Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman says trade issues will be at the forefront as USDA begins to deliver on the priorities outlined by President Bush for agriculture.

In her first speech since assuming her new post in January, the secretary also said she believes it’s time for the agricultural community to consider new approaches to developing farm policy.

“We will pursue an aggressive trade policy that includes new trade negotiating authority, a new trade round in the WTO and completion of the Free Trade Area of the Americas,” she said, speaking at the annual USDA Outlook Conference in Arlington, Va.

Veneman said that when she left USDA after serving as deputy secretary in the first Bush administration, many of the issues that take center stage today were either just emerging or “were not even on the radar screen.

“We entered NAFTA, and in doing so became the largest free trade area in the world,” she noted. “We are now members of the WTO and have begun the unprecedented reforms of the Uruguay Round of the former General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the predecessor to the WTO.)”

After trade issues, she said the Bush administration’s agricultural priorities will include:

Working with Congress to provide a safety net for farmers that moves toward a more market-based economy.

Supporting research and development to find new solutions for issues related to food safety, the environment, biotechnology, energy and other new uses.

Advancing pro-agricultural tax policies and implementing common sense regulations based on sound science.

As if to emphasize the stronger role for trade, Veneman altered the traditional Outlook Conference opening session’s focus on economics to include major speeches by Mike Moore, director-general of the WTO and Ambassador Rita Derrick Hayes, deputy U.S. Trade Representative and Permanent Representative to the World Trade Organization.

Veneman said that the U.S. farm economy “reveals a story of optimism tempered by on-going weaknesses.”

She noted there were some encouraging signs in global commodity markets. “After record-high crop production in the late 1990’s, world supplies are coming into better balance with demand. World grain prices are coming down, which should help strengthen prices. And, livestock prices were much improved in 2000, aided by strong demand and slowing production.”

Other factors will continue to strain some parts of the farm economy, however. “Rising prices for fuel, electricity, natural gas and fertilizer are increasing farm production costs at a time when many commodity prices remain weak.”

Veneman said she is continuing to work to assemble “a talented and dedicated team” at USDA, but did not announce any appointments.