USA farm policy needs to reflect times says US agricultural secretary

US agriculture secretary, Mike Johanns, is arguably the planet’s most powerful farm policy maker. So what are his views on world trade, biotechnology and farm support? Mike Stones reports

What are the key ingredients for a prosperous global agricultural industry in the 21st century?

Continuing to liberalise agricultural trade. There’s no doubt about it, I say it for every part of the world – for the poorest and the richest countries and those in between.

Trade is good, not just for the economy, it also helps to build relationships. Science is critical, too. The reason why the US is so competitive is because it has outstanding science such as GM and the combines you saw at Grand Island* and pest and weed management.

All that puts US farmers at a tremendous competitive edge over farmers in other parts of the world.

So why did the World Trade Organisation talks break down – was it because the US was not prepared to cut domestic supports?

I sat through all the trade talks and it’s clear the EU is a very protective market, which dates back to concern about food security reaching back to World War II.

The EU protects its farmers through a complex system of tariffs and that creates a high bar to jump over for someone who wants to do business over there.

The EU was not proposing to cut tariffs by very much. It would still have been a very protected industry. And there are some world-class competitors out there such as China, Brazil, India and South Korea, even though all classify themselves as developing countries.

How prepared are US farmers to accept big cuts in farm support and does Washington have an obligation to support US farmers?

US farmers supported us strongly in tabling a very ambitious offer for the reduction of farm support payments. They are very anxious to see a successful agreement reached under the latest round of world trade talks.

Federal investment in agriculture is a very wise decision. It results in better science and better genetics to help feed ourselves and the world and who could argue against that?

But how we do it is the critical issue. It must be predictable, equitable and beyond challenge. The way the world subsidises agriculture has very important implications for trade and nations’ prosperity.

So where now for the WTO talks – will they be replaced by local agreements?

I’m still optimistic about the Doha Round of the world trade talks. The world really does need this agreement and we won’t see world trade reformed by bilateral agreements.

Such agreements will not cut tariffs on the global scale that we need to see. The poorest countries don’t tend to benefit from a bilateral approach.

When discussing world trade reform with an African politician recently, he asked me: “Who will negotiate with us?” If we want to bring about trade reform on a meaningful global scale, we need a WTO agreement sooner rather than later.

How will the world’s developed and developing nations regard GM technology in 10 years’ time?

The world is definitely changing here and in other parts of the world. If you are a US farmer, GM allows you to grow better corn (maize) crops and yields can only improve.

GM technology can also bring humanitarian benefits such as helping to prevent some cases of blindness. I have to warn that those countries which have an anti-GM stance will find that their farmers will increasingly be left behind.

Annual yields continue to grow and farmers are putting less environmentally-damaging things (pesticides) on crops thanks to GM technology.

Is US promotion of GM technology a type of agricultural imperialism that denies farmers and consumers in other countries the right to say No?

I’ve listened to that stuff, it is interesting rhetoric. But we need to be competitive. Farmers can’t continue to hope that the success of their farming industry will depend on access to their government’s Treasury.

I’m 56 and you and I will see developments in GM technology over the course of my lifetime that will really knock your socks off.

How can the US and other developed nations help less developed nations to boost growth without impoverishing rural communities in the west?

Science can do so much. But for the research of Norman Borlaug, father of the green revolution and Nobel laureate, millions would have died of starvation. That is what agriculture is about – saving lives and feeding the world.

The EU need not worry about farmers in the US; 20% of US food imports come from the EU and that percentage is growing.

Our customers are open to products from around the world. EU farmers have really found success in this market and there is no reason for that to change.

What role, if any, can farmers in the US and elsewhere play in helping to mitigate the effects of global warming

Carbon sequestration is an important aspect of this. Farm policy can encourage better agricultural practice. The conservation title of the farm bill is very popular here.

Farm policy is a good opportunity to develop good environmental practices whether that is directed towards global warming or water quality. (The Conservation Reserve Programmes are voluntary initiatives that offer farmers financial incentives to protect soils, improve water and air quality and enhance wildlife habitats.)

How will increasing fossil fuel costs change the face of US agriculture in the light of President Bush’s warning about the nation’s “expensive addiction to imported oil”?

Already 16% of the US corn (maize) crop is processed into ethanol. Moreover, that quantity will quickly become 20% – representing as much tonnage as the US exports.

And more crops such as soy beans can be converted into energy. It’s not a total solution, but it is an important piece of the complicated puzzle we call energy policy.

Will the new Farm Bill, due to be signed off in 2007, signal business as usual or a big change in course for US agriculture?

I’ve argued farm policy needs to reflect the times and the times are changing. We (the USDA leadership) have done open forums – to canvass the opinions of producers and other stakeholders about the future of farm policy – in every state of the union but two last year.

I was pleased to host 21 of the forums. We will see if there is change. Congress will write the Farm Bill, but I have long advocated reform and change.

After US health secretary Tommy Thompson warned two years ago about the threat of a terrorist attack on US food supplies, how do you judge that threat today?

There’s no specific terrorist threat against our food supply, but everybody in the world should pay attention to it. We (at the USDA) are part of an overall programme to combat terrorism.

We have people here in Washington and throughout the US devoting their full time and effort to this. Specific things we have done would be water controls. Looking across the country we have people working with universities to test water quality very quickly. We work with them and communicate regularly with them.

Third US president Thomas Jefferson dreamed of a rural democracy where every prosperous family had a small farm or business. In 2006, with falling farm incomes and big agri business, has that dream turned sour?

It has not. Net farm income will be down some, but the balance sheet for US agriculture has never been stronger. Net farm equity stands at $1.6 trillion.

This president has said that rural policy is very important. Therefore, family farms have a future, but a much different future than in the past – certainly a lot different from the dairy farm in north central Iowa with 30 milking cows where I grew up.

Farming is so much more efficient, even on small farms. I believe farmers are the same the world over. They have entrepreneurial spirit and are looking for the latest developments to keep agriculture successful. I just believe in agriculture – people will always need food.

* This interview took place during a recent visit to Grand Island, Nebraska, and Chicago courtesy of Case IH to mark the 30th anniversary of its Axial-Flow combines.

Do you agree with Mr Johanns’ views? What do you think of America’s agricultural position in relation to the UK? Have your say on these issues on our forums