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Sep 15, 2014
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August 2014 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.

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.

Chuck Norris’ Weak-handed Grip on the Facts of 21st Century Agriculture

Aug 07, 2014

 By Bill Horan: Rockwell City, Iowa

 
Chuck Norris doesn’t write columns. He stares at words until they arrange themselves into sentences.
 
That’s a "Chuck Norris Fact"—one you haven’t heard before because I just made it up. But perhaps you’re familiar with the style of joke: a satirical, exaggerated claim about the supposedly superhuman powers of actor and martial artist Chuck Norris. Entire books and websites are dedicated to this sub-genre of humor.
 
Unfortunately, there was nothing funny about Norris’s recent online column. It was a fact-free rant about modern agriculture. Norris warned his readers that the genetically modified food they eat everyday—the kind that I grow on my farm here in Iowa—is "killing you softly."
 
This is sheer nonsense. It’s like somebody roundhouse-kicked the sense out of Norris.
 
I’m disappointed in the column mostly because it’s wrong, but also because I admire Norris. He grew up under difficult circumstances and went on to achieve great success in his chosen professions. He’s a military veteran and a man of faith, just like me.
 
And I’ve met him: When Norris traveled to Iowa with presidential candidate Mike Huckabee a few years ago, I attended one of their events and shook Norris’s hand. You won’t be surprised to learn that he has a strong grip.
 
His grip on the facts of 21st-century agriculture, however, is weak.
 
In his column, Norris suggests that GM crops may cause cancer and Parkinson’s disease. This is pure hogwash—a pair of completely unfounded claims. Norris turns even more provocative when he writes of the possibility of "novel epidemics."
 
That’s a novel distortion of reality. This idea of ordinary crops causing a plague might work as the half-baked premise of a B-list fantasy film, but it’s simply not sound science. The American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences are just two of the many mainstream groups that support the health and safety of GM foods.
 
It makes sense to trust the expert views of the men and women who belong to the AMA and the NAS, but you probably wouldn’t want to watch them star in a Chuck Norris movie. Or maybe you would, but only to laugh at their antics, the way so many people laughed their way through "Sharknado 2" on the SyFy channel last week.
 
I might have laughed my way through Norris’s column, too—except that I’m concerned that a few of his readers will take his allegations seriously.
 
Norris is especially feeble on a subject that I happen to know well: weed and pest control. I’m familiar with weeds and pests the way characters Norris plays are familiar with villains in black hats.
 
As a farmer, I battle weeds and pests all summer. Weeds rob moisture and soil nutrition from my crops. Pests attack what I’m trying to grow. Defeating both is a central task of successful farming, whether you grow corn and soybeans in Iowa or cotton in Burkina Faso.
 
Norris claims that GM crops require more chemical sprays than non-GM crops, but this is false. One of the reasons why farmers prefer GM crops is because they demand fewer applications of herbicide and pesticides than non-GM varieties.
 
Norris actually accuses farmers of dumping "a component of Agent Orange" on our fields. The specific product he mentions—the one that he hopes will conjure up horrific images of a controversial Vietnam-era defoliant—is the most widely accepted herbicide on the planet. As a Vietnam veteran, I am offended as he demonizes the basic ingredient in the weed-and-feed that homeowners spread on their lawns and gardeners sprinkle around their vegetable beds safely in the U.S. and around the world.
 
Rather than trying to become one of Hollywood’s self-appointed experts on toxicology and human health, Norris should stick to his day job as an entertainer. We look to him for daredevil stunts and clever one-liners, not wrongheaded opinions about things he fails to understand.
 
GM crops help farmers grow more food on less land. For consumers, they contribute to safe, healthy, and affordable diets.
 
Let’s call these "Bill Horan Facts." They may not be funny, but they’re the truth.
 
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.
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