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May 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.

Hawaii’s Biotech Papayas Hold a Lesson for America

May 31, 2012

 By Ken Kamiya:  Kaneohe, Hawaii

 

A new supply of fresh papayas from Hawaii will reach grocery-store shelves in Japan this year and consumers have biotechnology to thank for it.

 

The first "Rainbow" papayas--genetically modified to withstand the deadly ringspot virus—are now on sale. They are the first GM food Japan has approved for commercial release.

 

It represents an important step for a country that has resisted a technology that is now conventional in North and South America and increasingly common in Africa and Asia.

 

The story of how cutting-edge agriculture defeated disease and saved Hawaiian papayas shows that we have much to gain from GM crops, even as professional protestors peddle scientific ignorance to frighten the public about this essential food source. The rest of the United States may want to pay attention, as voters in California and legislators in more than a dozen states consider burdensome food-labeling laws.

 

In the middle of the 20th century, as Hawaiian papaya farmers started to enjoy commercial success, the ringspot virus appeared almost out of nowhere to threaten our livelihood. For a while, we were able to contain its spread by destroying infected papaya trees. Yet this was a drastic remedy. One year, I had to cut down half my orchard.

 

By the 1990s, however, it was almost pointless for Hawaiian farmers to raise papayas. The risk of crop failure was too high. I stopped growing the fruit and so did most of my neighbors.

 

Meanwhile, scientists worked on the problem. Dennis Gonsalves, then of Cornell University, learned how to take a piece of the ringspot virus and use it to "inoculate" trees, much as vaccines can improve immunity against diseases in people. In 1998, we started to sell GM papayas, which are just as healthy and delicious as the ones they replaced.

 

This simple innovation saved Hawaiian papayas. The ringspot virus is still out there, ready to wreak havoc--but it won’t infect any of the trees that descend from the innovation of Gonsalves.

 

We had beaten back a threat from nature, but now a manmade problem presented itself. Japan was our most important export market and its government refused to allow the importation of GM papayas. In 1996, Hawaiian farmers sold more than $15 million in papayas to Japan. By 2010, this figure had dropped to about $1 million.

 

The Japanese had nothing to worry about: GM papayas underwent strict regulatory testing in the United States. In fairness, however, biotech food was still a new phenomenon. The Japanese were simply exercising caution. As time passed, however, it became clear that they were cautious to a fault, as the arguments against GM food collapsed in the face of scientific data and consumer acceptance.

 

Today, the vast majority of the corn and soybeans raised in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and the United States are genetically modified to fight off weeds and pests. Around the world, millions of farmers have planted and harvested more than 3 billion acres of GM crops. Every day, billions of people eat safe food with biotech ingredients.

 

Yet pockets of resistance remain. Europeans remain deeply skeptical of GM food. In India, politicians have failed to approve GM brinjal (eggplant), even though its commercialization would improve the food security of a nation that struggles to feed its surging population.

 

In the United States, where biotech food is well accepted, activists crusade against it. They demand labels for GM food, but their real agenda is to sow confusion, raise anxieties, and, in the case of organic-food groups that are putting money behind these initiatives, give themselves a competitive advantage.

 

In Japan, GM papayas carry labels. The response of consumers will tell us a lot. Will they choose to buy Hawaiian papayas, which are some of the best on the planet, and return market share to the growers who enjoyed it a generation ago? Or will they avoid these nutritious fruits because the labels scare them away?

 

The world is watching. Meanwhile, it’s hard to ignore the obvious advantages of biotechnology: It saved my farm on Oahu, expanded trade opportunities for Hawaii, and improved consumer choice in Japan. We should hope it spreads everywhere.

 

Ken Kamiya has grown papaya in Hawaii for almost 40 years.  The "Kamiya" papaya is named in recognition of his work in the industry. Mr. Kamiya is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network. www.truthabouttrade.org

Food: The Ultimate Weapon of War

May 24, 2012

 By Bill Horan: Rockwell City, Iowa

 

Napoleon said that an army travels on its stomach. The French general believed in his adage so much that he once held a contest to improve food-preservation methods.

 

It probably would have made a great reality-TV show on a cooking channel.

 

Yet food in wartime is anything but entertaining. Feeding the troops is one of the great challenges of military leadership. Feeding civilians during war can be even tougher.

 

As we approach Memorial Day, it’s worth remembering that there isn’t much difference between food security and national security.

 

Or think of it this way: Food is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

 

Bullets and bombs killed nearly 20 million people during the Second World War. Famine and malnutrition killed at least as many, reports Lizzie Collingham in her comprehensive new book, "The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food."

 

"The impact of the war on food supplies was thus as deadly in its effect on the world population as military action," she writes. The Nazis used starvation as a torture device, rationing just 184 calories per day to Polish Jews. In Bengal, 3 million Indians died from a man-made food shortage.

 

Even when the fighting ended, the trouble continued: The world’s supply of food had shrunk by 12 percent, and in some areas the losses were catastrophic. Millions of people struggled to subsist on less than half of what they had eaten in 1939, reports Collingham.

 

Only in the United States did ordinary people continue to eat well. "American soldiers and civilians alike consumed significantly more food than their allies or their enemies," she writes. "Most Americans felt that they were fighting to preserve the American way of life and one of the most powerful symbols of this lifestyle came to be the abundance of American food."

 

It’s an abundance that continues today. Farmers grow so much food that we’re able to export huge amounts of it to foreign buyers. On my Iowa farm, about one out of every three rows of corn will leave the country.

 

Yet even Americans can feel the pinch. I certainly did in 1968, when I was a Marine corporal in Vietnam.

 

My platoon was patrolling a mountainous area west of Da Nang. Choppers delivered our supplies. We were supposed to receive a new set of rations every three days. At least that was the plan.

 

A dense fog once prevented the pilots from finding us. After a couple of days, we were willing to do just about anything for a bite to eat. We were faint from fatigue and worried about staying alert in a wilderness full of enemies who wanted to kill us.

 

Around this time, I found a Seiko watch on the trail. I thought it was my lucky day. So I wound it up and slipped it on my wrist. It worked for about 20 minutes. Then it stopped. So I tried it again. Same thing.

 

That’s why it was abandoned on the trail: It didn’t work.

 

Soon we met a group of South Vietnamese soldiers. I offered the broken watch for a bag of rice. I just didn’t admit it was broken. They thought I was a dumb American--but I knew better, and my platoon bolted away as quickly as possible. I had tricked our allies out of their rice, and we had about 20 minutes to skedaddle.

 

Later we came across a small farm and I stole a banty rooster. I was the only farm kid in the platoon, so it was my job to wring its neck, pluck the feathers, and cube the meat. We boiled the bird and rice in my helmet.

 

If you’re expecting me to say that nothing ever tasted better, you’re wrong. The meat was rubbery and barely edible. Even worse was the guilt, which came later, after a chopper finally found us.

 

I’m embarrassed about what happened, but it did teach me that hunger can make us subhuman. When you’re ravenous, you’ll cheat people out of their food, lying and stealing to obtain it.

 

This is the thing to remember about food and conflict: When you’re famished, you’ll do almost anything to feed yourself. And when you’re children are famished, you’ll do anything to feed them. Food insecurity is a recipe for social unrest.

 

So as you’re grilling burgers on this Memorial Day, be thankful for the soldiers who died to protect us--as well as for the abundance that we’re able to enjoy in this time of (relative) peace.

 

Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa.  He served in the US Marine Corp in Vietnam.  Bill volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology.  www.truthabouttrade.org

Let’s Expand The Trans Pacific Partnership

May 18, 2012

 By Dean Kleckner

 

People say a picture is worth a thousand words. A photo released by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative last week is worth at least two.

 

Uh oh.

 

It shows Carol Guthrie, an American trade diplomat, meeting with what her office euphemistically calls "key trade stakeholders." They are in fact some of the bitterest enemies of global trade: the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, the Citizens Trade Campaign, and the Texas Fair Trade Coalition.

 

The confab took place in Dallas, which is now hosting the 12th round of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks, scheduled to conclude on Friday.

 

The TPP is a potential trade alliance that would make it easier for members to buy and sell goods and services. Negotiations currently involve nine countries:  the United States, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.

 

A deal could be reached by the end of this year. It would provide a big boost to our economy, creating thousands of jobs right away. Canada and Mexico would like to join TPP, which would make the pact even better. And if Japan jumps in--it has given mixed signals about its interest--the benefits would become even more apparent, especially for American farmers, who enjoy only limited access to Japanese markets.

 

The White House has made TPP central to its trade strategy, with President Obama touting its advantages in his last two State of the Union addresses. He’s right to do so: TPP is an economic-stimulus package that doesn’t require the federal government to spend more money (and go deeper into debt). It simply creates opportunities for American businesses to reach customers in other countries.

 

The protectionists despise it. They prefer a policy of economic isolationism, in which the federal government makes sure that special-interest groups with political connections don’t have to deal with the international competition that so many ordinary American workers must face every day.

 

So why did Guthrie sit down with some of America’s most aggressive foes of free trade? Perhaps it was an honest effort to make nice--an open-minded act of civility.

 

If so, it would be nice to see the gesture reciprocated. Instead, the groups she courted have declared war on TPP. The website of the Texas Fair Trade Coalition warns of "a back-room deal that enriches the global 1% at the expense of the economy, the environment, family farms, public health, and democracy itself." The Citizens Trade Campaign has put out a series of contentious press releases that claim TPP will do everything from hurt public health to accelerate global warming.

 

Over the weekend, these so-called stakeholders joined the Occupy Wall Street movement in sponsoring a rally to complain about the TPP. Protestors also disrupted a reception and tried to present a phony award to Guthrie’s boss, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, naming him a "corporate tool."

 

The critics of TPP say that the negotiations are not sufficiently transparent. They’re correct, but not in the way they imagine. Americans who want information about TPP can find plenty, from fact sheets at the USTR website to videos by activists who want the talks to fall apart. It’s all pretty easy to track down.

 

Yet one issue deserves more attention, especially from the American media: expansion.

 

Although TPP would be a success if no more than the nine entities currently involved in the talks were to strike a deal, enlarging it to include Canada and Mexico and possibly even Japan would make it even more lucrative.

 

Yet the White House appears cool to this excellent idea. When President Obama hosted Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon at the White House last month, the result was, in the words of Investor’s Business Daily, "a diplomatic disaster." Much of the American press has failed to report on how President Obama has aggravated our NAFTA allies in a series of trade squabbles, most recently over a proposed oil pipeline between Alberta and the United States.

 

Perhaps our trade diplomats should spend less time posing for photo-ops with their critics and more time with their colleagues from Canada and Mexico, making TPP as big and strong as it should be.

 

Dean Kleckner serves as Chairman of the Board for Truth About Trade & Technology   www.truthabouttrade.org

An Open Letter to Oprah: Come to My Farm and See Why Biotech Crops Make Sense

May 10, 2012

By Tim Burrack:  Arlington, Iowa

 

Dear Oprah,

Come to my farm. Visit the land that I’ve worked since I was a boy. See this place so that you’ll never again let bad articles on agriculture tarnish the pages of your magazine or the pixels on your website.

If you accept this invitation to have a firsthand look at how an Iowa farmer produces healthy food in an economically and environmentally sustainable way, you’ll perform an important service to your readers and viewers--because right now, they’re receiving a very mistaken impression about what we grow and what everyone eats. 

In the May issue of O: The Oprah Magazine, writer Rachel Mount discusses genetically modified food. She asks a fair question: "What impact do GM foods have on our health?" But her answer--"no one really knows"--is absurd.

No one really knows?

That’s not what a number of globally respected organizations say: The American Dietetic Association, the American Medical Association, the Research Council of the National Academies of Science, and the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization all agree that GM foods are safe and nutritious.

Yet Mount doesn’t look to any of these authorities. Instead, she runs straight for the anti-GM busybodies who have made it their profession to protest mainstream American farming. One source compares GM crops to DDT and "countless other harmful chemicals." Another suggests that we won’t know for another 30 years what science has to say about food with GM ingredients.

This is nonsense on stilts. It’s like saying we shouldn’t heat our food with electromagnetic radiation because we just can’t be certain about the long-term health effects of microwave ovens. Many of us didn’t grow up with these tools in our kitchens, but they aren’t exactly an unproven technology. 

Neither are GM crops. We’ve been growing them for almost a generation, all over the world. Farmers have harvested billions of acres of them. People have eaten trillions of servings of food derived from these sources. Although they haven’t caused a single health problem anywhere, Mount hints darkly at "the possibility of creating brand-new allergens."  

If she’s going to say that, she should also inform her readers that no scientist has ever shown GM food to make anybody so much as sneeze.

Mount even claims that one study shows that hamsters lose their reproductive abilities when they’re fed a diet of GM soy. This is junk science: Dozens of other animal studies contradict this finding and show that biotech food is safe to eat. 

But I didn’t start this note with the intention of issuing a point-by-point rebuttal of a willfully ignorant article. I recognize that you don’t copy edit everything that goes into your magazine.

Instead, I mean to invite you to my farm.

If you come here, you’ll see why biotech crops make so much sense. Farmers are able to grow more food than ever before--more food on less land, compared to just a few years ago. This is good for the environment. Because GM plants have a built-in resistance to bugs and weeds, we’re using fewer chemical sprays. This is good for everyone. 

As a result, our food is abundant, affordable, and nutritious. Yet even in the United States we continue to struggle with feeding everyone. More than 16 million American children suffer from food insecurity, according to the Department of Agriculture. 

Given this harsh reality, does it make sense to demonize GM crops? In their absence, food would become less available and more expensive.

On my farm, you’d see these realities with your own eyes. Or you could visit the farms of several friends. In Hawaii, Ken Kamiya can show you how biotechnology saved the papaya industry from a deadly virus. In the Philippines, Rosalie Ellasus can describe how GM crops helped her put three sons through college after she was widowed. In Kenya, Gilbert Bor can discuss why he thinks biotechnology is so important to feed the people of Africa. 

And if you don’t have time to visit with us, would you please send a memo to Rachel Mount? If she writes on GM food in the future, she should give us a call.

Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a NE Iowa family farm.  He volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology.  www.truthabouttrade.org

Enjoying US Beef with Confidence

May 03, 2012

 By Carol Keiser:  Belleair, Florida

 

Reports last week that a California dairy cow tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)--popularly known as "mad cow disease"—has raised concerns by some about our food supply and trade relations.

 

What I see is the amazing success of our regulatory system, which is working exactly as it should.

 

Consumers can enjoy U.S. beef without worry.  It’s safe.  It’s nutritious.  It’s delicious.

 

Here’s what we know so far about the BSE incident. Investigators have identified the source as a five-year-old dairy cow at a farm in Tulare County, south of Fresno in California’s Central Valley. It did not enter the food chain, so nobody was ever at risk. This marks the first time in six years that food inspectors have detected BSE in the United States, and the fourth instance overall.

 

While BSE is exceedingly rare, it gives me great confidence to know that our regulatory system is working.

 

Additional details probably will emerge in the weeks ahead. Right now, scientists think that this case of BSE is unusual because it developed from a genetic mutation rather than tainted feed, which is the most common way for the disease to spread. They’re already checking the herd that produced the sick cow to see if any other animals display signs of BSE mutations.

 

This is exactly what should happen. We need a food system with tough but reasonable regulations, complete transparency, and instant communication between and from stakeholders. And that’s what we are seeing right now. Both inspectors and producers deserve credit.

 

The public should receive a pat on the back as well. It doesn’t take much to start a food panic--just a half-truth, a scrap of misinformation, or a rumor on Twitter. Unfortunately, many voices are more than willing to sensationalize a situation such as this. Yet early signs suggest that consumers are still buying U.S. beef.

 

Calm heads have prevailed.

 

Our trading partners also have behaved responsibly: They’re keeping their markets open. "This finding will not affect trade between the U.S. and Canada," said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in a statement. "Both countries have implemented science-based measures to protect animal and human health."

 

Votes of confidence such as this are nothing to take for granted. During a previous experience with BSE, in 2003 and 2004, U.S. beef exports plunged from nearly $4 billion to about $800 million. That was a devastating drop and the recovery took years. American jobs are on the line in an economy that’s already shaky.

 

In 2011, beef sales to foreign customers were worth more than $5.4 billion, a new record. Officials think this figure can grow, especially in Asia. "We have a critical window in the next few months to expand beef access with Japan, China, and South Korea," said Darci Vetter, a Department of Agriculture official, in Senate testimony on April 18.

 

Implementation of the new free-trade agreement with South Korea on March 15 will increase beef exports to that country.  They like our beef and want it. Completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the Obama administration has made a top trade priority for 2012, will also help.

 

Making the most of these opportunities will require a successful response to last week’s BSE discovery, so it’s a good thing that we’re off to a proper start.

 

Up to now, we’ve seen only two disappointing responses. First, a pair of South Korean retailers removed U.S. beef from their shelves. This was not necessary, and the South Korean government says it will continue to import beef from the United States.

 

Separately, Indonesia, acting alone among the nations of the world, suspended U.S. beef shipments. It’s a small buyer of U.S. beef--just $17 million last year, making up about 20 percent of Indonesia’s imported-beef market. My guess is that safety is not the issue.  The Indonesian government is using BSE as an excuse to protect their own producers and markets.

 

Their tactic will fail--and it will fail because our American regulatory system is working.  I’m confident our food is safe.  I think we will have beef for dinner.

 

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

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