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With the coronavirus still raging across much of the world, the economic hardship brought on by the global pandemic has taken a heavy toll on every key industry in both the United States and the EU, including agriculture.

US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue sat down with New Europe in an exclusive interview to discuss how the US’ encouragement of innovation and new technology can help farm operations of all sizes and how, as close allies and trade partners, Europeans and Americans can forge an even stronger relationship that will help guarantee a sustainable food supply for the world’s billions of people.

NEW EUROPE (NE): COVID-19 has brought home the fact that we can no longer afford to take food security for granted. While the US embraces new technology and innovation, the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy promotes more traditional, low-tech farming methods instead. How important is innovation to securing our food supply?  Is it at odds with the EU’s sustainability goals?  Can we meet the enormous challenge of feeding a world population of 10 billion people in 2050 by farming the same way our grandparents and great-grandparents did?

SONNY PERDUE (SP): By 2050, it is estimated the world population will reach 10 billion people. Since we are working from a fixed resource base, to be successful we must embrace the technological advances and innovations of modern agriculture that increase productivity.

US agricultural output has grown significantly over the past 90 years. We’ve increased the production of food and fiber by over 400% while using nearly 10% less land. We are achieving this dramatic increase in productivity with fewer resources by harnessing innovation and technology.

The EU’s sustainability goals laid out in the Farm to Fork agenda are commendable but will be extremely trade prohibitive and jeopardize agricultural output. Turning the clock back on agricultural advances in the EU will lead to less productivity and more food insecurity around the world. The global goal should be to produce more food with less land; not less food with less land as proposed in the Farm to Fork strategy. We believe the US model of science-based, technology-harnessed agriculture is the only way we will as a world be able to keep the pace and feed all the hungry mouths in the future.

epa06267047 (L-R) United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Germany’s former Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture Christian Schmidt and Canada’s ex-Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay talk during the G7 Agriculture Ministerial Meeting in Bergamo, Italy. EPA-EFE//PAOLO MAGNI

NE: Are you concerned about the effect this will have on the already contentious disputes over agricultural trade?

SP: We understand and fully share the European Commission’s desire to ensure safe and sustainable food supply but there are several paths to attaining this. Implementing so-called “higher standards” that are not internationally recognized or scientifically supported will create unfair trade barriers. European farms aren’t able to compete with one hand tied behind their back; these types of practices lead only to protectionism. The EU’s carrying out  Farm to Fork would be like stopping all transatlantic flights and going back to sentimental ocean liners of the past – it just doesn’t make sense.

NE: Almost all of the EU’s major trading partners—some 36 nations altogether—have officially complained to the World Trade Organization that the EU’s precautionary import restrictions are damaging their farmers and constitute illegal barriers to trade because they are not based on science. Farm to Fork doubles down on these policies, promising to withhold access to EU markets unless other nations adopt similar regulations. How can these two diametrically opposed positions be reconciled? 

SP: Dumbing down agriculture production is not the answer to this complex problem. Earlier this year, I launched USDA’s Agriculture Innovation Agenda, which aims to increase production by 40 percent while cutting the environmental footprint of US agriculture in half by the year 2050. We know for a fact that embracing innovation to accomplish these goals is the best way to go. Ultimately, the choice needs to be up to the consumers. Consumers are not going to provide food for their families that they believe to be unsafe.

For some time, we have had concerns about the EU imposing trade barriers on imported goods based on how those goods are produced rather than on whether they are safe. This undermines a rules-based global trading system.

NE: There are a lot of people who are very pro-technology who, in general, treat agriculture as an exception. They want the latest technology and science for their medical care but, when it comes to food, they think “natural” is healthier and safer. Yet, the greatest dangers in our food supply are all-natural. Should we be worried about the effects of the EU’s actions on the safety of the global food supply, especially if these bans are adopted by other countries?

SP: Certainly, because the EU can’t have it both ways. Reducing farmers’ access to the tools that protect against pests is reckless. The loss of crop protection tools leads to lower productivity and more rot and waste, which causes problems up and down the food supply. Food quality suffers, food safety suffers, and food security, as a whole, suffers.  This would be like if we took a serious disease, like smallpox, and stopped vaccinating people even though we know that would prevent people from getting smallpox. That’s what the EU is trying to do with agriculture. So yes, we should be very concerned about the effects of the EU’s actions.

We all want a more sustainable future, but we need to better understand the downstream effects or tradeoffs of the decisions we make. Much of what the EU is proposing in the Farm to Fork strategy may lead to a less sustainable EU, and the impositions on trading partners could increase risks to small-scale farmers in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Yet, to my knowledge, the EU hasn’t released any analysis to show the tradeoffs of their proposition. It seems clear that the Farm to Fork strategy will negatively affect the livelihoods of EU farmers and, most likely, have detrimental impacts on the food security and environmental footprint of small-scale farmers in the developing world if they are required to adopt the requirements in order to trade with the EU.

Common ground and the forging of new ties in the US and EU agricultural sectors
Secretary Perdue during a visit to a ‘Blancs Bleus Belges’ cattle farm in Awans, Belgium. EPA-EFE//JULIEN WARNAND

NE: How will the US-UK trade negotiations be affected if the UK maintains an EU-style precautionary system and import barriers?

SP: The UK has always been a champion of scientific, evidence-based decision making. I am confident that, as it begins to make its own regulatory decisions going forward, we will find common ground.

NE: Jon Entine said that the low-tech, low-yield agriculture being adopted in the EU is effectively exporting Europe’s environmental footprint to developing nations that will have to make up for the EU’s productivity shortfall by expanding agricultural land in their own countries. How serious do you believe the global environmental implications of these policies are?

SP: It’s difficult to evaluate tradeoffs and assess the indirect impacts of even the most well-intentioned policies. But I can say, with certainty, that the US approach to prioritizing conservation and improvements to total factor productivity is one of the best solutions we have for meeting growing global demand while limiting agriculture’s environmental footprint. The economic cost of Farm to Fork to the European consumer on a limited budget is significant. Currently, Americans spend about six percent of disposable income on food compared to France where consumers spend thirteen percent of their disposable income on food. This divide will only become greater if the EU’s Farm to Fork policies go into effect.

NE: What about broader humanitarian and even national security concerns? The majority of undernourished in the world are, ironically, farmers in the developing world who can’t grow enough to feed themselves. If we deny these farmers the tools we in the developed world count on, do we risk exporting a humanitarian disaster?

SP: Modern agricultural production tools – including pesticides, fertilizers, and genetically enhanced plants – afford farmers the advantage of managing their production for higher yields. If farmers in the developing world are allowed to access to these inputs, it can help alleviate (or at least minimize) food insecurity. A great example of this are the locust plagues in Africa, where not using these tools can create a humanitarian disaster. Much of the migration that happens around the world are displaced populations looking for food. If pesticides, fertilizers and genetically enhanced plants can prevent this, we should embrace it.

Common ground and the forging of new ties in the US and EU agricultural sectors
Secretary Perdue testifies before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee hearing entitled ‘The State of Rural America’, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. EPA-EFE//MICHAEL REYNOLDS

NE: One thing the US and EU have in common is that agricultural policy is increasingly dominated by “urban elites” that have no direct tie to the land and have little appreciation of farming’s enormous challenges and complexities. What are the social and political ramifications of this urban elites vs. farmers divide, and how can we elevate the farmers’ voice so that their real-world experience and practical knowledge is taken into account in the formulation of an agricultural policy so that the farmers are not seen as the problem but the solution?

SP: This is not as universal in the United States. While I agree it’s the people in the US and the EU that can most afford the higher cost that tend to influence the development of laws affecting agricultural policy, US producer organizations and State and Federal Government officials are well aligned in seeking ways to improve the sustainability and profitability of US agriculture and meet consumer demands while making responsible use of public funds. Unfortunately, the great miracle of modern agriculture is a story that is not always told. We have the safest and most affordable food supply in the history of the world, thanks to technological advances. We believe we have the social responsibility to feed the growing world population, especially in the developing world.

NE: In the EU, “intensive agriculture” is almost universally considered bad for the environment. Where do you stand on this? The US has pioneered innovations like no-till farming, disease-resistant GMO crops, and now gene-editing. Those techniques improve yield, but what about the environment? Could you talk a bit about these, and how you feel our two respective systems stack up on environmental issues?

SP: The United States is proof that sustainable agricultural intensification is possible. One example of this is how US agricultural output has grown significantly over the past 90 years. We’ve increased the production of food and fiber by over 400% while using nearly 10% less land. Additionally, genetically engineered crops with pest management traits often yield better than their conventional counterparts, particularly when drought is present. The widespread use of these crops has the potential to increase the resilience of the US production system. For example, planting GE corn that is insect resistant and herbicide tolerant can increases yields by almost 10%. It is also false to assume that more traditional, small-scale farming systems cannot, simultaneously, increase yields and reduce their environmental footprint by adopting innovative practices and approaches.

NE: There’s a widely held view that when it comes to farming, smaller is better. Locally produced food is better than a global supply system, and it supports family farms. High yields are all about profit. The US appears to see these things differently. Does the US believe bigger is better? Are there greater efficiencies of scale? Are higher yields—producing more food on each hectare of farmland—be better for the environment?

SP: There are some common misconceptions about US agriculture. One misconception is that all of our farms are colossal and corporate. In fact, almost 90% of farms in America are small farms. These family farmers are the world’s best environmentalists. We absolutely support local and regional food systems, but we also emphasize that resilient food systems depend on well-functioning markets and rules-based international trade. In 1950, 72% of the world’s population lived below the poverty line. Today, less than 100 years later, less than 10% of the world’s population lives below the poverty line. This dramatic transformation happened in great part due to increases in agricultural productivity. Thanks to policies that spurred investment in new technologies, we are able to produce more food and trade it globally, which directly benefits consumers all over the world. We have a social responsibility to ensure that food is affordable and available to everyone.

NE: Finally, Mr. Secretary, is there anything we haven’t covered, some particularly important message you would like to send to your counterparts in the Commission and the people of the EU?

SP: We commend the EU’s commitment to sustainability. We know the challenges before us, and we appreciate the call to action on enhancing the sustainability of our food systems across the three dimensions: environmental, social, and economic sustainability. We want to work with the EU toward sustainably feeding nearly 10 billion people by the year 2050 while allowing their farmers to compete equitably with those in the US. It is important that as we create policies to protect the environment and enhance food security and nutrition, they are not mutually exclusive. We need to promote policies that are transparent, data-driven, and science-based and do not restrict trade nor food availability.