Plant breeding, biotechnology and precision technology all pushed farming to the next level. Now agriculture needs another leap forward, says Robb Fraley.
By 2050, farmers will need to double food production to keep up with the world’s growing population, notes the Monsanto executive vice president and chief technology officer. That means producing more food in the next 36 years than has been produced in the history of the world.
Fraley believes ag biologicals will be an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to boosting food production. That’s why Monsanto has partnered with Novozymes, a Denmark-based company specializing in industrial enzyme production, for their new BioAg Alliance.
Many farmers are already familiar with ag biologicals. Until recently, it’s a field that was largely written off as a gimmick. With numerous large crop technology players making large investments in biologicals, it appears they are the next frontier in boosting yields.
In 2013, the biologicals industry posted sales of $2.6 billion. Novozymes’ executive vice president of business development, Thomas Videbaek, expects the market to grow significantly in coming years.
But what exactly are ag biologicals, or as they’re also called, microbials? Colin Bletsky, Novozymes vice president, explains these are naturally-occurring bacteria and fungi that are beneficial to the crop in some way.
Iowa State University’s Gwyn Beattie notes these products traditionally help crop production in four distinct ways. 1. Microbials can enhance nutrient uptake. 2. They can defend against pests. 3. They can turn on a plant’s natural defenses. 4. Microbials can help a plant adapt/tolerate a changing environment.
Up to 50 billion microbials can be found in one tablespoon of soil. The challenge, says Shawn Semones, Novozymes research and development director, is to find the beneficial ones. Once the right microbials are found, they must be stabilized on the seed.
With the BioAg Alliance, Novozymes will continue to screen for beneficial biologicals. That includes DNA testing and risk assessment. They will also head the effort to adapt them for crop production.
Monsanto will provide the field testing horsepower. Fraley notes it will be incorporated into existing field trials. In 2014, Monsanto tested 500 biologicals on 170,000 test plots. Next year, they’ll significantly increase testing over 500,000 test plots.
Fraley notes it takes about four to five years and $150 million to obtain the regulatory approvals for a biotech trait. Videbaek estimates ag biological products will cost only $10 million and take two to three years for regulatory approval.
As the BioAg Alliance works toward new microbial products, Fraley notes the group is working hard to communicate the importance and safety of this technology not only with growers, but also with consumers. When biotech traits were introduced, Monsanto worked hard to communicate the advantages to farmers, Fraley adds. Consumers were not a target audience for the same message. This time around, things will be different, he concludes.