ROCKFORD, Ill. — In the subzero temperatures of northern Illinois in late winter, it was tough to imagine a farmer in the early and middle 1900s, carefully walking his fields and selecting out the plumpest, healthiest ears of corn to save for seed for the next crop.

“You planted a crop and when you came to harvest, you walked the field and you selected a handful of the best ears to plant the next year,” said John Fietsam, corn yield optimization product development manager for Monsanto.

Those early farmers, Fietsam said, selected for the characteristics that best suited their growing area.

“Someone in Europe, in a cooler, more maritime climate, selected for genetics that offered tremendous top-end yield potential, superior grain quality, improved plant health. Someone from South Africa or parts of South America selected for more heat and disease tolerance and drought tolerance, just by virtue of how they were going out and selecting those ears,” he said.

Fast forward about half a century or more.

“I sat in a biotechnology course in 2001, and we were able to map one genome per decade with the technology available then. That was about 1,000 genes per year that we were able to sequence,” Fietsam said.

Then fast forward only a little more than a decade.

“We’re getting closer and closer to be able to do 100-plus genomes in a day. Just in 2001, it took us an entire decade with that technology. That’s how quickly this technology is changing,” Fietsam said.

How fast the technology to select seed traits is moving matters more as available arable land shrinks and the human population grows.

“With that comes improved resolution to make decisions from genetics to genetics on traits that encode for various characteristics, which improves our ability to identify genes that are encoding for higher yield, encoding for disease resistance, for drought or heat tolerance. This is an evolution that is mind boggling, but the future is bright from a genomics perspective,” Fietsam said.

He said farmers and researchers need to keep their eyes on the prize — of yield — but other things are gaining priority as conditions change.

“Yield potential is a No. 1. We can’t leave yield on the table. But we also have to make sure to keep our eye on things like grain moisture at harvest, disease tolerance and standability,” he said.

Fietsam spoke at the Channel Achievement Series winter session in Rockford.

‘Megatrends’

He outlined what he called “key megatrends” that will continue to influence farmers and seed companies.

“When you look at a significantly rising population, we’re now over seven billion people in the world, compared to just 4.4 billion back in 1980. If we look toward 2050 at current rates, you’re at 9.6 billion people, so a lot more mouths around the world to feed,” he said.

Those mouths won’t just want grains, rice, soybeans, corn and wheat, but meat proteins.

“As an individual has more money to spend on food, they are generally increasing their protein in their diet, and with that, that generally means greater investment in animal production, which means additional grain input, which continues to drive the demand for your corn and your soybeans higher and higher,” Fietsam said.

Another megatrend is that the world’s farmers will be raising food on less and less land.

“If you look at the relationship between available land and population, as population goes up, it’s pretty intuitive that arable land for each one of us to grow for our next meal goes down. As we see this population continue to grow, we have to get more efficient in our use of the land that’s available for us to produce crops,” Fietsam said.

He said farmers — and seed companies and seed breeders — will have to deal with the effects of a changing global climate, no matter what is contributing to the changes.

“I won’t get into the climate change debate, but just looking at key megatrends over the last 10, 15, 20 years, we do see shifts in where we’re growing crops and the relative maturity of the corn crops we’re growing. We’re growing corn in parts of the Dakotas and into Canada that, 20 years ago, wouldn’t have even thought about producing corn. Whether this is a short-term change or a longer-term climate shift, we are seeing changing dynamics in the marketplace,” he said.

Fietsam cited the work that Monsanto has done on researching the topic of whether the climate is changing and what is happening to the global climate.

“Monsanto, a couple of years ago, sponsored a group of their leading scientists to go out and review the data that was available, the peer-reviewed articles on climate change and climate science, and provide some feedback on what is happening — what does the scientific consensus say? They very clearly came back and said that the evidence is there that our climate is changing. It’s obviously changing across the country, and the changes are impacting what we see here,” he said.

That doesn’t mean just one seemingly unending winter of snowstorms interspersed with repeated polar vortices.

“Increasing temperate zone is moving further and further north over the last 15 years. What that has implications for is not only the number of heat units that we accumulate, the amount of heat that we experience during key times of the growing season, the potential to grow longer-season relative maturity crops, and we’ve certainly seen some of that shift over time, as well. It also increases the frequency during which we are going to have to grow a crop during a period of stress, during hotter conditions during that pollination window, drier conditions during that pollination window,” Fietsam said.

In addition, a changing climate also changes the outlook for diseases and insects that will threaten crops.

“As the climate changes, so does the dynamic with the weeds, diseases and insects that we’re obviously trying to manage against to capture the next bushel of grain. All of these things are going to impact how you guys go about producing corn over time,” Fietsam said.