A “new kind of cooperation” will be required of American agriculture if it is to reconcile the conflicting forces that confront it, says James Borel, president and chief executive officer of DuPont Crop Protection.
“Our industry is needed and depended upon by our fellow Americans,” he told members of the Southern Crop Production Association at their annual convention at New Orleans, “but that is not a guarantee for success.”
Among conflicts to be resolved, he said, are the desire to increase production while maintaining the core value of safeguarding the environment, and the high costs of developing technologies while facing the reality of low crop prices.
And, Borel said, “Our industry has more infrastructure than our customers can afford, as evidenced by the industry consolidation we've seen over the last several years. Markets aren't growing, and competition is intensifying. Productivity gains have become harder and harder to achieve.
“We must remove cost and waste from the crop production system. There is no room for any excess.”
That will require “a new kind of cooperation,” Borel said, listing four “overriding priorities” among 10 that have been identified by the American Crop Protection Association (ACPA) for the next two years.
Pesticide benefits study
Noting that the ACPA has under way a study documenting the “substantial benefits” of pesticides in U.S. crop production, he said “if we are to have any hope of discussing the relevance of risks, both real and perceived, it is essential we communicate these benefits we bring to society in order to manage those risks at acceptable levels and maintain our right to operate.”
Modern crop protection materials have helped American farmers to achieve “incredible improvement in yields,” Borel said. “To produce the amount of food currently grown in the U.S., based on per acre yields of the 1940s, we would have to plow up about 300 million more acres.
“Clearly, part of the gain has been from genetics and cultural practices, but crop protection has been instrumental in that success.”
Pesticides “contribute in a significant way” to improving quality of life, Borel said, and provide widespread public health benefits, such as fire ant, rat, and mosquito control.
“But many people — even some in our own companies — don't fully understand this.”
A survey of ACPA members to get a better understanding of their opinions on the role of pesticides in society will be used in the organization's pesticide benefits communication plan for 2002. “Pesticides are benefiting society immensely,” Borel said. “We need to share that message.”
Also of major importance to the industry, he said, is the use of sound science in developing legislation and regulations governing the crop protection industry.
“We need to have decisions that are based on facts, made in a consistent way.”
Borel said he is “encouraged by the signals we have received” from the Bush administration, and “we look forward to working with” Environmental Protection Agency Director Christie Whitman, and Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman. “With clear and appropriate rules, we can focus on making a real contribution to agriculture, rather than guessing which of our decisions will be accepted and which will be criticized or rejected.”
Modern pesticides are “among the most thoroughly tested products in the world today,” Borel said, with each product passing at least 120 health, safety, and environmental tests before being registered by the EPA. To bring a new product to market takes an average 8-10 years and $35 million to $50 million.
“Understandable rules and a sound science basis for our products is critical.”
But, Borel emphasized, stewardship must continue to have the highest priority. “Society as a whole expects zero incidents — leaks, spills, misuses. Only with a solid, collective performance do we build trust and credibility. Our response must be a comprehensive commitment to management practices that will lead to the expected results.”
For the past year, ACPA has worked with the Agricultural Retailers Association and other stakeholders in developing a common ground stewardship initiative that will be patterned after the American Chemistry Council's “Responsible Care” program.
“We will use Responsible Care as an umbrella and harmonize its standards to fit different agricultural situations, including transportation, storage, application, and training, as well as manufacturing.
“Everyone in agriculture is in this together,” Borel declared, and “we all need to collectively commit to take this next big step. As we improve performance in the stewardship area, step by step, we build credibility.”
The challenge, he said, “is for all of us to invest in training and education to insure proper handling and application of pesticides; to place a high priority on insuring the safety of all those who use or come in contact with our products; and to focus research and development efforts on even better and safer products.”
Misuse of pesticide products, Borel cautioned, can result in lost crops, environmental harm, and injuries to people — “but we lose credibility” and each instance makes “the climb back upwards to public acceptance more difficult.”
The fourth industry priority, biotechnology, “offers the capability to have a very positive impact on society,” he said.
“But the products of biotechnology must be shown to be safe for humans and the environment. Potential benefits and risks must be made transparent and understandable to the public, and we need to be responsive to the public's questions about the potential power of biotechnology.”
DuPont's position, Borel said, is that “we will apply the same safety standards to biotechnology that we apply to industrial safety — and DuPont's safety performance is orders of magnitude better than industry averages.”
The company, he noted, has formed an independent global panel to “help guide company actions, help create positions on important issues, and challenge us in the development, testing, and commercialization of new products based on biotechnology. This is an immense help as we seek to understand the ethical, religious, environmental, and social concerns, as well as the science itself.”
Benefits over risks
History has shown, Borel said, that new technologies are not without risk — “but history has also shown that the benefits of a new technology can be much, much greater than the risks. Assessment of risks in the light of benefits should be the very essence of the current debate over biotechnology.”
The crop protection industry has “an important role in helping the world to be a better place for everyone,” Borel said, “and we are making a difference.”