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September 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.

Waist-line Protectionism

Sep 24, 2009
Weight loss demands good decisions and sometimes, sacrifices. For some of us that means we have to give up things such as that extra slice of pepperoni pizza and the hot-fudge sundaes.
 
Do you also have to quit trading goods and services with people in other countries?
 
A couple of academics think so. They’ve put forth a bold thesis: Free trade makes you fat.
 
Their opinions, however, are thin on logic.
 
Here’s the skinny: Writing in a journal called Globalization and Health, Anne Marie Thow of the University of Sydney in Australia and Corinna Hawkes of the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil warn of cross-border economic activity.
 
“The policies of trade liberalization in Central American countries over the past two decades, particularly in relation to the United States, have implications for the health of the region,” they write. “Specifically, they have been ... associated with rising rates of obesity and chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.”
 
So it’s not merely that free trade makes you fat. Thow and Hawkes think that free trade makes you fat and then you die.
 
In parts of the developing world, a major concern continues to be people who are malnourished and starving to death. Now we’re apparently supposed to worry that some, because of free trade, are eating too much.
 
I disagree: Free trade is not a devil’s bargain, but a positive good.
 
It’s like that old saying: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you. In other words, if you look hard enough, you can always find something to worry about.
.
Thow and Hawkes are determined to find any excuse to grumble. They point out that international trade has provided Central Americans with access to a wide diversity of eating choices. Tariff reductions have made this possible. As the authors report, average duties in Central America dropped from 45 percent in 1985 to just 6 percent in 2000. In more recent years, the implementation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement has helped U.S. farmers increase their market share in these nations.
 
When our government approves free-trade pacts, this is precisely what’s supposed to happen: We gain new advantages in selling what we produce. These opportunities are especially important in times of economic hardship. They demonstrate why we should pursue trade deals with Colombia and Panama, neighbors of the CAFTA countries.
 
As an added benefit, trade liberalization boosts incomes, which means that our partners become better able to buy made-in-America goods and services.
 
I’m all for protecting waist lines, but not for what might be called “waist-line protectionism.” Yet this seems to be what Thow and Hawkes really want: trade policies that prevent Central Americans from purchasing certain kinds of food and ingredients from the United States. They single out “fats, animal products, and sweeteners” as leading causes of Central American health woes.
 
Instead of blaming free trade, Thow and Hawkes should call for educating consumers about proper nutrition and the need to exercise regularly. The key to good health is not to limit consumer choice and strangle economic freedom, but rather to encourage wise individual habits.
 
The good news is that in reality, free trade improves health over time, especially for people in developing countries. That’s the conclusion of Hamilton College researchers who studied data covering 219 countries during a 35-year period. They found that when poor countries trade across borders, their infant mortality rates go down and their life expectancies go up.
 
Open economies may allow the importation of more French fries, but they also permit access to healthy foods that contribute to well-balanced diets, plus medicines and vaccines. They facilitate knowledge transfers, too, as information about nutrition, disease prevention, and health administration spreads from advanced countries to the developing world.
 
Can poor nations ever become rich in isolation? Fat chance. Only through engagement with the wider world, especially via trade, do they prosper. That’s how they become wealthy--and healthy.
 
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org
 

Norman Borlaug, RIP

Sep 21, 2009
Norman Borlaug once told me that he would trade away all of his life’s accomplishments just for the chance to play second base for the Chicago Cubs.
 
Thank goodness he couldn’t hit home runs or field ground balls as well as Ryne Sandberg! Billions of people are better off for it.
 
Borlaug, who died Saturday at the age of 95, was one of the great men of our time. Perhaps you’ve read a few of the obituaries. He was called “the father of the Green Revolution.” He won the Nobel Peace Prize. His pioneering work on high-yield crop varieties changed the way the world feeds itself.
 
There were a lot of differences between me and Norm, starting with baseball: I’m a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, the arch-rivals of the Cubs. Yet I’ve always felt a slight kinship with him because both of us grew up on farms in northeast Iowa, about 30 miles away from each other.
 
One day, he returned home, as he often did. This time, however, he was a celebrity because he had accepted his Nobel Prize just ten days earlier. At a church in Cresco, he talked about what he had learned: “In Iowa, we live in a privileged world,” he said. “We take the prayer, ‘give us our daily bread’ as automatic and always so. But it isn’t for half of the people of the world, who go hungry several times a week.”
 
I wish I could say that I was in attendance at that particular gathering in 1970. (My knowledge of this event comes from an account in the Des Moines Register.) I didn’t have the benefit of meeting Norm until a number of years later. Since then, I’ve listened to him speak many times. His energy and intelligence always struck me. He was active into his nineties, supporting advances such as genetically modified plants.
 
Norm’s most impressive quality was his profound humility. He felt embarrassed to be called “the father of the Green Revolution” because he knew that so many people had contributed to its success.
 
Yet he truly deserved the honor. “Through his work in the laboratory and in the wheat fields,” said the chairman of the Nobel committee, Borlaug “has helped to create a new food situation in the world and ... has turned pessimism into optimism in the dramatic race between population explosion and our production of food.”
 
Consider just one example of Norm’s impact: In the 1960s, Indian farmers were able to adopt the tools of the Green Revolution and increase their wheat production in just four years by an order greater than had been achieved in the previous four millennia.
 
I once experienced a role reversal with Norm. I was giving a talk and he was in the audience. I knew he was out there. It made me a little uncomfortable. This was no time to mess up.
 
I made one of my standard points: Without advances in technology, farmers wouldn’t be able to feed all of the people in the world. Afterward, Norm approached me and said that I was wrong.
 
Uh oh. Who was I to disagree with him? The surest way to lose an argument is to start one with Norman Borlaug.
 
Norm, however, reinforced my point by making it in a more powerful way. “We’ll always feed the people who are here,” he said. “The question is, which ones won’t be here?”
 
Thanks to the ingenuity of Norm and many others, a billion extra people are probably alive today. Maybe two billion.
 
None of this was inevitable. About forty years ago, lots of people, including distinguished scientists, worried about the “population bomb.” They believed that a growing global population would outpace the availability of natural resources, leading to widespread famine and death.
 
This may be Norm’s greatest legacy: Before catastrophe struck, he defused the “population bomb.”
 
A lot of American kids dream of playing in the big leagues. Only a lucky few earn the opportunity. Even fewer, however, accomplish as much as this Iowa farm boy.
 
The Cubs will always have a second baseman. We’ll never have another Norman Borlaug.
 
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org
 
 

Protecting The Staff of Life

Sep 10, 2009
I’ve seen a field of wheat go white in just a few days. It can look like a perfect crop, only to have fusarium head scab come in and wreck everything. This disease has the terrible power to turn an excellent year of wheat farming into a disaster in less than a couple of weeks.
 
Fortunately, I’ve managed to avoid this catastrophe. My brother and I just finished our wheat harvest. Our yield was slightly above average. We collected about 50 bushels per acre, compared to the 45 bushels we typically can count on. So I’ve got nothing to complain about.
 
Even so, wheat farmers can do better. All it would take is a more effective way of fending off this disease. Each year, it is one of the most dangerous threats we face in producing wheat. We have a number of tools for fighting it, but not the most effective tool imaginable, which is genetic modification. 
 
More certainty in wheat production for farmers guarantees a stable supply of the “staff of life” – wheat. Reducing a farmer’s risk in growing wheat means more of the “most versatile whole food grown” available at affordable prices for global consumers!
 
Wheat farming simply has not kept up with the times. Corn and soybean growers have seen their yields skyrocket. So have their expectations. What they would have viewed as a bumper crop a generation ago is a mild disappointment today. That’s how productive farming has become, ever since biotechnology improved the ability to contend with weeds and pests.
 
Yet wheat farming has not caught up. It remains stuck in the 20th century. The kinds of harvests we expect today are about the same as what we expected when Ronald Reagan was the US president. In other areas of life, we want more of everything: More power in our computers, more channels on our television sets, and more cup-holders in our cars and trucks. Wheat farming, by contrast, remains stubbornly stagnant.
 
The sad truth is that the fault is our own. We let the gene revolution pass us by. When it first became apparent that biotechnology could improve farming, especially in terms of weed control, many in the wheat industry said that they wanted nothing to do with it. There were sincere concerns about consumer acceptance, especially in foreign countries. More important, however, were the worries that seem to show up whenever something new threatens an established way of doing things.
 
By saying, “thanks, but no thanks,” to biotechnology, we denied ourselves a potential answer to one of our worst problems. Instead of trying to defeat the disease, we found ourselves resisting the very thing that offered a solution. It was a case of mistaken priorities.
 
Head scab is a fungal disease, and the traditional way of combating it involves the application of fungicides. But timing is everything. Head scab is deadliest during a window of about seven to ten days, when wheat plants flower. If the weather is humid and the mornings are dewy, the conditions are ideal for a fungal outbreak--and a devastated crop that is a staple for diets around the world.
 
If the anti-fungal sprays are a couple of days too early or too late, an entire year’s crop can crash. The problem is so daunting that wheat farmers almost have to expect that this will happen to them from time to time. It presents too much uncertainty.
 
Biotechnology, however, allows wheat plants to fight head scab all the time--even when farmers are asleep. Through genetic enhancement, the crops are always on guard against the ravages of this disease.
 
In recent years, lots of wheat farmers have had second thoughts about biotechnology. They’ve seen the success of GM corn and soybeans. They’ve envied it so much that many of them have started to abandon wheat in favor of farming these other crops.
 
Soon they may have reason to switch back: GM wheat is once again in biotechnology’s research pipeline.
 
In time, we may see wheat benefit from a full range of biotech traits, such as drought resistance and cold tolerance. Consumers will experience direct benefits as well, if scientists find a way to help those who suffer from wheat intolerance. 
 
Wheat farming won’t ever be a risk-free business, but biotechnology promises to make it a lot less frustrating for producers and consumers alike.   A plentiful supply of a staple food such as wheat is in everybody’s best interest!
 
Terry Wanzek grows corn, soybeans, and wheat on his family farm in North Dakota.  
Mr. Wanzek serves as a North Dakota Senator and board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)
 
 
 
 

Peace through Corn

Sep 03, 2009
Today's blog was guest-written by Bill Horan. Horan grows corn, soybeans and grains in Northwest Iowa. His fourth-generation family farm has been involved in specialty crop production and identity preservation for over 20 years. Horan was appointed to the USDA Renewable Energy Committee and serves as a Truth About Trade & Technology Board member (www.truthabouttrade.org).

Everyone has heard of “peace through strength.” Half a century ago, Iowa farmer Roswell Garst had a different idea: “peace through corn.”
 
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s historic visit to Garst’s farm in Coon Rapids. The event fell on Sept. 23. Iowans commemorated it last weekend with a conference in Des Moines on “Feeding a Hungry World.” The list of attendees included Rachel Garst (the granddaughter of Roswell) and Sergei Khrushchev (the son of Nikita, and a professor at Brown University). Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Sen. Charles Grassley also took part.
 
“You know,” Garst told Khrushchev in 1959, “we two farmers could settle the problems of the world faster than diplomats.”
 
Unfortunately, they didn’t end the Cold War. It plodded along for another three decades. Yet their meeting made a big impact--and it holds lessons for the citizen diplomats of our own time.
 
When I visited Ukraine on an exchange program in the early 1990s, the local farmers would hear that I was from Iowa and immediately ask about Garst. Did I know him? (Only by reputation.) Was my farm near his? (It’s about 40 or 50 miles away.) Is it true that money grows on trees in America? (Not that I've seen.)
 
Garst was a larger-than-life figure, a fervent believer in the power of hybrid corn to feed the world. Like so many top salesmen, he was a colorful character--and he owned “a massive head that looked like one of the statues found on Easter Island,” according to Peter Carlson, author of “K Blows Top,” a recent book on Khrushchev’s 12-day trip across America.
 
Garst thought that relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would improve if only these suspicious rivals could do business together. American farmers produced more food than their countrymen could eat. The Russians, on the other hand, routinely imported food and occasionally faced famine.
 
In Garst’s vision, Americans would sell what they grow, the Soviets would buy what they need and everyone would enjoy a peace dividend. “It would be dangerous for the world to have a Russia that is both hungry and has the H-bomb,” Garst said. “I never saw a well-fed, contented man who was really dangerous.”
 
In the 1950s, Garst made several trips to the Soviet Union. In Moscow, he met privately with Khrushchev, who shared a background in agriculture. The behavior of the Soviets could frustrate Garst--he deplored their invasion of Hungary in 1956, for example--but he always returned to his belief in “peace through corn.”
 
As Khrushchev prepared his journey to the U.S. in 1959, he reportedly asked to meet with only two Americans: President Eisenhower and Roswell Garst. “I have known Mr. Garst for years,” Khrushchev said. “Let us exchange experiences. This will be useful to our countries.”
 
Khrushchev’s formal itinerary included big cities on the coasts, plus a detour through Des Moines and Coon Rapids. The trip to the Garst farm became a media circus. There’s a famous picture of Garst flinging mud at reporters who tried to follow the men the way paparazzi stalk movie stars.
 
What did Khrushchev learn in Coon Rapids? It’s hard to know for sure, but also easy to think that he was impressed by the capitalist success of American agriculture. It produced bumper crops, as opposed to Communism’s bounty of underproduction and starvation.
 
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see anything like Khrushchev’s tour again. The closest thing would be a visit from North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il--another Communist who should do more to let his suffering people feed themselves.
 
But if he decides to come, I’m willing to put him up at my house.
 
I’ve acted as a citizen diplomat before. When the U.S. and Vietnam were normalizing relations, I hosted a Vietnamese official who was on his way to Washington. He had requested to stay at a Midwestern farmhouse--and wound up in my home.
 
All over the world, people associate the American heartland with food security. We should teach them what we can and assume a leadership role in fostering goodwill, just as Garst did a generation ago.
 
Exchanges between farmers make a lot of sense. As the U.S. tries to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq, we’d be wise to share American agricultural know-how with these war-torn nations. In this spirit, Truth About Trade and Technology continues to sponsor the Global Farmer-to-Farmer Roundtable, an annual forum that invites growers from around the world to share their insights and ideas.
 
The Cold War is over. Khrushchev and Garst are long dead. Yet feeding the world remains a significant challenge--and “peace through corn” remains an inspired slogan.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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