Meet An Ag Titan

Robb Fraley’s biotech shot was heard round the world. ( Bayer AG )

The smells of diesel and dirt remained with an Illinois farm boy as he progressed into adulthood and propelled agriculture beyond the realm of what marked the bounds of possibility. In the mid-1990s, when Robb Fraley burrowed deep into a plant cell and turned the key on the mysteries of biotechnology, he forged a path toward a bounty of food unimagined at any point prior in the human story.

In 1996, Fraley fired the shot heard round the ag world by spearheading a successful effort to produce herbicide-tolerant crops, at the same time setting the fuse on an agricultural biotech explosion. Case in point: In 1996, 4.3 million acres of biotech crops were planted. Fast forward to 2020: Biotech crops are expected to cover 500 million acres across the globe.

Lifetime Battle With Weeds

Born in 1953, Fraley grew up on his family’s small row-crop farm in central Illinois. In the mid-1960s, Fraley watched as his father, Bob, bolted a granular herbicide application unit to a four-row John Deere planter that eased, but didn’t end, the hand-hoeing vigil in the fields.

The maddening, incessant battle with weeds during Fraley’s formative years set him on a lifetime road toward Roundup Ready crops.

The hard-scrabble farming lessons spurred Fraley’s interest in innovation. Backed by support from his family, Fraley completed undergraduate work at the University of Illinois, aiming for a spot in the food science industry.

“Instead, I got a call from a professor whose class I had taken, Dr. Sam Kaplan, who had just received a grant and asked me to come back and work as a graduate student in his laboratory studying photosynthetic bacteria,” Fraley recalls. “Long story short, I ended up with a Ph.D. in microbiology and biochemistry.”

In the late 1970s, Fraley landed a post-doctoral fellowship with Demetrios Papahadjopoulos, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), to work on methods using liposomes to introduce genes into cells.

Just married, Fraley and his wife, Laura, packed up a 1965 Volkswagen convertible and headed west.

Epicenter Of Biotechnology

UCSF was an epicenter of biotechnology, and Fraley thrived in a cutting-edge environment. Despite tantalizing promise, biotech was yet to reach crop production, but with a trove of research bonafides in hand, Fraley, at just 30 years old, was about to flip the script on agriculture’s 7,000-year history.

A Career At Monsanto

In the early 1980s, Monsanto was an industrial and ag chemical company with an interest in biotech potential. Fraley was soon Monsanto’s chief technology officer, steering the research ship toward glyphosate-tolerant soybeans and insect-protected corn and cotton.

“From the time we started, it took 15 years to develop and launch Roundup Ready soybeans,” he says. “It was an effort filled with risk and investment, with no guarantees.”

With Fraley’s expertise in DNA delivery, Rob Horsch’s plant cell culture skills and Steve Rogers’ forte in gene cloning, the team was greater than the sum of its parts.

Working in Monsanto’s building titled U4 (dubbed Euphoria), Fraley’s small squad tinkered with a guinea pig of no glory: petunias. All told, petunias (and later tomatoes) served as a biotech proving ground and became Fraley’s first transgenic plant success. But the road to 1996 was filled with peaks and valleys.

“I remember times when the company was under heavy financial pressure,” Fraley explains.

At a 1985 Monsanto budget meeting, Fraley faced stakeholders who wanted to cut his team’s research because it was too pie-in-the-sky. After some show and tell of the progress on glyphosate-resistant plants and insect-protected plants, the team soon had more support than ever.

History-Changing Moment

No one had ever taken a gene and developed the methods to put the gene into a plant cell and create a plant with new genetic properties. But in 1996, after field tests and regulatory approval, Roundup Ready crops in the form of genetically modified soybeans hit the market and took farming by storm.

“If you would have told me in the early 1980s biotech soybeans would soon be on 90% of U.S. acreage, it would have been tough to foresee,” Fraley says. ”In the moment, I knew we were making history for agriculture, but I didn’t realize how quickly it would occur. No one did.” 

On the controversy surrounding biotechnology: “Looking back, if there was one thing I would have done differently, it would have been doing even more outreach directly to consumers. We should have brought the public along and educated right out of the gate.”

On the decision to license Monsanto technology: “We chose to broadly license our technology and inventions across the ag industry. We chose right. We had hundreds of licensees, even our toughest competitors, and this allowed the technology
to shoot across agriculture all the faster.”

On what future technology could transform farming: “We’ve only touched the surface on digital tools. Digital tools will capture all the data layers from the farm, and the ability to strengthen each on-farm decision is going to be unprecedented.”