Embrace biotechnology with an eye on potential problems. That was the message U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman gave the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., July 14.
"As we encourage the development of these new food production systems, we cannot blindly embrace their benefits," he said. "We have to ensure consumer confidence and assure farmers they will benefit."
Five Principles/Advisory Committee
Glickman said five principles should guide biotechnology in the 21st century: (1) an arm's-length regulatory process, (2) consumer acceptance, (3) fairness to farmers, (4) corporate citizenship and (5) free and open trade.
Glickman set up a Secretary's Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology. The group is a cross-section of 25 people from government, academe, agriculture, agribusiness and environmental, ethics and consumer groups. It will begin meeting in the fall.
"The committee will provide advice on a broad range of issues on biotechnology and on maintaining a flexible policy as biotechnology evolves," he said. "Public policy must lead and not merely react. Industry and government cannot engage in hedging or double-talking as problems develop."
Soybean, Corn and Pharmaceuticals
Most of today's U.S. soybeans and a fast-rising part of the corn crop are genetically engineered, he said. And researchers are looking at genetically modified mosquitoes that can't carry malaria. But Glickman said we have only chipped the high-tech iceberg.
"Biotechnology is already transforming medicine," he said. "Pharmaceuticals such as human insulin for diabetes, interferon and other cancer medications, antibiotics and vaccines are all products of genetic engineering."
U.S. scientists are also looking at processing drugs from milk from genetically altered cows. Others are growing bananas that may one day deliver vaccines to children in developing countries.
USDA, FDA and EPA
Three federal agencies - The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency - each play a role in determining the use of biotechnology products in the United States.
USDA tests products for risk to other plants and animals and has already approved about 50 genetically altered plant varieties. FDA reviews biotechnology's effect on food safety. EPA examines pesticides.
To keep pace with fast-growing agricultural biotechnology, Glickman announced two new steps "to ensure we are fully prepared to meet the regulatory challenges."
Outside Review of Biotech Process
The first is to create an independent scientific review of USDA's biotech approval process. The idea is to make sure USDA scientists have the best information and tools to keep regulatory capabilities evolving at the same pace as new technology.
To address complex issues like pharmaceutical-producing plants or genetically modified livestock will require consulting experts, many of whom are outside USDA.
Farm biotech firms have two main concerns, said Paul Guillebeau, pesticide coordinator for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
One, Europe is a huge market for U.S. food products like soybeans. "If Europe refuses biotech soybeans, it will be tremendous blow to the industry," Guillebeau said.
And two, U.S. shoppers don't ignoreÿEuropean concerns. "Many are starting to wonder if we shouldn't be more concerned," he said.
Establishing Regional Centers
To address these issues and others, the second step in Glickman's plan is for USDA to propose establishing regional centers nationwide. These centers would evaluate biotech products long-term and provide ongoing information to growers, consumers, researchers and regulators.
Glickman said biotechnology is changing the way farmers do business. But social and economic trends, including increased market concentration, have a powerful effect on farming, too. So does a rise in contracting, as well as fast-evolving technologies such as information power and precision agriculture.
"We're seeing different marketing techniques such as organics, direct marketing, co-ops and niche markets," he said. "And nonfarm, industrial uses for plants are expanding."
Family farmers, he said, are among his biggest concerns. Biotechnology should lead to greater -- not fewer -- options for farmers.
"As this technology develops," he said, "we must reach a balance between fairness to farmers and corporate returns."
(Dan Glickman photograph courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture.)
(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)