Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman says U.S. officials' “patience is wearing very thin” with the European Union's continued recalcitrance over the approval of imports of genetically engineered foods.

And while she declined to get specific, she said she and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick have decided the United States needs to take “strong action” to force the EU to restart the approval process for biotechnology applications.

“We have been going through this for over four years now as a government,” she said, responding to a question following her speech at USDA's 79th annual Agricultural Outlook Conference in Arlington, Va.

“Our patience is growing very thin on this issue. So I have had many discussions with Ambassador Zoellick. We are both of the position that we need to take very strong action, and we are working in the interagency process to determine what action that will be and what the timing will be.”

In her remarks, the secretary said USDA is stepping up its regulatory efforts to make sure that genetically engineered foods are thoroughly tested and that consumers have the safest products available.

“We are already seeing the benefits of crop biotechnology, and researchers are making incredible inroads into new uses for biotech crops and animals,” she said. “As scientists push back the frontiers of biotechnology, government regulators are greeted with enormous challenges.

“Failure to regulate effectively could undermine consumer confidence, cost farmers valuable markets — both domestic and export — and delay the enormous public and private benefits that can be reaped from applying biotechnology to food and nonfood uses.”

Veneman announced that she has formed an interagency team and directed the group to thoroughly review current regulations pertaining to all aspects of biotechnology, particularly those that may be required for new pharmaceutical and industrial crops.

“A top priority of the group is to strengthen coordination with the Food and Drug Administration and EPA to insure there are no gaps in the regulatory infrastructure,” the secretary said.

She also said later this year she is convening an international science and technology conference to bring agriculture, environment and science ministers together from around the world to discuss and showcase agriculture-related technologies. The conference will be held June 22-25 in Sacramento, Calif.

In another step aimed at guaranteeing the safety of the nation's food supply, the secretary said USDA has declared a “war on pathogens.”

“Competing successfully in the future also hinges on the safety of our food supply,” she said. “The president shares this belief, and for this reason, has proposed record funding for meat and poultry food safety programs as well as funding increases to strengthen agricultural protection systems.

She said USDA's food safety budget, if approved by the Congress, will reflect a 20 percent increase since this administration has been in office. “This is good progress, but food safety is also about science and utilizing that science to develop better policies and stronger systems to protect the food supply and consumers.”

In the new “war on pathogens,” to be headed by Food Safety Under Secretary Elsa Murano, “USDA is examining current policies, investing in new research and technology and more advanced training programs to insure our programs meet the challenges of the new century.”

The secretary said USDA will also be working to have more and better market-based risk management tools for producers, declaring that the foundation of the nation's risk management program today is crop insurance.

Following passage of the Agricultural Risk Protection Act of 2000, she said, USDA implemented program reforms that spurred participation. The result is that nearly 80 percent of eligible acreage is covered, compared with only 69 percent in 1998. Over 50 percent of the insured acreage is now insured at a 70 percent or higher level of coverage, compared with only 9 percent in 1998.

“Despite such progress, we need to strengthen our crop insurance program and improve risk management tools, generally,” she said. “Our goals are to insure widely available and effective risk management tools for our diverse farm sector, for farmers and stakeholders to be well-informed, that the delivery system is fair and effective, the programs are operated with integrity, and that we excel at service to the nation's producers.”

To achieve these objectives, she has asked USDA's Risk Management Agency to undertake a major initiative in 2003 to identify the underserved producers and closely examine the regions, commodities and risks and then prioritize the development of new products to fill the gaps identified.

Priorities of this initiative include: examining the need to serve the livestock industry, including forage and range coverage; addressing concerns with coverage in regions facing multiyear droughts; simplifying and improving the effectiveness of various insurance products; and reviewing various RMA authorities to insure the soundness of the delivery system and effective oversight of the insurance industry.

She also announced an effort to make crop insurance more affordable and encourage smaller and specialty crop producers in underserved states to try new insurance products. “RMA this week is making available up to $18 million to provide financial assistance in 15 states that have been historically underserved by the Federal Crop Insurance program,” she said.

The secretary also said that 2003 will be a critical year for advancing the U.S. trade agenda with WTO negotiations entering a critical phase while negotiations continue on creation of a Free Trade Area for the Americas (FTAA) and other bilateral agreements.

“Trade and trade agreements have brought significant benefits to U.S. agriculture,” she noted. “For example, U.S. exports to its NAFTA partners have grown 76 percent during the past 10 years, while exports to the rest of the world grew 12 percent.

“Competing in the 21st Century means above all that we must be prepared to address the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities in the ever-changing marketplace.” She said. “Our ability to take advantage of opportunities on a number of fronts will determine whether we reap the benefits of the 21st Century marketplace.”


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.