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Jul 28, 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.

Biotech Regulatory Delays are Smothering Innovation

Jul 24, 2014

 By Mark Wagoner: Touchet, Washington

 
Brazil didn’t win the World Cup on its home turf earlier this month, but the country’s investment in the needed infrastructure to host the world proved to be a real winner. Today Brazil is beating the rest of the planet in an area that’s less visible but more important long-term: an effective biotechnology regulatory system.
 
No country approves safe crops with the newest ag biotech innovations with more speed than Brazil.
 
Unfortunately, Washington seems to approach the matter like a soccer goalie: It wants to block everything. At least that’s what the current numbers suggest.
 
Just seven years ago, Brazil and the United States needed about the same amount of time to review new products in agricultural biotechnology: Brazil took a little less than 600 days and the United States took a little more. Brazil was more efficient, but at least the two countries were in the same ballpark—or on the same soccer pitch.
 
Brazil, however, has worked hard to improve its methods. Since 2010, it has needed an average of just 372 days between first application and final approval. That’s a year and a week.
 
Meanwhile, U.S. regulators have raced in the opposite direction. They’ve behaved like Tim Howard, the American goalie who set the record for most stops in a World Cup game. Since 2010, they’ve needed an average of more than 1,200 days to approve new products.
 
That’s almost three years.
 
This poor performance gives a whole new meaning to a term many of us casual fans of soccer have come to know: extra time.
 
These delays are killing American competitiveness. And it’s not just Brazil. Two of our other major competitors in food production, Argentina and Canada, are also much quicker to approve biotech traits.
 
This means that farmers in those countries soon will enjoy access to better crop technologies than we possess in the United States.
 
I’ve seen the trouble firsthand on my farm. I grow alfalfa seed—and for years, we’ve been waiting for the federal government to approve an excellent product developed by a consortium of companies, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, and the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, which is a federal agency.
 
It’s called reduced-lignin alfalfa, and it promises an improved product with more yield and less farm work. In other words, fewer harvests will generate additional tons of a plant that’s more digestible for dairy cows. This variety of alfalfa is better in every way. And yes, consumers will benefit too: When we save money in our fields, consumers will save it when they buy milk in their grocery stores.
 
The only thing not to like about reduced-lignin alfalfa is the regulatory bureaucracy surrounding its approval—or, more precisely, its non-approval. This safe and excellent product continues to remain just beyond the reach of farmers, for no reason any of us can understand.
 
Regulatory systems must be science-based and timely. They also must be predictable. Right now, the only thing we can predict about GM crop approvals is that they’ll take far too long. On our farm, we can’t plan what to grow or when to rotate our crops.
 
What’s more, investors are becoming reluctant to devote research-and-development dollars to agriculture. The world desperately needs new ways to produce more food, but biotech-approval delays smother the innovations that might help us meet this essential goal of the 21st century.
 
Earlier this year, Mike Firko, a biotech regulator at the Department of Agriculture, promised to clear up a big backlog of crop petitions by the end of this year. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he was referring to petitions filed before November 2011, which is closer in time to the World Cup hosted by South Africa than the one that just finished in Brazil.
 
The Department of Agriculture has said it should be able to go through an application in 450 days or less. That’s a long time—longer than what Brazil needs right now—but also a tremendous improvement over current practices.
 
When it comes to biotech regulations is it too much to hope that we might keep pace with a country like Brazil? Do we dare hope that we’ll have access to reduced-lignin alfalfa in two years, when the Summer Olympics kick off in Rio de Janeiro?
 
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).
 
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Don’t Judge a Trade Agreement Before it is Negotiated

Jul 17, 2014
By Bill Horan: Rockwell City, Iowa
 
The Japanese call their country the "Land of the Rising Sun." Unfortunately, there are some people in the United States today who want the sun to set on trade talks with Japan before they’ve even had a chance to shine above the horizon.
 
This is a mistake. Nobody should reject a trade agreement they haven’t seen.
 
The current trouble involves the Trans-Pacific Partnership, whose latest round of ongoing talks wrapped up last week. TPP is a promising but complex negotiation that includes the United States, Japan, and 10 other Pacific Rim countries with a combined population of nearly 800 million and a total GDP of about $28 trillion. TPP nations account for about 40 percent of global trade.
 
At a time when the World Trade Organization warns that many countries have done more to protect their economies from competition than to open them—this was the main point of a report issued last month—the United States must push in the opposite direction, negotiating free-trade agreements that create more trading opportunities not less. Our economy may be sluggish, but we need foreign markets: Exports have driven about one-third of U.S. economic growth in recent years.
 
The more we trade, the more we prosper.
 
TPP is ambitious: "The breadth of its agenda is beyond that of any major trade negotiation ever conducted," wrote Clayton Yeutter, a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and U.S. Trade Representative. Talks began several years ago and they’ve already made important progress on a variety of fronts, from intellectual property to environmental regulations. It may be possible to have an excellent agreement by the end of this year.
 
Yet the negotiations are not complete, and a few of the really tough parts still remain on the table. The toughest of all may be Japan’s determination to protect its inefficient but politically potent agriculture sector.
 
Some U.S. farm groups have urged the Obama administration to exclude Japan from TPP unless it agrees to lower its food tariffs to zero. In the Capitol South Metro Station in Washington, D.C.—the subway stop that serves Congress—a poster features a picture of railroad cars. "This train doesn’t stop for one nation," it says. "Japan must accept zero tariffs or jump off."
 
This is a worthy goal. Under zero tariffs, the Japanese would benefit from lower food prices and greater consumer choice. American farmers would enjoy millions of new customers for beef, pork, wheat, and dairy products.
 
Yet we can’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
 
Japan simply may refuse to accept the complete elimination of tariffs. At the same time, our trade diplomats may win important concessions—including concessions that set Japan on a course that could achieve zero tariffs over time.
 
In other words, it’s possible to imagine a historic deal in which Japan opens its markets to more competition than ever before, but at the same time fails to meet an unrealistic though laudable goal.
 
I’m confident our trade negotiators understand that zero tariffs are an excellent objective. At the same time, their critics must accept that something short of zero tariffs could represent a good result that helps American farmers and businesses.
 
The wisest course right now is to impose a moratorium on criticizing the TPP talks. Many of us share the same principles, wanting an agreement that allows as much trade as possible. Now we should let our trade diplomats go to work. When they’re done, we can debate the results—and accept or reject TPP as we see fit.
 
Until then, let’s not attack an agreement we haven’t even seen. It’s like judging a harvest in the spring rather than the fall.
 
And while we are doing that, the lawmakers in the U.S. Congress must focus their energies on the one thing they can to do help TPP right now: They should approve Trade Promotion Authority, allowing Congress to hold up-or-down votes on trade deals. This would send a powerful signal to the "Land of the Rising Sun" that we want TPP to soar high and shine brightly.
 
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).
 
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Honoring a Wheat Scientist who has Helped Family Farmers Improve Their Lives

Jul 10, 2014

 By Hope Pjesky: Goltry, Oklahoma

 
Some nights it’s stressful enough to put dinner on the table for my family. Imagine being responsible for feeding millions of people.
 
That’s the achievement of Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram, announced as the winner of the 2014 World Food Prize. His wheat varieties have boosted global wheat production by 200 million tons.
 
Dr. Rajaram would be a fitting recipient of the World Food Prize at any time, but this year it is even more poignant and appropriate because it also marks the centennial of Dr. Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution. As Borlaug’s successor at CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Rajaram is one of Borlaug’s most accomplished students.
 
Before Dr. Borlaug died five years ago, he praised Rajaram as "a scientist of great vision who made a significant contribution to the improvement of world wheat production, working for the benefit of hundreds of thousands of farmers in countries around the globe."
 
I’m one of them. On our family farm in Oklahoma, we grow a variety of Hard Red Winter Wheat, ideal for bread, which was developed at Oklahoma State University. We plant it toward the end of September and harvest it in June—and the success of each crop makes a big difference in my family’s bottom line.
 
That’s another reason I appreciate the selection of Rajaram this year: The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization has decreed 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming. The work of scientists like Rajaram improves family farming.
 
I’m reminded of Borlaug’s final words: "Take it to the farmer." They were spoken to Dr. Bill Raun, one of his many friends at Oklahoma State University as he was showing Dr. Borlaug the technology his team had developed to help farmers better manage the use of nitrogen fertilizer. Today, the Greenseeker technology is helping farmers around the world cut costs and safeguards the environment.
 
Rajaram has embodied these words his whole life.
 
He started out on a family farm himself—a poor one, in rural India. His parents raised wheat, corn, and rice on a handful of acres. In that time and place, almost nobody received a formal education. Yet Rajaram’s parents were dedicated to their children—and in Rajaram, they saw a special intelligence and drive. So they sent him to school.
 
This was the start of a brilliant career. From the beginning, he was a top student who leaped from opportunity to opportunity. He eventually earned a Ph.D. in plant breeding from the University of Sydney in Australia. One of his professors there had studied with Borlaug in the United States and recommended Rajaram to his old friend. Soon, Rajaram was working by Borlaug’s side in Mexico as a member of CIMMYT’s team.
 
Rajaram was halfway around the world from his humble origins, but he never forgot his roots. He wanted to alleviate the struggles of the other family farmers he knew as a boy. So he worked to create the crops that would help them live better lives.
 
Today, he’s credited with developing 480 high-yielding wheat varieties that resist disease and other stresses. They’ve been grown on more than 100 million acres in 51 countries, from the acidic soils of Brazil to the mountains of Pakistan.
 
Rajaram picked a good crop for his focus. Wheat covers more acreage than any other cultivated plant and it represents the primary source of calories for more than half of the world’s people.
 
Despite its importance, wheat sometimes seems like the crop that technology forgot. It has not yet felt the innovations in biotechnology that have transformed the way we grow corn and soybeans, two other staple crops.
 
My family farm would benefit enormously from genetically modified wheat that makes more efficient use of the soil’s nitrogen. And we can’t have drought tolerance soon enough: This year’s wheat harvest is the worst I’ve seen in 20 years and it may be the worst in Oklahoma since the 1950s.
 
I’m hopeful, if only because Rajaram is hopeful: "I believe that the challenges of 21st-century agriculture and food production are surmountable," he says. Yet he also warns that technology must keep up with changing times: "Future crop production is bound to decline unless we fully factor in the issues related to climate change, soil fertility, and water deficits, and utilize advanced genetics in the next 20 to 30 years."
 
This October, Rajaram will receive the award formally, during the World Food Prize celebrations in Des Moines. Family farmers will celebrate with him, and hope that just as Borlaug inspired him, he will inspire a new generation of scientists to help us grow more and better wheat.
 
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.

Brazil Uses Biotechnology to Take the Sting out of Dengue Fever

Jul 03, 2014

 Richard Dijkstra:  Ponta Grossa, Parana, Brazil

 
All eyes are on the World Cup in Brazil this month. As a farmer in southern Brazil in Parana State, near the city of Ponta Grossa, I’m cheering for the home team—and I’m relieved that we survived a tough contest against Chile in the first game of the knockout round.
 
Another kind of knockout is also on my mind, and our rival is one that many Brazilians know far too well: mosquitoes. These pests are constant threats to public health—but now biotechnology may offer an excellent solution to an age-old problem.
 
Mosquitoes spread many diseases, and one of the worst is dengue fever. In addition to elevating temperatures, the virus causes headaches, joint pains, and skin rashes. It affects about 50 million people around the globe each year. Perhaps a million of them die. There is no vaccine or cure.
 
My region of Brazil is too cold at night for the mosquitoes that spread dengue fever to survive, but I have friends who have suffered from the affliction. They’ve struggled with severe discomfort—they complain about bad pain behind their eyeballs—and they must worry about second infections, because those are the ones that can turn fatal.
 
Biologists have identified more than 3,500 species of mosquito around the world, but only a handful of them carry the virus that causes dengue fever—and one in particular, the Aedes aegypti, is the main culprit. It has African origins but now lives in tropical areas just about everywhere, including three Brazilian cities that are hosting World Cup games.
 
Unfortunately, these pests are difficult to control. Bed nets provide good protection against mosquitoes that come out at night, but dengue-carrying mosquitoes are active during the day. They also thrive in urban areas, so it’s impossible for many people to avoid their habitat. Finally, these parasites have started to develop resistance to common forms of insecticide.
 
For a while, it looked like the best we could do was simply to put up with a certain amount of dengue fever.
 
Today, however, biotechnology offers new hope and a sustainable way to confront the problem. British scientists have learned how to fight back through genetic modification. The transgenic mosquito carries a gene that prevents the females from flying when they reach adulthood.  Males can still fly but that does not cause a problem because they feed only on nectar and plant juices, unable to transmit the disease.  As the mosquitoes reach adulthood and males mate with females, the gene will be transmitted to their offspring ultimately helping to solve a public health problem.
 
Field trials last year in the city of Jacobina showed promising results, with Aedes aegypti populations crashing by an estimated 79 percent. This year, Brazilian officials have launched a pilot program to test the method in larger areas. They’ve worked hard to engage the public, holding meetings to explain the approach and advertising it on the sides of trucks as well as on the radio. In April, a report on Public Radio International noted the program’s "wide acceptance" among the people of Jacobina.
 
And why wouldn’t they approve? It’s a creative solution that may prevent a terrible public health malady.
 
It’s environmentally friendly, too. Right now, the best way to slow down the transmission of dengue fever is to spray insecticide around vulnerable homes. Yet this treatment kills insects without discrimination—not just Aedes aegypti, but also bugs that pose no threat to anyone.
 
Biotechnology lets us focus on the true problem. In military terms, we’d call it a surgical strike that hits its target as opposed to a carpet bombing with collateral damage.
 
It remains to be seen how well this strategy will work. Brazil is a huge country, full of mosquitoes. Reducing their numbers is no simple trick. Yet even a small cut in the incidence of dengue fever will improve the lives of my fellow Brazilians.
 
We have every reason to be optimistic. On my own farm, I’ve seen how biotechnology can help me grow more food on less land. Adapting the gene-transfer technologies that have improved agriculture to other challenges could represent a major step in the global Gene Revolution.
 
I’m cheering for Brazil not only to win the World Cup, but also to triumph over dengue fever.
 
Richard Franke Dijkstra farms with his family in Southern Brazil where they grow soybeans, edible beans, corn, wheat, barley, ray grass and black oats; 50% of the soybeans and corn they plant are GM and 100% of the operation is no-tillage.  Richard and his brother-in-law also operate a 480 cow dairy and raise 4000 hogs annually.  Richard is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
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Growing Optimism

Jun 26, 2014

 By Motlatsi Musi:  Pimville, South Africa

 
 
Once, my farm was part of a war zone, just south of Johannesburg, South Africa. I had to be optimistic to drive a tractor through a minefield, as I did in the aftermath of South African apartheid. In fact, trying something new always requires a bit of optimism. Nonetheless, the first time that I planted genetically modified crops, I was nervous. Would they grow? Would they improve my yields? Or would they fail, as so many other crops in Africa had before them?
Nearly a decade has passed since then, and today I can hardly imagine farming without these important tools of technology. Although things are better now in South Africa, life has conditioned many of us to pessimism. Why wouldn’t it? Two-thirds of all Africans are farmers, according to the World Bank. That’s a higher rate of employment in agriculture than anywhere else on the planet. And yet Africa is the hungriest continent.What a cruel paradox: We farm the most and eat the least.
I’ve farmed for more than 20 years, starting as an ordinary laborer. In the wake of my country’s land redistribution, I own and farm 21 hectares and rent more. One of the biggest challenges for any farmer involves guarding crops from pests. In my experience as a farm laborer, my boss used tractors with huge booms to spray the plants. When the corn grew too high for driving, airplanes flew overhead and dropped pesticide. As smaller, independent farmers, we wore protective clothing and carried 12-liter knapsacks of pesticides through the field ourselves, often on tremendously hot days.It was a constant struggle against pests and for personal safety.
Pesticides break down before the food they protect reaches consumers, but exposure to them in large quantities can hurt farmers who don’t take proper precautions.So when pest-resistant GMO corn became available in South Africa in 2005, I wanted to try it. A non-profit group, AfricaBio, gave me guidance. I learned, for instance, that 20% of our seeds were non-GMO, so that our fields would fight pests but also provide a refuge, preventing them from developing a resistance to GMO corn. This approach contributes to the environmental sustainability of GMOs. Our goal, after all, is not to drive a species into extinction, but merely to protect our plants from its attackers. Ultimately, we seek a kind of peaceful coexistence.
During that first season, I started to see the results soon. My plants were bigger, stronger and healthier. During harvest, the yields increased by 34 percent. At that moment, I understood that biotechnology would be an essential part of Africa’s farming future.
We grow more, spray less and look forward to a future full of biotechnology.
A generation ago, much of Africa missed out on the Green Revolution, which brought modern agricultural practices to the developing world. Today, Africa must become a full participant in the Gene Revolution. Our governments must let us enjoy access to the biotechnology tools that fuel incredible agricultural production in the United States and so much of the western hemisphere. Why should we lack what those farmers have?
South Africa was an early adopter of GMOs, and for that I’m grateful. Too many other African countries have resisted biotechnology. They’ve responded to the misplaced worries of Europeans, who have largely refused to accept GMO foods. In my opinion, GMOs are perfectly healthy for human consumption. I’ve been eating them for years, from what I grow on my own farm!
The good news is that seven African countries—Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda—appear ready to join South Africa in commercializing GMOs, according to the latest report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). On my farm, I’ve hosted visitors from these countries and elsewhere. They want to see how GMO crops succeed, and I like to think that I’ve done my small part to inform and educate people who want to improve their own food security.
Many of the anti-GMO activists come from wealthy countries, where food security is taken for granted. I suspect that most of them never miss a meal. They remind me of the protestors from an earlier time, who complained about advances in conventional farming during the Green Revolution. Sometimes I wonder if they’re not against GMOs as much as they’re against every kind of new technology that farmers find helpful. I’d like to invite them to tour African farms, and see the hardship. Maybe that will change their hearts and minds.
GMOs changed my life for the better. I’m not just a subsistence farmer, as are so many of my fellow Africans, but rather a farmer who makes a profit. One of my sons went to college, where he earned a biomedical degree, and my profits paid his school fees. People are always talking about sustainable agriculture, and I’m a believer in this movement—especially if the definition of "sustainability" includes economic sustainability, and an appreciation for farmers who aspire to do more than merely feed their own kids.
When I started working on farms as a young man, the thought of giving away food never occurred to me. Today, however, I’m able to donate a portion of my crops to local charities, including a child-care center, an old-age home and a hospice. So agricultural biotechnology sustains me, my family and my neighbors—as well as consumers who I’ll never meet.
We need more GMOs, not less. We need new traits that help us survive droughts and adapt to climate change. We need seeds fortified with vitamin A, so that our children can get the nutrition that they need. Right now, we’re on the threshold of remarkable progress, all because we’ve learned how to make the most of our crops.
Let’s continue to do all that we can to grow as much as possible.
 
 
Motlatsi Musi farms maize, beans, potatoes, and breeds pigs and cows in South Africa. He is a member of Truth about Trade & Technology’s Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.
 
This column first appeared in the 2014 issue of Scientific American’s Worldview
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