Agricultural innovation and exports key to America’s economic resurgence

Last year, the United States exported more than $108 billion worth of agricultural products accounting for more than 10 percent of all U.S. goods sold abroad.  From a macroeconomic point of view, the American farmer is unique among business sectors.  With the United States running persistent trade deficits, American farmers ran a $42 billion trade surplus in 2010.

Despite economic weakness in traditional markets, demand for U.S. agricultural exports is growing, up 45.44 percent in the last five years. As incomes rise globally and population shifts to cities, more and more of the world’s population is coming to rely on agricultural goods produced far from their homes.

Growing up in rural Minnesota and later representing a Corn Belt district for 12 years in the House of Representatives, I know this country has immeasurable agricultural advantages. American farmers till some of the most fertile land in the world and employ techniques and machinery that make them the most productive anywhere. Further, this country has the trucking capacity, railways and seaports to deliver its agricultural goods to every part of the globe.

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Farming, however, is also quickly evolving as advances in seed technologies boost yields, and with it, profits and exports. As in so many other areas of industry, these technological advances have outstripped the legal and regulatory frameworks established to ensure a free and open marketplace. As farmers lead America’s export resurgence from rural Minnesota, California’s Central Valley and out on the Plains, these regulatory structures must be updated to allow farmers access to seeds best suited to their land, their families and their businesses. 

Both the pharmaceutical and crop protection industries have structures in place to support the introduction of technologies that go off patent – also called generics – which has spurred the creation of new and better products. Like with pharmaceuticals, the public has an overriding interest in the promotion of generic alternatives. Blocking competition of products with generic ingredients keeps prices artificially high, curbs choices in the marketplace, and blocks other innovators from employing technologies that should have entered the public domain.

From the standpoint of technological innovation, agriculture is no different than smartphones or pharmaceuticals.  Innovators must be given reasonable access to regulatory information on patented products so that once-groundbreaking technologies can be built upon and improved allowing a new generation of technologies to come to market.

Competition and free enterprise are the engines of American innovation. Patent rights are integral to this system but so is unfettered access to post-patent technologies. We need to recognize that agriculture is now at the cutting edge of innovation and requires regulations that meet the dynamic needs of an evolving sector.

As has been the case for more than a century, American farmers feed the world. The difference now and into the future is the growing wealth and standard of living outside traditional markets for U.S. agricultural products. Individuals that were once recipients of U.S. aid are now paying customers for U.S. agricultural exports.

With the Administration set on doubling exports by 2015 – a goal supported by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle – the agricultural sector is poised to lead the American export resurgence. It would be a shame for Congress to ignore this issue as bad regulations derail this American success story.

Vin Weber is Co-Chairman of Mercury/Clark & Weinstock, a government relations and public affairs company, and an advisor to Americans for Choice and Competition in Agriculture.

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