U.S. agriculture used to mean the production of feed, food and fiber. But with the development of renewable fuels like ethanol and environmentally friendly plastics, those days are gone, USDA Secretary Ann Veneman told the St. Louis Agribusiness Club this week.

“This is a critical time for agriculture,” Veneman said. "It is a time of change. We look to a bright future for agriculture, a future where science and technology remain indispensable, and a future of productivity and profitability.”

Veneman said USDA is focused on helping farmers expand existing markets and develop new uses for their products. “American agriculture needs additional avenues to sell products. Two of the best ways to make sure we have more opportunities available are looking at new and alternative uses for agriculture and international trade,” she said.

Speaking to a largely crops-oriented group, she said that crops hold incredible potential to be used as material sources for industrial and commercial products. She pointed to ethanol as a product that's already stimulating economic development, and pointed out that congressional passage of the Renewable Fuels Standard could further increase corn’s profitability.

“A Renewable Fuels Standard, setting minimum production at 5 billion gallons, could significantly increase the corn for ethanol production from nearly 1.4 billion bushels today to about 2 billion by 2012,” she said. “That would boost corn and sorghum prices by an estimated 10 cents to perhaps as much as 30 cents per bushel.”

As crude-oil prices continue to rise and fossil fuels become exceedingly limited, ethanol will become even more important to U.S. consumers, according to Veneman. “Renewable energy is no longer a futuristic or abstract idea."

Veneman also emphasized the importance of biotechnology in agriculture. In 2003, she created USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture to examine the role of biotechnology in agricultural production today.

The importance of vibrant trade policy also topped Veneman’s agenda. “Aside from new technologies and new uses, additional trade opportunities are critical to the future of American farmers,” she said.

In response to a question from the audience, Veneman talked about improving transportation infrastructure on the nation’s waterways.

“The Administration has expressed support for working on the locks and improving the lock system,” she said. “Obviously, some of these systems now are in need of updating and improvement so that they are available for…agriculture and other resources that use the waterways to transport their products.”

National Corn Growers