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July 2012 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.

Measuring Global Food Security

Jul 26, 2012

 By John Reifsteck: Champaign, Illinois

The United States is suffering through one of the worst droughts in its history, with the Department of Agriculture announcing earlier this month that more than 1,000 counties across 26 states now qualify as natural-disaster areas. By some estimates, the bone-dry weather could cost farmers and ranchers as much as $50 billion.
On my farm in Central Illinois the effects of the dry weather and high temperature is stunning.  What might have been one of my best crops ever has turned into one of the worst.
It is a serious economic problem for farmers, but it’s not a life-threatening event. We’re not about to witness a famine in the heartland. Crops may fail, but Americans won’t starve to death.
That’s because the United States is the most food-secure country in the world. So says a new report from the Economist Intelligence Unit, which has just released the first edition of the Global Food Security Index, a comprehensive survey on the availability, cost, and quality of food.
If food security were an Olympic event, the United States would take the gold medal. The silver would go to Denmark and the bronze to France.
In reality, there are plenty of winners, including Australia, Canada, Europe, Israel, Japan, and South Korea. Even New Zealand, off by itself on the edge of the world, is the 11th most food-secure country. There are no losers or also-rans in this distinguished club.
This is positively good news--a tribute to the success of modern agricultural methods, which have all but abolished food shortages in prosperous nations. We’re growing more food and safer food than ever before, using 21st-century technologies that were not available just a generation ago.
We overcome the food supply challenges that can be a result of droughts through sheer abundance and availability. If one part of the United States endures poor weather for agriculture, another section can begin to make up the difference through its own productivity. International trade networks also soften the blow: Buying and selling food across borders means that no single region is abandoned to its own fate.
Earlier this year, Michigan’s cherry farmers lost most of their crop, due to an untimely freeze. The state of Washington is stepping up. So are imports from Poland. A year from now, Michigan’s growers will be back on their feet. Most consumers probably won’t even notice that they had stumbled.
When a supply of food is secure, people don’t have to worry about the source of their next meal. One way or another, it will be there--possibly with cherries on top.
Yet food security is hardly universal. Around the world, according to the Global Food Security Index, billions of people lack it. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only Botswana and South Africa enjoy reasonable levels of food security. Their neighbors often live on the brink of catastrophe--and there, a drought like the one now hitting the American Midwest is measured not in dollars lost but in lives destroyed.
Signs suggest that global food security may improve in the near term. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently issued its International Food Security Assessment, which predicts that rates of food insecurity will creep downward between 2011 and 2012. In the decade ahead, the share of the population without adequate food security will drop from 24 percent to 21 percent.
If there’s a drawback to food security, it’s in the encouragement of an unwelcome complacency: the problem of taking food security for granted. We may live in the most food-secure nation in the world, but our country is full of hyperventilating activists who step in front of television cameras and try to terrify us about the perils of our safe, affordable, and abundant food.
We’ve never had it better, but they try to convince us that things couldn’t be worse. We see it all the time, from celebrity chefs who appear unfamiliar with basic nutritional facts to anti-biotech activists who want to frighten voters into approving a costly labeling rule that will drive up grocery-store bills without achieving anything good in return.
Let’s keep things in perspective, and recognize good news when we see it. The United States is food secure--and it will stay that way for a long time, if only we remember how we got here.
John Reifsteck is a corn and soybean producer in western Champaign County Illinois.  He volunteers as a Board Member for Truth About Trade & Technology.   www.truthabouttrade.org

Where’s the Beef From?

Jul 19, 2012

 By Carol Keiser:  Belleair, Florida


"Where’s the beef?" was a catchphrase in the 1980s.

"Where’s the beef from?" is a question for our own times--possibly an important one for consumers, but also one that was starting to do them a big disservice by becoming a job-killing, price-hiking tool of protectionism.

On June 29, the World Trade Organization handed down a final ruling in a dispute between the United States and Canada involving Country of Origin Labeling, also known as COOL. It said the United States can require labels that show the origin of certain food products, but that its existing COOL regulations amounted to an illegitimate trade barrier.

That’s because the rules were needlessly complicated--and so cumbersome for producers that Americans became reluctant to trade with Canadians. Between 2007 and 2011, U.S. cattle imports from Canada dropped by more than half and hog imports fell by more than 40 percent.

Canada is our most important trading partner. Last year, we exchanged almost $600 million in goods and services. By some accounts, about 8 million U.S. jobs depend on trade with our neighbors to the north.

So we should stay on good terms with the Canadians, looking for ways to cooperate rather than antagonize. Yet COOL regulations, imposed in 2009, devastated the Canadian meat industry. It hurt Americans as well, causing the price of our meat to inch up and threatening thousands of meat-processing jobs.

Over the last few decades, the United States and Canada have integrated their red-meat supply chains so closely, it became possible for calves and pigs to be born in one country, raised in another, and made to cross the border again for slaughter.

There are good reasons for so much movement, from local market conditions to the simple unpredictability of the weather. Just last month, we moved one group of cattle from drought-ridden Illinois to Kansas, where there’s more available feed to eat. Sometimes it makes sense to move cattle not across state lines but over the international border between the United States and Canada.

The new COOL rules, however, made it economically inefficient for animals to cross from Canada to the United States. "The law requires that livestock and meat products imported into the U.S. be segregated from domestic commodities throughout the product’s life cycle," write Alexander Moens and Amos Vivancos Leon in a recent report for the Fraser Institute. "This means that if a company that deals with domestic products chooses to import Canadian livestock, the Canadian livestock must be kept, slaughtered, processed, and packed separately from American products."

That’s a lot of paperwork. As a result, Canadian cattle and hogs became too expensive.

There is no health or safety reason for any of this. The motivation is almost entirely protectionist, meant to aid certain special interests at the expense of the greater good.

It’s also sneaky, because it doesn’t look like traditional trade protectionism. A recent issue of The Economist observes that this is a disturbing new trend in the developed world: "An increasingly popular method nowadays is to strangle traders not with high tariffs, which are easy to spot, but with red tape, which is not."

The WTO decision is a victory against red tape and for common sense. Ranchers will find it easier to move their herds. Consumers will see their meat prices drift down.

Going forward, we should pursue harmonization--a linking of rules and regulations that makes it easier for goods and services to cross borders. Imagine binational safety and inspection standards, possibly leading to a COOL-compliant label that says, "Product of the USA and Canada." One day, the system might even include Mexico, with a label that says, "Product of North America."

This may not be appropriate for every area of the economy, but it definitely would work well in mine.

Last December, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper took a step in the right direction, with a joint declaration called "Beyond the Border" that calls for more economic integration.

Now they need to make good on its promise. Our leaders need to show us the beef.

Carol Keiser owns and operates cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Illinois.  She volunteers as a Truth About Trade & Technology board member.   www.truthabouttrade.org

A Costly California Food Labeling Proposal

Jul 12, 2012

 By Ted Sheely: Lemoore, California


The state of California is all but bankrupt--yet professional activists have figured out a way to send us even further into hock, with a costly food-labeling proposition that will appear on the ballot this November.


They want tens of thousands of common grocery-store items to carry special labels that indicate biotech ingredients.


The referendum may sound reasonable on the surface, but it’s really a big mistake. The labels would be an unnecessary waste of money, forcing Sacramento to scramble for new funds from sources nobody has identified and raising the price of everyone’s food bills. And it wouldn’t even improve food safety.


Late last month, Governor Jerry Brown and state lawmakers approved a $91 billion budget for California. It’s full of "risky assumptions," as the headline of a Los Angeles Times news article put it on July 2. CalWatchdog, a Sacramento-based website, called it "a bogus budget using anticipated revenue from passage of hefty new taxes."


The budget assumes that voters will approve a tax-hike initiative this November, raising the sales tax by a one-quarter of a cent and the income tax on top earners. If they don’t, public universities will lose hundreds of millions of dollars and law-enforcement agencies will lose tens of millions.


I don’t know if voters will choose to hike taxes or cut spending, but I’m certain of one thing: California is not in the financial position to take on a major new expense.


That’s precisely what the labeling initiative would be. Suddenly, the state would have to monitor the content of everybody’s food, just to make sure that the correct labels appeared on the right packages. Hiring a small army of bureaucrats to oversee proper enforcement would cost untold millions.


So would the lawsuits. Here’s what the nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office says about the fiscal impact of the initiative: "Unknown, but potentially significant, costs for the courts, the Attorney General, and district attorneys due to litigation resulting from possible violations to the provisions of this measure."


Everybody wants to eat safe food, of course. If we have to pay a little extra, then so be it.


This takes smart regulations. The labeling proposition, however, would create a set of pointless ones.


We eat food with biotech ingredients every day. The vast majority of America’s corn and soybean crops are genetically modified to fight weeds and pests. Hawaii wouldn’t have a papaya industry but for a biotech innovation that allows papaya trees to resist the deadly ringspot virus.


Biotech food has received endorsements from countless governmental and scientific groups, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to the American Medical Association. They all say it’s perfectly safe to eat, and no different from non-biotech food. It’s utterly conventional.


What’s more, consumers who want to avoid biotech food, for whatever reason, already can do so: They simply need to select products that are labeled organic.


If food companies were forced to change their packaging to conform with special rules that apply only to items sold in California, the cost of food production would rise. The companies would pass on these costs to consumers. Trips to the grocery store would become a bit more expensive, all for the sake of labels we don’t even need.


Our society already has too many labels. In California, every gas pump carries a label that warns about the toxicity of what we put into our vehicles. Nobody reads them. They are in fact worse than useless because they create cynicism about the very idea of labels, encouraging us to ignore them all, even the ones we do need.


A number of years ago, Oregonians considered an initiative similar to the one we’ll see on the California ballot. When voters studied the details--and saw an economic analysis that suggested the average family would pay hundreds of dollars in additional food costs--they rejected the plan.


Californians should to the same in 2012. A costly and ineffective labeling law would be a bad idea in the best of times, let alone at a time when our state risks going from broke to broker.


Ted Sheely raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm in the California San Joaquin Valley. He volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade and Technology www.truthabouttrade.org

Propaganda against Agricultural Progress

Jul 05, 2012

 By Bill Horan: Rockwell City, Iowa


If your friend was drinking too many glasses of Jack and Coke, what would you do? Take away the Coke?


That’s the crazy logic behind the smear campaign against a crop that anti-biotech activists have mislabeled "Agent Orange corn." What they’re really trying to do is ban a safe product that you probably used on your lawn this spring.


These professional protestors would like you to think that farmers are about to cover their corn fields with Agent Orange, the infamous defoliant from the Vietnam War.


The reality is utterly different. Agent Orange won’t touch my crops or your food, now or ever.


Researchers have developed a new variety of biotech corn that carries a natural resistance to a herbicide whose abbreviated name is "2,4-D." It promises to become an increasingly useful tool for crop protection, especially as weeds develop greater resistance to other herbicides, such as glyphosate, also known as Roundup.


Before the rise of Roundup, in fact, 2,4-D was the American farmer’s herbicide of choice. When I was growing up, we used it on our farm. Its comeback brings to mind the familiar adage: everything old is new again.


It remains the most commonly used herbicide in the world—registered in more than 60 countries – controlling unwanted broadleaf weeds around the globe. It’s a key ingredient of the weed and feed that homeowners spread in their yards and recreational gardeners put between their vegetable rows.


It was also one part of the cocktail that went into Agent Orange. But if Agent Orange was a Jack and Coke, then 2,4-D was the Coke. The other major component was the Jack Daniels--it was the ingredient that made Agent Orange a potential threat to human health.


A corn plant that carries a natural resistance to 2,4-D is nothing to fear--but the scaremongering enemies of biotechnology, in their ceaseless campaign of misinformation, have let their anti-scientific political agenda trump the truth. They’ve decided to defame this innovation by dubbing it "Agent Orange corn."


I’ll give them credit for one thing: The term has a nice ring to it. An English professor would note the assonance, which is a fancy literary word for a repeated vowel sound, in this case the "o" in "orange" and "corn."


Yet it’s a piece of propaganda--a catchy phrase whose slickness aims to cover up a lie.


The authentic brand name for corn that resists 2,4-D is Enlist. That’s the moniker its makers have chosen as they await approval from federal regulators to sell it as a commercial product. This permission is almost certain to come soon, but the special-interest groups that battle biotechnology are trying to frighten the public into last-minute hysterics.


So they’ve contrived a phony name that doubles as an epithet.


As a farmer who would welcome a new tool to control weeds, I resent this attack. My job is to grow safe, healthy, and inexpensive food--and a corn that resists 2,4-D would be a valuable addition to any farmer’s toolbox of options.


It’s bad enough that the ideological foes of biotechnology want to ban a helpful variety of corn. Yet my irritation with them runs much deeper. As a Marine veteran who served in Vietnam, I loathe this reckless tactic of slurring Enlist as "Agent Orange corn."


The Vietnam War was a difficult moment for the United States. More than 50,000 Americans died in a cause that split our country at the time and remains contentious today. Were you for the war or against it? Did you fight in it or dodge the draft? Whenever the Vietnam War comes up in conversation, we risk opening old wounds.


Yet the enemies of agricultural progress have adopted a plan to try to manipulate our emotions by raising the specter of a controversial chemical that is a part of our past and will have no place in our future.


This isn’t a well-meaning attempt to educate the public or debate in good faith. It’s the deliberate strategy of scoundrels.


Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa.  He served in the US Marine Corp in Vietnam. Bill volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology.  www.truthabouttrade.org

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