With recent jobs reports revealing grim news about the United States job market, both political parties are feeling the pressure to come up with answers. Jobs and the economy will continue to be the paramount issue for this country, and will undoubtedly be the focus of the 2012 elections. As the philosophical divide between Democrats and Republicans continues to make finding a solution seem like a daunting and impossible task, it is important to remember the role the agriculture sector plays in our economic success.
Agriculture has always been the bedrock of our society. With our global population exploding in the coming decades, agriculture will continue to be of central importance in addressing our food, feed, fiber and fuel needs. Having spent the last year chairing the DuPont Advisory Committee on Agricultural Innovation & Productivity – a committee of experts in agriculture, policy, science, development, and economics – and analyzing issues around food security, it is apparent that agriculture is of vital importance to some of our largest global challenges. It will be critical to continue to use the best science and technology to innovate in the agriculture sector to ensure that we feed the world in the most productive and sustainable way possible.
Innovation in agriculture will offer assistance to these global challenges, and it offers promise to our country right now in the form of jobs and economic growth. A recent study by the Battelle Institute reported that the agriculture and the agricultural biosciences industry is currently valued at $125 billion and accounts for 2.4 million jobs. This sector is poised to grow and innovate to address issues in nutrition, health, energy and the environment, with the promise of creating more than 54,000 new jobs annually through 2015, according to a report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Purdue University. These numbers are remarkable given our current slump. However, the success of this industry depends on ongoing investment in science and technology, and on policies and regulatory systems that drive and enable innovation.
As is often the case, the industry is innovating faster than our regulatory systems are responding, particularly in the area of seed biotechnology. Unlike the pharmaceutical and crop protection industries, there is no current regulatory or legal structure in place to ensure that biotechnology traits, which are used to improve seeds, can be used by other companies when they go off-patent to develop newer and better seed technologies that can boost productivity for farmers. In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, generic drug companies are able to market a generic version of a drug when a patented drug expires, providing consumers with the choice of a less expensive option, and allowing the innovator company to continue to invest in research and development to discover new life-saving medicines for patients.
The first biotechnology trait is due to come off-patent in 2014, with others to follow. Without a regulatory structure in place to address the use of “generic” traits, companies that have traits with patents that are expiring will enjoy extended monopolies. That leaves innovators without a proper mechanism to use generic traits to create better seeds for farmers and delays innovation and agricultural improvements.
With a packed agenda in Washington and a focus on deficit reduction and job creation, it is difficult to see the value in addressing these issues today. However, maintaining robust competition and innovation in the agriculture industry is of great importance to our current economic puzzle. In 2010, exports accounted for more than a third of U.S. economic growth and helped prevent an economic recession this year. Because growth in developing countries is growing much faster than in the U.S., our economic success depends on selling our goods to these developing markets. Agriculture makes up a large part of our exports and will continue to do so as the global demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel continues to grow. Indeed, in 2012, agriculture sector exports are expected to reach $113 billion.
Agriculture is much older than this country. But the technology and science driving new innovations in agriculture are fairly new. We must ensure that public policy enables and maximizes innovation, and that we have strong, predictable regulatory systems to bring that innovation to the marketplace. That will ensure continued success in the sector by providing better tools for farmers, growing our agricultural exports and creating jobs, and helping to solve the looming challenges facing the world.
About the author: Tom Daschle works for the global law firm DLA Piper and is chair of the DuPont Advisory Committee on Agriculture Productivity and Innovation. The former lawmaker was elected to represent the state of South Dakota in the U.S House of Representatives in 1978 and served four terms. In 1986, the Aberdeen, South Dakota native was elected to the U.S. Senate, becoming minority leader in 1994 and also serving on the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. He served as U.S. Senate Majority Leader in 2001-2002.
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