Remarks by Rich Rominger
American Seed Trade Association Annual Meeting
December 10, 1997
Bill, thanks very much. And my thanks to the American Seed Trade Association for bringing all of us together. Like everyone here, I've probably got more questions than answers. But that's what this conference is all about... and I'm delighted to be part of the ASTA's annual opportunity to explore those questions and lay the issues facing this great industry out on the table.
I want to recognize our international visitors here today. Speaking not for myself, but for my great-grandfather, I encourage everyone to take in the exhibit on the contributions of German immigrants to American agriculture. My thanks to the ASTA for the initial research grant for the exhibit, and to the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Agricultural Art and Science Foundation for having a big hand in producing it. More than one million people have seen the exhibit so far and I understand it's booked til the year 2001.
I've got to admit that it was my wife Evelyne, with her mostly English roots, who convinced me to provide information and artifacts from the Rominger family. As usual, I'm glad I took her advice. I don't lean toward a public display of family history. But I've come to see this as a tribute to my great-grandparents -- Blickle and Rominger, who came from the Black Forest to settle farms in California. More important, it's a chance to portray agriculture's stability and change through the generations for the public and for my own children, who still work the land, producing seed and other crops.
Right now, American agriculture is struggling with tough questions about stability and change. And when we talk about generations, we're probably talking about first and second lines of genetically-engineered seed, rather than children or grandchildren. We've already got the first real-world applications of biotechnology moving through the agricultural production pipeline. But moving right along with them are questions of safety, sound science, ethics, and fairness. These are today's versions of earlier discussions about trade numbers and data. The debate is moving into an entirely new realm as we head into the 21st century.
USDA's role is to remind us all that modern agriculture is ultimately a business whose success depends on productivity and competitiveness. We have a commitment to further the production of U.S. agriculture and move those products in trade once we're satisfied that they represent sound science. We have a responsibility to fight protectionism in all its forms, to continue to work for principled, open trade through discussion and negotiation. And we have an obligation to keep asking hard questions: how can the U.S. respond conscientiously -- as the most blessed nation of abundance in the world -- to the crisis of hunger? And how do we do this in a sustainable way, without stressing our land and destroying our resources?
Just last week, Secretary Glickman signed a statement of intent with Argentina to form a joint committee of high-level officials. We're pledging to work together -- quickly and fairly -- through trade difficulties ... like market access, food safety, research and technology.
This is an important step for the U.S. seed industry. U.S.-Argentine agricultural trade is at an all-time high, with U.S. sales led by planting seeds -- record-high this year -- and consumer-oriented agricultural goods.
From Argentina, the Secretary went to Chile. He stopped by the Pioneer seed farm and processing plant in Buin. Chile has been a progressive nation in biotechnology ... responsible, systematic and thorough. When I visited Chile in October, I told the Chileans how much we appreciate their efforts to get U.S. biotech corn seed approved. The Secretary did the same last week. We're hoping to get a green light for human food use there in the near future.
On the overall trade front, we're looking at the second largest year ever for farm exports, projected at $58.5 billion in '98. We're expecting gains in livestock, grains, and horticultural products. Nearly $9 billion worth of soybeans and products are heading to the European Union, China, Asia and Latin America. This reflects their versatility as a livestock feed and food ingredient, and the ability of our researchers to come up with that versatility in varieties and breeding lines.
This past year, planting seed exports were a record high, up 27 percent from the year before. Corn seed was number one, followed by soybeans, alfalfa, sweet corn, tomato, flower seed, and sorghum.
Since the early 1970s, exports of U.S. planting seeds have been averaging gains of more than 5 percent each year. Their value has literally doubled in just 10 years -- to over $800 million now. And in the past decade, that same export value has grown from 10 to 20 percent of total commercial seed sales. The increasing importance of planting seed exports results, in no small measure, from the partnership between ASTA and USDA. For four decades, ASTA has been a Foreign Market Development Cooperator. And the U.S. seed industry, through ASTA, has set the standard for participation in our market development programs by contributing at the high end -- $2.50 to $3.00 -- for every FAS program dollar.
That relationship, those years of development, are paying off. It's our job to make sure they continue to pay off.
GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOODS
Since the Farm Bill passed a year-and-a-half ago, Secretary Glickman and I have been hearing one question over and over from producers: with government moving out the back door of income support, who's coming in the front? Where do we go from here? Who's there to help us in the riskier, market-oriented agriculture of the 21st century?
The agriculture community looks to research and science to fill in where government and market stabilization left off. They see it as agriculture's new safety net. And rightly so.
For our part, now that we're out of the business of income support, we're freer to focus on the vital infrastructure that supports our export numbers and holds promise for global food security. Biotechnology is our greatest hope. It's like a stone skipped into a pond. The effects just keep on rippling out from the center. It dramatically increases crop yields. It uses less water and pesticides, offers greater nutritional value. And, in the process, there's less stress on fragile lands and forests. Food biotechnology is already making its presence felt. It's filling consumer demand with high-quality, good-tasting food products produced in ways that are environmentally sustainable. On the production side, about 15 percent of the 1997 soybean acreage was planted to herbicide-resistant soybeans from seed distributed by more than 70 companies. Twelve percent of all U.S. corn planted this year was genetically engineered for insect resistance.
The fact is that the U.S. has a tremendous lead on the rest of the world in biotechnology, and that includes agricultural technology. Single-gene traits, easiest to develop, are the first to market. The first engineered crops have single-gene traits that affect production -- like Bt corn that's toxic to some caterpillars.
The Chicago Tribune ran an article recently on one producer who was ecstatic over the results of his biotech planting.
"When I walked through the fields planted with Bt corn," he said, " I couldn't find one corn borer, not one. I plan to plant 60 percent of my corn crop in Bt corn next spring." Not only did the farmer's 80 acres of Bt corn come through without a single borer. They yielded 210 bushels per acre -- about 10 bushels more than his conventional corn.
Last spring, I had the chance to get a close look at the research behind numbers like these at the Plant Gene Expression Center in Albany, California. They're working there on ... * Genetic engineering of monocots -- corn ...
The "N" gene is the joint discovery of USDA scientists and the University of California at Berkeley, working side-by-side in a truly unique research partnership. It may impact Third World countries in ways we can't fully project. With its capacity to protect against disease without the use of costly agri-chemicals, it may benefit both their environment and their economics.
Partnerships like this stand behind American agriculture's lead in plant genetics.
USDA is committed to assuring the broadest application of plant genetic improvements to the U.S. farmer. We're committed to keeping the American seed industry ahead of the world in improved plant material. This may require release of germplasm. It may require a special partnership with private companies. It's precisely this ability to collaborate and participate in commercial development that gets our producers the quickest and broadest benefit ... and keeps American agriculture in the forefront of genetic advance.
Technology transfer is nothing new to USDA. But, like everything else, it's evolved over time. The tools used to transfer discoveries have changed. The terminology has changed ... intellectual property rights, patents, licenses, CRADAs (or Cooperative Research and Development Agreements), strategic partnerships, and commercialization are today's language.
But the goal hasn't changed -- to move ARS research results quickly to those who need them. And, by almost any standard, USDA historically has -- and still has -- the most effective technology transfer of any government agency.
Now we're working to refine those partnerships. We're looking to involve customers in research planning and technology application. This demands cooperation with extension, with producer organizations, Federal and State regulatory and action agencies, and customer advocacy groups.
A recent effort coordinated by ARS is a fine example. The Latin American Maize Project is a unique collaboration -- companies, universities, government scientists -- to broaden the genetic diversity of corn. This genetic material is valuable, and now it's been saved. We expect the development of specialty corns to boost the U.S. share of the export market and help maintain consistent quality for domestic users. Ultimately, it will figure in the success of the agricultural economy and let us adapt more easily to our export challenges.
THE U.S. GUARANTEE OF SOUND SCIENCE
Our challenges, as you know too well, are formidable.
Whenever I start to consider how far we've still got to go in public understanding of science, I think of a recent cartoon and just how far we've come.
A little boy, watching the news with his mother on Veterans Day, is confused by a story about the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. Puzzled, he turns to his mom and says, "Why don't they just check his DNA?"
When it comes to gaining global acceptance of the results of our science, nothing is that simple. But the U.S. position is that straightforward. The message President Clinton, Secretary Glickman and I have taken around the world is that sound science must be the ultimate arbiter of trade differences. Acceptance of this principle is the only way that nations committed on paper to a free and fair trading environment will demonstrate that they are committed in fact.
The critical test in international trade rules is a single question: what does sound science say? The U.S. takes this question very seriously. The answers we offer for all commodities are based on rigorous testing and uncompromised scientific review.
USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Environmental Protection Agency regulate the environmental risk of engineered crops. Before we permit engineered crops to be grown commercially, APHIS must approve them. We check any possible risks from the transfer of foreign genes or harmful genes to other species. It's often the case that engineered crops -- like soybeans and Bt cotton -- pose less risk to the environment than the technology they replace.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates food safety for crop products. The FDA has found no special safety hazard in food engineering. Transgenic foods may enter the U.S. without special labeling unless a new gene product is involved that causes a nutritional change or carries consumer risk -- like an allergen.
U.S. citizens, as a whole, have confidence in the safety of their food supply. They understand that we don't rush to judgment. They accept the effectiveness of our regulatory system to monitor the safety of transgenic products.
But the scenario is much different in some of our principal export markets. Although Bt corn and Roundup Ready soybeans were shipped to Europe last year, other new varieties are stuck in the EU pipeline.
Our frustration isn't necessarily with a lack of approval of biotech products. It's with the chronic uncertainty governing the EU's approval process. As Secretary Glickman has written to Agricultural Commissioner Franz Fischler, we feel this uncertainty threatens to disrupt commercial trade in agricultural commodities.
And we're opposed to mandatory labeling of genetically engineered products, as recommended by the European Commission.
The U.S. has serious questions about the specifics of the labeling and the testing that the EU is proposing. We feel that the special labeling of biotech foods is unnecessary and will mislead consumers. Labeling should be reserved for providing information to consumers on health and safety. The EU argues that it won't label for health and safety reasons, but to protect the consumer's right to know.
We're pleased that the EU appears to have backed away from a requirement to segregate biotech products. But we're watching carefully to make sure that the final outcome of the labeling policy isn't tantamount to segregation.
We're also making it abundantly clear that we'll fight protectionism in the guise of phony science barriers. We'll continue to press in international negotiations for science-based sanitary and phyto-sanitary trade regulations. We'll hold all countries to their commitments under the World Trade Organization. Internal politics and other unjustified trade disruptions are unacceptable. We hope to see biotechnology at the top of the agenda in the next round of WTO agricultural trade talks. This will be one of the most serious decisions we make for our world as we head into a new century.
We need to work hand-in-hand with you and with others in the industry -- growers, processors, and the trade -- to ensure that transgenic seed is approved by other countries on a timely basis. Otherwise, trade disruptions will be inevitable.
We in government are doing our best to gain foreign market acceptance of U.S. grain from transgenic seed. But our task will be made impossible if foreign approval processes are ignored, or seed is marketed without necessary consideration to the requirements of other countries. The integrity and comprehensiveness of our approval system for GMOs (genetically modified organisms) certainly provide a good basis to assure that products we approve will be approved elsewhere. But great care must be taken to ensure that trade is not halted simply because we've ignored this factor.
As I said, we need to continue to work together on this problem.
As we work to champion the cause of biotechnology, we must also do a better job of teamwork -- government and industry -- to educate the world's consumers. Much of the biotech debate hinges on fear. Lack of knowledge fans the flame of fear. We can do better.
Those nations steeped in uncertainty fail to see scientific advance as a much-needed continuum. We have little doubt that the debate will modify over time as the demand for food grows ... especially food produced in a way that attends to the environment. It's inevitable that countries failing to adopt the best technologies will falter.
So our mission is to pursue the course of science and to navigate short-term roadblocks with our sights fixed on the long-term benefits to our farmers, our industries, and our fragile environment. This is more than science, or dollars and cents. It's a matter of conviction that we are doing everything within our power to guarantee safety. From that point, it's a matter of conscience that we must use every safe tool at our disposal to feed a growing world. As former President Jimmy Carter has said, "Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is." It's a powerful mandate, and one that we take on -- with you -- with seriousness and great satisfaction. Thank you.