WASHINGTON, Dec. 16, 2012 – Innovation and trade took center stage at the Business Horizon Series: Agriculture conference today, hosted at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Industry leaders, representing powerful agencies and organizations from John Deere and Monsanto to the Missouri Farm Bureau and USDA, argued that smartly-applied and cutting-edge biotechnology, coupled with a transparent and efficient trade regulation system, will create a path forward for American agriculture.

“There’s never been a more exciting time to be in agriculture, and never been a more important time to be in agriculture,” said Jerry Steiner, executive vice president for sustainability and corporate affairs at Monsanto.

The session’s first panel, “Fastest Growing Sectors,” focused on areas where agricultural production has improved by leaps and bounds. Jerry Roell, director of technology innovators John Deere Farmsight and John Deere Worksight, discussed his company’s work with GPS and sensors, while Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, expounded upon the great success of new drought-resistant seeds.

Scott Vitters, of Coca-Cola, was not there to speak on sugars – he represented the company’s PlantBottle Packaging operation, which makes recyclable plastic beverage bottles from plant materials. Vitters hopes that by 2020, 100% of the plastic resin PET will contain PlantBottle packaging material.

But these panelists’ companies also face challenges.

Roell discussed the difficult task of “finding the right quantities of folks” capable of performing the sophisticated research John Deere needs.

Hurst noted that while bioengineered seeds had great promise, “legislative hurdles that have to do with resistance to biotech” threatened their efficacy. “It’s a political problem we have,” he said, making motions toward the Proposition 37 battle in California this past election day, which put questions of genetically modified foods to a vote. “We have to make consumers part of the conversation.”

The second panel, “The World’s Basket,” focused on the similarly thorny problem of trade relations. “Agriculture has been the export engine in American agriculture,” Chuck Conner, president and executive office of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, argued. “[But] trade burdens are holding our exports back.” Conner cited “non-scientific phytosanitary barriers,” such as the ones imposed by the recently signed Russian PNTR agreement, as potentially devastating stumbling blocks for American agricultural exports.

Conner ultimately advocated for dramatic restructuring of the USDA to allow that agency more leeway in trade talks – and was kind enough to nominate his fellow panelist, Deputy Under Secretary of the Foreign Agriculture Service Darci Vetter, as its head.

Vetter, for her part, took pains to illustrate the great success of the American food system: “Consumers overseas think of ‘made in USA’ as quality and safety,” she said.  This country’s excellent handling of logistics – by finagling to allow barges to flow freely down the important Mississippi River waterway, for example – means that foreign consumers “know they will get quality expected in the time frame expected,” Vetter said.

Our policies have only worked to the extent that they have because they are smart and “transparent,” Vetter concluded. So while agricultural exporters sent 138.5 billion dollars worth of crops, livestock, and commodities overseas this year, they are expected to ship 145 billion in the next.


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