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Sep 16, 2014
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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.

An Illinois Farmer Adds His Voice in a Message to EPA: Ditch the Rule

Sep 11, 2014

 By Dan Kelley:  Normal, Illinois 

 
A comedian once asked why we drive on parkways and park on driveways.
 
Let me tell you about another semantic mystery: waterways.
 
They aren’t always what they seem either—and yet they’re at the center of a new push by federal regulators to gain more control over farmland and other pieces of private property.
 
The confusion began earlier this year. "We’re proposing a Clean Water Act rule that clarifies which waters are protected—with an eye toward those critical waters upstream," wrote Gina McCarthy, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, in March.
 
Whether the proposed rule clarifies anything is an open question. Presented jointly by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, it takes up 88 pages of small print in the Federal Register.
 
Those 88 pages of obscure technicalities and administrative legalisms may provide clarity for bureaucrats. For the rest of us, however, they’re as murky as a swamp.
 
And that brings us to "waterways."
 
When people read that word, they think of moving bodies of water: rivers, streams, creeks, and so on. Yet this is not what they are, or at least not what farmers mean when we use the word. To us, "waterways" are intermittent channels that fill and flow during torrential downpours.
 
So that’s the first thing to know about "waterways": They’re almost always dry. They become wet only once or twice a year, when the rain falls so heavily that the soil can’t absorb all of the moisture. The result is runoff—and the rise of a temporary "waterway" that carries the water downstream, before drying up again.
 
A well-maintained "waterway" is an important part of sustainable agriculture. It prevents soil erosion and helps us grow more food on less land. We work hard to make our "waterways" work well, mowing them several times each summer and reshaping them with earth-moving equipment every three to five years. Most start out as natural features that follow the contours of the land, but almost all are improved by human intervention.
 
Out of habit, we continue to call them "waterways," but they are probably better understood as "erosion-control structures."
 
The main objective of the proposed rule is to let the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers exert greater authority over the country’s water supply, including seasonal streams and wetlands. Officials insist that their aims are limited, but farmers like me are skeptical. We’re worried that as regulators apply their new rules, they’ll define "waterways" in a manner that allows them to reach onto our farms, disrupting our safe practices and making it more costly to grow food.
 
This could become a case study in the law of unintended consequences: Well-meaning regulators try to clarify the meaning of "waterways," but wind up raising the price of food without improving anybody’s health or safety. Moreover, if the regulatory burden of "waterways" grows too heavy, it will create perverse incentives for farmers to become less concerned about the threat of soil erosion.
 
A couple of weeks ago, one of my Senators—Mark Kirk of Illinois—met with a group of farmers in my area to learn more about the proposed rule. I had the opportunity to show him one of the "waterways" on my farm. It looks like a grassy path, about 30 feet across, and lined on both sides by stalks of corn. As we stood in the middle of this "waterway," I explained its purpose. The whole time, our feet stayed dry.
 
There’s nothing like firsthand observation. With that in mind, I’d like to invite regulators from the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to visit my farm as well—and to discover that "waterways" may not be what they imagine them to be, when they write their rules from their offices in Washington, D.C.
 
We all want clean water. We also want common-sense regulations that allow farmers and others to go about their work in ways that are both economically and environmentally sustainable.
 
Joining others across the US, I am adding my voice in a direct message to the EPA: "Ditch the Rule".  Let’s have rules that protect our lakes and rivers and other important bodies of water—and let’s leave these "waterways" out of it.
 
Daniel Kelley grows corn and soybeans on a family farm near Normal, IL. He volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Science Lesson Learned: Science is in almost every mouthful of food we eat

Sep 04, 2014

 By John Rigolizzo IV:  Berlin, New Jersey

 
Science class in high school hasn’t taught me much about farming, but working on my father’s farm has taught me a lot about science.
 
I’m receiving my formal education at St. Joseph High School in Hammonton, New Jersey, where I’m just now starting the 10th grade and playing offensive line on the JV football team. At the same time, I’m earning an informal—but equally important—education on our family farm.
 
This spring, I planted all of our corn and some of our soybeans. Over the summer, I protected them from weeds. We’ll harvest soon. Along the way, I’ve learned practical lessons about hard work as well as the need to keep fields clean and crops in straight rows.
 
I’ve also received hands-on lessons in science. You might say that science is in almost every mouthful of food we eat. It was certainly in every seed I put in the ground. The corn and soybeans we choose to plant on our farm are genetically modified to fight weeds, pests, and drought.
 
A lot of people seem to think farming is like tending a garden, only bigger. They don’t realize that this is no hobby – it’s a business. Advanced science is at the core of modern agriculture.
 
When many of us think of biotechnology, our minds turn to test tubes and lab jackets. Mine turns to tractors and fields. In reality, biotechnology occurs every day in nature, under a different pseudonym:  adaptation. I’m a biotech adopter, and I’ve gained a basic understanding of how genetically modified crops work and a genuine appreciation for why they matter.
 
From the earliest times, people have tried to create the best ways to feed the masses. This has always involved genetic modification. When ancient farmers noticed that a certain crop survived a dry summer or resisted a harmful pest, they recognized that it possessed special properties. Through crossbreeding, they tried to make these desirable genes pass down from one season to the next.
 
Although they failed much more than they succeeded, they also enjoyed great accomplishments.
 
Consider the case of corn. Today, it’s one of the most instantly recognizable crops, growing taller than most people stand and producing big cobs full of kernels that we feed to livestock and love to put on our own dinner plates.
 
Thousands of years ago, there was no such thing as corn. There was only a wild grass called teosinte, and it produced just a few kernels per plant. Countless generations of Mesoamerican farmers—Aztecs, Mayans, and others—went to work. Across the centuries, they transformed teosinte into the modern corn crop.
 
Similar stories could be told for just about everything we cultivate.
 
Old-fashioned breeding was a bit like playing the lottery: Mostly you lose, though occasionally you win. Today, we have the scientific know-how to win more often and in less time. We can make big improvements from one growing season to the next, not needing to wait decades or longer. In a sense, we’re still playing the lottery, but biotechnology rigs the odds in our favor.
 
We can also perform crossbreeding exercises that are beyond the reach of conventional biology. The way to defeat the citrus-greening disease that presently threatens to wipe out Florida’s entire orange industry, for example, may lie in the DNA from spinach.
 
Some people talk about farm biotechnology as if it tries to harness powers we barely understand and produces plants that glow in the dark. This is beyond silly: Scientists know what they’re doing and farmers know what they’re planting.
 
Because of these advances, we’re growing more food on less land than ever before. We’re also saving the papaya in Hawaii, discovering ways to insert extra nutrition into the rice paddies of Malaysia, and searching for methods that will help coffee growers protect their beans from fungus in Colombia.
 
I probably wouldn’t know any of this but for farming: I’ve learned about the past and future of agriculture from farmers like my dad.
 
I don’t know if I’ll be a full-time farmer when I grow up—I have a lot of time to decide—but I’d definitely like to keep our farm in the family’s hands. One thing is for sure: If we’re serious about feeding the world and making agriculture a viable profession for young people to enter, we must embrace biotechnology and all it can do for us.
 
John Rigolizzo IV is entering the 10th Grade at St. Joseph High School in Hammonton, New Jersey.  He works on the family farm in Berlin, New Jersey. Johnny is the youngest member of TATT Board member John Rigolizzo’s family and the newest addition to the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Best Crop Ever is a Modern Technology Success Story

Aug 28, 2014

 By Bill Horan: Rockwell City, Iowa

 
After 40 years of farming, I think I’ve finally gotten it right: I’m about to produce my best crop ever.
 
I won’t have the numbers to prove it until we harvest in another month or so, but it looks like our farm in Iowa will yield corn at a rate of 240 bushels per acre, up from a 10-year average of about 187 bushels per acre.
 
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that American farmers will grow more than 14 billion bushels of corn, an all-time high.
 
Good soil and good weather explain a lot of our success. Yet the difference-making ingredient is the man-made miracle of technology. The genetics that help our crops grow and thrive benefit farmers and consumers alike.
 
I’ll be the first to admit that some of our success this summer is pure luck. We’ve enjoyed humid days and cool nights, which are ideal for growing corn. A little bit like us, corn goes through 24-hour cycles of work and rest. This year’s conditions have let corn convert sunlight to energy during the day and then recover at night.
 
Farmers also have to work hard—and unlike the corn, we’re not genetically programmed to flourish. We need to learn from our labor and strive to improve.
 
In his book "40 Chances", Howard G. Buffett says that most farmers will live through 40 growing seasons—and so they’ll have 40 chances to get better at what they do. I’ve now had my own 40 chances, and the most important thing I’ve learned is that our biggest improvements come from technology.
 
The genetics behind our seeds allow us to grow bumper crops in years like the one we’re in. They also boost performance in more stressful years, when the nights are too hot or the days too dry. Root systems are much larger than they were a generation ago, helping our corn stalks stand tall against the high winds that can blow them over.
 
I’ll never complain about the kind of good weather we’ve enjoyed this summer, but it’s important to note that good weather for crops also can mean good weather for harmful pests. Through technology, however, we’re able to fend off the bad insects as never before. Instead of relying on crop-protection tools that wipe out even the beneficial bugs, we can breed plants that resist the destructive ones specifically.
 
Bumper crops excite farmers, but they make us anxious, too. The laws of economics say that large supplies lead to lower prices—and right now, corn is cheap. This is excellent news for consumers. Corn goes into thousands of every-day grocery-store products, often in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. We use corn for oil, sweeteners, and livestock. Inexpensive corn means less expensive food.
 
It also means cheaper gas because we transform corn into ethanol. This year’s huge harvest should end the food vs. fuel argument. We can produce plenty of both.
 
Nobody wants prices to drop so low that farmers struggle. One of the best ways to help farmers is to promote exports. We already ship about one-third of our corn to other countries. Yet we can always send more, and our federal officials play an important part in making this possible.
 
This year, for example, we’re on track to sell more than 130 million bushels of corn to Colombia, comprising about 95 percent of that country’s corn market, according to the U.S. Grains Council. Our brand-new dominance is a direct result of a free-trade agreement negotiated by the Bush and Obama administrations and approved by Congress three years ago.
 
We need more trade agreements, starting with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact that would drive the sales of goods and services to customers around the Pacific Rim. We would all also profit from upgrading our infrastructure, which lets us move food by road, rail, and river.
 
I won’t have another 40 chances to keep on improving, but I do plan to farm for a bit longer. With better trade and technology, I intend to keep on getting things right—and to have my best crop ever a few more times.
 
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.

Oregon’s Measure 92 Would Mandate Labels That Tell Us Nothing New

Aug 21, 2014

 By Mark Wagoner:  Touchet, Washington

 
It feels like déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra might say.
 
That’s my initial thought upon hearing that Oregon voters will consider Measure 92 this fall. It’s a ballot initiative to require special labels for foods with genetically modified ingredients.
 
It’s also a bad idea that will cost too much and won’t work—and voters in the Pacific Northwest, upon realizing these facts, have rejected versions of it before.
 
I’m a farmer in Washington’s Walla Walla County, but my land also crosses the border into Oregon. I grow alfalfa seed on about a hundred acres in the Beaver State. So although I’m a resident of Washington, I also pay income and property taxes in Oregon.
 
I’m connected to Oregon in lots of other ways as well. My daughter lives in Portland. I cheer for the Blazers. One of my favorite bars is the Waterhole Tavern in Umapine.
 
I wish I could vote with you in November; as an Oregon tax payer I’d love to cast a ballot against Measure 92.
 
Then again, I voted against it last November, when it went by a different name: In Washington, a majority of citizens voted down Initiative 522, another attempt to slap expensive and misleading labels on our food.
 
On first glance, a lot of people support special labels for GM foods. Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, after all.
 
Once you think about it, though, this idea isn’t so good. There is good evidence to show it will raise prices in grocery stores and fail to provide useful information.
 
That’s why the people of Washington said no to labels last year. California voters rebuffed a similar effort the year before that. So did Oregon voters way back in 2002, when more than 70 percent opposed Measure 27.
 
Let’s look a little closer at Measure 92, this latest misguided effort.
 
If you like paying high prices at grocery stores, you’re going to love Measure 92, because its labeling requirement will force food companies to repackage just about everything they sell. Last year, the Washington Research Council, a think tank, estimated that special labels would raise the food bill of ordinary families by about $450 per year.
 
That’s a lot of money—and it might even be worth it, if the added expense delivered essential information. Yet the labels that Measure 92 hopes to mandate would tell us virtually nothing.
 
We eat GM food everyday, either directly or as the ingredients of ordinary products. On my farm, I grow GM alfalfa seeds—and these seeds become the plants that other farmers feed their livestock.
 
Farmers like me prefer GM crops because they allow us to grow more food on less land. On my farm, I work hard to grow excellent crops – healthy plants in weed-free fields - that will turn into nutritious, tasty and affordable food, usually by way of dairy cows that produce milk and ice cream. If you’re a believer in sustainable agriculture, this is an important goal—and exactly the sort of practice we should encourage.
 
Unfortunately, labels would have the reverse effect. They’d drive consumers to fear what’s in their food.
 
And there’s no reason they should. Groups ranging from the American Medical Association to the National Academy of Sciences have endorsed the health and safety of GM foods.
 
Some consumers may want to avoid GM foods anyway. The good news is that they can, right now, without the labels that Measure 92 would require: They can buy food that carries the organic label. Under federal regulations, organic foods cannot contain GM ingredients. Moreover, a number of popular non-organic products, such as Cheerios, already label themselves voluntarily as GM-free.
 
So think about what Measure 92 would accomplish: It would raise the prices of ordinary grocery-store products, provide information that won’t help you make better decisions about what you eat, and duplicate efforts already underway.
 
When Washington voters faced their own version of Measure 92 last year, they initially supported the idea. That’s what the polls showed. As they became better informed, however, they came to see the proposal as the bad solution to a non-problem. And so they voted against it, along with previous majorities in California and Oregon.
 
Let’s hope Oregon’s electorate learns the lesson about labels once more. Here’s another piece of wisdom commonly attributed to Yogi Berra: "If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up someplace else."
 
Mark Wagoner is a third generation farmer in Walla Walla County, Washington where they raise alfalfa seed.   Mark volunteers as a Board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

We Do Not Need a Precautionary Approach for U.S. Wildlife Refuges

Aug 14, 2014

 By Tim Burrack:  Arlington, Iowa

 
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service did a huge disservice to science, wildlife and modern agriculture last month, when it banned the planting of genetically modified crops in the National Wildlife Refuge System.
 
"We make this decision based on a precautionary approach to our wildlife management practices," wrote James Kurth, head of the refuge system, on July 17, according to the Associated Press.
 
Did you catch the key word? It’s one of the most loaded terms in the vocabulary of regulation: "precautionary."
 
On the face of it, "precautionary" sounds reasonable. While crossing the street, it makes sense to take a "precautionary approach." Better safe than sorry.
 
In the jargon of government, however, "precautionary" carries a special meaning. When bureaucrats speak of a "precautionary approach"—or the "precautionary principle," which is a more common way to put it—they’re usually trying to justify the suppression of a new idea or technology as too hazardous.
 
We all want sensible regulations, of course. Yet we also know that regulations are often insensible, thwarting the interests of the public they’re supposed to serve. Have you ever filled out a pointless form? Or wondered if it’s a crime to remove a mattress tag? And don’t get me started on the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to control the amount of dust that farmers kick up as they drive their tractors.
 
For all of these inconveniences, however, the United States has avoided the predicament of Europe, where the "precautionary principle" has become a powerful force to strangle innovation. This is why Europe remains so far behind the United States, Canada, Brazil and many other countries in the area of agricultural biotechnology. Over there, obsolete regulations continue to oppose new technologies, even though the safety of GM foods is settled science.
 
Mr. Kurth’s "precautionary approach" raises an alarm: He’s not speaking the language of science or common sense, but rather adopting a bad phrase that has bedeviled Europe.
 
We don’t need it here. Our trade negotiators don’t need it either. Banning GM crops in certain areas is no way to persuade China, Japan, and other countries to accept our food exports.
 
It may seem odd that the chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System should feel the need to say anything at all about farming. Crops aren’t "wildlife" and a cultivated field is no "refuge."
 
Farmers plant GM crops in some wildlife refuges with a specific purpose: They are better for the animals and the environment. The stronger stalks and larger corn ears provide more food for the wildlife during the deep snows of winter.
 
Yet Kurth has introduced a new prejudice into America’s web of farming regulations. He has granted the presumption that GM crops are too novel, too mysterious, and too risky to allow their use in some of the country’s most pristine spaces. He can cite no actual science to back up his bias—but then, the "precautionary approach" never has been about science. It’s about emotion defeating reason and fear trumping evidence.
 
If Kurth believes that GM crops pose a threat, he should have the gumption to say so plainly and present his evidence—and not hide behind words like "precautionary."
 
The evidence in support of the health and safety of GM crops is in fact overwhelming. That’s why the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences—among many other groups—have supported the spread of biotechnology in agriculture.
 
Let me introduce another piece of evidence, from the very system that Kurth oversees: the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, near Des Moines in my home state of Iowa. It’s the country’s largest recreation of a tallgrass prairie ecosystem—thousands of acres that look as they did when settlers arrived in the 19th century, complete with a thriving herd of buffalo.
 
This wildlife refuge thrives alongside biotechnology. In some areas, farmers grow GM corn and soybeans on one side of the road while badgers, elk, and pheasants wander around the other. The crops and animals coexist, in a model we should admire and emulate rather than doubt and dread.
 
The solution is simple: Let’s throw precaution to the wind.
 
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 and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.
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