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Oct 1, 2014
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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.

Africa’s Farmers Want to Plant the Best Crops Science Can Offer

Sep 25, 2014

 By Gilbert Arap Bor:  Kapseret, Kenya

 
To many people around the world, the cassava is an exotic crop that they have never eaten. Or so they think.  Yet anybody who has tasted tapioca pudding has profited from this versatile plant: Tapioca is a starch that comes from the cassava, a tropical shrub whose tuber is edible.
 
I don’t eat much cassava either. Farmers don’t grow it in my part of Kenya. Yet it’s a staple crop on my continent—a rich source of carbohydrates for millions of Africans. "Cassava is to the African peasant farmers what rice is to the Asian farmers, or what wheat and potato are to the European farmers," says Alfred Dixon of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.
 
In Tanzania, researchers have figured out how to improve the cassava through biotechnology—a development that everyone ought to celebrate and promote.
 
This progress comes at a good time because the cassava brown-streak virus has become the leading threat to food security in many parts of East Africa. One study says that the disease can slash a farm’s productivity by as much as 70 percent. When it strikes, many smallholder farmers simply abandon their fields—and each time that happens, Africa’s dire food problems grow a little bit worse.
 
Biotechnology offers a potential solution. Scientists have learned how to trigger the cassava’s immune-defense system, allowing the plant to fend off the lethal brown-streak virus. These miracle plants are currently in field trials in Tanzania. If the field trials go well, farmers and consumers across the region will benefit.  In East Africa, this means many smallholder farmers will experience enhanced cassava production, and hence food security and incomes.
 
Yet that will happen only if politics doesn’t get in the way of science. In Africa, unfortunately, politics always seems to intrude. Too often, we turn over our public policies to special-interest groups that despise biotechnology for reasons of ideology.
 
The result is a tragedy for Africa. Our continent routinely fails to feed itself.
 
In the United States and elsewhere, GM crops have produced an enormous bounty. This year, corn farmers in the Midwest are shattering all-time yield records, in large part because they can grow the best crops science can offer.
 
From the eyes of this African farmer, though, every year is a pretty good year for American growers. I wish we could enjoy similar levels of success.
 
The difference is technology. Americans have embraced it—and now they’re growing more food than ever before. In Africa, our governments have resisted GM crops—and we continue to suffer from hunger and malnourishment.
 
Forty-seven countries occupy the continent of Africa, but only four—Burkina Faso, Egypt, South Africa, and Sudan—have permitted the commercialization of GM crops. The rest of us must rely on farm technologies from the last century, even as we confront the 21st-century problems of climate change, environmental sustainability, and rapid population growth.
 
The cassava would be an excellent way to introduce more biotechnology into Africa. Most of its production goes straight into human bellies, feeding people directly. It’s also an essential famine-reserve crop. When other staples struggle or fail due to disease or drought, many Africans turn to the cassava for basic sustenance.
 
So a cassava plant that fends off the deadly brown-streak disease would be a blessing—and not just for the people who depend on this particular plant. Its commercial introduction could pave the way for Africa to accept more technology, especially in neighboring countries. Right now, goods and services, including crops, move with relative ease across our borders.
 
If Tanzania were to permit the cultivation of GM cassava, consumers and farmers in Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda would see the advantages and benefit in their food security strategies. My own country of Kenya, which shares a long border with Tanzania, might finally put an end to the delays that keep GM crops off our farms and abundant food off our plates.
 
Kenyan researchers already have tested GM varieties of cassava, corn, cotton, sorghum, and sweet potato. We know they’re safe, both from our own research as well as from the widespread adoption and success of GM crops elsewhere. New research that will focus on Africa’s ‘orphan crops’, food crops like cassava that are not economically important to the global market but important fixtures in ‘back gardens’ of rural Africa, by groups like the African Orphan Crops Consortium, will shield East African farmers from climate change and ultimately improve the diets of Africa’s children.
 
The only thing standing in the way is politics. Africans must allow science to trump fear and accept the technology that’s improving food production almost everywhere else.
 
Let’s start with the cassava in Tanzania.
 
Gilbert Arap Bor grows maize, vegetables and dairy cows on a small-scale farm of 25 acres in Kapseret, near Eldoret, Kenya.  He also teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus.  Mr. Bor is the 2011 Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award recipient and a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Trade Creates a World Primed for Peace

Sep 18, 2014

 By Bill Horan: Rockwell City, Iowa

 
War dominates the news these days, from the conflict between Russia and Ukraine to the battles splitting the Israelis and Palestinians. Last weekend, as Pope Francis marked the centenary of the First World War, he offered a bleak observation: "Perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction."
 
He meant that we’re possibly living through a slow-motion Third World War.
 
This wasn’t the legacy President Obama had envisioned for himself. He was elected to the White House on a promise to improve America’s image and reduce its military entanglements. Last week, however, he felt compelled to go on television and plead for aggressive strikes against the Islamic Republic.
 
Sometimes even peacenik presidents must fight.
 
Yet, I believe President Obama should stick to a few of his original principles. In the final years of his presidency, he has a unique opportunity to leave behind a world that’s primed for peace. To achieve this goal, he must push harder than ever before for free trade—and in particular, for the completion and passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement that would link the United States with a group of nations around the Pacific Rim.
 
When countries go to war, they need peace treaties, not trade agreements. Tariff reductions won’t settle the differences between Russia and Ukraine. Export quotas aren’t the secret source of Middle Eastern turmoil.
 
The miracle of free trade is something else entirely: It can stop the fighting before it starts.
 
Nations that trade goods and services don’t shoot bullets or fire missiles at each other. There are plenty of exceptions to this truism, of course, but it’s also a sturdy rule of thumb—and one that ought to guide President Obama’s diplomacy during his administration’s home stretch.
 
Last week, U.S. trade negotiators returned home from Hanoi, where they participated in the latest round of TPP talks. They claimed to make progress, meaning that with a few more successful meetings, they could strike a deal that will connect the economies of a dozen countries whose annual economic output approaches $30 trillion.
 
This would open new markets for U.S.-made goods and services, fueling growth and creating jobs within our borders.
 
As a farmer, I have a big stake in trade. I live in landlocked Iowa, close to the geographic middle of the United States, but my family’s wellbeing depends on customers in other countries. We export about a third of our corn and about half of our soybeans.
 
So how would TPP promote peace? Let’s remember the Second World War, the one sandwiched by the older and newer conflicts mentioned by the pope a few days ago. Its Pacific theater pitted the United States and its allies against Japan—in other words, it divided the countries that TPP now brings together. A generation later, the United States fought in Vietnam, another participant in TPP talks.
 
In the 21st century, it may be hard to imagine a new conflict between the United States and Japan or Vietnam. Yet back when our soldiers were dying on the islands of the Pacific and in the jungles of Indochina, it was probably difficult to conceive of the partnerships we enjoy today.
 
If geopolitics teaches us anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as permanent friends or everlasting enemies.
 
This is where TPP fits in. Trade produces incentives to solve quarrels before they explode into something worse.
 
Stronger economic connections among countries that ring the Pacific Ocean will create the conditions for more peace. That will be especially true if China ever joins the TPP—an expansion that won’t happen in the near term, but could happen in due course, as TPP’s economic benefits become apparent.
 
We won’t ever live in a world without conflict. The actions we take today, however, will shape the world our children and grandchildren inherit. With the right mix of determination and diplomacy, we can make their situation better than it would be otherwise.
 
So in his last two years, President Obama may need to wage a war he didn’t anticipate—and he should also use free trade to bring us a peace we’ll welcome.
 
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 and serves as Chairman for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

An Illinois Farmer Adds His Voice in a Message to EPA: Ditch the Rule

Sep 11, 2014

 By Dan Kelley:  Normal, Illinois 

 
A comedian once asked why we drive on parkways and park on driveways.
 
Let me tell you about another semantic mystery: waterways.
 
They aren’t always what they seem either—and yet they’re at the center of a new push by federal regulators to gain more control over farmland and other pieces of private property.
 
The confusion began earlier this year. "We’re proposing a Clean Water Act rule that clarifies which waters are protected—with an eye toward those critical waters upstream," wrote Gina McCarthy, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, in March.
 
Whether the proposed rule clarifies anything is an open question. Presented jointly by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, it takes up 88 pages of small print in the Federal Register.
 
Those 88 pages of obscure technicalities and administrative legalisms may provide clarity for bureaucrats. For the rest of us, however, they’re as murky as a swamp.
 
And that brings us to "waterways."
 
When people read that word, they think of moving bodies of water: rivers, streams, creeks, and so on. Yet this is not what they are, or at least not what farmers mean when we use the word. To us, "waterways" are intermittent channels that fill and flow during torrential downpours.
 
So that’s the first thing to know about "waterways": They’re almost always dry. They become wet only once or twice a year, when the rain falls so heavily that the soil can’t absorb all of the moisture. The result is runoff—and the rise of a temporary "waterway" that carries the water downstream, before drying up again.
 
A well-maintained "waterway" is an important part of sustainable agriculture. It prevents soil erosion and helps us grow more food on less land. We work hard to make our "waterways" work well, mowing them several times each summer and reshaping them with earth-moving equipment every three to five years. Most start out as natural features that follow the contours of the land, but almost all are improved by human intervention.
 
Out of habit, we continue to call them "waterways," but they are probably better understood as "erosion-control structures."
 
The main objective of the proposed rule is to let the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers exert greater authority over the country’s water supply, including seasonal streams and wetlands. Officials insist that their aims are limited, but farmers like me are skeptical. We’re worried that as regulators apply their new rules, they’ll define "waterways" in a manner that allows them to reach onto our farms, disrupting our safe practices and making it more costly to grow food.
 
This could become a case study in the law of unintended consequences: Well-meaning regulators try to clarify the meaning of "waterways," but wind up raising the price of food without improving anybody’s health or safety. Moreover, if the regulatory burden of "waterways" grows too heavy, it will create perverse incentives for farmers to become less concerned about the threat of soil erosion.
 
A couple of weeks ago, one of my Senators—Mark Kirk of Illinois—met with a group of farmers in my area to learn more about the proposed rule. I had the opportunity to show him one of the "waterways" on my farm. It looks like a grassy path, about 30 feet across, and lined on both sides by stalks of corn. As we stood in the middle of this "waterway," I explained its purpose. The whole time, our feet stayed dry.
 
There’s nothing like firsthand observation. With that in mind, I’d like to invite regulators from the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to visit my farm as well—and to discover that "waterways" may not be what they imagine them to be, when they write their rules from their offices in Washington, D.C.
 
We all want clean water. We also want common-sense regulations that allow farmers and others to go about their work in ways that are both economically and environmentally sustainable.
 
Joining others across the US, I am adding my voice in a direct message to the EPA: "Ditch the Rule".  Let’s have rules that protect our lakes and rivers and other important bodies of water—and let’s leave these "waterways" out of it.
 
Daniel Kelley grows corn and soybeans on a family farm near Normal, IL. He volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Science Lesson Learned: Science is in almost every mouthful of food we eat

Sep 04, 2014

 By John Rigolizzo IV:  Berlin, New Jersey

 
Science class in high school hasn’t taught me much about farming, but working on my father’s farm has taught me a lot about science.
 
I’m receiving my formal education at St. Joseph High School in Hammonton, New Jersey, where I’m just now starting the 10th grade and playing offensive line on the JV football team. At the same time, I’m earning an informal—but equally important—education on our family farm.
 
This spring, I planted all of our corn and some of our soybeans. Over the summer, I protected them from weeds. We’ll harvest soon. Along the way, I’ve learned practical lessons about hard work as well as the need to keep fields clean and crops in straight rows.
 
I’ve also received hands-on lessons in science. You might say that science is in almost every mouthful of food we eat. It was certainly in every seed I put in the ground. The corn and soybeans we choose to plant on our farm are genetically modified to fight weeds, pests, and drought.
 
A lot of people seem to think farming is like tending a garden, only bigger. They don’t realize that this is no hobby – it’s a business. Advanced science is at the core of modern agriculture.
 
When many of us think of biotechnology, our minds turn to test tubes and lab jackets. Mine turns to tractors and fields. In reality, biotechnology occurs every day in nature, under a different pseudonym:  adaptation. I’m a biotech adopter, and I’ve gained a basic understanding of how genetically modified crops work and a genuine appreciation for why they matter.
 
From the earliest times, people have tried to create the best ways to feed the masses. This has always involved genetic modification. When ancient farmers noticed that a certain crop survived a dry summer or resisted a harmful pest, they recognized that it possessed special properties. Through crossbreeding, they tried to make these desirable genes pass down from one season to the next.
 
Although they failed much more than they succeeded, they also enjoyed great accomplishments.
 
Consider the case of corn. Today, it’s one of the most instantly recognizable crops, growing taller than most people stand and producing big cobs full of kernels that we feed to livestock and love to put on our own dinner plates.
 
Thousands of years ago, there was no such thing as corn. There was only a wild grass called teosinte, and it produced just a few kernels per plant. Countless generations of Mesoamerican farmers—Aztecs, Mayans, and others—went to work. Across the centuries, they transformed teosinte into the modern corn crop.
 
Similar stories could be told for just about everything we cultivate.
 
Old-fashioned breeding was a bit like playing the lottery: Mostly you lose, though occasionally you win. Today, we have the scientific know-how to win more often and in less time. We can make big improvements from one growing season to the next, not needing to wait decades or longer. In a sense, we’re still playing the lottery, but biotechnology rigs the odds in our favor.
 
We can also perform crossbreeding exercises that are beyond the reach of conventional biology. The way to defeat the citrus-greening disease that presently threatens to wipe out Florida’s entire orange industry, for example, may lie in the DNA from spinach.
 
Some people talk about farm biotechnology as if it tries to harness powers we barely understand and produces plants that glow in the dark. This is beyond silly: Scientists know what they’re doing and farmers know what they’re planting.
 
Because of these advances, we’re growing more food on less land than ever before. We’re also saving the papaya in Hawaii, discovering ways to insert extra nutrition into the rice paddies of Malaysia, and searching for methods that will help coffee growers protect their beans from fungus in Colombia.
 
I probably wouldn’t know any of this but for farming: I’ve learned about the past and future of agriculture from farmers like my dad.
 
I don’t know if I’ll be a full-time farmer when I grow up—I have a lot of time to decide—but I’d definitely like to keep our farm in the family’s hands. One thing is for sure: If we’re serious about feeding the world and making agriculture a viable profession for young people to enter, we must embrace biotechnology and all it can do for us.
 
John Rigolizzo IV is entering the 10th Grade at St. Joseph High School in Hammonton, New Jersey.  He works on the family farm in Berlin, New Jersey. Johnny is the youngest member of TATT Board member John Rigolizzo’s family and the newest addition to the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Best Crop Ever is a Modern Technology Success Story

Aug 28, 2014

 By Bill Horan: Rockwell City, Iowa

 
After 40 years of farming, I think I’ve finally gotten it right: I’m about to produce my best crop ever.
 
I won’t have the numbers to prove it until we harvest in another month or so, but it looks like our farm in Iowa will yield corn at a rate of 240 bushels per acre, up from a 10-year average of about 187 bushels per acre.
 
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that American farmers will grow more than 14 billion bushels of corn, an all-time high.
 
Good soil and good weather explain a lot of our success. Yet the difference-making ingredient is the man-made miracle of technology. The genetics that help our crops grow and thrive benefit farmers and consumers alike.
 
I’ll be the first to admit that some of our success this summer is pure luck. We’ve enjoyed humid days and cool nights, which are ideal for growing corn. A little bit like us, corn goes through 24-hour cycles of work and rest. This year’s conditions have let corn convert sunlight to energy during the day and then recover at night.
 
Farmers also have to work hard—and unlike the corn, we’re not genetically programmed to flourish. We need to learn from our labor and strive to improve.
 
In his book "40 Chances", Howard G. Buffett says that most farmers will live through 40 growing seasons—and so they’ll have 40 chances to get better at what they do. I’ve now had my own 40 chances, and the most important thing I’ve learned is that our biggest improvements come from technology.
 
The genetics behind our seeds allow us to grow bumper crops in years like the one we’re in. They also boost performance in more stressful years, when the nights are too hot or the days too dry. Root systems are much larger than they were a generation ago, helping our corn stalks stand tall against the high winds that can blow them over.
 
I’ll never complain about the kind of good weather we’ve enjoyed this summer, but it’s important to note that good weather for crops also can mean good weather for harmful pests. Through technology, however, we’re able to fend off the bad insects as never before. Instead of relying on crop-protection tools that wipe out even the beneficial bugs, we can breed plants that resist the destructive ones specifically.
 
Bumper crops excite farmers, but they make us anxious, too. The laws of economics say that large supplies lead to lower prices—and right now, corn is cheap. This is excellent news for consumers. Corn goes into thousands of every-day grocery-store products, often in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. We use corn for oil, sweeteners, and livestock. Inexpensive corn means less expensive food.
 
It also means cheaper gas because we transform corn into ethanol. This year’s huge harvest should end the food vs. fuel argument. We can produce plenty of both.
 
Nobody wants prices to drop so low that farmers struggle. One of the best ways to help farmers is to promote exports. We already ship about one-third of our corn to other countries. Yet we can always send more, and our federal officials play an important part in making this possible.
 
This year, for example, we’re on track to sell more than 130 million bushels of corn to Colombia, comprising about 95 percent of that country’s corn market, according to the U.S. Grains Council. Our brand-new dominance is a direct result of a free-trade agreement negotiated by the Bush and Obama administrations and approved by Congress three years ago.
 
We need more trade agreements, starting with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact that would drive the sales of goods and services to customers around the Pacific Rim. We would all also profit from upgrading our infrastructure, which lets us move food by road, rail, and river.
 
I won’t have another 40 chances to keep on improving, but I do plan to farm for a bit longer. With better trade and technology, I intend to keep on getting things right—and to have my best crop ever a few more times.
 
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 and serves as Chairman for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.
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