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Nation's food supply

On Dec. 23, the worst-feared circumstance to the U.S. beef industry occurred. The secretary of agriculture announced finding a case of BSE in a dairy cow in Washington state. This is the first documented case of BSE in the United States.

Every person in the beef industry panicked when this announcement was made. No doubt, we all expected the worst. I guess, as far as having markets collapse, we have experienced what we considered to be the worst.

USDA has done the right thing since the finding of the BSE beef. The secretary announced immediately the recall of any meat that had been put in the consumption chain, and that involved an eight-state distribution system. It later was expanded to 12 states but, nonetheless, the meat has been recalled.

The secretary announced further restrictions on cattle that could be slaughtered. This did not include the so-called downer cow.

I applauded the secretary for making these kinds of decisions. It is good that the secretary has assured the public that the use of organ meats — brain or spinal cords, where the BSE was found in this cow — is never used for human consumption.

The procedures have been completed to protect consumer safety. If those things had already been in place, this would have never been an issue.

The other thing that should have been in place since we began processing beef in such a high volume is that any cow suspected of having any illness should never be placed in the food supply until the test comes back negative for whatever the animal is suspected of having. This would prevent a lot of chaos and would probably have prevented a loss of consumer confidence in the beef industry.

Now the real point. All food served to U.S. consumers has been processed using the safest procedures possible to assure consumers that the food they purchase is safe. Everything done is based upon scientific measures for the protection of consumers — from the manner in which the animals are slaughtered to the way in which they are handled in the processing facility to the temperatures at which the meat is maintained during its journey to the dinner table.

All procedures that are dictated by sound science are followed. Many things beyond the control of farmers, packers and retailers are done because of food safety concerns. There can be no doubt that the food we process and serve in this nation is grown and tended in a manner that is absolutely safe for human consumption.

The beef producer will ultimately be the person who takes the hit for this mad cow case. Markets have already dropped more than $30 per hundredweight. This is at a time when the industry was beginning to reap profit to the producer and, I might add, a much needed profit.

The fact that the farmer will always take the first cut and the last raise is so evident in this BSE scare. The first response from the packers was lowering their bid prices for cattle.

I do not believe I have picked up any meat in the supermarket lately that reflected that the packers had decided to lower their price to the retail outlet. I can only imagine the retailers are maintaining the margin that they are paying the packer to get the beef available in their stores.

We have experienced the loss of almost all of our foreign buyers of our meat products. They have all announced the refusal to allow American fed cattle into their countries. That is a normal reaction but, hopefully, when the steps are all taken and the safety is assured, these markets will reopen.

This does, however, dictate a greater need. For several months now we have been a proponent for country of origin labeling. This case of BSE dictates the real need we have, not just to have USA meat labeled, but to have all meats labeled as to their country of origin.

The reason we need to have the country of origin labeling is very simply — every country has its own standards to produce food. Each has its standards to assure that food is processed in a manner that is acceptable to health standards. Once a country establishes its production and processing methods, it needs to have them protected along with the ability to retain a significantly higher price for the different production and processing methods utilized.

It is never cheap to do things right or to do things the best. However, in the case of our meat supply, it is essential that we do both. Certainly, we want to grow it in a manner that is acceptable to the scientific community as far as safety issues are concerned. Also, we want to process meat in a manner that is considered the best for the consumer.

USDA must stay on top of not just BSE, but any other disease that could threaten our supply of food. It is their job. We must be in the forefront in determining the standards that provide for the safe growing and processing of our food supply.

May we continue to support that effort and encourage our congressional representatives to see that, once that standard is set, we will maintain and protect our supply of beef and assure the world through our country of origin labeling, that everything is done right with the American food supply, especially the meat of choice at most dinner tables… beef.

David Waide
Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation

Flooding pilot program

The program for flooding ag fields (“Pilot program pays for flooding,” Jan. 9, 2004, Delta Farm Press) looks like a fantastic program to benefit farmers, wildlife, hunters, environmentalists and others. I am very interested in any program that can benefit so many Mississippians in so many ways. Your article was very informative and I can see another benefit called “groundwater recharge” which could help restore some of the groundwater that has been used over the years.

I am a frustrated duck hunter and hope our agricultural community will help return Mississippi to the winter home for ducks that it used to be and it looks like y'all are making a good start. I look forward to seeing the program expand.

Joe Lauderdale
Jackson, Miss.

Consequences of consolidation

During the last two decades, agriculture has experienced a revolution in terms of consolidation among companies supplying the chemical and genetic technology so critical to the success of our industry.

In World War II during the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill said, with reference to the battle performance of the Royal Air Force, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Our current situation, with regard to the availability of stable-yielding cotton varieties with adequate fiber quality, has caused me to formulate the following phrase in the spirit of the Churchill quote. “Never in the history of the U.S. cotton industry has the future of so many been limited by the uninformed business decision of so few.” How did this happen?

In 1970, the U.S. Congress passed the Plant Variety Protection Act. This caused a burst of activity among both private and public plant breeders, since the new law provided for proprietary protection for breeders. This law seems to have prompted an increased input of resources into the development and release of new commercial cotton varieties, which probably contributed to the rapid increase in the rate of yield improvement in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The results for cotton was an increase in lint yield from about 450 pounds per acre in 1970 to approximately 700 pounds per acre in the mid-1980s, an increase of about 250 pounds of lint per acre. The rate of yield improvement reached a maximum of about 15 pounds per acre per year during this period.

By the mid-1980s, a movement was well under way in the cotton breeding industry, both private and public, directed towards the discovery of genes which could be patented and the genetic transformation of cultivated upland cotton with these patented or patentable genes. In fact, the first disclosure for patent of cultivated cotton regenerated from tissue culture was published in 1985.

This movement was precipitated by an apparent change in policy by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office which allowed the issue of patents on sexually reproduced plants and individual plant genes and appears to have diverted critical resources away from the development of new varieties into the discovery of patentable genes and transgenic varieties.

This course of events wrought mighty changes in the cotton planting seed business. Large amounts of venture capital were invested by major companies to develop the biotechnology required to place transgenic cotton varieties on the market. Most small to intermediate sized breeding operations were squeezed out of business simply because they had neither the capital nor the expertise required to form a competitive enterprise.

This choked off a major impetus in innovative “whole genome” cotton breeding, i.e., the development of broadly different new varieties based on segregation and recombination of the complete genomes of the parental lines. Indeed, during recent years, backcross breeding of transgenic varieties has dominated the cotton breeding industry.

The transgenic varieties which now control a majority of the commercial cottonseed trade are, predominately, old varieties with a patented gene inserted into the recurrent parent. These genes have focused on input traits, that is resistance to insects and herbicides, and not on output traits such as yield and quality.

In addition, an amendment to the PVPA was passed in 1994, which added the “essentially derived” provision to the law which appears to have greatly restricted the free exchange of germplasm among cotton breeders. The end results of this movement seems to be stagnant genetics and stagnant yield and quality. Further complicating the situation is the fact that a single company controls the overwhelming majority of the planting cottonseed market.

On the utilization side of the equation, domestic mill consumption has declined from around 12 million bales per year to about 6 million bales per year. Imports of finished textile products have exploded and now dominate retail sales in the U.S. market at the expense of domestic products. The bottom line is that our mills are unable to compete in this environment.

New more efficient manufacturing procedures will undoubtedly be required to break out of this stalemate. Some of the needed technology is available, namely vortex airjet spinning, which provides for dramatic improvement in yarn production. The primary problem is that our fiber quality is much too variable to work in this system.

Now we come to the crux of the dilemma; we need to make highly significant improvements in fiber quality. There can be little doubt that our genetics and breeding programs have stagnated. On the other hand, our market structure has suppressed any impetus in this direction by failing to assign any real monetary value to the needed fiber quality.

Must we continue to be trapped in the clutches of commodity commiseration and the tentacles of merchant mentality, that is, just wait and you will get something for nothing. Surely, we can discount poor quality into high performance! Let us recognize that a “good deal” must be good for all relevant interests.

We have the technical know-how, both from the textile engineering and the genetic engineering perspective, to significantly attenuate these problems. Surely we are intelligent and resourceful enough to overcome these problems. Perhaps we will. If we don't, it now appears there is an excellent chance we shall perish as a significant force in the cotton/textile world!

Hal Lewis
Doddridge, Ark.

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