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August 2010 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.

Multilingual Measurement Milestone

Aug 26, 2010

 Agricultural biotechnology has just passed an important milestone: Farmers around the world have now planted more than a billion hectares of genetically modified crops.

My American readers are probably scratching their heads. They want to know: What the heck’s a hectare?

It’s the kind of question you’d expect from people who still cling to their old measurements: inches instead of centimeters, feet instead of meters, and miles instead of kilometers.

Yes, hectares are a part of the metric system--i.e., the system of measurement that just about every country in the world uses except for the United States. Only two other nations are metric deniers: Liberia and Myanmar.

Yes, I’m hectoring you over hectares.

I kid--and I kid without malice because the United States is an exceptional country. Americans are wonderful people. And there’s nothing wrong with measuring things the way you do.

Here in Australia, we converted to metrics in 1966. I still remember when it happened. I grew up in a pre-metric world and retain a certain fondness for the old ways of doing things, whether it’s sizing up fields in acres or weighing material in the avoirdupois system, with its tons, hundredweights, quarters, pounds, and ounces.

Call me multilingual in measures.

Even so, I’ve converted to metrics. There’s something to be said for their elegant uniformity. For farmland, our basic unit of measurement is the hectare. One hectare equals exactly 10,000 square meters. That’s a nice, round number. It’s easy to calculate and remember.

Do you even know how many square feet are in an acre? The answer is 43,560. Perhaps this is because 43560 is the zip code for the town of Sylvania, Ohio. That’s about how much sense it makes to us now that we are converted.

Five years ago, Truth About Trade and Technology (TATT) announced and celebrated a significant global achievement: A farmer planted the world’s one-billionth acre of GM crops. In other words, land devoted to GM crops had filled up 43,560 square feet for the one-billionth time.

Nobody knows the identity of this path-breaking farmer. It could have been a corn grower in Iowa or cotton raiser in India. Whatever the specifics, a careful review of international agriculture statistics revealed that the year 2005 saw the cumulative total area of biotech crops sprint across the one-billion acre mark.

This was an amazing accomplishment. Just a decade after biotech’s commercialization, farmers were so eager to benefit from genetic enhancement that they had planted and harvested more than a billion acres of these crops.

For all the fanfare, this celebration of acreage struck many farmers outside the United States as a little odd because we insist on counting in hectares. There are about 2.47 acres in a hectare, so a billion acres comes out to nearly 405 million hectares--a big number, not as momentous as a billion.

Now it’s 2010 and we’ve finally caught up. Users of the metric system have their own milestone to commemorate. According to TATT’s biotech counter, GM crop plantings passed the one-billion hectare mark a few weeks ago. Before the year is over, GM crop harvests will pass the one-billion hectare mark as well.

These different milestones point to the same basic truth: Biotech crops make sense because they improve production and protect the environment. I’ve seen it on my own farm in GM cotton and many Australian farmers have seen it on theirs in GM canola. We’re looking forward to the day when GM traits come to wheat as well.

When GM acreage hit the one-billion milestone, several commentators made the point that biotechnology had become so common in agriculture that it was the "new conventional"--i.e., it had gone from cutting-edge to ordinary.

This claim holds even more truth today. After all, one billion hectares is a huge area by any standard of measurement. It’s a little larger than the entire United States, including Alaska.

That’s a heck of a lot of GM crops. You might even say a hectare of a lot.

Jeff Bidstrup and his family grow cotton, wheat, sorghum and chickpeas in Queensland, Australia. Jeff served as the national convenor of the Producers Forum, an organization of farmers whose vision is to ensure timely access to agricultural biotechnologies for the economic, social and environmental benefits of all Australians. Mr. Bidstrup is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network and the 2008 recipient of the Kleckner Trade and Technology Advancement award.

Currency of Currencies

Aug 18, 2010

 By Dean Kleckner (www.truthabouttrade.org)


When the Communists came to power during the Russian Revolution, one of their first actions was to seize the wheat. They wanted to control food prices--and they understood, in the words of Lenin, that wheat was the "currency of currencies."


In the wake of Russia’s recent decision to ban wheat exports through the end of this year, several editorialists have mentioned Lenin’s phrase. It reminds us that Moscow’s rulers never have shied away from interfering with the production and distribution of food.


The present situation in Russia is certainly harrowing. Wheat farmers are struggling through their nation’s worst drought in generations. Raging forest fires have added to the problem. There’s even talk that next year’s harvest may be in jeopardy as well. The purpose of the export ban on wheat is to ensure that staple food prices remain affordable for ordinary Russians.


But export bans don’t work. They try to fight short-term problems, but they almost always wind up creating long-term troubles.


A case can be made that we shouldn’t care about Russia’s bad policies. After all, one of its effects is to improve prices for American farmers. "This is an opportunity for us and we’re going to take advantage of it," said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.


Last month, USDA officials predicted that wheat would sell for about $4.60 per bushel. This month, prices have risen to more than $7 per bushel. Prices of other farm commodities have risen as well.


Here’s the problem: By distorting the international market, Russia’s export ban now will force farmers in the United States and elsewhere to base their planting decisions on politics rather than on economics. For farmers, the weather is unpredictable enough. Trying to guess the Kremlin’s behavior--will they or won’t they allow Russians to sell wheat on the international market?--adds a new degree of uncertainty to the challenging business of agriculture.


It’s entirely possible that farmers in other countries now will plant too much wheat and endure a season of disappointing prices in which they give back the gains they’re hoping to make right now.


We’re already seeing evidence that Moscow may want to manipulate markets even more than it already has. Some experts think the Russians will shift gears again and try to exploit the high prices that their policies have helped to create.


At first, Russian leaders contemplated an export ban that would last only a few weeks. Then they announced a moratorium that would run until the end of this year. Now, several officials have hinted that perhaps they’ll lift the export ban ahead of schedule because prices have risen so high that Russia should try to take advantage of them.


This is old-fashioned market manipulation. If Russia ever hopes to join the World Trade Organization--an initiative that I’ve publicly supported--then it will have to show more respect for the exchange of goods and services across borders. Attempts to game the system must not be tolerated.


Ultimately, Russians themselves will pay a heavy price. Four years ago, Argentina imposed a 23-percent tax on wheat exports--a tax so high that it was tantamount to a ban. The tax remains in place today and Argentine farmers plant fewer acres of wheat than they have at any time in the last century.


In the future, Russian farmers also may decide to move away from wheat simply because they can’t trust their own government to give them the freedom to sell what they grow. That’s what the Argentines did, and now they can’t participate in wheat’s boom market. Politics have kept them out.


The good news is that industry leaders around the world say that no matter what Moscow decides, the world has an adequate supply of wheat. We aren’t on the verge of another food crisis, at least not on the scale of the one that erupted two years ago. But we may be closer to one than we’d like to think.


Natural disasters such as droughts are bad enough. Must we compound them with manmade disasters like export bans?


Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org

Wheat Fears

Aug 12, 2010

By Terry Wanzek – Jamestown, North Dakota (www.truthabouttrade.org)


The world needs more wheat. Here in North Dakota, however, I’m growing a lot less of it—and that probably won’t change until wheat hops on board the biotech bandwagon.


Last week, grain consumers around the world panicked over potential shortages when Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced a ban on wheat exports. Egypt and other countries that rely on grain from Russia—the world’s fourth-largest wheat exporter--began a mad scramble to secure supplies, causing commodity prices to surge around the globe.


The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations cautioned that we aren’t headed toward a new food crisis. When prices spiked two years ago, hungry people rioted from Bangladesh to Haiti. Food prices remain 22 percent lower than their peak in 2008, but they’re also 13 percent higher than they were a year ago.


So it’s not unreasonable to worry that they could creep higher—or to think about how biotechnology can mitigate similar problems in the future.


The culprit in Russia is a severe drought. Farmers are suffering from record-high temperatures, a lack of rainfall, and significant forest fires. Many are experiencing total crop failure. Perhaps we’ll get through this current disruption, as the FAO says. Yet we may also be just another bad weather event away from new hardship.


Biotechnology can’t change the weather, but its creative application can relieve the effects of extreme conditions.


Unfortunately, farmers do not yet have the option of choosing to grow biotech wheat. It simply doesn’t exist as a consumer product. We have to produce our amber waves of grain without this new and innovative tool that has dramatically enhanced production in other crops.


That’s too bad, because biotechnology has revolutionized the way we plant staple crops such as corn and soybeans. In the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, the majority of corn and soybeans are genetically enhanced to improve their ability to fight off weeds and pests.


They also help fight dry spells. GM corn and soybeans are so good at beating weeds that farmers don’t need to till the soil as much as they do with conventional varieties. This allows moisture to stay locked inside the ground, where crops can make the best use of it.


But that’s only an indirect benefit of biotechnology. Direct benefits also are possible. Right now, scientists have the know-how to build drought resistance right into the plants themselves, making their water usage more efficient. Within the next few years, this trait is anticipated to be commercialized in corn.


It should already be available in wheat. Yet fears about consumer acceptance in foreign markets—the same foreign markets that are now going to pay higher prices for wheat—discouraged seed companies from investing in this area. From a technological standpoint, wheat is now years behind corn and soybeans.


As a result, many farmers in my area are simply growing a lot less of it. About fifteen years ago, we devoted around three-quarters of my farm’s acreage to wheat production. Today, that figure is down to about 15 percent. If we didn’t have to rotate crops, it probably wouldn’t even be that high.


I’m hardly alone. My farm sits in one of America’s great wheat-producing regions. Today, however, some of my neighbors don’t grow wheat at all.


The changes are obvious to anybody who drives around Stutsman County, but statistics prove the point. In 1996, farmers in my county planted 451,000 acres of wheat. Last year, this number had dropped by more than two-thirds, to 143,700 acres. Meanwhile, corn acreage has quintupled.


Biotechnology is behind this transformation. When we plant GM corn and soybeans, we’re much more certain that we’re going to harvest a good crop at the end of the season. We’re also more likely to earn a profit. This is one of the great gifts of biotechnology—and until wheat also can take advantage of these traits, we just aren’t going to grow as much of it.


By itself, GM wheat can’t solve the production problem that Russia has chosen to exacerbate through its reckless export ban--but it would help, and the world’s wheat consumers would be far better off.


Terry Wanzek, a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology, is a wheat, corn and soybean farmer and state senator in North Dakota. www.truthabouttrade.org


GM Crops: Engine of Economic Mobility

Aug 10, 2010

By Rosalie Ellasus - Philippines (www.truthabouttrade.org)

Americans like to ponder a puzzling question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Here in Asia, we’re starting to ask something similar: Which came first, the chickening out or the GM eggplant?

There’s a clear answer to our version. In India, the government is chickening out. In the Philippines, where I farm, we’re embracing biotechnology and its benefits.

Earlier this summer, the Philippines announced that it will allow the commercialization of genetically modified eggplants, which Filipinos call “talong.” Seeds are expected to go on the market for the 2011 growing season. This approval means that the Philippines will become the first country in Asia – and probably in the world - to let farmers grow GM talong.

India could have led the way. In February, however, officials ignored the recommendations of a scientific panel and refused to approve GM eggplant, which Indians call “brinjal.” They didn’t explicitly reject this crop--they called for more study--but their decision to delay was widely interpreted as surrendering to Greenpeace and other anti-biotech pressure groups.

“India has a desperate need for agricultural biotechnology,” wrote Rajesh Kumar, a farmer who grows brinjal, in the Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal. “By rejecting the Gene Revolution ... the Congress-led government in New Delhi now threatens the ability of Indian farmers to increase the yield, quality, and safety of the food they produce for their more than one billion fellow citizens.”

Thankfully, the Philippines will travel a different path. Talong is a staple crop for us. It’s our single most popular vegetable, accounting for about 13 percent of our vegetable acreage. I don’t grow talong as a commercial product, but I do plant it in my backyard because it’s good to serve fresh with fish and rice.

Talong is vulnerable to a major pest called the shoot borer, which is the larva of a white moth. Left uncontrolled, shoot borer infestations can cause devastating losses for farmers. The miracle of biotechnology allows GM talong to fight off shoot borers naturally. As a result, farmers cut their pesticide use and production costs. Consumers realize the advantages of greater abundance and lower prices.

There’s an environmental edge as well. By producing more food on existing farms, we reduce the incentives to convert wilderness into cropland. This is critical in the Philippines because we face alarming levels of population growth and we’re running out of room for agriculture.

GM talong will help us do more with the farms we already have.

I don’t understand why anybody would oppose biotechnology. My own experience with GM crops has been incredibly positive. I grow GM corn and other crops on ten hectares in San Jacinto, a little north of Manila.

Access to biotechnology has transformed my life. The increased productivity allowed me, as a widow, to send my three sons to college. I doubt this would have been possible without GM seeds.

So GM crops deliver more than an agricultural improvement. They are engines of economic mobility.

Unfortunately, farmers in many countries don’t have this same opportunity. Their lack of access has nothing to do with science or safety and everything to do with politics, as India’s disappointing experience with GM brinjal shows.

India really ought to know better. It already permits the growth of GM cotton. Farmers have enjoyed the benefits of its much higher yield.

Women may have gained the most, according to a new study by the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. In India, cotton harvesting is traditionally a female activity. Since the introduction of GM cotton, women who pick in these fields have seen their income rise by 55 percent.

“Overall, [GM] cotton enhances the quality of life of women through increasing income and reducing ‘femanual’ work,” said Arjunan Subramanian, a professor at Warwick.

Men, for their part, spend less time spraying pesticides. This leaves them more available for family chores and activities.

I salute the government of the Philippines for keeping an open mind on biotechnology and making sure that farmers can use it.

Let’s hope that officeholders in India and elsewhere also choose to accept GM eggplants and other biotech crops--and quit chickening out in the face of progress.

Rosalie Ellasus is a first-generation farmer, growing corn and rice in San Jacinto, Philippines. Rosalie allows her farm to be used as a demonstration pilot for smallholder farmers to visit and learn from. She currently serves as President of the Philippine Maize Federation and is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network. www.truthabouttrade.org

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