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Getting a ‘bug’ for food production

By Staff | Sep 12, 2014

ROBB FRALEY, Monsanto executive vice president and chief technology officer, spoke to a group of media, industry professionals and producers about the changes producers will be facing in years to come, as the world’s population increases to 9 billion by 2050.



HUXLEY – How will world ag production feed 9.6 billion people?

That was focus on Aug. 25 during a BioAg Alliance media day at the Monsanto farm near Huxley.

BioAg Alliance was created by Monsanto and Novozymes to boost research and commercialization of sustainable microbial technology.

Robb Fraley, Monsanto executive vice president chief technology officer, outlined to media, industry professionals and producers key challenges facing global ag production.

These include, he said, figuring how to produce enough food with changing weather patterns and dwindling arable land, plus changing economies and diets.

“The challenge we have is enormous,” said Fraley. “Today there are 7.1 billion people, and that is expected to rise up to 9.6 billion people by 2050.”

There have been many technologies, Fraley said, which have become available and work together to address challenges and improve efficiency, such as breeding, crop protection, biologicals, biotechnology and precision agriculture.

Fraley said technologies are a collaboration of partnerships at virtually every level, including working with universities and other companies.

“It takes all of us working together,” he said. “No one can do this by themselves, and we are confident the tools we have in agriculture will help us to meet these needs.”

Thomas Videbaek, Novozymes executive vice president, business development introduced his company and the BioAg Alliance that has been made with Novozymes and Monsanto.

Novozymes, Videbaek said, has a 48 percent market share in industrial enzymes with more than 6,000 employees in 130 countries with over 700 products.

Microbials, Videbaek said, are the next wave of technology to increase yields and sustainability and the new BioAg Alliance with Novozymes and Monsanto is the industry’s most advanced microbials platform.

“Adding the two companies together will generate a powerhouse of developing microbials for farmers to use across the world,” said Videbaek.

The alliance will work with Novozymes beginning with a small-scale fermentation of selected microbes, while Monsanto will follow with field testing he said.

Next will be process optimization with both companies working on regulatory registrations and the final step would be Novozymes manufacturing and Monsanto getting the product commercialised.


Colin Bletsky, Novozymes vice president of BioAg, said microbials – notably bacteria and fungi – are types of agricultural biologicals that protect crops from pests and diseases and enhance plant productivity and fertility.

The benefit, he said, is additional crop protection in new modes of action, in harmony with beneficial insects, complimenting or potentially replacing synthetic products.

Bletsky said microbials use soil nutrients for stronger and healthier plants and will add new options for sustainable agriculture.

Microbes, Bletsky said, will be applied either by seed treatment, in-furrow or foliar-applied.

Bletsky said microbes have long been a part of human diets and food supply – wine, cheese, beer, yogurt, grains, fruits and vegetable.

For more than a century, microbes rhizobia and bacillus thuringiensis have been used by farmers worldwide.

According to Bletsky, organic farming in particular has benefited from rhizobia and Bt, as rhizobia replaces or complements traditional fertilizers, and Bt is one of the pesticides permitted in organic production by the National Organic program.

These microbes are cultured by fermentation.

Monsanto, through its BioAg Alliance, has a product portfolio which includes inoculations for crops including corn, soybeans, cotton and others.

Brad Griffith, Monsanto vice president for global microbials, said these just aren’t your grandfather’s inoculations.

“There is a significant agronomic opportunity to use these products,” said Griffith.

Griffith said these products will work for large and small crop operations.

These include:

  • TagTeam LCO, a multi-action inoculant, Griffith said, that improves phosphate availability, nodule formation and nitrogen fixation.
  • QuickRoots is a bacillus- and trichoderma-based inoculant for corn to improve nutrient uptake, increasing plant vigor and larger root volumes, maximizing yield potential and performance in a variety of soil conditions and types.

“We have seen very visible differences with seed treated with QuickRoots,” said Griffith. “We see a very significant yield opportunity with this technology.”

R&D needed

Shawn Semones, Novozymes BioAg research and development director, said there are 50 billion microbes in one tablespoon of soil, and the challenge is in finding a unique set of “bugs” that will benefit producers.

Semones said microbes are isolated from diverse environments and for each the genus, species and molecular sequence are identified.

“We will then be challenged with trying to figure out how to grow these microbes by a factor of 200 million,” said Semones.

When that’s accomplished, field testing follows, he said, on a scale never seen before for microbials.

Tom Adams, Monsanto vice president for biotechnology, said the company has the ability to test the use of microbials in a broad way, conducting extensive field testing in diverse environments.

In 2014, it has been working on 170,000 yield plots testing hundreds of strains in corn and soybean trials across 70 U.S. locations.

“This is significant testing,” Adams said, “way beyond what anyone has ever done before.”

2015 will bring plans for more than 500,000 yield plots, testing thousands of strains.

Early testing in 2013 in corn, Adams said, compared BioAg Alliance microbial strains to untreated control, and is indicating early, encouraging yield improvement.

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