The $73 billion set aside for farm programs over the next seven years should remain in place over the life of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, in spite of criticism from various environmental groups and some legislators, according to Jim Butler, deputy under secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs for USDA.

Butler, speaking to the annual meeting of the Texas Seed Trade Association recently in Dallas, said he sees no reason and has heard no mention from anyone in USDA or the Bush administration, “that farm bill funds will be shifted to other areas. I don't believe the funds will be shifted during the life of the program,” Butler said. “The Office of Budget and Management (OMB) has a lot of influence and we are looking at fiscal conservation. But we've had no internal discussion about any threat to farm bill funding.”

Butler touched on several issues in his remarks to Texas seedsmen and asked participants for their thoughts on issues.

“I want to learn from you,” he said.

He learned a bit about how volatile an issue water is in Texas, especially in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where Mexico has refused to abide by a 1944 treaty, which requires delivery of 350,000 acre-feet of water annually to the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. Mexico has reneged on that obligation for almost a decade, claiming drought prevents them from delivering the water.

Butler admitted that the treaty issue has been pushed to the back burner as the Bush administration wrestles with what it considers more important issues of national import.

“We have to back up to before Sept. 11, 2001,” Butler said. “Then, President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox both anticipated progress on resolving the treaty, among other issues. Since then, many of Fox's initiatives have been set back. But we have daily interaction between the United States and Mexico regarding a number of issues, including the treaty.”

Butler said USDA is one step removed from active involvement in the treaty. “But we get a lot of communication about it from Texas. Senator Hutchinson and her staff often ask what we can do (to resolve the issue).”

He also noted a recent $10 million in funding for South Texas water delivery system improvements.

Butler said biotechnology concerns continue to concern USDA.

“We're still dealing with the fallout from the Starlink incident,” he said. “It's unfortunate that a technology that could save developing countries from starvation is being maligned. But some groups are encouraging that (some buyers) not allow bio-tech foods in.”

He said another strategy of bio-tech critics is to promote regulations preventing growing non-food bio-tech products in an area where food crops are produced. He said such restrictions would limit farmers' rotation options.

Find regulatory gaps

“We need to find gaps in our regulatory system,” he said. Plugging up leaks, he said, would allow farmers and elevators to isolate bio-tech crops without exposing non-bio-tech crops.

Assuring the safety of our food supply, he said, will remain critical for both domestic and foreign credibility.

He said the federal government has no plans to initiate a program similar to the European Union's. “We do not want a policy (including labeling and severe import restrictions) akin to the EU,” he said. “Anything we do will be based on sound science.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com