Resolved: That the United States should substantially change its federal agricultural policy.

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Source: Vital Speeches, Feb 15, 2000 v66 i9 p278.

Title: The Future Of Agriculture.(Edward T. Shonsey)(Transcript)

Full Text COPYRIGHT 2000 City News Publishing Company, Inc.


Address by EDWARD T. SHONSEY, President and CEO, Novartis Seeds, Inc.

Delivered to the Professional Developers of Iowa Annual Conference, Ames, Iowa, October 28, 1999

Good morning. It's my pleasure to come back "home" to Iowa this week. I've been on the road for the past week in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio doing something I like a lot: listening to farmers.

But this trip -- unlike others I've taken at harvest time has been a little different.

This time, in between listening to the farmers' ever-present concerns about prices, government policies, weather and the high cost of seed-coin, I'm hearing some things I've never heard before.

The farmers I talked to are deeply, profoundly and truly worried about the future of agriculture.

And that scares me.

Because I've always found farmers to be the most optimistic people in the world.

No matter whether they're planting corn by hand on a plot of land no bigger than this room in Indonesia or India.

Or harvesting thousands of acres with a monster combine that would fill this room.

Farmers get up every morning and believe in their hearts and souls that they're going to produce a crop to feed themselves or to help feed the world.

Sure, they're concerned with the weather and bugs and diseases, and they don't ever like the prices they pay or get, but deep down they just know that things are going to be OK.

They know that some years will be good -- and some not so good, but that -- in the end -- things will be more positive than negative.

That's what has kept farmers going for ages.

And that's what I used to hear from farmers.

This trip, I heard -- and saw -- something different.

A lot of the farmers I met were anything but optimistic. In fact, they were in a "fight or flee" mode.

They're confused. And scared. And angry.

And you know what bothers them the most?

It's not the government. Or the weather. Or even the seed companies.

What has farmers upset -- so upset their eternal optimism is in serious danger of becoming permanent pessimism is ignorance.

Ignorance. Ignorance on the part of a group of people, who, in the name of protecting the environment, have imperiled the near-term future of agricultural biotechnology.

Ignorance on the part of the developers of such products -- yes, that's me, my company and Pioneer and DEKALB and Mycogen and Asgrow and others -- who failed to understand the societal ramifications of the technology we've been promoting.

Ignorance on the part of a media which finds it easier to synthesize gloom and doom inaccuracies than analyze a complex truth with accuracy.

Ignorance on up the food chain from the farm -- grain processors, food manufacturers and grocers -- who find it easier to capitulate than educate.

Ignorance on the part of their government which they see as being more interested in trade war politics than their fight for survival.

Ignorance -- and, yes, arrogance -- on the part of the scientific community which has failed to adequately explain the safe outcomes of the scrutiny applied to agricultural biotech products from the human, animal, insect and plant perspectives.

The farmers I've been listening to are upset by the ignorance of a public whose interest in science and scientific methods and process grows less and less every year. And whose belief in sham science grows at a concomitant rate.

And, finally, they're upset with their own ignorance of the ways to explain, convince and get people to believe that all they're trying to do is keep up with the demands expected of them.

Farmers know what the rest of the world hasn't quite figured out yet. They're NOT just some bunch of quaint rural rubes wearing Oshkosh B'Gosh overalls, sucking on a straw while milking cute Jersey cows.

They're hard-working men and women whom we've charged with putting food on the tables of a world which, just this month, welcomed its six-billionth mouth to feed.

They -- more than any environmental group I am aware of -- are concerned, responsible stewards of the one thing we can't make more of in this world: land.

They're smart. They know that unless they can apply technology to their work -- just like you and I apply technology in our work they're not going to be able to keep up with the demands for their products.

Or the demands that come from increasing competition from their equally smart and hard-working colleagues around the world whose production costs and standards of living are considerably lower than theirs.

And they, more than most, understand the implications of the exciting and very real possibility of sustainable resources, crops produced on their farms, that can deliver more than just food for cows and humans through plant biology and biotechnology.

We each have our own unique perspective on biotechnology. I'll leave it to others to recap the evolution of biotechnology. It's a fascinating history dating back for centuries. In fact, scientists at the University of Minnesota have discovered DNA over 20 million years old and 50 years ago the hereditary secrets of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule were revealed. Hence biotechnology is really an evolution vs. revolution. And evolution by its very nature is a journey - a journey that most likely will not have an end.

Because of it we, and those farmers I described, will never look at the world the same again. This web of enabling technologies will change our health, our diets, our jobs and how we solve the complexities of life itself.

It has already changed our vocabularies and how we do business in agriculture. And almost everyday there's some new discovery.

So what do we do between now and the time when all our dreams and investments start producing products that will serve global markets.

The answer is twofold. First we must understand this thing called biotechnology and its true significance. Second we must defend this technology by maintaining and creating new markets by providing balanced information, and by insuring choice in selection of products to all involved.

Right now agricultural biotechnology is a collection of techniques and data. It is an extension of centuries of selective plant breeding with greater ease and precision. It's also about using soil organisms such as Bt which organic farmers and others have been using since it was first discovered in Japan in 1906.

It's about creating better products that meet specific needs and will do it faster than ever before. It's about letting us reproduce that which already exists in nature. It's about affecting every aspect of your and my life.

Medicines to eliminate diseases. One genetically engineered variety of rice, for example, has the potential to drastically change the lives of 400 million people who suffer from iron deficiency and malnutrition. This one example of agricultural biotechnology could, alone, prevent 40 million deaths each year -- eight million of them children.

Seed companies such as Novartis -- in conjunction with their pharmaceutical divisions -- are at work on genetic transformations in plants that would cause cancer cells to self-destruct.

Or which have the potential to boost the human immune system's ability to attack tumors.

And we can't forget the role of agricultural biotechnology in producing new fuels to power our cities and our vehicles. New fibers to clothe us. And new plastics that don't require limited natural resources to produce -- and which, themselves, are environmentally friendly.

And the farmers know that this new technology is -- contrary to the protestations of a vociferous vocal claque -- friendly to the environment.

One biotech product alone -- the Bt corn and cotton you may have heard about -- has resulted in 3.5 million pounds less pesticide being applied to America's crops and crop land last year alone.

Here's an amazing statistic I ran across recently: half of the world's population -- that's now more than three billion people -- have yet to make their first telephone call.

We live in a world of polar opposites.

Three billion people who've never made a phone call living in a world where we can use science to distinguish the huge genetic variability of each person and tailor-make cures for that individual's own unique situation.

Three billion people who've never made a phone call living in a world where one of the most serious medical epidemics is obesity.

Three billion people who've never made a phone call living in a world where not one more square inch of land has been added, in fact where countless acres of productive cropland are converted every year to roads, and parking lots and shopping malls and housing additions.

And three billion people who have never made a phone call living in a world where the faux protectors of the environment are more concerned about what might, conceivably, possibly and perhaps happen to one or two or three species of wild grass than they are about the billions of people who suffer from diseases and conditions which we are now able to -- or soon will be able to -- treat, if not cure, with science unheard of even as recently as five years ago such as eliminating salmonella.

Now pay close attention: DO NOT MISUNDERSTAND ME. I am as concerned about the environmental implications of agricultural biotechnology as anyone you know.

The farmers Ideal with every day of my life are just as concerned.

And I prefer to put my faith in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and in the more than 100 biotech regulatory approvals this new crop of genetically enhanced seeds has received around the world than in the "Chicken Little, The Sky Is Falling" protestations of a group of people -- no matter how well-intentioned -- who are so stupid as to have as one of their priorities the destruction of test plots -- here in Iowa and all over the world -- which reputable scientists use to prove the safety and efficacy of bio-engineered crops.

You are here today because you're interested in developing Iowa. And I'm delighted to be talking with you because I think that you can play a major role in what needs to be done to solve the biotech crisis.

And that is to defend the technology by providing balanced information and education.

Thomas Hoban, an associate professor and extension sociology specialist at North Carolina State University has said that those countries which have a basic understanding of plant biology are more accepting of biotechnology

That's why the acceptance level in the U.S. is at 75 percent; in Holland and Canada it's at 80 percent.

Hoban also says that acceptance comes down to four points:

Awareness and knowledge -- in other words, the elimination of ignorance.

Recognition of the benefits of new technology to society.

Confidence in government agencies and trust in information sources.

And oversight of the development of biotechnology by a third party.

In other words, the truth will set us free.

Defending biotechnology is also about creating new markets and choice to customers.

This state's future -- along with the rest of the Midwest, rests, I believe in enhancing the productivity of your farmers -- not destroying it and in creating new alliances and relationships in the 36 billion feed market and 400 billion food market. Additionally 25% of prescription medications are from a plant derivative. This will grow. This is your world leadership strength.

Yet 12,337 farms in Iowa account for 61 percent of this state's total sales. And 85 percent of the farmers in the U.S. believe they are unable to keep up with technology.

Governor Tom Vilsek is very much aware of the role of agriculture.

In September he announced his ten-year strategic plan and three points are especially relevant for agriculture:

How to keep young people in the state.

How to best utilize the land for the future of agriculture.

How to keep the heart beating on Iowa's main streets.

Later in the month, the Governor told Iowa's beef and pork producers that they've got to rethink the whole issue of exports. He challenged them to think beyond just "the traditional cuts of meat" and to sell knowledge versus the hog or cow itself.

As professional developers, you must be interested in these issues, as well.

And with that objective in mind, I'd like to share some examples my company is doing to change the current environment.

We can't do all the things that need to be done by ourselves and so every chance I get, I ask for help from organizations such as yours.

First of all, as an industry we need to hurry up the process of getting products to the market that are obviously beneficial to the consumer. We must also ensure that consumers always have a choice of selection.

We believe that the systems that result in the authorization of such products as genetically enhanced seeds must be overhauled especially in Europe.

We're carrying that message to our state and national legislators and we're doing our best in the countries of the European Union to get across the point that without a respected system of approvals, there will be no progress.

We -- and I hope you -- will continue to support third party oversight of the process of product introduction.

We want to expand the private/public partnerships we've developed in agriculture. Novartis, alone, has more than 50 collaborative ventures with major universities around the world. And we'd like to do more.

As an industry, we need to come to grips with the issues -- not just THE issue -- surrounding labeling genetically enhanced foods.

And perhaps most importantly, we must -- as an industry -- do a much better job of providing leadership and long-term commitment to both responsible science AND the education of opinion leaders and consumers about that science.

This state's future rests squarely on the success of agriculture. And the continued growth of agriculture for feed, food and health solutions.

The potential is enormous. The payoff is great for Iowa's farmers and all the businesses and industries which depend on agriculture for their success.

As individuals and as an organization, I would urge you to do the following things:

Support the teaching of science every chance you get. Ignorance is our worst enemy -- knowledge is our best ally.

You serve on boards of education -- or vote for people who do -- and that is where this battle will ultimately be fought and won. The scientifically literate minds of a knowledgeable public is the best source of new ideas and a critical review of critical hyperbole.

Work with those of us in agribusiness to present a united front to those who count the most: our citizens, their elected representatives and those who would try to obfuscate the issues with faux-science.

I personally welcome your input to the problems and the solutions alike and look forward to doing anything I can to help.

Question anything less than intelligent reporting of the issues. If you believe the whole story is not being told by your local, state and regional media -- let them know. At every opportunity urge that the members of the "fifth estate" be knowledgeable and scientifically literate if they plan to report about these complex issues.

Demand accountability from those who have a viewpoint different from mine and the ag-biotech industry. I wouldn't for a minute suggest that they're not entitled to their opinions, but they are not responsible if they can only resort to scare tactics based on untested and unproved science to promote their opinions.

Those farmers and businesses I've been meeting with can recapture their optimism if they know we're all behind them.

And we have to be behind them. There are six billion mouths to feed and more coming every day. People the world over want to live longer and better lives. They want a cleaner environment, and they want to preserve precious natural resources.

And that's what this science is all about.

And as for me, I'm still optimistic. I look to the future with the full confidence and knowledge that the only thing that is incurable is my passion for this business, this technology and the future of Iowa.

Thank you.

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