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April 2012 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.

Vermont’s REAL Food Safety Issue

Apr 19, 2012

By Terry Wanzek: Jamestown, North Dakota

The "heads" side of every quarter pictures a famous farmer: George Washington. Among the 50 states represented on the "tails" side, however, only Vermont shows a farmer: He’s tapping maple trees for syrup. 


So it would be a special shame if Vermont’s legislators were to pass a bill that would hurt farmers not just in the Green Mountain State, but across America. 


The bill would require all food that possibly contains genetically modified (GM) ingredients to say so on a special label. 


If this sounds reasonable on the surface, consider a few details: Just about everything we eat derives in some way from biotechnology (which is a good thing), the public isn’t exactly clamoring for this bill, and supporters of the proposal are driven primarily by greed and cynicism. 


Thankfully, the bill is now stuck in a committee and many observers think it will stay there, failing to become a law before the state’s general assembly finishes its work this year. But I’ve spent a fair bit of time around state capitols (I’m both a family farmer and a State Senator in North Dakota), and I’ve seen a lot happen in the last days of a session. 


So farmers need to keep an eye on what happens in Montpelier. 

The fundamental flaw in Vermont’s bill is that nobody needs it. It’s a solution in search of a problem. 


Biotechnology is an accepted tool of conventional agriculture. Around the world, farmers have grown more than 3 billion acres of GM crops--that is, plants bred to have a natural resistance to insects and weeds, resulting in a bountiful and sustainable food ingredient.


In the United States, the vast majority of corn and soybeans are genetically enhanced. Farmers are able to grow more food on less land, boosting our national food security and helping us conserve wilderness at the same time. Most Americans eat food derived from biotechnology every day. 


Biotechnology is a process. The food it produces is no different nutritionally from other kinds of food. Demanding special labels for GM ingredients makes about as much sense as requiring labels that explain whether crops were harvested by modern machinery or by hand. 


Consumers expect their food labels to carry pertinent facts rather than needless and confusing data. As a farmer and consumer, I want them to have that information.  As a society, we already suffer from information overload, with documents thrust upon us again and again. When was the last time you read the HIPAA statement at your pharmacy? 


But here’s the best reason to question the type of information some argue must be mandated on labels: The special-interest groups behind them aren’t interested in helping out the public. Instead, they want to use government regulations to exploit consumer uncertainties and create a competitive advantage for personal profit.


They’d love nothing more than labels that reproduce biohazard symbols on perfectly healthy food. 


Many of the biggest backers of rules like the one proposed in Vermont are organic-food groups that think people will flock to their products, which, by the way, are generally more expensive (but not healthier). 


Joseph Mercola, a prominent funder of a labeling initiative in California, recently explained his thinking: "Personally, I believe GM foods must be banned entirely, but labeling is the most efficient way to achieve this. Since 85 percent of the public will refuse to buy foods they know to be genetically modified, this will effectively eliminate them from the market just the way it was done in Europe." 

As motives go, this one is pretty bad: Use labels to frighten, rather than to inform, people about what they eat and drive them, like cattle, toward different consumer items.


Vermont’s actions will carry national weight, perhaps by encouraging politicians and activists elsewhere to follow its example and forcing food companies to meet a patchwork of inconsistent and unnecessary regulations that drive up the cost of food without increasing our food safety.  A real food safety issue, in my mind, would be a lack of food, as a result of eliminating a farmer’s access to the latest technologies that have dramatically enhanced our abilities to safely increase food production.


I hope the lawmakers of Vermont will remember their state quarter--and decide to stand with the men and women around the country who grow the food we depend on. 


Terry Wanzek is a wheat, corn and soybean farmer in North Dakota.  He serves as a ND State Senator and volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).

Rebuild the African Breadbasket with the Power of Fertilizer and Promise of Biotechnology

Apr 12, 2012

 By Gilbert Arap Bor:  Kapseret, Kenya



Africa’s farmers must do better.


The population of our continent continues to grow, but our ability to produce food remains stuck in the past. Experts say that global food production has to double by 2050 in order to meet demand--yet here in Africa, the average yield of grain crops hasn’t increased since the 1960s.


There’s no simple solution to Africa’s problems, and the root causes involve everything from political instability to unrelenting poverty. These challenges won’t vanish soon. Yet a few simple steps would make them appear less daunting: The nations of Africa should embrace agricultural biotechnology and also make sure farmers have ready access to fertilizer.


We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.


GM crops will guard against one of the most significant threats to farming in Africa: crop failure. Pest outbreaks can turn an excellent harvest into a rotten one, almost overnight. Biotechnology, however, offers seeds that will grow into healthy plants that naturally fight off insect predators. These tools also can help farmers survive severe weather, by making crops more resistant to heat, frost, and droughts.


The genetic modification of fruits and vegetables can prevent spoilage on the way to market. Success in this area could reduce wastage and expand trade opportunities. Farmers around the world rely on exports--and there’s no reason why Africa can’t improve its export opportunities through better science.


Biotechnology affords environmental benefits as well. Because GM crops boost yield, we’ll produce more food from less land. Farmers will preserve African wilderness, rather than turn forests and wetlands into acreage for crops.


We can even put damaged land back into circulation. Unsustainable irrigation practices have injected too much salinity into much of the African soil. Biotechnology holds the key to growing salt-resistant crops--advances won’t come soon, but they’ll be essential for my continent’s long-term food security.


Biotech crops also may contribute to bioremediation--the restoration of nutrients and soil structure. Throughout much of Africa, the soil has been severely depleted. Fertilizers that would begin to restore them are prohibitively expensive. It costs a farmer in sub-Saharan Africa about twice as much as a farmer in Europe to buy a bag of fertilizer.


Personally, I put fertilizer on everything I grow, including at least 75 kgs of per acre of maize. Every informed farmer should do the same. It makes a tremendous difference: In my region, yield from unfertilized crops is less than one-quarter of the yield from fertilized crops – even much less.


Yet fertilizer can be difficult to obtain. For the last month, Kenyan newspapers have been awash with stories of farmers who can’t get the fertilizer they require. Bureaucratic delays are a major stumbling block: Obtaining subsidized fertilizer demands a complicated ritual of signatures from local agriculture officials, banking instructions, approvals from the National Cereals and Produce Board, and plenty of travel in between. It’s a logistical nightmare. Even if it goes smoothly, there’s no guarantee that fertilizer will be available.


Some farmers go without fertilizer entirely. Others use a bit but not enough.


Just about everybody in farming appreciates the importance of fertilizer. Biotechnology is a different matter. Only three African countries--Burkina Faso, Egypt, and South Africa--have approved the technology that the United States and much of the rest of the developed world take for granted.


Three other countries--Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda--are dragging their feet, but at least they’re conducting trials that could lead to commercialization. They’re moving too slowly, but at least they’re moving in the right direction. It looks like Malawi may join them soon.


Put together, that’s a mere seven African nations. That leaves 47 sovereign states in Africa that aren’t giving nearly enough thought to this essential tool of food production. We should aspire to the agricultural success of the developed world, rather than assume that we must remain forever behind in food production.


The promise of biotechnology and the power of fertilizer, put together, hold the potential to turn Africa into a breadbasket of food production.


The choice is ours: We can take advantage of these amazing opportunities or cling to the methods that already have failed us.


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 the 2011 Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award recipient and a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.

*Note - this commentary first appeared Apr. 10 in The Wall Street Journal, Opinion Europe.


Dude, It’s Sustainable Real Beef

Apr 05, 2012

By Carol Keiser:  Belleair, Florida



"Dude, it’s beef."


That’s what cool heads are saying in response to a bogus controversy over lean finely textured beef, a food that irresponsible critics have labeled "pink slime."


Say what you will about sticks and stones. Name-calling can hurt too, as the smear campaign against this safe, nutritious food proves. Hundreds of Americans have lost their jobs and consumers are on the verge of losing an ingredient that is an excellent example of sustainable agriculture--all because we’ve let sensationalism trump science.


The scandal erupted about a year ago. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, the host of "Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution," decided to devote one of his episodes to lean finely textured beef. Perhaps he was desperate for ratings.


"The first duty of a revolutionary is to get away with it," said Abbie Hoffman. That’s what Oliver did: He got away with one of the biggest food scams ever to air on TV. The disinformation he served inflicted damage that we’re all going to feel for a long time.


Lean finely textured beef is the result of an innovative process that separates meat from fat in beef trimmings. Rather than disposing of the small pieces that are left when you cut beef into steaks and roasts, the processor puts the pieces into a centrifuge - it looks like a large, high-speed mixing bowl.  The centrifuge is warmed and spins, a process that separates the meat from any small pieces of fat, resulting in a high-quality beef product that is at least 90 percent lean.  It can be added to ground beef offering a leaner, cost effective product that many American consumers want without compromising nutrition and enhancing safety.


Making the most of the resources we have: This is the very definition of sustainable agriculture.


Max Armstrong, a national agriculture broadcaster, has suggested this product be called "trim beef." Another suggested term is "boneless lean beef trimmings." A name is important – we’ve learned that lesson.  Consumers want to know what is in their food and they have that right.   Branding and labeling are tools that are often discussed. But the substance is most important.  In this case: a 100 percent beef product that becomes a low-fat additive, mixed or blended to customer specifications. Anybody who has eaten a hamburger made from ground beef almost certainly has tasted lean finely textured beef.


Yet in the quest for televised titillation, there’s no time for nuance.


When Oliver launched his assault on lean finely textured beef, he refused to provide an even-handed account of the production process. His props even included a jug of household ammonia, with a skull-and-crossbones sticker slapped on its side. This was Oliver’s way of representing ammonium hydroxide, a food additive approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration. It’s a common ingredient not just in beef but also cheeses, baked goods, and pudding because it kills bacteria that can carry diseases like E. coli and salmonella.


As consumer information, Oliver’s shock-chef show was pure bunk. As propaganda, it was sheer genius. The shameless and scientifically ignorant attack went viral. Food-industry critics made it a cause. Bloggers, both witting and unwitting, jumped on the bandwagon. The mainstream media got involved as well, often ditching any commitment to fair-minded coverage in favor of false drama.


On the internet, one of the most frequently displayed images of finely textured lean beef wasn’t even beef, but rather a poultry product.


Oliver’s routine was "outrageous," said Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a former Democratic congresswoman from South Dakota. "He should be called out on it," she said.


Yet the smear campaign worked. Facing pressure from outspoken activists, several large restaurant and supermarket chains have stopped accepting food that contains lean finely textured beef. Following the drop in demand, 650 workers in three states lost their jobs and another company was forced into bankruptcy. In our lousy economy, the unemployment rolls are already too high. Now they’ve grown a little higher in Amarillo, Texas, Holcomb, Kansas, and Waterloo, Iowa, thanks to the scare-mongering hysterics of a television show that wasn’t good enough to survive cancellation.


The best weapon for fighting lies is the truth. Last week, the governors from the three states affected by the layoffs toured a meat processing plant in Nebraska. Then they feasted on burgers that included lean finely textured beef as an ingredient. When they were done, they introduced a new slogan: "Dude, it’s beef."


Let’s hope the line catches on, saving a sustainable food, recreating those lost jobs--and lasting longer than Jamie Oliver’s show.


Carol Keiser owns and operates cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Illinois.  She is a Truth About Trade & Technology board member.   www.truthabouttrade.org


Note:  this column first appeared in op-ed pages of The Washington Times.

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