Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. European Media Hub in Brussels. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from around the world and thank all of you for joining this discussion.
Today we are very pleased to be joined in Brussels by Ted McKinney, Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Under Secretary McKinney will discuss the importance of agriculture for U.S.-EU trade relations. He is on a three-stop trip in Europe which includes Rome, Brussels, and Geneva.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Under Secretary McKinney and then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many as we can in the time that we have. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.
With that, I will turn it over to Under Secretary McKinney.
U/S McKinney: Good morning, good afternoon, wherever you might be. This is Ted McKinney, Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
I’ll just give a few minutes of opening remarks and then happily answer your questions. And I’ll take this chronologically.
The first part of the visit is now complete. That was in Rome for the UN Food and Ag organization meeting. Notable there was the election of a new DG, a gentleman who I have known for some time. And then there were other areas of business and other visits going on.
With respect to FAO I’ll just remind people that we in the United States, I believe others too, believe it to be very, very critical. It’s mission is still sound, it’s still appropriate, and that is to address hunger around the world. We believe in part it’s doing it, but we think there needs to be some adjustments there where there needs to be additional focus on the use of or the options of using technology to address global hunger. But it was a great meeting. We elected the new DG and we go forward from now.
Visits also were held with the World Food Program which in my view is doing a marvelous job in both fundraising and then turning those funds into food that are provided for needy people, not the least being the war-torn areas of the world. And then IFAD which is a very valuable financial institution that provides smaller loans in that 30 to 40 million area for developing parts of the world, whether it’s for water projects, new technologies and the like. So I’d say those were three of the primary visits in Rome.
Here in Brussels now for a few days, and making the rounds. There’s the Brussels Forum, very prominent forum here in Brussels that we’ve already participated in a bit. Yet to go on that some. Some visits with some of the members of Parliament. An interesting time here as elections are going on for leadership positions in the Parliament and then eventually in the Commission. So we’ve had some very, very good meetings with various levels and types of government, the private sector here in Europe and beyond. So we’re looking forward to continue that through Friday.
Then I’ll conclude later next week when the Codex Alimentarius Commission has its meeting in Geneva. I suspect you all know Codex, but let me just give my commentary. I think Codex might just be one of the finest creations that the global governments have created. It is the standard-setting body whereby scientific rigor is applied to various products of all kinds. Of all kinds in agriculture and food, allowing for countries around the world to be able to use what eventually becomes a maximum residue level or a safe residue level whether it’s a food additive, a veterinary drug, whatever the case might be. So we have a very important Codex annual meeting coming up next week.
So there you go.
Just in some commentary, I would say that it’s appropriate to be here at this time. The EU and the U.S. are major trading partners. From the U.S. to Europe, it is our U.S.’ number three, sometimes number four, it kind of varies, three-four trading partner on a variety of products. I don’t think I have to tell you that many of our ancestors come from Europe, so people can trace their heritage back here. That’s very important to me. I’m a genealogy buff, so there’s that. But it’s also a time where I think both sides are being tested perhaps even a great deal on how they approach food and food systems, safety or perceived safety of those. So that’s why being here, it’s very important so we can try to break down barriers, reach understanding, and the like. So I would say that that is one of the important things in many of these discussions.
I’ll just stop there and leave it to other questions that you might have, if you’d like to delve into some of those. So Kathy, I think I’m ready to take questions if they’re ready.
Moderator: All right, terrific. We thank you for those remarks.
We’ll now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. I’ll ask a question as the moderator to get things started.
You talked a little bit about the U.S.-EU agriculture relationship. Can you talk about areas of collaboration on agricultural issues such as sustainability or global food security?
U/S McKinney: Sure, I’ll start with a couple, and I’ll start with Codex. Though there are differences in how we approach some of these standards, there are areas we work a great deal together on, and those include some of those standards. So that is one.
I think in the spirit of sustainability and climate change and all those, I believe that we both have the same goals, different approaches.
For example, I was reviewing a lot of the research from the U.S. and pleased to see that there is continued rapid growth in terms of adopting more and more sustainable practices on U.S. farms. A bit like the one that my brother and sister-in-law, mom and dad farm. The use of cover crops, usually planted in the fall after a harvest, are growing very significantly. The use of inputs continues to go down, and I mean inputs of all types. Not just fertilizers and pesticides, but other inputs like fuel costs and the like. The reason for this is because of the continued adoption of no or minimum tillage. No till is the goal.
For those that do not know, when you till the soil, you release greenhouse gases. This is not something that we want. When you minimize or reduce or eliminate the use of tillage, you’re doing a great deal to save and enhance carbon sequestration. And in fact the U.S. is significantly less in its use of inputs to produce a unit of grain, in our case it’s bushels and here in Europe it would be different, significantly less inputs. And we’re very proud of that.
We don’t keep score on that. We’re doing it because it’s a good business practice where you’re saving money, you’re saving time and the like. I know that’s an important scorecard for many who might be on the phone here so I offer it up.
So there’s all those kinds of things.
Then there’s just the spirit of being democracies. We work together on so many things, so I think there’s a lot that binds us together and that’s why we’re here trying to address differences and work through those as best we can.
Moderator: Thank you very much.
Our next question will come to us from Andrea Shalal who is with Reuters.
Question: Hi, Under Secretary McKinney. Thanks for doing this call.
I am wondering if you can say a word or two about the efforts by the WTO to come to some ruling on fisheries and fishing. I don’t know if you can help with that, but it looks like they’ve got a deadline now in December to come to an agreement. I’m wondering if you can give us some kind of an update on that.
Then I also wanted to ask you to elaborate on your comments about wanting to see greater use of technology to combat, to address global hunger. Can you elaborate on that? Are you talking about remote sensing, imagery, use of big data analytics? Are there specific technologies that you’re looking at? Thanks.
U/S McKinney: I’m happy to speak generally about WTO. I’m not nearly as close to the business of fishing and fisheries, so let me take part A of that and then I’ll get to your other question.
First of all, it is clear that WTO needs to be modernized, and I perhaps should have mentioned that is an area where I believe the EU and the U.S. are working much more closely together than not. WTO was created years and years, even decades ago, and we do need a rules-based system. We have seen both the joys and the difficulties of a rules-based system that perhaps hasn’t kept up with some of the new additions to the WTO, the types of production, the new technologies, all those things. So I for one am a big fan of what in the U.S. is led by USTR; in other parts of the world led by other agencies. But I do believe we must, we must move forward hopefully at a very rapid speed to modernize WTO so it meets modern day food ag and other trade dimensions.
I’m sorry I can’t speak to the fish and fisheries, but I will look it up if we need to try to get back to you on that.
Your second question, I’m happy to address. Notwithstanding the many, many good things that FAO does do, and they are many, we are concerned. Not just the U.S., but much of the developed world. The technology seems to be waning or even absent as part of the solution to bring countries and people out of hunger.
You asked about some specifics. I think it’s all of the above. Now let me be clear. We can’t expect very poor nations that can’t afford all the modern technologies that we might enjoy in the U.S. or in Europe to race pell-mell and use them immediately. We just can’t do that. But nor is zero technology the answer either. For example, things like new seeds, certain inputs. Fertilizers have been used for years and that now seems to be waning or vacant in the discussion. I think there is a place for those kinds of basic technologies that other countries have been able to use for decades, dare I say even millennia. And it’s those kinds of things that I think there is a place to reintroduce, bring back, heighten so that countries around the world have choices. Nobody’s forcing this on anyone. That is not what we’re about, but it’s all about giving them choices. And to the degree that the private sector can be brought in a great deal more to introduce those technologies along with governments, along with FAO, this is what I mean by bringing in a bit more technology. Reverse that trend from waning into some recovery there.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that.
For our next question we’ll go with a question submitted in advance by Gilles Senges with L’Opinion in France. He asks:
Question: Is it possible to conclude a U.S.-EU trade agreement without an agricultural piece?
U/S McKinney: I do not think we will reach an agreement if agriculture is not included. That’s my own summary, but I’m also reading comments from many of our legislative leaders in the U.S. Congress and even the President himself. So, no, I do not see a full agreement like I think Europe is seeking without agriculture being a part of it.
Moderator: Thank you.
Our next question comes to us from Hannah Monicken with Inside U.S. Trade.
Question: Hello Under Secretary. I wanted to elaborate a bit on your trip. What ag trade issues have you raised with the European officials and counterparts that you’ve met with while you’re there in Brussels? And then while you’re in Geneva, will you be engaging at all with the WTO or the U.S. delegation to the WTO particularly on ag issues or biotech issues or anything else that relevant there?
U/S McKinney: Let me take those in reverse order. I will meet with the WTO but I would say it’s much more of a get to know you, because our colleagues at USTR are on point and much deeper into the negotiations with the WTO than am I.
But yes, we’ll meet with them. I’m happy to address questions that they might raise.
With respect to issues that we’re talking about here, there are three or four that I think are of the focus.
First is the question about where the European Union might go with gene editing. I think everybody’s very familiar that biotechnology products, the so-called GMOs, didn’t quite make their way here in terms of adoption for use by European farmers. At least not very much.
I know that they have a process by which crops produced using biotech can make their way to Europe, but even that is very, very slow.
So for those of us that believe in the importance of addressing a growing global population, nine to ten billion depending on who you listen to, most of us do not see a way to get to that population and get them fed properly without adopting more technologies.
Europe is a good scientific area. I mean it is an area of great academic institutions, good science, a good private sector that has been denied that opportunity. So the hope is that they will be ale to use gene editing, some people call it the crisper technology, for use not just in agriculture, and in agriculture it could or would be used in crop technology, also livestock, poultry, animal technology, but also human health. For those that do not know about the technology, it holds enormous process.
I will say that I’ve been encouraged. We talked about this with some of our friends in Italy and they seem to be wanting to drive toward acceptance. I’ve talked to several people, private and public, here in Brussels who realize that this is a technology that they don’t want to miss out on. Now how they get there, that’s clearly very much to be determined and I don’t want to try to speak for them. It’s not a fait accompli. But with absolute certainty, we’re hearing a very different tone about the value and importance and the promise of gene editing. So that’s one.
I would say the second one is how the EU looks at risk assessment generally. I think that manifests itself first in pesticide risk assessment. We’re well aware that the EU has lost a great deal of their arsenal of products that deal with bugs and critters, weeds, fungi, things that like to eat up crops and cause harm to animals. So there is a significant difference not just between the U.S. and the EU but a great number of the countries of the world, they’re on record as filing complaints, asking questions, expressing disagreement with how Europe seems to be looking at conducting risk assessment. This could be enormous if it doesn’t get resolved properly. So that is another one.
There’s been some discussion about data and modern technologies like that, and all I can say is we in the U.S. and many other parts of the world have seen enormous value in uses of the cloud, high tech, big tech, big data kind of things, all with the spirit of protecting the farmers’ data. We all seem to agree on that, so there’s been some discussions on that.
I think those are probably a few good examples of things that we have covered. If I think of any I’ll come back to those in a follow-up answer. Okay?
Moderator: That sounds good.
Our next question is from Andrea Shalal from Reuters.
Question: I wanted to drill in a little bit on what you’re talking about, the high tech and big data and the GMOs.
Are you thinking that the recent elections in Europe might create an opening to see some change in their policies? And if so, what specifically would the United States be looking for there? Are you presenting any proposals to address specifically the GMO question and the advent or greater use of big data?
And then getting back to that earlier question on your visit in Rome, when you’re talking about kind of developing countries and briefing technology. I wonder if you can give one or two examples of what technology is there and what it could mean, what’s the gap? What could it mean for a specific country that’s experiencing high levels of hunger or perhaps even famine? I’m trying to understand it, rather than have it be kind of a big word — big tech or high tech — to understand maybe specific technologies that you have in mind, and maybe presenting or suggesting.
U/S McKinney: Sure. I’ll start with your first question. The best example that’s taking most — I’m speaking of Europe now, and your question about our conversations on technology proposals, big data, so let me dive into that a little bit.
I would say most of the discussions have been around the possibilities of gene editing. So that is the technology that’s taken and comprised most of the discussion. I think some folks realize when they’ve seen now 25-30 yeas of GMOs, that they missed an opportunity. But nor are we hearing them want to go open that back up. It might, it might not.
What they’re saying, though, is we think there’s an opportunity to not miss and do look at the possibility of gene editing.
So gene editing is the technology that is the focus, and I think they’ve seen that opportunity. I think the opportunity here is that it’s a very different open architecture. The owners of that technology have said we want to license this widely. A very good thing. I think people see and understand that it is not a genetic insertion into a human and animal, a plant. It is just a tool by which you can then work that. So I think that’s what I’d say we’ve had the most time and focus on is gene editing.
I think you asked what I’m doing. Far be it from me to tell our friends in Europe what to do. I’m just saying we’re there to help. We have seen the value of the technology. Talked about some of the possibilities. And it’s going to have to be the Parliament, eventually the Commission and the structure here that makes that determination. But we sure can tell the value that we have seen in these kinds of sciences.
In those discussions, we do reflect on some of the benefits we have seen from biotechnology. My goodness, our farms in the U.S. have reduced significantly its use of pesticides. You just heard me say earlier how much greenhouse gas we’re saving by not going over the fields one, two, three times. Just once, and that’s a minimum till. We’re not mould board plowing, meaning flipping the soil over like much of Europe still does. Wow, if Europe is focused on GHG, well that would be a good thing to address. And the only way we’re able to do this is the new technologies that allow for no till production.
So those are some examples of the technologies I would say we’ve had discussions on here in Brussels.
Going to your second question in Rome about developing technologies and developing world. Probably the best one is the fact that biotechnology cotton is bringing significant additional yields and thus income to female farmers in certain parts of Africa. You cannot argue with that. They are reducing their use of inputs, just like developed countries are. They’re proud to be able to say they can now feed their children and their families better, and provide them an education. But it’s still a tough road to hoe because some parts of the world, notably Europe, refuses to take crops — not cotton, but grain crops, protein crops that might be used to feed poultry or livestock. So these are the kinds of things we talk about, so that we can lift up a developing world, just as we have lifted up not all, but much of the developed world.
In terms of big data, it’s clear — the discussions have not been extensive, but it’s clear that a lot of the developing world have iPhones and devices like that. iPads. And that has brought on the opportunity to do a lot more analysis in their yields, their inputs. Global positioning, ironically enough. It seems funny that that comes first and then comes mechanical agriculture — tractors, planters, the kind that might have modern technology equipped to it. So those are some of the discussions there.
I would say it was all more conceptual. Nothing came to conclusion. But at least we’re having the discussions with many of these countries, and it was enormously productive and I’d say positive.
Moderator: Thank you.
Unfortunately, that was the last question we have time for. Under Secretary McKinney, do you have any closing words that you would like to offer?
U/S McKinney: No. Just thanks for your interest and we’re going to continue these policy discussions in all three cities. Not just Rome, not just Brussels, but Geneva as well. Thank you all.
Moderator: I want to thank you, Under Secretary McKinney, for joining us, and thank all of our participants for joining us as well, and for your questions.
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