Agriculture secretary Ann Veneman came full circle as a world agricultural trader when she returned to Sacramento to open the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology.

It was in Sacramento as secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture than Veneman established herself as a global marketer of California ag products.

She was obviously happy to be back in California as a backdrop for one of the largest conference of its type that attracted more than 400 delegates from 120 countries called to deal with world hunger and poverty.

She called California a “showcase for the adoption of innovative agricultural technologies.” If California were a separate country, it would be the seventh-largest agricultural economy in the world, she proudly pointed out.

While Veneman was pleased to host such a prestigious conference just an hour north of her hometown of Modesto, she opened the conference in a virtual fortress.

The Sacramento Convention Center was surrounded by concrete barriers and hundreds of police, many in riot gear, patrolling the street on foot and horseback, in cars and from helicopters. It is obvious Sacramento does not want to become another Seattle where anti-biotechnology protestors at the World Trade Organization rioted and caused millions of dollars in property damage.

It is an awesome show of force that seemed a bit overkill Sunday during an afternoon march of mostly young people. There seemed to be twice as many police as protestors. On Monday morning the area around the convention center was remarkably devoid of people other than those attending the conference. There was minor damage to the area Sunday in terms of graffiti and a broken office window. Police were prepared for the worse.

In her opening remarks, Veneman ignored the protestors, several of whom were adorned with paper mache butterfly wings, presumably to resemble Monarch butterfly wings.

Urged action

Instead, she urged aggressive action against growing world hunger and poverty. A year ago in Rome at the World Food Summit, it became obvious that progress toward the goal of reducing world hunger “was seriously lagging and that more effort, a stronger resolve, more resources and new approaches were needed. There was broad agreement that we must look to scientific and technological innovations for solutions.” That was the focus in Sacramento.

  • More than 800 million of the world's people, nearly one of every seven face chronic hunger.

  • Among children, one in three is undernourished and every five seconds a child is lost to hunger.

  • Half the world's people live on less than $2 a day.

Once America thought it could feed the world, but the focus of Veneman's remarks and focal point of the Sacramento conference was not on selling food to impoverished billions, but in providing them with the technology to feed themselves.

In many developing countries, 90 percent of the food consumed is locally grown, Veneman pointed out. “People who are hungry are less able to feed themselves and to be productive members of society,” she said.

Technology alone is not a solution, Veneman said. “It is merely a tool and without supportive policies and regulations, its benefits will not be fully realized. Policies that promote free markets and good governance produce economic growth.”

Open trade vital

Veneman did not miss an opportunity to talk about agricultural trading when she said open trading is vital to feeding the world. “It provides greater market access attracts investment, stimulates growth and contributes to food security. The growing role of developing countries in the trade policy agenda is a positive sign.”

The need for productivity gains is increasingly urgent, she said, explaining that by 2020, the world will have 1.2 billion more mouths to feed or the equivalent of another country the size of China. “Imagine the strain it will place on limited resources unless we have greater productivity advances,” she noted.

Nowhere is water availability and quality a more pressing problem than in California. It is becoming a global issue as well. “Improved water management is emerging as one of the great issues the world will confront in the 21st century,” said Veneman.

Globally, agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of total water usage and Veneman said science and technology can help increase crop yields with less water and provide early warnings of drought.

While controversial biotechnology has become and focal point of the Sacramento conference, Veneman said it is often “conventional technologies already widely used for decades that can be adapted to bring significant productivity gains to the world's poorest countries.”

Better nutrient management, contour plowing, improved seed varieties or simple irrigation may offer significant breakthroughs for impoverished nations.

“The goal is not technologies that make developing countries more dependent on the developed world. Rather, it is to make them able to better feed themselves,” she said.

Nevertheless, recent breakthroughs in molecular biology and information technology are creating even more opportunities to improve productivity. Emerging fields such as nanotechnology, proteomics and bioinformatics may, in some cases, allow countries left far behind to leapfrog ahead.

Biotechnology is already helping both small and large-scale farmers around the world by boosting yields, lowering costs, reducing pesticide use and making crops more resistant to disease, pests, and drought, she said.

Veneman said increasingly more countries are now growing biotech crops and research promises new ways to improve nutrition, prevent disease, conserve water, and produce crops in harsh climates.

However, biotechnology is locked out of some countries that need it desperately. “Technologies must be objectively assessed for benefits and risks, based on science not fear, rumor, or politics,” Veneman said.

“As men and women have done throughout history, we must harness the power of technology, using it wisely and for the good of all,” she said.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com