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March 2014 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.

To Indian Farmers and Farmers Around the World: Norman Borlaug is Our Hero

Mar 27, 2014

 

 

By V. Ravichandran: Tamil Nadu, India
 
Norman Borlaug is my hero—and he’s a hero to a billion of my countrymen here in India as well.
 
This week, we honor Borlaug’s centenary: He was born on March 25, 1914 in Cresco, Iowa. Before he died 95 years later, in 2009, he became the father of the "Green Revolution," which transformed agriculture, especially in developing nations. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
 
I’m old enough to remember what life was like in the 1960s, before India benefitted from the Green Revolution. We had plenty of farmland, and yet we still needed to import a huge amount of food. Sadly, we couldn’t grow enough to feed our own people. A few experts predicted mass starvation.
 
Then came Borlaug, teaching us how to make the most of modern technology. Our farmers gained access to high-yielding grains and hybridized seeds. We adopted synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, improved our irrigation, and updated our management practices. In a single generation, we moved from primitive to modern.
 
I am of the strong opinion that the Green Revolution not only drove away hunger but also helped increase the literate population, increased the proportion of healthy people, increased the average life span of Indians, helped us to develop in other sectors too because of higher literacy rates.
 
Today, in the aftermath of the Green Revolution, our population has more than doubled in size. It now tops 1 billion people. Rapid urbanization has led to the loss of huge amounts of farmland.
 
It sounds like a recipe for disaster: More mouths to feed and less land for crops. Yet today we’re better at feeding ourselves than ever before.
 
We haven’t solved all of our problems. Malnutrition remains a deadly scourge. But it’s less of a scourge than it once was.
 
We owe it all to the Green Revolution. And that means we owe it all to Borlaug. According to one estimate, more than a quarter of the world’s wheat calories derive from Borlaug’s innovations. Some demographers claim that a billion people are alive today because of him.
 
I always wanted to meet Borlaug but never did. I came close in 2005: He was giving a speech in Chennai, a city not too far from my farm. Unfortunately, I was unwell at the time and missed my chance. Last fall, however, I traveled to the World Food Prize in Des Moines and participated in a panel discussion moderated by Julie Borlaug, his granddaughter. At long last, I was able to pay my respects to the Borlaug family.
 
This week, we’re discussing Borlaug’s legacy at village meetings and on radio programs across India. Younger Indians must learn how much they owe to this remarkable biologist.
 
Sometimes I wonder what Borlaug would say today, if he were still with us. Here’s what I think he would tell the farmers of India:
 
"The Green Revolution helped you achieve self sufficiency. Now you face even bigger tests. Your arable land continues to shrink. Your water resources are depleting. Your population keeps growing. Climate change looms as a threat. Many of your children have abandoned the farm for the city."
 
Those are the problems. Then he would describe a solution:
 
"You must be ready and willing to accept new technologies, striving to grow more food on less land.  You have the potential to achieve.  I have seen your strength during the Green Revolution."
 
He might also have a message for the government of India:
 
"You cannot rest on your laurels. In agriculture, conditions always change—and you must be ready to change with them. That means you must make wise decisions guided by sound science rather than raw emotion. For the sake of your population, which continues to grow, you must make pragmatic choices that allow farmers to do more."
 
The father of the Green Revolution was an early supporter of the Gene Revolution—the movement in agriculture to use the powers of biotechnology to help us grow more food. We’ve already seen the initial benefits of genetic modification, especially in the areas of pest and weed resistance. Soon we’ll see more, as Borlaug’s successors learn how to develop plants that can survive droughts and floods. They’ll also apply what they know to different varieties of food, such as brinjal.
 
The world may never see another Norman Borlaug, but we can choose to learn the lesson of his heroic life: If farmers and governments are open to new ideas, we will meet the agricultural challenges of our time.
 
Mr. V Ravichandran owns a 60 acre farm at Poongulam Village in Tamil Nadu, India where he grows rice, sugar cane, cotton and pulses (small grains).  Mr. Ravichandran is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network and is the 2013 recipient of the Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 

 

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Poland is Supporting Ukraine In Hopes of Food Security and Peace

Mar 20, 2014

 By Roman Warzecha: Mazowia region of Poland

 
The whole world is watching events unfold in Ukraine—and here in Poland, we’re paying especially close attention.
 
Ukraine is our neighbor. We share a common border of 535 km. It not only separates our two nations, but also marks the eastern edge of the European Union. From my farm north of Warsaw, I know that developments in Ukraine can influence life on this side of the line.
 
One of our top concerns involves Ukraine’s food security. Just about everyone, in fact, has a stake in helping Ukraine realize its full potential as a granary for Europe and beyond.
 
As Kiev pries loose from domination by Moscow—and confronts Russia’s potential annexation of Crimea—Poland is doing its part to bring stability. Our hospitals have been treating people injured on the Maidan, the main square in Ukraine’s capital. We’re also organizing assistance in the form of food, medicine, and clothing. We’re even preparing for a humanitarian crisis, setting up camps that can house thousands of refugees.
 
These are short-term measures. In the long run, the people of Poland and elsewhere must make sure that Ukrainian farmers can grow their crops and export them, for the sake of both Ukraine and its customers.
 
Right now, Ukraine is the world’s third-largest exporter of corn (behind the United States and Brazil) and the fifth-largest exporter of wheat. It remains to be seen how the recent political turmoil affects this year’s shipments, but early indications suggest that Ukraine will continue to sell plenty of food. Even Russia’s takeover of Sevastopol, a Crimean port on the Black Sea, might not have much of an impact, say experts. Food can flow through Odessa and other ports whose status within a sovereign Ukraine is not in dispute.
 
Yet there’s no telling what the coming months may bring. The EU relies on food from Ukraine, and any reduction in shipments will cause prices to jump. For Europeans, this would represent an aggravation rather than a crisis, but that may not be true in other places.
 
Egypt is also a leading buyer of Ukrainian food, especially of wheat—and a cutoff could have major geopolitical implications. The tumult of the Arab Spring has many sources, but one of the most important involves food security. Political upheavals from Tunisia to Syria have roots in food shortages.
 
Desperate people do desperate things, and the Middle East would not benefit from more unrest.
 
Even before meeting this foreign demand, of course, the new government in Kiev must make sure that Ukraine feeds itself. This is nothing to take for granted: In the 1930s, as the Soviet Union forced farms to collectivize, it triggered a massive famine in Ukraine. Some 7 million people died in this manmade catastrophe. Many Ukrainians regard the incident as an act of genocide.
 
It’s hard to imagine the same thing happening again today, but then human affairs are full of catastrophes that nobody foresaw. We ignore the lessons of history at our peril.
 
Poland never suffered through a famine like the one in Ukraine, but my own family can point to hardship at the hands of the Soviet Union’s bad farm policies. When I was a child, my father resisted collectivization, as did many other Poles. Most of my life would pass before we finally won our freedom in 1989. I still remember helping the local election commission count votes through a sleepless night.
 
Ukrainians want much the same thing today: They seek a country free from the meddling of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and tied ever more closely to the EU and the rest of the world.
 
Their country is blessed with rich farmland that is the envy of other nations. Yet nothing guarantees that this resource will produce as much as it should. Success will require wise leaders who put fertile land into the hands of private farmers, attack corruption, invest in machinery, restore irrigation, and permit access to new seeds and technologies. Ultimately, Ukraine needs social peace and territorial integrity.
 
I look forward to the day when we can stop paying attention to Ukraine—a day when it’s out of the news and on the road to freedom and prosperity.
 
Roman Warzecha grows maize, sweet corn, rape and cherries on a family farm in the Mazowia region of Poland.  Mr. Warzecha leads maize and triticale research at Poland’s Institute of Plant Breeding and Acclimatization (IHAR) and is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
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Nicaragua Dreams of Building a Canal for the Ships of Tomorrow

Mar 13, 2014
By Tim Burrack: Arlington, Iowa
 
The Panama Canal almost was the Nicaragua Canal. A little more than a century ago, the United States came close to building "the path between the seas" to the north of Panama’s narrow isthmus.
 
If an ambitious Nicaraguan politician and Chinese billionaire have their way, however, a new waterway may yet connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It would become "the largest civil-engineering and construction project in the world," reports Jon Lee Anderson in the March 10 edition of the New Yorker.
 
I don’t believe the Panama Canal will face a competitor in Nicaragua anytime soon, if ever. But competition is healthy, and perhaps the mere threat of a massive Nicaragua Canal will lead to the completion of necessary improvements in the Panama Canal. Better yet, maybe it will encourage urgent repairs to our own transportation infrastructure here in the United States.
 
The Panama Canal is of course a modern marvel and this is its centennial year. An enormous accomplishment, it took a decade to complete. More than 5,000 workers died, mostly from disease. This was a costly toll, but their sacrifice made possible a great hub of global commerce that has served the interests of nations, producers and consumers throughout our hemisphere.
 
For many years, however, the Panama Canal has required an upgrade—a widening and deepening that will allow it to support the world’s largest ships. The eight-year project began in 2007.
 
Two months ago, cost overruns of $1.6 billion put the venture at risk. Work actually stopped for a couple of weeks as the builders and the canal authority argued over prices. They appear to have settled their differences, though the final completion of the canal’s new locks may be delayed from 2015 to 2016, according to the Wall Street Journal.
 
In the world of gargantuan construction projects, that’s not much of a setback—and the success of an upgraded Panama Canal provides a strong inducement to finish. If this isn’t enough of an incentive, the prospect of a brand-new canal in Nicaragua also should keep the canal’s improvements more or less on schedule.
 
Wang Jing, a secretive Chinese financier, believes he can build a huge canal across Nicaragua in five years and for just $40 billion. That may sound wildly optimistic, but Wang seems pretty serious about the endeavor. He has already spent $100 million on feasibility studies, reports the New Yorker.
 
Last September, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega signed a formal canal concession with Wang’s company. So Wang looks to have cleared the political hurdles, which of course can be as tricky as the technical ones.
 
A canal across Nicaragua nevertheless poses a number of serious challenges. Although it would take advantage of rivers and a 40-mile-wide lake, it would be more than three times the length of the Panama Canal. Its locks would have to raise vessels 108 feet above sea level, compared to 85 feet for the Panama Canal.
 
There’s a reason why the Panama Canal is in Panama: It’s a better route.
 
Yet a fully modern canal across Nicaragua might enjoy certain advantages. Right now, the Panama Canal is expanding to catch up to the current generation of container ships and supertankers. Even bigger ships may be on the way. The Panama Canal’s expensive improvements could turn obsolete shortly after they open for business.
 
The talk of a Nicaragua Canal is "definitely a call of attention to Panama," says a port-management expert in Anderson’s article.
 
It should be a call of attention to the United States as well. Our own waterways barely accommodate the ships that take American-made and grown products to customers in other nations. Just as we need an efficient system of highways so that people can drive around the country, we need an efficient system of locks and dams to let us move our goods quickly to their destinations.
 
It’s hard to imagine the Panama Canal competing against a canal in Nicaragua. Yet American exports compete against the products of other nations everyday—and we must make sure they enjoy every advantage we can give them.
 
Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a NE Iowa family farm.  He serves as Vice-Chairman and volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 

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Food Labels Should Not Confuse a Consumer

Mar 06, 2014

 

By John Rigolizzo:  Berlin, New Jersey
 
"This is a huge deal," said First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House last week. "You as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into a grocery store, pick an item off the shelf, and tell whether it’s good for your family."
 
Mrs. Obama is absolutely correct, and her remarks came at an event calling for revised nutrition labels on food packages. The Food and Drug Administration now will seek comments from the public. Any changes are probably at least two years away.
 
In the meantime, however, Congress may want to take an extra step and stop states from creating a crazy-patch collection of rules for the labeling of food with genetically modified ingredients. The first lady didn’t mention GMOs in her talk, but applying her principles to a rising controversy would solve a problem before it hurts farmers, families, and consumers.
 
Biotechnology has revolutionized agriculture, allowing farmers to grow more nutritious food on less land than ever before—a trend that’s good for families worried about their checkbooks and good for everyone who’s concerned about the environment. We eat food derived from genetically modified crops everyday. Groups from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization have endorsed their use.
 
As with so many technologies, however, this one has attracted passionate opposition from a small number of professional protestors. They’re determined to wage a campaign of misinformation against GMOs, and their latest scheme is to persuade individual states to require warning labels on products that include genetically modified ingredients. One of these activists told Politico last month that he expects 30 state legislatures to weigh labeling proposals this year.
 
Their plan is to confuse consumers, frightening them away from safe and healthy choices.
 
They’ve adopted this ploy because they know they can’t win through the legislative process on the federal level. Last year, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont proposed a law to let states require labels on food with GMO ingredients. Majorities of both Democrats and Republican opposed the measure. It went down to defeat by a vote of 71 to 27.
 
In December, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California—one of the senators who favored Sanders’ bad idea—became so frustrated by the failure that she called on President Obama just to ignore the will of Congress. "Use your authority to require labeling" of GMOs, she demanded in a letter to the president.
 
That’s unlikely to happen—not after so many of the president’s fellow Democrats came down on the side of common sense.
 
Voters have done the same. Last year in Washington State, they rejected a ballot initiative to require labels of food with GMOs. A year before in California, they voted down another pointless labeling law. In both referenda, voters came to understand that labels simply would boost food bills without delivering any benefits. They also recognized a simple fact: Anyone who wants to avoid GMOs, for whatever reason, simply can shop for organic foods, which don’t rely on genetic modification.
 
Yet the enemies of biotechnology won’t give up—and they’ve already experienced a bit of success. In Connecticut and Maine, lawmakers have approved labels for GM foods, though these rules won’t take effect until other states in New England join them (and so far none have). Activists are also talking about pushing an initiative in Oregon, or perhaps Colorado.
 
So we may be at a tipping-point moment. It seems increasingly likely that although voters and lawmakers will continue to support biotechnology, the anti-GMO activists will continue to attempt to break through in a handful of states.
 
This is silly. We shouldn’t have 50 sets of complicated food regulations, subject to the whims of sparring special-interest groups.
 
Last week, Mrs. Obama described a common conundrum: Many people, she said, had "marched into the supermarket, you picked up a can or a box of something, you squinted at that little tiny label, and you were totally and utterly lost."
 
Congress should put an end to this problem before it starts, for the sake of farmers who need modern agricultural tools and consumers who seek reasonable assurances that they’re buying safe and healthy food.
 
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm produces for retail and wholesale markets.  John is a volunteer board member of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 

 

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