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May 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.

Big Sky Hopes

May 26, 2011

By Dean Kleckner: Chairman, Truth About Trade & Technology

 
A place called Big Sky can find room for anything but small ambitions. Yet the Asia-Pacific trade ministers who gathered at this resort community in Montana last week sounded distressingly pessimistic.
 
In a statement joined by U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk, they expressed “collective deep concern” over the fate of the World Trade Organization’s Doha round, adding that “only a major substantive breakthrough” can salvage these global trade talks.
 
Kirk added his own special note of gloom when he said that he was just “reasonably confident” that America’s three pending free-trade agreements would win congressional approval in the near future. He also warned that slow progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) could delay its next important step until 2012.
 
The lack of cheer was unsettling because Big Sky is such a scenic and hopeful setting. I see it each winter on my annual snowmobiling trip to Yellowstone National Park. This is truly God’s country--a place that should brighten spirits rather than darken moods.
 
The despair over Doha is of course old news. Expectations bottomed out a while ago, even though WTO chief Pascal Lamy still shows up at confabs like the one in Big Sky.
 
By contrast, Kirk’s sudden and unwelcome hesitation on the free-trade agreements was a surprise, but also perhaps an honest appraisal given the Obama administration’s latest gambit: The White House says it won’t submit trade deals with Colombia, Korea, and Panama for legislative approval unless Congress first agrees to spend about $2 billion per year on Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a federal program to help workers who lose their jobs due to foreign competition.
 
TAA means well. As with so many government initiatives, however, its effectiveness is questionable at best. The Heritage Foundation has pointed out that the most recent version of TAA wound up subsidizing retirement benefits for companies that had gone bankrupt “no matter why they went out of business.” So TAA doesn’t appear to provide a safety net as much as engage in another round of spending first and asking questions later.
 
As Washington bumps against the debt ceiling, shouldn’t it try a different approach?
 
Even more troubling are the politics of this new demand. Not long ago, President Obama was singing the praises of international trade and boasting of its potential to create new jobs. Yet his continuing inaction speaks louder than his words--and Nebraska Senator Mike Johanns, who is also a former secretary of agriculture, rightly accused the Obama administration of “moving the goal posts” on free-trade agreements that apparently enjoy strong bipartisan support.
 
Once again, Washington holds the common interest hostage to the demands of partisanship.
 
Kirk’s comments on TPP were troubling as well. Right now, nine Pacific Rim nations are formally involved in the trade group. It began with Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore. They were followed by the United States, Australia, Malaysia, Peru, and Vietnam.  The sooner these countries come together, the sooner the U.S. economy will benefit. Delay is the enemy.
 
Expansion of TPP would create one of the world’s most important trading blocs. It would also represent a great achievement for the White House, which has promised to double U.S. exports by 2015 but so far lacks a signature accomplishment in the arena of trade diplomacy.
 
The potential agreements with Colombia, Korea, and Panama were negotiated primarily by the Bush administration. If Obama wants a positive legacy on trade, he has to push for TPP.
 
The good news is that TPP could even become an even larger success than currently advertised.
 
Before suffering from the devastation of an earthquake and tsunami, Japan had indicated its interest in the group. The island nation is now struggling to rebuild, but it still possesses the third-largest economy on the planet--and its political leaders remain committed to the idea of joining TPP, even though their recent ordeal has quieted their public enthusiasm.
 
The United States must fill the silence with a strong voice on trade--one that says the sky is the limit, in Big Sky and beyond.
 
Dean Kleckner chairs Truth About Trade & Technology - www.truthabouttrade.org

Innovative Greening of America

May 19, 2011

By John Rigolizzo, Jr. - www.truthabouttrade.org

 
The trees are turning bright green here in New Jersey, but something is missing: the chestnuts. They used to be everywhere. Now they’re a rarity.
 
Can biotechnology save the American chestnut tree? The early evidence is encouraging--but success will require scientific ingenuity as well as the public’s full acceptance of genetic modification.
 
For Italian families like mine, chestnuts are an important part of our heritage. We simply have to eat them on Thanksgiving and Christmas. We used to roast chestnuts in the fireplace. Nowadays, we stick them in ovens. They taste just as good and they always smell wonderful.
 
Can’t you almost hear Nat King Cole singing about them now?
 
A century ago, billions of American chestnuts filled the forests of the eastern United States. According to one estimate, one out of every four trees in the Appalachians was an American chestnut.
 
Then blight struck. A little more than a century ago, an Asian fungus made its way to our shores and devastated the American chestnut. This native species could not resist an exotic alien predator. By the middle of the 20th century, chestnuts almost had vanished.
 
Today, the American Chestnut Foundation says that its namesake is “effectively extinct,” meaning that although millions of sprouts continue to come up, virtually none reach maturity.
 
A few years ago, I was hunting for mushrooms in a wild area near my home and came across three young chestnuts. I hardly believed my eyes because they appeared to be several years old. They were just starting to produce nuts. A year later, however, they were dead, almost certainly because of blight.
 
Thankfully, a Chinese variety of chestnut possesses a genetic resistance to blight--and researchers have crossbred it with American chestnuts to create hybrids that enjoy better chances of survival. But this is a slow and inexact approach. About 15 years ago, a friend gave me a couple of chestnut trees that were mostly American but also partially Chinese. One still stands and produces nuts. The other died.
 
Today scientists are trying to harness the power of biotechnology and genetic modification to produce robust and resilient chestnut trees. One challenge is that although they know Chinese chestnuts have a natural resistance to blight, they’re still trying to locate the precise genes responsible for this beneficial trait. When that happens, they should be able to transfer these genes into American chestnuts.
 
Other options may present themselves as well. At the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York in Syracuse, a team has experimented with a wheat gene that helps plants fight fungus. Research is ongoing, but in time it could provide a solution to the plight of the American chestnut tree.
 
We’ve already seen how this type of innovation can revolutionize agriculture. Around the world, farmers have taken advantage of biotechnology to grow better crops. Applying this same knowledge to these beautiful trees will deliver a big environmental benefit by boosting biodiversity and combating climate change. Chestnuts grow quickly, which means a gene-enhanced population could recover in the wild and assist with carbon sequestration at the same time. Their nuts are also a good source of food for animals.
 
There’s an economic opportunity, too. Chestnut trees grow tall and straight, making them desirable as timber. A lot of old telephone poles were made from chestnut trees.
 
For farmers, chestnuts are a good cash crop. I’m thinking about planting an orchard of peach trees--and if I do, I’d like to put in a few hybrid chestnut trees as well. Until biotechnology perfects disease resistance, however, I’ll be taking a chance.
 
If I proceed, I’ll have to keep a close watch on the squirrels. They’re helpful to chestnut growers because they’ll signal when the nuts are ready for picking. But it’s not because they want to share. If you see squirrels eating the nuts, you have to act immediately or they’ll clean off a tree in a couple of days.
 
And if you listen closely enough, you may hear them humming about chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
 
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm produces for retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)
 

Royal Skepticism Required

May 12, 2011

By Bill Horan – Rockwell City, Iowa

Prince Charles likes to talk about “sustainability” so much that he used a version of the word 32 times in his speech about farming at Georgetown University last week.
 
I didn’t attend the event because I was too busy planting crops here in Iowa. Commoners have to work for a living, after all. But I did find the time to read the text of his remarks. As I made my way through his address, the Prince of Wales turned me into the prince of wails--I wanted to howl in anguish over this man’s bizarre views of agriculture.
 
The prince loves organic food, which is fine. But he’s wrong to think it can save the world because it’s so inefficient. A recent study by Steve Savage points out that if all farming in the United States went organic, we would need to add an amount of new cropland almost equal to the size of Spain to make up for the lower yields.
 
This is the very definition of “unsustainable”.
 
Who is this guy to lecture anybody on sustainability? Prince Charles flew to the United States on a private jet and traveled around Washington, D.C. with an armada-sized motorcade. As a reporter for the Washington Post noted puckishly, the engine of his SUV was left running while he was inside Georgetown’s Healy Hall.
 
Prince Charles was of course fresh from the lavish wedding of his son Prince William to Catherine Middleton. Perhaps you were one of the billions of people who are said to have watched the ceremony on television. What you may not have seen was the estimated price tag: $33 million. The Daily Mail, a London newspaper, called it “the most expensive security event staged in Britain.”
 
Say what you will about royal nuptials. They may be beautiful fairy-tale moments that dazzle imaginations or they may be the retrograde functions of an elite class that doesn’t deserve its privileges.
 
Whatever your opinion, let’s agree on a simple observation: Royal weddings are definitely not exercises in sustainability.
 
So when His Royal Highness decides to condemn my own way of farming as not sufficiently sustainable, I bring a little skepticism to the table.
 
Our fundamental dispute involves a conflict of visions. We have different ideas about what sustainable farming means.
 
On one of his many estates in England, the prince oversees an organic farm that puts out oaten biscuits, herbal tinctures, and other products. Here on my family farm in Iowa, I grow staple crops by using the tools of modern food production. One of them is biotechnology because genetically modified plants offer so many benefits, such as increased yields, protection against soil erosion, and a reduction in greenhouse gases.
 
Yet the prince insists that biotechnology “is not a genuinely sustainable form of agriculture.”
 
I’m happy to let Prince Charles pursue his hobby farm in Merrie Olde England. I just wish he’d extend the same courtesy to me and other farmers in the developed and the developing world as we try to meet the enormous demands of a hungry planet.
 
Farmers everywhere should enjoy the fundamental freedom to farm. That means allowing us to make our own choices about what to grow and how to grow it.
 
Some, like Prince Charles, may choose organic options, especially if they want to meet a market demand among upper-income consumers for more expensive food. Most of us, however, prefer to produce large amounts of affordable crops for everyday grocery-store shoppers.
 
In a dynamic economy, there’s a role for all of us.
 
Unfortunately, the prince disagrees. It’s galling to hear him praise “an economic model built upon resilience and diversity” and “policies which encourage more diversity”--and then, in the next breath, claim that my method of farming is all wrong.
 
Apparently diversity is wonderful as long as everybody does things the prince’s way.
 
In his speech, Prince Charles called for an approach to agriculture “that is capable of feeding the world with a global population rapidly heading for nine billion.” He’s right about that, though he should keep up with his news clips because shortly before he spoke demographers at the United Nations said that the world’s population will swell beyond 10 billion.
 
The point to remember, of course, is that this is a significant number. As the 21st century progresses, more people will demand more food. Satisfying them will require cutting-edge technologies--and that means letting farmers embrace a future of scientific innovation, rather than scorning them for refusing to hang on to old ways.
 
Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa. Bill volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade and Technology www.truthabouttrade.org

Plan B: A Global Trade Bunt

May 05, 2011

 

 
Back when I was a full-time farmer, I would trade in my used John Deere tractor for a new one every four or five years. I would bargain with my dealer. Sometimes I made out well. Other times he drove a hard bargain--and I had to take what I could get.
 
The trade diplomats behind the Doha round of world trade talks have bargained for nearly a decade--and now, at long last, they find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to take what they can get.
 
They’re calling it “Plan B.” That’s just another way of admitting what a lot of us have said for a while now: Doha, at least in the sense that it was originally conceived, is dead. The 153 members of the World Trade Organization simply won’t come together on an ambitious agreement any time soon.
 
Fundamentally, there’s a lack of political will--and when there’s no will, there’s no way.
 
The vacuum in leadership has made it impossible to achieve consensus on issues of substance. It’s difficult, of course, to get 153 people to agree on anything--and getting 153 countries to agree on complicated matters such as agricultural tariffs and subsidies is even tougher. A lot of interests are at stake and they feel threatened by change.
 
But it starts with leadership--and Doha has lacked a champion.
 
Another factor may be skewed expectations. Most rounds of trade talks are named after a person or a place, such as the “Kennedy round” (for John F. Kennedy, Jr.) and the “Uruguay Round” (after the country that hosted that round’s first ministerial meeting). The Doha round follows in this tradition--it’s named after the capital of Qatar, the site of opening negotiations in 2001.
 
Yet its full name is the “Doha Development Round” or the “Doha Development Agenda,” and there’s always been the assumption that these talks would focus on developing countries. This was probably a mistake because it led many developing countries to believe that they wouldn’t have to make meaningful concessions--some of them seemed to think this would be a charity round in which they would receive much and give next to nothing.
 
That’s not how trade diplomacy works.
 
The bottom line is that Plan B is a salvage operation that abandons the lofty aspirations of ten years ago and seizes upon what it can get right now. It means that agriculture may be off the table, along with import taxes on manufactured products such as cars and machinery. Instead, the WTO will seek agreement on a small-bore agenda that includes creating a more unified set of customs standards and limiting subsidies for the fishing industry.
 
It’s hard to get excited about this plan, but at this point there isn’t an obvious alternative--except, perhaps, for another ten years of pointless chatter in Geneva and elsewhere.
 
In baseball, sometimes it makes sense for a batter to bunt the ball and let the infielders throw him out. If he can advance a runner, it can be a worthwhile sacrifice. Well, the Doha debaters stopped swinging for the fences a long while ago. A strikeout is a definite possibility. Perhaps the time has come simply to put the ball in play and pocket a small gain.
 
Greater progress can come later. Mitt Romney, a likely U.S. presidential candidate, recently suggested one possible form it might take: He proposed the advent of an alternative to the WTO, an organization that would hold its members to a “higher standard” on matters such as intellectual property rights.
 
That’s a bold idea, but probably even more difficult to realize than what the Doha round first sought to achieve. At least he’s talking about international trade. His comments hint at a desire to step up to the plate and lead.
 
In the meantime, those already charged with the responsibility to lead will have to make the best of a bad situation--and Plan B sounds a lot better than no plan at all.
 
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology www.truthabouttrade.org
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