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October 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.

We Must Allow Farmers To Feed The World

Oct 29, 2009
Sometimes when I think about the past, I fear for the future.
 
The Chinese were once the world’s greatest seafarers. A few people even think they reached the west coast of North America before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But then the emperor banned foreign travel. They were never heard from again.
 
The Islamic people once led the world in math and science. Did you know that the word “algebra” comes from Arabic? But then their culture embraced fundamentalism. They were never heard from again.
 
Today in Europe, our own civilization threatens to turn back the clock on progress. While much of the rest of the planet adopts agricultural biotechnology--an absolutely essential tool if we’re to achieve food security in the 21st century--the foolish antics of Green party activists would lead us toward a future of poverty and hunger.
 
Before that happens, you’ll be hearing from me. This is one of the most important battles of our time. We cannot stay silent.
 
I farm on three continents. In my native Ireland, I work 1,100 acres, growing wheat for pigs and poultry. In Argentina, I’m managing director of a 31,000-acre operation that harvests corn, soybeans, and wheat. In the United States, in southwest Missouri, I’m an investor in a dairy farm.
 
So my experience as a farmer is global. I’ve observed best practices in very different environments. Unfortunately, I’ve also witnessed worst practices. A bullheaded refusal to take advantage of biotechnology is probably the very worst practice around.
 
In Ireland, the situation is so bad that we aren’t even allowed to research genetic modification in crops. Forget about planting them for commercial benefit, the way farmers do all the time in North and South America, where GM crops are now a form of conventional agriculture. Here at home, it’s illegal for researchers to conduct experiments.
 
Do you realize what this means? They’ve outlawed scientific inquiry!
 
Ireland tries to take pride in building what it calls a “knowledge-based economy.” When it comes to biotech crops, however, Ireland is in a headlong retreat from knowledge. Our government prefers ignorance.
 
Argentina is the exact opposite. Farmers in that country--including me, when I’m working there--are allowed to grow genetically modified crops. This gives us a big boost in yield and soil protection.
 
Ironically, Ireland has the better business reputation. Each year, the World Bank calculates the ease of doing business in the countries of the world, using quantitative measurements on start-ups, regulations, taxes, and so forth.
 
This year, Ireland ranks #7. Argentina is #118, which is a little better than Bangladesh and a little worse than Bosnia. (The United States, by the way, is #4.)
 
Yet I much prefer the business of farming in Argentina. It’s a dream place for agriculture. I’m not just referring to the climate. I’m thinking about how hard farming has become in Ireland, or just about anywhere else in Europe. The Argentine government doesn’t try to tell me what I can and cannot grow based upon deliberate ignorance. It lets me make my own decisions.
 
If I was a younger man, I’d be tempted to move permanently to Argentina. But Ireland is home. I’m not going anywhere. It nevertheless saddens me to see a vocal minority of Green party activists throttle the future of farming here.
 
There are about as many people in Ireland as there are in Oregon--a bit less than four million. The world adds roughly this number of people to its total population every three weeks or so. The demand for food never has been higher--and if current trends continue, it will continue to set new records every year for the rest of my life.
 
It will take Irish farmland--and existing farmland everywhere--to meet this need. Europe must do its part to produce more and use its influence, especially in Africa, to encourage biotechnology. The policy of refusing to take GM crops seriously sets us up for an awful tragedy.
 
Maybe there's some good news ahead: This week, the Royal Society, the United Kingdom's National Academy of Science, has released a report that calls for the acceptance of genetic modification on the farm.
 
Let’s hope for a better future, so our present doesn’t become a past we come to regret.
 
Jim McCarthy, a first generation farmer based in Kildare, Ireland, farms in three continents – Europe, South America and North America - growing wheat, soybeans, corn, canola, peas, oats and dairy. Mr. McCarthy is the 2009 Kleckner Trade and Technology Advancement Award recipient and a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network. www.truthabouttrade.org
 

Un-Reality TV

Oct 22, 2009
On Monday night, the television show “CSI: Miami” launched a vicious attack on American farmers, corn farmers in particular; an angry assault motivated by willful ignorance and driven by scientific illiteracy.
 
The result was worse than bad television. It was malicious propaganda based on distortions and lies about the common practices of modern agriculture. Call it “un-reality TV.”
 
I'm responding because I AM a farmer. I am a business man. I own my own land and work for no one else. I work very hard every day to produce healthy, high quality food for my family and consumers around the world.
 
“CSI: Miami” is a popular police-procedural show, now in its eighth season on CBS. It routinely ranks among the top-20 most-watched programs in the country. About 13 million people typically tune in, according to the latest data from Nielson.
 
Monday’s episode was called “Bad Seed.” At the start, a young woman dies. Doctors and investigators suspect food poisoning--but then the show delivers its own deadly dose of venom. It means to poison the minds of Americans with toxic nonsense, turning them against a staple food and the farmers who produce it.
 
This soon becomes apparent as the heroes of “CSI: Miami” uncover a dastardly scheme. A company called Bixton Organic Foods is growing a new variety of GM corn--and its killing people.
 
There’s nothing wrong with a little fictitious embroidery in the service of a good drama. The problem with “Bad Seed” is that it doesn’t merely invent a police department with world-beating technologies and seemingly infinite financial resources. Instead, it bases its plot on a sinister falsehood: the notion that farmers and other food-industry professionals don’t care about the health or even the survival of consumers.
 
That’s not the only deception. The show also says that eating genetically modified crops and products derived from them is bad for you. It basically charges GM food with murder.
 
Here are some facts that any rookie crime-scene investigator would soon uncover: Every day, millions of people in the United States and around the world consume GM food. It’s no less healthy or nutritious than non-GM food. We know this from years of experience as well as extensive scientific and regulatory testing. GM foods have never so much as caused anyone to sneeze.
 
But according to “CSI: Miami,” the stuff can end your life. In a key scene, as investigators piece together their case, one of them mimics the flamboyant rhetoric of European anti-biotech activists: “They Frankenstein bacteria with plants,” he says.
 
This line not only mangles the English language by turning a proper noun into a verb, it also twists the truth. Cross-breeding is an age-old agricultural practice. Farmers have been doing it for thousands of years in a quest to grow better crops.
 
Biotechnology allows today's plant breeders to transfer genes carrying desirable traits from one plant to another. The practice has improved our lives in all sorts of ways, especially through the advancement of medicine.
 
In agriculture, biotechnology helps crops use nutrients more efficiently and resist weeds and pests. By limiting crop loss to both, the technology boosts yield on existing farmland, which keeps prices in check for consumers and reduces the stress on wilderness regions. Our future food security and environmental sustainability will depend upon the spread and acceptance of this vital tool.
 
This is hardly on the agenda of Halloween monsters. In the fevered imagination of the producers and writers of “CSI: Miami,” however, biotechnology presents a mortal threat.
 
There’s only one way to say it: “CSI: Miami” puts the “BS” in CBS.
 
The show’s worst offense may be its sweeping denigration of farmers in the field, regulatory agents in government, and business leaders in the private sector. According to “CSI: Miami,” they’re all accomplices to homicide.
 
The ultimate villain of “Bad Seed” is the CEO of Bixton Organic Foods. The character is called Jerry Mackey--a name strikingly similar to John Mackey, the head of Whole Foods. At the end of the episode, he issues a vile little speech about his priorities: “If one man’s death means 500 get fed, yes, I’ll take those odds.”
 
He’ll take those odds? They’re completely and utterly unacceptable. I don’t know anybody who farms, let alone anybody in the entire food industry, who would accept this rationale. John Mackey of Whole Foods certainly wouldn’t.
 
Suggesting that such a person exists--and that he symbolizes those of us who devote our lives to producing safe and healthy food--is a smear.
 
If CBS wants to find a real crime scene, it should start by investigating itself.
 
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 www.truthabouttrade.org
 
 
 

Essential Ingredients to Alleviate Hunger: Trade and Technology

Oct 14, 2009
Oscar Wilde once said that ambition is the last refuge of failure.
 
Next month, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) will meet in Rome to announce the goal of eradicating hunger by 2025.
 
That’s an ambitious goal--so ambitious that it sounds suspiciously like a prelude to failure. It brings to mind the thought that sometimes the best way to keep a promise is not to make it in the first place.
 
Are we really going to wipe out hunger in the next 16 years? Don’t bet your farm on it.
 
Yet we must give this undertaking our best effort. I believe – along with many others –that feeding the hungry is a moral imperative.
 
The FAO is an institution that can help advance a worthy objective. If it’s truly serious about eliminating hunger, it will do more than provide an occasion for today’s political leaders to make grand statements that their unfortunate successors can’t hope to live up to. Instead, it will embrace two specific strategies in the fight against hunger: free trade and biotechnology.
 
Neither one is a panacea. Ensuring food security for all the people of the world will require success on any number of fronts, from improved irrigation in developing countries to a ready and affordable supply of fertilizer everywhere. Political stability is indispensable, too. Civil unrest is the handmaiden of malnourishment and famine.
 
Trade and technology are also essential ingredients. We will not enjoy much forward progress without both of them. Trade makes it possible to move food around our planet, from places of plenty to places of scarcity, without interference from the artificial barriers of import tariffs or export levies. Technology makes it possible to increase yields on existing farmland, keep food prices in check, and deliver consumer benefits.
 
Some world leaders have taken the current financial climate as an opportunity to turn their backs on trade. The United States may not be the worst offender, but in recent months it has avoided taking on its traditional leadership role. The current administration and Congress refuse to ratify sensible trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. Their new “Buy American” rules have confounded longtime business partners in Canada. They’ve put the brakes on long-haul trucking commitments with Mexico--at the price of breaking a treaty agreement with our southern neighbors. They’ve just recently restricted low-cost tires made in China to the detriment of Americans with limited incomes.
 
If we’re to feed the whole planet, it must become easier for American food producers to sell their beef in Korea and their corn in Europe. We must also figure out a way to revive the Doha round of world trade talks. The existing deadlock hurts our ability to move food from country to country, especially between advanced nations and the developing world. If we don’t make substantial progress in this area, the FAO will not meet its hunger goal for 2025.
 
Biotechnology is no less important. Thankfully, many American officials seem to understand how much it matters. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently described our “once a generation” opportunity “to bring about transformative change” through the vigorous application of biotechnology to agriculture.
 
The key is to make other nations share this sense of urgency. Farmers in the Western Hemisphere have embraced biotechnology to marvelous effect. Growers in Asia and Australia are also adopting biotechnology because they see how it helps to produce more with less.
 
Yet resistance in Europe remains a significant roadblock. Until we get past it, biotechnology won’t begin to realize its full potential. Most of the unnecessary suffering that results will take place in Sub-Saharan Africa, which keeps the genetically modified crops at a nervous arm’s length because of Europe’s destructive attitude.
 
Last week, President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen ... cooperation between peoples.” Reasonable people may disagree on the merits of his diplomacy. Yet there can be little doubt that his diplomacy will succeed if he can help wipe out hunger by strengthening economic and scientific cooperation between countries through free trade and biotechnology.
 
And if the FAO can persuade him to adopt these causes, maybe it will deserve to become a Nobel laureate as well.
 
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org
 
 
 

Bottom Up Success

Oct 07, 2009
World leaders want to wipe out hunger by 2025. That deadline is sooner than you may think. There are children alive today who will still be children when it arrives.
 
The goal is ambitious. The impulse to feed the world is a healthy one. Even if we suspect the goal will be difficult to meet, we must rise to the challenge. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) will attempt to formalize its objective next month, at a meeting in Rome.
 
Before then--next week, in fact--another gathering will try to point the way forward. Truth About Trade and Technology (TATT) will host nearly two dozen farmers from six continents at a unique event during the festivities surrounding the World Food Prize and Norman Borlaug International Symposium in Des Moines.
 
The purpose of the Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable is to provide farmers from around the world the opportunity to share their ideas and experiences with each other through face-to-face contact and conversation. Meetings such as this are essential if we’re ever going to meet the FAO’s objective, or come anywhere near attaining it. The key to agricultural success in the 21st century must include the cross pollination of information, expertise and support – farmer to farmer - around the planet.
 
I had this lesson affirmed firsthand last month on a trip to Kenya, where I met Gilbert Bor. He grows maize (corn), vegetables and dairy cows on a 25-acre farm near Eldoret, Kenya. Collaborating with other farmers and ACDI/VOCA, a non-profit group that’s dedicated to 'putting more money in farmers pockets' by raising productivity and increasing access to agricultural markets for smallholder farmers, Bor has adopted modern agricultural technologies, such as improved seeds, fertilizer and better irrigation. As a result, he has boosted his yield dramatically.  Maize production has gone up by about 50 percent.
 
Higher yield on existing farmland is an important part of the solution to the world’s growing demand for food. The FAO estimates that 90 percent of the increased productivity we’ll need must come from land that farmers are already working. Only 10 percent will come from the introduction of new farmland.
 
Bor will attend the Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable and share his experiences with farmers from Brazil, Honduras, India, Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere. He hopes to learn lessons for himself, too. For all the gains he has made, he plans to make more. He’ll be able to do it, too, if scientists can improve drought tolerance in staple crops. Bor lives in an area that occasionally suffers from a lack of rainfall.
 
Researchers can attain breakthroughs in conventional breeding or, better yet, by unleashing the full potential of biotechnology. Although much of sub-Saharan Africa is reluctant to take advantage of genetic modification, due to irrational hostility in European export markets, Bor is open to the idea. He’s bound to learn more about it in Des Moines.
 
We hold these meetings annually. Each year, farmers who don’t have steady access to biotechnology want to hear more about its benefits from farmers who plant it routinely.
 
The stakes are high. The late Norman Borlaug used to point out that the lack of an adequate food supply sparked civil unrest. It’s impossible, he said, “to build a peaceful world on empty stomachs.”
 
Bor knows this reality: His region was the center of political violence last year following Kenya’s disputed presidential election.
 
When we arrived at Bor’s village, an assembly of schoolchildren greeted our group with songs and asked each of us to plant a tree with them. Their presence illustrated what Bor is working for. The products of his farm are feeding his family and others. Now he is collaborating with like-minded organizations, using his experience to share information and skills with local youth through a program that encourages teams of football players to collectively plant and harvest 1 acre of maize and drip-irrigated vegetables. Bor’s success will give them a future.
 
When Gilbert Bor comes to Des Moines, he’ll talk to other farmers, sharing his story and experiences. The FAO’s hunger-elimination project will rely on commitments from presidents and prime ministers, in classic top-down fashion. Its success, however, will require work from the bottom-up. Leaders must listen to the farmers themselves, who know best what they need in order to succeed.
 
Mary Boote serves as Executive Director for Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org Ms. Boote traveled to Kenya and Tanzania to visit ACDI/VOCA agribusiness programs that provide practical on-farm training to increase productivity, food security and profitability for smallholder farmers.
 
 

The Freedom to Choose

Oct 01, 2009
No farmer I know likes to till his soil or apply herbicides. Tillage destroys soil structure, depletes soil organic matter, disrupts the lives of healthy soil bacteria and releases trapped greenhouse gases.
 
And herbicides - while necessary to prevent weeds from stealing sunlight, water and nutrients, and ultimately stifling the crop - are expensive and can harm the fields if used excessively. 
 
However, in the last few years I've reduced my field tillage by 30% and my herbicide applications were cut in half because I had access to a new technology: GMO sugar beets. My soil and crops are better because of it.
 
Now a judicial ruling may force me to increase my herbicide applications by 50% and resume those aggressive tillage practices in my sugar beets--even though biotechnology offers much better options.
 
I grow sugar beets on a family farm near Boise, Idaho. A couple of years ago, we started to plant genetically modified sugar beets that offer better weed control. They’re good for farmers, good for consumers, and good for the environment.
 
Unfortunately, we’re on the verge of losing the right to grow them. Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White ruled that the government failed to look hard enough when they determined that GM sugar beets were not a plant pest. After regulatory testing, the USDA, in 2006, approved them to be planted without restriction in the U.S. This year, over 95% of sugar beets planted in the U.S. used this technology.
 
The plaintiffs are four special-interest groups whose opposition to biotechnology is ideological rather than scientific: the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club, and High Mowing Organic Seeds. They are fervently against GM crops and no amount of additional testing of GM sugar beets will change their intractable opposition.
 
Later this month Judge White will consider an actual ban of GMO sugar beets – a very drastic step in light of the circumstances. We'll all be worse off if that is his decision. For starters, I’ll have to go back to using more herbicides and extensive tillage on my farm.
 
In order to defeat weeds, we till, cultivate and spray our fields with a menu of old-fashioned herbicides. The tillage and spray does a pretty good job of controlling weeds, but it also sends young sugar beets into shock and stunts their growth.  This reduces the yield and amount of sugar produced.
 
Biotechnology changes this grim equation. Through genetic improvement, we’re able to plant exceptional sugar beets that naturally resist glyphosate, an extremely safe and effective weed herbicide available at your local Wal-Mart. This improves their yield, which in turn helps me and many other family farmers make ends meet. Believe me, the last thing we need in this economic climate is for a judge to deny us the freedom to choose what we grow. The livelihoods of tens of thousands of Americans depend upon the growing, harvesting, and processing of sugar beets. This ruling threatens to hit us in our pocket books at a time when we can least afford it.
 
Farmers aren’t the only beneficiaries. GM sugar beets require fewer herbicides, which gives comfort to consumers. Moreover, this crop allows me to give my tractors a break. Fewer applications of chemical sprays and greatly reduced tillage means we run them a lot less, which reduces our greenhouse-gas emissions and helps the environment. According to one estimate, the widespread adoption of GM sugar beets saves 1.7 million gallons of fuel each year.
 
Significantly, Judge White’s ruling did not question the safety of GM sugar beets, whose sugar at the molecular level is in fact identical to sugar produced by sugar cane and non-GM sugar beets. The U.S. Department of Agriculture already has conducted an environmental assessment and determined that GM sugar beets pose no threat to anybody. The judge seems to think that USDA should conduct additional studies.
 
Nobody in the sugar beet industry has anything to fear from new studies. They are bound to affirm what we already know about the safety of this product. The problem is that this legal ruling could remove an important crop from our fields for an unknown length of time. It could take years for this problem to resolve itself.
 
That’s the lesson of GM alfalfa--another good biotech product that I used to grow, but had to stop using once it became tied up in the red tape of litigation.
 
I hope everybody involved can agree that this issue needs to be resolved as quickly as possible, so that farmers, consumers, and the environment can take advantage of biotech sugar beets.
 
Paul Rasgorshek runs a family farm near Nampa, Idaho. They grow sugar beets, alfalfa seed, sweet corn seed, peppermint, spearmint, garden beans and peas for seed, carrot seed, onion seed, silage corn, and hay on 3,900 acres of irrigated ground. Mr. Rasgorshek is a guest author for Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org
 
 
 
 
 
 
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