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November 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.

The Perfect Vegetable: Beauty Is Only Skin-Deep

Nov 26, 2008
“Better that a girl has beauty than brains because boys see better than they think,” said an anonymous wit.
 
That may have been the logic behind the European Union’s regulations on the appearance of fruits and vegetables, without regard to their safety or taste.
 
Thankfully, the EU is now on track to slice and dice a bunch of these rotten rules. Earlier this month, it began a process to eliminate a set of directives on the looks of 26 fruits and vegetables. About a hundred pages of guidelines are now headed for the chopping block.
 
“This marks the new dawn for the curvy cucumber and the knobbly carrot,” said EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel. “We simply don’t need to regulate this. In these days of high food prices and general economic difficulties, consumers should be able to choose from the widest range of products possible.”
 
Amen to that. We expect governments to make sure our food is healthy. We certainly don’t need bureaucrats to micromanage what the avocados and watermelons should look like. Farmers, grocers, and consumers can decide what they want to buy and sell on their own, through the normal workings of the marketplace.
 
Most people expect their fruits and vegetables to come in certain shapes and sizes. Yet these aesthetics can result in a lot of waste. You’d be surprised how much food doesn’t make it to your grocery store’s produce section simply because it doesn’t look right.
 
The EU regulations, however, are especially onerous. “An estimated 20 percent of farm produce,” says the Times of London, is “rejected for not meeting EU standards.”
 
For years, the EU has dictated that asparagus must be green for 80 percent of its length. Cucumbers cannot bend more than 10 mm per 10 cm. Cauliflower must be at least 11 cm in diameter.
 
These foods may be perfectly safe to eat, but the EU outlawed them because they aren’t ‘beautiful’ in the eyes of beholding bureaucrats.
 
From my own experience in the produce business, the amount of pure waste often approaches 30-35% on the basis of appearance alone. We’re talking tons of perfectly good, edible nutrition wasted every day just in New Jersey.
 
How absurd is this system? A grocery store in Britain recently had planned to sell “zombie brain” cauliflower and “witches’ fingers” carrots for Halloween, until managers realized that their fun and creative idea was against the law.
 
By next summer, Brussels will get rid of its rules of attraction not only for Brussels sprouts, but also for apricots, artichokes, asparagus, aubergines, avocados, beans, carrots, cauliflowers, cherries, chicory, courgettes, cucumbers, cultivated mushrooms, garlic, hazelnuts in shells, headed cabbage, leeks, melons, onions, peas, plums, ribbed celery, spinach, walnuts in shells, and watermelons.
 
That’s a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, regulations will remain in place for apples, citrus, kiwis, lettuces, nectarines, peaches, pears, strawberries, sweet peppers, table grapes, and tomatoes.
 
When it comes to deregulation, however, the perfect should not become the enemy of the good. You take what you can get. The impulse of every bureaucracy is to create rules rather than repeal them--and the EU deserves hearty congratulations for bucking a bad trend, at least in this instance. For now, that’s good enough.
 
I’m hopeful the EU will apply a similar dose of common sense to biotechnology. Just as food regulators shouldn’t break out their measuring tapes and fuss over the lengths and widths of carrots, they don’t need to support an anti-scientific practice of banning genetically modified crops.
 
People in the Americas and around the world consume biotech food every day, yet some European opinion-makers still condemn it as “Frankenfood.” In truth, genetically enhanced corn and soybeans and the products derived from them are just as safe to eat as “zombie brain” cauliflower and “witches’ fingers” carrots. Plus they look prettier and probably taste better, too.
 
Food prices are increasing everywhere. Governments are attempting to take steps to rein them in. That should be accomplished through sound public policies. Agricultural trade should be encouraged, not restricted. They should invest in the promise of biotechnology rather than fear it. And they definitely should weed out cumbersome policies that restrict consumer choice without improving public health.
 
To borrow a phrase: Beauty is only skin deep, but an ugly regulation goes clear to the bone.
 
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm manages both road side retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org
 
 
 
 
 
 

Thankful for Biotech

Nov 21, 2008
Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election for a simple reason: Americans thought their country was headed in the wrong direction, and he provided a vision of change that voters found more compelling than John McCain’s.
 
These are tough times, with the financial crisis causing widespread anxiety. Everyone seems to think that things will get worse before they get better. And they might be right.
 
But next Thursday the United States celebrates Thanksgiving--an occasion for setting aside our fears and giving thanks for the many blessings we enjoy.
 
As a farmer, I’m thankful that we enjoyed a good harvest. It was a challenging year on my farm. At planting time, the weather was not very cooperative, but patience, hard work and faith saw us through. Harvest is a special time on the farm. It is kind of like Christmas morning and payday combined. It is also time to reflect on the past and plan for the future.
 
One of the best things about farming is that we get a fresh start every year. Farmers start that new year by looking at what has worked well in the past and what needs to be changed. One of the things that has worked well on our farms is biotechnology. Three years ago, agriculture celebrated a major agricultural achievement: Somewhere in the world, a farmer planted the one-billionth acre of genetically modified crops.
 
We don’t know if it happened in Montana, Manitoba, or in your neighbor’s backyard. But we do know that this accomplishment sprouted from the commercial introduction of GM seeds, and that farmers needed about a decade to adopt new practices and reach this significant milestone.
 
Today, we’re approaching another milestone: two billion acres. We’ll reach it in the coming months, according to calculations based on agricultural statistics collected from all parts of the world. (You can keep up with this progress on the Truth About Trade and Technology website - www.truthabouttrade.org - where an official counter tracks the number.)
 
Again, we’re not sure exactly where this moment in agricultural history will occur. It could be in the southern hemisphere during the current growing season, maybe in Argentina when soybeans are planted after winter wheat. Or, the two-billionth acre could be in Australia, Brazil, the Philippines, or South Africa. If not this fall, we’ll hit that benchmark in early 2009. It could be a corn field in the Rio Grande Valley in the U.S. or a little later in a Spanish corn field.
 
Regardless of the location, this is the very definition of a rapid success story: Ten years to one-billion acres, three more years to two-billion acres. I suspect that we’ll reach the milestone of three-billion acres by 2010. Pretty soon, we’ll be talking about “billions and billions” of biotech acres the way Carl Sagan used to talk about stars in the universe.
 
No matter how quickly we get there, we can now say with more confidence than ever before that biotech crops are here to stay. They’re a fully proven commodity. They’re more cost-effective and bountiful than conventional crops. In many places, the vast majority of corn, soybeans, and cotton are genetically enhanced.
 
Their use is so widespread, in fact, that they call into question what’s conventional and what’s non-conventional. It might be more accurate to say that biotech crops are “conventional” and non-biotech crops are not.
 
Even Europe, which has proven so resistant to biotech agriculture, is inching toward this new reality. The European Food Safety Authority recently reaffirmed its view that two varieties of GM corn are safe for planting. It remains to be seen what will happen next--in the EU, bureaucratic red tape strangles a lot of innovation--but all the momentum now is in the direction of approval.
 
In September, the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry gave a major prize to Ingo Portykus for helping to develop “golden rice,” a GM crop that has the potential to improve public health in the developing world. It’s fortified with vitamin A, which can be scarce in rice-heavy diets. By some estimates, half a million children become blind each year because of vitamin-A deficiency. Most die shortly thereafter.
 
The miracle of biotechnology is that it holds the promise to address the world’s food demands on scale both large and small. The high yields of GM crops make it possible to feed a planet with a growing population. At the same time, it has the potential to treat very specific problems, such as a lack of vitamin A in certain diets.
 
So as we arrive at Thanksgiving 2008, I’m thankful for two billion acres of biotech crops--and hopeful for billions and billions more to come.
 
John Reifsteck, a corn and soybean farmer in western Champaign County Illinois, is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
 

Hawaii’s Farmers Want the Right to Choose

Nov 14, 2008
First a deadly disease tried to destroy Hawaii’s papaya industry. It failed, thank goodness. But now a few politicians want to pick up where the ringspot virus left off--and they just might succeed in wiping out one of our state’s most promising tools to benefit Hawaii’s diversified agriculture producers.
 
Last month, the Hawaii County Council heard a lot of misinformation about agricultural biotechnology and did little to seek out science-based information when it voted unanimously to ban the planting of genetically modified coffee and taro.
 
What does this have to do with papayas? Everything. Let me explain.
 
Without biotechnology, there would be very little papaya grown on the Big Island today, Hawaii’s largest growing area for papaya, or in parts of Oahu and Maui.
 
Until the 1980s, papayas flourished in Hawaii. Farmers grew several varieties to feed the locals as well as ship to the continental United States and abroad. Then the ringspot virus invaded Oahu and moved to the Big Island where the disease began laying waste to our papaya trees. The leaves crumpled. The fruit withered. The disease spread to the other islands, too. It was a disaster both for farmers who grow papayas and for consumers who enjoy eating this nutritious fruit.
 
Fortunately, Dr. Dennis Gonsalves began to study the problem. At the time, he was a scientist at Cornell. (He has since become director of the U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo, on the Big Island.) It took him 14 years to come up with a solution--and in 1998, we farmers finally had healthy trees with fruit.
 
Gonsalves figured out how to use the genetic portion of the ringspot virus to “inoculate” papayas against the disease. Our papaya industry, which was on the brink of collapse, experienced a sudden turnaround. We owe it all to the ingenuity of Gonsalves and the remarkable promise of innovative biotechnology.
 
Yet scientific research into protecting crops from the ravages of nature is never done. We see new diseases and insect pests come to our islands every week. There may come a time when papayas--or other crops--will need biotechnology as a crop breeding tool once again.
 
That’s why this new ban of GM coffee and taro is so misguided. Neither of these crops is in danger of extinction, and perhaps they never will be. Yet this type of law can have a terrible chilling effect. It threatens to have long-term negative consequences for Hawaii’s diversified agriculture and backyard farmers, no matter what they grow.
 
If Hawaii’s politicians are going to start banishing essential GM crops, then why will other innovative technology businesses want to locate in our state? They’ll see Hawaii as a state where businesses that rely on science and technology are not allowed to thrive and succeed.
 
And why will the next Dennis Gonsalves want to devote any portion of his or her career to researching Hawaii’s agriculture problems when the solutions may be placed off limits by politicians?
 
Worst of all, the politicians are responding to unrealistic fears peddled by special-interest groups that have an ideological mindset to ignore sound science and responsible biotechnology solutions.
 
One of the leading anti-biotech groups is the woefully misnamed Center for Food Safety. It recently claimed that “consumers may suffer allergic reactions due to unexpected toxins in GE foods.”
 
That’s like saying it may snow in downtown Honolulu next summer. No consumer has ever suffered an allergic reaction to a biotech-enhanced papaya or any other kind of food. Most people seem to know this instinctively. In a recent survey by the International Food Information Council, only 1 percent of Americans listed biotechnology as a “food safety issue” that concerned them.
 
The stakes are high. My state’s economy depends heavily on tourism. When families start to pinch pennies, as many are now, the first type of thing they cut from their budgets is--you guessed it--vacations to Hawaii. In this time of financial crisis, Hawaii shouldn’t hobble its homegrown industries.
 
Instead of limiting the technologies available to Hawaii’s farmers, politicians should work to enable our success. At the very least, they should let us have the freedom to decide what we’ll plant and harvest: organic coffee beans, genetically modified papayas, or whatever.
 
The good news is Mayor Harry Kim relied on his years of experience of what is best for the Big Island and had the courage to stand up for policy that benefits Hawaii’s farmers by vetoing the County Councils ban. The bad news is that the council appears poised to override Mayor Kim’s action. “It’s what the farmers want us to do,” said Councilman Bob Jacobson.
 
That’s not exactly true. I’m a farmer and I don’t want him to vote to override—because I want to make sure Hawaiian agriculture can continue to thrive.
 
 
Ken Kamiya has grown papaya in Hawaii for over 35 years. The “Kamiya” papaya is named in recognition of his work in the industry. Mr. Kamiya participated in the 2007 Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable.
 
 

Elected For the Common Good

Nov 07, 2008
In his victory speech on Election Night, Barack Obama said that America has “sent a message to the world.”
 
He was talking about national unity. A week ago, we were red Republicans and blue Democrats. Today we’re red, white, and blue Americans. President-elect Obama is right about that.
 
We need to send another message to the world as well--one that says the United States won’t embrace the specter of protectionism, even in a time of economic anxiety. Cracking down on freer trade and trade agreements will only make our problems worse.
 
Throughout the presidential campaign, Obama said that our country must improve its image abroad. Rightly or wrongly, too many foreigners see the United States as a menace rather than a force for good. During his speech in Berlin this summer, Obama recognized this challenge: “In Europe, the view that America is part of what has gone wrong in our world, rather than a force to help make it right, has become all too common.”
 
The anti-Americans will probably always be with us, from the snobbish salons of Paris to the terror-loving madrassas of Pakistan. But surely we can do better in the eyes of the world. One of the fundamental promises of Obama’s candidacy is that under his leadership, we will.
 
As he said at the Democratic convention in August, “just as we keep our promise to the next generation here at home, so must we keep America’s promise abroad.”
 
Protectionism is a sure-fire way to blow it.
 
It doesn’t keep a promise abroad. Instead, protectionism breaks a promise--a promise of American leadership on global economic issues.
 
Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has fought for trade liberalization around the planet, to the benefit of ordinary people everywhere. Times may be tough right now, but on any objective scale that takes in the full sweep of history, we’ve never been more prosperous.
 
Just a generation ago, there were no high-speed web connections, cell phones, or iPods. There were no GPS devices in minivans or combines. There was no agricultural biotechnology, keeping down our costs and boosting our yields so that farmers can continue to feed a hungry world.
 
The ability to buy and sell goods and services across borders has underwritten much of this progress. Economic isolationism would threaten these gains--especially the ones that we still hope to achieve for the next generation.
 
Earlier this year, during the Democratic primaries, Obama suggested that the United States “renegotiate” or even “opt-out” of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
 
Talk about breaking a promise!
 
The good news is that a little while later, Obama seemed to retreat from these rash comments. The guy with the famously cool temperament more or less admitted that his rhetoric had turned a little hot during the pressures of a high-stakes campaign.
 
“I believe in free trade,” he said in June. “As somebody who lived overseas, who has family overseas, I’ve seen what’s happened in terms of rising living standards around the globe. And that’s a good thing for America, it’s good for our national security.”
 
Now this was a change I could believe in!
 
Our economy is in rough shape at the moment, and not everybody believes in free trade. Some public officials in Washington won’t resist the deadly allure of protectionism. Special interests will plead with them to close borders and raise tariffs. It won’t matter to them that this will hurt people whose jobs are tied to the export market. It won’t matter to them that it will inflate consumer prices for everyone. It won’t matter to them that the world will wonder why America is turning inward.
 
The very opposite of a special interest, after all, is the common good.
 
So as much as I’d like to urge Obama to push through the Bush administration’s sensible free-trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea, and to ask Congress to renew Trade Promotion Authority, my first request of our next president is a simple one.
 
When it comes to trade policy, for the sake of our economy here at home and America’s image abroad: Start by doing no harm.
 
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org
 
 
 
 
 
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