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August 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.

Now is the Time for an EU-US Free Trade Agreement

Aug 29, 2013

 By Dean Kleckner:  Des Moines, Iowa

 
Corn flakes are one of the most popular breakfast foods in the world—and 15 years ago, Norway banned them.
 
Technically, its government outlawed the importation of corn flakes that were fortified by vitamins and iron. Officials at that time claimed that Norwegians didn’t need the extra nutrition.
 
It was an absurd case of protectionism, obvious to all and eventually overturned by a court. In the meantime, however, it disrupted the flow of ordinary trade, frustrating to both producers and consumers.
 
I believe it is important that we do what we can to avoid this nonsense in the first place. That’s exactly what a good free-trade agreement between the United States and the European Union would accomplish. The movement of goods and services across the Atlantic Ocean is currently worth almost $1 trillion per year. With fewer barriers, that value would rise. And what might be most important of all, for the first time in a long time, the European leadership appears committed to negotiating and completing a comprehensive agreement.
 
I’ve been involved in trade talks for decades, both as a participant and as an observer. The Europeans appear more eager than ever to come to the bargaining table. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what The Economist said earlier this year: "A free-trade pact has never had such support in the chancelleries of Europe."
 
U.S. negotiators must seize this rare opportunity to push ahead on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP).
 
A majority of Americans already support more trade with the EU: 58 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. In Europe, however, even bigger majorities want the same thing: 75 percent of Italians and 65 percent of the British. Seven out of ten Italians and British even back the complete elimination of tariffs between the United States and Europe, along with more than half of Germans and Poles.
 
These positive attitudes have many sources, beginning with Europe’s weak economy. Lawmakers around the world are looking for ways to stimulate growth without spending taxpayer dollars. Trade is an attractive and viable option. Moreover, the collapse of the Doha round of world trade talks has encouraged leaders to look for new ways to bring down barriers.
 
"We intend to move forward fast," said European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso of TTIP talks in June. "Huge economic benefits are expected from reducing red tape, avoiding divergent regulations for the future."
 
On top of that, anti-Americanism in Europe is receding. Just five years ago, only 42 percent of the French had a favorable view of the United States. Today, that figure is 69 percent. Polls of Germans and Spaniards also show dramatic reversals in attitudes.
 
There are plenty of challenges. Some look easy to resolve, such as Europe’s insistence that imported cherries show no evidence of brown-rot fungus, as well as separate proof that growers have employed field controls to prevent the disease. Cherries traded within Europe don’t have to meet any of these standards.
 
Other differences will be more difficult. The EU currently bans pork produced with ractopamine, a feed additive commonly used in the United States. It also restricts chicken washed with water that includes chlorine, another routine—and safe— U.S. practice.
 
Europe’s non-scientific approach to food safety represents one of the deepest divisions between the two sides—and one of the greatest aggravations for Americans, whose food-safety standards are both first rate and more accepting of new technologies. For years, Europe has used food safety as an all-purpose excuse for protectionist policies that exclude U.S. products from its markets.  I’ll never forget when the Europeans required U.S. workers to wear white rubber boots in U.S. slaughter houses that wanted to export meat to the EU.  Not red or black or green boots – white boots – just like the workers wore in European slaughter houses.
 
The most significant challenge, however, may be the acceptance of biotechnology as a tool in crop production. Europe has refused to join the Gene Revolution that has transformed agriculture around the world, allowing farmers to grow more food on less land. All the while, many of its officials have maintained a maddening posture of extreme sanctimony. A lot of them know better, and will say so in private conversation.
 
So the present moment may provide an opportunity not only to conclude a trade agreement with Europeans who are ready to make a deal, but also, perhaps, to nudge the EU toward a more sensible, science-based approach on technology.
 
This may be a once-in-my-lifetime opportunity. Let’s take advantage of it.
 
Dean Kleckner is Chairman Emeritus for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Food Labels Maxed Out!

Aug 22, 2013

 

By Carol Keiser:  Belleair, Florida

 

Do our food labels need warning labels? 

The purpose of a food label is to help consumers make smart decisions about what to buy and eat.

But what if these labels confused people instead of informed them? Or worse yet, what if labels actually misled consumers? 

That’s the problem with legislation introduced in Congress earlier this year to require special labels for food with genetically modified ingredients. Offered by Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the bill threatens to hoodwink the public.  

It would fool people into worrying that perfectly safe food poses a health hazard. 

Suddenly, our food labels would need warning labels: "Believe the contents of this label at your own risk." 

The dangers of deceptive labeling aren’t a speculative assertion, but rather the main point of a recent paper by Juanjuan Zhang, a marketing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Mandatory disclosure of GMOs in food products lowers consumers’ perceived GMO safety," she writes in "Policy and Inference: The Case of Product Labeling." 

Zhang’s research reveals that the mere act of labeling food that contains GMOs is deceptive. It causes consumers to suspect that GMOs are dangerous, even though the safety of biotech food is beyond reasonable doubt, as organizations ranging from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization have determined.  

To arrive at her conclusion, Zhang conducted a clever experiment. She approached 200 people in several settings: in grocery stores, at a college dining hall, and outside a food truck that serves organic fare. Then she separated participants into two groups. The first received a statement that said the U.S. government does not require labels on food with GMO ingredients. The second saw a statement about proposals to require special labels for food with GMO ingredients. 

Then Zhang asked both groups to rate the safety of GMOs on a scale of 1 ("totally unsafe") to 5 ("totally safe"). 

Her observations were striking. People in the first group had a favorable view of GMOs. They gave GMOs a mark of 3.62—considerably more safe than unsafe. 

People in the second group, whose experience was meant to approximate reading a label on food package, rated GMOs at 2.65—i.e., substantially lower than the first group. 

The different responses are entirely logical. Consumers assume that if GMOs are safe, there’s no need to label them. If they see labels, however, they imagine that there must be something unsavory about GMOs.

Supporters of the "just label it" movement like to talk about "the right to know." Yet Zhang’s scholarship shows that consumer behavior is more complicated than a political slogan. Labels possess the power to mislead. That means our lawmakers must mandate them sparingly, and not just because a few special interest groups want the federal government to help them obtain a competitive advantage in the food market.

If Congress fails to resist the politicization of food labels, our food labels no longer will carry basic information in a simple format. Instead, they will begin to resemble long and complicated legal disclaimers—the kind that nobody reads, let alone comprehends. 

So here are a couple of alternative mottos: Less is more. Keep it simple. These should be guiding principles behind the rules of food labeling.

I’m not just a food producer. I’m also a mother and a grandmother. When I shop at the store and decide what to put on the dinner table for my family, I depend on accurate and reliable labels. I don’t want labels that push me away from safe and healthy food.

I trust scientists and food experts: GMOs are safe. They are part of a proven technology and have become a conventional part of agriculture. We eat them every day. I also appreciate that they’re environmentally friendly and highly sustainable, helping us grow more food on less land.

Despite all this, some people really do want to avoid GMOs. The good news for them is that they already have an option: They can buy food that’s labeled "organic." This way, they can be certain that their food contains no GMO ingredients.

Congress should reject this scheme to contaminate our food labels with distorted information. Maybe copies of the Boxer-DeFazio legislation should carry a special label for lawmakers: Caveat emptor, or "Let the buyer beware."

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). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Missing the Export Goal

Aug 15, 2013

 By John Rigolizzo, Jr.:  Berlin, New Jersey

 

As a New Jersey farmer, I remember and have been publicly supportive of President Obama’s export promise in 2010.  And I’m not alone, joined by business owners and leaders, farmers, ranchers, manufacturers and retailers across the country. 

"We need to export more of our goods," he said in his second-ever State of the Union address. "So tonight, we set a new goal: We will double our exports over the next five years." 

As recently as 18 months ago, the president announced with pride that "we’re on track to meet that goal ahead of schedule."

Today, however, with the self-imposed deadline just a year and a half away; he doesn’t mention his export target anymore. It seems to have "vanished from White House talking points," observed Tom Raum of the Associated Press last week. 

That’s because we’re going to fall far short of meeting President Obama’s objective.

Since 2010, exports have increased by only about one-third. Adjusted for inflation, they’ve been ever weaker, growing by just one-quarter. If they continue at the current clip of 3.3 percent annual growth, they’ll total only about $200 million per month in 2015, says Mark J. Perry of the American Enterprise Institute. 

Instead of doubling, as President Obama pledged, exports will have risen by merely 40 percent. 

We should never take growth for granted. Yet it’s also a disappointment.

What accounts for this missed goal? One important factor is outside the administration’s control: The global economy is stuck in a rut, which means that foreign customers aren’t buying American products as much as they might. Economic slowdowns around the world from China to Europe continue to hurt the U.S. export economy and there’s only so much a politician in the United States can do about it.

To complicate matters, we’re measuring exports in terms of dollars rather than by volume.  Dollar value is important, but it’s also vulnerable to fluctuations in commodity markets and inflation. Volume is a better indicator of export health, and sadly we’re struggling in this area as well.  On August 12, the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) released their latest monthly report, stating that this year "corn exports are projected 25 million bushels lower with reduced domestic supplies and increased foreign competition."  What does that mean:  Lower volume and lower prices equals less trade and fewer dollars at home. That impacts all of us. 

We can do better.  The President’s goal to double exports is worth fighting for. Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Likewise, it’s probably better to have come up short against an ambitious export objective than never to have stretched for it in the first place. 

Yet President Obama’s dedication to the expansion of America’s export markets is an open question. His three great victories—congressional approval of free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea two years ago—were the initiatives of his predecessor. The President deserves praise for seeing them through, but he’s now in his second term and his administration has yet to ink a free-trade pact with anyone. In many cases, the White House has seemed more interested in sparking small-scale trade wars with the likes of Canada, our most important trading partner, than breaking new ground. 

The administrations trade diplomats are hoping to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an accord that one day could include Japan as a trading member. They’ve also just started trade negotiations with the EU, hoping to forge the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Success with either would go a long way toward meeting the goal to significantly increase exports and cement President Obama’s free-trade legacy.

Even with the best intentions however, the president won’t get far without Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). This important legislative trade tool will allow the White House to negotiate free-trade agreements and put them before Congress for an up-or-down vote. Since the 1970s, when TPA, also known as "fast track", was first used, every president has enjoyed this advantage for at least part of their presidency---except for President Obama. 

Congress allowed TPA to lapse six years ago amid partisan wrangling and has yet to restore it, in part because the Obama administration hasn’t been aggressive enough in asking for it. Although there was some hope that Congress would approve TPA this summer, it’s now clear that nothing will happen until this fall at the earliest.

My apologies to the makers of alphabet soup, but without TPA there won’t ever be a TPP or a TTIP—and export growth will continue to let us down. 

In the future, we’ll all be better off worrying less on promises and focusing more on results.

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.

Biotechnology's Prospects in the Black Sea Region

Aug 08, 2013

 

By Bill Horan:  Rockwell City, Iowa

Around the world, we hear stories of agricultural progress, as more countries join the Gene Revolution. In 2012, Cuba and Sudan planted biotech crops for the first time. This year, Bangladesh—which has the world’s eighth-largest population—will make the leap as well.

In one country, however, we see a unique case of agricultural regress: Romania, which I visited earlier this summer. It’s the only nation on the planet to take part in the Gene Revolution and then drop out. But not by choice… 

Romania’s farmers want back in—and the story of GM crops in the Black Sea region may be instructive as the United States and the European Union try to negotiate a free-trade agreement and find common ground on the thorny question of genetically modified crops.

The goal of my two-week study trip, sponsored in part by the Iowa Farm Bureau, was to examine the grain potential of Romania and Ukraine, with a focus on how their productivity will impact markets.

Eastern Europe is still recovering from the legacy of Communism, and many Western Europeans consider it a backwater. Yet Romania defied the stereotype in 1998, as GM crops became available. On a continent hostile to GM food, it became a Gene Revolution pioneer, utilizing the technology that allows farmers to grow more food on less land.  

GM corn and soybeans grew in popularity and appeal with Romania’s farmers; just as they have everywhere they’ve been adopted. Then politics intruded. Lawmakers banned virtually all GM farming in 2007 so Romania could become a member of the EU, which has been relentlessly hostile to farm biotechnology.

In 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Romanian farmers grew more than 335,000 acres of GM soybeans. By last year, this number had plunged to almost nothing. 

Romanian farmers didn’t choose to abandon GM crops, but were forced to give them up. Many have switched to growing low-priced grains such as barley, rye, and wheat—and wish they could go back to the old rules, when they enjoyed the freedom to plant what they wanted.

Today, Romania cannot allow its own farmers to grow the crops their country needs—but it imports soybeans, including GM soybeans. This surely raises the price of food for ordinary Romanians, where per-capita income is less than $13,000 annually, according to the International Monetary Fund. That’s only a little more than one-quarter of per-capita income in the United States. 

Ukraine is in a different position. It’s not a member of the EU, though officially it shares the EU’s anti-biotech attitudes and bans GM crops. Unofficially, however, it recognizes the benefits of biotechnology. My hosts estimated that about 70 percent of Ukraine’s soybeans and about 30 percent of its corn are the beneficiaries of genetic modification. 

How do they do it? Perhaps they smuggle in seeds. In the case of soybeans—but not corn—they may be able to save seeds from one year to the next.  

Yet the "how" is less interesting than the "why." Ukrainian farmers break their country’s laws and grow biotech crops on the sly because they know this technology improves food production. Apparently the government is willing to look the other way.

It made me wonder: How many other European countries grow GM crops off the books? 

The answer is unknowable. It won’t show up in any official figures, after all.

The fact that we can ask the question, however, undercuts the myth that European farmers don’t want to have anything to do with GM crops. Clearly many of them do—and they’re willing to take risks to do it. 

For what it’s worth, farmers in both Romania and Ukraine believe that they’ll have access to GM crops in the next five or ten years. The advantages are so obvious, they think, that widespread acceptance is inevitable. 

Inevitability should not become an excuse for complacency. As U.S. and EU trade representatives negotiate a free trade agreement, more European farmers should speak up and explain why biotech acceptance is important to them—and know that a lot of their European farmer neighbors will cheer them on, even if only in secret.

 

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.

India's Farmers Wait as Bangladesh Embraces Biotech Brinjal

Aug 01, 2013

By Rajesh Kumar:  Salem, India

 

Many people in India view our neighbors in Bangladesh with a measure of pity. They inhabit an overcrowded, less-developed country whose citizens earn less than half our per-capita income. Massive floods are a seasonal terror. Man-made woes also curse them, including the Savar building collapse in April. It killed more than 1,100 people in the deadliest structural failure in modern history. 

In one important regard, however, Bangladesh is embracing technology and will jump ahead of India: It’s about to allow the planting of genetically modified brinjal, a staple vegetable that many people around the world call eggplant.

Growers in Bangladesh will become the envy of India’s farmers. We desperately want to access GM brinjal, but our government won’t let us have it – and now a committee of our Supreme Court has just called for an indefinite moratorium on field trials for new GM crops. Farmers in the Philippines have experienced similar frustrations. 

So Bangladesh is embracing a bright future at a critical moment for global food security: Experts say we need to double food production by 2050, and the tool of biotechnology offers one of the most promising hopes for achieving this goal.

Bangladesh is now moving in the right direction. By becoming the first country to commercialize GM brinjal, it will discover the advantages of growing more food on less land—an excellent benefit in a country with incredible population density. Only tiny states such as Monaco, Singapore, and Vatican City pack more people per square mile into their borders. Bangladesh is the most crowded place on the planet. 

This puts cropland at a premium, and means that Bangladeshi farmers must do everything they can to boost output as they try to feed more than 150 million people in the world’s 8th-most populated nation. Right now, Bangladesh harvests more than 380,000 tons of brinjal per year, according to the Bangladesh Agriculture Research Council. Soon, these farmers will grow even more of this vegetable, which is an ideal crop for developing countries because it’s good to eat and relatively inexpensive to produce.

I’ve grown non-GM brinjal on my farm for many years, so I know the challenges that it presents. The pests are terrible. Fruit and shoot borers can reduce a crop badly or destroy it entirely. Up to now, pesticides have offered the only way to cope. We spray every fifteen days on my farm. Some farmers actually overdo it, applying pesticide more frequently, due to ignorance or anxiety. This creates problems for workers in fields and families in kitchens.

Biotechnology can change all this. By using the same safe and proven technology that has transformed agriculture for so many around the world, brinjal can fend off the bugs on its own, leading to higher yields, healthier vegetables, and lower costs. This helps farmers and consumers alike. 

The Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) has developed four kinds of GM brinjal, based on local varieties and with the assistance of scientists at Cornell University and USAID. After seven years of testing in greenhouses and fields, BARI has submitted its products for government approval, which should arrive soon.   

When this happens, Bangladesh will become the 29th country to allow GM crops. Three countries in south Asia already grow GM cotton: India, Myanmar, and Pakistan. Bangladesh will be the first to permit a food crop to take advantage of the biotech tool.

India could have been first. Scientific committees appointed by our government had ruled GM brinjal safe and ready. Then our politicians reacted to the protests of environmental extremists and anti-biotech activists. In 2010, to the severe disappointment of farmers who understand this technology and consumers who hope for inexpensive food, it banned GM brinjal.

There are signs that New Delhi may be rethinking its harmful opposition, even as our Supreme Court pays too much attention to protestors. At a forum sponsored by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in July, President Pranab Mukherjee saluted biotechnology as a tool to improve India’s food production: "Development and introduction of genetically modified crops has the potential to revolutionize agriculture," he said. 

I am hopeful these words will translate into actions.  I and India’s farmers must ask the Indian government to follow Bangladesh’s lead. In the meantime, the actions of Bangladesh give us hope that biotechnology may continue to flourish—and that India soon will move forward as well.

 

Rajesh Kumar farms 120 acres in two regions of India, using irrigation to grow brinjal, sweet corn, baby corn, tomatoes and other vegetables. He sells fresh produce directly to consumers through kiosks at several locations and runs a food processing unit for canning of vegetables.  Mr. Kumar is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network and recipient of the 2012 TATT Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement award (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

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