Monsanto began as a company engaged in chemical-molecules and pharmaceuticals; later, it established itself as an industry leader in biotechnology. For the past two decades, Monsanto has been developing cutting-edge technologies in traditional breeding and biotechnology, along with helping farmers improve yields and meet consumer demands.
Rana pointed out that Monsanto is dedicated to improving yield potentials per acre through technological innovations, helping farmers improve their production efficiencies and generally produce more with less input.
“One of our R&D focuses is on developing biotech solutions for seeds - crops such as corn, cotton, canola and soybean crops, which are resistant to diseases, pests, herbicide applications, and stress (such as drought ), to help farmers to produce more from every acre,” said Rana.
For the past two decades, many Asian and African farmers have benefited from Monsanto biotech products. For example, Monsanto introduced its biotech cotton technology (Bt Cotton) to China in the late 1990s, to India in about 2000, and also to South Africa and Australia. Monsanto’s Bt cotton technology has had a tremendous impact on the cotton industry in these countries, especially in China and India, the two largest cotton producers in the world, which has helped local farmers increase their yields and reduce the use of pesticides.
Facing ever-emerging challenges in agriculture, such as weed resistance, Monsanto has stepped up its pace in developing next generations of products and solutions. The Roundup Ready Xtend®
Crop System is designed to provide farmers with the more consistent and flexible control of weeds, especially tough-to-manage and glyphosate
resistant weeds, and to help maximize crop yields.
The system includes Roundup Ready 2 Xtend® soybeans, the industry’s first biotech product with tolerance for both dicamba and glyphosate herbicides, and Bollgard II® XtendFlex®, providing tolerance to three herbicides, dicamba, glyphosate and glufosinate. Monsanto, together with its partners, supplied Roundup Ready 2 Xtend® soybeans to the U.S. and Canada soybean market, following a season in which more than 20 million acres were planted during the 2017 growing season. The company estimates that the North American planting area will grow to 40 million acres in 2018.
At present, Monsanto is developing its fourth to fifth generations of insect resistance and herbicide tolerance traits for key row crops, including corn, soybean and cotton. Herbicide tolerance traits are expected to further enable no-till and conservation-tillage farming, preserving the top layer of soil and limiting its runoff into streams, rivers and lakes, which also help in saving fuel used in farm equipment operations, while reducing carbon emissions. The newer generations of insect protection traits will help manage potential insect resistance issues and broaden the spectrum of pest species, in addition to the benefits of chemical pesticide reductions.
Monsanto innovatively introduced its Roundup Ready Plus® Crop Management Solutions in 2011 to provide growers with expert weed management recommendations and better management practices. As Rana said, sharing and cooperation is one of Monsanto’s core business philosophies. Monsanto cooperates with other companies in the industry, helps farmers use multiple modes of action to better manage resistance and tough-to-control weeds. The company also adopts a broad licensing approach to help industry partners use its technology in their seeds.
With the in-depth development of molecular biology and merging of different disciplines, new technologies, such as gene editing and RNA interference technology, have entered the field of crop breeding.
The evolution of gene editing technology makes it possible for people to use precise technologies to improve each indigenous gene in crop genomes. Monsanto believes gene editing technologies can offer a method for scientists to develop precise edits or deletions to specific plant genes to enhance beneficial traits or remove undesired plant characteristics. Monsanto has announced a number of agreements and collaborations with several companies and institutes on gene editing in agriculture. With gene editing, scientists can make changes to a plant’s already-existing DNA without adding foreign DNA. To that end, gene editing technologies have a great potential, through enabling plant breeders to deliver better hybrids and varieties more efficiently, as well as offering plant scientists additional resources to deliver new plant improvements.
In 2017, the US EPA approved a genetically modified corn trait, known as SmartStax Pro®, with the use of Monsanto’s RNA interference (RNAi) technology, to control western corn root worm damage. Corn root worm is a pest that has been dubbed the “billion-dollar-bug” because of the extensive below-ground damage it causes to corn plants. Monsanto uses RNAi to enter the target cells of the root worm and selectively "mute" or decrease the target protein, to provide more effective pesticide control. Monsanto is leveraging the naturally occurring RNAi process to provide improved control of corn root worm.
Rana introduced this RNAi-based solution for agriculture, providing new tools that have novel Modes of Action to help farmers dealing with significant agricultural pests, which ensures farmers produce food in a more efficient and sustainable way.
In the field of microbials, Monsanto formed the BioAg Alliance with the Danish Novozymes A/S in 2013, and has already introduced innovative products to the market. In 2017, the Alliance introduced its new product, Acceleron® B-300 SAT, the world's first microbial seed coating agent (SCA) for the ex-factory treatment of corn seeds. The product’s active ingredients comes from a kind of fungus in the soil, which can help increase the yield of corn, and was used by U.S. farmers on more than 4 million corn acres in the first year of its commercial launch.
Additionally, the Alliance announced its reaching a significant milestone in the Corn BioYield 2 project, and its pipeline update in January 2018. Corn BioYield 2 harnesses the signal molecule LCO (lipo-chitooligosaccharide) that promotes beneficial plant-microbe interactions, such as symbiotic relationships between soil fungi and plants. Beneficial soil fungi colonizes roots to increase the crop's ability to take in nutrients and water. This product has advanced to Phase 4 in the BioAg Alliance R&D pipeline, and is expected to reach the market, where it will be branded as Acceleron®B-360 ST.
Making agriculture more efficient and sustainable by digital agriculture
"Innovation" is the cornerstone of Monsanto. Recognized as one of the "World's Most Innovative Companies" by Forbes Magazine, Monsanto is taking advantage of the most advanced technologies in the world to break through industry boundaries and drive agriculture into another era.
All those who pay close attention to developments in agriculture can feel the shift of Monsanto's strategic layout in recent years. Now, the company is looking at precision agriculture based on data science, and has become a pioneer in this field.
"The digitization in Ag is, and will be, profound in influencing agricultural development. It allows farmers to optimize seeding, irrigation, and applications of fertilizer and pesticides, and to predict their harvests based on parameters, such as soil composition, weather and inputs. As the most cutting-edge agricultural technology company, Monsanto takes great pride in standing at the forefront of the industry, amid this revolution. Looking back on the 100-year-plus history of the company, we have maintained such advantages in plant protection chemistry, seeds and biotechnology, and more. We are once again on the cusp of the next wave of the agricultural revolution," noted Rana.
Crop yields are susceptible to many factors, such as genetics, surrounding environments, agronomic practices, and other factors. Monsanto aims to help farmers sustainably increase their productivity through optimization of all these factors, using data science tools.
To promptly join the field of digital science, in 2012 and 2013 Monsanto acquired Precision Planting and The Climate Corporation, at a cost of 250 million USD and 930 million USD, respectively. Today, The Climate Corporation has established a solid footprint in North America, South America and Europe.
Rana shared two examples of Monsanto’s digital agriculture, which seeks to meet large commercial farmers, as well as smallholder farmers, such as Climate FieldView™ and FarmRise™, respectively.
The Climate FieldView™ digital agricultural platform, fueled by deep science and data analytics, aims to meet the needs of those large commercial farmers in the US, Canada, Brazil and some European regions.
Bringing together seamless field data collections, advanced agronomic modeling and local weather monitoring, into simple mobile and web software solutions, the Climate FieldView™ platform offers farmers a deeper understanding of their fields, so they can make more informed operating decisions to optimize yields, maximize efficiencies and reduce risks.
Advanced scripting involves using a farmer’s historical field data, combined with data from proprietary field-testing results, to provide seed prescription options that farmers can easily customize and execute, using their equipment of choice. (Source: The Climate Corporation)
Zone-Based Nitrogen Management monitors nitrogen by
customizable zones in each field to help farmers better
understand their unique field variables and take action to
(Source: The Climate Corporation)
Farmland Health Imaging provides information, while analyzing the performance of crops, as soon as possible, and prioritizing scouting and taking actions to ensure crop yields, due to the help of frequent and constant high-quality satellite imaging. (Source: The Climate Corporation)
Yield Analysis is performed by quickly and easily comparing digital field maps side-by-side, allowing farmers to analyze seed performance by soil type, field, or management zones, and better understand their field variabilities. (Source: The Climate Corporation)
The Climate FieldView™ digital agricultural platform offers two versions. In the free version, farmers can acquire basic information about fields, which can guide their agricultural operations. While in the paid version, farmers can obtain more in-depth and advanced information, such as how to better resist and combat plant diseases and insect pests, how to precisely use nitrogen fertilizers, and assessing overall field plant health conditions through satellite imagery, and more.
Rana noted that in the 2017 growing season, the Climate FieldView™ platform was adopted throughout an area of over 120 million acres in the US, Brazil and Canada, with registered users exceeding 100,000.
The company has announced that in 2018, Climate FieldView™ will expand to the European market (Germany, France and Ukraine). In the coming years, the company will further expand into more markets, such as Australia, Argentina and South Africa.
The FarmRise™ platform is primarily for use by smallholder farmers in Asian and African countries, to help them unlock their agricultural potentials. Based upon the unique demands of smallholders, FarmRise™ tailors diversified services to farmers, including weather forecast alerts, online consulting and professional advice on agronomy, market price information, and more.
The FarmRise™ platform for small farmer households has been operating in India, and some four million Indian farmers are connected to the platform. Meanwhile, Monsanto is also trying to extend the FarmRise™ platform to more Asian and African countries.
Rana cited an example in Malawi, a country in East Africa. By using FarmRise™, local farmers can purchase Monsanto DEKALB branded corn seeds via mobile phones and receive crop insurance at the same time. In the event of there being no rain within 3 weeks after planting, Monsanto provides replacement seeds free of charge to farmers. Farmers can also learn about market prices of certain crops in a timely manner, allowing them to make better market decisions. It just comes with having data at farmer’s fingertips.
When Rana was asked about whether education levels of farmers will become an obstacle for the promotion of emerging technologies, he indicated that based upon Monsanto’s experience, farmers around the world, regardless of their education levels, have the same desires to have access to real technologies and will learn to use these technologies.
Rana thinks that, currently, the biggest challenge for the promotion of digital platforms may come from a lack of mobile and IT infrastructures.
"As far as Asia Pacific is concerned, China has done a tremendous job. China is far ahead of not only the rest of Asia, but the rest of the world, with Internet transmission speeds in rural areas even exceeding that in the US. But in the rest of Asian and African countries, this is still a need for improvements. But it is improving, as farmers will have access to more smart phones, they will be able to receive much information and perform many of their field operations on their phones. In the future, the development of digital agriculture in this region has very great prospects," said Rana.
Emerging Technologies Stimulating the Future of Modern Agriculture
The entire agricultural industry is undergoing a large-scale consolidation, and scientific development is having far-reaching influences on agriculture. In Rana's view, with the constant development of new technologies, such as digital agriculture, artificial intelligence (AI), gene editing, RNA interference and microbials, all of which continue to evolve and provide tremendous benefits, the next transformation of agriculture has quietly arrived.
Increasing numbers of companies are investing in emerging agriculture-related industries. Rana said that such competition means there will be more advanced technologies in the future market, and farmers will be able to access more effective tools.
Rana added, "We have seen that every year, venture capital investment in agriculture technology has been growing at a very rapid pace. Every year has become a record year, when it comes to venture investment in agriculture technology. These investments involve a myriad of domains, even including many new technologies never heard of before, such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the use of new biological tools, such as gene editing to develop better crops, and new technology to develop or screen microbials, which can be used for either crop nutrition or disease control."
"A new agricultural revolution has begun, which is led by data science. One focus of our R&D is on digital agriculture and AI. Monsanto's daily expenses on R&D reached $4.4 million USD and annual expenses of over 1.6 billion USD in 2017, which including the investment in data science and AI. Monsanto will be standing at the forefront of the revolution and playing a very important role," Rana added.
This January, The Climate Corporation announced 17 advancements that are accelerating through its R&D pipeline. One of the key R&D highlights is how the company is using artificial intelligence to diagnose diseases in corn, soybeans and wheat.
When talking about Monsanto's combination with Bayer, Rana indicated that the goal of the consolidation is to accelerate the speed of innovative products entering the market. "We are very excited about the merger deal," he said, "Looking at the mergers and acquisitions in the field of agriculture over the past 20 years, you will find that these M&As further intensified competitions and provided more innovative products. I believe that things will also be like this in the future."
Once the merger is completed, it will mean that Bayer's traditional plant protection products will combine perfectly with Monsanto's achievements in seeds, traits and data science. After the merger, the synergistic effects of the two parties, will accelerate the speed of new products entering the market and will deliver solutions to farmers more quickly. This will benefit farmers around the globe.
Agriculture is at the center of global trends. It involves such matters as climate change, hunger, human nutrition, obesity, and more. "Monsanto's vision is to help global farmers grow crops sustainably and effectively. During the past tens of years, the tools we have brought about have been helping farmers reduce their input of resources, as much as possible, and to improve agricultural productivity. In the years ahead, emerging technologies will expand the definition of modern agriculture. Through using all the innovations at our disposal to create integrated solutions, we can make tremendous progress in helping farmers achieve their goals of growing enough healthy food, while conserving the earth’s precious resources,” noted Rana.