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November 2009 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.

An Indian Farmer Speaks Out: The Future of India Depends on GM Seeds

Nov 25, 2009
The future of Indian agriculture rests on the shoulders of the unglamorous eggplant. Farmers have the ability to take a big step forward with biotechnology--but only if the government in New Delhi will allow us to do so. If it doesn’t let us grow biotech eggplants, it may not permit us to grow any of the biotech crops that my country needs.
In North America, eggplants are considered something of a delicacy. In Europe, they even go by an appropriately French-sounding name: aubergine.
In my country, this big purple vegetable is an everyday staple crop. We produce millions of tons of it each year. The Indian farmers who grow it outnumber the total population of the U.S. state of Texas. We call it “brinjal.”
Years ago, the Green Revolution transformed agriculture in the developing world, especially India. Although we face many challenges in feeding a nation of more than 1 billion people, we would not have experienced anything like the success we enjoy today without the Green Revolution’s improvements in seed, irrigation, and equipment.
Now we stand on the verge of a Gene Revolution. Farmers in the western hemisphere are enjoying its bounties, but so far it has barely touched my country.
There is one exception: cotton. Seven years ago, India approved GM cotton for cultivation. Today, farmers plant and harvest more than 20 million acres of it. The practice has spread quickly because it makes so much sense. All of my neighbors who grow it report that their yields have gone up and their pesticide use has gone down. They wish the seeds were less expensive, but they have learned the benefits of biotechnology on a firsthand basis.
These advantages now can pass into brinjal. Scientists know how to grow GM brinjal--a variety of the plant that naturally resists pests, using the same principle that has improved cotton.
The potential gains are enormous. Brinjal takes a long time to grow, which means that it is more vulnerable to pest attacks than other types of crops. What’s more, many of our farmers are poorly educated. They don’t know how to get the most out of existing pesticides. They’re at the mercy of dealers who too often provide them with improper instructions and inferior products.
GM Brinjal has a built-in resistance to pests. That makes it an inherently better product. At the same time, it’s actually easier to grow because it requires fewer applications of pesticides.
Because of these qualities, GM brinjal will help us produce better and safer food. Prices for consumers will fall. We’ll improve our ability to fight malnutrition, which is a major problem for the people of India.
Last month, a government body called the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee declared that GM brinjal is safe for human consumption. The decision was based upon extensive study that involved agricultural research institutes, universities, and a pair of expert panels, including one appointed by the Supreme Court.
So the science is proven. All that’s left is the politics: Before Indian farmers and consumers can benefit from GM brinjal, the minister of the environment, Jairam Ramesh, must grant his own approval. According to one news report, his office is now being “bombarded with faxes and emails” from “activist organizations such as Greenpeace.” They despise almost all new technology.
At the same time, another account says that “there is no organized lobby of growers to push for commercialization” of GM brinjal.
That may be. Yet there is a desperate need for this important product. It will help address the looming problem of income disparity between the rich and the poor as well as between urban areas and rural regions.
I know that it will improve my position, as a man who farms 120 acres of brinjal and other vegetables in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
The fate of India will depend upon the ability of small farmers such as myself to produce enough food. Success will require the acceptance of advanced tools used by farmers in the developed world. Our choice as a nation is to embrace the future and accept GM brinjal, or to turn back the clock by letting political pressure groups trump the calm judgment of science.
Rajesh Kumar farms 120 acres in two regions of India, using irrigation to grow brinjal, sweet corn, baby corn, tomatoes and other vegetables. He sells fresh produce directly to consumers through kiosks at several locations and runs a food processing unit for canning of vegetables. Mr. Kumar attended the 2009 TATT Global Farmer Roundtable and is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network.

The Business of Farming

Nov 19, 2009
Farming is a business. It's my business. Success requires sound business practices. That’s why I choose to plant GM corn and soybeans--and why I’m so appalled by a new activist-sponsored study that questions my ability to make sensible decisions for my own farm.
Except that this isn’t even a “study.” To call it that is to insult the test-preparation methods of 10th graders who flunk biology mid-terms. The document issued on Tuesday by three anti-biotech organizations--the Organic Center, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Center for Food Safety--is a collection of disputable facts and laughable assertions.
The central allegation of these groups is that biotech crops are forcing U.S. farmers to use more pesticides. It claims that since 1996, herbicide use is 383 million pounds higher than it would be without GM crops and insecticide use is 64 million pounds lower, for a total increase of 318 million pounds.
First of all, these figures don’t tell us much because not all pesticides are equal. An ounce of one can be more dangerous than a pound of another, so measuring them as if they were all exactly the same is nonsense. Also, it’s possible to point to statistics that say the exact opposite. PG Economics Ltd., a well-regarded English consulting firm, recently issued its own findings and said that the use of pesticides on global biotech acreage has dropped almost 800 million pounds--or nearly 9 percent--during the same period.
So which claim is more accurate? Maybe the best approach is to let third parties judge. As it happens, the U.S. Geological Survey has studied the environmental impact of pesticides for years. In specific, it has measured pesticide runoffs into rivers and streams. It doesn’t have a political agenda--just a scientific one.
Here’s the title of the press release the USGS issued last week, to announce the results of its latest research: “Pesticide Levels Decline in Corn Belt Rivers.”
It doesn’t take much to realize that this piece of welcome news trumps the hysterical accusations of biotech’s sworn enemies.
The anti-biotech agitators are right about one thing: Weed resistance is a problem. But this was true long before biotechnology improved our weed-control methods. Just as bacteria can develop a resistance to antibiotics, weeds can develop a tolerance for sprays. Farming is all about adapting to change, and we’ve developed techniques for countering this phenomenon. One simple approach is to rotate pesticides rather than relying on a single variety.
Unfortunately, the agenda-driven foes of biotechnology don’t want to help farmers kill harmful weeds that steal moisture and nutrients, but rather to remove one of the best tools we have for protecting our crops.
Their disconnection from reality is so profound that they claim “farmers are increasingly critical of GE crops.” Well, we’re all capable of grumbling about seed prices. But the notion that American farmers are beginning to have second thoughts about biotechnology is preposterous. According to federal statistics, the use of genetically-enhanced crops now includes 91 percent of soybeans, 88 percent of cotton, and 85 percent of corn.
Near-universal acceptance is a strange way of expressing criticism.
Observers sometimes make a distinction between biotech crops and “conventional” crops. When the adoption of biotechnology rises above the 85-percent mark, however, I think we have to reconsider these words. Biotechnology is the new conventional.
This is a positive development because biotech crops are the bounty of safe and reliable technologies that deliver environmental and economic sustainability. They produce more yield on less land with lower production costs--and one of those lower production costs includes less dependence on pesticides.
I can state this as a fact because I’ve farmed for 37 years. That’s another way of saying that I’ve spent my life battling bugs and weeds. I’ve used many different tools to protect my crops from destruction--everything from old-fashioned pesticides to new-fangled biotechnology.
Based on my own personal experience--rather than the scare-tactic reports of people who have never laid eyes on my fields--I can say with absolute certainty that biotech crops have allowed me to reduce my pesticide applications.
I know my business. I just wish there weren’t so many professional protesters trying to put me out of it.
John Reifsteck, a corn and soybean farmer in western Champaign County Illinois, is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).

A Corn Growers Response to a Taxing Situation

Nov 11, 2009
A senator once started a speech to his colleagues by saying, “I don’t mean to tax your memories...”
Before he could continue, another senator jumped out of his seat and exclaimed, “We hadn’t thought of that!”
Something similar happened in Washington recently. Men’s Health magazine interviewed President Obama. It asked about a special tax on soda pop. “I actually think it’s an idea that we should be exploring,” replied Obama. “There’s no doubt that our kids drink way too much soda.”
Up to now, I wasn’t aware that the commander-in-chief was keeping tabs on what children drink. I thought that was the job of parents.
Obama’s comments nevertheless generated a lot of fizz. The governor of New York and the mayor of San Francisco have pushed their own soda-pop tax proposals.
Many supporters of these proposed taxes see them primarily as a way to discourage the drinking of soda pop. They believe that making these products more expensive will force Americans to drink less of them.
Others view a soda-pop tax as a special source of new revenue for the government’s health-care spending or its anti-obesity programs.
One thing is certain: These goals are mutually exclusive. If the soda-pop tax is supposed to decrease consumption, then it’s an unreliable source of revenue. If it’s an essential source of revenue, then it will require high levels of consumption.
You might say that supporters of the soda-pop tax can’t drink their Coke and have it too.
When Obama expressed an interest in taxing soda pop, he portrayed it as a health initiative: “If you wanted to make a big impact on people’s health in this country, reducing things like soda consumption would be helpful.”
So would a reduction in the consumption of the candy that trick-or-treaters collected on Halloween. And a reduction in the consumption of Twinkies. And Captain Crunch. And on and on and on.
Where will this crusade stop?
The editor-in-chief of Men’s Health, David Zinczenko, was so excited by the notion of a soda-pop tax that he took to the pages of USA Today and called for something more ambitious: a war on American farmers. “It’s time to fight back against the corn peddlers who are making our children fat,” he wrote.
I’ve always thought of myself as a corn “grower,” not a corn “peddler.” Zinczenko makes us sound like drug dealers.
His anger at corn farmers comes from the fact that many food companies use a corn-based sugar, also known as high-fructose corn syrup, as an ingredient. Among varieties of sweetener, HFCS is really no different from other sugars, such as the kind that’s processed from cane or beets. It just comes from corn.
But does it make Americans fat? Among those who engorge themselves on too much fatty food, the answer is “yes.” For this small minority of people, moderation is a key to health.
The problem of obesity, however, is more complicated than the consumption of too much soda pop or HFCS. A new tax won’t solve anything.
Almost 95 percent of the typical American’s calorie intake comes from sources other than soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened bottled water, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. Raising the price of these products through taxation--which would have a regressive effect on the poorest Americans during the worst economy of our lifetimes, by the way--won’t eliminate the challenge of obesity.
Instead, Americans should exercise more. The Centers for Disease Control report that 60 percent of Americans are not regularly active and 25 percent are not active at all.
Why so much inactivity? Well, Americans are watching record levels of television. Earlier this year, the Nielsen Company reported that Americans watch 151 hours of television per month. Spread across 12 months, that’s more than more than 75 days per year.
Clearly, many Americans choose to watch too much television. Should we have a boob-tube tax, too? Or should this activity remain a tax-free choice beyond the reach of nanny-state regulators?
Maybe it’s best not even to mention the TV tax. Politicians in Washington will wonder why they didn’t think of it sooner. Some people are just sweet on taxes.
Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and grains in Northwest Iowa. This fourth generation family farm has been involved in specialty crop production and identity preservation for over 20 years. Mr. Horan volunteers as a Truth About Trade & Technology Board member. www.truthabouttrade.org

Qualified Negotiating

Nov 09, 2009
“It’s only when you look at ants through a magnifying glass on a sunny day that you realize how often they burst into flames,” joked the English comedian Harry Hill.
Professional protestors are trying to create their own political firestorm over President Obama’s nomination of Islam Siddiqui to become the chief agricultural negotiator in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. What seems to upset them most is the man’s background in pest control. They act as if this was some dirty business, rather than a life-saving industry that helps crops grow and keeps food safe.
The Senate should confirm Siddiqui quickly so that he can begin the important business of boosting export opportunities for American farmers. Confirmation hearings could take place as early as next week.
I’ve known Siddiqui for many years. He goes by “Isi,” which is pronounced “Izzy.” I serve on the board of the CropLife America Foundation; Isi is a vice president for CropLife America and often has attended our meetings. He really knows the business of agriculture. He’s bright, friendly, and laughs easily--traits that are useful for any diplomat, especially one who has to persuade foreign governments to open their markets to U.S. farm products.
So what’s the objection to Isi? An outspoken minority believes his connection to CropLife America, a trade association for crop-protection companies, ought to disqualify him. They seem to think that herbicides and pesticides are icky.
As it happens, there’s no such thing as spontaneous combustion, even among ants viewed through magnifying glasses on sunny days. Insects, weeds, and other pests assault farmland every day. In our efforts to feed a growing planet, they are foes who threaten to lower our yields. Farmers must fight them.
Many bugs attack crops directly, boring holes in their stalks and opening potential pathways for disease. To produce abundant and healthy food, farmers require tools to help them keep their plants safe. Isi works in collaboration with companies that provide this resource.
The New York Times editorial page, which is often sensible on trade-related issues, apparently has bought into the nonsense that Isi may not deserve his presidential appointment. “The negotiator we need is someone who can represent a broad view of American agriculture,” it sniffed on Wednesday.
That’s a bizarre criticism of Isi. A native of India, he earned a Ph.D. in plant pathology from the University of Illinois. He has extensive experience in government at the state and federal levels. He worked at the California Department of Food and Agriculture for 28 years. He also held agricultural jobs in the Clinton administration, including senior trade advisor at the Department of Agriculture. Since then, he has worked with a highly regarded think tank as well as on a federal health and science advisory board. His recent experience in private industry fills out a well-rounded resume.
How is this not “a broad view of American agriculture”? Does someone on the New York Times editorial board have a broader view?
If the Senate confirms Isi, he’ll assume an important position at a critical time. U.S. farmers depend for their livelihoods on export markets. It will be Isi’s job to make sure we keep the ones we have and that we gain access to new ones. In the current economy, these objectives are especially important for rural America.
I’ve known every top American trade negotiator for two decades or more, and I have every confidence in Isi’s ability to perform well in this job. My only concern is whether the Obama administration will let him flourish: If it was truly serious about trade negotiations, it would push for the approval of existing trade deals with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.
Unfortunately, those goals apparently will have to wait a little bit longer. The immediate question before us concerns Isi Siddiqui’s qualifications. The Senate should do its duty and hold a hearing--and then confirm Isi as soon as possible.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthbouttrade.org Mr. Kleckner serves as a board member of the CropLife America Foundation. 
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