By Chris Adams

Two top Monsanto experts led National Press Foundation fellows in a discussion of some of the flashpoints of the agriculture world – everything from GMOs to large-scale farming and consolidation.

Robb Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto, described the history of plant biotechnology that has allowed more food to be produced on the same amount of land. It’s a vital change, he said, given that “arguably at this point we are at peak farmland” worldwide.

“By 2050, we’ll see 10 billion people on the planet,” said Fraley, who was the winner of the 2013 World Food Prize. “That puts an incredible pressure on food security. … The technological challenge of producing more and wasting less are key.”

He described “incredible challenges – but an explosion in technology” in recent years. He also took questions on some of the hot-button issues of the day, including genetically modified organisms.

“GMOs are the most thoroughly studied foods in the world – and the safest,” he said.

Fraley was joined by Mark Young, the chief technology officer for The Climate Corporation, a Monsanto subsidiary that marries traditional agriculture with high-tech digital tools.

“We can take these techniques that are relatively common in Silicon Valley and apply them to agriculture,” he said.

Farming, he added, is a series of decisions: “When do I plant, how do I plant, what sort of treatments should I apply? It’s all the things that happen between planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall.” Digital tools, from data tracking to iPads in the tractor, can help farmers more precisely answer those questions.

One thing he reminded the journalists was that digital technology has existed in agriculture for years – “We’ve had tractors driving around the fields by themselves for 10 years now,” he said.