinate the tweet up to create stronger connections between farmers, their fellow Iowans and global leaders like Fraley.
“I’m focused on bringing people in agriculture and local business together,” Brown said, “and this was a great opportunity to enhance this process.”
Leaving a legacy
Created in 1987 by the late Nobel Peace Prize winner and Iowan Dr. Norman Borlaug, the World Food Prize award recognizes leaders who have contributed landmark achievements in increasing the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.
The World Food Prize also opens doors for laureates like Fraley to help a wider audience learn about modern agriculture and food production.
Fraley said he enjoyed visiting with high school students from across the United States and other countries who participate in the Global Youth Institute hosted by the World Food Prize Foundation.
This work is valuable, said Julie Borlaug, granddaughter of the late Dr. Borlaug and associate director for external relations at the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture. “My grandfather was a strong supporter of innovation to help fight hunger.
“He also believed that small farmers around the world deserve every opportunity to have access to these critically important technologies. Dr. Fraley has been a tireless champion of these efforts, dedicating his career to addressing food security through scientific advancements in agriculture.”
Fraley said he’s deeply humbled by this extraordinary honor. “I really believe we have just scratched the surface on what’s possible in bringing innovation to farmers who deliver food security to people around the world.”