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March 2011 Archive for The Truth about Trade

RSS By: Dean Kleckner, AgWeb.com

Dean is Chairman Emeritus of 'Truth About Trade & Technology, a nonprofit advocacy group led by a volunteer board of American farmers.

Labeling A Rally For What It Is

Mar 31, 2011


By Ted Sheely – Lemoore, California
Outside the White House last weekend, anti-biotech activists sponsored an event called “Rally for the Right to Know.” Their goal was to promote a personal ideology: They want the federal government to slap warning labels on non-organic food products.
Judging from the lack of media coverage, maybe they should organize a rally for the right to know whether anybody showed up. Their protest appears to have been a near-total bust.
Here’s the really amusing part. For all of their fussing over labels, these professional protestors struggle with how to describe themselves. The “Rally for the Right to Know” was part an effort sponsored by the Organic Consumers Association to demonize a company that produces biotech seeds for American farmers who want to plant them--in other words, guys like me.
Yet if the campaign can’t turn out more than a handful of disgruntled picketers, then perhaps it should worry about the labels it applies to itself before it tries to force labels on everyone else.
It’s bad enough that the handpicked names of their own causes are examples of untruths in advertising. Even worse than this semantic con job, however, is the substance of their scheme. Their agenda is to have packages of food products containing non-organic soy, corn, cottonseed oil, canola, and sugar beets carry a label that says “May Contain GMOs.” (They also want all beef, pork, dairy, and eggs that come from Confined Animal Feeding Operations to be marked “CAFO.”)
The problem is that such a label conveys almost no worthwhile information for consumers as they make decisions in grocery stores. According to the Department of Agriculture, 86 percent of the corn and 93 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified. Americans eat this every day.  And we have been for years. There is nothing wrong with it--and absolutely no reason why products that contain these ingredients should carry a warning label that suggests otherwise.
The whole point of this exercise is to make Americans fearful about modern agricultural methods--and to assume that “May Contain GMOs” is a rough equivalent of those surgeon general’s warnings on packages of cigarettes.
There’s something Machiavellian about what these activists are trying to achieve. If anti-biotech labels mislead consumers, the organic food industry stands to reap enormous profits. It’s already a big business. The Organic Trade Association says that it sold food and personal-care products worth almost $27 billion in 2009. That’s roughly the net worth of Larry Ellison, the software magnate who is the third-richest person on the Forbes 400 list. The goal of the organic industry is to rake in even more dollars from people who wouldn’t normally buy its food, which is significantly more expensive than food produced through conventional farming practices, including biotechnology.
These plotters would have you believe that they’re just a lovable band of foodies who are taking on big, bad corporations. In reality, this is a classic case of a special-interest group trying to manipulate the federal government in order to gain a competitive advantage over its rivals.
There is in fact nothing suspicious and certainly not harmful about GM food. Over the last decade and a half, farmers have planted and harvested more than 2 billion acres of biotech crops. Untold numbers of people have eaten an unimaginably large number of servings of food with these ingredients. Despite this impressive ubiquity, nobody has ever documented a single health problem that can be traced back to biotechnology.
The evidence in support of biotech food is overwhelming. If the organic crowd was truly interested in accuracy, it might suggest this for a label: “May Contain GMOs, which have been endorsed by a wide range of governmental and scientific bodies such as the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science, the American Dietetic Association, the American Medical Association, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Health Organization.”
But that wouldn’t frighten consumers. And it probably wouldn’t leave room to say much of anything else on a food package.
Ted Sheelyraises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm in the California San Joaquin Valley. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology www.truthabouttrade.org


A Farmer's Hope for Japan

Mar 24, 2011

By Tim Burrack – Arlington, Iowa (www.truthabouttrade.org)

It was one of the worst natural disasters in Japanese history. Thousands died. Many more were homeless. Nobody knew how the country would recover.

The year was 1959. The culprit was Super Typhoon Vera, the worst storm to slam the island nation in recorded history. It crashed into Japan’s southeastern coast and raged northward, ripping right through the same region that endured the terrible earthquake and tsunami on March 11.
The experience of Vera and the reaction to it may hold lessons for today, as Japan begins a lengthy and expensive rebuilding effort—possibly with the assistance of American farmers.
This month’s disaster was of course unprecedented. Prime Minister Naoto Kan said that it was the worst catastrophe to hit his country since the end of the Second World War. The full extent of the devastation isn’t yet known, but it appears to involve losses of more than 10,000 lives and tens of billions of dollars in material goods as well as the ongoing risk of a nuclear meltdown.
Japan is a great nation and it will remain one. Yet it will require assistance from the United States, if only because we’re such important trading partners.
We can help with one of life’s necessities: food.
Initial reports suggest that Japan’s agricultural damage is limited. The country is in the northern hemisphere, just like the United States, so it too is emerging from winter. That means it hasn’t lost fields of crops that were close to harvest. The planting season traditionally begins in April and May.
But the planting season will be anything but normal. A lot of farmland still lies below water. Drained areas may prove unproductive because of salt in the soil. In the prefectures of Fukushima and Ibaraki, the government has detected high levels of radiation in milk and spinach.
So Japan will need a lot of help to feed itself.
Keep in mind that it needs a lot of help to feed itself in an ordinary year. The country imports most of what it eats. Almost 60 percent of its caloric intake comes from abroad. American farmers and ranchers sold food worth more than $13 billion to the Japanese last year, including almost a third of all the corn we exported.
One of the reasons why Japan buys so much from the United States goes back to that typhoon more than half a century ago.
Master Sergeant Richard Thomas of the U.S. Air Force saw firsthand how much damage the storm had done to livestock producers in Yamanashi prefecture. He took an idea to an official at the American embassy: How about bringing some hogs from Iowa to Yamanashi?
What happened next became known as the Iowa Hog Lift or the Yamanashi Hog Lift. Several Iowa farmers with help from the state of Iowa and the USDA gathered together three dozen hogs— thirty-four sows and two boars from four lean-meat breeds—and loaded them onto an Air Force plane bound for Japan.
Within three years, these hogs had produced about 500 progeny. Nine years after the lift, when the last of these original hogs had died, officials put the figure at half a million. These animals had literally given birth to Japan’s modern hog industry. Today, their descendants continue to thrive and they’re eating a lot of corn that’s grown in the United States.
They also served a diplomatic purpose, bringing together a pair of countries less than a generation after they had been at war. Today on the grounds of the Iowa state capitol in Des Moines stands the Bell of Friendship—a gift from the people of Yamanashi. When floods ravaged Iowa in 1993, the Japanese sent $300,000 in charitable donations.
Not bad for an investment of 36 hogs. It’s possible both to do well and do good.
Almost exactly a year ago, I was in Yamanashi to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the hog lift. The cherry blossoms were beautiful and our hosts were generous. None of us, of course, had any inkling of the horror that would be a part of Japan’s future.
A glimpse at our past, however, gives us reason for hope.
Tim Burrack raises corn and soybeans on a NE Iowa family farm. Tim volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org

Past Time For A Trade No-Brainer

Mar 17, 2011

By Terry Wanzek – Jamestown, North Dakota - Truth About Trade & Technology

When President Obama begins his tour of Latin America on Friday, two countries will be conspicuously missing from his itinerary: Colombia and Panama. Although Obama plans to swing by Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador, he opted not to schedule visits to a pair of nations that he claims are important partners in his plan to double U.S. exports by 2015.
Their absence on his schedule is disappointing - but no surprise. Five years ago, the United States negotiated free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama and Obama has called for their approval by Congress in his last two State of the Union addresses. Yet the current administration has done virtually nothing to secure their passage. At a hearing on Capitol Hill last week, senators from both parties practically begged the White House to submit the trade accords--but U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk hemmed and hawed about how they weren’t quite ready just yet.
This is nonsense. They’re more than ready. Democratic senator Max Baucus of Montana put it bluntly: “The time is here. The time is now. In fact, the time has passed to ratify the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.” (He also made it clear that he supports the deal with Panama.)
Baucus did something recently that Obama won’t do in the coming days: He visited Colombia. He came back convinced that the deal would be a boon to American farmers. Over the last two years, he said, the lack of a free-trade agreement with Colombia has cost American farmers $1 billion in sales. As a North Dakota wheat producer, I can tell you that much of the Colombian wheat market has gone to our competitors in Canada.
As a senator famously once said, a billion here and a billion there and suddenly you’re talking real money.
What would farmers do with an extra $1 billion? Some would invest it in their operations, buying new tractors made by American workers. Others would create new jobs, to be filled by a number of the 9.5 percent of Americans who are currently unemployed--a depressingly high figure that ought to have the full attention of lawmakers.
Sadly, the biggest trade news to come out of D.C. last week had nothing to do with expanding opportunities for American workers whose jobs depend on exports. Instead, it involved bureaucratic minutiae. As Bloomberg News reported, the White House may try to fold the office of the U.S. trade representative into the Department of Commerce.
Perhaps this is sensible from the standpoint of an organizational chart. At the same time, it appears to downsize the importance of trade by making one cabinet-level agency subservient to another cabinet-level agency. Whatever the specifics, it all seems like shuffling deck chairs on the Titantic. The administration’s paper-pushers are working hard to rearrange a few offices. Meanwhile, the president’s trade agenda is sinking.
In Colombia, we’re surrendering economic opportunities. U.S. farm exports to this country of 46 million people fell by 48 percent between 2008 and 2009 and an additional 45 percent, according to the Wall Street Journal. Exports of corn, soybeans, and wheat declined by more than two-thirds.
Many times, free-trade agreements generate opposition from people who worry that they’ll threaten employment in the United States. Yet even some of the strongest foes of the deal with Colombia are honest enough to admit the truth. “This does not pose job losses,” said Lori Wallach of Public Citizen in the Washington Post last week.
Her main concern, she says, is human rights. Under the leadership of its current and immediate past president, however, Colombia has improved enormously and can boast of a very good record on human rights. Its record certainly hasn’t created any hang ups for other countries. While the United States has dithered on its free-trade agreement, Colombia has negotiated deals with Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, and the European Union.
This is why U.S. market share has suffered so badly: Competitors have swooped in and taken the business that ought to be ours.
If the president had worked harder to finish the deals with Colombia and Panama, his trip to Latin America wouldn’t have to be a case study in avoiding the subject. It could have been a victory lap.
Terry Wanzek is a wheat, corn and soybean farmer in North Dakota. He serves as a ND State Senator and volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org

A Lenten Appeal for Biotechnology

Mar 10, 2011


By Gilbert Arap Bor – Kapseret, Kenya (www.truthabouttrade.org)
The season of Lent is upon us--the time of year when Christians around the world prepare for Easter through prayer, charity, and self-denial. Many farmers in the northern hemisphere also will use this season to start planting crops. It also happens that farmers in the ‘bread basket of Kenya’, where I live and farm, will also be planting the country’s staple maize crop during the same period. Appropriately, the word “Lent” comes from an Anglo-Saxon term for spring.
As a practicing Catholic who farms in Kenya, I’m committed to growing as much food as possible. I see it as an economic necessity for my family as well as a moral obligation that I must uphold as a steward of the earth.
That’s why I’d like to enjoy access to genetically modified seeds--a benefit that I don’t have right now, even though farmers in many other countries do.
A couple of years ago, a branch of the Vatican called the Pontifical Academy of Sciences gave its blessing to GM crops. At a conference in Rome, it celebrated GM food for its “great potential to improve the lives of the poor.”
This is certainly my impression, based on my conversations with farmers who use biotechnology. All of them say it has improved their lot. They talk about how GM crops have allowed them to kiss perpetual hunger goodbye. They can afford to educate their children and purchase small luxuries that seemed out of reach just a few years ago.
Biotechnology is a tool of empowerment for farmers everywhere--and especially in the developing world.
So I was distressed to read the recent comments of a highly placed African Clergyman at the Vatican: “I ask myself, why force an African farmer to buy seeds produced in other lands and with other means? The doubt arises that behind this is the play of maintaining economic dependence at all cost.” He went on to add, provocatively for a son of Africa: “I’d even say it becomes like a new form of slavery.”
He is entitled to his opinion and I respect that. I respect all announcements by the leaders of my church. 
Yet, I have my own opinion, drawn from my experience as one of the small-scale African farmers who produce as much as 80 percent of the food consumed on our continent.
We need access to GM seeds so that we can reduce hunger and famine on our impoverished continent and reduce its dependence on foreign food donations. I would certainly like to see the development of GM seeds on African soil by African researchers, an effort that the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute has tried to spearhead. The success of this project would remove much of the fear that African farmers will be forced to rely on foreign companies for their livelihood.
The benefits of GM crops are considerable. They would allow me to use less pesticide. This not only reduces a potential health risk for me and my family, but it also lowers my business costs--a saving that I can pass on to consumers at a time of skyrocketing food prices. Moreover, these crops would improve my ability to survive drought. They would lessen the amount of greenhouse gases I produce as I farm.
If we truly care about environmental sustainability, then we have to grow more food on existing farmland. GM crops are an important ally.
As Pope Benedict XVI has written: “Nature is a book whose history, whose evolution, whose writing and meaning we read according to different approaches of the sciences, while all the time, presupposing the foundational presence of the author has wished to reveal himself therein.”
There is one thing we must never do: Allow the urgent need for agricultural innovation to suffer at the hands of political agendas. The development of GM seeds is much like scientific progress in other areas, such as the effort to defeat the scourge of HIV/AIDS. It’s a moral mission well suited to the beliefs of Catholics.
In the book of Genesis (1:29), God says: “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.”
We must make the most of this miraculous gift--and that means letting the science of biotechnology help us grow more food for a hungry world.
Gilbert Arap Bor grows maize, vegetables and dairy cows on a small-scale farm of 25 acres in Kapseret, near Eldoret, Kenya. Mr. Bor is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network. www.truthabouttrade.org

Trade Paralysis

Mar 03, 2011


By Bill Horan – Rockwell City, Iowa (www.truthabouttrade.org)
This was supposed to be a great year for free trade. Yet America is more protectionist today than it was just a few weeks ago.
What went wrong?
It’s starting to look like another sorry tale of partisan gridlock--the sort of thing that everybody in Washington was promising to end.
The day after last November’s Congressional elections, as the Democrats’ one-party rule collapsed, both Democrats and Republicans promised to work together. “I told John Boehner and Mitch McConnell that I look forward to working with them,” said President Obama, referring to the Republican leaders in the House and the Senate. They replied in kind: “We’re willing to work with him,” said Boehner.
At times, it seemed like they were going to break out the peace pipes and sing “Kumbaya.”
On some issues, such as national health care, the White House and Republicans knew they didn’t share much in common. Trade policy, however, presented itself as an excellent candidate for potential cooperation if both sides made an effort.
The Administration renegotiated a pending free-trade agreement with South Korea, broadening its political appeal. Even the United Auto Workers endorsed it, joining farm groups and just about everybody who has ever belonged to a Chamber of Commerce. On January 25, Obama presented the deal as a political slam dunk in his State of the Union address. “This agreement has unprecedented support from business and labor, Democrats and Republicans--and I ask this Congress to pass it as soon as possible,” he said.
Now, more than a month later, Congress has yet to consider an agreement with Korea, even though it would boost American exports and create jobs in the United States.
“In recent weeks,” reported the New York Times on Monday, “[Obama’s] trade agenda has nearly ground to a halt amid partisan feuding.”
So much for “unprecedented support.”
Washington probably leads the nation in the production of blame--and right now there’s plenty of it to go around. Republicans accuse Obama of not pushing hard enough for the agreement and point out that Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana, who chairs a key committee, remains an outspoken skeptic. Democrats have their own gripes. They complain that Republicans are refusing to expand trade adjustment assistance, a federal program for workers who suffer blows from import competition. They also charge the GOP with creating a new stumbling block for the South Korean measure by insisting that it be combined with free-trade deals involving Colombia and Panama. Although these accords aren’t nearly as large as the one with South Korea, they face greater resistance.
The sadly predictable result: paralysis.
Except that it’s even worse than paralysis, which suggests mere inactivity. On trade policy, we’re not just failing to move forward--we’re actually losing ground.
On February 12, the Andean Trade Preferences Act expired. For 20 years, it had granted Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru duty-free access to sectors of the U.S. market in exchange for cooperation on drug interdiction.
Now it’s gone.
Separately, the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which dates to 1976 and intends to help developing countries, also lapsed. With GSP, the culprit is Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who claims that a certain sleeping-bag manufacturer in his state can’t compete with a business in Bangladesh. So he’s holding up the whole kit and caboodle.
As it happens, Sessions isn’t offering some kind of patriotic stand for a made-in-America product. The owner of the company he’s defending also controls a sleeping-bag plant in China, according to the New York Times. This is provincial politics at its most small-minded.
There’s more at stake here than how much Boy Scouts will spend on sleeping bags this spring. The larger issue is America’s role as a global economic leader. Instead of expanding opportunities for U.S. workers and enterprise through the promotion of highly touted free-trade agreements, we’re closing our doors to the rest of the world.
Trade policy should be about creating economic opportunities for Americans--not giving the politicians in Washington an excuse to criticize each other.
We need the trade agreement with South Korea and we need it now.
Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa. Bill volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade and Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org
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