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Friday, December 24, 2004

Veneman proud of role as ag secretary

By JAMES C. WEBSTER Freelance Writer


Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman confesses that she has been “a little surprised” by some Midwestern farm leaders and politicians who greeted her departure by saying that a new secretary would be more responsive to their corn-and-cattle interests.

But in looking back at the past four years, she doesn’t dwell on the frustrations, but instead focuses on this year’s “record farm equity, farm income and farm exports” and achievements such as last year’s Healthy Forests Restoration Act, management of history’s most complex farm programs and the most threatening livestock diseases of recent times.

During an hourlong visit last week, the first of several “exit interviews” with reporters, Veneman told the Capital Press that she was most satisfied with USDA’s efforts to protect the infrastructure of the farm and food system from terrorists after Sept. 11, 2001, and the potential outbreak of a number of diseases.

She related a series of developments during her tenure that she considered significant.

In addition to controlling livestock diseases, they include greater acceptance of biotechnology in the United States and overseas, progress toward new agricultural trade agreements, more alternative uses for agricultural products and a number of management improvements at USDA.

Veneman pointed with pride to USDA’s response to the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom and the discovery of the “StarLink” gene in food-grade corn that occurred just before her appointment, the outbreaks of exotic Newcastle disease in California poultry and avian influenza in Texas and several Eastern states, and the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Washington state last year.

“We need to look at the whole picture – homeland security and the food supply – and how we worked to protect the infrastructure,” she said.

Forest Fire Prevention

Veneman noted that bipartisan support in Congress led to enactment last December of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, but she expressed concern that prospects for similar cooperation were eroding as a more divisive atmosphere has pervaded politics.

Due in part to the devastating fire losses in California early last year, a bipartisan coalition emerged to enact legislation “to give foresters the tools they need to manage to prevent overgrowth and fire hazards.”

Describing several trips on which she accompanied President Bush to examine fire damage, she said it was instructive to see the contrast between forests that had been thinned next to those where no preventive management had occurred. “Where it was not thinned, fire wipes out the whole forest, ash was under foot,” but on a neighboring healthy forest that was thinned, the damage was far less.

“Universally, in my experience, all of the career foresters say they need these tools,” she said. “They are very appreciative that we got the Healthy Forest Act through.”

This year, she said, USDA’s Forest Service treated 4.2 million acres of forests to help mitigate fire damage, compared with the previous year’s 1.67 million-plus. Over the past four years, treatment of 11 million acres was well ahead of projections, she said.

Progress for Biotechnology

Facing strong opposition in Europe to biotech crops that have been adopted eagerly by many American farmers, Veneman exerted a “tremendous effort” to reassure consumers of their safety, in part by strengthening USDA’s regulatory apparatus.

“We have made a lot of progress in terms of acceptability” of agricultural biotechnology, especially in Africa, she said.

Pointing to the meeting that she convened on agriculture and technology that attracted 119 ministerial-level officials from around the world to Sacramento last year, followed by regional conferences in Costa Rica and Burkina Faso this year, she said many African countries had moved away from their initial opposition and were now more open to adoption of biotech crops.

Four African heads of state this year had acknowledged that biotechnology is “something we know we have to embrace,” Veneman said.

Ramping up USDA biotech regulation has been important to consumer acceptance, she added, following “warning signs” of discovery of pharmaceutical crops in Iowa and Nebraska and the accidental release of transgenic pigs in Illinois that could have undermined it.

“We worked hard on the trade agenda,” she said, referring not only to trying to solve bilateral trade disputes but also to propelling negotiations on a new multilateral agreement to expand agricultural trade.

After the failure of a 1999 meeting of the world’s trade ministers in Seattle, “the question was would we be able to launch a new round,” she recalled. But in Doha, Qatar – “so close after 9/11” – she said most countries recognized its importance and agreed to a set of goals for a new agreement.

“Then at Cancun it was all blown apart again, but it helped make people realize that we have to work together.”

Managing a Big Institution

Veneman also pointed to management improvements at USDA. She oversaw the first “clean” audit of its finances in her second year – “a real legacy.”

The use of computer technology has made strides, as more farmers are able to conduct business with USDA online, she said.

“It’s amazing, all the things we’ve gotten done,” she said, citing efforts to implement new programs created by the 2002 farm bill, several disaster assistance programs in each of her four years, and this year preparing to handle the tobacco quota buyout.

As “more and more issues are cross-cutting” across different USDA agencies, Veneman said, there had been some improvement in coordination in what has been described as a “stovepipe” structure of USDA’s semi-independent offices and agencies.

“It takes constant attention” to get them to pull together, she said. Likewise she took satisfaction from the role that USDA played in several presidential initiatives, acknowledging that in some cases that “we still had to fight to get on their agenda.” Too frequently, she said, “They just don’t understand what we do here.”

But White House staff and Midwestern members of Congress are not alone in not fully recognizing the breadth of responsibilities of a secretary of agriculture.

“We made a real effort to explain it,” she said of the wide diversity of programs at USDA. One example, she cited was last year’s Agricultural Outlook Forum, which focused on the growing problem of obesity in the United States.

“But it’s still not understood by the general public. I continue to meet people who think the secretary of agriculture just deals with farmers.”

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