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May 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.

The Power of Choice

May 27, 2010
By Dean Kleckner - Chairman, Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)

The winds of change may be blowing through Cuba.

It’s about time: The Caribbean nation is an economic basket case, thanks to a dictatorial regime that has suppressed entrepreneurship in favor of collectivism for half a century.

Yet even Cuba’s hard-line rulers know that they can’t cling forever to discredited, Marxist theories about how the world works.

Earlier this month, Cuban president Raul Castro (the brother of Fidel) loosened his grip on his country’s farmers. On May 16, economy minister Marino Murillo announced that 350,000 family farmers will begin to purchase their own supplies rather than having them allocated by the government.

According to Reuters, Murillo described plans to “create in the majority of municipalities supply markets where farmers can acquire directly the necessary resources to produce, substituting the current system of assigning resources centrally.”

Imagine that! They get to make a few of their own decisions about how to grow food.

It’s a small but significant step in the direction of freedom. Cuba still has a long way to go. The government maintains a near monopoly on food sales. And don’t hold your breath for free speech, a free press, or free elections.

Yet we should applaud every sign of progress. This is a notable one. Improved access to equipment, fertilizer, fuel, pesticides, and seeds will lead to better farming. (Might I suggest new rear tires for tractors? When I was there, it was my first and only view of completely bald rear tires on tractors!)

Another positive sign involves the case of Humberto Rios Labrada, a Cuban farmer. He recently won a Goldman Environmental Prize for what the Associated Press described as his “campaign to let Cuban farmers choose the crops and seed varieties best for their lands.” It added, “Rios wants to make Cuban farms more sustainable by giving farmers more autonomy--a radical notion in what has long been a strictly top-down planned economy where officials tell producers just what to grow, even if it isn’t quite right for the soil.”

William A. Messina, Jr. of the University of Florida, an expert on Cuban agriculture, has likened Rios to “a Cuban Johnny Appleseed.”

Rios is an advocate of organic agriculture, which is a perfectly fine choice for farmers who want to experiment with it. Let’s hope that his crusade for farmer freedom allows Cubans to explore every option that technology can afford them, including genetically modified crops.

Biotechnology has revolutionized farming throughout the Western hemisphere, including Latin America. Argentina and Brazil are major growers of GM crops. There’s no reason why Cuba shouldn’t join this club, too.

The government in Havana certainly must take steps to improve the island’s food security. Cuba currently imports about 60 percent of what its people eat. This is a ridiculously high figure for a nation that enjoys plenty of arable land.

Unleashing the productivity of Cuba’s private farmers is the key to success. They harvest 41 percent of their country’s farmland--and yet they are responsible for 70 percent of its agricultural output. As they come to enjoy more freedom, their output will only grow.

The United States can play a critical role. Although Washington continues to maintain economic sanctions on Cuba, it has also become a major supplier of food. Agricultural exports to Cuba were worth $712 million in 2008. They’ve slipped since then, due in part to the global economic slowdown, but the United States is still Cuba’s most important agricultural trading partner.

In April, a congressional report conducted by Parr Rosson of Texas A&M University described strategies for boosting U.S. exports to more than $1 billion per year--activity that would create about 6,000 new jobs. This would provide a small but welcome lift to America’s ailing economy. It would also help the Obama administration meet its goal of doubling exports over the next five years.

And it would help Cubans. Trade in goods and services inevitably lead to exchanges of ideas. American farmers are the most productive in the world and our experiences can help Cuban farmers improve Cuban agriculture as we teach them how get the most from their land--and how to get the most from their newfound freedom.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, visited Cuba in 1999. Mr. Kleckner chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org

Fighting Obesity

May 20, 2010
By John Rigolizzo Jr. – Board member - Berlin, New Jersey (www.truthabouttrade.org)

If the White House had a better sense of humor, its new report on obesity would promote what a comedian once described as the world’s most effective diet: You can eat anything you want, but you have to eat it in the company of fat naked people.

Alas, the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity took a more earnest approach. Last week, at an event hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama, it issued a 70-point plan for reducing the childhood obesity rate.

Unfortunately, the First Lady and her friends devote more time to telling farmers what they should do than to helping us improve our productivity through innovation and reform.

Right now, says the report, about one in five American kids is overweight. It would like to see this figure (so to speak) reduced to just 5 percent over the next ten years.

That’s a worthy goal because obesity is indeed a serious problem. But let’s pause for a moment and reflect upon an important fact. In much of the world, children don’t have enough to eat. Famine and malnutrition are deadly afflictions. In the United States, however, we have such an abundance of affordable food that we have to worry about over-eating rather than under-eating.

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of fighting obesity--but I do want to keep in mind that some problems are preferable to others. Let’s not forget to count our blessings.

We don’t suffer from chronic food shortages because American farmers are so amazingly productive. The White House now would like to harness our energies in the war on obesity.

Americans need to eat more fruits and vegetables, says the task force. It calculates that the average person already consumes 644 pounds of fruits and vegetables each year. It recommends an increase of 453 pounds, or more than 70 percent.

If Americans demand more fruits and vegetables, then farmers like me will grow them. That’s the easy part. Markets always have been the best way of delivering products to consumers.

Yet the task force seems attracted to a different approach: It would have Washington try to steer farmers toward growing additional fruits and vegetables, in the belief that if the supply increases then the demand will follow.

That’s like thinking kids will eat more spinach if we double the portions we put on their dinner plates. This is a miracle beyond the power of legislation.

If lawmakers want to increase the supply of fruits and vegetables, they have better options than issuing stern lectures about eating your veggies--or trying to tell farmers what we should grow. They can get started right now simply by embracing trade and technology.

Free-trade agreements are excellent ways of boosting food supplies. Many of our fruits and vegetables already come from Latin America. In New Jersey, I can grow peaches but not bananas. So we ought to expand trade--especially agricultural trade--with this region. The White House should persuade its allies in Congress to set aside their protectionist fears and approve pending trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. They’re long overdue.

Technology also can help put more fruits and vegetables into the hands of Americans. Land already devoted to fruits and vegetables might be made more productive. One constant enemy is frost. Earlier this year, sub-freezing temperatures destroyed an enormous amount of citrus, strawberries, and tomatoes in the Southeast, especially Florida. Food prices shot up immediately.

Writing in a recent issue of the journal Regulation, Henry I. Miller of the Hoover Institution proposed a creative solution. He suggested that scientists work to develop a special bacterium that can help protect fruits and vegetables from frost.

The good news is that they’ve already done a lot of work in this area: Researchers began to address the problem a generation ago and came close to commercializing a product that relied on “ice-minus bacteria.” The bad news is that the federal government smothered it with unnecessary regulations. A tool that holds the potential to save fruits and vegetables from killer frost remains out of reach. We need a regulatory system that makes sound decisions based on science--one that works with us rather than against us.

In the fight against obesity, will Washington encourage free trade and technological innovation? Let’s hope the odds are better than a “fat chance.”

John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm manages both retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org).

Speaking Out in Defense of a Conservation Tool

May 13, 2010
By Dean Kleckner - Chairman, Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org

Weeds must have a lot of friends in Washington. That’s one way to interpret the Obama administration’s bizarre decision to question what may be the most proven crop-protection product on the planet.

Atrazine is a tremendous tool for killing weeds. I started using it around the time it was first introduced, more than 50 years ago. Back then, Dwight Eisenhower was president, Alaska was becoming the 49th state, and the hot new show on television was a black-and-white series called “The Twilight Zone.”

Rod Serling used to begin “The Twilight Zone” by saying, “You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.”

That’s precisely how I feel when I listen to the complaints about atrazine--like I’ve just stepped into an alternate universe where logic makes no sense, science explains nothing, and the Chicago Cubs win the World Series every year.

Someone needs to cue that eerie theme song.

Back in the real world, atrazine is an utterly conventional product that farmers put on about half of America’s corn crop, two-thirds of its sorghum acreage, and 90 percent of its sugar cane fields. It’s a completely safe herbicide that helps boost yields and protects the environment.

Over the course of more than half a century, atrazine has become one of the most studied herbicides in the world--not just by private industry, but also by public-health regulators. It has secured endorsements from the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and a wide range of international panels. Farmers in more than 60 countries rely on it for fighting weeds.

In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency – which has 6,000 scientific studies of atrazine in its files - finished a 12-year review that included tens of thousands of public comments. During this re-approval process, the EPA said that this type of herbicide threatens “no harm” to anybody.

The WHO is so convinced of its safety that it has placed atrazine in the same cancer-risk category as rubbing alcohol and tea.

So why has the Obama administration decided to question atrazine? They appear to be taking their cue from hard-line environmental groups who demonize atrazine to meet the financial objectives of their fear-mongering fundraising campaigns. With the zealotry of fanatics, they continue to say that this indispensable tool of modern farming is somehow a menace. They are engaged in a quixotic quest to wish away a mountain of hard evidence.

To make matters worse, trial lawyers have gotten into the act. They’ve filed a class-action lawsuit based on junk science, in the hopes of scoring a payday that will empty the pockets of farmers who are guilty of nothing more than using a safe product that has enjoyed the federal government’s seal of approval for longer than most Americans have been alive.

The sad irony is that if this alliance of green extremists and opportunistic lawyers succeeds, it will deliver a serious blow to the environment because atrazine has become an important instrument of conservation.

One of the unheralded benefits of atrazine has been the widespread adoption of no-till agriculture, which fights soil erosion, saves water, and removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Without crop-protection devices such as atrazine, farmers have to fight weeds through the constant churning of the soil. Intensive plowing produces massive amounts of sediment runoff. Moisture evaporates rather than remains locked in the ground. Tractors make more frequent passes over fields, increasing the carbon footprint.

The Department of Energy, in fact, has identified no-till agriculture as an effective weapon in the fight against global warming. Cost-conscious farmers appreciate this benefit of atrazine if only because it reduces their fuel bills--a savings that is passed on to consumers.

Rather than dreaming up new regulations on proven products that don’t need them, the government should devote additional resources to helping farmers grow more food. It might quicken the approval process for cutting-edge GM crops, for instance.

As it stands, the surreal attack on atrazine threatens the prosperity of farms across the United States--not unlike weeds that try to suck the life from crop fields.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org

Hay Fever

May 06, 2010
By Reg Clause - Truth About Trade & Technology board member - www.truthabouttrade.og

Is hay fever contagious? Let’s hope not, because the spread of a particular strain has the potential to devastate farmers and consumers.

I’m referring to the kind of hay fever that makes some people go a little nutty--a little haywire, you might say--around biotechnology.

We saw a few of the symptoms on display at the U.S. Supreme Court last week, during oral arguments in a case involving alfalfa--a forage crop commonly known as hay, appropriately enough. Traces are also beginning to turn up inside Washington’s maze of regulatory agencies. Left untreated, these frivolous lawsuits and bureaucratic bottlenecks hold the potential to stifle agricultural innovation and threaten U.S. food security.

We can’t let that happen--not if we want to keep grocery-store prices in check, boost American exports, and develop the capacity to feed a growing world.

A few years ago, anti-biotech groups realized that they weren’t going to defeat GM crops through scientific research or conventional political channels. So they hired lawyers and started to sue. Their goal is to delay or deny new GM crops from regulatory acceptance and commercial adoption.

Although extensive scientific research has proven biotech crops to be perfectly safe, a lawsuit against GM alfalfa landed before the Supreme Court last week. The good news is that the justices “sharply questioned” a lower court’s injunction on GM alfalfa and “sounded skeptical” of plaintiff claims, according to wire service reports on the oral arguments.

Yet as anybody who studies the Supreme Court will tell you, the content of an oral argument does not necessarily foreshadow the substance of an actual ruling. The justices probably will rule on the alfalfa case by June.

The future of agricultural biotechnology may hang in the balance. With a bad decision, cutting-edge crops will become newly vulnerable to ideological attacks through the legal system. These attacks won’t improve our health--nobody has ever shown biotech crops to be anything other than perfectly safe--but they would make it much more expensive to bring new types of crops to market. The risks would provide a strong incentive for investors to put their money into something other than agriculture.

Even with a favorable ruling, other threats loom. Today, federal regulators take almost 1,200 days to review new types of GM crops--twice as long as they did just two years ago, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization. In 2009, the Department of Agriculture approved only three new biotech crop products, down from an average of five per year a decade ago.

Our international competitors aren’t sitting on their duffs. “The slowdown comes as regulators in rising agricultural powers such as Brazil, Argentina, and China are showing more enthusiasm for genetically modified crops,” reported the Wall Street Journal last week. Last year, Brazil approved nine types of GM crops, up from five in 2008.

So while we’re slowing down, they’re speeding up.

The solution is not to cut corners. We want a world-class regulatory system that makes sure new GM crops merit approval. At the same time, we must prevent the enemies of biotechnology from turning the approval process against us. They would use regulations not to protect farmers and consumers, but to strangle an entire industry. This is what has happened in the European Union, where an insensible and anti-scientific opposition to biotechnology has made European farmers envious of their peers in other countries who now enjoy access to several types of genetically enhanced crops.

Farmers, consumers, and investors need rules that they can count on. Regulations must guarantee our safety and also function at a level of sophistication and objectivity that doom special-interest attacks.

The federal government may in fact need more regulators: USDA has asked Congress to boost its biotech oversight budget by 46 percent, to $19 million. I’m rarely an advocate of bigger government, but this sounds like a wise expenditure, especially if it helps farmers gain faster access to drought-tolerant corn and other promising products.

Every day, biotechnology is a more important part of modern life. Our government’s priorities must keep up with the times.

Reg Clause raises cattle, corn and soybeans on a fourth generation family farm in central Iowa. He is a Truth About Trade and Technology board member (www.truthabouttrrade.org)

The Real Story About Biotech Crops

May 06, 2010
By Bill Horan - Truth About Trade & Technology board member - www.truthabouttrade.org

Leave it to the New York Times to accentuate the negative.

A new report from the National Research Council praises the widespread acceptance of biotech crops in the United States. We’re producing more food than ever before, keeping grocery-store prices in check, and doing a better job of protecting the environment. Farmers, consumers, and conservationists should stand up and cheer.
So what’s not to like?
Well, rather than celebrating an agricultural achievement, the headline in the Times warned about too much of a good thing: “Study Says Overuse Threatens Gains From Modified Crops.”
That’s the media for you: Show a journalist a golden field of wheat and he’ll ask about the chaff.
I’m here to say that the real story about biotech crops is not just good, but actually better than the most positive press releases make it sound.
The National Research Council, an arm of the U.S. federal government, exists to provide elected officials, policy makers, and citizens with scientific advice on everything from breast-cancer detection to water management. Its studies are carefully considered, frequently extensive, and often regarded as authoritative. 
The report on genetically modified crops, which was released last week, involved the work of ten scientists over a two-year period. Their 253-page analysis concluded that biotech crops provide “substantial economic and environmental benefits.”
Farmers have known this for years. That’s why we’ve adopted this technology so quickly. Today in the United States, the vast majority of corn, soybeans, and cotton are genetically enhanced. Around the world, farmers have planted more than 2 billion acres of GM crops since their commercial introduction. Everywhere they’re grown, yields go up and costs go down.
We’re also helping the environment. Higher productivity reduces the pressure to convert wilderness into farmland. Better weed control leads to lower fuel consumption, which shrinks our carbon footprint and helps the climate. It also means we don’t have to till the earth as much, so GM crops fight soil erosion, too.
The farmer’s war on weeds won’t ever end--and it’s true that the rapid spread of biotechnology is probably building herbicide resistance in this old foe. This was the aspect of the NRC report that the New York Times chose to highlight. 
Yet it’s almost like treating the law of gravity as news. Did you know that if you fling a fish into the air, it will fall to the ground? It might even land on a discarded copy of the New York Times, which could then double as a convenient fishwrap.
Agriculture has its own natural laws. One of them states that if you spray weeds with herbicide, they will become resistant. This is true whether or not biotechnology is involved. The wonder of GM crops is that our existing varieties of herbicide have been so effective for so long. In time, we’ll have to develop new kinds to continue working alongside biotechnology, but then we’ve always known that.
All of these biotech benefits are quantifiable: We measure input and output, just like any business with a balance sheet. The best thing about biotechnology, however, can’t be translated into numbers. It’s about quality of life. Biotechnology is a huge time saver that allows farmers to escape the rigorous schedules of the past.
Call it the “agro-sociology” of biotech. When I was a farm boy, I would spend my summers in the fields with a hoe, from dawn to dusk. That was weed control before biotechnology came along and wiped out this boring, back-breaking form of labor. Nowadays, my kids don’t have to perform this same chore. They can work elsewhere on the farm or do any number of other things: play a sport, read a book, and so on.
I’m liberated as well. My parents used to work around the clock, especially during harvest. Biotechnology made it possible for me to take time off work and watch my children play basketball.
Don’t get me wrong: Farming hasn’t gone from hard to easy. In a world of increasing demand and global competition, plenty of challenges remain. Yet life on the farm has gotten better.
Scientists at the National Research Council are smart enough not to put a price tag on this advantage--and not even the most determined journalist can deny that biotech improves lives everywhere.
Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and grains in Northwest Iowa. This fourth generation family farm has been involved in specialty crop production and identity preservation for over 20 years.  Mr. Horan volunteers as a Truth About Trade & Technology Board member. www.truthabouttrade.org
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