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Best of NAMA 2024

Op-Ed by Steve Forbes, President, Forbes Media (as it appeared in the Houston Chronicle)

American agriculture is a big deal. It is science-driven, profitable, more environmentally attuned than ever and in a real sense, feeding the world.

Yet unlike other key drivers of the economy in the U.S. or Texas, outside of this industry, no one appears to notice it - which is unfortunate because this vital piece of the economy is under assault in a way that will harm the ability of the world to feed itself.

The business of farming has undergone a total transformation over the past quarter-century - so much so, we now refer to it as "agribusiness." The advent of everything from GPS receivers in farm equipment to track planting, fertilizing and harvesting; to microanalysis of cropland to closely calibrate seed types to soil conditions; to using the Internet to get the best prices for input purchases to when to sell crops and livestock, has created a system where in 2012, 2.2 million farms in the U.S. (roughly 250,000 in Texas) had cash receipts totaling $390 billion for both crops and livestock.

Of our exports, agriculture is one of the largest segments: according to a paper by the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, in 2012 it made up fully 10 percent of all exports in 2012. In fiscal year 2013, agricultural exports ran a trade surplus of $38.5 billion. And a U.S. Department of Agriculture model shows each $1 billion of agricultural exports supports about 6,800 jobs.

A critical piece of the agricultural export puzzle is domestic infrastructure. The perishable nature of most agricultural products means a slight delay at a rail yard or truck terminal can yield a ruined shipment.

Plans to build new, major shipping terminals in the Pacific Northwest that would boost our ability to increase exports are under government scrutiny, not because anyone is opposed to providing new facilities for shipping agricultural goods to Pacific Rim nations, especially China, but because they will also move domestic coal to fuel Chinese power plants.

Environmentalists who oppose carbon-based energy, led by organizations like the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, are fighting to a stalemate against unions, regional shippers and the broader business community. Agriculture and all other exporting industries are collateral damage.

But American farming's prodigious output is possible because American biotechnology leads the world. The green revolution will rival and surpass the industrial revolution for its effect on the everyday quality of life of billions of people who live at or below subsistence levels.

In addition, biotechnology married to agriculture means we use less fertilizer and make fewer passes over fields with heavy equipment, and better soil conservation while producing bigger yields.

Yet American agriculture has become a magnet for negative attention from the professional, activist left. As a nation, if we are not careful, this underappreciated economic gem will cede its future to antibusiness activists who use a variety of political and regulatory ploys to substitute scare tactics for science in our food systems.

Over the past two decades, European activists have exported their Luddite views and implemented bans preventing the planting of bioengineered crops in all but four African nations: Sudan, Egypt, Burkina Faso and South Africa.

We are not immune to bad ideas. Dozens of states have considered affirmative labeling mandates in spite of a clear U.S. Food and Drug Administration standard for safety of all food products and a marketplace rich in information about our food including an Organic Standard.

America's farmers are the linchpin meeting the increasing food demands of a rapidly growing middle class around the world. As population soars toward 9 billion people, we must understand what drives economic growth and where discovery is happening.

Agriculture is where an ecosystem of farmers and scientists provides the highest-quality products to Americans' tables, employs millions of workers and is saving lives around the globe. It is time to take note.

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