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February 2011 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.

Time to Trade With Egypt

Feb 24, 2011
 By Dean Kleckner - Chairman, Truth About Trade & Technology
“We would like very much to have a free-trade agreement” with Egypt, said Condoleezza Rice when she was U.S. secretary of state. “It’s just a matter of the timing being not quite right.”
That was five years ago. Could the timing finally be right in 2011?
The Bush administration balked at a free-trade agreement with Egypt in 2006 for a simple reason: freedom. Egyptians didn’t have enough of it. Shortly before Rice made her announcement, Egypt had cancelled a series of local elections. So the United States cancelled the talks that might have led to a trade pact.
But now everything in Egypt has changed. Longtime president Hosni Mubarak is gone, the military is in charge, and national elections supposedly are coming.  Even Libya is in the throes of a possible transformation.
What the future holds for Egypt and the region remains to be seen--but suddenly we have the opportunity to use trade policy to advance both the economic and national security interests of the United States in the Middle East. It makes sense to push for a U.S.-Egypt Free Trade Agreement.
Egypt is a poor country. As it emerges from its period of unrest, its first order of economic business will be to restore a devastated tourism industry. From my experience there, it’s a fantastic country. It must persuade the world’s travelers that they’re safe and Egypt is anxious to welcome them as they visit the Pyramids, see the Sphinx, and cruise the Nile.
Cairo must also consider long-term strategies for economic growth. About one-fifth of Egyptians live in poverty. Unemployment rates are high, especially among young adults. The government currently controls too much of the economy--divisions of the military actually operate day-care centers and manufacture television sets, according to the New York Times. Until these factors change, Egypt will remain politically unstable--and peace in the region will remain an uncertainty.
Americans have a clear interest in the economic health of Egypt. We enjoy a trade surplus with this nation of nearly 80 million people—a situation that is an obvious benefit to U.S. farmers and businesses. Egypt doesn’t produce enough food to feed its own people. Last year, Egypt bought more than $1.5 billion in corn, soybeans, and wheat from the United States. There’s a demand for American-made machinery and equipment as well. We have already set the stage with our efforts in educating and then building feedlot, dairy and grain grading industries showing how cooperation can bring prosperity.
A successful trade agreement would improve our ability to sell what we grow. It would also jump start the Egyptian economy. A study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics suggested that a deal would boost Egyptian exports to the United States by about $1 billion. Another report by Robert Lawrence and Ahmed Galal claimed that an agreement would boost Egyptian GDP by almost 3 percent and income by 1.6 percent as well as lower consumer prices by 1.6 percent.
By helping Egyptians, we help ourselves. The more they thrive, the more they can buy from us. As a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study points out, developing nations with rising incomes spend more money on high-quality meat products--and American producers can compete with anybody in that market.
Our top concern, however, involves U.S. national security. Egypt’s size, location, and history make it a leader in the Arab world. We have a strong interest in keeping it as an ally as it tries to transition from dictatorship to democracy. There’s no guarantee that this will happen. Throughout the Muslim world, radicalism is an ever-present threat. The Egyptians could hold free and fair elections--and vote into power an American-hating regime that enforces sharia law and sponsors terrorism.
The United States must do what it can to avoid this fate. A trade agreement would help by binding our countries closer together both economically and diplomatically.
This is a cause that President Obama ought to embrace. He came into office with a promise to improve America’s image around the world. Egypt represents one of his administration’s great tests--he must do what he can to enhance the reputation of the United States on the streets of Cairo.
The timing for a free-trade agreement is right now.
Dean Kleckner chairs Truth About Trade & Technology.   www.truthabouttrade.org

Philippines Eggplant Project Delayed

Feb 17, 2011

By Rosalie Ellasus – San Jacinto, Philippines (www.truthabouttrade.org)  

The enemies of biotechnology will stop at nothing to prevent farmers in the developing world from growing GM crops. A few weeks ago in the Philippines, they literally uprooted progress—and put a bright future just a little bit further out of reach.
Here’s what happened. Researchers affiliated with the University of the Philippines at Mindanao were trying to produce a better talong, also known as eggplant. This is our country’s leading vegetable. A genetically enhanced variety would be a boon to small-scale farmers like me because it would allow us to grow more food at better prices for my family and a hungry planet.
But now we’ve lost this opportunity, at least for the time being, because of a paperwork error.
Apparently the university neglected to post a certain public-disclosure form at a nearby city hall. It is of course essential for the men and women who work on crop research to meet regulatory standards, even when they involve big spools of red tape. Although the supporters of biotechnology have science on their side, we cannot be perceived as cutting corners. It serves the agenda of our adversaries, who are searching for any reason they can find to prevent farmers from taking advantage of this vital tool to grow more and better food.
In the case of the talong crops, it’s a shame that this paperwork blunder couldn’t be worked out. Nobody’s health or safety was ever at risk. Honest mistakes, as this one appears to be, deserve a chance to be corrected. The idea is for paperwork to serve the interests of people rather than the other way around. Bureaucrats occasionally forget this.
Unfortunately, the school’s error gave anti-biotech protestors all the excuse they needed to clamor against the field trials. In the end, the town hosting the test crops destroyed 3,000 plants. Researchers say that it has delayed their work by at least six months.
“It was unjust,” said Eufemio Rasco Jr., the university’s lead scientist. “The moral equivalent of putting a jaywalker before a firing squad. We were punished for a flimsy reason.”
Fortunately, the planting of test crops at other sites means that researchers will gain the data they need in order the commercialize GM talong soon.
I’m hopeful that small-scale farmers in the Philippines eventually will enjoy the opportunity to grow GM talong, which possesses a natural resistance to pests. As food prices soar around the globe, it’s important for farmers to develop sustainable methods of producing as much food as possible. This means we’ll need full access to the same 21st-century technologies used on a regular basis by farmers in the United States, Canada, and South America.
When I started to plant biotech corn a few years ago, I became one of the first farmers in the Philippines to take advantage of this wonderful product. Now farmers all over my country would like to use it because they know it will improve productivity and livelihood as well as reduce health hazards associated with pesticide use.
The commercialization of GM talong also will make it easier to supply nutritious food to hungry people—a constant challenge in the developing world. Talong is an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, and fibers. We often serve it on our family table, as t’ortang talong (an omelet) or pinakbet (mixed with vegetables).
I’m looking forward to the advent of GM talong. When it comes, I’ll be one of the first to eat it. And I am planning to have one hectare (2.4 acres) of my land planted in talong too.
This particular battle isn’t confined to the Philippines. In India, anti-biotech protestors have succeeded in putting off the approval of GM eggplants (which the Indians call brinjal). In both countries, the future of food is in doubt and so the stakes are high.
We must agree that scientists should be allowed to conduct their tests and perform their analyses—and without irresponsible interference from fearful people who refuse to understand all that we’re missing.
Rosalie Ellasus is a first-generation farmer, growing corn and rice in San Jacinto, Philippines. Rosalie allows her farm to be used as a demonstration pilot for smallholder farmers to visit and learn from. She currently serves as President of the Philippine Maize Federation and is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network. www.truthabouttrade.org

Feeding Unrest

Feb 10, 2011

By Tim Burrack – Arlington, Iowa (www.truthabouttrade.org)

When I visited Egypt last year, one of the things that most impressed me about the country was its heritage--the relics of an ancient civilization that stretches back thousands of years. I felt this firsthand when I crawled into one of the Pyramids.
Now we’re seeing Egypt brought to its knees in a matter of days. It’s a sobering lesson in how quickly history can be made and nations unmade.
This is a time of danger and uncertainty. Will Egypt turn into a secular democracy or slip into an Iran-like Islamist dictatorship? For America and the rest of the world, the stakes are high.
Many Egyptians say they want freedom. But they also want something much more basic: food. One of the most important lessons of the scenes from Tahrir Square is that we must use all of the tools at our disposal to make sure food is as widely available as possible.
The unrest in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East began in December with a dispute over food, when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire. Since then, Tunisians have overthrown their government, Egyptians are on the verge of tossing out their leader, and reformers are pushing for change in Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen.
Last fall, several experts warned about potential turmoil. “If the rise in food costs persists, there will be an explosion of popular anger against the government,” said Hamdi Abdel-Azim of the Sadat Academy for Social Sciences last November, according to the IPS news service.
A new study by Rabah Arezki and Markus Bruckner of the University of Adelaide in Australia concludes that high food prices in poor countries “lead to a significant deterioration of democratic institutions and a significant increase in the incidence of anti-government demonstrations, riots, and civil conflict.” Egypt has seen this before: In 1977, the cancellation of food subsidies caused thousands of protestors to take to the streets in what is now called the Egyptian Bread Riots.
The root problem is that Egypt can’t produce enough food to feed its own people. Its home-grown agriculture is a narrow strip of irrigated land along the Nile River. Everything else is sand. So Egyptians rely on farmers in other countries to meet their needs. Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world and the eighth-largest export market for American farmers.
Egypt’s challenges grow worse when other countries slap export restrictions on their own farmers, as we’ve recently seen in Argentina, Russia, and Ukraine. Americans may feel disconnected from these policies, but when foreign governments make it harder for farmers to reach consumers abroad, they create the conditions for turmoil--and these can develop into national security threats for the United States. The free flow of goods and services across borders won’t alleviate every catastrophe, but it can keep bad situations from growing worse.
Another potential solution is greater productivity. Americans already are involved in this area: We’ve helped Egypt build a water buffalo feed lot industry that allows locals to derive greater value from their own livestock.
On my trip to Egypt, I was able to observe this industry firsthand--and also to sample its wares. No, water buffalo doesn’t taste like chicken – just plain beef. The milk of water buffalos is nutritious too with 30% butterfat.
Biotechnology also can boost productivity. Egypt currently grows a small number of GM crops--a couple thousand acres of biotech corn. It should plant more. Biotechnology is one of the keys for unlocking the untapped potential of African agriculture. Modern science can help us transform farming on the world’s most underperforming continent. Elsewhere, the development and commercialization of biotech wheat will produce greater yields and make it easier for nations to send food shipments to hungry nations.
In Egypt, things may get worse before they get better--but they may very well get better, if we allow trade and technology to do their job.
Tim Burrack raises corn and soybeans on a NE Iowa family farm. Tim volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology www.truthabouttrade.org

Regulating Interference

Feb 02, 2011

By John Reifsteck – Champaign, Illinois (www.truthabouttrade.org)

Remember in high school when the math teachers said to “show your work”? Even if you answered the questions correctly, they wouldn’t award full credit unless you also included the proof that you knew what you were doing.
That’s how a lot of farmers are reacting to last week’s decision by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to deregulate GM alfalfa: He came up with the right answer, but the way he got there was all wrong.
So although he deserves partial credit, this was no A+ performance.
The good news is that farmers who choose to plant genetically enhanced alfalfa won’t have to put up with burdensome federal regulations that try to dictate what they can grow and where they can grow it. Instead, USDA has acknowledged the truth of science: GM alfalfa, as Vilsack put it during a press conference, “is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa.”
Alfalfa growers now will enjoy access to a 21st-century technology. Consumers will benefit in all sorts of ways, from food that costs less to milk that tastes better.
The problem is that Vilsack let politics hijack the regulatory process. He very nearly capitulated to a small group of outspoken activists who think that the retrograde methods of organic farming should take precedence over just about every other form of agriculture, including highly productive methods that are essential if we’re serious about keeping people fed and food prices in check. These militants insisted that Washington enforce their unreasonable demands through job-killing and innovation-stifling rules of the very sort that the Obama administration recently has claimed to disavow.
Vilsack said that he wanted to create a way for GM alfalfa farmers and non-GM alfalfa farmers to coexist without resorting to litigation. This was bizarre because farmers who grow different kinds of the same crop already know how to coexist without interference from lawyers or bureaucrats.
Almost every winter, I get calls from neighbors who ask what type of corn I’m planning to grow in fields next to theirs. They aren’t nosy--they’re just trying to make decisions about where to put their own seed corn. I’ve grown alfalfa in the past and I’m certain that neighbors who plant this crop can work together without any help from federal overseers.
If Vilsack had accepted the junk-science claims of activists who say that biotech crops threaten to “contaminate” organic fields, he would have established the principle that GM crops are always suspect, even when there’s no evidence to suggest that they should cause any concern. This would not have decreased litigation, as Vilsack argued. Instead, it would have encouraged organic farmers to sue their non-organic competition. Legislators, regulators and judges would be wise to recognize statutorily that pollen flow is a force of nature, not the opportunity for frivolous legal action.
Preventing unnecessary lawsuits is important, but it’s hardly the only issue at stake. When it comes to biotechnology, the world is watching us. The United States should convince other nations to let their farmers use the tools of modern science. On a humanitarian level, we must encourage developing countries to adopt practices that thwart hunger and malnutrition. On an economic level, we must persuade our trading partners that the food Americans produce is safe to purchase and eat.
One thing is certain: If our own USDA begins to express unscientific fears about biotech, so will people in other countries.
Here at home, the battle over biotechnology will rage on. Because Vilsack revealed himself as susceptible to political pressure from special interest groups, farmers will have to keep a close eye on USDA and a series of upcoming decisions. Vilsack’s agency soon will rule on GM sugar beets and a type of GM corn used in biofuels. It can choose to let farmers grow safe and healthy crops approved through a science-based regulatory system--or it can appease those who would pervert the institutions we’ve built.
The enemies of biotechnology won’t quit. They haven’t even given up on alfalfa. They’re already threatening more litigation: “All farmers should be on notice that we will be suing again,” warned one of them, according to AgriPulse.
Now they’ll have to allege that the USDA’s 47-month, 2,300-page environmental impact statement on GM alfalfa is not adequately comprehensive.
Our first line of defense should be to insist that they show their work.

John Reifsteck is a corn and soybean producer in western Champaign County Illinois. He serves as a Board Member of Truth About Trade & Technology.   www.truthabouttrade.org

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