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January 2011 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 Unnecessary Technology Crossroads

Jan 26, 2011

 

By Bill Horan: Rockwell City, Iowa (www.truthabouttrade.org)
 
 
President Obama says he wants to wipe out burdensome federal regulations. So why is a member of his cabinet on the verge of forcing new rules on farmers that would raise food prices, destroy jobs, and threaten scientific innovation?
 
Last week, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack appeared before a Congressional committee and tried to explain a plan to limit the freedom of farmers who choose to plant GM crops. “We are also at a crossroads with the Department’s ability to handle the demands of industry and producers,” he testified.
 
Actually, it’s Vilsack himself who is at a crossroads. He has determined he must decide between farmers who want to use 21st-century technologies to produce enough food for a growing world and those who prefer to focus on a niche market of organic products for high-end consumers
 
That’s a false choice. If his boss in the White House means what he says about regulation, this shouldn’t be a choice at all.
 
Alfalfa lies at the heart of the controversy--not the Our Gang character with the cowlick hair that pointed straight up, but the forage crop that helps dairy cows keep their milk pure and inexpensive.
 
Just as modern science has transformed the farming of corn and soybeans--the vast majority of U.S. corn and soybean growers select biotech varieties--so has it transformed the farming of alfalfa. GM alfalfa produces a weed-free harvest. Dairy  farmers need access to weed-free alfalfa to insure the milk produced by their cows tastes better and grocery-store prices remain reasonable.
 
There’s a separate market for expensive organic products--and now the special interests behind it are insisting that they can’t coexist with biotechnology. They’re lobbying the Department of Agriculture to impose special restrictions on GM alfalfa. Under Vilsack, the federal government may ignore science and tell farmers where they can and cannot grow GM crops.
 
This is outrageous. If Vilsack proceeds, he will fail to perform what may be his most essential role: serving as a high-profile advocate for American agriculture. He must assure consumers that GM alfalfa and other biotech crops are indispensable tools in the fight to keep food prices low and feed the world.
 
GM crops are one of the most vetted technological products in history. GM alfalfa passed all the regulatory tests. They have never hurt a human being, animal or the environment. If Vilsack starts to regulate against them, however, he will effectively surrender to the propaganda campaigns of anti-biotech political activists. He has a responsibility to say what he knows is true: Biotech crops are safe.
 
Another important difference, of course, is cost: Organic production is much less efficient than conventional modes. This inefficiency is what leads to premium prices in grocery stores.
 
If Vilsack refuses to speak these truths, then he is derelict in his duty as Secretary of Agriculture.
 
He’s also at conflict with the latest commitments of his own administration. “When we find rules that put an unnecessary burden on businesses, we will fix them,” promised President Obama in the State of the Union address on Tuesday. The president went even further in the Wall Street Journal last week, when he warned of regulations that fall “out of balance, placing unreasonable burdens on business--burdens that have stifled innovation and have had a chilling effect on growth and jobs.”
 
The president went on to describe the absurdity of treating the artificial sweetener saccharin as a dangerous chemical. “If it goes in your coffee, it is not hazardous waste,” he wrote. “The EPA wisely eliminated this rule last month.”
 
Ironically, the enemies of biotech alfalfa warn about “contamination” of the food supply. But it’s like the president says: If it goes in your milk, it is not hazardous waste.
 
First Lady Michelle Obama is doing her best to educate Americans about food and nutrition. Her husband says that he would like to ease the regulatory burden that Washington places on the rest of the country.
 
Why is Tom Vilsack headed in a completely different direction?
 
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

Strengthening the State of the Union

Jan 21, 2011

 

By Dean Kleckner - Chairman, Truth About Trade & Technology
 
 
For President Obama, last year’s State of the Union address was a conversion experience. The man who once had talked about quitting NAFTA announced that he had become a born-again free trader. He outlined a set of specific plans and objectives for the United States to pursue as it seeks to improve its place in the global economy.
 
This year’s speech, scheduled for next Tuesday, probably won’t contain a similar free-trade surprise. But it will give the president an opportunity to deliver a progress report on what he has done over the last 12 months--as well as a chance to outline the steps he’s taking to meet the goals he set for himself and his administration.
 
He can begin with an excellent piece of news. In 2010, U.S. exports grew by about 17 percent--one of the fastest rates of growth on record.
 
Obama doesn’t deserve much credit for this accomplishment. It has more to do with business cycles and the productivity of American workers than anything his administration has done.
 
But if he wants to brag a little, that’s fine with me. Last year’s export growth puts the president on track to meet the most ambitious goal he outlined a year ago, when he said he wanted U.S. exports to double in five years. Hitting this target in 2015 will require similar rates of growth over the next four years--and the only way that can happen is for Obama to work with Congress and adopt a series of trade measures that will make it easier for Americans to buy and sell goods and services across borders.
 
So I say let him boast a bit next week, bask in the applause, and leave the Capitol with a revived commitment to do what it will take. Perhaps new White House Chief of Staff William Daley, who helped President Clinton win approval of NAFTA in 1993, will give his boss a pat on the back.
 
Obama simply can’t allow the United States to coast any longer. Earlier this month, the annual Index of Economic Freedom gave the United States its lowest score in a decade. Its rank among the countries of the world dropped from #8 to #9.
 
A significant reason for the slip is that we lost points in the category of trade freedom. “Anti-dumping and countervailing duties laws, ‘buy American’ procurement rules, high out-of-quota tariffs, services market access restrictions, import licensing, restrictive labeling and standards, and export-promotion programs and subsidies add to the cost of trade,” said the report.
 
The way forward is clear: Obama must make good on his pledge in last year’s State of the Union to push for congressional approval of free-trade deals with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. One effective strategy might be to take up the proposal of Speaker of the House John Boehner and combine all three pacts into a single up-or-down vote. The State of the Union address, when Obama stands just a few feet in front of Boehner, will provide an excellent venue for embracing this idea and forging a bipartisan consensus in favor.
 
Obama also can discuss the steps he has taken to solve an ongoing trade dispute with Mexico. For years, the United States has blocked Mexican long-haul truckers from driving on U.S. highways. In doing so, it has failed to meet a condition of NAFTA. American farmers and ranchers have paid a painful price in retaliatory tariffs on everything from strawberries to Christmas trees. Since August, pork producers have seen their sales to Mexico fall by 11 percent. As a long-time pork producer myself, this simply cannot go on.
 
Thankfully, the Obama administration may be on the verge of correcting this blunder with a new approach developed by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. During next week’s speech, Obama should lay out the job-creating benefits of selling to Mexico as well as how resolving the dispute will reduce transportation costs and save American consumers hundreds of millions of dollars.
 
No matter what the president says, however, it’s actions rather than words that count. By this time next year, the president will need to show results.
 
Dean Kleckner chairs Truth About Trade & Technology www.truthabouttrade.org

India is Ready for a Gene Revolution

Jan 15, 2011

By V. Ravichandran – Tamil Nadu, India (www.truthabouttrade.org)

A revolution in agriculture transformed my country from a begging bowl to a bread basket. Now we need to let the Green Revolution grow into the Gene Revolution--and allow the farmers of India to enjoy full access to the benefits of biotechnology.

The fate of my nation depends on it.

I’m old enough to remember India in the 1960s, when my country couldn’t feed itself. We had to import millions of tons of grain and other foodstuffs just to survive. The situation was so bad that Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri went on the radio and appealed to his fellow citizens to give up one meal per week, in the belief that this sacrifice would enable others to eat.

I was about seven years old at the time. My family met the challenge by forfeiting a meal every Monday. So did a lot of other families. In our area, the restaurants and canteens would shut down temporarily to encourage participation.

The root problem was that we were primitive farmers--or, to put it in modern terms, we were organic farmers by default. Our age-old practices simply had failed to keep up with the demands of a large and growing population.

Then the Green Revolution introduced the latest methods and technologies to India’s farmers. We started to irrigate our fields, apply pest controls to our crops, and plant better seeds in our soil. Our yields soared. In a single generation, we went from a land that lacked food security to a country that could meet many of its basic needs.

In 2011, India is home to more than a billion people. Since the start of the Green Revolution, the size of our population has more than doubled--and we’re still doing a better job of feeding ourselves than at any point since I was a boy who gave up a meal on Mondays.

This isn’t to say everybody in India now consumes a hearty breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We remain a developing nation that is riddled with large pockets of poverty. We struggle with the emerging problem of “hidden hunger,” which is the phenomenon of people who have access to food but still lack a properly nutritious diet.

So we must do better.

It won’t be easy. Our population continues to boom. Some demographers say that by 2030, we’ll pass China as the world’s most populous country. No matter what happens, Indian farmers will need to fill a lot of mouths. So will farmers throughout the rest of Asia and Africa. We have a social and moral obligation to do everything in our power to feed this swelling mass of humanity.

We’ll require access to the best agricultural tools of the 21st-century, including genetically modified crops. Our political leaders must help the Green Revolution blossom into the Gene Revolution.

I’ve participated in the Gene Revolution since 2002, when New Delhi first approved GM cotton. This crop has boosted yields and improved my ability to work as a farmer who produces crops in a sustainable way. It has also enhanced my quality of life because it demands less back-breaking effort to grow. Just about every Indian cotton farmer now chooses to grow GM cotton--a sure sign that this is an outstanding piece of Gene Revolution technology.

Yet GM cotton doesn’t feed anybody. We need to apply biotechnology to food crops as well, just as farmers have done everywhere from the United States to the Philippines. Indian scientists already have determined that GM brinjal (eggplant) is perfectly safe for human consumption. Last year, however, government officials chose to ignore their own experts and surrender to the pressure tactics of anti-GM radicals. Their decision put a vital crop that is a staple for many Indians out of reach, at least for the time being.

This indifference to India’s food security will prove costly if it isn’t reversed soon. Farmers need access not only to GM brinjal, but also to biotech corn, rice, and wheat. We need better resistance to weeds and pests, drought and disease, and floods and salinity.

The Gene Revolution stands ready to deliver these benefits, but only if we permit it to succeed.

The alternative is to go back to the future--except that the skipping of meals may no longer be voluntary.

Mr. V Ravichandran owns a 60 acre farm at Poongulam Village in Tamil Nadu, India where he grows rice, sugar cane, cotton and pulses (small grains). Mr. Ravichandran is a member of the Truth About Trade and Technology Global Farmer Network.

www.truthabouttrade.org

Litigation is the Root of the Problem

Jan 06, 2011

By Reg Clause – Jefferson, Iowa (www.truthabouttrade.org)

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently announced that his department may impose severe restrictions on GM alfalfa farmers. If enacted, these regulations would lead to what the New York Times calls “a stark reversal” of previous policies, which have allowed farmers of other crops to take full advantage of 21st-century agricultural technology and produce bounties unimaginable just a generation ago. Secretary Vilsack is undermining his department’s authority and processes in a misguided mission to find a conciliatory solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.

 
In my own community we have organic farmers thriving next to conventional and without conflict as far as I know.   We certainly don’t need courts reversing proven regulatory methods and technological progress in agriculture because a few want to litigate for winners and losers in ag. Agriculture will not benefit from such uncertainty. If the Secretary’s “co-existence” turns out to be geographic designations of where and where not one can use legal products, the matter will be in courts for years, needlessly.
 
That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture should resist the political pressure to stifle farmers who want to grow biotech alfalfa.  A consensus of scientists designed the regulatory acceptance process that cleared biotech alfalfa for the marketplace. The products were deregulated by the USDA but somehow this was not good enough for those with an anti-biotech agenda. They can always find a friendly court it seems.
 
Litigation is the root of the problem in this case and seldom a solution. The enemies of biotechnology have sued to stop conventional farmers from growing GM alfalfa. They insist that modern agricultural practices can’t flourish alongside organic food production--and that pollen drift or bee movement from one farmer’s field of biotech alfalfa could “contaminate” another farmer’s field of organic alfalfa. This notion was laid waste by the USDA’s own robust review processes. Such drift is an unlikely threat, but the USDA nevertheless may impose geographic restrictions and isolation distances on GM alfalfa. Isolation already exists in the organic standard which regulates that sector. That is a label attribute for the organic niche. But again, USDA did not find an environmental or human safety reason to restrict the planting of biotech alfalfa, so why the need to restrict it now? Biotech alfalfa can’t “contaminate” organic crops since it has been declared safe by our government and therefore is not a contaminant.
 
“We have seen rapid adoption of biotechnology in agriculture, along with the rise of organic and nongenetically engineered sectors over the last several decades,” said Vilsack. “While the growth in all these areas is great for agriculture, it has also led, at times, to conflict or, at best, an uneasy coexistence between the different ways of growing crops. We need to address these challenges and develop a sensible path forward for strengthening coexistence of all segments of agriculture in our country.”
 
If Vilsack truly wants to follow a sensible path forward, he simply has to embrace the principles of self-regulation--and let farmers enjoy the freedom to pursue their own economic interest. He needs to rely on his agencies regulatory processes and authority, not undermine these existing rules and methods with undefined gatherings of people who will not agree in any case. If the Secretary is interested in a diverse and flourishing agriculture then he should be persuaded to avoid the consequences of his current path. Those consequences will be to keep farmers in courts ad infinitum if a USDA will not enforce and stand behind its own rules.
 
I’m a veteran alfalfa farmer, so I know this crop. It pollinates tight, which means that it releases only a small amount of pollen and that this pollen doesn’t travel far. So the odds of pollen from GM alfalfa blowing into a field of organic alfalfa start out low. But this isn’t even the relevant issue. GM alfalfa was legal and remains so. 
 
This is where the standards that govern organic food come into play. They don’t require 100-percent purity, which would be an unreasonable demand under almost any circumstance. Miniscule amounts of GM alfalfa can turn up in bales of organic alfalfa without organic farmers losing their certification.
 
So the system works. It doesn’t require a brand-new set of complicated regulations that inevitably will lead to more conflict and litigation for farmers. What’s more, these restrictions and lawsuits could discourage scientists who hope to develop the next generation of high-yield seeds from working in agriculture. We can’t allow that to happen--not if we’re serious about feeding the world in environmentally sustainable ways.
 
Biotech and organic alfalfa can coexist right now, but only if we let them and our regulatory system work.
 
Reg Clause raises cattle, corn and soybeans on a fourth generation family farm in central Iowa. He is a Truth About Trade and Technology board member (www.truthabouttrrade.org)
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