Helping Smallholder Farmers is Essential to Ending World Hunger, Says Monsanto's CTO

"The world's smallholder farmers – generally speaking, those who operate farms of a few acres or less – account for more than 90 percent of the world's farmers," writes Robb Fraley.

Monsanto is No. 39 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies list

(Originally published on LinkedIn)

Question: How do we rid the world of hunger?

Answer: We can't – unless we can get modern agricultural technology to smallholder farmers.

I participated in a panel at the 2017 Borlaug Dialogue (the international symposium that precedes the annual World Food Prize Laureate Award Ceremony) dedicated to this very topic: "Getting Technology to Smallholder Farmers."

Robb Fraley

I was joined on the panel by two visionary leaders in agriculture: Enock Chikava, Deputy Director of Agricultural Development, Global Growth and Opportunity at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Dr. Howard-Yana Shapiro, Chief Agricultural Officer at Mars, Inc. Auburn University President Steven Leath, who is also a plant pathologist, moderated the panel. Collectively, we represented voices from the private, non-profit and academic sides of agriculture research – and we all agreed that unless we can develop reliable systems for delivering better seeds and agricultural technology to the world's poorest farmers, the scourges of poverty and hunger will never be erased.

The challenge is massive. The world's smallholder farmers – generally speaking, those who operate farms of a few acres or less – account for more than 90 percent of the world's farmers, most of them in rural areas of the developing world where poverty and hunger are widespread. I've seen firsthand how bad roads, poor communication, lack of quality inputs like good seed and fertilizers, food waste due to lack of refrigerated storage and contamination, and a tangle of other obstacles including government policies, have kept these growers from advancing – keeping their yields (production per acre) and return on investment at only a fraction of those achieved by their counterparts in the developed world.

There is broad consensus that many of these complex problems can be solved with the help of science. For example, Dr. Shapiro wants to use technology to solve the problem of aflatoxin, which contaminates approximately one quarter of the food crops in the world, causing enormous waste as well as growth stunting and liver cancer in thousands who consume it. Mars recently launched a creative public-private partnership (PPP) project with UC Davis and other collaborators, to redesign an enzyme that has the potential to neutralize the aflatoxin. If they are successful, it will be a huge win for smallholders everywhere.

In another example, genetically modified (GMO) seeds that have already been developed could immediately help mitigate damage from one of the greatest threats currently facing African agriculture – the fall armyworm. Since first appearing in Africa in 2016, this voracious pest has spread to more than 28 countries, devouring the maize (corn) that more than 200 million Africans depend on for food security. In the United States and South America, "Bt maize," which is genetically modified to resist certain insects, enables farmers to protect their corn from destruction. But because GMO crops aren't approved for use in most African countries, farmers there end up with a choice between passively watching their crops be decimated (and going hungry) or applying makeshift insecticides that too often aren't effective or pose health risks.

Non-science-based regulations throughout the continent also deny these same farmers access to safe and effective weed control technology that is widely used across the Western world. The consequence: Men, women and even children spend hours every day hoeing fields, instead of attending school or pursuing other productive endeavors that help societies to develop.

When it comes to seeds, there have been quite a few PPPs that have successfully bred crops that are better suited to grow in the Sub-Saharan environment. For example, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other organizations, including Monsanto, developed Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), which has released dozens of quality drought-tolerant maize hybrids over the past decade. Other PPPs have focused on breeding improved cassava, adding essential vitamins to sorghum, developing transgenic bacterial-wilt resistant bananas, and sequencing the genomes of 101 African "orphan" crops in the hopes of breeding more nutritional varieties in the future. In each project, local African plant breeders are trained in the most advanced theory and techniques.

To make an even stronger case for technology, explosive new advances in biology and data science, combined with lower cost curves for adoption, continue to make it easier for everyone to benefit from them. For example, less than 20 years ago the cost of sequencing the human genome was measured in the billions of dollars. Today it is possible to sequence enough of a corn genome to predict its yield potential in an early generation trial for less than $10.

New gene editing techniques can also provide transformational improvements at a relatively low cost. Only a few years ago, the research and development costs for creating genetically modified seeds was so high – in large part, because of the costly regulatory process – that only large enterprises like Monsanto could possibly undertake them. But the fact that there have been over 11,000 published scientific studies using gene editing since 2010 illustrates how accessible it is for both public and private organizations, with huge potential in agriculture and human health.

Breakthroughs in digital communication technology are also making it possible to communicate directly with individual smallholders – helping them overcome the historic obstacle of isolation, and in many cases, giving them access to educational, science-based information for the first time. For instance, a remarkable 70 percent of smallholder farmers now have mobile phones. For the relatively low cost of the phones, farmers can get agronomic advice, the weather forecast, and timely information about where to find the best markets for their crops. In India, millions of farmers are already receiving free texts with such helpful information from the FarmRise™ – Mobile Farm Care program, a digital agriculture platform offered by The Climate Corporation. The potential to scale this program for hundreds of millions more farmers in Asia and Africa is obvious.

So…what's missing? If the scientific capability is there and the barriers to adoption are low – and there is obviously dire need – what is keeping modern agricultural technology from getting to smallholders in developing countries? In my view, two main things are still needed: regulatory easement and large-scale seed production.

Better seed distribution systems are needed across Africa. Improving seeds with or without biotechnology is fruitless if farmers can't reliably get their hands on them. Too often, local seed producers struggle to reproduce quality hybrid seeds on a large scale – and when farmers start with poor seeds, they grow poor crops.

Earlier this year, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) announced the establishment of the first Early Generation (foundation) seed production entity in Sub-Saharan Africa to effectively and efficiently supply high-quality foundation seed for small and medium enterprise seed companies on the continent. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Nairobi-based QualiBasic Seed Company is a great next step in the right direction. In addition, USAID Administrator Mark Green announced a new seed distribution partnership during his Borlaug Dialogue keynote – and the African Development Bank just launched a large global PPP focused on scaling up proven technologies across Africa – so it's clear that many agricultural thought leaders are focused on addressing this problem.

Multiple organizations are also working to break down regulatory barriers by continuing to work with policymakers, to provide them with good data to inform their decision making. Perhaps the fall armyworm crisis will be the added weight that finally swings the pendulum of change. As 2017 World Food Prize Laureate Dr. Akinwumi Adesina said during his Borlaug Dialogue address, "The armyworm is a clear and present danger … Doing nothing is not an option. What we need are urgent actions to support Africa, to rapidly address this real threat to its food security."

Are African policymakers finally ready to take action in the form of embracing modern agricultural technology and the science that informs it? Like many others, I truly hope so.

Monsanto Company Awards $500,000 Grant to T-REX to Support New Resource Center for Geospatial Innovation

Currently more than 200 small companies and start-ups are housed at T-REX, which is also located about two miles away from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency construction site.


Originally Published by Monsanto.

In its continued support of geospatial innovation, Monsanto Company has awarded a $500,000 grant to T-REX, a St. Louis based non-profit business and technology incubator to support the creation of a new Geospatial Resource and Innovation Center.

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Monsanto and 2Blades Foundation Collaborate to Combat Devastating Soybean Disease

"Collaboration with industry is vital to ensure that new discoveries made in the lab can lead to innovations that will prevent crop losses caused by plant disease," said Dr. Peter van Esse, leader of the 2Blades Research Group at TSL.


Originally Published by Monsanto.

Monsanto Company and charitable organization 2Blades Foundation (2Blades) have formed a new collaboration to discover novel sources of genetic resistance to Asian soybean rust (ASR). 2Blades will deliver resistance genes in further collaboration with The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL, Norwich, UK), the leading global institute for research on plant-pathogen interactions, and the Universidade Federal de Viçosa (UFV), a leading university in agricultural sciences in Brazil.

Asian soybean rust, a disease caused by the fungus Phakopsora pachyrhizi, results in yellowing and browning of soybean leaves and can lead to premature senesence and significant yield loss. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), P. pachyrhizi has spread rapidly and causes yield losses from 10 to 80% in Argentina, Asia, Brazil, Paraguay, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.1

"Asian soybean rust is an ugly and expensive disease that can devastate farmers' harvests," said Jeremy Williams, Monsanto's biotechnology and ag productivity innovation lead. "Current fungicide treatments can provide some control, but farmers need more tools – and the 2Blades research could help provide a durable solution as part of an integrated pest-management system."

2Blades' mission is to contribute to global food security by developing crops with long-lasting resistance to pathogens in order to reduce losses due to disease. By working with world-leading plant scientists, 2Blades seeks to discover new sources of disease resistance in nature and transfer them into important crops to extend the breadth of their immune system and secure yields.

"Collaboration with industry is vital to ensure that new discoveries made in the lab can lead to innovations that will prevent crop losses caused by plant disease," said Dr. Peter van Esse, leader of the 2Blades Research Group at TSL. "It is therefore exciting to see that our scientific expertise and knowledge on plant-microbe interactions will be combined with Monsanto's capacity to deliver solutions to farmers to tackle a key challenge in soybean cultivation."

"The management of soybean rust requires the integration of different approaches, including disease resistance. This collaboration will allow us to use cutting-edge technologies to speed up the identification of new resistance genes that can be used to deliver more sustainable solutions to soybean farmers, reducing the environmental and economic impact of ASR," said Prof. Sérgio H. Brommonschenkel at UFV.

In January 2017, Monsanto, 2Blades and The Sainsbury Laboratory announced a collaboration focused on tackling corn disease complexes such as stalk and ear rots that have the potential to significantly reduce yield. That research is ongoing and is independent of this new collaboration.

The ASR collaboration complements Monsanto's work to expand the global crop protection toolbox while enabling farmers to produce more with less of an impact on the environment. 2Blades retains rights to deploy new leads arising from the program in crops for smallholder farmers in the least developed countries, with a particular focus on sub-Saharan Africa. Soybean is a crop of significant and increasing importance in Africa, with extraordinary nutritional, soil, and economic benefits. However, the presence of ASR throughout the African continent is a major factor limiting production.

Monsanto: Mark Edge on WEMA, the Fall Armyworm and farmers in Africa

Mark Edge, Director of Collaborations for Developing Countries at Monsanto, talks about WEMA, the initiative that uses Bt maize to eradicate a harmful pest and help smallholder farmers in Africa.


By Mark Edge

Originally Published by Monsanto.

My work at Monsanto over the years has offered me many new challenges – lately I'm working with a team on the complex issue of helping smallholder farmers in Africa get better seed to help them manage the threats to their maize crops.

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