U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman: Remarks on Biotechnology and the FAO Codex (link)

June 8, 2004

Washington, 07 Jun 2004

Remarks by Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman to
The Advisory Committee on Biotechnology
Washington D.C. -- June 3, 2004

VENEMAN: As you know, David Hegwood [special counsel to the Secretary of Agriculture] has made a change in the Department. He will now be our person that's going to the FAO [U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization] in Rome, and we're very excited about that because as you know one of the most important activities under the FAO in addition to food aid and the world food program which we're very involved in is the CODEX [Codex Alimentarius Commission of the FAO and World Health Organization]. And David I think comes with a tremendous amount of knowledge and background in those issues. So I think he'll be a wonderful addition there.

We've seen some of the biotech issues in the headlines recently -- the recent approval of the corn variety in Europe, the first in many years. And then last week the FAO announcement that they were going to be really looking much more positively at biotechnology with regard to feeding hungry people.

And I think that may be coming partially out of some of the things that we've done with our international conference on ag[ricultural] science and technology which I'll talk a little bit about in a few minutes.

As we began to deal with some of the problems of biotech, whether it was first StarLink [maize] or it was Prodigene or it was the pigs that were used for transgenic research, all of these really pointed to the fact that we needed to really understand, better define the appropriate role of government regulatory systems to make sure that we didn't undermine the consumer confidence in our food supply.

And I kind of think some of these issues were wakeup calls for us to really examine all our systems and make sure we're doing the right thing. And so I would say we in the USDA have taken the lead in trying to bring the inter-agency process together to try to really determine what is it we need to do in terms of our regulatory responsibility given sort of the diverse nature of biotech that we're dealing with today.

When we first started talking about biotech back in the late '80s and early '90s it was, okay we're going to have biotech food, and we weren't talking about these crops, you know, like the StarLink that were going to be approved for one thing and not for another, so would they get into the food supply? And our regulatory structures really need to take into account as we create products that may be for pharmaceuticals and not for food, for industrial and not for food.

And so we've taken a pretty proactive stance in USDA to make sure that we can really understand how we need to regulate these things and to recognize that a one-size really doesn't fit all.

So we have taken several steps to build our regulations, enhance our permit systems for plant-made pharmaceuticals and industrials, we're increasing our inspections at the sites, we're training personnel on our rules and so those who are involved in field tests; we're creating a compliance and enforcement unit within APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] to really have much more of a compliant responsibility. We're creating an environmental and ecological analysis program.

In January we announced that APHIS will be preparing an EIS [environmental impact statement], evaluating its biotech reg[ulation]s and possible changes as it moves to update its regulations. And we're also looking to bring a broader perspective through the EIS process.

Given the growing scope and complexity of biotech, USDA has also recognized the need to have more safeguards and have greater transparency in the process.

So our goal is to ensure that all of those involved in field-testing of biotech crops understand and adhere to the regulations that APHIS has put forward. And we've heard this need echoed by those in the industry, the food and agriculture sectors, the nongovernmental organizations, private stakeholders, the public, and so we are taking action to get more information out there to make sure that we have a transparent system.

APHIS is also planning to take several steps over the coming weeks to bolster the transparency and the regulatory system while protecting the confidential business information.

We're also looking at our regulatory authorities to determine, are they the right ones? What do we need to do? Do we need to make changes? And so a vital part of all of these efforts is input from all of you because there is a lot of experience around this table, a lot of expertise in the kinds of issues we're dealing with.

And so I think that can be critical as we look to do the right thing, create the right regulatory structures as we move this technology forward.

Since I last visited with the committee last June, we did host this ministerial conference on science and technology. Now by way of background, this came out of the World Food Summit: Five Years Later, which was held in June of 2002. At that time I said in my remarks to that forum that we would host a major forum on science and technology to really look at how we can use science and technology to reach the goal of cutting the number of hungry people in the world by half by the year 2015. We are backsliding on that goal. We started out in 1996 with 800 million people defined in that category. It's now I think over 840 million. So we're going backwards rather than forwards.

One of the things that we thought could be done is to really help people understand how science and technology can impact particularly those areas of the world where the most hungry people are and where agriculture is also at a subsistence level, where so much of economic activity centers around agriculture as a means to allow people to have enough to eat.

So we hosted the ministerial conference in Sacramento last June. It really exceeded our expectations in terms of its success. We had over 1,000 participants. We had about 120 countries represented. We had 119 people at ministerial levels. These were ministers of Agriculture, of Science and Technology, of Environment, of Trade, Commerce, a whole range of people that participated; with speakers.

Norman Borlaug spoke and really, really made a powerful presentation that I think really hit home, particularly with the African countries. And he talked about the Green Revolution, which he's attributed as being the father of, and he said, specifically directed at the Africans, that: "You missed the Green Revolution, you cannot afford to miss the gene revolution." That was the central message of his comments.

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