Acceptance of Biotechnology Growing, U.S. Official Says

By Kathryn McConnell
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - Agricultural biotechnology has become more accepted by farm producers and government officials in developing countries in recent years, a promising step toward meeting the challenges of reducing world hunger and opening nations to trade, says a top official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

As farmers around the world learn that genetically engineered crops can lead to increased yields and other benefits, such as improved resistance to drought and pests, farmers are convincing their governments to alter their regulatory policies to allow the import of biotech-improved seeds, said Ellen Terpstra, the deputy under secretary for foreign agricultural services.

Speaking to the Washington File in advance of World Food Day, Terpstra said that, through in-country technical assistance and exchange programs, USDA is helping governments learn how to adopt "transparent, efficient and science-based" food safety regulations that are replacing "arbitrary bans" on the import of biotechnology products.

The programs also increase countries' abilities to maintain food safety within their boundaries, she said.

In other U.S. food-security efforts, USDA has been providing approximately $150 million a year through the Food for Progress program for agricultural development projects, Terpstra said.

Through Food for Progress, donated commodities are sold in recipient countries with proceeds going to approved development projects, including economic development and infrastructure improvement projects.

One example is a project implemented by the Aga Khan Development Network of agencies. The network has used proceeds from selling or bartering USDA-donated commodities in Tajikistan to provide milk for school children, to train community health and livestock workers and to provide preventive health services for mothers and young children.

In Afghanistan, these funds are helping to provide milk for children - often delivered on foot to isolated communities - and fund farmer in-field training.

Another USDA food aid effort, which is expanding, is the McGovern-Dole Food for Education program, Terpstra said.

Under the $100 million-a-year program, nutritious food is given to families of young students in "food deficit countries" to encourage parents to support their children's - particularly girls' - attendance at school instead of their doing household or outside work.

Program funds also are used to rebuild schools, improve schools' access to sanitation services and clean drinking water, and help communities grow fruits and vegetables to improve their children’s diets.

The program is named after former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations food agencies, George McGovern, and former Senate leader Bob Dole. (See related article.)

Since 2000 the McGovern-Dole program has helped feed more than 10 million children in more than 40 countries and increased school attendance and teachers' training, according to USDA.

USDA also is helping developing countries learn how to recognize and appropriately respond to discoveries of plant and animal diseases in order to prevent their spread and avert further health risks, Terpstra said.

Another USDA effort to help countries become more food-secure is sponsorship of the Cochran Fellowship Program, she said.

The Cochran program brings selected farm experts and policy makers to the United States for up to six weeks for individual training with U.S. counterparts. Nearly 10,000 people have received training through the fellowship program, Terpstra said.

For additional information, see Biotechnology.