Face of GMOs at Monsanto to Step Down as Bayer Takeover Closes

(Bloomberg) -- It’s the end of an era at Monsanto Co. after executives including the seed giant’s scientific leader Robb Fraley announced plans to depart after the company’s takeover by Germany’s Bayer AG.

Fraley will depart “shortly after closing” on the Bayer deal, following a transition period, Monsanto said Monday in a statement. He has been at Monsanto for more than three decades and helped to invent genetically modified seeds, the company’s controversial technology that has come to define modern agriculture. The $66 billion takeover by Germany’s Bayer is expected to close during the current quarter.

Chief Executive Officer Hugh Grant, who has spent 35 years at the St. Louis-based company, is also leaving at the closing of the deal "to pursue new opportunities," he said in the statement.

Fraley and Grant “were both there at Ground Zero” when it comes to GMOs, said Chris Shaw, an analyst at Monness Crespi Hardt & Co.

Fraley has been the public face and champion of the science of GMOs. He joined the company as a 27-year-old, a Ph.D. in microbiology and biochemistry in hand, and worked on a team that found a way to insert foreign genes into plants. The result was Roundup Ready seeds, which could tolerate glyphosate, an herbicide that Monsanto manufactures under the brand Roundup.

Transforming Farming

The technology has transformed farming around the world. At the same time, it has inspired passionate protests among activists. Skepticism about such techniques remain despite a scientific consensus that supports the safety of eating genetically modified foods. Non-GMO labels on food have become commonplace in grocery stores.

Fraley has sought to improve consumers’ perceptions of GMOs, touting what he says is the way technology helps sustainable farming. In 2015, after Neil Young put out an album called "The Monsanto Years” with criticisms of the company, Fraley posted an open letter to the folk singer on LinkedIn inviting him to establish a dialogue and visit the company.

Fraley won the World Food Prize in 2013, along with two other scientists who made innovations in biotechnology. The prize honors individuals or groups who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food.

As Fraley has focused on defending GMOs, the technology has seen challenges. Weeds have gained resistance to Roundup, and newer tools like gene-editing are being heralded as keys to the future of food production. Along with Grant, Fraley has said a combination with Bayer will speed innovation in agriculture, particularly with digital platforms that will enable farmers to increasingly micromanage their crops to find bigger yields, also known as precision agriculture.

Monsanto executives who will become members of the crop science executive leadership team at Bayer after the takeover include current Monsanto President and Chief Operating Officer Brett Begemann.

While the Bayer-Monsanto merger is still awaiting regulatory approval, Bayer said Monday that the deal should go through. Liam Condon, head of Bayer’s crop science division in Monheim, Germany, will head the combined business.

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