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Apr 19, 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.

In a World of Changing Climate, Agriculture Will Continue to Adapt with New Technologies

Apr 17, 2014

 By Dan Kelley:  Normal, Illinois

 
A recently released report on climate change from the United Nations contains the usual warnings about the future, from melting polar caps to chronic heat waves. It also emphasizes the threat of less food on a planet with more people.
 
"This is a wake-up call for the agriculture sector," says Craig Hanson of the World Resources Institute, in a New York Times account of the forecast from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
 
At least one of the IPCC’s claims is remarkably specific: Climate change already has depressed corn yields by 1 percent.
 
This may or may not be true. I haven’t crunched the numbers and won’t dispute them. My personal experience, however, suggests that the best way forward lies through advances in technology and letting farmers have access to them.
 
I’ve farmed my whole life, and I’ve done it professionally since 1970. I’m blessed to work in central Illinois, which contains some of the world’s most fertile soil. In a couple of weeks, I’ll begin a new season of planting corn and soybeans across a little more than 3,000 acres.
 
When I started to farm more than four decades ago, we hoped that each acre of corn would yield close to 150 bushels but we often topped out at 135. The most productive fields—the record-setting ones on other farms—might inch past 200 bushels per acre.
 
Today, anything less than 200 bushels per acre is a disappointment for me. Under the right conditions, our top fields generate 230 bushels per acre. I haven’t touched 300 bushels per acre, but several farmers I know have and I hope to get there eventually.
 
So we’ve come a long way. If my farming in 2014 produces a result that I would have regarded as excellent in 1970, I’ll consider it a poor harvest.
 
What explains the improvement? The main factor is seed technology. Scientists know a lot more about plant genetics today and they’ve used their knowledge to turn out excellent seeds that grow into healthy plants. Since the 1990s, we’ve also taken advantage of biotechnology and genetic modification. Every year, we upgrade our ability to fight weeds, pests, and drought.
 
Other technologies also have mattered. Our equipment helps us cover more fields in less time than ever before. We’re also planting individual seeds with incredible precision, allowing us to make the most of the soil and its nutrients.
 
Perhaps the IPCC is correct and small variations in the weather have put negative pressure on our ability to grow crops. My own farming, however, suggests that technology has pushed hard in the other direction, more than compensating for the problem.
 
The lesson is obvious: Even in a world of changing climates, we must continue to develop new agriculture technologies that will allow us to grow more food on less land as we adapt to changing conditions. As a corollary, we must make sure that farmers are able to access these technologies—and that our regulations rely on sound science rather than the political fear mongering that so often plagues innovation.
 
Shortly after the IPCC report came out, Eduardo Porter of the New York Times invoked the name of Thomas Malthus, the 18th-centry economist who warned about population growth and resource depletion. Malthus is one of those names that many of us dimly recall from history class, and we associate the word "Malthusian" with famine and death.
 
Does climate change really point to an era of Malthusian misery?
 
A new biography shows that we’ve misunderstood the man. In "Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet," published last week by Oxford University Press, author Robert J. Mayhew points out that Malthus was optimistic about the human future. He worried about hunger. Yet he was also a clergyman who thought that our God-given powers of reason would help us solve problems and find balance with the world’s resources.
 
As we strive for food security in the 21st century, we must confront our challenges rather than despair over them. I’m hopeful that new technologies will help farmers continue to adapt to changing conditions. We must remember that success is a choice—and that even Thomas Malthus would be on our side, cheering us on.
 
Daniel Kelley grows corn and soybeans on a family farm near Normal, IL. He volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
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EU-US Regulatory Harmonization is a Problem Worth Fixing

Apr 10, 2014

 By Bill Horan: Rockwell City, Iowa

 
It felt like an out-of-body experience.
 
Last week, I found myself sitting in an auditorium in Brussels—and listening to Europeans applaud genetically modified crops.
 
Yet it was no fantasy. I was at the 7thForum for the Future of Agriculture —a one-day event by and for European farmers. Over a thousand were in attendance. There were a few African farmers, too, but if there were any Americans beside myself in the room, I didn’t meet them.
 
Speakers who wanted to win a favorable reaction from the audience just had to put in a good word for GM foods. Biotechnology was a ready applause line.
 
This doesn’t mean the debate over GM foods in Europe is done. Acceptance still faces a significant amount of political and cultural resistance. But the global scientific community now agrees that biotechnology is an essential part of the solution to food and nutritional insecurity in the 21st century.
 
We’re moving in the right direction, just at a slower pace than most of us would like. Fortunately, the next step forward is clearly marked.
 
GM foods are a subset of a larger issue that separates the United States and Europe: regulatory harmonization. This is the push to create common standards across international markets, so that product approvals on one side of the Atlantic receive the benefit of the doubt on the other side.
 
In other words, our regulations should work in tandem rather than in competition.
 
Consider the case of a European blueberry producer who spoke at the Forum for Agriculture. He noted the growing American appetite for blueberries. Yet U.S. regulations get in the way of his sales. They delay his deliveries so much that his blueberries spoil before they reach American consumers.
 
Would you hesitate to eat a bowl of blueberries in a Paris café? Of course not: The berries are perfectly safe, and we know it. Blueberries grown in Europe already meet adequate standards set by European authorities. Yet as they try to move to our markets, the additional rules at our ports and borders cause slowdowns and create losers: producers who can’t sell what they grow and consumers who can’t buy from alternative sources.
 
This is a problem worth fixing.
 
The benefits of regulatory harmonization would flow both ways. Europe currently exports more food to the United States than vice versa: more than $16 billion per year compared to nearly $10 billion per year. There are many reasons for this discrepancy, but regulatory barriers are a major one. Sensible rules will lead to more sales for American farmers and ranchers.
 
Bureaucrats on both sides of the Atlantic will have to forfeit a bit of regulatory turf. Yet the potential payoff is huge. If we can find a way to make our policies work together, rather than against each other, we’ll not only make life easier for producers and consumers in our own countries, but we’ll also have a chance to set sensible standards for the entire world.
 
By reconciling their regulatory differences, the United States and Europe will be in a strong position to bring down regulatory trade barriers in other nations. The movement of goods and services across borders would improve everywhere.
 
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) talks between the United States and Europe finished their fourth round last month and a fifth round will begin shortly. Regulatory harmonization will be on the table soon. If the negotiations stay on schedule, they could strike a deal by the end of the year, forging a pact that improves ties between economies whose daily trade with each other is already worth $3 billion.
 
Progress on regulatory harmonization won’t cure Europe of its anti-biotech madness, but it would begin to treat the hidden protectionism that is one of its underlying causes.
 
And it would provide aid and comfort to our allies at the Forum for the Future of Agriculture, who would like to stop clapping for GM crops in their conference halls and to start growing them on their farms.
 
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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Planting the Four Billionth Acre of Biotech Crops in the World

Apr 03, 2014

 By Jose Luis Romeo: Monte Odina, Spain

 
As I begin to plant my own crops this week, I know that somewhere in the northern hemisphere this month, a farmer will put a seed in the ground—and the world will have its 4-billionth acre of genetically modified crops.
 
Perhaps it will happen in my country of Spain, which is Europe’s leader in GM farming. We can only guess at the location of this milestone achievement, let alone the farmer who will reach it. Yet we know for certain that the great moment will come about halfway through this month.
 
Truth about Trade & Technology, a non-profit group based in the United States, has tracked the world’s biotech-crop acreage for years. It posts its findings in the upper right-hand corner of its website (www.truthabouttrade.org) with a special counter that constantly updates, using official reports and independent research.
 
How big is 4 billion acres? It’s an area so vast that Spain could fit into it almost 32 times. It’s more than one and a half times as large as all of Europe. It’s nearly as big as South America.
 
That’s a lot of acreage.
 
There’s a lesson in all of this: GM crops are good for farmers, good for consumers, and good for the environment.
 
Farmers like me choose to plant GM crops because they work. We have found them safer and easier to use. They also produce more food than so-called conventional crops.
 
With 4 billion acres of cumulative biotech acres now planted globally, of course, we may want to reconsider the definition of "conventional."
 
Although GM crops may be common, they are anything but ordinary. They are extraordinary plants that allow the worlds farmers to grow more food on less land.
 
That’s why I started to grow GM corn. Where I live—in the Ebro Valley of northern Spain, right beside the Pyrenees—we have a serious problem with the European corn borer. This pest drills into corn stalks, making them weak and barely able to stand. When the wind blows, it knocks down the corn. And the wind can blow so hard here that we have a special name for it: "the cierzo."
 
When corn lies on the ground, of course, it is impossible to harvest.
 
GM corn, however, carries a natural resistance to the corn borer and we don’t have to spray our fields with insecticide. The bugs leave it alone. So when the cierzo strikes, our corn stands tall.  Best of all, we are obtaining better yields.
 
Biotechnology lets me raise two crops per year. Right now, I’m planting barley and peas. I’ll harvest them in June and then replant my fields with corn, without tillage. Corn that starts in June doesn’t have as much time to grow, so its stalks are thinner and more vulnerable to corn borers and high winds.
 
When I plant crops that are genetically modified, however, they grow strong and we can harvest two crops rather than just one. We’re doing more with less. Food is more affordable. So biotechnology contributes to the spread of sustainable agriculture—environmentally and economically sustainable agriculture.
 
My only regret about biotechnology is that we don’t have more of it. Although we grow corn that can defeat the corn borer, the European Union won’t let us have access to varieties of biotechnology that would help our crops to beat other threats, including weeds, rootworm, and drought.
 
In much of the western hemisphere—the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina—farmers take these characteristics for granted. They grow GM crops every day, and they’re a big part of the reason why biotechnology has just hit the 4-billion mark.
 
Unfortunately, Europe continues to resist biotechnology the way my corn resists corn borers.
 
In time, I think the EU will change its ways. We currently import a good deal of our food, and much of it comes from GM crops. I do not believe Europe can continue to import food forever, if we are going to continue to be rich countries. We must increase our food production and Europe’s farmers must have access to GM technology to achieve this goal.
 
I’m hopeful that by the time a farmer plants the 5-billionth acre of GM crops, probably within the next three years, Europeans will have opened their minds to the potential of these amazing plants and will allow us to catch up with the rest of the world.
 
Jose Luis Romeo, a fourth generation family farmer, grows peas, barley, corn and wine grapes in northern Spain, near the Pyrenees.  Jose is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
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To Indian Farmers and Farmers Around the World: Norman Borlaug is Our Hero

Mar 27, 2014

 

 

By V. Ravichandran: Tamil Nadu, India
 
Norman Borlaug is my hero—and he’s a hero to a billion of my countrymen here in India as well.
 
This week, we honor Borlaug’s centenary: He was born on March 25, 1914 in Cresco, Iowa. Before he died 95 years later, in 2009, he became the father of the "Green Revolution," which transformed agriculture, especially in developing nations. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
 
I’m old enough to remember what life was like in the 1960s, before India benefitted from the Green Revolution. We had plenty of farmland, and yet we still needed to import a huge amount of food. Sadly, we couldn’t grow enough to feed our own people. A few experts predicted mass starvation.
 
Then came Borlaug, teaching us how to make the most of modern technology. Our farmers gained access to high-yielding grains and hybridized seeds. We adopted synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, improved our irrigation, and updated our management practices. In a single generation, we moved from primitive to modern.
 
I am of the strong opinion that the Green Revolution not only drove away hunger but also helped increase the literate population, increased the proportion of healthy people, increased the average life span of Indians, helped us to develop in other sectors too because of higher literacy rates.
 
Today, in the aftermath of the Green Revolution, our population has more than doubled in size. It now tops 1 billion people. Rapid urbanization has led to the loss of huge amounts of farmland.
 
It sounds like a recipe for disaster: More mouths to feed and less land for crops. Yet today we’re better at feeding ourselves than ever before.
 
We haven’t solved all of our problems. Malnutrition remains a deadly scourge. But it’s less of a scourge than it once was.
 
We owe it all to the Green Revolution. And that means we owe it all to Borlaug. According to one estimate, more than a quarter of the world’s wheat calories derive from Borlaug’s innovations. Some demographers claim that a billion people are alive today because of him.
 
I always wanted to meet Borlaug but never did. I came close in 2005: He was giving a speech in Chennai, a city not too far from my farm. Unfortunately, I was unwell at the time and missed my chance. Last fall, however, I traveled to the World Food Prize in Des Moines and participated in a panel discussion moderated by Julie Borlaug, his granddaughter. At long last, I was able to pay my respects to the Borlaug family.
 
This week, we’re discussing Borlaug’s legacy at village meetings and on radio programs across India. Younger Indians must learn how much they owe to this remarkable biologist.
 
Sometimes I wonder what Borlaug would say today, if he were still with us. Here’s what I think he would tell the farmers of India:
 
"The Green Revolution helped you achieve self sufficiency. Now you face even bigger tests. Your arable land continues to shrink. Your water resources are depleting. Your population keeps growing. Climate change looms as a threat. Many of your children have abandoned the farm for the city."
 
Those are the problems. Then he would describe a solution:
 
"You must be ready and willing to accept new technologies, striving to grow more food on less land.  You have the potential to achieve.  I have seen your strength during the Green Revolution."
 
He might also have a message for the government of India:
 
"You cannot rest on your laurels. In agriculture, conditions always change—and you must be ready to change with them. That means you must make wise decisions guided by sound science rather than raw emotion. For the sake of your population, which continues to grow, you must make pragmatic choices that allow farmers to do more."
 
The father of the Green Revolution was an early supporter of the Gene Revolution—the movement in agriculture to use the powers of biotechnology to help us grow more food. We’ve already seen the initial benefits of genetic modification, especially in the areas of pest and weed resistance. Soon we’ll see more, as Borlaug’s successors learn how to develop plants that can survive droughts and floods. They’ll also apply what they know to different varieties of food, such as brinjal.
 
The world may never see another Norman Borlaug, but we can choose to learn the lesson of his heroic life: If farmers and governments are open to new ideas, we will meet the agricultural challenges of our time.
 
Mr. V Ravichandran owns a 60 acre farm at Poongulam Village in Tamil Nadu, India where he grows rice, sugar cane, cotton and pulses (small grains).  Mr. Ravichandran is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network and is the 2013 recipient of the Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 

 

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Poland is Supporting Ukraine In Hopes of Food Security and Peace

Mar 20, 2014

 By Roman Warzecha: Mazowia region of Poland

 
The whole world is watching events unfold in Ukraine—and here in Poland, we’re paying especially close attention.
 
Ukraine is our neighbor. We share a common border of 535 km. It not only separates our two nations, but also marks the eastern edge of the European Union. From my farm north of Warsaw, I know that developments in Ukraine can influence life on this side of the line.
 
One of our top concerns involves Ukraine’s food security. Just about everyone, in fact, has a stake in helping Ukraine realize its full potential as a granary for Europe and beyond.
 
As Kiev pries loose from domination by Moscow—and confronts Russia’s potential annexation of Crimea—Poland is doing its part to bring stability. Our hospitals have been treating people injured on the Maidan, the main square in Ukraine’s capital. We’re also organizing assistance in the form of food, medicine, and clothing. We’re even preparing for a humanitarian crisis, setting up camps that can house thousands of refugees.
 
These are short-term measures. In the long run, the people of Poland and elsewhere must make sure that Ukrainian farmers can grow their crops and export them, for the sake of both Ukraine and its customers.
 
Right now, Ukraine is the world’s third-largest exporter of corn (behind the United States and Brazil) and the fifth-largest exporter of wheat. It remains to be seen how the recent political turmoil affects this year’s shipments, but early indications suggest that Ukraine will continue to sell plenty of food. Even Russia’s takeover of Sevastopol, a Crimean port on the Black Sea, might not have much of an impact, say experts. Food can flow through Odessa and other ports whose status within a sovereign Ukraine is not in dispute.
 
Yet there’s no telling what the coming months may bring. The EU relies on food from Ukraine, and any reduction in shipments will cause prices to jump. For Europeans, this would represent an aggravation rather than a crisis, but that may not be true in other places.
 
Egypt is also a leading buyer of Ukrainian food, especially of wheat—and a cutoff could have major geopolitical implications. The tumult of the Arab Spring has many sources, but one of the most important involves food security. Political upheavals from Tunisia to Syria have roots in food shortages.
 
Desperate people do desperate things, and the Middle East would not benefit from more unrest.
 
Even before meeting this foreign demand, of course, the new government in Kiev must make sure that Ukraine feeds itself. This is nothing to take for granted: In the 1930s, as the Soviet Union forced farms to collectivize, it triggered a massive famine in Ukraine. Some 7 million people died in this manmade catastrophe. Many Ukrainians regard the incident as an act of genocide.
 
It’s hard to imagine the same thing happening again today, but then human affairs are full of catastrophes that nobody foresaw. We ignore the lessons of history at our peril.
 
Poland never suffered through a famine like the one in Ukraine, but my own family can point to hardship at the hands of the Soviet Union’s bad farm policies. When I was a child, my father resisted collectivization, as did many other Poles. Most of my life would pass before we finally won our freedom in 1989. I still remember helping the local election commission count votes through a sleepless night.
 
Ukrainians want much the same thing today: They seek a country free from the meddling of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and tied ever more closely to the EU and the rest of the world.
 
Their country is blessed with rich farmland that is the envy of other nations. Yet nothing guarantees that this resource will produce as much as it should. Success will require wise leaders who put fertile land into the hands of private farmers, attack corruption, invest in machinery, restore irrigation, and permit access to new seeds and technologies. Ultimately, Ukraine needs social peace and territorial integrity.
 
I look forward to the day when we can stop paying attention to Ukraine—a day when it’s out of the news and on the road to freedom and prosperity.
 
Roman Warzecha grows maize, sweet corn, rape and cherries on a family farm in the Mazowia region of Poland.  Mr. Warzecha leads maize and triticale research at Poland’s Institute of Plant Breeding and Acclimatization (IHAR) and is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).
 
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