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January 2010 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.

A Trade Tool By Any Other Name

Jan 13, 2010
The Obama administration recently informed Congress of plans to launch its first round of trade talks. In March, it will start negotiations with a group of Asian-Pacific nations, perhaps with an eye toward striking a deal at a 2011 summit in Hawaii.
 
That’s all well and good. The United States has seen its market share slip in Asia. Removing trade barriers would boost exports for U.S. manufacturers and farmers and create jobs for American workers.
 
Yet the White House can’t sell this potential accord at home or abroad because President Obama lacks an indispensable legislative tool. Congressional Republicans should lead an effort to give it to him.
 
In the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president, this tool was called “fast track.” In the decade that has just passed, it went by “trade promotion authority.” Whatever the name, the concept is simple: It requires trade agreements to go before Congress for an up-or-down vote, and Congress has a time-certain for that vote.
 
Every president since Gerald Ford has had this power--until now. Obama is the first not to possess it. Trade promotion authority expired on the watch of George W. Bush and Democrats in Congress refused to renew it.
 
The GOP should push to restore it, finding allies on the other side of the congressional aisle and working in cooperation with the White House.
 
Republicans fell from power because voters lost confidence in their ability to govern. As they try to reboot in 2010--possibly with a serious bid for control of the House of Representatives--they would be wise to identify opportunities in which they can demonstrate bipartisan leadership.
 
Free trade is about more than political advantage, of course. It’s for the good of the country. Unfortunately, without this special legislative mechanism, the president’s ability to negotiate new agreements is neutered.
 
Imagine trying to buy a car from a dealership. Once you’ve finished the haggling, the sales representative usually has to get a manager’s consent. This is essentially the role Congress plays: It has to approve any pact negotiated by the executive branch.
 
The difficulty with Congress is that it’s made up of 535 managers--or, perhaps more accurately, micromanagers. Their instinct is not merely to approve or disapprove. Just as they routinely lard up legislation with earmarks, they would tinker with trade agreements. It would become virtually impossible to conclude anything.
 
Parliamentary governments avoid this problem. Prime ministers can enforce their will on backbenchers. This is not the case in the United States, with its form of divided government.
 
Other countries know this. They won’t negotiate seriously with the United States without knowing that it has an effective method for getting a final agreement through Congress.
 
It may make sense to come up with a new name for this legislative tool. Former U.S. trade diplomat Carla Hills once joked that “fast track” was a lousy term because trade talks were never fast and they were rarely on track. I’ve never cared for “trade promotion authority.” It sounds like an obscure federal agency.
 
How about the Bipartisan Trade Initiative? Or the Congressional Export Opportunity Review? Or Dean Kleckner’s Bright Idea?
 
Now you know why I didn’t pursue a career in advertising: Someone with a mind for marketing probably can do a lot better. The important thing is to get the policy right. As Shakespeare might have said, a legislative trade tool by any other name is just as useful.
 
The Obama administration’s plan to pursue a trade deal with the Trans-Pacific Partnership is wise. It’s also bold. Many of the president’s fellow Democrats will oppose him because they are beholden to the special-interest protectionism of Big Labor. If a new trade agreement is to become a reality, Obama will need help from Republicans.
 
The best trade agreements are win-win opportunities for all of the partners involved. So is trade legislation, but only if the White House and congressional Republicans have the foresight and courage to set aside their differences and take it up.
 
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org
 

A Good Dose of Judgment Needed

Jan 11, 2010
The other day, I went to the grocery store for beef tenderloin. Only one kind was available. A sticker on the package advertised that the meat was “antibiotic free.” It wanted to make me feel like a health-conscious consumer. In other words, it was a sales ploy.
 
As a cattle rancher, however, I know beef. This supposedly special meat almost certainly wasn’t any better than the 'ordinary' beef. The big difference was the price, which was about $5 per pound higher than beef tenderloin should have been.
 
This experience may provide a glimpse of the costly future of food--at least if a few members of Congress have their way. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY), has proposed legislation to ban a variety of common antibiotics in farm animals. At last count, her bill had nearly a hundred co-sponsors. A collection of advocacy groups has lined up behind it and the White House has indicated its possible support.
 
But a new ban on antibiotics won’t improve anybody’s health. It may even make us sick.
 
Slaughter’s goal is worthy enough: She wants to guarantee the continuing effectiveness of antibiotic drugs in people. They are a vital tool of medicine, after all. Their job is to kill or inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. Doctors prescribe them to treat infections.
 
Yet sometimes too much of a good thing can be a bad thing: The overuse of antibiotics allows bacteria to build up resistance. Then the drugs are less able to prevent disease.
 
When it comes to antibiotics, we’ve come a long way in the livestock industry. Just as medicine has improved over time, so has our understanding of how to make the most of these drugs as we raise livestock. Nowadays, we don’t use antibiotics indiscriminately. We take advantage of them only when they’re truly needed--and that usually means to treat specific problems in individual animals.
 
Most cattle don’t receive any antibiotics at all. So even if your beef doesn’t carry a label that says “antibiotic free,” there’s a very good chance that it’s antibiotic free anyway. You just won’t pay “antibiotic free” prices for it.
 
Even so, we shouldn’t have to act as if antibiotics are toxic. There’s nothing wrong with supplying antibiotics to farm animals. It makes them healthier in life--and therefore healthier later on, for consumers.
 
Marie Bulgin, a veterinarian at the University of Idaho, recently shared the story of a sheep raiser who thought it was smart to quit using antibiotics--apparently so he could slap those special stickers on his lamb chops. “The only problem was ... the animals he was taking in to have butchered were small, thin, and scouring, because they had been severely affected by coccidiosis,” she said. (Coccidiosis is the disease caused by coccidia, a single-celled intestinal bacterium.)
 
Maybe those “antibiotic free” stickers should also include a warning label about bacterial infections.
 
When producers don’t use antibiotics, animals get sick. It hardly needs to be said that sick animals shouldn’t enter the human food chain.
 
In the 1990s, Denmark had a debate over antibiotics similar to the one we’re wrestling with in the United States right now. It decided to prohibit low-level antibiotics in farm animals, on the grounds that this would improve human health.
 
A decade later, the data don’t back up this claim. The incidence of foodborne illness hasn’t budged, according to John Waddell, a Nebraska veterinarian who has crunched the numbers. (It has actually gone up slightly, though it tracks per-capita population trends.) What the ban has done, however, is drive thousands of Danish pig farmers out of business and raised the cost of pork for consumers.
 
Maybe this is what Shakespeare meant when he wrote his immortal words: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
 
Let’s contain the rot. Just as antibiotics prevent the spread of bacterial diseases, we should apply a dose of good judgment to this discussion. The alternative is to slap stickers on the foreheads of politicians: “Commonsense free.”
 
Carol Keiser owns and manages cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Western Illinois. Mrs. Keiser is a Truth About Trade & Technology board member. (www.truthabouttrade.org)
 
 
 

FarmVille

Jan 04, 2010
If you don’t play FarmVille, you probably know someone who does. In just a few months, it has become the most popular game on Facebook. More than 70 million people around the world have used it to build virtual farms, according to Zynga, the company that’s behind this phenomenon.
 
I’m not one of them. I work in the fields for a living. After a long day of toiling on a real farm, running a virtual one isn’t high on my list of leisure-time priorities. But it's okay if others do. I’m actually encouraged by FarmVille’s popularity. It’s a healthy sign for agriculture--but only if players don’t come to think that running a farm is as easy as FarmVille makes it seem.
 
The concept behind FarmVille is simple: You plant seeds, grow crops, and make money. These activities earn experience points, which allow your operation to expand.
 
The key to the game’s popularity lies in its social-networking features. Friends on Facebook can become neighbors in the virtual world of FarmVille. By helping with various tasks, such as fertilizing fields, neighbors can give each other a boost.
 
Success at FarmVille requires foresight, persistence, and a willingness to help others--just like farming in the real world.
 
The game includes plenty of whimsical elements. Ugly ducklings turn into beautiful swans. Pink cows make strawberry milk. A field of crops can grow to maturity in just a few hours.
 
That’s not how things work on my farm, of course. If FarmVille was as difficult and complicated as actual farming, probably no one would play it. A realistic depiction of farm life would require a simulation of what it’s like to lie on the ground in six-degree weather to fix a harvester whose chain was knocked loose by a clump of frozen corn stalks.
 
This was something I had to do just a few weeks ago, during an abnormally late harvest. It wasn’t a pleasant chore, but it was part of the day’s work. When it was done, there was no strawberry milk waiting for me at home on the kitchen counter, virtual or otherwise.
 
I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t like my job. I love to farm. But the work is hard. It has its moments of real frustration and discomfort.
 
The challenges of running a successful farming operation are enormous. Success depends upon adaptation. We have to respond to all sorts of factors that are beyond our control. The weather may help or hinder. Pests can be anything from minor irritants to major forces of destruction. The financial markets, the price of energy, and the intrusiveness of government regulations also have a significant impact on what we do.
 
There’s no such thing as a typical year. Sometimes the lessons from one season will apply to the next, but nothing is ever exactly the same. You have to change to meet the conditions of the time.
 
For this reason, farmers need every advantage they can get. Free-trade agreements with other countries allow us to export our products to foreign consumers. Biotechnology allows us to plant seeds that can withstand attacks from insects and weeds. In the near future, it will help us combat other challenges, such as drought. Our prosperity in the years ahead will depend upon new trade talks and emerging technologies.
 
FarmVille doesn’t even begin to address these complexities. That’s okay. It’s a game--and it’s supposed to be fun.
 
And it may even have real value. We live in a time when agriculture is so efficient that the vast majority of people in the developed world are cut off entirely from food production. Many have never set foot on a farm, let alone had to worry about raising and protecting crops. They have very little understanding of how food travels from farm to fork.
 
FarmVille won’t fill in all of these gaps in knowledge. Yet it may serve as a useful reminder that food doesn’t just come from the grocery store. It comes from the dedication of men and women around the world who work the land.
 
John Reifsteck, a corn and soybean farmer in western Champaign County Illinois, is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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