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April 2010 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.

A Promise Worth Keeping

Apr 30, 2010
Guest column - by Cheryl Koompin

Farmers do their best to keep their promises. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Washington--and now potato farmers like me are paying a steep price. So are American workers and consumers.

The United States has blundered into a trade war with Mexico, brought on entirely by Washington’s refusal to live up to an international agreement it previously has supported. Regrettably, my country is entirely in the wrong and Mexico is wholly in the right. As a patriotic American, I hate to say this--but it’s the simple truth.

Potato farmers all over the United States are collateral damage in this dispute--innocent victims in a clash of special interests. 

The good news is that President Obama has a chance to end this destructive game of “hot potato” in about three weeks, when President Felipe Calderón of Mexico visits the White House. Ending this harmful trade war should rank near the top of Obama’s agenda.

The controversy has deep roots. Under the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the United States and Mexico were supposed to open their borders to each other’s trucks in 1995. Despite accepting this provision, our government never has kept its end of the bargain. It has refused to comply, essentially because Big Labor’s well-heeled bosses want special treatment. They don’t want to face the kind of competition that American workers in many other industries must confront every day.

The promise-breaking protectionists have claimed that Mexican trucks aren’t safe enough for American roads. Nobody wants dangerous trucks driving on U.S. highways, of course. Yet this provocative claim is a sideshow--a diversion meant to stir up anxieties rather than address the central question of treaty obligations. In fact, independent studies have shown that Mexican carriers that participated in a Department of Transportation test program actually had better safety records than their American counterparts. 

Washington’s attempt to get out of its NAFTA commitment is disgraceful. This was obvious from the start, but it became even clearer when an international dispute resolution panel, which included American membership, ruled unanimously in favor of Mexico’s complaint.

For more than a decade, Mexico tried to work out a compromise with Washington. It waited patiently, listening to new promises and hoping for a reasonable solution. Last year, however, it finally tired of the delays and excuses. It retaliated, imposing $2.4 billion in new tariffs on a wide range of American-made products. 

Potato farms in the northwest have taken a direct hit, due to a 20-percent tariff hike on frozen-potato products. Sales to Mexico have fallen drastically. Because of this, potato prices have fallen. We’re putting fewer potatoes in the ground and making across-the-board cuts to our farming operations. Farmers aren’t the only people affected. Potato-processing plants in our area are laying-off workers. The poor economic climate accounts for some of this downturn, but not all of it. 

Washington’s refusal to abide by its treaty obligations has taken a bad situation and made it worse. Farmers are losing income and workers are losing jobs because public officials want to appease a special interest.

The big winner in all of this is Canada. Its sales in frozen-potato products have increased almost exactly as much as ours have diminished. We’ve surrendered market share--and the jobs that come with it--to a foreign competitor.

With Calderón’s visit to Washington on May 19, Obama ought to announce an end to the trade war. It would certainly serve his political interests. He came into office on a pledge to improve America’s image in the world. And earlier this year, in his State of the Union address, he committed his administration to doubling U.S. exports in the next five years.

He should now compel Washington to live up to its diplomatic commitments and create the opportunity for American farmers and manufacturers to sell more of what they grow and make to customers in Mexico.

Promises such as these are worth keeping.

Cheryl Koompin is a partner in Koompin Farms, producing commercial and seed potatoes, feed corn, fresh peas, wheat, medicinal safflower and mustard in Power County, Idaho. Cheryl is a guest author for Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org

Wanted: Ethical Treatment for Livestock AND Producers

Apr 16, 2010
By Dean Kleckner - Chairman, Truth About Trade & Technology

It’s easy to understand why a business would shut its doors to professional protestors who show up with video cameras and a political agenda. But who would have expected an egg-producing farm to be more open and transparent than a press conference put on by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)?

Last week, the HSUS brought its anti-livestock propaganda show to Iowa. At a media event in Des Moines, it released footage that its agents had taped at several large egg-laying farms. They made headlines as far away as California.

Yet the last thing the HSUS wanted was candid discussion about agricultural practices. When a vice president from one of the targeted companies showed up to watch the video and defend his industry, he was prevented from attending. In the words of the Des Moines Register, he was “blocked out.”

In other words, animal-rights activists enjoyed better access to Iowa’s egg farms than Iowa’s egg farmers were able to obtain at an HSUS-sponsored forum that was described as a public event.

Apparently the HSUS crowd prefers its breakfast omelets served with extra helpings of irony.

There was a time when the HSUS performed the honorable work of trying to find loving homes for puppies and kittens. Nowadays, however, it prefers to deceive job-creating employers, smuggle video cameras onto farms, and release provocative images without having to debate its tactics or ideas.

Sometimes publicity-seeking journalists manage to reveal hidden corruption and uncomfortable truths. The HSUS, however, does no such thing. For starters, it’s not a media organization that aims for objectivity. Instead, it has now become an ideological group that pursues a bizarre and extremist vision of animal rights--and it won’t let basic fairness or democratic deliberation get in the way of its goal.

The HSUS says that it supports the ethical treatment of animals. It should also pay attention to the ethical treatment of farmers.

Here’s what happened: The HSUS sent its people to several egg-laying farms in Iowa (the nation's #1 producer) and had them acquire jobs under false pretenses. Over time, these phony workers secretly videotaped examples of what they described as the inhumane treatment of chickens. Perhaps some of it was staged. We just don’t know. It's all based on footage that the HSUS released last week.

There is no other way to get the story out,” complained HSUS president Wayne Pacelle.

Yet that’s not true. Pacelle might have asked for a tour. “We are open to anyone who wants to visit our facilities,” said one of the egg-farm executives. His company has hired a third-party auditor to review the farm’s business practices.

At its closed-door, private press conference, the HSUS failed to explain any of this. In fact, egg-farm employees receive training in the care and handling of chickens. If they spot a problem, they are supposed to report it to a supervisor, who will terminate abusers if necessary. Workers even sign paperwork to this effect.

The HSUS operatives refused to honor the terms of these agreements--by design, of course. In doing so, they circumvented one of the essential mechanisms for ensuring the proper treatment of animals. They let their desire for publicity get in the way of animal welfare.

Once the full story emerges--away from the manipulative HSUS event--we see that the sky isn’t falling, Chicken Little style. This is not the case of an egg farm that is doing everything the wrong way. This is an egg farm that strives for excellence as it performs the important service of providing an affordable source of food for Americans as well as jobs for those who seek honest work.

By contrast, the work of the HSUS is fundamentally dishonest. Its activists aren’t really concerned about the welfare of animals. Instead, they just want attention for participating in a broad-based assault on the livestock industry. The San Francisco board of supervisors recently hopped aboard this radical bandwagon when it officially encouraged citizens and restaurants to observe "Meatless Mondays".

If people don’t want to eat meat on Mondays or eggs on Tuesdays, that’s their choice. It’s a free country, even in San Francisco. Personally, however, I’d like to be free from the tricks and lies of the HSUS seven days a week.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org

Producing Conservation

Apr 09, 2010
 By Tim Burrack – Arlington, Iowa

The White House plans to host a conference next week on “America’s Great Outdoors,” starring several cabinet secretaries and other D.C. dignitaries.

If they really want to celebrate the outdoors, they should escape from their office buildings, come to my farm, and help clear the rocks from my fields so I can plant. It’s a rite of spring. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.

I’m only half joking.

This conference, of course, is serious business.

In launching this conversation,” says Nancy Sutley of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, “we strive to learn about the smart, creative community efforts underway throughout the country to conserve our outdoor spaces, and hear how we can support these efforts.”

Well, Ms. Sutley, thanks for the invitation. Please allow me to share a few ideas.

One of the best ways to honor our environment is to engage in agricultural work. Farm productivity makes conservation possible. It may sound like a contradiction in terms because production and conservation are almost polar opposites. Production is about creating more. Conservation is about consuming less. One is about possibilities. The other is about limits.

Yet they don’t contradict each other at all. Production and conservation can function side by side, just like the gas and brake pedals in your car.

The more food we grow on existing farmland, the less pressure we put on America’s wild areas. Agricultural success, in other words, affords us the opportunity to appreciate the great outdoors.

America's farmers produce an abundance of food--the United States is the most food-secure country in the world. That’s because we have access to the very best agricultural technology, which includes everything from drip-irrigation systems to genetically modified seeds.

We’ve accomplished an enormous amount of good with biotech corn, soybeans, and cotton. We need to extend these benefits to alfalfa and sugar beets. From the standpoint of research and development, we already have. Yet both of these crops are currently tied up in litigation, thanks to special interest groups who are driven by ideology.

Their frivolous lawsuits have created enormous difficulty for the farmers who try to grow these crops. This is bad enough, but it gets worse: They’ve also created uncertainty for the scientists who are working on the next generation of cutting-edge crops, so that we can continue to enjoy record-breaking yields. Will their work see the light of day, or will lawyered-up activists drag it down?

All true friends of “America’s Great Outdoors” will hope that the courts let farmers have the opportunity to take advantage of these products because their full acceptance will contribute to our abundance.

In addition to technology, farmers need modern transportation systems--everything from rails and roads to locks and canals. We also need a steady supply of fertilizer and other inputs.

By helping us produce, we’ll be able to conserve.

And don’t forget the importance of trade. President Obama wants to double exports in the next five years. American agriculture should spread its abundance around the world, not only by selling its farm products to consumers in places such as Colombia, Panama, and South Korea--hey Congress, pass those free-trade agreements!--but also by exporting its know-how to farmers in developing countries.

The biotech revolution has transformed agriculture in South America. There’s no good reason why it shouldn’t do the same in sub-Saharan Africa. It would uplift an impoverished region and make it easier to protect “Africa’s Great Outdoors.”

Right now, I’m in Japan, honoring the 50th anniversary of the Yamanashi “hog lift” that helped the Land of the Rising Sun restock its hog industry in the aftermath of two devastating typhoons. It’s an excellent example of how economic ties can keep nations connected.

Our abundance also makes agricultural diversity possible, including less productive forms of farming. Organic growers will never feed the country, and certainly not at a reasonable price. Yet the incredible output of conventional agriculture, with its full acceptance of modern technologies, makes other approaches possible. It increases choice for consumers and supports a multi-faceted rural economy that turns conservation into an option rather than an aggravation.

So that’s what I hope the White House conference-goers understand: If you want to conserve, you must be allowed to produce.


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

Playing Games With Eggs

Apr 01, 2010
By Dean Kleckner

Spring officially begins at the vernal equinox, but most people don’t feel the season in their bones until the birds return and the trees bud. The clearest sign that spring is here may be the arrival of Easter and its rituals. For many, it’s all about the eggs: Children paint them in bright colors, hunt for them in backyards, and eat handfuls of those foil-wrapped chocolate candies shaped like ovoids. I did, my kids did, and now my grandchildren do. In my early farming life, we had 300 laying-hens, carrying on my parent's tradition.

Eggs are universal symbols of rebirth and renewal.

The Humane Society of the United States, however, would like to turn them into emblems of cruelty and death.

The crusade against conventional eggs has made surprising advances in recent years. A growing number of restaurants now pledge to use only certain kinds of eggs. The issue is starting to show up on election ballots as well--seven states have passed restrictions on egg production. Before long, even the Easter bunny will face scrutiny: Do the eggs in his basket come from “cage-free” chickens?

The assumption is that “cage-free” chickens are somehow superior to “caged” chickens--not from the standpoint of taste or nutrition, but ethics. It’s more humane, goes the thinking, to let cooped-up chickens mill around freely.

Yet the truth is more complicated. Arizona Republic columnist Linda Valdez visited an egg farm that uses cages. She confessed to thinking that she would see chickens treated “like cogs in an industrial machine.” She discovered something different. “It wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected,” she wrote. She described a clean and efficient operation that produces good eggs at a reasonable price.

Then she visited a “cage-free” farm. “Layers of chicken excrement build upon on the floor,” she reported. This is what the eggs lay in until someone picks them up.

For consumers of eggs, it’s a discomforting thought. As it turns out, however, this “cage-free” environment is no poultry paradise for the chickens, either.

When chickens are crowded together, rather than separated into cages, they peck each other incessantly. It’s animal instinct--an avian attempt to establish a social hierarchy. This behavior is where the phrase “pecking order” comes from.

The result isn’t pretty. After months of going at each other, older birds have few feathers on their scarred necks. “The cage-free block has twice the mortality rate,” wrote Valdez. “Broken bones are common among the cage-free birds. If the block gets spooked, they pile up on one another, crushing those at the bottom.”

Maybe “cage-free” is best understood as a euphemism. Perhaps what we have here isn’t a debate between “caged” and “cage-free” chickens, but between “protected” and “unprotected” chickens. Maybe you'll even see "free-range" eggs. The hens are running around loose, outside, being pursued by foxes and dogs. Some are getting hit and killed by cars – that doesn't seem humane to me.

If you thought the Humane Society was a do-gooder group that looked after the welfare of cats and dogs, then you’re thinking of an organization that existed a generation ago. Today, activists and ideologues run the show. They support a radical vision of animal rights that is far outside the mainstream.

We shouldn’t play games with eggs. Around the world, they’re an important source of affordable nutrition, especially protein. During a time of deep recession in the United States, as families struggle to put food on the table, we should make sure that egg production is not only humane, but also sustainable--in both an environmental and an economic sense.

It turns out that large-scale operations--often sneered at for creating “cogs in an industrial machine,” as Valdez put it before she learned better--are far more sensible than other systems.

A tractor that hauls a refrigerated trailer and travels more than a thousand miles is a much more fuel-efficient method of egg transportation than a small vehicle that drives between a local farm and consumers. This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s also true, as J.L. Capper of Washington State University, R.A. Cady of Elanco Animal Health, and D.E. Bauman of Cornell University show in a recent paper called “Demystifying the Environmental Sustainability of Food Production.” The big rigs consume far less gas per egg, even though they travel much longer distances.

The moral to the story is simple: Don’t count your cage-free chickens before they’ve hatched.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org
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