Benefits of Biotechnology

Jose W. Fernandez
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs
BIO International Conference
Chicago, IL
May 3, 2010

Thank you for inviting me to the BIO conference. The role of biotech innovation in addressing climate change comes at an opportune moment because innovation in biotech offers the potential to mitigate climate change and adapt to life in a world that is warming.

We spend a lot of time talking about energy policy in the context of climate change and yet the mitigation potential of agriculture and forestry appears to be greater than the potential of the energy and transportation sectors combined. In fact, 32% of global green house gas emissions can be attributed to agriculture and forestry. With this in mind, I’m going to focus my remarks on the State Department’s work on biotechnology in the context of agriculture.

The numbers are stark. Our world is getting more and more crowded with each passing day. Global food demand will double between now and 2050 as the world’s population grows from 6.7 to 9.2 billion people. At the same time, the world is getting warmer. The effects of climate change are estimated to reduce agricultural productivity by 27% by 2050.

And so we face a daunting challenge: we must grow more food to feed the world but we have to do so in a way that both adapts to and mitigates climate change.

Unfortunately, there are only two ways to increase food production. We can either expand the area of land under cultivation or produce more on the land we have. Expanding the land under production means cutting down forests—not an environmentally responsible option. And so our only viable, sustainable choice is to produce more with less.

Yes, this is a difficult task, but innovators like many of you in this room have managed to overcome challenges of this scale before. In the sixties and seventies, Norman Borlaug sparked the green revolution with the development of dwarf wheat, which allowed nations like India to become self-sufficient in food production just when they were on the verge of famine.

Dr. Roger Beachy has done a tremendous job of identifying the countless ways agricultural biotechnology is moving us toward a second green revolution—one that can provide benefits to farmers, consumers, and the environment.

And yet, despite these obvious benefits, barriers remain to the adoption of biotechnology in many countries and, as a consequence, to valuable U.S. exports. For example, on March 1 of this year, the government of Turkey imposed new restrictions on biotech products that effectively banned hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. agriculture exports overnight.

The government of India recently blocked marketing approval of a type of biotech eggplant that could have reduced pesticide use by smallholder farmers—the development of this product was funded by the U.S. and Indian governments and was part of a public–private partnership intended to increase farmer incomes.

The State Department is working with bio member companies and foreign governments to overcome these obstacles. There is, however, more to be done which is why I am proposing, and my bureau is already adopting, a strategy with four action plans: first highlighting the science, second confronting our critics, third building alliances, and fourth anticipating road blocks. Let me talk briefly about each of these prongs in our strategy.

First, we have to emphasize the science. Both the Royal Society of Medicine in the United Kingdom and the U.S. National Academies of Sciences have noted that GM foods have been eaten without any reports of ill effects by millions of people for over 15 years. But we’ve talked about safety for a while now and it hasn’t always been well received. This is why we must go further—use scientific facts to connect ag biotech to development, food security, health, and the environment. A recent World Health Organization study found that ag biotech offers not only increased agricultural productivity but also improved quality and nutritional which contribute directly to enhancing human health and development. It’s critical that our international trading partners have access to the best available scientific information on which to base their decisions.

In the past we’ve focused more on the benefits to farmers and argued the safety of these products to government officials. Now, more than ever, we must engage a larger audience—not just farmers but consumers as well. Farmers are willing to pay for new technologies—such as crops that require reduced or no tillage or less spraying with insecticides—because these tools reduce their costs and increase incomes. These cost-savings, when passed along, also benefit consumers. At the same time, more efficient crops are beneficial for the environment. As we go forward, we need to make these points clear.

Second, we must answer our critics. Arguing the science is only one part of this, but we need to make clear to consumers—particularly those in developing countries—that the introduction of genetically modified crops will not leave them dependent on seed companies. There is a technology available suitably called the “terminator technology” which is designed to genetically switch off a plant’s ability to germinate a second time. Critics in India vehemently argued that pest-resistant cotton under evaluation on test plots throughout the country contained this terminator technology. Entire plots were actually burned by agitated farmers in two different Indian states. The fact that the ‘terminator’ gene was not in the test plants—and in fact, has never been used—was not widely publicized. What this tells us is that the U.S., foreign governments, and private industry have to collectively engage our critics to prevent the proliferation of incorrect myths. This is one place where we must work together, which leads me to my third point.

That is, we must develop alliances. Building technical capacity is critical but not sufficient. We must build relationships with foreign leaders, regulators, and consumers so that they invest in and adopt ag biotech.

We are doing some of this relationship building already. For example, the State Department, working with other U.S. government agencies, is partnering with Brazil to develop science-based regulations for biotechnology products in Mozambique. This joint venture builds on our bilateral relationships with Brazil and Mozambique to advance a common interest—food security in a warming world.

Another good example is the global research alliance on agricultural climate mitigation and adaptation—led by USDA—which is a great example of the kind of project that will help create new technologies and, equally important, build relationships between scientists around the world. The U.S. has committed $90 million for farm-emissions research to advance the global research alliance concept. Information generated by the global research alliance will be shared across borders to accelerate the pace of discovery as well as the dissemination of the outcomes of that research.

We also need to work through international organizations to build relationships among regulators. One of these is the Codex Alimentarius Commission—a joint food and agricultural organization and world health organization body—that sets international standards for food safety. Their work is critical to our discussion today. By harmonizing standards and establishing internationally accepted guidelines on the assessment of food safety for biotech products, Codex allows consumers in all countries to have confidence in the decisions of regulators. Codex meetings also allow regulators from different countries to meet and build relationships.

The State Department already works closely with countries like Canada, Mexico, Argentina, and the Philippines on biotech policy in international fora. We see opportunities for greater collaboration in places like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation’s high level policy dialogue on agricultural biotechnology, as well as bilaterally in places like Brazil, China, and India. These types of engagements afford opportunities to collaborate on defining standards such as premarket assessments of new ag biotech products.

Fourth, we need to anticipate road blocks. Responding to the crisis of the moment is certainly necessary; however, changing decisions that have already been made is difficult and sometimes impossible. Therefore it is imperative that we work with other countries before problems arise. This is an ongoing challenge to which the State Department—and the U.S. government as a whole—is committed. Since 2002, state has conducted outreach programs which have been instrumental in shaping policies that impact billions of dollars of U.S. ag exports. We have reduced barriers to biotech grain trade in China, stopped piracy of biotech soybeans in Brazil, and have facilitated the commercialization of biotech maize in the Philippines and Egypt.

Our embassies and missions abroad do a wonderful job connecting us to the world so that we can foresee obstacles. However, to get a complete picture we also need to hear from businesses, such as bio member companies, on what they believe will be future problems and work together to find solutions.

In closing, let me reiterate that we need to use every tool in our arsenal to address the challenges we face today with food security and climate change. This means taking advantage of one of the most powerful tools available—agricultural biotechnology. In order to get buy-in from other nations we need to continue to publicize scientific facts that highlight the safety and benefits of ag biotech; address the naysayers; build relationships between governments, regulators, businesses, and consumers; and, most important, predict and avoid roadblocks. With this approach I am confident we can move forward and share the benefits of biotechnology broadly so that the work done by Dr. Beachy and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and bio member companies does not end up on the shelf somewhere for lack of a ready market but instead contributes to a strong economy and healthier planet where hunger is a distant memory.

Thank you.