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January 2013 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.

Trading Up For a No-Cost Economic Stimulus Program

Jan 31, 2013

By Bill Horan:  Rockwell City, Iowa 

U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk confirmed last week that he’s leaving Washington for the private sector. He deserves praise for the Obama administration’s major achievement on trade: final approval of free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea that had been negotiated by President Bush and his trade representatives but languished in Washington for years. 

These three deals are already helping the U.S. economy by making it easier for Americans to sell goods and services abroad.

Complacency now becomes a danger. Exports have fueled America’s sluggish economy for several years, but they’ve slowed down in recent months. As President Obama begins his second term, he must first find a new trade diplomat and then push for new trade pacts.

An excellent opportunity awaits across the Atlantic Ocean: The White House should actively pursue a U.S.-European Union free-trade agreement, which would benefit Americans directly but also improve conditions around the globe.

Three years ago, President Obama announced his National Export Initiative, promising that U.S. exports would double in five years. Initial signs suggested that he might make good on this pledge, as exports expanded by about 11 percent in 2010. Yet they’ve dropped ever since, to less than 7 percent in 2011 and, according to the latest figures, less than 4 percent in 2012.

At this rate, we’ll fall far short of the administration’s goal.

The president will blame the lousy world economy, and he’ll have a point. Yet there’s no reason to admit defeat--and in a poor climate, developing an aggressive trade agenda that helps Americans export goods and services becomes even more urgent.

Together, the United States and the EU are responsible for almost half of the world’s GDP. We already trade a lot: Trans-Atlantic trade is worth more than $900 billion annually. Yet we can do even better. The European Commission believes that an ambitious agreement could boost trade by 50 percent.

Generating that much economic activity would be like passing a stimulus program. And it wouldn’t cost our debt-ridden government a penny. Simply by lowering tariffs on both continents, new trade would generate business, creating opportunities for entrepreneurs and jobs for workers.

The alternative is to do nothing--and doing nothing isn’t free. It could prove costly. Last year, U.S. exports to the EU actually declined by about 1 percent. Without positive action, we may see more stagnation rather than growth.

Agriculture often poses problems in large trade deals, and it would be no different with the EU. Yet a comprehensive agreement could do enormous good, not just for farmers in the United States, who would sell more of what they grow, but for people in the developing world.

One of the issues that will need to be covered is the acceptance of biotechnology as an acceptable tool of agriculture production.  I believe a good trade agreement would require the EU to accept more food with GM ingredients--a common phenomenon throughout the Western hemisphere, but distrusted in Europe due to anti-scientific prejudice.

The good news is that most thinking Europeans know that biotechnology makes sense. European regulators have declared it safe. A growing number of scientists speak out on its behalf. A month ago, British environmental activist Mark Lynas announced his support for GM crops. 

Robust trade talks could provide the spark for Europe to lower its resistance. This would benefit people everywhere, in ways that the dollars and cents of trade figures fail to capture.

Modern food-production methods, including biotechnology, allow each U.S. farmer to feed 147 people. This amazing efficiency lets more non-farmers devote their energy and creativity to other projects--everything from pioneering vaccines to inventing the next cool mobile-phone app—instead of spending their day providing food for their own family.

Europeans should want this benefit for themselves, and they should hope it spreads into Africa, which looks to Europe for economic and political leadership. Global food and nutritional security depends on Africa to realize its full potential as a breadbasket, and increased acceptance of GM crops is one of the tools that should be available. 

None of this will happen without political leadership.  

President Obama’s immediate task is to appoint a new trade representative--a figure who will command respect in foreign capitals. Former Republican Senator Richard Lugar, who has a good relationship with the president, might be an inspired choice. 

Then comes the hard part, but also the most important part: Thinking big on trade.

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 and serves as Chairman for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).  Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Canadians Have a Right to Know: Technology is a vital part of our food security

Jan 24, 2013

 By Cherilyn Nagel:  Mossbank, Saskatchewan, Canada

 

The best thing to happen for Canadian food last year took place in California.

Voters there rejected Proposition 37, a badly flawed ballot proposal that would have required special labels for food that may contain genetically modified ingredients.

For years, anti-biotech activists here in Canada have talked about pursuing a similar scheme. They’ve blogged about it on their websites and have campaigned against modern agricultural methods. They haven’t made much headway, in part because so few people buy into their non-science alarmist arguments.  

The results of Prop 37 should encourage these protestors to give up: Labeling GMO’s wouldn’t make food any safer, in California, Canada, or anywhere.

But extremists can be immune to facts-- including the fact that over 1 billion meals with GMO technology have been eaten around the world, with not a single reported case of negative human health effects.

Mandatory labeling would only serve to increase the cost of food production.  In the United States, the pro-label radicals are already pushing a new initiative in the state of Washington, neighboring British Columbia.

Let’s hope this bad idea doesn’t slip across the border and force us to endure our own political fight.

Agriculture is one of the great engines of the Canadian economy--and much of our success in recent years comes from advances in technology that allow us to grow more food on less land.

On our farm in Saskatchewan, we’ve grown GM canola for almost 10 years. There are obvious advantages for us on the farm, but this technology benefits all Canadians. Boosting our productivity keeps food prices down and helps protect the environment.

Anti-biotech activists seek to turn back the clock on this progress. They fail to see the science behind the benefits. They want warning labels to demonize ordinary products, reduce consumer confidence, and hurt an entire industry, even as food and health organizations around the world have endorsed the adoption of GM crops.

For me, the issue is personal. I have two young daughters, and we feed them what we grow on the farm. That includes food with GM ingredients. As a parent, I’m very comfortable feeding my children food produced from GM crops.  But I’m inundated with anti-biotech propaganda while shopping at the grocery store. I’m irritated by irrational labeling… like "GM Free" stickers on products that don’t even have a GM counterpart. Thanks for the "warning!" Parents have enough to worry about these days when feeding our families, we don’t need more unsubstantiated fear tactics.   

In 2002 the Hudson Institute found that organic and "natural" food products were eight times more likely to be recalled or suffer other food safety problems, compared to their conventional counterparts.  Those who are concerned about food safety should turn to science. Most of us with children in the public school system are faced with the issue of food allergies. If all the lobbying dollars being thrown at anti-biotech campaigns were diverted to science, perhaps we could remove the protein that causes peanuts to be allergens, or address the root of lactose intolerance. 

The enemies of biotechnology love to talk about the publics "right to know." I agree wholeheartedly: The public has a right to know that biotechnology is an essential part of our food security in the 21st-century. Biotechnology warning labels shouldn’t be a part of it, especially here in Canada. Warning labels should be reserved for allergens and other real food safety concerns.

Thankfully, the tide of public opinion is turning in Canada.  Citizens are starting to realize the value of this new technology – whether it’s lower food costs, improved soil conservation or reduced use of scarce resources.

The outlook for GM technology continues to be bright.   Future applications promise to use fertilizer more efficiently, help grow crops under drought conditions or improve the nutritional profile of crops.  Biotechnology in the future means growing more with less.   It also means creating healthier food.   This is the legacy that I want to leave to my children.  

Cherilyn and her husband own a diversified grain farm in Mossback Saskatchewan, Canada.  In addition to farming, Cherilyn is active in many agricultural policy initiatives to improve the sustainability of agriculture and advocate for modern agricultural practices. Cherilyn is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).

Science Helps Mark Lynas Change His Mind

Jan 17, 2013

 By Ian Pigott:  Harpenden, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom

 

"There is nothing that an intellectual less likes to change than his mind, or a politician his policy," says the British writer Theodore Dalrymple. 

Mark Lynas is both an intellectual and a political activist—hence his recent decision to change his mind is so notable. Earlier this month, he announced his conversion from foe to enthusiastic supporter of genetically modified crops.

I was in the room when Lynas revealed his change of heart whilst delivering the Frank Parkinson Lecture at this year’s Oxford Farming Conference. His talk deserves a wide audience here in the UK, where we are not allowed to grow the modern crops that farmers in the Americas and elsewhere take for granted.

For years, Lynas has been one of the world’s leading environmental campaigners. He’s best known for his work on climate change. One of his books, "Six Degrees," won Britain’s most prestigious award for science writing. It was also turned into a documentary for National Geographic, narrated by the actor Alec Baldwin and watched by millions. 

When he wasn’t talking about climate, Lynas often could be found protesting GM crops. He was not merely an extremist who wrote newspaper articles against 21st-century agriculture but also a militant who set about damaging GM crop trials.

This destructive activity, says Lynas now, "is analogous to burning books in a library before anyone has been able to read them."

Lynas calls the effort to spread malicious propaganda against GM crops "the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with."

Now he regrets it.

"I want to start with some apologies," he said at the beginning of his remarks. "I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment."

Instead of yanking GM crops from the soil, says Lynas, true environmentalists should seek to plant more of them.

"The GM debate is over," he said. "We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe. Over a decade and a half with 3 trillion GM meals eaten, there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food." 

He went on to explain why GM crops are good for the environment: They allow us to produce more food on limited land, shrink our carbon footprint, and reduce our reliance on chemical sprays.

In one respect, Lynas said nothing new. As a farmer who devotes 15 percent of my land area to environmental stewardship, creating habitats for birds, mammals and pollinators, I too believe that we could enhance biodiversity and reduce our environmental footprint if we grew biotech crops.

Yet Lynas is different. We know from history that convert’s opinion can wield much greater influence—so a one-time environmental activist could become one of the greatest advocates for modern farming methods.

Lynas said in his speech that he first began to have doubts about his opposition to GM crops by reading the online comments to his newspaper columns.

Readers encouraged him to look more closely at the science of biotechnology. "I discovered that one by one, my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths," he said. 

If the discussion over GM crops were approached by the public, intellectuals and policy-makers with the honesty and open-mindedness of Lynas, I believe they would soon realize that its role is pivotal to feeding our growing population in a sustainable and environmentally sensitive way.

Ian Pigott runs a diversified farming business in Harpenden, UK.  Located just 20 miles from the centre of London, he grows wheat, oilseed, rape and oats in rotation. The farm is a LEAF (linking environment and farming) demonstration farm.  Ian is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org)

Salmon-Lovers Unite: Help Science Trump Politics

Jan 10, 2013

 By Ted Sheely:  Lemoore, California

 

If you enjoy the taste and healthy benefits of salmon, and appreciate that it is available to you, you may want to share your thoughts with the federal government as soon as possible.

Why?   Because the Food and Drug Administration just declared that genetically modified salmon "is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon," and they are looking for your feedback.

As soon as next year, salmon could become more abundant and less expensive, meaning that salmon lovers will enjoy this heart-healthy food more easily and often.

Before that can happen, however, GM salmon must overcome the harsh opposition of radical anti-biotech groups. This should not have to be a concern. Unfortunately, it is, and failure would deliver a devastating blow not just to a safe product, but also to the very idea of improving our food security with biotechnology.

On December 21, the FDA released an extensive report on GM salmon and opened a 60-day comment period for citizens and organizations to register their opinions. Think of it as the final jumps in a long regulatory salmon run. As this phase proceeds, officials should hear an important message: Consumers know GM salmon is safe and look forward to eating it.

Developed by a Massachusetts company, GM salmon grows to market size in half the time. It achieves this feat by blending the genes of Atlantic salmon with a growth gene from a Chinook salmon and an anti-freeze gene from an ocean pout. 

In every other respect, this is an ordinary salmon: It tastes the same and it’s just as healthy. Because the introduction of fishery-raised GM salmon will remove pressure from wild stock, it’s even good for the environment. We’ll have more salmon on our grills as well as in our seas and streams.

I have a special interest in wild salmon because I own a fishing lodge in Alaska. We depend on salmon to thrive in their natural habitat.

Fortunately, GM salmon pose no threat. For starters, they’re sterile and can’t mate. They’re also confined to indoor containers. One of the major test facilities was built in the mountains of Panama, on the theory that even in the unlikely event of a catastrophe; the cold-dependent GM salmon would perish in the regions warm and muddy waters. Similar safeguards would accompany any commercial production.

Because so much care has gone into their advent, GM salmon are on the verge of becoming the first genetically improved animals approved for food consumption. 

It’s about time. The regulatory-approval process started long ago. The first GM salmon was created in 1989, during the first Bush administration. The FDA got involved 17 years ago, during the Clinton administration. As Jon Entine recently pointed out in a detailed investigation for Slate, the online magazine, the Obama administration was ready to issue its approval last year but dragged its feet for political rather than scientific reasons: It wanted to avoid a pre-election controversy. 

The good news is that the FDA is finally letting science trump politics. As Entine points out, however, there is much more at stake than the fate of a single food product: "North America has become a dead zone" for investment in genetically enhanced animals, due to the strangling effects of political red tape.

James Murray of the University of California at Davis recently developed a goat that produces milk with a special protein that prevents diarrhea—an advance that could save lives in the developing world, especially among children. Yet as Entine reports, Murray has moved his research to Brazil. "When you don’t have a regulatory pathway forward and the government doesn’t support research in this area, what company will invest in this field?" he asked. "None."

Traditionally, the United States has led the world in biotechnology regulatory approval. If GM salmon suffers new setbacks, however, we’ll fall further behind—at a time when China is investing hundreds of millions of dollars into transgenic animals.

During the comment period, Americans should say they believe in biotechnology and want more of it. 

Since the national elections, Washington has focused almost exclusively on debt and taxes. Yet the fiscal cliff isn’t our only challenge: We’re also confronted by a kind of regulatory waterfall, in which the rushing rapids of politics smash great ideas and proven concepts.

GM salmon may survive, despite the long and unnecessary delays. The next innovation may not be so lucky.

Ted Sheely raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm in the California San Joaquin Valley. Ted and his sons own Rainbow King Lodge on Lake Iliamna, Alaska.  He volunteers as a board member of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)

Decoding Wheat’s Genome: Separating wheat from chaff at the genetic level

Jan 03, 2013

By Terry Wanzek:  Jamestown, North Dakota 

It may be the greatest thing since sliced bread. Heck, it may be even better than sliced bread.

Several weeks ago, researchers announced that they had tapped into key parts of the wheat genome. With this success, we could be on the path to doubling wheat production and increasing food security for people around the world. 

That’s an awful lot of sliced bread.

It also marks one of several important milestones in the history of wheat, a plant that currently accounts for around 20 percent of all calories consumed by humans.

About 8,000 years ago, farmers domesticated this staple crop. This agricultural innovation may have led to human society’s transition from hunting and gathering to settled production and the rise of civilization.

Almost 2,000 years ago, the Gospel of Matthew gave us one of our best-known idioms, about separating the wheat from the chaff.

And today, scientists are exposing the secrets of wheat’s genetic makeup.

The formal announcement came in Nature, the academic journal. Scientists from the United Kingdom led the effort, joined by collaborators in Germany and the United States. One member of the team hails from my home state: Dr. Shahryar F. Kianian, a geneticist at North Dakota State University.

Wheat may look like a simple plant, but its biology is astonishingly complex. Wheat is comprised of three different grasses; it has an enormous genome of about 95,000 genes, which is roughly five times larger than the human genome.

So decoding wheat’s genome is a long and laborious task. In Science, the researchers described their approach, called "shotgun sequencing." They break the genome into pieces and look for patterns, allowing them to learn more at a faster pace.

It’s like separating wheat and chaff at the genetic level.

Their paper was written for an audience of peers, scientists with advanced degrees. Yet their conclusion points to a practical application: "Analysis of complex polygenic traits such as yield and nutrient use efficiency will also be accelerated, contributing to sustainable increases in wheat crop production."

In ordinary English, that means we’ll soon grow both more and better wheat.

This advance hardly could have come at a more fitting time. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that global farmers grew 681 million tons of wheat in 2011. Only corn and rice had bigger harvests. 

Amid this modern bounty, droughts have caused the price of wheat to bounce up and down, creating economic and political instability. Many experts trace the recent tumult in the Middle East—including the ongoing civil war in Syria—to a sudden spike in the cost of wheat and other foods.

Wheat is a hardy plant that can grow in semi-arid environments. This helpful trait accounts for much of its usefulness and popularity. Ironically, the plant’s toughness also puts it on the front lines of climate change. When droughts strike, wheat often feels the pressure first.

By taking advantage of wheat’s genome, we can apply the same tools of biotechnology that have launched a global revolution in agriculture. In the United States and many other parts of the world, the vast majority of corn and soybeans is genetically enhanced to fight weeds and pests.

With wheat, biotechnology can help us take a plant that already makes efficient use of moisture and build increased drought resistance right into its fundamental makeup. This will make wheat even more durable during dry spells.

This is an essential development, if we hope to keep up with global population growth and also make sure that people enjoy access to affordable food. Geneticist Michael Bevan of the John Innes Center in the United Kingdom put the matter bluntly in the Wall Street Journal: "We need to double wheat yields."

Decoding wheat’s genome is an indispensible step on the way to meeting this vital goal.

At some point, perhaps one of these brainy scientists will do us all a favor and insert a special trait into the next generation of wheat plants: One that bakes the bread and slices the loaves at the same time.

Terry Wanzek is a wheat, corn and soybean farmer in North Dakota.  He serves as a ND State Senator and volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).

 

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