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September 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.

Litigating in Favor of Weeds

Sep 29, 2010

By John Rigolizzo – Berlin, New Jersey (www.truthabouttrade.org)
 
Weeds drove me out of the sugar beet business. Now lawsuits threaten to do the same to others.
 
A number of years ago, I tried to farm sugar beets here in New Jersey. They’re not a big crop in my state, but a few of us decided to put them to the test.
 
The weeds won. We just couldn’t keep them out of our fields. They choked the life out of our sugar beets.
 
The result might have been different if we had enjoyed access to biotechnology--the kind that radical activists are now working to strangle through the red tape of litigation.
 
It probably shouldn’t have surprised me that weeds and lawsuits are so much alike.
 
At any rate, my inability to grow sugar beets isn’t a big deal for me personally. I raise all kinds of crops and will survive without these.
 
Yet farmers in other parts of the country won’t fare as well. Neither will consumers, even though most of them have no idea that ideologically driven attorneys are toiling to increase the cost of their food.
 
Sugar beets account for about half of America’s sugar production, but they are in fact a minor crop. They are grown on about a million acres of farmland. The men and women who grow them are like me--family farmers who are trying to make ends meet on their own farms.
 
To survive, they need access to modern technology. That’s why so many of them adopted GM sugar beets when they went on the market in 2005. This year, 95 percent of all sugar beets planted in the U.S. were biotech. These improved crops allow sugar beet farmers to fight off weeds. Yields go up and production costs go down. This makes it easier for farmers to pursue their livelihood as well as to pass on a portion of the savings to consumers. GM sugar beets help keep food prices in check.
 
Americans eat food derived from biotech-enhanced ingredients every day. The vast majority of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are GM products and they have been for years. After passing through the Department of Agriculture’s science-based regulatory process, sugar beets were well on their way to joining them.
 
Yet a collection of anti-biotech activists didn’t like this outcome. So they decided to sue. They were too afraid to take on corn or soybeans--truly major crops in the United States. Like schoolyard bullies who steal lunch money from little kids, they went after small-scale sugar beet farmers.
 
In August--on Friday the 13th, as it happened--a judge issued one of those mixed rulings in which there are no clear winners or losers. He ordered USDA to subject GM sugar beets to an environmental assessment, a process that could take two years. Plaintiffs didn’t win the outright ban that they had sought. Farmers avoided this awful fate but will have to suffer through an aggravating delay.
 
It’s still possible to plant GM sugar beets, but only under severe restrictions that will have the practical effect of forcing many farmers to drop biotechnology while USDA performs its court-mandated study.
 
This is terribly frustrating. Imagine buying a brand-new iPhone, only to be told a few weeks later that most of them can’t be used because a judge says they have to go through a new product review that probably won’t result in any improvements.
 
That’s the plight in which sugar beet farmers now find themselves. Yet the activists aren’t even happy with this much. They’ve already filed a brand-new lawsuit to stop sugar beet farmers from using any biotechnology at all.
 
The enemies of biotechnology don’t have science on their side--over and over again, research has shown that GM crops are safe for widespread planting and mass consumption. They’re actually superior to non-GM crops because they allow us to produce more with less. They are the very essence of sustainable agriculture.
 
The risk is that activist groups will hurl so much litigation at minor crops such as sugar beets that the scientists and entrepreneurs who create and market new agricultural products will begin to fear that the costs outweigh the benefits. Research and development will cease. Farmers and consumers will pay a steep price.
 
We can’t let that happen--not if we care about the fate of family farms, the cost of food, and the American tradition of innovation.
 
We can’t let the weeds and the lawsuits prevail.
 
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm produces for retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org

A Sugar By Any Other Name...

Sep 22, 2010

 

By John Reifsteck – Champaign, Illinois
 
 
Juliet tells Romeo that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
 
The point is that all names aren’t equal. Some are better than others, which is why I support the petition to let food makers refer to high fructose corn syrup by a simpler and more accurate moniker: corn sugar.
 
Last week, the Corn Refiners Association formally asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to permit the change.
 
The funny thing about high fructose corn syrup is that a lot of it isn’t especially high in fructose, which is a type of sugar. One popular formulation contains 42 percent fructose. This is less fructose than the amount contained in table sugar, which is 50 percent fructose. It’s also less than honey, which is typically about 47 percent fructose. (A separate variety of high fructose corn syrup is 55 percent fructose--only a little bit more than table sugar and honey.)
 
High fructose corn syrup got its name not because it has a high level of fructose in an absolute sense. Instead, it has a high level of fructose relative to traditional corn syrup.
 
Many people assume--erroneously--that high fructose corn syrup contains unusually high levels of fructose. According to one survey, 58 percent of Americans think high fructose corn syrup has more fructose than table sugar. They don’t seem to realize that what isn’t fructose is usually glucose and that the truth is these ingredients are all 100-percent sugar.
 
Some food companies have responded to this misunderstanding in a peculiar way. Rather than trying to educate consumers, they’ve removed high fructose corn syrup from their products--only to replace them with ingredients that are essentially the same even though they have different names.
 
I sympathize with the plight of these food makers. Yet as a corn farmer who grows the crops that processors use to make corn sugar, this appeasement is more than a little aggravating.
 
High fructose corn syrup is a natural sweetener that comes from corn. As a food ingredient, it’s no different from sugar produced from sugar cane and sugar beets. It has the same number of calories as table sugar. “Once they are absorbed into the bloodstream, the two sweeteners are indistinguishable,” says the American Dietetic Association.
 
So it makes sense to change the name in a way that gives consumers a clearer picture of what they’re eating. Switching from “high fructose corn syrup” to “corn sugar” has the virtue of using ordinary language to inform the public about a food ingredient.
 
One of the most refreshing aspects of this proposal is that it doesn’t obscure the truth. We live in a society that often uses words to talk around a subject and avoid the heart of the matter. Thus prisons become “correctional facilities” and short people are dubbed “height-challenged.”
 
By accepting corn sugar as a substitute for high fructose corn syrup, the FDA will go in the opposite direction and embrace a term that everyday consumers will understand immediately. Consumers who want to keep a close watch on the sugar intake will appreciate the plainspoken honesty of “corn sugar.”
 
The FDA has approved semantic adjustments in the past. It has allowed food makers to refer to prunes as dried plums and rapeseed oil as canola oil. With respect to the current request, the FDA may require a period of co-labeling, in which ingredients are listed as “high fructose corn syrup (corn sugar).” This will help consumers know that the two names refer to the same thing.
 
Corn sugar is an important food ingredient that we’ve been eating for more than 40 years. The only thing that will change are the words on the label--and they’ll represent an improvement over the words we use now.
 
John Reifsteck is a corn and soybean producer in western Champaign County Illinois.  He volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade & Technology.   www.truthabouttrade.org

Safe Salmon

Sep 15, 2010

By Dean Kleckner (www.truthabouttrade.org)

Fishing is one of my favorite pastimes. When I bait my hook and cast my line, walleye, northern pike, and lake trout tremble in fear. At least when they’re not ignoring me.

One of my goals in life is to fish for salmon. It’s on my bucket list. I’ve never caught a salmon, but I’ve eaten plenty.

Now, thanks to biotechnology, eating salmon may become a lot more convenient and affordable--a huge boon to seafood lovers and anybody else who would like to consume a very healthy source of protein.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is on the verge of approving genetically modified salmon for people to eat. FDA scientists have determined that GM salmon is “as safe to eat as food from other Atlantic salmon.” In the coming days, they will brief a panel of experts on their findings.

If the salmon receives the FDA’s sanction, it will almost certainly become the first genetically modified animal to reach our dinner plates.

I can hardly wait.

I’ve always liked salmon but I’ve eaten it more in recent years at the insistence of my doctors. They say that it’s good for my heart.

I’d probably eat even more salmon except that it isn’t the cheapest food around. The cost is high enough to keep demand down--and the result is that millions of Americans don’t eat as much of this tasty and heart-healthy fish as they would or should.

That’s why the FDA’s potential approval of GM salmon represents such an incredible breakthrough for consumers. The price of salmon will drop and more people than ever before will have an opportunity to enjoy a nutritious food that offers the opportunity to live longer and healthier lives.

Most salmon require three years to reach their 8-pound market weight. The reality is that they don’t grow very much in their first year and they don’t grow at all during the winter months.

Genetically enhanced salmon wipe out this inefficiency. They grow constantly, which means they reach their market weight in about half the time. They also consume about one-quarter less food, making them the very essence of sustainable food production.

Just as farmers going back thousands of years have cross-bred plants to make better crops, scientists have figured out how to raise better salmon. It involves taking part of a gene for cold-tolerance from an eel-like fish called an ocean pout, inserting it into the growth gene of a chinook salmon, and then placing the blended genetic material into the fertilized eggs of North Atlantic salmon.

The result is a North Atlantic salmon that grows faster than other North Atlantic salmon. And don’t worry: It doesn’t grow bigger. These fish won’t ever be featured on Animal Planet’s “River Monsters” show.

That hasn’t stopped the enemies of biotechnology from their yawn-inducing fits of hysteria. They oppose most scientific progress and this is no different. Even though millions of people eat food derived from biotechnology every day, they still insist on calling GM crops “Frankenfood.” With dreary predictability, they’re getting ready to wage war on what they call--you guessed it--“Frankenfish.”

But this is nonsense. For one thing, GM salmon populations will be kept separate from non-GM populations. They’ll be raised in landlocked hatcheries, not in ocean pens. In addition, they’ll be sterile. They’ll lack the ability to breed in the wild.

Most important, they’re entirely safe to eat. This is not a mere assertion, but a scientific consensus that the FDA is about to join. It’s backed up by more than ten years of rigorous investigation. The Massachusetts-based company that seeks the FDA’s approval initiated the process in 1995. So the FDA’s decision comes at the end of a very long road.

Consumers will love this fish because it’s a salmon. They won’t detect any difference in looks or flavor--just in price.

I plan on eating GM salmon as soon as I can. The fish will taste great and maybe it will even help me get to the day when I can remove salmon fishing from my bucket list.

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

 

 

Growing the economy

Sep 08, 2010

By Bill Horan – Board member - Rockwell City, Iowa (www.truthabouttrade.org)

Selling American-made goods and services is a key to economic recovery--and the latest export numbers suggest that farmers have the potential to lead the United States out of its economic doldrums.

We’re on track to sell more than $107 billion in farm products to foreign customers this fiscal year, according to Department of Agriculture statistics released last week. That would make 2010 the second-best year for U.S. farm exports, trailing only our showing of $115 billion in 2008. For 2011, USDA projects sales of $113 billion.

This is excellent news not only for those of us who grow crops and produce meat, but for the U.S. economy as a whole. As Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack pointed out, every $1 billion in agricultural exports supports more than 8,000 jobs and generates an extra $1.4 billion in economic activity. That’s because food isn’t merely grown and harvested. It’s also processed and shipped by American workers who never set foot on farms.

President Obama certainly understands the power of an export-charged economy. Earlier this year, he promised to double U.S. exports by 2015.

Yet we can’t afford to stand still and assume that farm exports will grow like a field of corn on a hot summer day. Trade must keep up not only with foreign demand, but also with the rising tide of technology.

In the near future, I’m going to start growing at lot more food. At least that’s what the seed companies tell me. They claim that advances in breeding and genetics will allow the commercialization of seeds that yield 50 percent more food within the next decade.

Our growing world will need these new sources of food and energy because demographers expect our planet to have 9 billion inhabitants by 2050. What’s more, we must feed and fuel this burst of population in a sustainable manner. That means raising more crops on existing farmland. The alternatives include watching Brazil convert rainforests into soybean fields and tolerating an unprecedented level of global hunger.

Farmers almost always welcome technological leaps. The improved genetics of GM crops have allowed us to grow more crops even as we spend less on herbicides and pesticides. There’s an additional environmental benefit because we don’t have to till as much. This conserves fuel and prevents soil erosion.

At the same time, we’ve traditionally viewed increased production as a mixed blessing. It can provide us with the opportunity to sell more of what we grow. If everybody grows more, however, high yields can lead to poor prices as supply falls out of sync with demand. In other words, production is good but overproduction is bad.

A new generation of genetically enhanced seeds that delivers a substantial increase in yield may force us to confront a crisis of overproduction. All farmers will suffer, but the smallest farmers will pay the price first. It could force many out of business.

The solution is to guarantee long-term foreign demand for what we grow in the heartland. This shouldn’t be too difficult, given population patterns in Asia and elsewhere. China soon will pass Mexico as the second most important destination for U.S. farm exports, right behind Canada.

Yet nothing is automatic. Our competitors want a slice of this market as much as we do. The Obama administration must secure our future exports through diplomacy--and specifically by creating favorable trade conditions for American-made products.

This means coming into full compliance with NAFTA, which requires the United States to permit Mexican long-haul truckers who meet US safety standards to travel our highways (a 2003-2006 DOT study found that Mexican carriers in the US had a better safety record than U.S. Carriers). By refusing to take this step, the United States has opened itself to Mexico’s fully justifiable retaliation. Its latest round of sanctions will cost farmers and manufacturers about $2.5 billion over the next year.

The White House also must push ahead with three free-trade agreements that have been completed but continue to languish in Congress. The pacts with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea will help secure the future of farm exports in countries whose combined population is nearly 100 million.

American farmers will do their part, continuing to grow the food the world needs. Now Washington must make sure we can sell it.

Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and grains in Northwest Iowa. This fourth generation family farm has been involved in specialty crop production and identity preservation for over 20 years. Mr. Horan volunteers as a Truth About Trade & Technology Board member. www.truthabouttrade.org

Let's Get The Deal Done

Sep 01, 2010

By Bob Bowman – DeWitt, Iowa
 
When the Berlin Wall fell more than two decades ago, it fell fast--and the Cold War came to a quick and bloodless end. Even those who had anticipated the collapse were startled by the speed with which Communism crumbled.
 
North Korea’s days may be numbered as well. We don’t know when the horrible regime currently led by Dictator Kim Jong-ll will end. Some signs suggest that it could be soon. In photographs, Kim appears weak. There’s talk of a succession involving his untested son Kim Jong Un, raising the prospect of political destabilization in a country that has transferred power from one strongman to another precisely once since it was founded in 1948.
 
Some South Korean leaders are convinced that the end is near--and they want to prepare for the possibility of reunification. On August 15, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak proposed a special tax to finance the costs of integration. Analysts have said that although a combined Korea would deliver a peace dividend, it might also require the wealthier South Koreans to pay as much as $1 trillion as they try to lift up their impoverished countrymen.
 
For the United States, regime change in North Korea would remove an immediate threat to national security. It would also present an incredible economic opportunity--but only if we act to get hold of it now.
 
After the Berlin Wall tumbled down, the East and West Germans chose to reunify. The decision made sense: They were truly one people, cut off from one another by Soviet aggression following the Second World War. Yet the move was neither seamless nor free. A report last year said that West Germans have transferred nearly $2 billion to East Germany over the last 20 years.
 
No wonder the South Koreans want to start saving their wons. (A won is a Korean dollar.)
 
For Americans, South Koreans are important trading partners. This is especially true for farmers. Last year, we sold almost $4 billion in agricultural goods to them. Overall, South Korea was our sixth most important export market.
 
Korea will become even more important after reunification because suddenly we would have access to about 24 million new consumers in the northern half of the peninsula--roughly 50 percent more people than we can sell to right now.
 
Who can doubt that they’ll want the made-in-America products that their oppressors have denied them for generations?
 
They’ll certainly have some access to our goods. Continuing positive relations with South Korea will see to that. But there are also different levels of success. We can do well or we can do really well, depending on the choices we make right now.
 
The most important choice involves the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement, which has languished for three years as it waits for congressional approval. The Bush administration negotiated the deal but Congress never provided the up-or-down vote it had promised. Earlier this year, President Obama announced his support for the pact. He wants to double U.S. exports over the next five years and sees this agreement as a step toward reaching his goal.
 
President Bush and Obama may not agree on much--but they both appreciate our economic ties to South Korea. Now the White House must submit the pact and Congress must pass it.
 
The agreement is worthwhile with or without reunification. The best way for two countries or cultures to co-exist and prosper is through mutually beneficial trade.
 
We shouldn’t pass up the chance to improve trade with South Korea because more U.S. exports would mean more jobs for Americans during the worst recession of our lives. Our competitors haven’t ignored this opportunity. The European Union is about to close its own deal with South Korea.
 
Yet the looming possibility of Korean reunification makes an agreement more pressing than ever. The experience of Germany teaches us that if the government in Pyongyang implodes, it could happen without much warning.
 
The choice is to prepare for this possibility and be ready for it or to snub it now in the hope that we can play catch up later.
 
That’s no choice at all. Let’s get the deal done, while there’s still time.
 
Bob Bowman produces corn, soybeans, alfalfa, seed and specialty corn on a multigenerational farm near DeWitt, Iowa. Bob is a member of the Truth About Trade and Technology Global Farmer Network. www.truthabouttrade.org

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