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WASHINGTON PERSPECTIVES
BALANCING BIOTECH
A little more than two years have passed since I addressed the National Press Club on the subject of biotechnology and agriculture. The speech raised more than a few eyebrows within the Clinton Administration. Some were afraid I would tilt too far in favor of the industry, while some feared the opposite. Most were worried that I would even address the issue and wanted me to water down even the modest initiatives I announced.

Although scientists and farmers had considerable experience with agricultural biotechnology, policy makers were just coming to grips with it and the political issues. One thing was certain: genetically modified organisms were a new, controversial issue. I knew if those in leadership positions were not willing to bring the difficult and sensitive issues surrounding this promising new technology into the open for thorough public debate, we risked damaging our ability to use GMOs.

The lessons of the European experience - many of which we are bearing the burden - were clear to me: without a transparent policy setting process in government that accounts for the views of opponents of GMOs, as well as their supporters, we in the U.S. can never build confidence in the soundness of our regulatory system; thus, we can never expect consumers to accept the new technology. For a variety of reasons, European consumers have never developed the level of confidence in their food protection regulatory systems that U.S. consumers have. That wariness and skepticism manifests itself in Europe’s aversion to GMOs.

I revamped a defunct USDA advisory committee on biotechnology, broadening it to include consumers, farmers, and bio-ethicists, not just GMO scientists and merchants. I asked for an independent review of USDA’s regulatory system - which USDA passed. USDA undertook the development of testing protocols for determining the GMO content of grain shipments, including the standards for making GMO-free claims systems that may ultimately help U.S. farmers and exporters reopen important overseas markets.

We have not fully resolved all of the public’s concerns about GMOs, especially overseas. The StarLink episode last year exposed some problems with our regulatory system, and brought to the forefront the lingering anxiety with technology. Some continue to push for more stringent, even stifling, regulations. But by and large, American consumers retain their confidence in the U.S. regulatory system. Indeed, there is broad consensus on and support for government performing those public safety functions we cannot do for ourselves.

In Europe, we see the opposite. The labeling and traceability rules the EU is seeking to impose turns the U.S. approach on its head. Instead of adopting a science-based system, the EU seems to be setting up a structure that requires every consumer to make fundamental food safety and integrity judgments for him or herself. In the process, the EU has gone far beyond a legitimate response to consumer curiosity and consumers’ right to know. The EU is on the verge of adopting an unscientific, backward-looking, and most likely WTO-illegal regulatory structure. Instead of bringing peace to this issue, this latest move threatens to escalate U.S.-EU trade tension, especially farm trade problems.

Which brings me to the farm bill. Recently, I focused almost exclusively on money and on arguments over spending levels, with little regard for underlying policy. The changing estimates of the federal budget threaten to undo many of the best-laid plans of some farm bill writers. Their hopes to keep their farm bill intact without subjecting it to major surgery to accommodate the new budget numbers will be all the more difficult if they cannot articulate a convincing policy rationale for the spending levels they are seeking.

So what’s the connection? Sunshine. We are allaying most concerns about GMOs, ensuring that we have them available for meeting the world’s food needs in the future by building a regulatory system that consumers have confidence in. If we cannot debate farm policy in the same way - thoroughly and addressing its national objectives, not just in amounts of money - we cannot expect to build public confidence in and support for those programs. AM


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