There is an explosion of innovation coming to the farm as a new age of sensors and satellite imagery intersects with the world’s oldest industry, the executive vice-president and chief technology office for Monsanto Co. says.
Robb Fraley, who was in Calgary recently to address the GrowCanada Conference, said in an interview that although agriculture is the world’s most important industry, it is also the least modernized.
Investments in research and development are well below the amount spent by the communications, pharmaceutical and energy sectors. What investment there is, is fragmented, he said.
“I had my team look up all the different agriculture and food companies around the world; they quit after 4,000, so it’s a very fragmented industry that needs to consolidate,” Fraley said.
Fraley, recognized as one of the founders of genetically modified crops, noted Monsanto spends about US$1.5 billion annually on research and investment in advanced plant breeding, microbials and digital data management tools.
“I look at what we spend in the digital ag space and then I look at what an Amazon or a Google spends… they’re spending US$10 billion to US$12 billion. Pharmaceutical companies are spending US$8 billion to US$10 billion,” he noted.
But Fraley said times are changing as digital technology becomes more commonplace in agricultural systems, allowing scientists and farmers to make better decisions more quickly.
“I think what is so exciting about being in agriculture today is we’re seeing a wave of startup companies coming and lots of innovations,” he said. “I’m talking thousands of new startup companies in this space.”
Fraley disagrees with critics who have said the mega-mergers could lead to less investment because they remove competition from the marketplace.
“The outcome of that is going to be that they are going to be able to invest in more research and development,” he said, noting the digital tools used by scientists today vastly increase the scale and pace of innovation.
Monsanto subsidiary ClimateCorp launched its FieldView platform in Western Canada this year.
“I think once farmers see these tools and get the benefits, it’s going to move really, really quickly,” Fraley said.
The digital platforms not only help farmers control costs and improve productivity, they help farmers make better environmental decisions, a benefit he predicts will resonate with the non-farming public.
As well, Fraley said the public has already embraced the digital revolution, whereas the first products of the biotechnological revolution a quarter-century ago were harder for the general public to grasp.
As a result, he said the introduction of innovations such as vitamin A-enhanced Golden Rice that could vastly reduce blindness in Third World countries has been delayed.
Fraley said it’s important going forward that the industry get both the science and the communications strategy right, because ongoing innovation is necessary to ensure food security while improving the environmental footprint of farming.
“We did a great job on the science but we did a miserable job on the communication,” he said. “The good news is we have the opportunity to tell that story differently and better.
“There’s a real opportunity as we all become better with our public communications and particularly our digital communications I think to reposition the tools of modern agriculture so that people have both an understanding and an appreciation,” Fraley said.