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November 2013 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.

Farmers Need New Tools to Keep Up With the Appetite of Changing Times

Nov 27, 2013

 By Tim Couser:  Nevada, Iowa

 
Less than two weeks after my trip to visit farmers in the Philippines, the typhoon struck: It ripped through the heart of this island nation, with sustained winds of 160 miles per hour. Thousands of people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands more lost their homes.
 
It was one of the most violent storms in history.
 
Details of the destruction are still trickling in, but the United Nations’ food agency estimates crop damage at $110 million, and total damage to agriculture at twice that amount.
 
Fortunately, the farmers I met at the 9th Philippine Corn Congress last month are safe. We had gathered on the island of Luzon, north of the typhoon’s path.
 
Yet their country is reeling.
 
This was a natural disaster—an act of God, and impossible to prevent. Farmers everywhere must contend with the challenges of weather, from fast and ferocious storms to the slow-motion hurt of droughts.
 
What we can avoid, however, are unnatural disasters—and manmade calamities were a major concern at the meeting of Filipino corn growers. I had traveled from my farm in Iowa to be with them, spending the first four days on a tour of farms and facilities and the next four in meetings with producers.
 
I was struck by how much agricultural biotechnology matters in this developing country—as well as how much it’s imperiled by ignorance.
 
Many farmers in the United States take genetically modified crops for granted. They’ve become a conventional part of our work and an important factor in sustainable farming that allows us to grow more food on less land.
 
In the Philippines, however, farmers benefit even more than we do from biotechnology, due to their country’s unique conditions.
 
The Philippines are hot and humid. The average year-round temperature is about 80 degrees. Large amounts of rainfall partnered with high humidity sunshine causes challenges for grain storage.
 
The moisture poses a special problem for corn farmers, who must dry their crops in this damp climate. Due to the wetness and lack of post-harvest facilities, their corn is much more susceptible to fungus and disease. Fungus is the catalyst for mycotoxins.  We sometimes see problems with mycotoxins in the United States, but not on the same scale—not even close. It’s the difference between living in a temperate climate and a tropical climate.
 
The best way to stop fungus and disease from infecting corn is to make sure that pests don’t open pathways for them—and this is precisely what hybrids of biotech corn help prevent. By thwarting only pests that prey on corn, they hold off fungus and disease growth. Non-GM crops, by contrast, require multiple applications of insecticide.  If infected, these grains are rendered useless.
 
This important benefit of biotechnology is on top of the advantages we already see in Iowa and the rest of America’s corn country: better yields, higher grain quality, and less need for herbicides and pesticides.
 
Yet biotechnology is under assault from the forces of scientific illiteracy—and that’s the manmade disaster that Filipino farmers fear more than typhoons, if only because it’s so unnecessary.
 
Urban populations everywhere—from Manila to Seattle—are increasingly removed from the problems of food production. This is a wonderful luxury, allowing them to contribute to our cultures and economies in new and creative ways.
 
There’s an unwelcome side effect, however: People in cities often fail to understand how food moves from farm to fork, and they fall victim to misperceptions and ideologies. And so political movements blossom, and they try to deny farmers access to safe technologies.
 
Maybe an analogy will help. Farming is susceptible to exogenous functions, like weather, pest and disease unlike a controlled environment of a factory.  However, much like a successful company expands and renovates that factory for higher production and lower cost; agriculture shares this need for new technology.   Farmers need new tools to help them keep up with the appetite of changing times.
 
We should applaud biotechnology and how it contributes to the smooth operation of food production—perhaps most especially for the people in countries not as resource rich as the United States.
 
Natural disasters always will be with us. We can’t divert typhoons.
 
Unnatural disasters—the manmade ones such as fear of biotechnology—are a choice made not on sound science. The facts don’t lie.  We must not stand in the way of beneficial technology simply because we are ill-informed or afraid.
 
Tim Couser farms with his parents on a family farm in Central Iowa where they grow corn, soybeans, hay, seed corn and seed soybeans along with a cattle finishing operation. Tim is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Building Infrastructure to Support Innovative Agriculture Research

Nov 21, 2013

 By Hope Pjesky:  Goltry, Oklahoma

On October 7, three American scientists shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries on how cells transport molecules. It was a triumph not just for the three men, but also for a type of institution where two of them work - the "Medical Research Organization" (MRO).  Created by Congress in 1956, MRO’s were designed to promote private philanthropy into the study of human health.
 
For more than half a century, MROs have helped people live longer and healthier lives. More than 200 now operate in the United States, ranging from Michigan’s Van Andel Research Institute to Maryland’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which employs two of the recent Nobel laureates.
 
Now it’s time to take the proven approach of MROs to solving big problems and adapt it to what may be the greatest scientific challenge of the 21st century: Growing enough food to keep pace with a world population expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050.
 
The Charitable Agricultural Research Act (CARA), a bill with bipartisan support, would modify the federal tax code to allow the creation of "Agricultural Research Organizations" (ARO) which would use private dollars to improve nutrition and food production. In the fight for global food security, AROs would help develop crops that make better use of water and nitrogen, defeat diseases such as citrus greening, and come up with ways to grow more food on less land.
 
Demographers estimate that farmers and ranchers like me will have to double their food production between now and the middle of the century, just to keep pace with population growth as well as the demands of an emerging middle class in China, India, and elsewhere. As we work to achieve this ambitious goal, we’ll have to attend to environmental concerns, resource depletion, and volatile weather.
 
That’s a tall order, and it will require all the scientific ingenuity we can muster. Right now, the United States spends tens of billions on scientific research every year, but the amount that supports competitive agricultural research comes to less than $500 million. Worldwide, only about 5 percent of all scientific funding focuses on agriculture.
 
AROs would build food and agricultural research capacity in the United States by channeling private philanthropic dollars. Just as MROs must collaborate with hospitals, AROs would be required to work with land-grant and agricultural colleges. Best of all, in an era of debt ceilings and tight budgets, AROs would not require new government spending.
 
This is a mainstream idea that has already garnered broad, national support, including dozens of farm groups and universities across the country.
 
In congressional testimony earlier this year, Steven Rhines of The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation illustrated the potential of AROs. If a new law generates only 10 of these groups with individual research budgets of $25 million—a conservative estimate, he said—their combined efforts would boost public agricultural research by 50 percent.
 
On a purely economic level, that’s good news: Studies suggest that every $1 of agricultural research returns $10 in benefits.
 
Additionally, AROs would create jobs in the American heartland. This is a positive side effect rather than their main purpose.
 
The goal of AROs would be to help feed a hungry planet through scientific innovation. The United Nations says that there are already 1 billion undernourished people in the world. As we struggle to provide the food for an additional 2 billion people by 2050, we’ll have to find ways to encourage our brightest minds to innovate.
 
Next year marks the centenary of Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution. His agricultural improvements are sometimes credited with saving a billion lives. For this accomplishment, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
 
We shouldn’t merely hope for a future in which the Nobel Foundation honors the Borlaugs of the 21st century. We must create the conditions for this actually to happen.
 
Congress should pass CARA right away, President Obama should sign it into law, and we should let AROs help us confront one of history’s greatest tests.
 

 

Hope Pjesky and her family are farmers / ranchers in northern Oklahoma where they raise cattle and wheat.  Hope volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Educated Voters Beats Scary Talk in Washington State

Nov 14, 2013

 By Mark Wagoner:  Touchet, Washington

 
Voters in my home state of Washington delivered a resounding message on Election Day: We trust America’s farmers, they said.
 
They also proved that a little information goes a long way.
 
In rejecting Initiative-522, a badly flawed ballot proposal to slap warning labels on food with genetically modified ingredients, voters endorsed both sound science and mainstream methods of food production. They said no to an extremist attack that would have raised grocery-store prices, wrapped small businesses in red tape, hurt farmers like me and all of us as consumers.
 
This victory was by no means a foregone conclusion. In September, an opinion poll suggested that I-522 would pass by a wide margin: It had a lead of more than 40 points. A head start that big is almost impossible to overcome.
 
Yet the campaign for common sense was just getting underway.
 
A broad-based public-education effort began to provide voters with facts about GMOs and I-522. It pointed out that GMOs are an ordinary part of farming today. We’ve grown these crops and eaten food derived from them for nearly two decades, without any signs of ill effect. Organizations ranging from the American Medical Association to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have endorsed GMOs, saying they’re safe to eat and don’t need labels that will confuse consumers.
 
As the arguments over I-522 went back and forth, newspaper editorial boards across the state came out against the initiative. Even the liberal Seattle Times, located in the heart of the progressive city from which I-522 drew much of its support, urged its latte-sipping readers to oppose the measure.
 
On Election Day, Washingtonians came out strongly against I-522. They voted it down, 53 percent to 47 percent. In 35 of the state’s 39 counties, a majority said no to I-522.
 
The Economist asked veteran pollster Stuart Elway about the stunning turnaround: "In four decades of observing state politics he has never seen opinion move so quickly."
 
The backers of I-522 complain that their defeat was all about money: The "No on 522" side committed $22 million to make its case, while the "Yes on 522" side spent roughly $8 million to spread misinformation about GMOs.
 
This is sour grapes. In a state the size of Washington, which has about 4 million registered voters, $8 million is a lot of money—enough to get out a message and have a strong voice in what the public thinks. That’s especially true when your side enjoys a lead of more than 40 points just a few weeks before Election Day.
 
The reality is that I-522 lost, fair and square, in a spirited public debate.
 
We all know that elections don’t always turn out the way we’d like. In the case of I-522, however, it seems clear that voters encountered compelling facts that cut through a fear-mongering propaganda campaign. In the end, they made a good decision about public policy.
 
That’s what the Seattle Times concluded. "Scary talk about genetically engineered food failed to convince Washington voters," said an editorial, published hours after the polls closed.
 
Scary talk has failed to convince voters elsewhere, too. Last year, Californians rejected a ballot initiative similar to I-522. Before that, Oregonians said no to warning labels for food derived from GMOs.
 
As an alfalfa seed farmer in eastern Washington, I’m gratified by these results. I work hard to grow excellent crops that will turn into good food, usually by way of dairy cows that produce milk and ice cream. If I raise healthy plants in weed-free fields, your food will be nutritious, tasty, and affordable.
 
Biotechnology enables me to do this. Because of GMOs, I’m harvesting better crops that require fewer pesticides. This is a tremendous benefit for both producers and consumers.
 
In the next year or two, biotechnology will allow us to grow low-lignin alfalfa, which promises to make dairy products more nutritious as well as to help dairy cows live longer and healthier lives.
 
I’m looking forward to this future—and I’m thankful that my fellow voters in Washington State have chosen to embrace it as well.
 
Mark Wagoner is a third generation farmer in Walla Walla County, Washington where they raise alfalfa seed.   Mark volunteers as a Board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Bad Policy Can Create An Unnatural Agriculture Disaster

Nov 07, 2013

 By David Hughes:  Buenos Aires, Argentina

 
My home of Argentina is one of the world’s great breadbaskets. This nation of around 40 million people can feed more than 400 million, making farmers like me essential to global food security.
 
Unfortunately, the current government’s policy of export taxes and quotas threatens our ability to produce food. To make matters worse, the government provides powerful incentives to pursue short-term gains at the price of long-term productivity and ultimately, soil health.
 
To remain an agricultural dynamo, Argentina must reverse course immediately.
 
My partners and I manage more than 6,000 hectares near the capital city of Buenos Aires. We grow corn, soybeans, wheat, and barley. As with most Argentine farmers, our livelihood depends on our ability to sell goods to people in other countries.
 
Five years ago, however, the government placed huge export taxes on several important crops, in an ill-advised attempt to cheapen prices at home. If we want to sell soybeans outside our borders, we have to pay a special tax of 35 percent. The export tax on corn is 20 percent and on wheat it’s 23 percent. Many other items also face export taxes: beef, milk, flour, soybean oil, and more.
 
To complicate matters even more, the government imposes export quotas on corn and wheat. So even if we’re willing to pay the big export taxes as a cost of doing business, we can’t always sell as much as we’d like. When the export quotas fill up, crop prices in the domestic market collapse. Argentine farmers sometimes receive only half the income American farmers would expect from the same harvest.
 
This one-two punch of export taxes and quotas wildly distorts market signals, pressuring farmers to make decisions that have nothing to do with economic common sense or environmental sustainability.
 
One result of the government’s attempt to control agricultural markets is that farmers are planting a lot more soybeans—a staple crop that faces hefty export taxes but not quotas. Over the last decade, soybean acreage has increased by 50 percent.
 
Soybeans are of course a perfectly good plant to grow, but they are best raised in turn with other crops, especially corn. The soybean-corn rotation is one of the most common in the world, for the simple reason that this cycle improves soil nutrients and moisture.
 
It’s just a good, sustainable farming practice.
 
Yet the government’s interference throws this beneficial system out of balance—and farmers face strong economic incentives to pursue goals that will reduce our ability to grow food in the future.
 
If farmers plant soybeans in the same field, season after season, they risk harming the soil. Without corn stalks as a protective cover, the runoff from rainwater can lead to significant soil erosion. This robs future crops of important nutrients and makes them more vulnerable to drought.
 
A recent article by Reuters reporter Hugh Bronstein made the point clearly: "The loss of fertility is a slow-burning threat to crop yields," he wrote. "On the Pampas farm belt, the trend toward soy at the expense of corn could rob Argentina of its natural advantage as an agricultural powerhouse in the decades ahead."
 
This endangers Argentine farmers directly, but we aren’t the only ones who should worry. Demographers say that to keep up with population growth, the world must double its food production by 2050.
 
If we’re to meet this goal, Argentina must be a part of the equation.
 
But that solution is at risk—not because of a natural disaster such as a long dry spell, but because of the unnatural disaster of bad policy.
 
Half of the farmland in Argentina is leased, which means many farmers are especially susceptible to the government’s incentives to think about getting the most out of today and not to worry about tomorrow. Too many are stretching the health of their soil, living off the previous management.
 
The government needs to abandon its harmful policies and make it economically feasible for farmers to pursue proper crop rotation. The alternative is an agricultural disaster.
 
The stakes are high. We need to get it right, for the sake of both my country and the world’s food security.
 

David Hughes and his partners grow corn, soybeans, wheat and barley in Buenos Aires province and are developing a cattle ranch in Sla Rioja province, Argentina.  David is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

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