Interview With USDA Chief Glickman on the GE Controversy
Posted: Sunday, June 6, 1999

A biotech warrior stresses subtlety
By Bill Lambrecht
By Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau

* U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan
Glickman is a strong voice for
global use of genetically engineered
crops. Lately, he has adopted
a new approach: Don't force-feed the new
technology to wary
consumers.

In the global debate over genetically
modified food, U.S. Agriculture
Secretary Dan Glickman has been a warrior
on behalf of
biotechnology and U.S. interests.

Glickman trumpets the potential of
genetic engineering to help feed
the world. He says the United States will
be aggressive in pleading
to the World Trade Organization to force
European nations to
accept the American-bred technology.

In his global travels, Glickman has
carried the United States'
unyielding position that other countries
must accept the new
genetically modified crops being
developed by St. Louis-based
Monsanto Co. and its rivals.

But as foreign concerns mount, Glickman's
tone is shifting. In a
speech April 29 at Purdue University that
stunned the farm industry
and biotechnology critics alike,
Glickman, a former congressman
from Kansas, asserted that the United
States cannot force these
new genetically engineered food products
down consumers'
throats.

This summer, he will convene a
biotechnology advisory committee
to hear different views. It is part of a
widening debate that may be
reaching the United States after raging
in Europe for two years.

In the following interview with the
Post-Dispatch, conducted May
28 at his Washington office, Glickman
talked about concerns
abroad, his messages to others in the
administration to pay
attention to the global debate and his
views about what it will take
for genetically modified food to win
acceptance.

Q: Your Purdue speech a few weeks back
was viewed as a
watershed in your thinking on
biotechnology. Did you intend to
send a message?

A: I probably did want to send a message.
. . . I wasn't pulling
back from my own belief that
biotechnology is very important to
the future of human health and world
agriculture both. But I think I
was saying: This shouldn't be a
steamroller. You can't force-feed
GMOs [genetically modified organisms]
down people's throats.
There's a growing concern about what
people eat, what goes into
their mouths. We have to address those
concerns and we have to
allay fears. We have to build confidence.

Q: You just returned from Europe. Are you
concerned about the
barriers those countries are placing in
the path of genetically
modified food?

A: What I am seeing is that people are
asking questions. Just
because a product is out there, a certain
technology, doesn't mean
that people willingly accept it. There
are certainly more and more
questions being asked about
biotechnology, and those questions
must be answered. They can not be brushed
off. They must be
dealt with. Otherwise, what will happen
is that the consuming
public, both here and abroad, will begin
to believe that there are
problems with it. Or that people are
afraid to answer the questions.
Or that perhaps there's arrogance that
won't let the questions be
answered. All through human history,
progress has been made. You
can't stop progress. But you have to
recognize that concerns have
been raised and those concerns have to be
dealt with.

Q: Have we arrived at the point where the
turmoil in Europe over
biotechnology is having an impact on
Midwestern farmers?

A: There's no question that there is some
impact. ADM [Archer
Daniels Midland] and Staley have made
decisions on segregation [of
modified crops]. There are biotech
approval processes that have
slowed down. . . . As of today, it's not
having a monumental effect
yet because we're not a genetically
engineered-based production
agriculture yet. If trends continue to
move toward new varieties . .
. it will have a greater effect in the
future.

To be honest, I was hit with this at the
World Food Summit [in
Rome] three years ago [when naked
anti-biotech protesters
splattered Glickman with grain]. I came
back and I asked what the
hell is going on? Because at that point
in time, the word was that
this was the technology of the future.
This was the moral thing to
do. This was going to be the only way
we're going to be able to
feed the world. I thought, what is wrong
with these people?

I still believe that the technology will
produce an agriculture that
will be able to feed the world in a more
sustainable way. But it
doesn't mean that it's written on Mount
Sinai that there aren't
questions that have to be answered.
That's the era we are
entering into now.

Q: You also received a great deal of
public response about
proposed Department of Agriculture rules
that could have allowed
genetically engineered food to be labeled
as organic.

A: There was an absolute firestorm. We
received 270,000
responses. It was the most this
department has ever received on
any rule and maybe one of the most the
government has received
in modern history.

Q: What, beyond forcing the issues at the
World Trade
Organization, can the government and the
Department of
Agriculture do to persuade Europe to
accept genetically modified
food?

A: We need to make sure that our research
establishment deals
with all the components of the problems
in terms of making sure
that adequate research is being done. We
need to make sure we
are in the forefront of dealing with
issues of ownership, proprietary
rights, patent rights. . . . We need to,
of course, make sure that
we, along with other agencies, the EPA
and the FDA, [are] making
sure that health and safety concerns are
being met. . . .

I have made the comment that there are
many kinds of science.
There's physical science. There's
political science. There's also
social science. There are all sorts of
ways you have to deal with
people, and sometimes the physical
scientists only see their area.
And sometimes the social scientists only
see their area. We have
to blend all of these. Because,
ultimately, if the consumer doesn't
buy, the technology isn't worth a damn.

Q: I've heard that you have questioned
Monsanto's chief executive
officer, Robert Shapiro, about the
company's public relations
failures in Europe.

A: He's come in here before on a few
occasions, but I haven't been
specifically aware of what they're doing
in Europe. We've talked
generically about consumer support and
supermarket involvement
and building confidence.

Q: Did it trouble you being portrayed as
an unwavering booster of a
technology when you're the head of a
regulatory agency?

A: First, if that portrayal was accurate
-- I'm not sure it was -- it's
much less accurate now. Second of all,
that may have had a little
bit to do with where I wanted to turn
this train just slightly. I didn't
want us to appear that we were a booster
for any technology. It's
not just biotech. There are a lot of
other things out there. We
should be a department that helps
production agriculture and helps
farmers survive and not necessarily be
wedded to any technology.
I think that it's easier for us to ask
questions in some respects
than other agencies.

Look, we had this problem before. The
food safety part of this
department used to be in the same agency
as the export promotion
part. And then in 1994 reorganization, it
was pulled out. Now food
safety is its own missionary. They don't
promote anything --
except food safety. In order for this
technology to succeed, or any
technology, people have to perceive us as
[being] on the level,
objective and not in anybody's hip
pocket. . . .

You do things for a lot of reasons. One
of the reasons I made this
[Purdue] speech is to let people within
the Agriculture Department
know that we are not an advocate, as if
we were, an adjunct of
any one corporation or any one
enterprise. I did not want us to be
perceived as if we were part of the
agro-industrial complex, moving
with any particular product or
ideological objective. I thought we
needed to be more of an independent
force, helping farmers with
production agriculture.

Q: In your recent speeches, you also have
been talking about
consolidation of agriculture industries.
Are you suggesting here that
there are downsides that American farmers
ought to be aware of?

A: I'm suggesting that there are some
potential implications from
an ownership perspective that can be
dealt with. We face that in
terms of the "Terminator" gene [that
prevents farmers from saving
seeds from year-to-year]. How do you
properly compensate
[companies] who spend a fortune
developing a product? . . . These
are public policy questions that
ultimately Congress is going to
have to address, and maybe state
legislatures. I don't want to
prejudge the issue any more than that.
But farmers themselves
understand that people who invest a lot
of money in these
technologies have to be compensated for
them. But they [farmers]
don't want to give up all their rights
and all their power to someone
else.

Q: There seems to be an emerging debate
in the U.S. on
biotechnology, with various study panels,
like yours, and
foundations talking about financing
public awareness campaigns. Is
a debate like this healthy for the
technology?

A: There's no way to stop it. You're
going to have discussions
about these issues. We have an advantage
in this country because
by and large, people believe that the
FDA, the Department of
Agriculture and the EPA are on the level.
That we are not in
anybody's hip pocket. That we try to
represent the public interest.
As long as we keep that focus, I think
people in this country will
have confidence that there will not be
products unless they are
safe. It doesn't mean there won't be
genuine public debate about
the implications of the technology.

About a month ago, I went to the
University of Michigan and spoke
at the graduation. There were a few
protesters out there,
protesting this. I thought to myself,
there hasn't been a lot of
protesting in America the last several
years. One sign said, "Buy
your food in Europe; it's safer there."
One of the student speakers
spoke about this issue in what I call a
classically student, idealistic
way. It amused me because I went to the
University of Michigan in
the Sixties, where the Students for a
Democratic Society began. It
kind of brought me home to this kind of a
thing. The truth is, a
healthy skepticism produces a better
product. A safer product. And
one that consumers will be much more
accepting of.

Q: You seem to be ahead of others in the
administration on some
of these issues.

A: I may have stepped out a little bit in
the [Purdue] speech to the
extent that we have taken a pretty clear
and decisive position in
the international arena on biotech and
GMOs. I don't argue with
that; I don't think there are any
products out there that aren't
safe. But I probably did step out by
saying we need to ask more
questions as this technology develops.
And I think our trade
negotiators and others may have not
gotten to that point yet. . . .

I worry a little bit about a know-nothing
mentality that is
developing in the world, an irrational,
anti-science-based thinking. .
. . That's another reason that it's
important for us to do our jobs
appropriately on good science so we don't
give people a reason to
believe that we're in lock-step with
industry.

Q: I also hear you saying that you remain
a strong supporter of
biotechnology.

A: I do believe that progress will
continue, that work on
biotechnology will continue, that there
will be pitfalls and problems
along the way, but ultimately a great
deal of progress in American
agriculture will be based on these
technologies. I do also think that
consumers will begin to come along more
once they see that they
benefit.

Right now, you see that in medicine --
they see that they benefit.
You get genetically engineered insulin or
you get cancer drugs. To
date, I'm not sure that they see that
they're benefiting from
[biotechnology]. But they think the
companies are benefiting from
it. They'll [consumers] benefit from it
once they see there are
positive things to the environment that
are happening; using less
water, less intensive use of the natural
resources. They may
benefit from products that are better for
them, tastier for them . .
. do all sorts of things that will
actually help their lives. To date,
the technology has not actually reached
that point where they see
it's actually benefiting them.

Glickman on losses suffered by farmers in
Missouri and
Ilinois:Farmers in Missouri, Illinois and
throughout the Midwest are
suffering severe losses as commodity
prices sink to record lows.
Farm income in Missouri fell 18 percent
last year, and experts have
predicted further losses this year.

In his interview with the Post-Dispatch,
U.S. Agriculture Secretary
Dan Glickman addressed this problem:

Q: What can you tell farmers in Missouri
and the Midwest who are
worried about these unremittingly
depressed prices they get for
their crops? Is their any relief on the
way?

A. I would say that for the next year,
prices will continue to be
rather weak; a little stronger in cattle,
but row-crop prices are not
looking great. This is the highest year
on record in terms of direct
payments to farmers by the government -
$15.3 billion we expect
to pay out ....

I don't think the 1996 Farm Bill is
adequate in dealing with periods
of big surpluses and low demand. I think
Congress is probably going
to have to respond with some additional
assistance package this
year. Each of the last three years was
world record grain
production. You take that coupled with
fairly weak demand and
....it's just a prescription for low
prices....There is certainly going
to be no miracle in the short term.

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