My son left for Poland earlier this month. He’s participating in a high school student exchange program sponsored by the U.S. State Department that is designed to foster ties between the United States and Poland.

On the flip side of the exchange, two Polish boys stayed at our house for a couple of weeks last winter. We loved having them. They were bright, curious and spoke excellent English, so communication was easy. It was also surprising to realize how much they already knew and appreciated American culture, including Iowa legends like John Wayne and the Bridges of Madison County. (That made a Sunday outing to Winterset a must.)

Participating in this student exchange and other programs really shows just how connected we are with the rest of the world. Like our visitors from Poland, people around the world already know a lot about the United States and are eager to know more. And, thanks to these exchanges, Americans are meeting new people, trying new foods and are becoming more aware of the interesting people, food and customs in other countries.

These exchanges really underscore how small our world has really become. With e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and all of the other communication tools at our disposal, it’s just about as easy to keep in touch with friends half way around the world, as those down the block.

Oddly, even as technology and face-to-face visits pull us closer to the rest of the world, there are some who seem to want to isolate us from other countries, and even from parts of our own country.

Some food activists groups contend that Americans should limit their diets to only locally-grown items. To enforce that, they want to slap a tax on any foods that are imported from another state or another country. Others rail against trade pacts, like the North American Free Trade Agreement. They claim that trade hurts U.S. workers, exploits poorer countries and allows unsafe products to enter the United States.

As I’ve noted before on this blog, I’m a big fan of local food. But I also enjoy foods that come from other parts of the country and the world. That’s especially true during the winter, when local produce is non-existent here in the Midwest. It really makes no sense to force consumers to pay extra for the fruits and vegetables when experts all say we need to consume fruits and vegetables in greater quantities throughout the year.

As for trade, study after study has shown its value in helping our economy and living conditions in the rest of the world. And in a time of global recession, trade is even more important. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk puts it this way: "Now more than ever, we should strengthen, not weaken, our economic ties with the world community because international trade can and will help to drive the world's economic recovery." Certainly we should demand protection to insure that trade is fair and that food and other products imported from other countries is safe. But trade is too vital an engine to the world’s economy to be tossed overboard.

My son is set to return to Iowa in early July. I’m sure he’ll be full of tales about Poland; about meeting new people, trying new things and catching up with Polish friends he met last winter. I’m sure it will be an experience that reinforces the fact that our world really isn’t all that big of a place and it’s much better when we can share it.

Written by Dirck Steimel
Dirck is the News Services Manager for Iowa Farm Bureau.