USDA Press Release
"Good morning and welcome. Thank you for coming to Washington, and, more importantly thank you for serving on this committee, which I believe will play a significant role in the development of agriculture policy over the next decade. You are a very diverse group of individuals chosen from a select list of over 220 nominees from all walks of life.
"Agriculture biotechnology will have a tremendous impact not only on our food choices, but in the way we produce our food, on our natural resources, on trade policy and on other disciplines like medicine. So I wanted to tap a broad range of expertise. And I wanted a group of people who would look beyond the science and explore the effects of this new discipline wherever it might be felt.
"I want to take a moment to thank Chairman Dennis Eckart, my former colleague in the Congress, who has taken on a challenging task. Dennis has always impressed me with his intellect and his superb leadership skills. And, not only does he have extensive experience in an oversight capacity, but by purposely choosing someone who is not associated with any particular aspect of biotechnology, I found someone in Dennis who comes into this position without a preconceived agenda, and that was very important to me.
"You know, it was five years ago this week that I took this job. That was at a time when the Internet was in its infancy. Agriculture was entering a new transition period with the coming of a new farm bill that raised serious concern because of its lack of a strong farm safety net. And out in the fields, biotechnology was a distant blip on the horizon with only 3.6 million acres of transgenic crops.
"Five years later we are all dot-com conversant, the farm bill needs work and biotechnology has mushroomed to over 70 million acres planted in 1999. I am a strong believer in the potential for agricultural biotechnology. But over time I've also gained a greater appreciation for the need to address a lot of the concerns surrounding biotechnology. And, ironically, USDA has been in a leadership role in raising some of the questions.
"We as a society must sort through some very complex issues to make informed decisions about policy, programs and initiatives that are in the best interests of all involved consumers, farmers, processors, everyone in the food chain.
"This technology, and the resources that support its development, will affect almost every aspect of agriculture from seed producers to farmers, from shippers to processors, from manufacturers to consumers, and from research in Beltsville to research in Bangkok. There are substantial economic, structural and social issues that must be addressed in a comprehensive and timely manner.
"First and foremost, the Department needs to nurture and maintain a regulatory system that evolves with innovations in the technology. For us to continue as an effective regulator of this technology, I believe the Department must actively seek out the most up-to-date science to inform our decisions; that we must strive to develop new methods and approaches to confirm the soundness of our decisions; and we must continually place the Department's regulatory process under rigorous, independent and credible scientific review. I have decided to fulfill this particular goal by establishing a Standing Committee on Biotechnology, Food and Fiber Production, and the Environment at the National Academy of Sciences that is independent from our regulatory system. You will be hearing more about this Committee later today.
"We also need to ensure that our regulatory decisions remain accessible and understandable to the general public.
"A second area of concern for the Department pertains to our important role as a public research institution. My personal experience with the Technology Protection System, which many of you know as, "Terminator," serves as an example of how science, particularly publicly funded projects, can strike a discordant note with some communities and perhaps the public at large.
"Your thoughts and guidance on our role as a public research body and how we can be more inclusive and responsive to public needs will be of great value. Your thoughts on TPS, specifically, are of particular interest to me. You'll be hearing more about that later in the meeting.
"Additionally, consumer demands in the global marketplace are moving us toward a system where various niches need to be filled, and sometimes filled very quickly. Unfortunately, these shifts in the market are not readily transparent to the food chain, particularly to the most exposed link---the farmer. Key information which would result in a more efficient, informative and profitable market system for all of us, is lacking in many respects. Identifying these information needs and determining how this information should be gathered and made available in a timely and accessible manner is critical.
"As you know, this committee is an advisory committee for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, I do recognize that the committee may choose to discuss issues that will often cut across the purview of several government agencies. For this reason, I have asked several other agencies involved with agricultural biotechnology to attend these meetings as ex officio members with the expectation that they would be interested in your discussions. Ultimately I ask that you keep in mind that your recommendations need to be directed toward USDA.
"Also, while there are several scientists on this committee, I have intentionally structured it to focus on the socio-economic aspects of the technology and to assist the Department in making program and policy decisions. I recognize that around this table are some highly competent and respected scientists who may have divergent views about the adequacy of USDA's biotechnology regulatory system, particularly as it may pertain to our assessment of environmental risk. Over time my hope is that a working relationship will develop in which this committee identifies and prioritizes issues which I may send to the NAS Standing Committee for review.
"My priority for this committee is to place particular emphasis on the non-technical issues arising from the development of agricultural biotechnology. And, for these issues, this committee needs to have a discussion about appropriate USDA involvement. For example:
"How should USDA help farmers deal with changes in planning, agricultural
practices and new requirements that may be associated with new products?
"In general, I have asked each of you to be a member of this Committee to help the Department to ask the right questions about this technology---as these questions relate to the Department's mandates, authorities and programs---and to help us determine appropriate responses to support the responsible use of this technology, to support the development of a vibrant and diverse farm economy and, most importantly, to support the needs of society as a whole.
"Over the next few days, I hope you'll gain a general understanding of what the Department does and doesn't do with respect to agricultural biotechnology and, more importantly, that you'll also gain an understanding and appreciation for what each of you brings to the table to shape this debate.
"Also, on the second day of this meeting, the Department will be making some specific presentations to you that reflect either recent developments here or are issues that we would like to be a part of your short-term agenda for future meetings.
"One of the most obvious issues is the development of USDA's FY2002 budget, and whether this Committee wishes to provide any recommendations to me about areas that need emphasis, greater support, or, conversely, less support or emphasis.
"In closing, let me just say that I view biotechnology as one of the signature issues facing agriculture in the immediate future. By bringing together such a diverse group I hope to encourage the kind of civil and thoughtful discussion that the complexity of these issues demand -- a break from the shrill debate, where nobody listens to anybody.
"Your input and involvement will help determine whether we will be able to successfully harness this technology and others in a manner that contributes to sustainable agriculture, greater food security, improved nutrition, increased productivity and enhanced farm prosperity within the context of an independent and scientific regulatory regime.
"With your valuable help I hope that I, and the next Secretary of Agriculture, will be able to craft an effective policy that maximizes the best that agricultural biotechnology has to offer. Again, thank you for your commitment, for being here today, and for agreeing to be part of this journey.
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Last Updated on 4/1/00
By Rachel C. Benbrook