7-Misc: USDA Secretary's speech on GE politics
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TITLE: How Will Scientists, Farmers, And Consumers Learn to Love
Biotechnology And What Happens If They Don't?
SOURCE: USDA press release No. 0285.99, Washington
DATE: July 13, 1999
----------------- archive: http://www.gene.ch/ ------------------
Dear GENET-news readers,
this is the full text of the recent speech held by the US
Secretary of Agriculture about future GE politics. It is a rather
lengthy text but worthwhile to read because several paragraphs
can be interpreted in a way that (slight?) changes in the US
position on the use of GMOs in agriculture and food production
might be possible.
Remarks As Prepared for Delivery by Secretary of Agriculture Dan
Glickman before the National Press Club on New Crops, New
Century, New Challenges:
How Will Scientists, Farmers, And Consumers Learn to Love
Biotechnology And What Happens If They Don't?
Good afternoon. Thank you for coming.
Let's think about this hypothetical situation for a moment: Let's
suppose that today's salad was made with the new lettuce from
Press Club Farms, Inc. Farmers grow the new lettuce on fewer
acres because it yields more, and it's less expensive because it
does not require any fertilizers or pesticides and can be
harvested totally mechanically. In addition, it stays crisper
longer and keeps its fresh taste longer.
But, because this lettuce does not require as much labor, the
farmers have had to lay off hundreds of employees. While it does
not require any chemicals to flourish, this new lettuce does
affect the environment by making it difficult for other crops or
plants in close proximity to survive. And though it's cheaper to
begin with, it's only available from one company, which could
result in a considerable premium over regular lettuce seed. And
what's the secret to this hypothetical new lettuce? It's the
latest advance from biotechnology - produced with a gene from
kudzu, an invasive weed.
Sound far-fetched? It probably shouldn't: Remember the flavor
saver tomato? How many of you have heard of the so-called
terminator gene which can keep a plant from reproducing? Today,
nearly half the soybeans in the U.S. the stuff that is crushed
and made into salad and cooking oil and that feeds most of the
livestock we grow are produced from a variety that increases the
plant's resistance to certain pesticides. Genetically-engineered
corn with certain pest resistant characteristics is also rapidly
displacing more traditional varieties. And, it gets even more
interesting when you consider that researchers are looking at
genetically- modified mosquitoes that cannot carry malaria.
So, what do we think about this new lettuce? Are we concerned
about the environmental effects we still don't fully understand?
What about the farm workers who are now unemployed? Should one
company have a monopoly on it? And finally, are you concerned
about these issues and about how it is produced? Would you still
have eaten it if you knew about the kudzu gene? Should you have
been told? Would you buy it?
Folks, this is the tip of the biotechnology iceberg. There are
many more questions that haven't yet been thought of, much less
answered. But first of all, and if you come away with a dominant
point from my remarks, it is that I want you to know that
biotechnology has enormous potential.
Biotechnology is already transforming medicine as we know it.
Pharmaceuticals such as human insulin for diabetes, interferon
and other cancer medications, antibiotics and vaccines are all
products of genetic engineering. Just yesterday I read that
scientists at Virginia Polytechnic Institute will process drugs
from milk from genetically altered cows. One new drug has the
potential to save hemophiliacs from bleeding to death. Scientists
are also looking at bananas that may one day deliver vaccines to
children in developing countries.
Agricultural biotechnology has enormous potential to help combat
hunger. Genetically modified plants have the potential to resist
killer weeds that are, literally, starving people in Africa and
other parts of the developing world.
Biotechnology can help us solve some of the most vexing
environmental problems: It could reduce pesticide use, increase
yields, improve nutritional content, and use less water. We're
employing bioengineered fungi to remove ink from pulp in a more
environmentally sensitive manner.
But, as with any new technology, the road is not always smooth.
Right now, in some parts of the world there is great consumer
resistance and great cynicism toward biotechnology. In Europe
protesters have torn up test plots of biotechnology-derived crops
and some of the major food companies in Europe have stopped using
GMOs genetically-modified organisms in their products.
Yesterday's news was that the WTO affirmed our view that the EU
is unjustifiably blocking US ranchers from selling beef produced
with completely tested and safe growth hormones. Today we're
seeing that the G-8 agreed to a new review of food safety issues
and, having myself just come back from France a couple of weeks
ago, I can assure you that trade in GMOs is looming larger over
US-EU trade relations in all areas.
Now, more than ever, with these technologies in their relative
infancy, I think it's important that, as we encourage the
development of these new food production systems, we cannot
blindly embrace their benefits. We have to ensure public
confidence in general, consumer confidence in particular, and
assure farmers the knowledge that they will benefit.
The important question is not, do we accept the changes the
biotechnology revolution can bring, but are we willing to heed
the lessons of the past in helping us to harness this burgeoning
technology. The promise and potential are enormous, but so too
are the questions many of which are completely legitimate. Today,
on the threshold of this revolution, we have to grapple with and
satisfy those questions so we can in fact fulfill biotechnology's
To that end, today I am laying out 5 principles I believe should
guide us in our approach to biotechnology in the 21st century.
1. An Arm's Length Regulatory Process.
Government regulators must continue to stay an arm's length,
dispassionate distance from the companies developing and
promoting these products; and continue to protect public
health, safety and the environment.
2. Consumer Acceptance.
Consumer acceptance is fundamentally based on an arm's length
regulatory process. There may be a role for information
labeling, but fundamental questions to acceptance will depend
on sound regulation.
3. Fairness to Farmers.
Biotechnology has to result in greater, not fewer options for
farmers. The industry has to develop products that show real,
meaningful results for farmers, particularly small and medium
size family farmers.
4. Corporate Citizenship.
In addition to their desire for profit, biotechnology
companies must also understand and respect the role of the
arm's length regulator, the farmer, and the consumer.
5. Free and Open Trade.
We cannot let others hide behind unfounded, unwarranted
scientific claims to block commerce in agriculture.
Arm's Length Regulatory Process
When I was a school board member in Wichita, Kansas, one of my
tasks was to study the level of student participation in the
school lunch program. I quickly learned if the food didn't taste
or look good, no matter how nutritious it was, the kids wouldn't
With all that biotechnology has to offer, it is nothing if it's
not accepted. This boils down to a matter of trust trust in the
science behind the process, but particularly trust in the
regulatory process that ensures thorough review--including
complete and open public involvement. The process must stay at
arm's length from any entity that has a vested interest in the
By and large the American people have trust and confidence in the
food safety efforts of USDA, the FDA, EPA, CDC and others because
these agencies are competent and independent from the industries
they regulate, and are viewed as such, That kind of independence
and confidence will be required as we deal with biotechnology.
The US regulatory path for testing and commercializing
biotechnology products as they move from lab to field to
marketplace is over a decade old. We base decisions on rigorous
analysis and sound scientific principles. Three federal agencies
USDA, FDA, and EPA each play a role in determining the use of
biotechnology products in the United States: USDA evaluates
products for potential risk to other plants and animals. FDA
reviews biotechnology's effect on food safety. And the EPA
examines any products that can be classified as pesticides.
Right now, there are about 50 genetically altered plant varieties
approved by USDA. And so far, thanks to the hard work and
dedication of our scientists, the system is keeping pace. But, as
I said, the system is tried and tested, but not perfect and not
inviolate and should be improved where and when possible.
To meet the future demand of the thousands of products in the
pipeline will require even greater resources, and a more unified
approach and broader coordination.
When I chaired the US delegation to the World Food Conference in
Rome in 1996, I got pelted with genetically modified soybeans by
naked protesters. I began to realize the level of opposition and
distrust in parts of Europe to biotechnology for products
currently on the market or in the pipeline.
I believe that distrust is scientifically unfounded. It comes in
part from the lack of faith in the EU to assure the safety of
their food. They have no independent regulatory agencies like the
FDA, USDA or EPA. They've had many food scares in recent years-
mad-cow disease, and in just the last several weeks, dioxin
tainted chicken--that have contributed to a wariness of any food
that is not produced in a traditional manner notwithstanding what
the science says. Ironically they do not share that fear as it
relates to genetically modified pharmaceuticals.
But, GMO foods evoke in many circles a very volatile reaction.
And that has created a serious problem for the U.S. and other
countries as we try to sell our commodities in international
We need to make sure our regulatory system has the foresight to
begin addressing issues even before they arise. So to keep pace
with the accelerating growth of agricultural biotechnology, I am
taking several additional steps to ensure we are fully prepared
to meet the regulatory challenges of this new technology.
Today I'm announcing that I will be asking for an independent
scientific review of USDA's biotech approval process. The purpose
of this review will be to ensure that, as we are faced with
increasingly complex issues surrounding biotechnology, our
scientists have the best information and tools to ensure our
regulatory capabilities continue to evolve along with advances in
the new technology. And to address complex issues like
pharmaceutical producing plants or genetically modified livestock
we will need to consult the experts.
Two of the more significant challenges we face are grower and
consumer awareness, and improving monitoring on a long term
basis. We do not have evidence the heavily publicized Monarch
butterfly lab study appears to be happening in the field. But,
the resulting attention to the reports and ensuing debate
underscore the need to develop a comprehensive approach to
evaluating long-term and secondary effects of biotech products.
So, USDA will propose the establishment of regional centers
around the country to evaluate biotech products over a long
period of time and to provide information on an ongoing basis to
growers, consumers, researchers and regulators.
To strengthen biotechnology guidelines to ensure we can stay on
top of any unforeseen adverse effects after initial market
approval, I am requesting all developers of biotech products to
report any unexpected or potentially adverse effects to the
Department of Agriculture immediately upon discovery.
Finally, we need to ensure that our regulators just regulate and
only regulate. A few years ago, we created a food safety agency
separate and distinct from any and all marketing functions to
ensure that no commercial interests have even the appearance of
influence on our decisions regarding food safety. It needs to be
the same with biotechnology. The scientists who evaluate and
approve biotech products for the market must be free of any hint
of influence from trade support and other non-regulatory areas
We at USDA will undertake a review to reinforce the clear line
between our regulatory functions and those that promote and
support trade. This reaffirms our basic principle that we will
remain scrupulously rigid in maintaining an arm's length
However strong our regulatory process is, it is of no use if
consumer confidence is low and if consumers cannot identify a
direct benefit to them.
I have felt for some time that when biotechnology products from
agriculture hit the market with attributes that, let's say,
reduce cholesterol, increase disease resistance, lower pesticide
and herbicide use, and are truly recognized as products that
create more specific public benefits, consumer acceptance will
There's been a lot of discussion as to whether we should label
GMO products. There are clearly trade and domestic implications
to labeling to be considered in this regard.
The concept of labeling particular products for marketing
purposes is not a radical one. For example, USDA has already
decided that for a product to be certified as organic under our
pending organic agriculture rules, a GMO product would not
qualify. And that does not mean that USDA believes organic is
safer or better than non-organic all approved foods are safe it
just means that consumers are given this informed choice.
There clearly needs to be a strong public education effort to
show consumers the benefits of these products and why they are
safe. Not only will this be the responsibility of private
industry and government, but I think the media will play a vital
role. It's important that the media treat this subject
responsibly and not sensationalize or fan consumer fears. That's
what we're seeing happen in the EU and the outcome is fear, doubt
and outright opposition.
What we cannot do is take consumers for granted. I cannot stress
that enough. A sort of if-you-grow-it-they-will-come mentality. I
believe farmers and consumers will eventually come to see the
economic, environmental, and health benefits of biotechnology
products, particularly if the industry reaches out and becomes
more consumer accessible.
But, to build consumer confidence, it is just like it is with the
way we regulate our airlines, our banks and the safety of our
food supply consumers must have trust in the regulatory process.
That trust is built on openness. At USDA we have nothing to hide.
We work on behalf of the public interest. Understanding that will
go a long way to solving the budding controversy over labeling
and ensuring that consumers will have the ability to make
Fairness to Farmers
Like consumers, farmers need to have adequate choices made
available to them. But today, American agriculture is at a
crossroads. Farmers are currently facing extremely low commodity
prices and are rightfully asking what will agriculture look like
in the years to come and what will their roles be.
That also means they have more responsibility and more pressure.
And much of the pressure they face originates from sources beyond
their control. We are seeing social and economic trends that have
a powerful effect on how farmers do business. We are seeing
increased market concentration, a rise in contracting, rapidly
evolving technologies such as information power and precision
agriculture in addition to biotechnology. We are seeing different
marketing techniques such as organics, direct marketing, coops
and niche markets, and an expansion of non-agricultural
industrial uses for plants. We're all well aware of ethanol, but
scientists are coming up with agricultural products that are used
to produce everything from kitchen counters to motor oil to
One of my biggest concerns is what biotechnology has in store for
family farmers. Consolidation, industrialization and proprietary
research can create pitfalls for farmers. It threatens to make
them servants to bigger masters, rather than masters of their own
domains. In biotechnology, we're already seeing a heated argument
over who owns what. Companies are suing companies over patent
rights even as they merge. Farmers have been pitted against their
neighbors in efforts to protect corporate intellectual property
We need to ensure that biotechnology becomes a tool that results
in greater - not fewer - options for farmers. Should we let only
one company sell the lettuce seed?
For example, we're already hearing concerns from some farmers
that to get some of the more highly desirable non-GMO traits
developed over the years, they might have to buy biotechnology
seeds. For some, that's like buying the car of your dreams but
only if you get it in yellow. On the other hand, stress-tolerant
plants are in the pipeline which could expand agricultural
possibilities on marginal lands which could be a powerful benefit
to poor farmers.
The ability of farmers to compete on a level playing field with
adequate choices available to them and without undue influence or
impediments to fair competition must be preserved. As this
technology develops, we must achieve a balance between fairness
to farmers and corporate returns.
We need to examine all of our laws and policies to ensure that,
in the rush to bring biotech products to market, small and medium
family farmers are not simply plowed under. We will need to
integrate issues like privatization of genetic resources, patent
holders rights and public research to see if our approach is
helping or harming the public good and family farmers.
It is not the government who harnesses the power of the airwaves,
but it is the government who regulates it. That same principle
might come to apply to discoveries in nature as well. And that
debate is just getting started.
If the promises hold true, biotechnology will bring revolutionary
benefits to society. But that very promise means that industry
needs to be guided by a broader map and not just a compass
pointing toward the bottom line.
Product development to date has enabled those who oppose this
technology to claim that all the talk about feeding the world is
simply cover for corporate profit-making. To succeed in the long
term, industry needs to act with greater sensitivity and
In addition, private sector research should also include the
public interest, with partnerships and cooperation with non
governmental organizations here and in the developing world
ensuring that the fruits of this technology address the most
compelling needs like hunger and food security.
Biotechnology developers must keep farmers informed of the latest
trends, not just in research but in the marketplace as well.
Contracts with farmers need to be fair and not result in a system
that reduces farmers to mere serfs on the land or create an
atmosphere of mistrust among farmers or between farmers and
Companies need to continue to monitor products, after they've
gone to market, for potential danger to the environment and
maintain open and comprehensive disclosure of their findings.
We don't know what biotechnology has in store for us in the
future, good and bad, but if we stay on top of developments,
we're going to make sure that biotechnology serves society, not
the other way around.
These basic principles of good corporate citizenship really just
amount to good long-term business practices. As in every other
sector of the economy, we expect responsible corporate
citizenship and a fair return. For the American people, that is
the bottom line.
Free and Open Trade
The issues I have raised have profound consequences in world
trade. Right now, we are fighting the battles on ensuring access
to our products on many fronts. We are not alone in these battles
Canada, Australia, Mexico, many Latin American, African and Asian
nations, agree with us that sound science ought to establish
whether biotech products are safe and can move in international
These are not academic problems. For 1998 crops 44% of our
soybeans and 36% of our corn are produced from genetically
modified seeds. While only a few varieties of GMO products have
been approved for sale and use in Europe, many more have been put
on hold by a de facto European moratorium on new GMO products.
Two weeks ago I went to France and met with the French
Agriculture Minister at the request of the US ambassador there to
see if we can break this logjam which directly threatens US-EU
relations at a delicate time when we are commencing the next WTO
round in Seattle.
Quite frankly the food safety and regulatory regimes in Europe
are so split and divided among the different countries that I am
extremely concerned that failure to work out these biotech issues
in a sensible way could do deep damage to our next trade round
and effect both agricultural and non- agricultural issues. For
that reason, the French Minister's agreement to have a short-term
working group with USDA on biotech approval issues, and his
willingness to come to the US in the fall to further discuss the
situation, is encouraging.
To forestall a major US-EU trade conflict, both sides of the
Atlantic must tone down the rhetoric, roll up our sleeves and
work toward conflict resolution based on open trade, sound
science and consumer involvement. I think this can be done if the
will is there.
However, I should warn our friends across the Atlantic that, if
these issues cannot be resolved in this manner, we will
vigorously fight for our legitimate rights.
Finally, I've established a Secretary's Advisory Committee on
Agricultural Biotechnology - a cross-section of 25 individuals
from government, academia, production agriculture, agribusiness,
ethicists, environmental and consumer groups. The committee,
which will hold its first meeting in the fall, will provide me
with advice on a broad range of issues relating to agricultural
biotechnology and on maintaining a flexible policy that evolves
as biotechnology evolves.
Public policy must lead in this area and not merely react.
Industry and government cannot engage in hedging or double
talking as problems develop, which no doubt they will.
At the same time, science will march forward, and especially in
agriculture, that science can help to create a world where no one
needs to go hungry, where developing nations can become more food
self-sufficient and thereby become freer and more democratic,
where the environmental challenges and clean water, clean air,
global warming and climate change, must be met with sound and
modern science and that will involve biotechnological solutions.
Notwithstanding my concerns raised here today, I would caution
those who would be too cautious in pursuing the future. As
President Kennedy said, "We should not let our fears hold us back
from pursuing our hopes."
So let us continue to move forward thoughtfully with
biotechnology in agriculture but with a measured sense of what it
is and what it can be. We will then avoid relegating this
promising new technology to the pile of what-might-have-beens,
and instead realize its potential as one of the tools that will
help us feed the growing world population in a sustainable
-| Hartmut Meyer
-| The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
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