In 2014, the farmers of Truth about Trade & Technology celebrated the centennial year of Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution. We also marked the 15th anniversary of our organization, started in 1999 after global trade talks in Seattle sparked a riotous protest.
“We resolved to fight back,” recalled Tim Burrack in a column last month. “We decided to protest the protests. Instead of smashing store windows, however, we committed ourselves to reasoned debate and sound argument.”
And that’s how we spent 2014: Spreading the truth about free trade and agriculture technology.
In January, Reg Clause reflected on a trip to Singapore and the lessons he learned there about international commerce: “Experience teaches that free trade is a tool for helping people everywhere. It lifts people out of poverty in the developing world. Trade lowers prices and expands consumer choice in developed countries like the United States.”
The next month, our chairman Bill Horan urged Present Obama to push for new trade agreements and pressed Congress to approve Trade Promotion Authority (TPA): “America’s farmers are ready and willing to keep on planting, harvesting, and selling, especially as new technologies help us grow more food on less land. To take full advantage of this prospect, however, we’ll need political leaders who are committed to maintaining existing markets and opening new ones.”
Export markets matter to farmers, and Mark Wagoner called on our federal leaders to finish the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious trade agreement with the nations of the Pacific Rim, in April: “Foreign trade is a key to our profitability, especially for those of us who farm. We export huge amounts of apples, cherries, pears, wheat, and wine to Asia. Without these exports, many of us wouldn’t be able to farm at all.”
In November, John Rigolizzo Jr. talked about how trade can influence political legacies: “Right now President Obama risks being remembered as a man who presided over a slow-growth economy. To be sure, he has faced enormous challenges, especially early in his tenure. Today, however, global trade presents him with enormous opportunities. He must do everything in his power to seize them.”
Just as free trade represents opportunity, so does technology—and in particular, the technology of genetic modification. It has allowed farmers around the world to grow more food on less land than ever before. Yet it has come under unprecedented attack.
In February, Ted Sheely responded to the restaurant chain Chipotle’s sponsorship of a television show that savaged modern farming: “What kind of values would inspire a corporation to wage a smear campaign against America’s farmers?”
Much of the threat came through the subversive attack of labeling—the idea that food with GM ingredients should carry special warning labels, even though they’re safe and healthy. In October, as voters in Colorado and Oregon prepared to consider ballot initiatives, Terry Wanzek weighed in: “This is what bothers me most about all of these efforts to ban genetically modified ingredients or slap provocative warning labels on certain products: They’re attempts by other people to dictate my decisions through a mix of mandate and fear.”
Earlier in the year, Carol Keiser wondered what would happen if every state created different labeling standards: “Should food labels look different everywhere we go? Of course not. Americans need easy to read and understand standards that reveal pertinent information, no matter where we buy our food.”
In November, right after Colorado and Oregon had the good sense to reject the proposals to mandate labels for GM food, Bill Horan reviewed the recent history of labeling initiatives: “This marks the fourth time in the last two years that voters have turned back proposals to require special labels for food with GM contents.”
Then he critiqued the process: “The ballot referendum can be a useful tool of democracy, but it’s a poor way to go about building a regulatory system to govern something as complicated and important as food,” he wrote. “It’s time to give these ballot proposals an expiration date of right now.”
Finally, he proposed a solution: “A bipartisan coalition already supports the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, introduced earlier this year by Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican. It would permit food companies to label their products voluntarily, but also prevent states from creating a patchwork of complex rules involving mandatory warning labels for food with GM ingredients.”
The Christmas season is a time to count our blessings—and one of our blessings is the abundant food we enjoy because of trade and technology.
In April, Daniel Kelley reflected on how much technology has improved during his career: “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.”
In July, Hope Pjesky wrote about Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram, the winner of this year’s World Food Prize. “Some nights it’s stressful enough to put dinner on the table for my family. Imagine being responsible for feeding millions of people,” he wrote. “His wheat varieties have boosted global wheat production by 200 million tons.”
Unfortunately, some farmers can’t use the best technologies, as Nyashi Mudukuti, a member of TATT’s Global Farmer Network, explained in October. “I raise sorghum and maize on our family farm on less than three hectares in rural Zimbabwe—and although we live in the 21st century, we use almost exactly the same 20th-century farming methods as our grandparents,” she wrote. “The solution is to let Africa’s farmers—and especially its women farmers—gain the access to the technologies that millions of others take for granted. … I desperately wish we could join in and grow these crops in Zimbabwe. They’re an essential part of meeting our food-security needs.
The world needs to hear voices like Mudukuti’s, as British farmer Ian Pigott wrote in October, upon his receipt of the Dean Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award, named for TATT’s founding chairman. “When Norman Borlaug died five years ago, he uttered his famous last words: ‘Take it to the farmers,’” he wrote. “That’s good advice, but I’ve spent a lot of my time doing the opposite: Taking what farmers know and bringing it to the broader public.”
That’s what we tried to do all year, and what we’ll keep on doing in 2015.
Mary Boote, an Iowa farm girl, serves as CEO for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).