By TIM ALEXANDER
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — The Illinois Soybean Assoc. (ISA) has compiled an extensive agenda to discuss the regulatory and trade issues confronting biotechnology and agriculture for its first International Biotechnology Symposium, Aug. 26 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Champaign.
The agenda boasts world-renowned experts in biotechnology and agricultural trade, biotechnology development, regulatory processes, international trade and business. In addition, panels consisting of farmers and experts from Europe, South America and the United States will address factors affecting regulatory issues during the one-day gathering.
“The International Biotechnology Symposium is a new concept for the ISA,” said Mike Marron, ISA vice chair and District 7 director from Vermilion County. “We’re hoping this is the first of many such events, at least until we get the problems solved.”
Steve Wellman, a farmer from Nebraska and chair of the American Soybean Assoc., feels U.S. farmers are currently restricted from realizing the full potential of their crops and land because of a flawed biotechnology approval process affecting those who grow biotech crops.
“The goal behind biotech crops is to increase production, in order to have more food available with healthy benefits. If the process moved along more quickly, we would have more interest from scientists and experts to enter the marketplace and develop new traits,” he said.
Biotech crops helps boost U.S. production, but a lack of synchronization of regulatory and trade approvals for biotech seed exports constrains trade and threatens food security, according to Jim Sutter, CEO of the U.S. Soybean Export Council, which is helping sponsor the biotech symposium.
“Biotechnology allows us to produce crops in a more sustainable manner,” he said. “We can see herbicide resistance, pest resistance and other traits that make the crop easier to grow. Other traits in the works, such as high-oleic soybeans, are lower in saturated fats and therefore healthier.
“Biotechnology enables us to get those traits into crops much faster, and allows us to better feed the world with less intensive farming practices – which is what sustainability really is all about.”
But gridlock in the system is preventing new seed event approvals. This is why the symposium is bringing together leading experts on biotech and trade such as Dr. Bob Thompson, Senior Fellow for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and Dr. Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, director of economics and management for the University of Missouri’s Agrobiotechnology Center, to discuss ways to overcome export challenges facing biotech crops.
“The idea is to get all the stakeholders in agribusiness – trade reps, government officials, producers – together at the same table to discuss how we can solve some of the regulatory issues that we see in the marketplace for biotech crops,” said Marron.
“We’d like to have attendance from farmers and get their input. It is very important to the bottom line of the average farmer that we get regulatory approval in some of the foreign markets.”
Marron and the ISA are optimistic that solutions can be found for many of the hurdles to be overcome before farmers can realize the full economic potential of biotech crops.
“One thing we’d like to see is some standardization around the globe,” Marron added. “When (companies) bring a trait online, they don’t know whether they’ll be able to sell that product in a foreign market or not. So much of our crops go to the Asian marketplace, where there is a lot of uncertainty. We just want some common-sense standardization for the entire marketplace, if possible.”
In addition, U.S. farmers planting biotech crops and companies producing new biotech traits for seeds are facing resistance from a skeptical public both at home and overseas.
“This has been a hot-button topic, and it’s heating up more and more. There is a real lack of information in the public about biotechnology. Biotech is a useful tool that produces food in a very environmentally friendly manner,” said Marron.
Sutter admits there are lingering concerns about the safety of biotech that must be overcome in order to meet the food production requirements of a rapidly growing world population.
“We need to continue to work together worldwide to communicate that sound science ensures the safety of biotechnology,” he said. “Biotech products are a regular part of most people’s lives, and are contained in everything from drugs to high-value food additives.
“For some reason, when it comes to their use in agriculture, some people like to create skepticism and uncertainty. Unfortunately this can be a disadvantage to those who can least afford it – the hungriest people in the world.”
There are now 7.2 billion people on Earth, but the United Nations projects by 2050 9.6 billion will occupy the planet, according to Thompson.
“Ensuring global food security is one of the most pressing issues facing the world, and its importance will grow in the coming years,” he stated. “A wide variety of strategies are needed across the agricultural value chain to feed another 2.4 billion by 2050.”
The International Biotechnology Symposium is scheduled for the day before the start of the 2013 Farm Progress Show in nearby Decatur, in order to attract the interest of international travelers and Midwest farmers visiting the area, Marron said. For that reason, walk-up registrations are being accepted. Those interested in more information or registering can visit www.biotechnologysymposium.com