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March 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.

No Labeling Needed When Consumers Know the Whole Truth

Mar 28, 2013

 By Ted Sheely: Lemoore, California


Shop at Whole Foods. Spend your Whole Paycheck.

That’s the popular description of the upscale grocery store. Last year, in a Consumer Reports survey, Whole Foods tied with Jewel-Osco as America’s most expensive supermarket.

Now its prices almost certainly will go up.

Whole Foods announced on March 8 that starting in 2018, it will require labels on all items in its stores that contain genetically modified ingredients.

The Austin, Texas-based chain is a private company making a business choice. It has the right to stock certain goods and not others. If it wants to insist on labels for GMO foods, then it may do so.

The rest of us can exercise our own rights--including our right not to shop there. Demanding special labels on GMO products won’t just make grocery-store bills rise, it will also spread misinformation about safe and nutritious food.

Whole Foods wants consumers to think of its stores as places where health-conscious people shop. Its slogan is "where great tasting food is only natural." This marketing strategy has led to incredible success. With 339 stores now operating in the United States and Canada and more on the way, Whole Foods is one of the fastest-growing food retailers on the planet.

"We are the first national grocery chain to set a deadline for full GMO transparency," says a press release. "We will work [with suppliers] as they transition to sourcing non-GMO ingredients or to clearly labeling products with ingredients containing GMOs."

The only problem--other than the added expense, which surely will be passed on to shoppers--is the profound misperception. There’s no nutritional difference between food with GMO ingredients and food without, so labels can’t convey useful consumer information. In fact, labels will send the opposite message, hinting that a problem exists when this simply isn’t true.

GMO foods are safe to eat. That’s the conclusion of every scientific and regulatory agency that has studied the question, from the American Medical Association to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the World Health Organization. 

A few days after Whole Foods announced its new policy, the editorial page of the New York Times--one of the most liberal newspapers in the country--voiced its skepticism. "There is no reliable evidence that genetically modified foods now on the market pose any risk to consumers," it said. "For now, there seems little reason to make labeling compulsory."

The Times went on to make a common-sense suggestion. Consumers who are determined to avoid GMO foods already may do so. They can select organic food, whose federally certified labels already mark products that don’t contain GMO ingredients.

Even people who do this, however, should not operate under the illusion that organic food is healthier than conventional and more affordable varieties.

Last October, a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics said that organic food and non-organic food are nutritionally equivalent. The key is to eat a balanced diet.

A month earlier, Stanford researchers published their own report that showed much the same thing. "Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious," said Crystal Smith-Spangler of Stanford’s medical school. "We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that."

Perhaps Whole Foods should require labels that say: "May contain GMO ingredients, not that it matters." Or: "Don’t pay high prices for organic food because it isn’t any better for you."

Then again, that would undercut Whole Foods’ very reason for being.

In a grand irony, Whole Foods criticized food labeling last fall, when Californians voted on Proposition 37, which would have mandated special labels for foods with GMO ingredients. Initially, Whole Foods backed Prop 37, but the chain also publicized its "reservations," due to "consumer confusion" and "costly litigation", ultimately ending its support of the ballot initiative.

Prop 37 was a bad idea that would have raised grocery-store bills and enriched trial lawyers. At first, polls indicated that the measure would pass. In the end, following a public-education campaign, voters had the good sense to reject it. 

That’s what happens when consumers know the Whole Truth.

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

Trade Barriers: An Unnatural Disaster

Mar 21, 2013

 By Tim Burrack:  Arlington, Iowa

Late is better than never: President Obama finally has requested that Congress grant him Trade Promotion Authority, a power he should have requested long ago.

The United States simply cannot pursue an effective trade agenda without a president who has the ability to bargain with other countries and send each proposed trade deal to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

"Such authority will guide current and future negotiations, and will thus support a jobs-focused trade agenda," says a new report from the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. 

Now Congress must do its part and approve TPA as soon as possible. Democratic senator Max Baucus of Montana and Republican congressman Dave Camp of Michigan are already working on the legislation.

And instead of giving TPA an expiration date, as in the past, they ought to propose making TPA permanent. That way, our country’s trade policy won’t fall hostage so easily to partisan bickering. 

Congress not only has the right but also the duty to oversee U.S. trade practices. What it absolutely should not do, however, is try to tamper with trade diplomacy. Our partners want to negotiate with a single entity: the U.S. trade representative, acting on behalf of the president. They don’t want to haggle with 535 members of the House and Senate.

Bad things happen when Congress gets too involved in trade policy. We’re seeing the expensive results right now in a maddening new controversy over ractopamine, a feed additive that helps livestock produce lean meat.

Ractopamine is safe, widely accepted, and approved by all of the appropriate U.S. and international regulatory agencies. Farmers like me have been using it for years in cattle and hogs. It helps us supply good lean, healthy meat that consumers ask for at affordable prices.

Last month, however, Russia decided to block imports of U.S. meat from animals treated with ractopamine. Moscow claims a scientific rationale for its ban, but its real motive is retaliation: It seeks revenge against members of Congress who have tried to pressure Russia on its human-rights abuses in return for its support as a member of the World Trade Organization and preferred trading status with the U.S. 

Let’s not kid ourselves about the situation in Russia. Freedom House, a non-profit watchdog group, classifies that nation as "not free." Its people lack civil liberties that most Americans and other Westerners take for granted.

Who pays the price for Russia’s sins? Not Russian oppressors, but American farmers. In the wake of Russia’s ractopamine retaliation, we’ve seen hog prices plummet. They fell even further when China followed Russia’s lead, for its own geopolitical purposes.

The actions of Russia and China have cost American meat producers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost exports this year. I’m already feeling the financial squeeze here in Iowa.

This is an unnatural disaster for America’s heartland. It’s like an anti-stimulus bill that sucks the economic life from a vital sector. To make matters worse, ordinary Russians aren’t any better off. 

The impulse to help Russians is a good one. As Congress tried to put its idealism into practice, however, it gave birth to a painful unintended consequence. Because of congressional meddling, American farmers now suffer from the sorry state of human rights in Russia. It almost defies logic. 

Yet it provides a powerful illustration of why the president needs TPA. Without it, trade agreements get bogged down in the minutiae of congressional agendas over everything from labor conditions to the environment. 

TPA preserves the ability of Congress to accept or reject trade pacts, but it also gives the executive branch the authority to reach sensible deals that will create jobs and boost exports. 

It’s an indispensable tool for achieving consensus on common objectives.

President Obama has ambitious trade goals for his second term. He has committed himself to a huge increase in exports between now and 2015. He hopes to complete the Trans Pacific Partnership, a big round of talks that could improve trade ties between the United States and Pacific Rim nations, most notably Japan. The President also has pledged to push for a trade agreement with Europe--a deal that promises to jump start economies on both sides of the Atlantic.

In asking for TPA, President Obama has taken a very important and necessary step. Now Congress must act and approve TPA permanently—for this president and the ones to follow.

Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a NE Iowa family farm.  He serves as Vice-Chairman and volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

A Moral Weight for the Agricultural Tool of Biotechnology

Mar 14, 2013

 By John Rigolizzo, Jr.:  Berlin, New Jersey


As Catholic cardinals selected Pope Francis in Rome on Wednesday, we watched an ancient church at its most medieval: obedient to tradition, cloaked in secrecy, and waiting for white smoke. The papal conclave appears positively anti-modern. 

Yet in another sense, the Vatican stands in the vanguard of science and technology. It’s one of the world’s strongest supporters of genetically modified crops. 

Many of us are still trying to learn about the new pontiff. We know a few things already. He is not only a man of faith, but also science--a chemist, by training. He’s from Argentina, whose farmers rely heavily on GM crops. And he professes a concern for the poor, who have the most to gain from 21st-century food production.

Farmers of all religious persuasions should take comfort from these views. "He will be able to better understand the Latin American continent--not only the poverty and the exclusion, but also the wealth of these lands," said Eugenio Lira, secretary-general of the Mexican Episcopal Conference, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

I’m a cradle Catholic. Maybe you’ve heard our inside joke: I didn’t choose it; I was forced into it.

Growing up, I went to Catholic school. I’ve given my own kids a Catholic education, at least when I could afford it--and when I couldn’t, I’ve regretted the result. Our family eats fish on Fridays, even when it’s not Lent. 

Catholicism has been an essential part of my life. 

And that’s why I was so heartened several years ago to learn of my church’s stance on GM food.  

In 2009, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which advises the Holy See on scientific questions, organized a conference on farm biotechnology. It soon came out with a ringing endorsement: "There is a moral imperative to make the benefits of genetically engineered technology available on a larger scale to poor and vulnerable populations who want them, and on terms that will enable them to raise their standards of living, improve their health, and protect their environment."

Ever since I started growing biotech crops more than a decade ago, I’ve believed much the same thing. I saw the outstanding benefits of these plants with my own eyes: All of sudden, we were able to produce more food on less land. This was great for farmers, consumers, and conservation.

The advantages of GM crops seemed, for lack of a better word, miraculous.

They were certainly a blessing. As we produced an abundance of food, we became better able to help the needy here in New Jersey. A group of us formed Farmers Against Hunger. Biotech crops gave us a powerful new tool to generate surplus food and turn it into meals for our neighbors.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences understood the possibilities. Although its report didn’t amount to an official church teaching, it gave moral weight to the case for GM crops. 

"We urge those who oppose or are skeptical about the use of genetically engineered crop varieties and the application of modern genetics generally to evaluate carefully the science, and the demonstrable harm caused by withholding this proven technology from those who need it most," said the academy. 

Vatican City may be tiny in size--at 110 acres, it’s smaller than my farm--but it’s also a sovereign state. In Europe, no government has a more advanced and charitable view of how to defeat hunger and malnutrition. 

Not that the Vatican has a lot of competition. The European Union’s disapproval of GM crops is both ignorant and tragic. It’s bad enough that farmers in France, Italy, and Poland can’t grow GM crops the way we do in the United States and throughout the Western hemisphere. It’s even worse that European attitudes still shape the policies of many former European colonies, especially in Africa. 

Because of Europe’s unscientific views, many developing nations have refused to adopt the hunger-fighting, life-saving tools of biotechnology. As a result, people who have the most to gain are undernourished or starving.

The Roman Catholic Church often comes under harsh criticism for its throwback ways. I still remember when our church held Sunday Mass in Latin.

When it comes to the technology of food production, however, the Vatican remains true to its oldest principles while also standing at the forefront of science.

Let’s hope Pope Francis shares this humane vision--and that Europe and the rest of the world join biotechnology’s growing flock.

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 volunteer board member of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

 This column also appears online at USA Today:


What’s the Beef?

Mar 07, 2013

By Hope Pjesky: Goltry, Oklahoma

On a trip to Germany a few years ago, I wandered into the meat section of a grocery store. What I saw astonished me.

The beef section in the meat case was very small and the prices were very high – the price of a very average cut of beef was similar to what we would expect to pay for a prime cut of beef in a very high end grocery store.  It appeared to me that European families had very little choice – in either quality or price – when they purchased beef for a family meal. 

Europeans have no idea what they’re missing. 

It’s just one more reason why Washington must push for a robust free-trade agreement with the European Union. If American beef exports enjoyed better access to European markets, our ranchers and processors would experience a boom of job-creating growth.

President Obama said as much in his State of the Union speech: "Trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs." 

Yet very few are in the beef industry right now. 

It wasn’t always this way. A generation ago, Europe was America’s second-largest market for beef. Within a few years, however, our presence in the grocery stores and restaurants of London, Paris, and Rome plummeted. We went from selling 18 percent of our beef exports to Europe in 1989 to selling just 3 percent in 1994.

Consumers didn’t turn against us, but public perceptions did. Following a series of hormone scandals in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Europeans experienced a period of anti-scientific hysteria, concerned that beef produced from animals that had received growth hormones posed a risk to human health.  

So they banned it. 

The ban was not science-based and not needed: Growth hormones are a safe and conventional element of beef production.  

Growth hormones are in fact an important part of sustainable food production. They allow us to do more with less. Cattle reach their proper weight in fewer days and with less feed, allowing quality to go up and costs to go down.

In Europe, however, ignorance and politics trumped science. The ban went into force and Americans have paid an economic price ever since. 

At first, we turned to the World Trade Organization, which was established in part to adjudicate these types of disputes. The WTO ruled in our favor, observing that there’s no scientific rationale for the ban. It allowed the United States to impose retaliatory tariffs on a range of European products. This was supposed to encourage Europe to come to its senses. 

Two decades have passed, and the EU continues to resist. Its illegal ban on U.S. beef has stayed in place, and the retaliatory tariffs have caused American consumers to pay more than they should for Roquefort cheese and other imports.

We need to try a new approach--and a broad-based free-trade agreement between the United States and the EU is exactly the right forum for dealing with the problem. 

The good news is that although a pact would benefit both sides, the Europeans appear to want one desperately. That means they may be unusually willing to alter their hardline stance on beef, which their officials know to be wrongheaded. 

We’ve already seen at least one initial concession. The EU recently lifted a ban on meat washed with lactic acid, which safely removes contaminants such as E. coli from food. This was another unscientific prohibition of a common practice in the United States

These important steps suggest that larger compromises could come soon. 

In free-trade negotiations, agriculture is usually one of the trickiest sectors--and it will definitely be the toughest part of any deal with the EU. In addition to the ban on beef, we must also confront the EU’s politically (not science or health)-based resistance to biotech crops. 

There is a great price to be paid by all when countries allow non-scientific trade barriers to stay in place. Reduced investment in productivity enhancing technologies and reduced trade between countries are just the tip of the iceberg.  Unless we work together to make sure that politics and perceptions are not allowed to over-ride science, the price for global food security will also go up. 

Right now, however, anything looks possible--and anybody who lays eyes on the meat section of a European grocery store will see how much we all have to gain. 

Hope Pjesky and her family are farmers / ranchers in northern Oklahoma where they raise cattle and wheat.  Hope volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

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