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April 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.

Agricultural Chess: The Age Old Battle of Farmers Against Weeds

Apr 25, 2013

 By John Reifsteck:  Champaign, Illinois


When the biotechnology antagonists try to stoke fear by warning about "superweeds," they make these plants sound like an alarming cross between the unruly dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" and the carnivorous botany in "Little Shop of Horrors."

"I was talking to a farmer from Arkansas and he’s got weeds that are now eight feet tall, they’re the diameter of my wrists, and they can stop a combine in its tracks," Gary Hirshberg, a leading anti-biotech activist, told U.S. News & World Report last year. "The only way [farmers] can stop them is to go in there with machetes and hack them out."

Gary is actually right -but this is nothing new, and has nothing to do with biotechnology.  Hand weeding has been practiced since farming started.  One of the least favorite jobs of my youth was walking through fields cutting out weeds.  It is hard work. You are not just battling weeds, but also the weather and insects.  Often when you started in the morning the crops you were walking through were soaking wet from dew, and the air was cold.  By the end of the day the heat and humidity was stifling, and no matter you were in the field there were flying, crawling and biting bugs.  There was nothing noble about hand weeding; it is simply hard, uncomfortable work. 

Weeds are among farmers’ oldest foes because they compete with the crops that we grow for food. They suck moisture from the ground, steal nutrients from the soil, and block sunlight from the sky. Our job is to minimize the harm they do in our fields.

We can control weeds from season to season, but the weeds will always be with us. They’ll never suffer a final defeat. We fight them and they fight back. They’re always responding to everything farmers do, in a generational struggle for survival. My dad, who was also a farmer, faced weeds that I’ve never seen and he probably wouldn’t recognize some of the weeds I encounter in my fields. 

Farmers are playing chess with nature, in an endless game with new pieces added to the board each year. We will never checkmate nature; instead our goal is to maximize what we produce given the challenges that are part of farming. 

Just in my generation farmers have acquired new tools to combat weeds.  Herbicides that help control weeds have transformed agriculture.  They are safe, effective and reduce the amount of tillage farmers need to do to their fields.  Less tillage also means less soil erosion and less energy used to produce our crops.

Scientists in the last few years have developed a new form of crop through genetic modification. It possesses the ability to resist a safe herbicide called glyphosate. This development has allowed farmers to spray glyphosate, killing weeds but not the crops they’re trying to grow.

Suddenly we were able to raise more crops on less land. Glyphosate was so good that we even decreased our herbicide use.

Within a few years, these GM crops became a conventional part of agriculture. Today, the vast majority of the corn, soybeans, and cotton in the United States are immune to glyphosate. Farmers embraced these crops because they made so much sense, for both economic and environmental reasons.

Yet nature isn’t static. It changes all the time, and so some weed species have begun to build a resistance to glyphosate and other herbicides. These are the "superweeds" the anti-technology activists are warning us about.

Except that there’s nothing "super" about them. They are ordinary weeds and their emergence was expected. Nobody predicted that glyphosate-resistant crops represented a lasting victory over weeds--at least not anybody who understands how nature works.

The people who complain the loudest about these weeds tend not to be the farmers who have to confront them in the fields. I would appreciate their concern if I didn’t also know that they aren’t really worried about my ability to produce nutritious and affordable food. Instead, they’re using propagandistic words and phrases to frighten the public and push a personal ideological agenda in opposition to crop biotechnology.

Their real goal is to enact public policies that will make farming harder, drive up grocery-store prices for consumers, and deny everyone an important tool of land conservation.

If they succeed, "superweeds" will be only one of our problems.

Meanwhile, those of us who work the land rather than play politics must now return to the familiar challenge of coming up with new ways to fight an old battle. And we’ll succeed, as long as we can rely on the twin powers of scientific technology and human ingenuity.  That is what farmers do.

John Reifsteck is a corn and soybean producer in Champaign County Illinois.  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.

Litigation is the Root of the Problem

Apr 18, 2013

 By Bill Horan: Rockwell City, Iowa

There has been some serious misinformation about the Farmers Assurance Provision running through the anti-biotech community that I would like to address personally.  Maybe you’ve heard some voices rail against the so-called "Monsanto Protection Act" – a nickname invented to infuriate other anti-technology activists and hopefully raise support for their campaign to ban or at least slow down the planting of GM crops. 

With groups like the Center for Food Safety, Mother Jones Magazine, Food Democracy Now and Food & Water Watch – each with an anti-technology in agriculture agenda – noted as their source of information, it’s time for farmers who use the technology to speak up and talk about what the provision actually does.

Included in a spending bill recently signed by President Obama, The Farmer Assurance Provision has a simple purpose: It assures farmers like me that frivolous junk-science lawsuits won’t stop them from planting safe and healthy crops that have been USDA approved for planting after passing years of rigorous testing. This modest measure merely codifies case law already developed by the Supreme Court as well as the current practices of the Department of Agriculture.

Shortly after approval of the Farmer Assurance Provision, an anti-biotech website actually described it as an act of "fascism."

How do you have a reasonable discussion with an activist who equates a legal measure that received bipartisan support in Congress and backing from the White House with the horrors of Nazi Germany?  

I’ve grown biotech crops on my farm for twenty years. I choose these crops because they let me grow more food on less land—the very definition of sustainable agriculture. Along the way, these crops help me make more efficient use of resources such as water, fertilizer, and fuel while protecting the soil.

In other words, these crops make sense for both economic and environmental reasons. They’re an important tool for me as a farmer and they’re good for all of us as consumers who want sustainable food at a reasonable price. 

Litigation is the root of the problem this provision addresses.  It is not a food safety or environment protection issue.

Around the globe, scientists and regulators have studied biotech crops and deemed them safe, from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization.

Yet biotechnology faces ongoing opposition from an ideological movement that will stop at nothing to smear farming practices that work effectively and safely to feed my family and yours. Some have a misguided, anti-scientific agenda. Others are just special-interest groups: Certain elements of the organic-food industry worry that biotechnology puts their expensive food products at a competitive disadvantage.

Whatever their motives, biotechnology’s foes have failed to block these needed and proven effective farming tools. So they’ve resorted to legal harassment, filing nuisance lawsuits against crops that farmers already have received authorization to plant. That’s what happened to genetically modified sugar beets a few years ago.  

The beets employed a weed-defeating technology already at work in corn and soybeans. Farmers were eager to take advantage of this tool, so they welcomed this new crop.

The lawsuit came five years later. It didn’t charge that biotech beets were unsafe for human consumption or that they harmed the environment. Instead, it raised a technical legal concern in the Department of Agriculture’s environmental assessment and demanded an even more comprehensive impact statement.

It was the sort of allegation that only a paper-pushing bureaucrat could love.

A federal judge responded by ordering a do-over. And then, despite no evidence of any potential harm, he took an extra, radical step, demanding the destruction of 95 percent of America’s sugar beet plants.

Imagine the plight of sugar-beet farmers. The government had approved a certain crop for widespread commercial planting. After several years of success, a single judge told them to wipe out a whole season of planting due to a technical violation that had no bearing on the health of people or the environment.

Fortunately, the judge’s order was overturned on appeal, ending a chaotic period of confusion and struggle. In time, the Department of Agriculture completed its comprehensive impact statement and determined that sugar beets were safe to plant - again. Separately, the Supreme Court ruled that courts can’t yank crop approvals on technicalities—they should let farmers proceed, at least temporarily, during moments of additional regulatory review.

The new provision takes the Supreme Court’s decision and gives it the force of federal law. This reasonable step provides farmers with a little more confidence that ridiculous lawsuits won’t uproot settled practices in an instant. 

That’s why it’s called the Farmer Assurance Provision—it protects us from the caprices of anti-biotech activists, and provides us with the assurance we need to go about our business of growing safe, nutritious, and affordable food.

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.

People and the Soil Need a Balanced Diet to Thrive

Apr 11, 2013

 By V. Ravichandran:  Tamil Nadu, India

Everybody should eat a balanced diet, consuming the right types and amounts of food to ensure proper nutrition.

Agricultural soil needs a balanced diet as well, so that it can produce healthy crops.

That’s why fertilizer is so important. It’s the food that feeds the soil. Farmers everywhere must have easy access to it, especially in the developing world, where it’s often in short supply.

Without fertilizer, soil starves. Crops don’t grow as well as they should. The yields of farmers drop. People suffer.

So healthy people depend on healthy soil, fed by fertilizer.

As a farmer in India, I see malnutrition everyday. It’s a huge problem in my country, and it has many sources—but one of the main causes of human malnutrition in India is soil malnutrition. We don’t feed our soil the balanced diet it needs. As a result, our people don’t eat well enough.

A new report from the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management estimates that nitrogen and other mineral fertilizers nourish about half the people in the world. Without these inputs, in other words, about half of humanity would go hungry. So more than 3.5 billion people owe their health to fertilizers.

As successful farmers know, however, you can’t just "dump" fertilizer on cropland. That’s like eating a meal full of empty calories—they may fill your belly, but they’re harmful to your long-term health.

For crops, a balanced diet generally consists of three main ingredients: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (in addition to other micro nutrients). Nitrogen encourages robust plant growth. Phosphorous promotes root development. Potassium assists with the absorption of moisture and helps resist drought.

Together, they feed the soil—and the soil feeds the crops that feed us.

Sometimes, however, farmers try to get away with feeding the soil only one nutrient—and in India; the government actually encourages this bad idea. In a misguided attempt to protect domestic industries from foreign competition, New Delhi subsidizes nitrogen for agriculture. As a result, many farmers who don’t understand the basics of soil nutrition wrongly believe that nitrogen is all they need. Some even think that the more nitrogen they use, the better off they are. 

The truth is, that balanced soil nutrition, using nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium is necessary for growing healthy crops.  Without that balance, crops may grow quickly, taking on a deep green that makes them look healthy on first glance, but often they don’t mature properly, as plants spend their energy on foliage rather than on grain. These plants also have a tendency to attract more pests. This creates an additional challenge for farmers, and it may lead to an overreliance on pesticides.

Poor fertilization practices make it harder for others to eat because these miscalculations add up, affecting the food supply. The systematic misapplication of fertilizer causes India to grow less food than it should. One estimate claims that our corn yield lags behind rates in other countries by as much as 45 percent, all because the government provides an incentive for farmers to rely too much on nitrogen.

Just as a poor diet will have long-term health consequences, fertilizer mistakes have a way of lingering long past the moment of the error. It takes time, energy, and resources to restore damaged soil to an original condition. Inexpensive soil tests can help many smallholder farmers from making bad mistakes in the first place.  The results of those tests each season will help these farmers know what fertilizer must be applied to nourish the soil and maximize their yield.

Better soil leads to better living—and it all starts with a balanced diet, both for people as well as for the earth. 

Mr. V. Ravichandran owns a 60 acre farm at Poongulam Village in Tamil Nadu, India where he grows rice, sugar cane, cotton and pulses (small grains).  He is 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.

Sustainable Intensification In Global Agriculture

Apr 04, 2013

 By Craige Mackenzie:  Methven, New Zealand

When people in the United States and Europe think about New Zealand at all, a few notions usually pop into their heads: Our islands are far away, they’re pristine, and they’re the visually stunning backdrops to movies such as "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings." 

We also have the best rugby team in the world, though the Americans don’t care and the Europeans won’t admit it.

Despite the vast distance between us and just about everybody else, New Zealand is not isolated. We’re tightly tied to the global economy. Farmers like me are especially connected because our government doesn’t subsidize agriculture.

That makes us different from farmers in many other countries, where subsidies are routine. Yet at a basic level, we’re a lot like farmers in Indiana, Italy, or just about anywhere. We recognize that the land is our lifeblood--and we want to use modern technology to produce food.

This became clear to me on a trip to the United States last year, when I participated in the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Roundtable in Des Moines, Iowa. A few of my fellow farmers introduced me to a new term: "sustainable intensification." In two words, it describes what should be the goal of farmers around the planet: We need to grow more with less, while at the same time preserving the environment and remaining economically profitable. 

We’re trying to do our part here in New Zealand, at our farm near the town of Methven on the South Island. On several hundred acres, we grow a variety of crops, including wheat, ryegrass, radish, carrots, and barley. We also run a dairy operation milking 1,250 cows. 

We’re under constant pressure to do more with less. The economic reality of being fully exposed to global markets due to the lack of subsidies forces me to keep down the costs of production. Policy changes are increasingly limiting our water use and nitrate outputs, which affects our ability to apply fertilizer and the stocking rate on the land. We are always trying to grow the best crops at the right time in the face of climate conditions. 

Technology is one of our most important allies. We use crop sensors, electromagnetic mapping, zonal and grid soil sampling. If an affordable new technology can give us a slight advantage, we seize it.

These are all keys to sustainable intensification. So is biotechnology. In many nations, farmers can beat back weeds and pests with genetically modified crops. As a result, they’re producing huge amounts of food.

We don’t enjoy the GM option in New Zealand, where biotech crops are practically nonexistent. They’re grown in a few highly regulated test plots for research purposes. Ordinary farmers like me have no access to them.

That’s okay for now, because existing GM seeds don’t satisfy our particular needs. Many of the diseases and pests that plague farmers elsewhere don’t occur here, and our stringent border controls aim to keep it that way. At most, biotechnology could assist in a few niche markets.

But that will change as biotechnology matures and tackles new challenges. Drought resistance is an especially attractive trait. Farmers everywhere seek to conserve water--and here, we’re working to get the most from our moisture through intensive irrigation management. 

Plants that make more efficient use of water are the very essence of sustainable intensification. As biotechnology begins to deliver these innovations, we’ll need to take full advantage of them.  Water is the biggest issue that is facing the world and biotechnology will be one of the key drivers to increase water use efficiency.

There are other possibilities as well, including crops with improved nitrogen response and varieties of wheat that people with gluten intolerance can consume.

New Zealand is a small country, with a population of about 4.4 million people, which is roughly equal to metropolitan Boston or Phoenix. We’re pretty small players in the business of global food production.  

That’s the other thing about sustainable intensification: To meet the world’s swelling demand for food, we must use every resource we have. That includes boosting yields on huge farms in Kansas, helping Africa meet its full potential as a breadbasket, and making sure that even far-off New Zealand has the best technology to make the most of what we can contribute.

Craige Mackenzie uses precision agriculture tools and techniques to produce specialty seed crops including wheat, ryegrass, fescue, hybrid carrots, hybrid radish, pak choi, spinach and chicory along with a dairy operation in Methven, New Zealand. Craige is 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.

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