“The events of the past two weeks clearly have reminded us of the need to re-examine many of the things we long have taken for granted. The vital role of our food and agriculture system should be near the top of the list,” said USDA secretary Ann Veneman in testimony before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry on 26 September.

To that end, the USDA has outlined a new US food and agricultural policy and offered a new set of principles for trade, a farm safety net, system infrastructure, conservation and environment, rural communities, nutrition and food assistance, and program delivery.

The report says that past polices – designed for narrower purposes in an isolated economy – can no longer meet the needs of a rapidly expanding food and agricultural system. It adds that globalization of markets and cultures, advances in information, biological and other technologies, and fundamental changes in the workforce and family structure are the new forces driving US agriculture.

“Fundamental, far-reaching changes in policy, programs, procedures and institutions may be required to best prepare our farmers, ranchers and food industry as a whole for the new world marketplace,” said Veneman. “It is this broader vision that we want to encourage and support, and to help bring into focus in the months and years ahead.”

Agro-terrorism fear

In the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks, agro-terrorism has become a much greater security concern for the government regulators and industry officials scrambling to ensure the safety of the US food supply.

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“The threat is real,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. “We need to look at other potential threats out there” just as airline security is being reviewed, he added.

Some experts believe that terrorists would have an easier time targeting America’s food supply than releasing anthrax in a major city, since agro-terrorism is neither expensive nor technically difficult.

As part of the US security effort, Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisconsin, was cited as saying that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will seek 400 additional inspectors to protect the nation’s food supply from potential acts of terrorism – an increase of nearly 60%. The extra inspectors would be divided roughly as: 200 more for food inspection at points of entry to the U.S., 100 more for the FDA’s domestic food inspections and another 100 to go to FDA laboratories.

It is expected that agencies such as the FDA will ask for and receive additional enforcement authority for faster and broader adoption of electronic records for traceability in the food industry.

2001 Farm Bill down on priority list

Also as a result of the attacks, debate on the 2001 US Farm Bill has been pushed far down the priority list. Secretary Veneman has said that the Bush administration is uncertain whether there is enough money to finance the proposed US$171bn bill.

Senator Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, said it was irresponsible to even consider such a bill, which he said spent too much money on big grain and cotton farmers, undermined the American trade position and spent too much money in a time of war.

In addition, the USDA’s new long-term food and agricultural policy has made clear that, regardless of budget factors, the Bush administration does not intend to support continued rising subsidies for farmers, which it said distorted the farm economy.

The farm subsidy program pays some farmers not to plant crops on some land and artificially props up the prices of other crops. USDA’s new policy seeks to move away from direct payments to farmers, which would represent a dramatic change for many in farm communities.

Trans-fat labelling

In other news, the Bush administration is putting pressure on the FDA to speed up finalization of rules for stricter labelling of trans-fat content in foods. The rules, proposed in 1999, specify that food producers disclose on food labels how much trans-fat is in their product. Currently, consumers have no way of knowing how much of this type of fat they are eating.

The FDA estimates that revealing the trans-fat on labels would save between 2,000 and 5,600 lives a year, as people either chose healthier foods or manufacturers improve their recipes to leave out trans-fat.

FOE lobbies EPA over GE corn

Meanwhile, the environmental group Friends of the Earth is pushing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to postpone the registration renewals of biotech crops that, like Aventis’ StarLink corn, were genetically engineered with the use of bacterial toxins. This is the same group that exposed the presence of StarLink in taco shells a year ago.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, the group claimed that the agency had “no reasonable scientific basis” to permit human consumption of “any variety of corn or potatoes genetically engineered with bacterial toxins, derived from bacillus thuringiensis.”

The group also said some of the crops under consideration showed similar results to StarLink in the two key areas used to assess their impact on human health – digestibility and heat stability.

EPA will rule on the renewals by mid-October.

Check back next month for updates and new developments.

By Pam Ahlberg

Pam can be reached by email at: pahlberg@bellatlantic.net