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America's Farmer in Chief

(Wednesday, May 7, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- This article appeared in the January 2003 issue of California Journal.

Shortly before she left Washington last month to spend the Christmas break at her home in Modesto, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman spoke with California Journal Editor David Lesher. The discussion covered a range of topics important to California, starting with the recent announcement of an international Conference on Agriculture Science Technology to be held in Sacramento June 23-25. More than 180 nations have been invited. Veneman, who was raised on a California farm and served as the state's agriculture chief under former Governor Pete Wilson, also spoke about her recent experience with breast cancer, which she disclosed last September. And she provided brief updates about homeland security issues, the state of California farms and an ambitious U.S. trade proposal anl}ounced last summer that aims to reduce the global average for agricultural tariffs from 62 percent to about 15 percent, slightly more than the current U.S. level.

Q: What is the agriculture technology conference your department is planning to hold in Sacramento this June?

A: If you take a look at my speech ... from the World Food Summit [in Rome last June], one of the things that I - said there was that the U.S. would hold a major technology conference for [foreign] ministers of agriculture and science and technology to look at the promise of technology for agriculture, particularly, not exclusively, with a focus on and how we might assist the deveoping world with some of their needs. Things like new kinds of biotechnology crops that might help drought resistance, that could be an area. ... We plan to hold a trade show along with it. One of the reasons that my staff recommended that we choose Sacramento is the.. proximity to a lot of innovative agriculture, both through UC Davis and some of the technology companies that are doing work in that area [as well as] the diversity of agriculture in California

Q: And the goal or the ambition is to address global hunger? A: It is not the sole objective. It is to create a greater understanding of the role of technology in agriculture and the promise for some of these new technologies and how hey may impact agriculture. But there is a focus on the hungriest areas - how we can adapt new technologies to particular areas of the world where people are very hungry.

Q: Have there been conferences like this before? A: No, this is a brand new concept. ... So we're going to try to bring a lot of the developing countries into it. We are looking at it as a major initiative.

Q: What do you mean in terms of agriculture technology? Is that seeds and pesticide and fertilizer or is it machinery? A: It's technology in terms of everything from information technology - we are doing a lot with mapping and geographic information systems and satellite technology to biotechnology and new crops. [It's] the ability to address things like Vitamin A enriched rice. (That] is a biotechnology that could help the developing world. ... There are a lot of new technologies that allow you to look at genetic makeup and come up with better crop varieties the developing world that will help in certain areas. There is just so much technology that is impacting agriculture today. Another kind of technology... [involves] one of the biggest issues going to face agriculture globally [and] one that we've faced in California for a number of years - and that is water quantity. There are so many technologies on irrigation and water conservation and that kind of thing.

Q: Regarding homeland security, how will that issue and the new government department for homeland security affect the Department of Agriculture?

Q: Will this safety function remain under the Department of Agriculture or will it move to the new Homeland Security Department?

A: Part of our inspection force will move to the Department of Homeland Security. The part on the border. When these you [enter the country and] check your box on your customs card that asks, 'Do you have any plants or food that you are bringing in? The agriculture inspectors who talk to you if you do those are the people that are moving to the Department of Homeland Security from our department. But we will continue to have a very strong role in overseeing the integrity of the animal and plant health and food safety.

A: We've been very involved in homeland security. [In 2001], you could see what happened with foot and mouth - disease. Not long after we came into office you saw all of devastating pictures [of dead cattle] from England. And when you think about homeland security and possible threats to food and agriculture, one of the most serious concerns is something like foot and mouth disease, a very fast spreading disease that could be intentionally introduced into our livestock populations and potentially have a huge economic impact. Now foot and mouth is not a food safety issue per se. ... We're looking at all areas of the food system [and] what should farmers be watching for. A lot of farmers now, if you look at these big dairies we have in California, they're much more careful about who comes on their farms. ... Then on the processing side, you know many of these processing plants are using more in-plant cameras to look at what's going on, make sure nothing is going awry. But we've dealt with tampering in the food system, and we've dealt with food safety recalls and that kind of thing. I have confidence that throughout the food system, we are able to react pretty quickly. I don't see a huge widespread food safety introduction of some sort that we wouldn't catch pretty well in the system that we have.

Q: Regarding trade, last July you outlined an ambitious proposal to the World Trade Organization intended to level the playing field for world farmers. What's at stake for farmers, particularly in California?

A: Obviously, California grows a tremendous number of crops, many of which are dependent on the export market. More access means more markets and more marketing opportunities. A lot of this is getting more access to markets by lowering tariffs and reducing market barriers around the world. That's good for California. And California has a particular advantage in that it's so close to the Pacific Rim; it's sort of the gateway to the Pacific Rim and a lot ofthe very strong export markets. We are continuing to find both of our North American partners are very strong export markets for U.S. agricultural products. So I think Cali- of fornia is well positioned to take ad- vantage of new market opportunities abroad.

Q: There are some concerns, of course, about free trade being a "two a way street" in which some of the same crops grown in California could be pro duced cheaper else where. Are you confident that the open markets would be a gain for U.S. farmers?

A: The thing is, our market is already so open compared to many other"markets. The average tariff on food and agricultural products in the U.S. is about 12 percent. Around the world it is 62 percent. So if we can bring that average tariff around the world down, who is going to benefit? We are, from the access we are going to have around the world. Others already have a lot of access to this market because we have a relatively open market.

Q: Another concern is that major food producers now operating here will go overseas If they can find fewer regulations, cheaper labor and other cost savlngs

A: There is more of a globalization of the food companies. I've talked to people who are doing business in both California and Mexico, for example, or California and know, Latin America. And even though the labor may be a little cheaper, the infrastructure is so much less developed t hat the cost of producing and getting [the food] to market IS not that much different. ...I also know a lot of Californians. . . that are growing In Chile so they can have year-round product to satisfy the markets they've developed. ... So it's it's a complement to what's being done here.

Q: California farmers are facing a lot of pressure today from labor issues, land costs, water availability and other issues. How do you think they are doing?

A: Water availability is a tremendous issue and the cost the of water. But one of the things we are seeing in California as water and land become more expenslve, certain crops are going out of production and higher value crops are coming In. For example, you are seeing a huge Increase especially in Southern California, a huge increase in the nursery flowers. Very high value. There are more and more niche markets that are developing. There are ... small acreage farmers that are selling either directly to farmers markets or they're selling directly to restaurants. What you see is a real diversity of people looking at different opportunities and while some of the traditional agriculture may be making a shift, so is some of the niche marketing. People in California and agriculture are very innovative. Sometimes we tend to lump everyone together as one kind agriculture, and there are so many different kinds of agriculture in California.

Q: How is your health?

A: I'm doing pretty well. I went through all of my [radiation] treatments and I finished [Dec. 4]. And I mean, I've come through this reasonably well. I went through this with every expectation that it was just something I had to get through. I mean the radiation kind of brought me down little bit. I got kind of tired, but I never missed any work. Of course I haven't traveled because I was going every day. But it's kind of nice to be home for a while.

Q. What's next.

A: I have follow-up doctor appointments for them to see how I'm doing, but I'm pretty much done.