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February 2013 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.

Protecting Innovation

Feb 28, 2013

By Mark Jackson:  Rose Hill, Iowa

Everyone loves an underdog, which is why Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman received such good press last week.

NPR called his recent trip to the Supreme Court "a classic case of the little guy taking on the big one," because he’s the defendant in a lawsuit filed by Monsanto, the seed company. USA Today compared the legal battle to "David vs. Goliath."

In this telling, however, we should view the consequences should Mr. Bowman win. His effort to circumvent intellectual property rights threatens the future of modern agriculture and food production in the United States and around the world.

He may look like a little guy, but he’s fighting against the interests of little guys everywhere. Not unlike like Mr. Bowman I grow soybeans on a family farm in the American heartland. My fifth generation farming legacy has taught me the asset of legitimate investment of time and money. Building from a strong foundation pays its own rewards and my ability to purchase high yielding pest resistant seed has more benefits than just my farm’s profits. Clean air, water and ample food to feed the world’s growing population are also at the heart of this conversation.  

When high technology seed came to the market place in the late 1990’s I quickly recognized the value it brought to my farm. Because of this I’m currently able to select from a broad selection of cutting edge seeds capable of adapting to my farm’s variable planting/growing challenges. Today, I’m growing more food on less land than ever before. The seed trait called into question by Mr. Bowman is the same which has allowed me to switch to no-till farming methods while using fewer chemical sprays. On a broad note the biotech seed in question has allowed Iowa to employ no-till across nearly 60% of its soybean acres. This has a direct reduction on soil erosion, leading to clean waters--an essential advantage in our part of Iowa, where rolling hills define the terrain.

The genetically modified crops that we produce are safe, healthy, and beneficial tools of scientific innovation. Their high yields allow me and other American farmers to compete in world markets. A new report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications says that 17.3 million global farmers (over 15 million are small, resource-poor farmers from developing countries) planted more than 420 million acres with GM crops last year, a new record.

Biotech seeds exist because seed companies pour billions of dollars into research and development. They strive to come up with higher yielding products that help farmers fight pests and weeds. Their efforts empower farmers as we grow more food and contribute to environmental sustainability.

In the United States, it can take 10 years and a $100 million investment to develop a single seed trait cleared for full seed production. Intellectual property patent rights give seed companies the security and incentive to invest these millions. We can’t recycle seeds from the plants we’ve already grown. Biotech seeds may be self-regenerating products, but they’re also protected by patent.

Just as it’s against the law to pirate DVDs, computer software, and digital-music files, it’s against the law to pirate patented seeds. This principle is so broadly accepted that dozens of organizations have called on the Supreme Court to protect the integrity of patented seeds, including farm and technology groups as well as a coalition of top universities.

At the oral arguments last week, Chief Justice John Roberts made the point plainly: "Why in the world would anybody spend any money to try to improve the seed if as soon as they sold the first one anybody could grow more and have as many of those seeds as they want?"

Justices of differing political persuasions appeared to agree with this sentiment: Mr. Bowman’s lawyer, reported the New York Times, received a "hostile reception."

Experts say that it can be a mistake to read too much into oral arguments. Yet I’m hopeful that justices will issue a ruling that preserves a system of scientific and agricultural innovation--and supports the millions of "little guy" farmers whose livelihoods depends on planting the best seeds.

Mark Jackson grows soybeans and corn on a family farm in SE Iowa.  He has traveled extensively across the U.S. and around the world to learn more about soybean production.  Mark is a volunteer member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farm Network (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Poland Must Not Turn Back the Clock on Food Production

Feb 21, 2013

By Roman Warzecha:  Mazowia region, Poland 

Ever since the fall of Communism, Poland has tried to move into the modern world by embracing democracy, freedom, and market liberalization. And we’ve done a pretty good job of it. Many observers say that we have one of the healthiest economies in Europe. 

Last month, however, I believe we took a significant step backward. Our government banned an important farm technology for purely political reasons and without any scientific justification.  

This disastrous decision will hurt Polish farmers and consumers right away. It also sets a terrible precedent for the future. We must overturn it immediately. 

Like most of Europe, Poland has refused to participate fully in the biotech revolution that has transformed agricultural production around the world. Yet last year we were at least able to grow two kinds of genetically modified crops: a type of corn that fights insect pests and a potato that produces an abundance of starch. 

Now they’re outlawed, meaning that Polish farmers cannot use the innovations that millions of farmers elsewhere take for granted, from advanced nations such as the United States and Canada to developing countries like Brazil and the Philippines.

My family owns a farm just north of Warsaw. On about 50 hectares, we grow a range of crops, including corn. We haven’t used the biotech corn that was previously available in Poland only because the pest that it guards against--the European corn borer--is not a threat in our region. In other parts of Poland, however, these bugs can ruin entire fields, wiping out a whole season’s production in just a few days.

My day job as a researcher for Poland’s Institute of Plant Breeding and Acclimatization (IHAR) has given me plenty of hands-on experience with GM corn. I’ve studied it closely, looking at GM corn’s economic and environmental effects. I’m convinced that it is a safe and beneficial option for farmers and consumers in Poland--and everywhere else, for that matter.

GM crops are better than conventional strains for a long list of reasons. They allow us to grow more food on less land. They let us reduce our reliance on herbicides and pesticides. And best of all, they are perfectly safe: Despite the fearful rhetoric of political activists, they pose no health risk. Farmers have planted and harvested more than 3 billion acres of GM crops. People have eaten trillions of servings of food with GM ingredients. No one anywhere has ever suffered for it.

The bottom line is that food derived from biotechnology is a safe and healthy option that carries economic and environmental benefits.

That’s why governments around the world have accepted GM crops. Respected organizations from the American Medical Association in the United States to the Royal Society of Medicine in Britain have endorsed the widespread use of biotechnology as an agricultural tool.

As the evidence for the advantages of GM crops mounts, skeptics are turning into converts. Last month at the Oxford Farming Conference in Britain, former Greenpeace activist Mark Lynas apologized for his earlier opposition to biotechnology and urged governments and farmers to adopt 21st-century practices for the sake of the environment.

So by banning a couple of previously approved GM crops, Poland is moving in exactly the wrong direction. Our government has turned back the clock on food production.

Worst of all, our public officials know that GM crops are safe for human consumption. If they truly believed otherwise, they would forbid the purchase of GM food from other countries. Yet each year we import more than 2 million tons of GM soybeans for food and feed, as well as corn, cotton, and other crops. 

The message is irrational and incomprehensible. It says that GM crops are acceptable for everyone, including Polish consumers--but that Polish farmers under no circumstances may use a proven technology that has led to a boom in production everywhere it has been tried.

Poland must continue to push forward into a bright future of hope and opportunity, not backward into a new Dark Age that views innovation and technology with terror. It must not leave its farmers behind.

Roman Warzecha grows maize, sweet corn, rape and cherries on a family farm in the Mazowia region of Poland.  Mr. Warzecha leads maize and triticale research at Poland’s Institute of Plant Breeding and Acclimatization (IHAR) and is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Trade Will Strengthen the State of the Union

Feb 14, 2013

By Tim Burrack:  Arlington, Iowa

The pundits are still working through the details of Tuesday’s State of the Union speech, in which President Obama called for raising the minimum wage, fighting climate change, and fixing health-care costs.

If nothing else, the address will give Democrats, Republicans, and independents plenty to talk about.

As a farmer, however, I am really interested in two parts of the speech right now: We need more trade and better infrastructure. 

They’re closely linked--and they’re essential to economic growth.

Just a few hours before the speech, North Korea tested a nuclear device. The President didn’t say much about it on Tuesday night, but he sounded an important theme: "Even as we protect our people, we should remember that today’s world presents not only dangers, but opportunities."

One of the best opportunities, he rightly said, is free trade.

The same Korean peninsula that poses a provocative threat is home to one of America’s chief trading partners. South Korea is a rising nation of 50 million consumers--and a great place for Americans to sell goods and services.

We’re doing it more than ever before, thanks to a new free-trade agreement. President Bush initiated it and President Obama and Congress completed it a little more than a year ago, fulfilling a promise the President made in an earlier State of the Union address. The pact is now expanding export markets and helping create tens of thousands of jobs in the United States.

And we can do even better in the region and beyond. President Obama touted the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This was no surprise because he has made a habit of talking up the TPP, which aims to lower trade barriers around the Pacific Rim.

Yet the President didn’t merely reprise an old theme. He also proposed an ambitious new idea: "Tonight," he said, "I am announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union, because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs."

Trade between the United States and Europe is currently worth about $900 billion annually. Some experts believe that lowering tariffs on goods and services could boost this figure by 50 percent. For American farmers, whose sales to Europe totaled $12 billion last year, there is also the tantalizing possibility that a strong agreement on agriculture could encourage Europeans to become more accepting of GM crops, which are harvested around the world but still resisted in Europe due to anti-scientific prejudice.

These are big and worthy goals. If President Obama achieves just one of them in his second term--either TPP or a free-trade agreement with the EU--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.

Congress should do what it can to help out. It can start by approving Trade Promotion Authority. Even though the President didn’t ask for TPA in his speech, he’ll need this legislative tool, which limits Congress to give a final up-or-down vote to any trade pact that the administration negotiates.

Even the best trade deals won’t be maximized if the United States lacks a world-class infrastructure. President Obama spoke of America’s "deteriorating roads and bridges." He also mentioned the need for "modern ports to move our goods." These are indispensible: About 75 percent of American exports travel through U.S. ports.

The President didn’t discuss inland waterways, but they’re essential too. The American Society of Civil Engineers claims that their poor quality cost businesses $33 billion in 2010, and that this price will soar to $49 billion by 2020.

The locks that are supposed to assist river traffic are woefully inadequate: The average age of federal locks is 60 years. They’re practically senior citizens. In seven years, says The Economist, more than 80 percent of these locks will be "functionally obsolete."

Businesses – including agriculture - rely on efficient transportation. As a farmer, about one-third of our corn goes to customers in foreign lands, along with so much of what we grow. On my farm, one out of every three rows of corn that I plant is sold and shipped somewhere else. We count on our rivers and ports to help make these sales.

Trade and infrastructure are inseparable--and we need them both if we plan to strengthen the State of our Union.

Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a NE Iowa family farm.  He serves as Vice-Chairman and volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).  Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Note: a version of Burrack's column appeared online at USA Today on February 13.

U.S. Beef Is Going Global

Feb 07, 2013

By Carol Keiser:  Belleair, Florida

A decade ago, the U.S. beef industry was going global like never before. Production was rising, demand was growing, and everyone just wanted to buy more cattle. The excitement was contagious.

Then the growth markets crashed to a halt. 

The first U.S. case of mad cow disease was diagnosed in Washington State and the global marketplace for US beef immediately changed. We still haven’t recovered from it--though now, at long last, it looks like we’ll have a chance to get those markets back. 

Outgoing U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack have announced a deal that could supercharge beef exports to Japan this year. Under the agreement, beginning February 1, 2013 Japan will accept U.S. beef from cattle less than 30 months old, up from the previous limit of 20 months. The only exception involves ground beef, which will continue under the old restrictions. 

Our trade diplomats deserve thanks for their efforts. Japan’s decision is long overdue, but it wouldn’t have been possible at all without a big push from Washington. 

The beef industry, for its part, has learned important lessons about responding to a crisis--lessons that may help it later on, as new challenges emerge.

In 2003, Japan was the world’s biggest buyer of U.S. beef, importing nearly a billion pounds of it annually. This was no surprise: American beef is the gold standard. Nobody raises it as well as we do. 

In December of that year, however, a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as BSE or mad-cow disease, struck our herds. It’s a rare and poorly understood affliction, but science tells us that people who ate BSE-tainted meat can die from a brain disorder. 

For three years, Japan banned all U.S. beef imports. When sales started again, they took place under such severe restrictions that volume remained low. Meanwhile, ranchers in other countries, especially Australia, took over what had been our dominant position in the Japanese market.

Sales have improved recently, to nearly 800 million pounds of U.S. beef in the last two years combined. The new rules could spur sales of more than 500 million pounds in 2013 alone, worth $1.5 billion.

That’s an additional $1.5 billion pumped into the American economy, like a miniature stimulus program--except that it won’t cost taxpayers a penny.

Now we must ask ourselves why the recovery took so long.

The Japanese government definitely overreacted. Although mad-cow disease is a serious concern, Japan’s severe response was far out of proportion to the size of the problem.

For years, this was essentially what we said to the Japanese. It had the virtue of being true, but it was also a mistake on our part.

We should have recognized more quickly that a different message would have served our interests more effectively. Mad-cow disease had shaken Japan’s confidence in U.S. beef. To reassure their government and consumers, we should have taken additional concrete and transparent steps right away.

Eventually, we took them. We adopted new safeguards that have improved our ability to detect threats, prevent outbreaks, and respond to challenges in a timely way.

Going forward, we’ll do a much better job of stopping interruptions in our supply chain.

I wish mad-cow disease never had reared its ugly head. But it may be possible to say there’s a silver lining to what happened: The U.S. beef industry is even better today than it was a decade ago.

And we’re well positioned to grow. The successful completion of the free-trade agreement with South Korea in 2011 has opened new export opportunities there. Now we’re ready to return with real force to Japan, which almost certainly will become the top export destination for U.S. beef. (Right now, it’s Mexico.)

Even greater trade possibilities lie ahead. Much of Asia looks to Japan for leadership, especially on regulatory issues. Japan’s acceptance of U.S. beef will lead to an immediate sales spike in Japan, and it could encourage other neighboring countries to admit more of what we export.

China is the one we really want. Right now, it doesn’t import any U.S. beef directly. With a population of 1 billion people--and most notably an emerging middle class--it represents an incredible untapped market.

We’re ready, once again, to go global.

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.

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