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August 2008 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.

Open Invitation to a Prince

Aug 29, 2008
Dear Prince Charles:
 
I’ve just read your recent interview with the Daily Telegraph--the one from earlier this month, in which you condemn agricultural biotechnology as an “absolute disaster” and “the classic way of ensuring there is no food in the future.”
 
And you didn’t stop there. You warned that GM crops would lead to “the biggest disaster environmentally of our time.” You also claimed that genetic enhancement doesn’t increase crop yields.
 
You even asserted that “millions of small farmers all over the world [would be] driven off their land into unsustainable, unmanageable, degraded, and dysfunctional conurbations of unmentionable awfulness.”
 
On each of these points, I beg to differ. Your ideas about farming are as antiquated as the notion that countries should be governed by kings and queens rather than presidents and prime ministers. Biotechnology isn’t a disaster to be avoided--it’s an opportunity we dare not ignore.
 
Still, I can understand your confusion. After all, for many years misinformation and propaganda against biotechnology have dominated the discussions in Europe. The atmosphere is so poisonous, in fact, that one of your fellow aristocrats, Lord Peter Melchett, was arrested a few years ago for destroying a field of GM crops. This is an example of a criminal zealot, not a leader.
 
I know that you would never stoop so low as to attack a sanctioned scientific experiment. Without research, after all, we’ll never learn anything about biotechnology, good or bad. Surely on this we can agree.
 
I believe that you’re willing to study biotechnology with open-minded seriousness. You spoke of having visited farms in Australia and India, to learn about their operations. Obviously, you like to see things firsthand.
 
With that in mind, let me extend an invitation: Come to Iowa. See how we farm here, using the very best that biotechnology has to offer. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you discover in one of the world’s great and most productive regions.
 
I know that you’re very concerned about soil quality as am I and all my farmer neighbors. Our livelihoods depend upon it and our heritage requires it.  We appreciate that biotech seeds allow us to reduce or eliminate tillage which reduces fuel use and carbon footprint. We understand that superior weed control with reduced chemicals means higher yields and less pressure on our environment and health.
 
I’ll show you reports that describe what my yields have looked like over the years, acre by acre. They’ve gone up for a number of reasons--and biotechnology is one of the most important. Farmers stay in business by producing as much as possible. Midwest farmers have almost universally embraced biotech seeds in corn and soybeans. Today we produce immense harvests that even partially support a move away from fossil fuels. This productivity reduces global pressure to bring wilderness areas under a plow.
 
In your interview, you said that biotechnology would destroy small-scale farming in poor countries. The goal should be to move small farmers from subsistence and worry to a position of having a little excess to sell; allowing them to feel secure in their existence.  Better seeds are literally the key to lifting people from poverty and fear.
 
Have you ever noticed that famines don’t strike countries that engage in the most modern agricultural practices? This isn’t a coincidence. Farmers in developing countries have amazing potential. Biotechnology can help them step forward in peace and prosperity.
 
All projections indicate we’re going to have to continue improving productivity if we’re going to feed anybody and alter our fuel production methods. If we fail in this area, the future will be full of what you call “unmentionable awfulness.” This challenge will not be met by regressive methods and repressive elitist policies. Biotechnology is among our current tool set for meeting that huge food AND fuel challenge.
 
But don’t take my word for it. Please accept my invitation. Come to Iowa and see how we do things here.
 
Reg Clause, a Truth About Trade and Technology board member (www.truthabouttrrade.org) raises cattle, corn and soybeans on a fourth generation family farm in central Iowa. 
 
 
 
 

Global Food Productions Olympic Moment

Aug 22, 2008
The Summer Olympic Games in Beijing have gripped people all over the globe. All Americans celebrated the swimming heroics of Michael Phelps. Here in Iowa, we are thrilled at the gold and three silvers won by 16-year old, personality-plus Shawn Johnson from West Des Moines. The country of Georgia applauded its judo wrestler as he defeated a foe from Russia, its neighboring nemesis. And if you blinked, you might have missed Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt break his own world record in the 100-meter dash.
 
For China, the Summer Olympics held a special significance. The world’s most populous country has viewed the games as a kind of coming-out party for itself. Developing nations don’t often get to host these events. The last time was forty years ago, in Mexico. China has wanted to prove that it could meet the enormous logistical challenge of building venues and coping with a massive rush of tourists.
 
China seeks nothing less than to demonstrate that it’s a fully modern nation.
 
We’ll see how it fares when all of the reviews are in. Meantime, there’s the question of what China will do next to prove itself. Signs suggest that it will soon make big waves in agriculture, by approving the widespread planting of genetically improved rice.
 
This would be a huge advance for food production around the world. If and when the Chinese take this step, we should cheer them as we do runners as they approach the finish line of a gold-medal race.
 
For years, China has allowed massive field trials of GM rice. Yet Beijing has resisted granting formal sanction to this promising crop, in part because it’s spooked by the potential reaction of consumers in other countries. Although Americans, Canadians, Brazilians, South Africans, and many others around the world have accepted the reality of biotech foods, there are some who continue to panic at the mere thought of them.
 
In the last month, both Japan and New Zealand have detected trace amounts of GM rice in rice shipments from China. Previously, China’s GM rice has turned up in Europe, where many people are downright hysterical about biotechnology.
 
Up to now, China has been sensitive to these concerns, even though any danger is utterly unfounded. Yet resistance to the benefits of biotech rice is a luxury that neither China nor the rest of the world can afford.
 
Food prices are just too high. As we cope with trying to feed more people, we simply must produce more food--and biotechnology offers one of the best solutions.
 
In July, agricultural officials in Beijing said that Chinese farmers must increase their crop yields by at least 1 percent each year in order to continue supplying a population that currently numbers about 1.3 billion people. One of the surest ways of doing this is to promote the adoption of GM rice that is better able to fight off pests and weeds than conventional varieties of rice.
 
Other countries are reaching similar conclusions. This year, South Korea has doubled the amount of GM corn it imports in an effort to fight rising food costs. Vietnam recently announced its full acceptance of GM crops.
 
Last week, Kenya jumped on the bandwagon. “I believe the way to get our nation out of poverty is to have the right technology in agriculture,” said William Ruto, Kenya’s agriculture minister.
 
For China, the Olympics have been a very big deal. A few months ago, a writer in the China Post said that they represented nothing less than “the rebirth of a country.”
 
That’s quite a claim to place on the shoulders of a sporting event, no matter how large or exciting. The closing ceremonies are Sunday night and soon these games will fade into our collective memory.
 
Meanwhile, people all over the planet will be hungry tomorrow. Many of them live in China. Countless others who depend upon rice as a staple food are elsewhere.
 
If China really wants the people of the world to see it in a new light, it should lead the way with a new technology. The Summer Olympics have thrilled us for the last couple of weeks--but GM rice can nourish us for years to come.
 
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org
 
 

A Confusing Conclusion

Aug 13, 2008

In Europe, GM food is bad but GM babies are good.
 
What else are we supposed to conclude from recent news that the British parliament has voted to permit the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos?
 
Prime Minister Gordon Brown called it “an inherently moral endeavor” and added that “we owe it to ourselves and future generations to introduce these measures.”
 
Advocates insist that the vote will advance research into stem cells, with medical benefits. Detractors raise ethical questions. A religious leader, for instance, called the move a “monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity, and human life.”
 
I don’t mean to settle this dispute. It raises thorny questions and arouses strong passions. We’ve certainly seen that during similar debates in our own country.
 
Yet I’m struck by a strange paradox: Although Europe seems willing to rush boldly into this controversial area of science, it still refuses to have much of anything to do with GM crops.
 
The European Union hasn’t approved a new GM crop for a decade. In a recent poll of EU member states, 58 percent of respondents said they were “apprehensive” about GM foods.
 
Technically, Europe isn’t a GM-free zone. Spanish farmers grow nearly 200,000 acres (75,000 hectares) of GM corn. Some farmers in France, Portugal, Germany, Slovakia, Romania, and the Czech Republic also take advantage of this technology.
 
In reality, they account for only about one-tenth of one percent of the world’s total biotech crop. The United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, China, Paraguay, and South Africa each dwarf the combined European figure.
 
The reason for this gap between Europe and much of the rest of the world is ignorance. Due to an unhealthy combination of scare-mongering interest groups and spineless politicians, Europeans have come to believe that GM crops pose health risks. This view is about as scientifically defensible as the flat-earth theory, but too many people nevertheless hold it.
 
Some Europeans have spoken out in favor of GM crops. Many farmers see their value and have called for greater acceptance. Several key figures in the British government also support agricultural biotechnology. Its former chief scientist, Sir David King, recently said that GM crops are essential to solving the global crisis in the cost of food.
 
Yet these sensible people face intense and often bizarre opposition.
 
In Switzerland, something called the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology recently issued a report called “The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants.” As Wesley J. Smith reported in the Weekly Standard, this group declared that people cannot claim “absolute ownership” over plants. In addition, it said that “individual plants have an inherent worth.” What in the world does this mean?
 
“We may not use [plants] as we please, even if the plant community is not in danger, or if our actions do not endanger the species, or if we are not acting arbitrarily,” says the panel.
 
The plant community? It sounds like a term invented by a satirist who is trying to come up with a politically correct phrase for gardens. Then again, it could also be the rhetoric of stark-raving madness.
 
The Swiss report provides an illustration of its “give-peas-a-chance” ideology. Let’s say a farmer cuts his field and then, on the way home, casually “decapitates” a few dandelions with his scythe. This is deemed immoral--a violation of plant dignity.
 
You may think this all sounds too crazy to be true. But sadly, as the humor columnist Dave Barry might say, I am not making this up.
 
Between Europe’s embrace of human-animal embryo hybrids and its flirtation with the utter nonsense of plant rights, I’m not sure whether to call the continent a Brave New World or a Cowardly Old World.
 
All I know for certain is that the safety and usefulness of biotech crops are beyond dispute. The nearly 2 billion acres grown in the past 12 years is the proof. For all practical purposes, these are now conventional plants. We use them as sources of food every single day. In the United States, it’s becoming downright unconventional to grow non-GM corn and soybeans.
 
Many members of the plant community would agree. When will the Europeans finally hear their pleas?
 
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology www.truthabouttrade.org
 

Sweet Motivation

Aug 07, 2008
On his fourth voyage across the ocean, Columbus captured a large trading canoe off the coast of what is now Honduras. Among its contents were beans from cacao trees. The explorer seems not to have understood their true significance. He had stumbled upon the key ingredient to chocolate.
 
A couple of generations would pass before Europeans developed a taste for what was already considered a delicacy among the indigenous people of Central and South America. Today, of course, chocolate has gone global--it’s possibly the most popular flavor in the world.
 
Chocolate makers would like to keep it that way: Mars, the candy company, recently decided to invest $10 million to unravel the genome of the cacao tree. The motivation behind the five-year project is to develop a hardier crop, using the latest tools of biotechnology.
 
That makes sense. Biotechnology has revolutionized the ways in which farmers grow food, all for the better. In the United States and elsewhere, we’ve seen how an improved understanding of genetics has boosted yields for corn, cotton, soybean, and canola farmers. Working in conjunction with IBM and the Department of Agriculture, Mars hopes to accomplish something similar for the men and women who nurture cacao trees.
 
Most of them live in West Africa, which is where about 70 percent of the crop comes from, even though the plant itself is a native of the New World. Around the globe, roughly six million farmers directly depend upon the cacao tree. The vast majority are small-scale growers who pick their beans by hand. They’re extremely vulnerable to the hazards of drought and disease.
 
So are the 40 to 50 million people whose livelihoods are tied in some way to cocoa production, according to the World Cocoa Foundation. (The words “cacao” and “cocoa” are often used interchangeably. From a technical standpoint, cacao is preferable because it comes from the tree’s scientific name, but cocoa is the Anglicized and more popular term.)
 
Brazil used to be a leading exporter of cocoa, until a fungus decimated its industry. More recently, African farmers have had to contend with rising temperatures and declining rainfall. Mars has estimated that these challenges cause farmers to lose as much as $800 million each year.
 
Consumers ultimately foot the bill. In the last year, the cost of cocoa has gone up 50 percent. All kinds of food prices have spiked recently, of course, but most of these increases primarily are the result of an abundant demand rather than a scarce supply. With the cacao tree, it looks like the reverse may be true.
 
There’s no telling precisely where the science will lead. Yet it almost certainly will produce information that helps this important crop fight off pests and disease as well as improve its use of water and nutrients.
 
“Mars saw the potential this research holds to help accelerate what farmers have been doing since the beginning of time with traditional breeding, ultimately improving cocoa trees, yielding higher quality cocoa, and increasing income for farmers,” said Howard-Yana Shapiro, the global director of plant science for Mars.
 
Interestingly, Mars won’t patent the genome sequence. Instead, it will make everything it learns available through the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture, a non-profit group that works to make technology available to small-scale farmers in developing countries.
 
Biotechnology is sometimes said to benefit big corporations at the expense of lowly farmers. This is a myth--and one that the Mars project will help to expose.
 
The survival of cacao-tree farming is essential to everyone with a sweet tooth. Those who can resist the temptations of chocolate also have a stake in this work because it turns out that a little chocolate may be good for you. Cocoa is packed with natural antioxidants. Because of this, eating chocolate--and especially dark chocolate--may be related to improved blood flow and reduced blood pressure.
 
As with everything, moderation is critical: There’s no avoiding the unfortunate fact that chocolate is also high in fat and calories.
 
Maybe that’s the conundrum Mars should seek to solve next
 
Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and grains in Northwest Iowa. This fourth generation family farm has been involved in specialty crop production and identity preservation for over twenty years. Mr. Horan is a Truth About Trade & Technology Board member.
 

Don’t Forget the Goal

Aug 01, 2008
So the world trade talks are kaput.
They collapsed earlier this week in Geneva. Trade ministers from nearly three dozen nations failed to reach a wide-ranging agreement on improving the flow of goods and services across borders, under the auspices of the World Trade Organization.
We’re now in a predictable, albeit disheartening period of finger pointing. The United States and the European Union insist that developing countries weren’t willing to open their markets enough and developing countries complain that advanced nations refused to offer adequate concessions on agricultural subsidies.
The recriminations are like a case of Monday-morning quarterbacking. But there’s an important difference: Nobody won this game. When the Doha round fell apart, everyone lost. We’ve missed a major opportunity to boost global wealth by trillions of dollars. That’s how much an economic analysis conducted for the Copenhagen Consensus said these talks were worth.
Instead of celebrating a great success, the WTO now must confront a disaster. Peter Mandelson, the EU’s trade chief, warned that trade talks are dead “for the foreseeable future.”
They sure are. The immediate danger isn’t that trade won’t advance in the near term, but that it may actually regress. Protectionism is on the march around the globe. The end of the Doha talks certainly doesn’t mean that trade between nations will stop, but there’s a chance that it will become substantially less free, for the first time since the close of the Second World War.
Everyone should take a deep breath and recall what presidential candidate Barack Obama said last week in Berlin: “Trade has been a cornerstone of our growth and global development.” 
It would be a shame, then, to let it slip away. For more than 60 years, trade has played a key role in boosting prosperity in both rich and poor nations. At this time of uncertainty, we should take steps to ensure that this remarkable progress doesn’t come undone.
What the WTO needs right now is a Battle of Antietam – an engagement that it wins simply by not losing. At the start of the American Civil War, the Union suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of the Confederacy. Fort Sumter, Manassas, and the Peninsula campaign were a series of embarrassments. Then came Antietam, which was technically a draw. Yet President Lincoln managed to claim it as a victory for the North, simply because it wasn’t another setback. It even gave him the political cover to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
World leaders should seek a similar break for the WTO – an accomplishment of any magnitude that reaffirms the organization as a legitimate and vital framework for negotiation.
An achievement along the lines of what was once imagined for the Doha round won’t be possible again for a while. In the meantime, though, the WTO should try to nudge nations toward better trade relations in a few key areas.
Agriculture won’t be one of them. It’s probably the thorniest issue any trade minister must deal with and it’s the ultimate source of Doha’s demise.
But there may be areas of potential compromise and agreement, such as an industry-specific accord. How about WTO talks that concentrate exclusively on the manufacture and trade of cars and trucks? These wouldn’t necessarily have to involve all 153 member nations of the WTO. Whereas every country has a stake in agriculture because every country has farmers, not every nation has auto factories.
As a short-term option, the WTO could focus on non-tariff issues, such as harmonized regulatory structures or a global set of rules to govern customs. Advances in one or both of these areas would help overcome some of the less obvious impediments to trade.
Potentially even more worthwhile is what success in these areas would represent: momentum in a positive direction rather than a negative one and therefore a revived infrastructure for world trade.
That’s the goal: Getting the WTO back on its feet and ready to reach for something truly ambitious.
 
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org Mr. Kleckner was the only farmer on the U.S. advisory team to the GATT negotiations when they began in September 1986 in Uruguay.
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