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August 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.

Fedoroff: An Outstanding Case for Regulatory Common Sense

Aug 31, 2011

By Tim Burrack – Arlington, Iowa

Have you ever read a newspaper column that says something so well you had to clip it out and save it?
That’s how I felt when I read Nina V. Fedoroff’s recent op-ed in the New York Times. It was headlined “Engineering Food for All,” and it expressed my own views far better than I ever could hope to do.
Fedoroff made an outstanding case for common sense as farmers try to meet the challenge of feeding the world as the global population continues to soar.
“Civilization depends on our expanding ability to produce food efficiently, which has markedly accelerated thanks to science and technology,” writes Fedoroff. So why is the Environmental Protection Agency cracking down on genetically modified crops, with their excellent safety record and amazing potential? “The process for approving these crops has become so costly and burdensome that it is choking off innovation,” she writes.
This is outrageous.
President Obama once promised to cut regulations. In his State of the Union address this year, he pledged “to reduce barriers to growth and investment.” In 2009, he said that “science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions” made in Washington.
Based on these two principles, the Obama administration should not merely tolerate the development of agricultural biotechnology but actively encourage it.
“New molecular methods that add or modify genes can protect plants from diseases and pests and improve crops in ways that are both environmentally benign and beyond the capability of older methods,” writes Fedoroff. “The results have been spectacular.”
She ought to know. Until last year, Fedoroff was the science and technology advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State. Today she’s a professor of biology at Penn State.
Fedoroff goes on to point out that GM crops were grown in 29 countries on more than 360 million acres last year. About 90 percent of the more than 15 million farmers who use them are poor.
Here’s another data point that isn’t in her op-ed: In just a few months, a farmer in the southern hemisphere will plant the world’s three-billionth acre of biotech crops. Those acres will be needed to help feed the 7 billion people that will reside on this planet by that time!
These numbers allow Fedoroff to make one of her most compelling claims: “Myths about the dire effects of genetically modified food on health and the environment abound, but they have not held up to scientific scrutiny.” The European Union, she says, has spent more than $425 million studying the safety of GM crops. “Its recent, lengthy report on the matter can be summarized in one sentence: Crop modification by molecular methods is no more dangerous than crop modification by other methods.”
That’s another way of saying that biotech crops are just as safe as conventional crops. They may even be safer because they’re better at fighting insect and fungal pests, which means fewer of them are damaged or diseased when they’re harvested.
“Current federal regulation hurts progress on genetic modification,” says William Y. Brown, a Clinton administration science advisor, in a letter responding to Fedoroff’s op-ed. “It’s a trip down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.”
Even Fedoroff’s critics confess that she has a point. Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a political activist group that is often critical of biotechnology, admits that regulations “should be streamlined.”
Regulations are holding us back and nowhere is this more evident that in agricultural biotechnology. It’s taking longer and costing more money to approve GM crops at time when waits should shorten and expenses go down.
Washington shouldn’t add new rules to the development of these essential plants. It should get rid of the old ones that are no longer necessary.
As a farmer, I want to personally thank her for sharing her comments. All farmers should thank Fedoroff for her advocacy--and demand that we take back our regulatory system before it deprives us of the tools we use to produce the food that the world needs.
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

Breaking the Cycle of Food Shortages in Africa with Fertilizer and Technology

Aug 25, 2011

By Gilbert arap Bor: Kapseret, Kenya

The United States has survived its debt-ceiling showdown, but it just found an extra $17 million for famine relief in East Africa. This new commitment, announced earlier this month by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, boosts the amount of aid for Ethiopia, Somalia, and my country of Kenya to more than $580 million this year.
The humanitarian aid will reach 4.6 million people. They need it: Over the last three months, almost 30,000 East African children have perished as victims of the region’s worst drought in years.
The assistance shows that even in the hardest of hard times, the United States is a generous nation.
As much as East Africa needs help right now, the long-term solution isn’t more of the same. Food aid is at once an urgent need and evidence of a deeper problem. In East Africa, we must begin "breaking the cycle" of food shortages, as Clinton put it, so that we can support ourselves rather than depend on the charity of others.
For that to happen, Africans must accept 21st-century agricultural methods, including biotechnology and modern fertilizers. This is the best way for farmers to increase their yields and start to make it possible for the continent’s farmers to feed themselves.
Kenya took a positive first step by gazetting the country’s biosafety regulations on August 15th, paving the way for commercialization of GM crops in the country. By this gazettment, Kenya is now fully compliant with the international requirements on the development and utilization of the technology.  It became the fourth African country to do so, following Burkina Faso, Egypt, and South Africa.
For years, Kenyans have battled needless fears about biotech crops. Let’s hope that Agriculture Minister Sally Kosgei put these worries to rest a couple of weeks ago with her blunt talk. "I have been consuming soya beans imported from Britain which are GMO, yet they have not had an effect on my health," she said. "So nobody can die out of eating GMO foods."
The Roman Catholic bishops of Kenya also have embraced biotech. They endorsed the government’s decision to permit GM crops, advising people to eat genetically modified foods to check starvation amid a serious drought that has threatened the lives of 2.9 million Kenyans and more in the Horn of Africa. This is contrary to opposition from some non-governmental organizations and MPs to a government plan to import genetically modified maize from South Africa, saying "We are in favor of non-genetically-modified-foods, but if there is a crisis and they can resurrect the person for one week, eat them."
I agree with Minister Kosgei and the bishops: I plan to grow GM crops on my small farm as soon as possible because it will help my land produce more food. All Kenyan farmers should welcome biotechnology, just as a previous generation welcomed hybrid seeds.
The time for full acceptance of biotechnology has arrived: "Most Kenyans wear clothes that have been made using cotton that is grown using GMOs and a sizable number have consumed GM foods bought from supermarket shelves," observes a Tanzanian newspaper.
The other crucial ingredient for agricultural success is fertilizer. African farmers don’t use enough of it—far less than their counterparts elsewhere, according to the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Program, a project of the African Union. In North America, farmers put more than 200 kg of fertilizer on each hectare they cultivate. In East and Southern Asia, the figure is 135 kg and in South Asia it’s 100 kg. Latin America comes next, with 73 kg.
Africa trails them all—and not by a little bit, but by a lot. Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa use only 9 kg of fertilizer per hectare.
Farmers in other countries are able to add enough fertilizer on their land to build up the fertility and replace important nutrients after a crop is harvested, but here in Africa we sprinkle it like a rare spice (when we use it at all).
There are plenty of reasons for this sad state of affairs. Prices for fertilizer are two to six times the world average. Supplies are low due to poor infrastructure. Some farmers doubt the value of fertilization. Elsewhere, the problem is reversed: Landlords think so highly of it that they’re likely to reclaim land that’s been fertilized. This serves as a disincentive for sharecroppers to use this essential product.
Bureaucratic obstacles also get in the way. In Kenya, the government subsidizes fertilizer but requires farmers to obtain paperwork from local agricultural extension officials, deposit cash in a bank, and finally collect fertilizer from an agency. This is a lengthy and intimidating process, especially for small-scale farmers.
In his book "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet," Jeffrey Sachs cites evidence suggesting that if African smallholder farms take advantage of modern technologies—and especially fertilizer—their yields could increase tenfold.
This is the ultimate solution to Africa’s food insecurity: more productivity. Biotechnology and fertilization are two of its essential ingredients.

Gilbert arap Bor grows maize, vegetables and dairy cows on a small-scale farm of 25 acres in Kapseret, near Eldoret, Kenya. He also teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus. Mr. Bor is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.

Trade, Not Just Words, Builds Jobs

Aug 17, 2011

By Dean Kleckner

“Now we start onto all 50 states,” said Michelle Bachmann, after winning the Iowa Straw Poll on Saturday. Having proven herself popular among Republicans in the Hawkeye State who attended that event, Bachmann has a remarkable opportunity to introduce herself to the rest of the country.
Voters will want to hear what she says about jobs. Bachman and her GOP competitors certainly have been talking about them. At their debate last Thursday in Ames, IA., “jobs” was the word of the night: It came up more than 40 times.
No wonder. The unemployment rate floats above 9 percent. Polls show that jobs are the top concern of most Americans, beating the federal deficit, health care, and the war in Afghanistan.
One of the best ways to build jobs is to boost trade. On this topic, Bachmann and her rivals must say more--especially on the need for Congress to approve the pending free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.
The United States already exports more than $48 billion each year to these three nations. Enacting the free-trade deals would drive this up by about $12 billion. The International Trade Commission, a federal agency, has estimated that the pacts would create 100,000 new jobs. Business groups go even higher: They claim jobs would jump by 250,000.
Both results would be welcome and lawmakers should be satisfied with either one as well as anything in between.
Unfortunately, the trade agreements are snagged in old-fashioned Washington gridlock. President Obama claims he’s for them. Democrats and Republicans in Congress claim they’re for them. And yet the agreements continue to languish, as they have for years.
As prospective leaders, Republican presidential candidates must say where they stand on these deals and explain how they’d make them a reality. They neglected to do this during Thursday’s debate.
Ron Paul, who finished a strong second in the Iowa straw poll, called for free trade with Cuba--a worthy cause, but also an issue that isn’t on the political front burner at the moment. It’s a little disingenuous as well because Paul tends to vote against trade agreements when they come before him in Congress. He can talk a good game, but he’s no friend of free trade.
Mitt Romney, regarded by many pundits as the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, was the only other candidate to mention trade. He ticked off seven ways to improve the economy. “Number three,” he said, “is to have trade policies that work for us, not just for our opponents.”
This was vague to a fault. On other occasions, Romney has expressed his support for the trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. They would work for us. He knows it and should say so.
The trade policies that work for our opponents are the ones we don’t approve. In failing to approve them, we surrender competitive advantages to our rivals. The European Union recently finalized a trade pact with South Korea and Canada has just concluded one with Colombia. Every day, we’re losing market share to them.
Right now, there may be no better way for the federal government to create jobs than by approving trade agreements. They don’t raise taxes on anyone or increase spending on top of our burgeoning debt crisis. Instead, they simply create the conditions for economic growth and the job gains that always come with it. 
Exports have been one of the few bright spots in the U.S. economy, but they could use a little more brightening. We can’t assume that they’ll just keep on humming in the absence of trade diplomacy. The latest report from the Department of Commerce shows that exports weakened between May and June, when they dropped by more than $4 billion.
Is this a hiccup or a trend? It’s hard to say, but in either case Americans need more opportunities to export goods and services to foreign customers. The trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea would wipe out a wide range of tariffs that make our products needlessly expensive.
Let’s hope the Republican presidential candidates begin to speak up on their behalf and President Obama provides action to go with his words.
Dean Kleckner chairs Truth About Trade & Technology - www.truthabouttrade.org

A Call For Common Sense Biotech Crop Regulation

Aug 11, 2011

By Ted Sheely – Lemoore, California

Once a year, I file an application with the federal government for my water supply. If I miss the deadline by just a day, my farm in California’s Central Valley won’t receive even a trickle of water for crop irrigation. Nothing will grow and my livelihood will be ruined.
So I always make sure this paperwork is done properly and submitted ahead of schedule. Perhaps you experience something similar on April 15, as you scramble to pay taxes.
It would be nice if the government returned the favor by performing important work in a timely manner.
Unfortunately, its refusal to do so now threatens our country’s economy and food security.
Federal regulators are supposed to take about six months to approve new biotech crop traits that benefit both farmers and consumers. This is according to the government’s own guidelines. In reality, the process now takes an average of almost three years.
Instead of trying to speed up this dawdling performance, however, Washington may allow the Environmental Protection Agency to build new hurdles that will turn a bad situation worse, threatening our country’s economy and food security.
It shouldn’t be this way. President Obama said so earlier this year, in his State of the Union address. He announced a review of government regulations “to reduce barriers to growth and investment.” Then he made a promise: “When we find rules that put an unnecessary burden on business, we will fix them.”
Obama should fix the delays in biotech crop approvals immediately.
Biotechnology has revolutionized farming, allowing us to grow more food on less land and at lower costs. It has strengthened our nation’s food supply and energized rural economies. For years, the United States has led the world in the research, development, and commercialization of these outstanding products. We’re on the verge of even greater progress, as scientists develop crops with traits such as drought tolerance and the benefits of biotechnology spread to minor crops.
Yet instead of capitalizing on this success, we’re letting our competitive advantage slip away. Last year, Brazil approved eight new biotech traits for corn, soybeans, and cotton, according to Agri-Pulse. The United States managed to approve only two new traits. At this rate, a dozen years will pass before the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) gets through the 24 applications it already has pending. A petition submitted this year would receive an answer in 2023.
The delays will grow even longer if the EPA gets involved, adding redundancy to inefficiency. America’s leading scientists agree.
“The increased regulatory burdens that would result from this expansion would impose steep barriers to scientific innovation and product development across all sectors of our economy and would not only fail to enhance safety, but would likely prolong reliance on less safe and obsolete practices,” wrote a group of 60 scientists, including two Nobel laureates, to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson last month.
We must restore common sense to biotech regulations.
If you’re late for your job, the boss docks your pay. If you’re late for school, the teacher marks you tardy. If you’re late with your mortgage, the bank charges extra.
Yet the federal government can ignore its own self-imposed regulatory deadlines. Fortunately, a first-term member of Congress has proposed a bill that offers a solution that merits discussion.
Rep. Stephen Fincher is from a town with an improbable name: Frog Jump. It’s a real place--and Fincher has suggested a way for biotech crops to leapfrog a sluggish regulatory process. His legislation would require APHIS to make a decision on crop applications within 180 days (or a little longer if reasonable extensions are required).
“As a farmer myself, I understand that a more efficient approval process will result in increased investment and jobs,” says Fincher.
Best of all, this legislation would boost our lousy economy at no cost to taxpayers or the government. At a time of 9 percent unemployment and shattered debt ceilings, it may not be the perfect solution but it’s a creative and potentially effective response to a nagging problem.
Fincher proposes a deadline but what he’s really offering is a lifeline.
Ted Sheely raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm in the California San Joaquin Valley. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology www.truthabouttrade.org

Border unemployment

Aug 03, 2011

By Mary Boote

Book lovers have heard the sad news: Borders is going out of business. Hundreds of stores are selling off their inventories--not just the books, but also the fixtures, furniture, and shelves. Everything must go!
As an avid reader, I’ve shopped at a store in Des Moines for years. It’s hard to believe that I’ve probably walked through its doors for the last time.
As much as I’ll miss the occasional visits to browse, the real tragedy involves the people who have showed up for work every day at one of America’s great retail chains. They must go, too. More than 10,000 are losing their jobs.
Now they’ll hunt for work in an economy that suffers from an unemployment rate of more than 9 percent--and there’s no federal program called Bookshop Adjustment Assistance to help them.
Their plight calls attention to one of the stranger aspects of U.S. trade policy. Although congressional approval of three pending trade agreements would create jobs for these displaced workers, Washington won’t act because of a dispute over something called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a program that benefits some unemployed Americans but not others.
In other words, Washington wants to lend a helping hand if your job crosses borders but not if you’ve just lost your job at Borders.
This is no way to conduct trade diplomacy. And it’s certainly no way to help people survive in a depressed economy.
I know what it’s like to lose a job because it no longer exists. As a former political professional, I’ve experienced what happens to campaign staffs after disappointing elections.
Borders employees face a similar dilemma. They’re the victims of large economic forces involving technology and consumer taste--and no matter how hard they worked to satisfy customers, there was probably nothing they could have done to save their company from its fate.
Their story is hardly unique. The digital revolution in music has devastated record-store employees. Companies like Netflix and Redbox have eliminated jobs for video-rental workers. Growing up on an Iowa family farm, I have vivid harvest memories of my mom driving the corn picker and my dad hauling loads of corn – still on the cob - to store in a corn crib on our farm. When we needed the corn for livestock feed, my dad hired a local businessman who owned a corn sheller to remove the dried corn from the cob. John Deere’s ‘new’ combine negated my dad’s need to hire the corn sheller for that dusty job!
It’s distressing to see good people lose jobs for any reason, but sometimes this is how progress works. Without the constant churning, we’d still be sending messages by telegraph and driving buggies to the farmer’s market. The upside is that our economy would have a place for lots of telegraph operators and buggy drivers. The downside is that none of us would have cell phones or cars.
Americans also can lose their jobs due to foreign competition--and when it happens, it’s not less fair or more painful than when they lose jobs for any other reason.
Yet Washington’s insistence on treating people who lose their jobs because of foreign competition as different from people who lose their jobs for other reasons now imperils three trade agreements that will help the entire U.S. economy.
The trade pacts with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea were negotiated by the Bush administration. President Obama has been calling for their congressional approval for a year and a half. Congressional majorities appear to favor them.
Everybody agrees that they’ll lead to a surge in U.S. exports--along with more employment opportunities across a range of industries. There are real numbers to support this. The FTA between South Korea and the EU went into effect on July 1. The Wall Street Journal reported that in 2 weeks, trade between those two countries increased by 17.4 percent. With an estimated export increase of about $13 billion when the US agreements with Colombia, Panama and S Korea go into effect - we’re talking real jobs and real money at no cost to our country. Now that’s how you begin to deal with a deficit!
Yet there’s a hang-up involving TAA--and it could be a political deal killer. Some politicians insist that they won’t support the trade agreements unless the federal government also pumps additional funds into TAA. Others question its effectiveness and add that when Washington is busting through debt ceilings, we should try to trim spending rather than increase it.
I hope they figure out a way to approve these trade agreements, with or without TAA. They’re too important for our economy--and especially for Americans who need jobs.
At the same time, it seems odd that our lawmakers have let this dispute over a small segment of the unemployed delay action on a job-boosting measure that will help all people who need work, regardless of whether they’ve arrived at the misfortune of unemployment because of borders or Borders.
Mary Boote serves as the Executive Director for Truth About Trade & Technology.
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