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April 2009 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.

Fools Flu

Apr 30, 2009
You can’t catch the flu from eating pork.
 
Maybe you’ve heard this by now. Perhaps you’ve listened to the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Homeland Security. They’ve all issued statements along these lines.
 
But in the face of what could become a global panic, the simple truth is worth repeating: You can’t catch the flu from eating pork.
 
Unfortunately, some people want to take advantage of public ignorance. As White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel once said in a different context: “Never allow a crisis to go to waste.”
 
The protectionists appear to know this rule inside and out. This week, China, Ecuador, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Serbia, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates have banned pork from the United States and Mexico. Russia has taken it even further, banning all meat.
 
This makes no sense. Or haven’t you heard? You can’t catch the flu from eating pork.
 
Obviously, bans on American pork have nothing to do with science and everything to do with politics. Anyone who believes otherwise suffers from “fool’s flu”, and the protectionists are happy to see this harmful virus spread into an epidemic of absurdity. Their agenda is to elevate the pleadings of special-interest groups--often domestic suppliers who can’t compete with American growers and workers--over the common good.
 
Now U.S. food producers will suffer a blow. Pork exports to China alone were worth nearly $270 million last year. This is excellent news not only for inefficient Chinese hog farmers, but also for our foreign competitors. Moreover, the expected decline in pork sales won’t merely hurt pig producers in Kansas and Texas. It will also injure corn and soybean growers who supply the feed for those hogs and the truck drivers who transport them and the list goes on. Less demand means smaller incomes.
 
Last month, the World Trade Organization released a report stating that world trade would decline by 9% in 2009 and global exports could drop another 8% if countries continue to enact protectionist measures. 
 
In other words, these acts of protectionism function as a reverse-stimulus plan for rural America.
 
International law allows nations to build trade barriers on an emergency basis, if there’s a legitimate public-health threat. This is a wise practice. Thankfully, several key countries are not using it as an excuse to meddle with markets. Japan, for instance, consumes an enormous amount of U.S. pork, and its government says that there are no plans to restrict American products.
 
Much of the confusion about this new flu strain is semantic. Initially, people called it “swine flu” and the name stuck. Yet its victims aren’t contracting the virus from pigs. Transmission is human-to-human. The flu actually contains avian and human characteristics. We remain unsure of its precise origin. Calling it “swine flu” involves a bit of guesswork.
 
There is a tradition of naming flu strains after the region they come from; the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed millions, is sometimes called “Spanish flu.” Some have suggested calling this new strain “Mexican flu” or “North American flu.” The most accurate name probably would be “H1N1 flu,” in reference to a protein sequence. This is what officials in the Obama administration have started calling it.
 
In the end, the name is just a label. People everywhere need to understand the realities that lie beneath: Eating cooked pork and pork products is perfectly safe. Wash your hands, sanitize your cutting boards, and cover your face when you sneeze. These simple steps will go a long way toward preventing the disease.
 
But don’t expect calming rhetoric from the professional crisis exploiters. Protectionists in other countries aren’t the only ones who see the ingredients of political opportunity. In the United States, the enemies of Mexican trucking will use the flu as a new excuse to continue defying a NAFTA treaty requirement. Unions continue to fight negotiated free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. It’s time for leadership and the political will to approve those agreements or more “fools flu” will spread creating a pandemic economic influenza.
 
For now, at least, let’s keep the current challenge squarely in our sights and remember: You can’t catch the flu from eating pork.
 
Tim Burrack raises corn and soybeans in partnership with his brother on their NE Iowa family farm. Tim is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology
 
 
 

Hot Air

Apr 24, 2009
Global warming stinks.
 
Some people mean that so literally that they’re starting to blame rising temperatures on cow farts.
 
I am not making this up. Just Google the terms “global warming” and “cow flatulence” and check out the results. The hits number in the tens of thousands, and they comprise a long list of earnest environmentalists who think that bovines need to reduce the size of their fart footprint.
 
This is more than a climate-change curiosity: its part of a melodramatic campaign against meat.
 
“Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems,” bleated Henning Steinfeld, who works at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and runs something called the Livestock Information and Policy Branch. His group insists that farm animals emit more greenhouses gases than all of the auto tailpipes in the world.
 
If you bother to read the fine print behind these claims, it’s not just cow farts they’re worrying over. They’re also upset about sheep burps. When they’re trying to sound sophisticated, they use fancy words such as “eructation.” (Go ahead, look it up.) But let’s not engage in semantics. A “correctional institution” is still a prison, and what we’re talking about here are the farts and belches of four-legged animals.
 
The real concern, of course, isn’t with their beastly etiquette. Instead, it’s about methane. When cows, sheep, goats, and similar cud-chewing animals digest grass, they produce methane that has to escape their bodies at one end or the other. Methane is a greenhouse gas, and it accounts for between four and nine percent of all greenhouse gases--which, of course, are the gases that have the potential to heat the earth.
 
Because of this, some Greens are calling for a war on meat. They want people to stop eating so many hamburgers. They reason that reduced demand for livestock will cut down on the amount of burps and farts loaded with methane.
 
Believe me, I know full well what these animals are capable of generating. As a professional cattle feeder, I can walk through a pasture or a feedlot, take a deep breath, and learn quite a bit about a herd and its nutrition.
 
You probably know about horse whisperers. Call me the cattle whiffer.
 
In all seriousness, this kind of sensory information is critical in determining feedstuff quality. Good digesters have a pleasant, organic odor and poor digesters have a nasty, sour smell.
 
That doesn’t mean I’d be sad to experience a reduction in cow farts--or, more importantly, the methane they produce. Scientists are already working on ways to reduce intestinal methane, possibly by increasing fish-oil additives. But it remains to be seen how much they’ll accomplish: In the past, cottonseed additives were touted as a potential solution, but they didn’t live up to their promise. Neither did chloroform additives. They helped briefly, but then stomachs adjusted to them and the animals began discharging methane all over again.
 
Another possibility is to target the bacteria that are essential to bovine digestion. Researchers are sequencing the genomes of the leading varieties right now. It’s hard to know where their efforts will take us, but biotechnology already has delivered enormous benefits to agriculture and environmental sustainability. This may be yet another way it can make a contribution.
 
What we can’t sacrifice is the quality of our food. We should expect meat whose taste and affordability isn’t compromised by unsavory obsessions with bovine emissions.
 
People all around the world enjoy the taste of meat. As societies grow wealthier, the demand for meatier diets grows with it. Projections suggest that over the next half century or so, meals in developing countries will include larger quantities of beef, chicken, and pork at meals.
 
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this--even though the international food police apparently would prefer a planet of vegetarians.
 
Our challenge is not to join the alarmists. They’re just breaking wind. Our opportunity is to accept the promise of science and technology.
 
Everything else is just a lot of hot air.
 
Carol Keiser owns and manages cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Western Illinois. Mrs. Keiser is a Truth About Trade & Technology board member.  (www.truthabouttrade.org)
 
 
 
 

Supporting a Sustainable Earth

Apr 17, 2009
Earth Day is April 22 and the watchword is “sustainability.” This is not a “new” word or idea for farmers. We need to pursue agricultural and conservation policies that make sense for the long haul.
 
Earlier this year, the United Nations Environmental Program released an eye-opening report. It estimated that by 2050, one-quarter of the world’s food production may be lost to “environmental breakdowns.” The most likely culprits will be land degradation, urban expansion into farmland, water scarcity, high prices for fertilizer, and climate change.
 
After outlining these problems, the report went on to offer a variety of potential responses. The quality of its ideas was decidedly mixed: We hardly need a global regime of price controls on staple crops, for instance.
 
Yet we certainly should take a long-term approach to the challenges that this UN agency has identified. That’s true even if the worst-case scenarios it has described turn out to be only half right.
 
Two of our most important solutions will be trade and technology. Free trade is a force for economic sustainability and biotechnology is a positive tool for the environment, long term. Together, they can help pave the way to a better future.
 
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu made headlines recently for saying that the United States should threaten to close its markets to countries that refuse to tax carbon emissions. I hope he wasn’t serious. This would deliver a blow to the world’s most vulnerable people: By building new barriers to the free flow of goods and services, “green protectionism” would make it more difficult for poor people to achieve a level of economic prosperity that is a precondition for environmental stewardship.
 
We already know that costly foreign-aid schemes don’t do much good--and if you need a refresher course on that grim subject, read the new book “Dead Aid” by Zambian native Dambisa Moyo. The alternative to aid is trade, which has the effect of strengthening economies for both consumers and producers.
 
People who live in poverty are far more likely to deplete natural resources, if only because they feel a deeper sense of desperation. For a person whose family is hungry, an acre of rainforest is a logging opportunity. For a person whose material position is more secure, an acre of rainforest may well be something to preserve and protect. Because of this, tying developing countries to the global economy, and allowing them access to wealthy markets in North America, Europe, and Japan, is a key to long-term environmental sustainability.
 
So is technology. Farmers everywhere--from resource-poor subsistence growers in Africa to mass producers in the United States and Europe--deserve access to the best knowledge and tools available. We must coax as much food as possible from our available farmland if we’re going to meet the challenges of a growing population and also remain sensitive to the environmental pressure outlined in the UN report.
 
A generation ago, the Green Revolution delivered a jolt to farm productivity through the improved use of irrigation, fertilizer, and crop breeding. Today, we must rely on biotechnology to deliver many of the same benefits in what might usefully be called the Gene Revolution. The genetic enhancement of crops already has brought us large increases in yield. More is on the way, especially if we allow biotechnology to take advantage of all it can offer, from drought tolerance in wheat and maize to biofortification in rice.
 
These advances will require financial investments as well as scientific ingenuity. Political will, however, may prove even more important. For all of the benefits GM crops already have brought, and despite their widespread acceptance in the United States and many other countries, they still haven’t realized their current potential in Europe or developing countries.
 
This situation simply is not--for lack of a better word--sustainable. If the world turns toward protectionism, green or otherwise, we will find ourselves poorer than we should be and viewing our natural resources with craving rather than concern. And if we refuse to make the most of biotechnology, we will suffer the ramifications of embracing ignorance rather than science.
 
A wise approach to trade and technology will improve our lot. A wrong approach will make us worse off. These two potential “environmental breakdowns” are fully within our control.
 
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org
 
 

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Apr 13, 2009
Michelle Obama’s decision to plant a vegetable garden at the White House is one stimulus project that every American should support. It’s a pro-growth agenda in the most literal sense imaginable.
 
It’s also an exciting opportunity to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to educate Americans about outdoor activity, healthy eating, and food production. They may even learn a few things about farming.
 
Millions of Americans plant gardens each year, and they do it for any number of good reasons. Lots enjoy the taste of perfectly ripened fruits and vegetables or the sight of brightly colored flowers. Others appreciate gardening as a low-impact exercise. Many find it therapeutic to dig in the dirt, deposit seeds, and nurture what sprouts.
 
The First Lady plans a 1,100-square foot garden with 55 kinds of vegetables. Fifth graders from a local elementary school already have helped her get started. “My hope,” she told the New York Times, “is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities.”
 
One of the most important lessons gardens can teach is about agriculture. We live in a society in which most people are completely cut off from food production. Never before in history have so few produced so much for so many. Put another way, never before have so many relied upon so few for life’s essentials.
 
This is the welcome result of astonishing efficiency. The downside is that a bumper crop of consumers fails to appreciate the enormous challenges of successful farming. They have little concept of how food travels from farm to fork, or how to meet the daunting challenges of weather, water, soil, pests, weeds, and transportation. To thrive in this business, it takes a combination of hard work, wise management, and access to scientific ingenuity.
 
Gardens hold the potential to correct this imbalance because they impose similar demands on a smaller scale. If you don’t fertilize and water your garden and I don’t fertilize and irrigate my fields, we’ll wind up with the same disappointing result.
 
As much as gardens can teach us about agriculture, it would be a mistake to think of them strictly as little farms--or, conversely, to think of farms as really big gardens. We can’t feed the world from everybody’s backyard.
 
On my farm, I have all the tomatoes I need and then some: a couple thousand acres of them. Yet my wife and I also grow a little plot by our house, where we raise about 25 heirloom tomatoes.
 
Why do we bother? Well, there’s nothing quite like picking a fresh tomato and immediately chopping it up for your salad or salsa. The flavor is unbeatable.
 
Our heirloom tomatoes are like pets. The only thing we haven’t done is give them names, though each variety has its own special moniker chosen by the original grower: Boxcar Willie, Dagma’s Perfection, Black Krim, and so on. We’re currently growing them in peat pots. We move them outside each morning, where they can soak up the rays of the sun. They come inside each night, where they receive protection from the cold. Eventually, we’ll plant them in the soil and await our mini-harvest this summer.
 
This is no way to meet society’s constant need for more food, of course. Given the amount of care that goes into these personal gardens, the output is not sustainable on a large scale.
 
What’s more, these are fragile plants with thin skins. This is one of the traits that make them delicious. But it also cuts down on their practicality. I can barely walk one over to my neighbor’s house without doing it damage--to say nothing of putting it in a crate and shipping it to a grocery store across the country. They’re also terribly prone to insects and disease. As a consequence, the yields are low: They’re about half of what I anticipate from the tomatoes on my farmland.
 
Gardening and farming may share a few common characteristics, but ultimately one is a leisure-time hobby and the other is a professional calling.
 
Even so, my farming family derives an enormous amount satisfaction from its garden. We don’t need a justification more complicated than that--and neither do the Obamas.
 
Ted Sheely raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm in the California San Joaquin Valley. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology www.truthabouttrade.org
 
 
 
 

Trade Sense

Apr 03, 2009
“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other,” wrote Eric Hoffer many years ago.
 
Hoffer made his name as the “longshoreman philosopher”--a manual laborer who became an influential 20th-century social critic.
 
I wonder what Hoffer would think about the world’s current turn toward protectionism. Longshoremen, after all, depend on trade for their livelihoods. If people don’t exchange goods, dockworkers have nothing to load and unload from ships. They would be nuts to think that protectionism is a trend worth imitating.
 
I think Hoffer might welcome the recent news that the European Union and South Korea have come to terms on a free-trade agreement--in apparent defiance of a harmful global trend. Meanwhile, he might wonder why the United States is choosing to ape the economic isolationists rather than pressing to finish its own deal with the Koreans.
 
Last year, two-way trade between the EU and South Korea totaled $100 billion. Europe was South Korea’s second-largest trading partner (after China) and South Korea was the EU’s fourth-largest, non-European trading partner. So it’s no wonder these two large economies want to remove barriers to the additional exchange of goods and services, especially in times of financial turmoil. The result will be more choices and cheaper prices for consumers as well as more export-based jobs during tough times.
 
If a trade deal makes sense for Europe, it makes sense for the United States, too. We’re both advanced economies with large populations and a strong desire to prevent a bad recession from becoming a catastrophic depression. By one estimate, increased trade with South Korea would boost U.S. GDP by $12 billion annually.
 
Nearly two years ago, the United States finished negotiations on a trade agreement with South Korea--roughly when the Europeans were starting theirs. Although President Bush was eager to seal the deal, Congress wouldn’t even dignify the pact with an up-or-down vote. Now the Obama administration has signaled its own short-sighted displeasure. “The agreement as it is just simply isn’t fair,” sniffed U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk at his confirmation hearing last month.
 
That’s not true. Almost all bilateral trade goods would become duty-free in just three years, and they’d be wiped out entirely within a decade. American farmers already sell food worth about $2 billion to South Korea each year, and half of these products would shed their tariffs immediately. Both Americans and our South Korean allies have much to gain--the agreement is fair to both sides.
 
With the elimination of so many special taxes on Made-in-America goods and services, exports to South Korea would grow quickly--a genuine case of economic expansion during a time of overall contraction.
 
Last week, the World Trade Organization released a report predicting that international trade will drop by 9 percent this year--the worst performance since the Second World War. The rising specter of protectionism makes the picture even bleaker. The World Bank reported that although the members of the G-20 have promised not to build new trade barriers, 17 of them in recent months have broken their word. Argentina now demands special licenses for car parts and textiles, India has banned Chinese toys, and a number of countries, including the United States, are subsidizing their auto industries.
 
Charlene Barshefsky, who handled U.S. trade negotiations for the Clinton administration, recently described what’s at stake. “Lawmakers should keep in mind that trade spurs development - building alliances and security as economic integration creates shared interests,” she wrote. “We should focus on Asia, which remains the world’s most dynamic region, starting with the pending U.S.-South Korea free-trade agreement.” She has suggested some modifications to liberalize the Korean auto market, but her outspoken support for free trade stands in stark contrast to what’s being said in Washington and too many other capital cities.
 
The EU-South Korea free-trade agreement is a sign of hope amid the gloom. So is the news that South Korea and Australia are about to start their own trade talks.
 
President Obama should stake out his own similar position. Rather than follow the herd of protectionists, he should establish himself as a global leader on growth in trade and inspire the imitators to take after him.
 
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org
 
 
 
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