Regulatory structure harming agricultural innovation

Therefore, supporters of agriculture and the U.S. economy in general were very encouraged recently to learn that USDA is now trying to rectify this situation. In late 2011, the department announced a series of process improvements that will shrink the timeline or approvals to approximately 13 to 16 months. While not the intended six months, it would definitely represent a vast improvement. This type of leadership and action from Secretary Vilsack and his team should be both recognized and lauded.

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For technology innovators, the uncertainty caused by regulatory delays creates huge costs and added risk on top of the approximately $100 million it already takes to develop new biotech crops. The danger is that without real, structural reform to the regulatory process, agricultural innovation in this country will either dry up or simply migrate abroad like other once-dominant American industries.

In fact, Brazil has already become one of the world’s top agricultural exporters, in large part because of their rapid adoption of new biotech traits. In the same timeframe that APHIS took to approve only seven new crop traits, Brazil’s modern and efficient regulatory system streamlined 23 new traits to its farmers. For example, a recent novel insect resistant corn product my company released was approved in Brazil faster than in the United States.

Another obstacle endangering the benefits of U.S. agriculture technology comes from the courts, where other parties have exploited loopholes in the underlying regulatory law to create roadblocks for promising new technologies. Meanwhile, those who resist technology make unfounded claims designed to stoke fears about both biotech and many of the safe and critically important crop protection chemistries that have already been well-vetted by the government.

Were these naysayers to be successful in their anti-technology agenda, it’s doubtful America could even feed itself, let alone remain an agricultural exporter. In fact, humanitarian and environmental goals we can all agree on would suffer. More than 90 percent of biotech growers are small farmers in the developing world, and according to one study, biotech has raised their incomes by some $32 billion since the 1990s.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has reaped tremendous environmental benefits from modern technologies. In corn, in which America dominates the world stage, crop protection products like atrazine mean that some 30% of all corn acres can now be grown with no-till farming, vastly decreasing soil erosion. Together with biotech, this has meant that we now grow 41% more corn per acre than we did in 1987, while decreasing soil loss by 69% (and, not incidentally, decreasing energy, water use, and carbon emissions each by about one-third).

A new series of studies, in fact, found that atrazine and its sister herbicides prevent up to 85 million tons of soil loss annually – enough to fill more than 3 million dump trucks. And the economic benefits are just as impressive. This one family of herbicides alone is responsible for as many as 85,000 jobs and as much as 9 billion in economic benefits to the U.S. economy.

A growing world population means we will have to double agricultural production by 2050. America should be leading that effort, doing what America does best – using technology to boost efficiency, create jobs, and improve the quality of life for all.  We appreciate and commend the USDA for taking a promising step in this direction.

Morgan is Ppesident of Syngenta Seeds, Inc. and Syngenta region director-North America