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June 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.

Feeding the Hungry

Jun 25, 2009
There are some people around the world who think religion and science shouldn't get along. For some reason, they believe the men of the cloth should disagree with the men of the lab coat, now and forever.
 
They’ll be disappointed to learn that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences--an arm of the Vatican--has given its blessing to genetically modified crops. At a conference last month in Rome, it praised GM food for holding “a great potential to improve the lives of the poor.”
 
This is a welcome marriage of religion and science--two powerful forces joining for the good of all.
 
That’s certainly how I view it, as a Roman Catholic farmer in North Dakota. Growing up, I served as an altar boy and learned the Mass in Latin. Today, I read scripture, as a proclaimer, from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.
 
When I’m in the fields, planting seeds or harvesting crops, I’m in the business of nourishing bodies. When at church, we nourish spirits--my own and those of my family, friends, and others. Everybody needs both forms of sustenance.
 
Farming is my profession. But it’s more than a job--it’s a vocation. The Catholic Church teaches us to show benevolence toward the poor, and to feed them when they are hungry. One of the best ways I can realize this goal is to grow as much food as possible and to make it available at the most reasonable prices. I believe it is important that all farmers, especially the resource-poor smallholders, have the right to choose the best technology available, including biotechnology when appropriate, to improve their hope of producing more food for themselves. 
 
Biotechnology allows farmers to do well and do good at the same time. It has certainly made it easier for me to earn a living, because GM seeds reduce the amount of time and resources I devote to each acre of crops. Simultaneously, it has allowed farmers to grow more food than ever before. If farmers are going to feed a booming global population, we’re all going to have to get a lot more out of our existing farmland.
 
Farmers have an economic incentive to meet this challenge--and we also have a moral obligation. The story of Genesis teaches that our Creator had endowed us with gifts. One of them is our dominion over plants and animals. We must utilize this resource but not waste it, in order to take care of ourselves as well as the less fortunate. Our intellect--another one of our great gifts--lets us come up with creative solutions for achieving this objective. One of the best recent solutions is agricultural biotechnology.
 
The Pontifical Academy’s embrace of biotechnology doesn’t carry the full weight of an official church teaching, but it’s instructive. At a time when many of the Vatican’s European neighbors are turning their backs on biotechnology, and strangling innovation with the red tape of bureaucracy, the academy’s position is a model of common sense.
 
Are GM foods dangerous, as so many Europeans have been told? “No substantiated environmental or health risks have been noted,” says the academy. “Opposition to biotechnology in agriculture is usually ideological.”
 
Don’t we have to make sure GM foods are carefully regulated? Yes, but the current threat doesn’t come from under-regulation. It comes from over-regulation: “The huge potential of plant biotechnology to produce more, and more nutritive, food for the poor will be lost if GMO-regulation is not changed from being driven by ‘extreme precaution’ principles to being driven by ‘science-based’ principles.”
 
This is not the academy’s first foray into the politics and science of agricultural biotechnology. In recent years, it has issued a series of favorable statements about GM foods. The occasion for this latest utterance was a conference organized by German scientist Ingo Potrykus, the inventor of golden rice--a GM crop that contains extra vitamins that people in the developing world often lack.
 
Critics of the Catholic Church often accuse it of hostility toward science--a claim they’ve been making since the days of Galileo, if not earlier. They will have trouble squaring this prejudice with the facts of today, as the Pontifical Academy shows how a faith can use the scientific tool of biotechnology to reach the religious aim of feeding the poor.
 
This is more than a positive example. It’s an inspiration.
 
Terry Wanzek grows corn, soybeans, and wheat on his family farm in North Dakota.  
Mr. Wanzek serves as a North Dakota Senator and board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)
 
 
 
 
 

Working to End Hunger

Jun 18, 2009
From basket case to breadbasket – that’s the journey sub-Saharan Africa must complete if we’re to meet the food challenges of the 21st century.
 
One of the path-breaking pioneers of this historic effort is Gebisa Ejeta, a native son of the region who has been named the recipient of the 2009 World Food Prize. The 59-year-old Ethiopian began his life in a thatch hut and wound up traveling to the United States, where he became a brilliant agronomist. His legacy: hardy strains of sorghum, a tropical grain that is a food staple in much of the developing world.
 
Ejeta’s sorghum varieties resist drought and produce high yields. They also fend off attacks from a parasitic plant with a grimly appropriate name: witchweed.
 
These scientific feats “illustrate what can be achieved when cutting-edge technology and international cooperation in agriculture are used to uplift and empower the world’s most vulnerable people,” said Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who founded the World Food Prize, which has become a kind of Nobel Prize for accomplishments in the area of food production. It carries a purse of $250,000 and will be formally presented to Ejeta on October 15 – World Food Day - in Des Moines, Iowa.
 
The news of Ejeta’s award comes on the heels of a distressing report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, which says that the world’s population of chronically hungry people has grown by about four million per week since the start of this year—and that their total now numbers more than 1 billion.
 
Water scarcity and possibly climate change will only compound this problem in the years to come. We may have entered a period of “perpetual food crisis,” as the current issue of National Geographic calls it.
 
The immediate concern is whether these unfortunate have-nots will survive. Their fates will affect us all, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear last week: “The effects of chronic hunger cannot be overstated. Hunger is not only a physical condition, it is a drain on economic development, a threat to global security, a barrier to health and education, and a trap for the millions of people worldwide who work from sunup to sundown every single day but can barely produce enough food to sustain their lives and the lives of their families.”
 
One of the obvious responses to the problem of chronic hunger is to increase shipments of aid from rich countries to poor ones. The financial crisis has put enormous strains on everyone. The G8 nations may not even meet the aid goals they have set for themselves, to say nothing of the goals that relief workers are trying to set for them.
 
Handouts are no long-term solution. They may relieve hunger, but they won’t cure it. Instead, we must focus on improving conditions in the most afflicted countries.
 
Many of the problems are political. A generation ago, Zimbabwe was one of the world’s great food-producing nations. Today, it is essentially a failed country. Its collapse—combined with political disruptions in the neighboring nations of sub-Saharan Africa—have had profound consequences on our planet’s ability to feed itself.
 
The problems are also scientific. As world population grows, we simply must produce more food. And if we’re truly devoted to environmentally sustainable agriculture, we must do it on existing farmland. In other words, the solution isn’t to cut down rainforests or plow steep hillsides and turn them into crop fields, but rather to grow more crops on the fields we already cultivate.
 
Success like Ejeta’s will be necessary. So will investment in biotechnology, which has boosted corn, soybean, canola and cotton yields. Last month, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that by 2015, half of the world’s major food and feed crops will come from plant varieties that have benefited from biotech enhancements.
 
In the years ahead, we’ll want to make sure that these benefits accrue to farmers in the developing world. They deserve access to the same technologies as farmers in advanced nations. Over time, they’ll get it—if we encourage the work of innovators such as Ejeta.
 
We must not minimize the challenges before us, but fundamentally it all comes down to what Secretary Clinton said last week: “The question is not whether we can end hunger, it’s whether we will.”
 
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org   Mr. Kleckner is a member Emeritus of the World Food Prize Council of Advisors.

Declare Trade Peace

Jun 11, 2009
The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. Unfortunately, some lawmakers see this as an excuse to ignite a trade war--one that’s hurting Americans economically during our worst financial crisis in at least a generation.
 
As if that weren’t bad enough, they’re also making Americans look like scofflaws for failing to live up to our treaty obligations.
 
Last week, a Mexican trade association announced that it was seeking $6 billion in damages from the U.S. because officials in Washington have broken longstanding promises about access to our markets. I’m reluctant to side with foreigners against my own government. On the merits, however, I’m forced to conclude that the Mexicans make a good case. Regrettably, our own representatives are working against the interests of the American people.
 
The controversy surrounds trucking. Under the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the U.S. was supposed to begin allowing Mexican long-haul trucks to carry cargo on American roads nine years ago, by 2000. This never happened, however, due to the political influence of Big Labor. The union bosses worked with their protectionist collaborators in Congress to keep a treaty obligation from becoming a concrete reality.
 
Talk about misplaced priorities. Our "politics-as-usual" officeholders are determined to keep fully documented Mexican trucks from entering our country and engaging in aboveboard business with Americans, in accordance with an international agreement that Congress voted to approve.
 
For eight years, the Bush administration tried to solve this problem. It developed pilot programs and safety rules for Mexican trucks. These good-faith efforts kept the Mexicans at bay. They were frustrated by Washington’s refusal to live up to its agreements, but they were also reluctant to retaliate. Trade wars never have winners. U.S. consumers, for their part, have been losing this one from the get-go: The obligation to move cargo from Mexican trucks to American big rigs reduces efficiency, which leads to higher prices for all consumers.
 
Yet the protectionists made a potentially compelling claim. They said that Mexican trucks were not safe enough to travel on U.S. roads. Nobody wants American lives jeopardized, after all.
 
We now know that this is a bogus argument. Mexican trucks are currently allowed to drive a few miles into the U.S. During these trips, they often undergo roadside inspections. Their rate of passage is about the same as that of U.S. vehicles. (Actually, it’s a couple of percentage points higher.) Trucks that take to American roads, whether they’re driven by plaid-flannel-wearing guys named Dave or mariachi-listening muchachos named Jose, will always have to meet American standards.
 
I dislike saying it, but the protectionists are playing to prejudice--the assumption that because Mexico is a poor country, its truck drivers won’t bother to have their brakes checked before they rumble across the Rio Grande. This assumption is perhaps not totally unreasonable. But when its falsehood is empirically proven, we have a responsibility to abandon it.
 
Yet members of Congress have embraced it. In March, they passed a bill that essentially bans Mexican trucks from American roads. President Obama put his signature on the legislation.
 
So Mexico quickly struck back. It slapped new tariffs on made-in-America products--exports valued at $2.4 billion. In all, some 89 consumer items from 40 states are affected. California table grapes face a new 45% duty at the border. Christmas trees grown in Oregon must endure a 20% tax. Scrap batteries from Wisconsin, jewelry from New York, and oilseeds from North Dakota are affected as well.
 
When Mexicans shop for these products, they are now almost certain to turn to suppliers from other countries. We lose sales.
 
“In view of the economic downturn, the loss of any market for our agricultural producers is especially troubling,” said Christine Gregoire, the Democratic governor of Washington, last month. Her state’s pears, cherries and frozen potatoes pay a 20% duty as they enter Mexico. Gregoire is calling on Congress and the Obama administration to resolve this dispute as quickly as possible.
 
This destructive trade war was launched for the benefit of a special-interest lobby. Now it forces ordinary Americans to suffer a new economic blow, whether their jobs are tied to exports or they purchase consumer items from abroad.
 
It’s time for Washington to pursue trade peace.
 
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org
 
 
 

Food Safety 101

Jun 04, 2009
Recently, the New York Times asked a startling question: “Is it becoming more dangerous to eat?”
 
Let me offer an unequivocal answer: No.
 
Never in human history has it been safer to eat food than today. We know more about how to grow healthy food. We also know more about how to keep it safe as it travels from farm to fork. And as we continue to learn, we’re constantly improving the whole process.
 
Yet there’s no sense in denying that the question of food safety has been on the public’s mind. We've all read and some of us have 'lived' the recent headlines about peanut butter, jalapeno peppers, and spinach. As we enter picnic season--a time when Americans are prone to leaving their food exposed for long stretches--we will continue to hear about these concerns.
 
Consumers should know that farmers are committed to producing healthy and nutritious food. The safety of what I grow is the first thing on my mind each day. My livelihood depends on it. So does my family: After all, they eat what I grow.
 
Here’s one way of looking at it: Farmers worry about food safety so that you don’t have to.
 
So why does tainted food continue to make news? There are two simple explanations. The first is that the media thrives on shocking stories. You’ve probably heard the old nightly-news chestnut: If it bleeds, it leads. Maybe we should consider a corollary for food poisoning: If it’s foul, then growl.
 
The point is that instances of food contamination reliably generate frightening headlines and righteous denunciations. The reasons often have as much to do with the media’s desire for high ratings as they do with the accuracy of a story. Remember the recent fuss about “swine flu”? It caused a sensation in part because the media misnamed it: Health officials had to take to the airwaves to correct this semantic blunder and assure nervous consumers that they couldn’t contract the disease from eating ham sandwiches or pork chops. Today, responsible commentators refer to the illness by its scientific name, the H1N1 flu.
 
The second reason we hear about tainted food is because there are actual cases of it. We can deplore them as unacceptable, but we should also consider a paradoxical fact: They are success stories of effective regulation.
 
Our public-health officials are very good at identifying problems and containing them. If they weren’t, we would never hear about food contamination. It would just happen. People would become sick for no obvious reason. Doctors and nurses would shrug their shoulders. Think of that common diagnosis: “Could be anything.” Life would go on as before. Nobody would connect the dots.
 
With our current regulations, however, concrete information can spread quickly when breakouts begin to occur. This enables producers and consumers to take appropriate steps to safeguard the food supply.
 
Although we’ll never have a completely failsafe system, we’re getting better at protecting ourselves all the time. About a dozen years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention improved its data collection of food-borne illnesses. The results are impressive: a 25-percent decrease in E. coli ailments. Other bacterial infections are down by about a third.
 
The advent of biotechnology has been a big help, too. GM crops are better able to fend off pests that introduce disease. In the near future, we’ll hear more about biofortification--the genetic enhancement of staple crops to improve their nutritional content. The National Academy of Sciences recently reported on successful efforts to boost the amount of vitamins in transgenic corn. These advances will promote health through the food chain, especially in developing countries where proper nutrition is a constant challenge.
 
We will strive to discover effective and appropriate ways to improve the safety of our food supply even further. Lawmakers must proceed with caution and remain sensitive to unintended consequences. It isn’t hard to imagine increasingly elaborate levels of regulatory scrutiny. Yet big budgets and burgeoning bureaucracies don’t automatically guarantee worthwhile results. They often create new inefficiencies and burden consumers with additional costs.
 
In the meantime, eat without fear. Your food is safe.
 
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
 
 
 
 
 
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