Europe needs more science A coherent scientific approach to food safety to prevent trade disputes and allay consumer fears over genetically modified (GM) foods is needed in Europe, according to Gus Schumacher, U.S. Agriculture Under-Secretary.

Speaking at a farming conference in Oxford, England, Schumacher says the European Union (EU) needs an equivalent organization to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Decisions [on food safety] have to be made on the basis of science and the evidence not on politics and fear," he states.

Peter Jackson, chief executive of Associated British Foods PLC, lent his support. "For the sake of the future of the food industry worldwide we have to find a forum which commands respect and operates with international authority."

By press time, the EU had proposed the creation of a European food-safety agency called the European Food Authority. However, the EU's health and consumer afffairs commissioner David Byrne favors limiting the power of this proposed agency, leaving final decisions to pull suspect foods off store shelves up to politicians, not scientists. - American Seed Trade Association

Profits from precision farming? In an effort to discover what combination of crop inputs, agronomic practices and technology will yield the best return on investment for growers, Case IH and Cargill AgHorizons are joining forces for a three-year project called FarmTwo.

This cooperative effort, which builds on Case IH's FarmOne and Cargill AgHorizon's InSite precision programs, will reexamine every aspect of precision agriculture. "We know that precision farming should boost farm productivity, help manage costs and protect natural resources, but we need more hard data to quantify those benefits," says Don Lamker, project coordinator from Cargill AgHorizons.

FarmTwo will conduct research trials on 1,800 acres of nine farms in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Manitoba, Canada, working with farmers who have experience with precision agriculture.

Food giant buys into organics In a move that may begin to further accelerate the organic food market, General Mills recently bought Small Planet Foods, a leading producer of organic food products. Small Planet's Cascadian Farm brand sells organic frozen fruits, vegetables, juices and entrees, and its Muir Glen line offers organic canned tomatoes, pasta sauces, salsa and condiments. Combined annual sales for these organic brands total approximately $60 million.

"Sales of organic and natural foods have been growing by more than 20% a year over the last five years, and this strong market growth is expected to continue," says Steve Sanger, chairman and chief executive officer for the company. "Small Planet is a highly respected company in the organic industry. We're very excited about the opportunities we see for expanding Small Planet's existing product lines and developing new organic foods."

General Mills also launched the first certified-organic cereal from a major manufacturer last March called Sunrise, which contains both wheat and corn.

Lessons learned "It's clear that the agricultural industry has not done a good job educating consumers about the benefits of pesticide use. It's important that we don't make the same mistake with biotechnology and other new farming practices." Dean Kleckner, president, American Farm Bureau Federation

Survey says Although consumers appear open minded about many farming practices, they are not comfortable with the use of pesticides in food production. In exchange for chemical-free food production, 57% will accept higher prices; 68% will accept a smaller food selection; 72% will accept seasonal availability; and 73% will accept biotechnology. Roper Starch survey of 1,002 consumers in July/August 1999, sponsored by Philip Morris and American Farm Bureau

Tips on farming's future Talk to a dozen or so progressive farm managers on large and small farms and you'll quickly come up with all kinds of new ideas. Kent Olson, University of Minnesota's extension farm management specialist, did just that and grouped ideas into four areas:

1. Just producing and selling won't work anymore. Farmers must capture value and respond to consumer wants and needs. They should look at contracts with elevators, companies, even neighbors to gain added value.

2. The production system should be redesigned beyond the present drive to cut costs. Farmers must meet the price offered by the market instead of continually looking for a market to cover costs. To do this, farmers mentioned ideas such as more cultivation and less herbicide, flexible cash rents and shared machinery.

3. Use of new technology, including precision farming, computers and the Internet, will change both physical practices and management methods. Farmers are concerned about local communities and businesses and stated that they want local services, not just low prices from the Internet.

4. Farmers must develop broader management skills including risk management to protect income and farm resources. This means "big picture" thinking, more than hedging and use of options. Producers need to look at such aspects as personnel selection and management, process controls and developing profit centers.