Oct 1, 2014
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John Block Reports from Washington

RSS By: John Block, AgWeb.com

John Block has dedicated his professional career to the fields of agriculture, food and health.

To Salt or Not?

Aug 20, 2014

What should we be eating? We are getting hammered from every angle about what is good for us versus what is bad. Too many carbs, stay away from red meat, don’t trust GE foods, sugar will make you fat. The government wants to regulate.

We have been through this before but never with the intensity that we face today. I remember when they said, "Butter is bad for you. Eat margarine." Now, it is the other way around. At one time, some critics advised to not eat bacon because when you fry it, it is a carcinogen. How can the average consumer know what to do?

The World Health Organization, following the advice of a Tufts University research study, advised that we cut our salt consumption in half. The salt we eat leads to 1.65 million deaths annually.

Excessive sodium results in high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease. Our Food and Drug Administration plans to work with our food companies to get them to cut back the salt. FDA argues that we should consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. High levels are associated with high blood pressure. The average U.S. sodium daily consumption is 3,400 milligrams. Simply put – we are consuming too much salt.

However, we have a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine which tells us that if we cut back on our salt we will have a heart attack. The new study involved 100,000 people in 17 countries over 3 years. They found that individuals that consumed the low level of sodium recommended by the FDA had a 27% higher risk of death.

The new study suggesting that we aren’t consuming too much sodium today contradicts the position of the American Heart Association, the World Health Organization, and FDA.

Perhaps USDA’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee should consider making some adjustment in their recommendations – that is, if "they are worth their salt."

As for me, I’ll still salt my steak and eggs and, to be safe, I’ll have another piece of bacon and a glass of red wine.

The Benefit of Checkoff Programs

Jul 10, 2014

The ag industry in recent years has been on a roll – strong prices, increased exports, reasonable yields and a level of optimism not enjoyed by much of the rest of our economy.

Still, it’s no time to relax. As an industry, a very diverse industry, we need to hang together. We are all aware of the outside critics that want to dictate to us how to farm.

One important way that we have to protect the industry is to have a strong voice in Washington and also in the state governments. Another effort that can bring big rewards is research.

Producers need to get behind their commodities. In the 60s, Rollie Main and I and other Knox County, Illinois farmers started the Illinois Corn Growers Association. Later, we became part of the National Corn Growers Association. A checkoff program was established where corn producers made contributions to their industry funding muscle in state houses and Washington and paying for innovative research. Working with Monsanto and other companies, we have GE crops today. GE crop yields have exploded, and all the while we use less chemicals, less labor, less energy. Other commodities have done the same. They have been able to brand and market their food products because the checkoff programs provided the money to sell.

I’m a pig farmer. How many pork chops did we sell with "the other white meat?" What about dairy’s "Got milk?" We always ask "Where’s the beef?" These promotions have worked. Our biggest crops are corn, soybeans and wheat. The only one of the three that does not have a national checkoff program is wheat. I’ve talked with Jim Palmer, the President of the National Association of Wheat Growers. He thinks it is time to give wheat the resources that others have.

Wheat is in the spotlight now; with the World Food Prize is the Norm Borlaug Dialogue coming up in October in Des Moines, Iowa. Also, the Edgar McFadden Symposium in September at South Dakota State University. They are honored for their research on wheat. Norm Borlaug’s "Green Revolution" saved millions of people from starvation.

The "Green Revolution" of today is genetic engineering which will save millions also as the world population grows.


The Serious Problem Congress Should be Addressing

Jun 11, 2014

What’s in the news? It’s all over TV – the Veterans Administration scandal. Next, you will hear about the questionable swap of 5 terrorist prisoners for 1 army deserter. Obama Care problems are always in the news. However, have you heard anything about the Federal Highway Trust Fund projected to run out of money this summer? Probably not.

We need to pressure the Congress to deal with this serious problem. You know as I do that our roads and bridges are falling into disrepair. They need a lot of work.

I’m not suggesting that we should borrow a few billion dollars to fix the roads. We’re already 17 trillion dollars in debt. Raise the gas tax. It hasn’t been raised since 1993 – 21 years ago. A gas tax increase or vehicle miles tax is a user’s fee. That’s simple and fair. The drivers that are using the roads and bridges should pay for their upkeep. If they pay a little more, it will discourage over-use. The public at large should not be subsidizing our grain trucking or vacationing families.

Our infrastructure needs to be upgraded. It has been neglected for too long. There is some hope that we will get some funding to repair our locks and dams and sea ports. But, we don’t have the appropriations yet. Our roads and bridges need a reliable long-term fix also.

However, at this time, with the Highway Trust Fund money clock ticking down, the politicians don’t seem to appreciate the urgency. House Republicans are crafting a one-year plan to shore up the Fund. They want to end U.S. Postal Service Saturday delivery and use that money to fix the roads – for one year. That’s not the way to fix our roads – even though we should discontinue Saturday postal delivery. The Postal Service is losing billions of dollars every year. President Obama’s plan isn’t much better. He wants to see corporate tax reform and get the money there for the Highway Fund.

Our elected officials are afraid to raise the gas tax. Here is the answer – don’t call it a tax. Call it a user’s fee. If you don’t use the roads, you won’t have to pay.


A Look at Farming Today

May 29, 2014

This week, I’ve been walking the fields of corn and soybeans on our Illinois farm. Those little seeds germinated, and the plants are pushing through the soil and heading skyward. Look down those green rows stretching across the black land. What a beautiful sight.

When I look at my farm and my neighbors’ farms today, I can’t help but think about the dramatic change we have seen and lived through in my farming lifetime.

Most farms, when I was a boy, were not specialized as they are today. We milked 8 or 10 cows – by hand. We raised purebred Duroc pigs – 200 or 300 head. Every spring, my dad would get about 50 baby chickens. We raised them and saved the hens to lay eggs. The rest, we ate. Fried chicken almost every Sunday. My grandfather lived with us and he had 6 or 8 turkeys. I hated the turkeys. They were mean. We pulled our 2-row corn planter with 2 horses – Burt and Bill. Our corn couldn’t even yield 100 bushels per acre. Today, we expect 200 bushels.

Farms today are more specialized. We don’t have milk cows or chickens or turkeys or any beef cows either. We do have a lot of soy beans and corn – close to 4,000 acres and 5,000 pigs. Farmers today utilize all kinds of new technology. It’s precision farming.

We have a new report out which details how this business is changing. Just in the last 5 years, the footprint of U.S. agriculture has shrunk by 95,000 farms. That’s a 3% reduction. The land being farmed has also declined by a little over 7 million acres, which is less than 1%.

We have seen a huge increase in total production, even as the acres farmed have declined. We product more with less – less labor, less energy, less chemicals. One important thing that is still the heart and soul of American agriculture is the family farm. Drive from East Coast to West Coast and 87% of our farms are still family farms. They are just bigger. Average size – 434 acres.

Our crops are off to a good start this year. We hope for timely rains and a good growing season. They’re in God’s hands now.

Our Export Advantage

May 22, 2014

 U.S. agriculture has a global competitive advantage. We have access to, and use the best production technologies available. We have creative, educated, smart farmers and ranchers tilling the land and managing the livestock. But perhaps more important, we have a very efficient transportation infra structure that can deliver our products more cheaply to customers around the world. And we need to keep it that way.

There is a water resources bill in Congress now that is expected to pass, providing the foundation to support our competitive advantage.

Here is what AgriPulse has to say about the bill. "After months of negotiations, House and Senate negotiators, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (Cal) and Rep. Bill Shuster (PA) announced a deal to advance the $8.2 billion Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which could fix ailing locks and dams, restore waterways, renew ports, provide for flood control and create 500,000 new jobs."
We need to get this done to stay ahead of our global competition.

We export at least 30% of the food we produce. We still have a competitive advantage. Take a look at Brazil, perhaps our toughest competition. Consider soy beans from Iowa or Illinois down the Mississippi, over the ocean to Shanghai, China. We have a customer cost advantage of about $40 per metric ton over Brazil. That’s huge. Our water system with locks and dams is where we get ahead. In Brazil, since they don’t have our water system, their trucking costs are almost $100 per metric ton more than ours.

Getting political agreement with the gridlock that has tied our Congress in knots was not easy.

As I am sure you may be aware, the House will not allow "ear marks." Little special deals written into legislation to buy some Members votes. Well, the Committee found a way to satisfy those Members. They got the Chief of Engineers to put those special projects in his work report and that closed the deal. Like it or not, sometimes that’s how it is done. "You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours."

At any rate – so far, so good. Keep the pressure on the Congress to get this done. And, the next challenge will be to get the money to fund the project.

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