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Jul 30, 2014
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January 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.

Happy New Year: Here’s to your (soil) health!

Jan 30, 2014

 By Carol Keiser: Belleair, Florida

 
Tomorrow (January 31) marks the Chinese New Year, as the Year of the Snake gives way to the Year of the Horse. Festivities around the world will focus on food: gifts of sweets and fruits as well as family dinners.
 
The most significant celebrations will take place in mainland China, of course, but they’ll occur to a backdrop of grim news about Chinese food security: A recent report indicates that at least 8 million acres of China’s farmland is too contaminated for cultivation. Just last week, the government pledged to remove these areas from agricultural production.
 
China’s smog is better known than its soil. The dirty air is usually one of the first things visitors to the country notice. When my husband and I traveled to China last November, the air pollution was as thick as a London fog. We saw the particulates in the air, and felt the grime on our faces.
 
The soil suffers from a similar stress. I glimpsed this firsthand from the seat of our high-speed "bullet train" from Beijing to Shanghai. From my window, I looked upon what is supposed to be some of the best farmland in the country.
 
I’m used to the rich, black soil of Illinois. In China, however, the soil was grey and had a white cast to it.
 
At first, I thought this scene of lifelessness was a trick of the haze. But in the moments when the sun pierced the smog, it became clear that the soil was in fact badly depleted. It showed all the signs of being worn out and lacking the nutrients that plants need to grow.
 
Healthy soil grows healthy plants that produce healthy food that feeds healthy people. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true—and unhealthy soil poses a severe threat to food security.
 
Last month, China’s government admitted that as much as 2.5 percent of the nation’s soil may be too contaminated by pollutants such as heavy metals to sustain farming. That may not sound like much, but China is a big country—and the depleted area is roughly the size of Belgium (as Bloomberg News put it) or Maryland (as the New York Times calculated).
 
And the situation may be even worse: The study’s data are nearly five years old, having been kept under wraps as a state secret. If the old trend-lines haven’t reversed—and there’s no reason to think they have—the damaged regions probably have grown in size. The Associated Press has reported that as many as 60 million acres, almost 18 percent of China’s farmland, may be polluted.
 
China’s rapid urbanization contributes to the problem, as people abandon rural areas for cities. I saw farms next to smokestacks and mines—a sight that suggests that China’s planners haven’t thought carefully about preserving soil health.
 
Last year, an editorial in China Daily, an English-language newspaper that is usually a cautious mouthpiece of the government, expressed concern: "Soil contaminated with heavy metals is eroding the foundation of the country’s food safety and becoming a looming public health hazard."
 
Even without the threats of pollution and urbanization, China faces serious challenges to feed its people. About one-fifth of the world population lives in China, but China has only about one-tenth of the world’s arable land.
 
China’s government now promises to pour money into soil restoration, in an effort to return its suffering land to productivity. That’s a good start, and should be one element of a more comprehensive strategy.
 
Trade and technology are two other essential ingredients.
 
China already imports large amounts of food from countries such as the United States and Australia. It will want to continue and probably expand this practice, and avoid non-science based political disputes over genetically modified crops, as in the recent clash over shipments of American corn.
 
Separately, China will invest in the sound science of biotechnology and let its farmers have access to high-yielding crops, so that they can produce more food on less land.
 
In Chinese culture, the horse is a sign of ebullience and growth. It’s also an agricultural animal, often used for plowing. So let’s hope that in 2014—the Year of the Horse—China devotes itself to a rejuvenation of its soil.
 
Carol Keiser owns and operates cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Illinois.  She volunteers as a Truth About Trade & Technology board member (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Mr. President: Time to Lead the Dance of Trade

Jan 23, 2014

 By Reg Clause: Jefferson, Iowa

 
When I lifted the shade on my airplane window on a recent flight into Singapore, I could hardly believe my eyes. Below me, ships crowded the straits—too many to count. The colorful scene brought to mind those black-and-white photos of the D-Day invasion during WWII.
 
Except that these vessels weren’t going to war. They were going to trade. Singapore, an island at the southernmost point of Malaysia, is the world’s busiest transshipment site.
 
Viewing the busy harbor reminded me of the tremendous potential of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a possible free-trade agreement involving the United States, Singapore, and ten other nations around the Pacific Rim.
 
President Obama discussed TPP in last year’s State of the Union address, praising its potential "to boost American exports, support American jobs, and level the playing field in the growing markets of Asia."
 
I hope he describes the benefits of TPP again on January 28, when he delivers his next State of the Union address.
 
I’m a farmer by vocation, but I’ve also shared knowledge with farmers and food producers all over of the world. I’ve visited about 50 different countries. And yet what I saw in Singapore was the mind-boggling dance of trade, powered by shippers as they strive to meet the demands of a growing global middle class.
 
Sights like this make international trade more than an abstract concept—a figure on a balance sheet or a reference in a news story. Instead, it’s a mighty force of infrastructure and transportation that improves quality of life everywhere, from the bustling ports of Asia to the snowy fields of Iowa.
 
If you like to drink orange juice or eat fresh vegetables in January, you can thank trade for making it possible.
 
Our time in Singapore followed a visit late last month to see friends and meet farmers in the western part of Australia, another country in the TPP talks. They have been harvesting a record-breaking crop in Western Australia.
 
The western reaches of Australia are dry but farming is significant. Not so many people live there, and the farms sit on the ragged edge of a permanent drought. When they get enough moisture, the land becomes a breadbasket. The region exports as much as 80 or 90 percent of what it grows to places like SE Asia, Japan and the Middle East, where it’s harder to grow food.
 
When the rains don’t come—and this year, it began to look like they wouldn’t—farmers depend even more than normal on international markets. Trade allows them to modulate extremes, taking advantage of great opportunities when they arise.
 
The President may have witnessed similar scenes from the windows of Air Force One and his motorcades.
 
President Obama came into office as a trade skeptic, but became a convert. He came to understand that trade with other nations is a partnership that can benefit all, not a zero-sum game with a loser for every winner. He secured final passage of important trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. He also knows the United States suffers from a weak economy and exports are an area of strength; a source of wealth for our people.
 
A State of the Union address often is a hodge-podge of policy proposals, but these speeches also have themes—and many observers expect President Obama to focus on income inequality.
 
Experience teaches that free trade is a tool for helping people everywhere. It lifts people out of poverty in the developing world. Trade lowers prices and expands consumer choice in developed countries like the United States.
 
For President Obama, however, the challenge is not just to talk about the benefits of free trade: For years, he has devoted a few lines of his State of the Union address to this subject. In 2014, he must move from talk to action, and bring the TPP talks to a successful conclusion.
 
Great countries prosper from robust trade, and the United States should tie itself as closely as possible to Australia, Singapore, and the rest of the world’s trading nations.
 
Reg Clause is a Jefferson, Iowa farmer and business consultant.  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.

The Future of Food Security Depends on Good Science

Jan 16, 2014
By Gilbert arap Bor:  Kapseret, Kenya
 
As we begin a New Year, we often express our hope for the future.  In Kenya, there is hope that 2014 will bring a lifting of the ban on GM imports and mark the first time Kenyan farmers will have access to important tools of agricultural technology that have been withheld from them. 
 
One of the world’s great scientific hoaxes has been ratted out.
 
That’s the good news. The bad news is that his false claims already have done enormous damage to the cause of food security—and it will take a big effort to undo the harm here in Kenya and elsewhere.
 
The story began more than a year ago, when the academic journal Food and Chemical Toxicology published a shocking study by French researcher Gilles-Eric Seralini. It asserted that genetically modified crops—routinely grown by farmers and eaten by consumers—caused tumors in rats.
 
The implication was clear: One of our most conventional and important tools of food production might be bad for us.
 
This alleged finding generated headlines around the world. The enemies of biotechnology, always desperate for a new talking point, embraced Seralini’s work and trumpeted his conclusions. For more than a year, it was almost impossible to have a discussion about GM crops without hearing about "the rat study."
 
Loose talk led to bold action. France’s Prime Minister threatened to push for a total ban of GM crops in Europe. Russia suspended imports of GM food. In Kenya, where we struggle daily to feed a swelling population, the government banned GM imports and even sent agents into supermarkets to confiscate food with GM ingredients.
 
Despite this, many scientists immediately smelled a rat. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and Seralini seemed to contradict a mountain of previous research that has proven GM crops to be completely safe for farmers to grow and people to eat.
 
Experts who dipped beneath the surface of Seralini’s explosive claims quickly identified flaws in his study. Moreover, Seralini’s own behavior was suspicious: He shared pre-publication copies of his data only with journalists who signed an agreement not to contact other scientists for comment. This demand, rejected by many in the media, violated a fundamental precept of journalism. It also suggested that Serelini was more interested in publicity than scientific inquiry.
 
Yet Food and Chemical Toxicology is a peer-reviewed publication, edited by A. Wallace Hayes of Harvard University. So Seralini also was treated with a certain amount of respect.
 
It turns out that he didn’t deserve it: In November, Food and Chemical Toxicology took the remarkable step of formally retracting Seralini’s paper.
 
In its official statement, the journal noted that Seralini had based his astonishing claim on a tiny number of rats: "A more in-depth look at the raw data revealed that no definitive conclusions can be reached with this small sample size." To complicate matters, he relied on a variety of rat that is notorious for outbreaks of cancer: "Given the known high incidence of tumors in the Sprague-Dawley rat, normal variability cannot be excluded as the cause of the higher mortality and incidence observed in the treated groups."
 
In other words, "the rat study" is bogus.
 
The journal’s retraction is welcome, but of course it would have been better if Seralini’s research never had appeared in the first place. Its publication marked a great setback to the understanding of biotechnology in Kenya and around the world. Seralini’s phony claim occurred not in a vacuum, but in the real world, where farmers face the incredible challenge of growing enough food for a hungry planet. The imprudent publication of Seralini’s work allowed the enemies of biotechnology to spread propaganda and influenced government policy for the worse.
 
The future of food security in Africa and everywhere depends on good science. We have to grow more food on less land, at a time when climate change and disease threaten staple crops. In Kenya’s Rift Valley, grain farmers are watching a deadly virus cut yields by more than 70 percent. I, for one, harvested a mere 20 bags (about 2 tons) from one hectare of maize that normally yields 80 bags (7.5 tons)! Kenya now faces the stark reality of a shortage of over 10 million bags of maize according to Minister of Agriculture CS Koskey.  This significant loss of harvest due to disease could be minimized by the quick adoption of biotech seeds. Without access to GM maize seeds and the immediate lifting of the import ban on GM food, it is difficult to see how Kenya will avert a looming food crisis.
 
We need more scientists like Norman Borlaug, whose centennial year is now upon us: Men and women committed to safe advances in agricultural technology and food security, as opposed to charlatans who somehow manage to give even rats a bad name.
 

Gilbert Arap Bor grows corn (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. 

Cheerios Nutritious Finger Food for Generations of Children

Jan 09, 2014

 By Terry Wanzek:  Jamestown, North Dakota

 
When I think of Cheerios, I don’t think about GMOs. I think about little kids—and right now, I’m thinking about my new grandson.
 
He was born just before Christmas in Michigan. My wife, my youngest daughter and I flew from our farm in North Dakota to be with them, but a big blizzard and sub-zero temperatures have kept us from leaving.
 
So we’re snowbound, with extra time to spoil our grandson! That’s the first job of grandparents, of course.
 
He doesn’t do much right now except sleep and eat. Before long, of course, he’ll roll over, sit up, and laugh. In a few months, he’ll try his first bites of solid food.
 
I’m pretty sure it will be Cheerios. I look forward to the day when I can spread the cereal on the tray of his highchair and watch him play and eat.
 
He’ll probably even throw a few loops at me.
 
When it happens, the phony controversy over genetically modified food won’t be foremost in my mind—but right now, it’s hard to look at a yellow box of Cheerios and not think about last week’s announcement by General Mills to quit using GMO ingredients in its original variety of the popular cereal.
 
A few in the media have portrayed the decision as a kind of political victory: "Under pressure from activists, Cheerios switched to non-GMO ingredients," said the headline of a CNN story.
 
Yet they’re missing the bigger picture. General Mills simply made a business decision to offer some customers another choice.
 
In the statements surrounding its decision, General Mills has made clear that it fully supports biotechnology in agriculture: "There is broad consensus among major global scientific and regulatory bodies that approved genetically modified foods are safe." It cites the support of the World Health Organization, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and other groups: "All have found approved biotech crops to be as safe and acceptable as their conventional counterparts."
 
Although General Mills has been a strong supporter of agricultural technology it’s also a major food company with a wide range of products. To meet the demands of a vast marketplace, it puts out more than a hundred brands of cereals, baking goods, and snacks.
 
A small minority of consumers prefers food with non-GMO ingredients. So General Mills also offers organic products, which of course do not contain GMO ingredients. The original variety of Cheerios won’t be an organic food, but now it will try to appeal to this sliver of the population.
 
Oats are the primary main ingredient in Cheerios, and there’s no such thing as a genetically modified oat. Becoming a non-GMO product means only that original Cheerios won’t contain cornstarch and sugar from GMO sources.  These were only in very small amounts anyway.
 
Significantly, other varieties of Cheerios will keep their safe and healthy GMO ingredients, from crops such as corn, soybeans, and sugar beets. This includes Honey Nut Cheerios, which is my wife’s favorite flavor. One of the newer flavors, Peanut Butter Cheerios, can look forward to the day in the near future when biotechnology allows farmers to grow non-allergenic peanuts.
 
The Cheerios decision also exposes the silliness of the various state and federal campaigns to require costly labels for foods with GMO ingredients: Consumers already benefit from huge amounts of choices and information. And there's nothing wrong with GMO Cheerios. No sound science exists that suggests GMO foods are bad for our babies or ourselves. 
 
As a fourth generation American Farmer, I recognize that GMO food technology is a major piece of the puzzle when looking into the future and being able to supply enough food and fiber in an efficient, sustainable and safe manner.  And I do care about the future for my grandson, the sixth generation to possibly operate our family farm in North Dakota.
 
The bottom line is that most people will remain comfortable with mainstream GMO foods, but a few will choose to avoid them—and now General Mills has decided Cheerios will become just another option.
 
Babies of course won’t know the difference. They’ll grow up strong and healthy, just like they have for many generations before, eating whatever kind of Cheerios we put in front of them.
 
Terry Wanzek grows wheat, corn, soybean and pinto beans on a family farm in North Dakota.  He serves as a ND State Senator and volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

A New Year Wish from the Global Farmer Network

Jan 02, 2014

 By Mary Boote:  Des Moines, Iowa

 
The year 2013 has come and gone. How time flies when you have so much to say!  From global trade talks and the economic boost of exports felt around the world to the importance of agricultural technology for the world’s farmers, hear what the global voices of Truth About Trade & Technology (TATT) said about the year that was, as it happened.
In January, TATT board chairman Bill Horan pointed out that exports have fueled growth in a sluggish economy—but also warned that they’re slowing down. "Complacency now becomes a danger," he wrote, urging the White House to pursue new trade agreements. "None of this will happen without political leadership."
The next month, President Obama used his State of the Union address to advocate the Trans-Pacific Partnership and also to call for a new free-trade agreement with the EU. Tim Burrack hailed the remarks: "If [he] achieves just one of [these accords] in his second term … he will leave behind an impressive legacy on trade. If he achieves both, he may go down in history as one of America’s great trading presidents."
By summer, the news was looking up. "I’ve been involved in trade talks for decades, both as a participant and as an observer," wrote Dean Kleckner, TATT’s chairman emeritus. "The Europeans appear more eager than ever to come to the bargaining table."
The news got even better in December, when the countries involved in the World Trade Organization’s Doha round of negotiations finally reached a deal—an incredibly modest deal, but a deal nonetheless. "After years of arguing without result, they finally appear to have struck a deal that will make a difference," wrote Kleckner.
As we approached 2014, it became increasingly clear that Congress would need to pass Trade Promotion Authority, to improve the ability of U.S. trade diplomats to finish their negotiations: "It’s an excellent system that has worked well for a long time, keeping true to the Constitution and also promoting our economy in a variety of partisan environments," wrote Burrack in December.
TATT’s other main area of interest—technology—also brought welcome news. The selection of Pope Francis in March was not a technology story, but it provided John Rigolizzo Jr. with an opportunity to remind readers of an important fact: "The Vatican stands in the vanguard of science and technology," he wrote. "It’s one of the world’s strongest supporters of genetically modified crops." Nine months later, of course, Pope Francis became Time magazine’s Person of the Year.
Not everybody shared the Vatican’s views: Around the world, advances in technology came under intense pressure from political activists and scientific illiterates. Hawaii became a battleground, even though biotechnology saved the state’s papaya industry from the deadly ringspot virus. Ken Kamiya, a member of TATT’s Global Farmer Network, told the success story: "The tool of biotechnology saved us," he wrote in July. "Thanks to genetic modification, papaya farmers were able to grow papayas again. Today our small industry has recovered and virtually all of the papayas grown in Hawaii are GM crops."
Other enemies of technology tried to require warning labels on food with GM ingredients, without any scientific justification. "It would fool people into worrying that perfectly safe food poses a health hazard," wrote Carol Keiser in August, in response to a bill in Congress. "I’m not just a food producer," she continued. "I’m also a mother and a grandmother. When I stop at the store and decide what to put on the dinner table for my family, I depend on accurate and reliable labels. I don’t want labels that push me away from safe and healthy food."
The biggest fight of the year took place in Washington State, where voters weighed a ballot proposal to force labels on foods with GM ingredients. "If you believe in thinking globally and acting locally, then think about all the people around the globe who depend on modern methods of food production—and then act locally by rejecting a ballot initiative that will make GM foods harder to produce and costlier to consumers," wrote Ted Sheely.
The next week, Rosalie Ellasus of the Global Farmers Network explained the international ramifications: "We worry that their decision will threaten our livelihoods here" in the Philippines, she wrote.
The labeling proposal went down to defeat, and TATT’s newest board member, Mark Wagoner, interpreted the result: "Voters in my home state of Washington delivered a resounding message on Election Day: We trust America’s farmers."
Politics isn’t just about defeating bad ideas. It’s about advancing good ones. In November, Hope Pjesky made the case for the Charitable Agricultural Research Act, urging Congress to take on "what may be the greatest scientific challenge of the 21st century: Growing enough food to keep pace with a world population expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050."
Legislation can’t grow food, of course. That takes farmers—and specifically farmers who care about the soil. "I was taught as a young man that we don’t inherit the land from out ancestors—we borrow it from our children," wrote Terry Wanzek in September. "We couldn’t do it without technology. To be good stewards of the soil, we must take advantage of what science and innovation can offer, always on the lookout for how modern tools can help us grow more food and protect the earth."
V. Ravichandran, Indian smallholder farmer who received the Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award in October, echoed these sentiments earlier in the year: "Better soil leads to better living—and it all starts with a balanced diet, both for people as well as for the earth."
As we begin 2014, the centennial year of Dr. Norman Borlaug, it is good to be reminded of his words spoken in 1970 as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize:  "If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time, cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace."  From the global farmers who are Truth About Trade & Technology to each of you:  A wish for the New Year that brings bread for all and peace.
Mary Boote serves as Chief Executive Officer for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). 
Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.
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