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Biotech Backer Perdue Blasts Fear-Your-Food ‘Hysteria’

An amorphous “fear-your-food” movement, fed in large part by the ceaseless churning of the internet, could sideline, deter, or even derail the use of such crucial agricultural tools as pesticides and genetically engineered crops and livestock, warned Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Thursday. “Consumers need the truth: Don’t fear your food,” he said during a keynote speech at the USDA’s annual Outlook Forum, where two panels discussed advances in agricultural biotech and the evolution of federal regulation.

“We need to help inform the nonfarmer to understand that crop protection tools and these technologies help to feed the world and will be needed more in the future,” said Perdue, who defended the safety record of ag biotech and pesticide use in U.S. agriculture.

Large Chinese purchases of U.S. goods are a potential outcome of ongoing trade talks, Perdue told reporters separately, responding to a question about possible ag sales. China “committed [to] quantities that are significant in that regard, but it is all contingent on the whole deal coming together,” he said.

Based on conversations with “people with knowledge of the plan,” Bloomberg reported that China offered to buy $30 billion worth of U.S. products, including wheat, corn, and soybeans. Before the trade war, China was the No. 1 market for U.S. ag exports; now it will rank fifth.

Farmers quickly adopted GMO corn, soybeans, and cotton when they were introduced in the 1990s. The crops were developed to withstand doses of herbicides as a way to simplify weed control. Proponents say that without effective weed control, farmers would shift away from low-tillage practices that reduce runoff.

The farm community often complains of undue environmental regulation — the EPA is a frequent bogeyman — or unrealistic expectations by consumer groups that get in the way of agricultural production. Still, Perdue said he could not put a finger on the leaders, if any, of the “fear-your-food” movement, or say if it is a free-ranging creature of social media. “I see it, and I think it’s important to call it out,” he told reporters. “I think the 24-hour cycle, the internet has fueled much of that hysteria about food.”

Despite what he called a sterling safety record for GMO foods, “Misinformation becomes prevalent and this leads to bad policy,” said Perdue. He said the EU wrongly blocks its farmers from growing GMO crops. Biotechnology holds a prominent place in U.S. disagreements with Europe, along with Europe’s claim to the exclusive use of names, such as Parmesan cheese or champagne, originally tied to a specific food from a particular region.

“I cannot express my frustration” with the EU on issues such as agricultural biotech or food safety, said Gregg Doud, the chief U.S. agricultural negotiator. EU farm officials kowtow to environmental groups like Greenpeace, he said. “I think it’s high time that European agriculture gets with the program.”

Ted McKinney, agriculture undersecretary for trade, said a frank trans-Atlantic dialogue is needed to modernize trading rules. “It won’t be easy. It will be brutal,” he said. After describing how trade rumors have led to volatile hog prices, an Iowa farmer drily asked Doud and McKinney, “Could you please get China and the continent resolved before you start in with the EU?”

Farmers were a key group in President Trump’s election in 2016 and have stood by him during the trade war despite lower commodity prices and reduced exports. “I think right now farmers are giving the president and the administration some time, but it’s not unlimited time,” said McKinney. “It’s important to deliver.”

During a news conference, Perdue said he does not expect a 2019 repeat of last year’s multibillion-dollar Trump tariff payments to farmers to offset the impact of the trade war on U.S. agriculture.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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