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March 2011

March 31, 2011

The sweet sell on Brazilian ethanol

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

On our last day in Brazil, we got the hard pitch on sugar ethanol from UNICA: an association of 110 companies producing 60 percent of the country's ethanol and sugar production. UNICA has done a masterful job marketing sugarcane ethanol as the cleanest, lowest carbon fuel in the world—garnering a 2009 Bulldog Public Relations Award for their efforts. But our discussion was more than just a flashy powerpoint, there was a lot to be impressed by as well.

Brazil is the largest sugarcane producer in the world—and the world's second largest ethanol producer (next to the U.S.). According to UNICA, sugarcane production uses less fertilizer than corn (the primary U.S. feedstock), needs only to be replanted every six years or so, and uses a variety of integrated pest management tools to help lower pesticide use. All sugarcane mills are energy self-sufficient because they burn both the leftover stalk from the sugarcane as well as bagasse (waste leftover after the sugarcane has been processed). About two-thirds of sugarcane processing plants can switch between ethanol or sugar, depending on what that market demands.

We asked UNICA about the harsh treatment of workers at sugarcane plantations we had heard about from the Landless Rural Workers Movement earlier in our trip. UNICA pointed to a recent joint government/industry/NGO commitment on labor conditions it had made in 2009. The industry is also moving to lower the need for labor by increasing mechanization. In Sao Paulo—the largest sugarcane producing state in Brazil—all the plantations will be mechanized by 2017. What will happen to workers who formerly worked on these plantations is unclear. And there are still a lot of sugarcane plantations that operate both outside of UNICA, and outside of Sao Paulo.

On the environmental front, UNICA is pushing to reform (some would say weaken) Brazil's Forest Code, which prohibits agricultural expansion into protected areas and requires landowners to set aside 35 percent of their land for forests. The Forest Code is currently being debated in Brazil's legislature. UNICA claims that 90 percent of producers don't comply and meeting the code's requirements is burdensome and nearly impossible. While UNICA does not see sugar production directly extending into forests, they do hope to expand into pasture land, which could be affected by the Forest Code.

Currently, 80 percent of Brazilian ethanol is used domestically, aided by a mandatory blending requirement and the growth of the country's flex-fuel vehicles. But a major UNICA priority is to expand trade and "consolidate ethanol as a global commodity," including knocking down ethanol tariffs in the U.S. and EU. This emphasis on an international market differs from the U.S. farmer cooperative members that were on our trip. In a strange turn that we didn't get fully explained, Brazil actually imported U.S. ethanol earlier this month.

After nine days in Brazil, meeting with farmers, academics and NGOs, our group was well-armed with questions. But in the end, UNICA gave us a lot more to think about on biofuels and land use as we said our goodbyes and began our 10-hour flight back to the U.S.

Ben Lilliston

March 30, 2011

Food packaging major exposure route for BPA

A new peer-reviewed study published today in Environmental Health Perspectives has found evidence suggesting that food packaging is a major source of exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA).

The study, conducted by the Breast Cancer Fund and the Silent Spring Institute, recruited five families (each with two parents and two children, for a total of 20 people) and tested them for levels of BPA and certain phthalates in their urine while feeding them a diet of freshly prepared foods. 

BPA is a known endocrine-disrupting chemical and has been linked to numerous health effects, including behavioral changes, early-onset puberty, reproductive harm, diabetes and even cancer. Due to its dubious reputation, it was also recently named on the Minnesota Priority Chemicals list, which includes toxins that are harmful to children and are present in products kids are exposed to. Phthalates are no treat either, having been linked to poor sperm quality, obesity and cancer.

What did the study do?

On the first two days of the study, participants ate as they normally do. On the following three days they were provided with freshly prepared organic meals—no canned food, and no plastic storage containers. After that they went back to their normal diets.

The levels of BPA and a particular phthalate called DEHP (used in food packaging) dropped substantially (an average of 60 percent for the BPA, and 50 percent for DEHP) during the three days when participants were only eating the freshly prepared foods.

Reduce your BPA exposure

Bpa_topten_media These findings suggest that food packaging (e.g., canned food, grease-resistant wrappers and polycarbonate bottles) is a major exposure route for BPA, and that removing it from food packaging would lead to an immediate and significant drop in BPA levels in the general population.

One recommendation from the authors is to cut out consumption of prepackaged foods and to cook from fresh as much as possible. They've even created this handy chart (right) which shows the top ten canned foods known to leach the most BPA, so start by avoiding those if you can.

BPA and phthalates have both been linked to certain types of cancer. You can act now by asking President Obama to take a strong stand on getting these cancer-causing chemicals out of our products.

Katie Rojas-Jahn

March 25, 2011

Touched by agriculture: The Pantanal

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

After being immersed in Brazil’s new soy frontier, we travelled to another eye-opening landscape—the Pantanal. The Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world and stretches from Brazil into Bolivia and Paraguay. The range of birds (we sorely missed the expertise of avid birder, and IATP President, Jim Harkness), frogs and other species is unlike anything on earth. Some photos below will give you only some idea of our short time there.

Because the Pantanal is under water six months out of the year, there is little direct threat from agricultural expansion onto the area. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t affected by agriculture. The Pantanal is fed partly by a series of rivers and tributaries, including Rio Cuiaba, which run straight through Mato Grosso’s soy fields. We talked with the owner of our lodge who expressed concern that runoff from Mato Grosso farm country was already affecting the Pantanal. Her worry is that the situation will only get worse. The flood cycle is now starting later in the year (consistent with concerns about climate change)—another source of unease in this amazing part of the world.

Wetland Bird in green                                                             

Birds Croc     

 

Capybara Parakeet

Ben Lilliston

Tale of two farms in Brazil

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

Today, we got our shoes dirty. We visited two very different types of farms outside this bustling agriculture town of Lucas do Rio Verde. One, struggling to survive, the other seemingly thriving. One small, one large. One growing all food, the other nearly all agricultural commodities. The stories of both farms reflect the challenges and promises of Brazilian agriculture.

The previous day we heard about a forming cooperative of small farmers, struggling to produce food in the margins around giant soy, corn and cotton farms. Sure enough, this morning we drove down a dirt road surrounded by cotton and corn fields, till the road split off in a V. In a triangle shaped wedge, 30 families (each with 2.5 hectares, or 6 acres) managed a series of highly diverse farms. Thesmallfarmer

The lead farmer we talked with (See photo to the right.) had finally been granted access to the land three years ago, after working in the fields for others in the area for 20 years. He had travelled north from southern Brazil, where his father owned a farm, but also had six children, meaning there wasn't enough room for everyone on the farm when they grew up. He headed north to claim his own farm. As he was introduced to our group, his deep blue eyes immediately went to peoples’ hands. He said he was trying to identify who were the farmers in our group.

The 30 families mostly farm to feed themselves. They grow a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, pigs, poultry and cattle. What they don’t eat, they sell in town at the market. While the government helped them locate the land, they receive very little other government support and technical assistance.

There are other challenges. Pesticides sprayed onto the larger farms often drift onto their land, with no buffers except a narrow dirt road. Bugs from nearby soy fields often migrated onto their land when spraying takes place. The farmers expressed concern that expanded corn acreage associated with U.S. ethanol production was increasing pressure to expand soy production in Brazil, and hence further squeeze their access to land in Mato Grosso.

It was clear that life and work on these farms was extremely difficult. When asked, he admitted that in some ways it was harder than life as a laborer, but they wouldn’t trade it. They were becoming self sufficient, and things were getting better.

We saw a different side of Brazilian agriculture when we visited with Carlos Pedrozan later that day. (Photo below, left.) Pedrozan owns an immaculate 500 hectare soybean and corn farm. His father travelled to Thebigsoyfarmer Mato Grosso from the south of Brazil 25 years ago. At that time, about 30 percent of his land was deforested. Now, 75 percent of the land is deforested. Over the last 25 years, land prices have increased “1000 percent.” And many foreign groups are looking for land to develop in the region, according to Pedrozan.

The farm began to grow soybeans right away. But it was only five years ago that they began to grow a different, second crop —corn—during the same season (something we can’t do in the U.S.). When we arrived his corn crop was in the field. While he’s not quite able to get the yields our Minnesota farmers on the trip reported, that’s not entirely the point. His corn is sold for feed connected to the giant pork and poultry facility in town run by Sadia. Salidameatpackign  (See picture to the right.) But it also serves to complement the soybeans to feed the soil.

Like U.S. farmers he talked about the challenges of low prices. Soybean prices are lower in the region
than elsewhere in the country because of the high costs associated with truck transport. Corn prices are also low. Like U.S. farmers he is a price taker, meaning he doesn’t set his prices and must take what the agribusiness companies pay him. He thought the level of production in the U.S. affects the price he receives for corn, but not so much for soybeans, because the market is more local (Sadia, and a nearby soy biodiesel plant).

Unlike U.S. farmers, Pedrozan receives no government support, like crop insurance or subsidies, when the market or weather hits a tough patch. Recently, his soybeans had been hit with a type of nematoid that sounded like cysts to our Minnesota farmers in the group.

Will there be room enough in Brazil for both types of farms, big and small? For a country this size, and all the benefits it has for agricultural production (land, water and tropical weather), and now money and investment, there should be room for both. But it appears government and agribusiness investment have mostly picked one type of farm over the other.

Ben Lilliston

March 24, 2011

Photos from Brazil

This week, IATP led a delegation of U.S. academics, environmentalists and corn and biofuel producers to Brazil to study biofuels and indirect land-use change. Photos from the trip are on IATP's Flickr page and there are plenty to see!

Andrew Ranallo

March 23, 2011

World Water Day statement from the Water Justice Movement, March 22, 2011

World Water Day is observed every year on March 22 as a day of action to draw attention to the role that fresh water plays in our world and lives, and the challenges that lie ahead in realizing right to water for all. The past year has been momentous as far as the advancement of right to water goes. There have been two developments in the U.N. system in 2010, both of which uphold the state’s responsibility in ensuring the right to water. The first was the United Nations General Assembly Resolution of July 28, 2010 and the second has been the U.N. Human Rights Commission Resolution of September, 2010.

Acknowledging these and other developments around the world as well as outlining the broad contours of the challenges communities face in realizing the right to water, the following statement has been prepared for this World Water Day by all who are part of the water justice movement.

World Water Day Statement from the Water Justice Movement March 22, 2011

On World Water Day 2011, with water justice activists around the world mobilizing to assert the right to water and sanitation for people and communities, to preserve water as part of an ecological trust and to ensure that water is democratically controlled by the people in the public interest, we issue this short statement to reflect on both recent victories toward implementation of the right to water as well as the challenges and threats that remain ahead.

We are heartened by passage this past year of two resolutions within the U.N. system that have further affirmed the right to water and the obligations governments must fulfill to uphold this right. The first resolution, passed in July 2010 in the U.N. General Assembly was championed by leading countries in Latin America, including Bolivia, as well as other countries in the global South, and its passage marked the first time this body had gone on record formally acknowledging the right to water and sanitation.

The passage of a resolution within the U.N. Human Rights Council acknowledging states’ obligations to fulfill the rights to water and sanitation just three months later is demonstrative of the momentum that has been built over the past year. Even those countries in the global North, reluctant to support the resolution, have been compelled to shift their positions, recognizing that the time when governments must truly recognize this right is at hand.

We also wish to express our solidarity with the communities and individuals struggling in their own countries to push for national recognition of the right to water, such as in Colombia where an effort to enshrine the right to water as a constitutional right shares wide popular support despite resistance from elected officials.

We find the imminent decision of the U.N. Human Rights Council to extend the position of the U.N. Independent Expert on the Rights to Water and Sanitation a promising step toward honoring the commitment governments need to make toward advancing the right to water. We are pleased that as a result of the resolution authorizing this extension, communities whose right to water is being violated or hindered may now raise specific complaints with the Independent Expert, now the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Water and Sanitation.

We also look forward to efforts in the coming year by champions of the right to water in the global South to move U.N. Member States to pass a resolution that would call on states to guard against the privatization of water resources and systems, which would be further evidence that governments are prioritizing their obligation to protect the right to water from interference by corporations intent on exploiting water resources for profit at the expense of people and nature.

The ongoing tragic events in Japan demonstrate how even in countries where the majority of people have adequate access to water and sanitation, a natural calamity can quickly put millions in desperate situations where access to water quickly vanishes. This profound reminder of our fragility and dependence on this fundamental resource should strengthen our resolve to ensure there are strong protections for people’s right to water, so that it is prioritized when emergencies occur, and so that the billions of people whose lives are a constant struggle for access to water and sanitation might finally find reprieve.

The long struggle for free expression and self-determination that has recently flowered in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, provides a profound analogy to the ongoing struggle we have seen to protect and fulfill people’s right to water. For too long, some governments have failed to respect the rights of their people. This negligence has included not only the denial of people’s civil and political rights, but in some cases their rights to water as well.

Governments now have a choice. They can honor these rights and take full responsibility. They can prioritize the right to water by fully funding these systems and by protecting the water sources that provide people with access, especially the poorest who are in greatest need. They can support the public water systems and workers that run these systems by enhancing their capacity and supporting sustainable jobs for those who are entrusted with running these systems. They can foster truly democratic institutions that give people and communities the power to make decisions about how their water sources and public water are governed, with full transparency, participation and accountability.

Or, they can abdicate that responsibility, whether by closing their eyes to over-extraction and pollution of water sources or by handing over control of the water systems to the private sector, rationalizing their decisions in the name of narrow economic efficiency.

So, today, on World Water Day, we call on the United Nations and its member states to continue to take concrete action to fully realize the right to water for people and nature. The momentum built this year must not be delayed by further inaction or by attempts to co-opt such efforts into just another means by which to maintain the status quo for the benefit of entrenched corporate and political interests.

Countries must not only lend their weight to these international efforts, but must also take greater responsibility for full implementation of this right within their own borders, such as by developing comprehensive national plans for democratic governance of water resources, public water and sanitation systems. Communities should have the power to decide how to organize their common resources, especially one as vital to survival as water.

As people around the world over strive for greater transparency, accountability and participatory democracy, governments must heed these voices, not just that of bankers and corporations. Let us together revive our commitment to democracy and democratic institutions so that together we can fully realize and implement the right to water.

Shiney Varghese

Everyone's land

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

Today we drove north five hours, from Cuiaba through soybean and cattle country, to a city that seems only possible in Brazil—Lucas do Rio Verde. The city was founded in 1988 and now is a bustling agribusiness town full of chemical and seed shops and farm equipment. As we drove into town many of the company signs were familiar to Minnesota farmers: Cargill, ADM, John Deere.

The town's population has grown from 19,000 in 2000 to 45,000 in 2010 thanks to agriculture. The giant meat processing plant takes chickens and pigs, fed by the large-scale soybean fields that surround the town (though we also saw a lot of corn). Forty percent of those soybeans go into the local biodiesel plant or animal feed for the poultry and hogs.

But the boom hasn't come without bumps in road, particularly related to land and environmental protection.

20110321_lucas43 Representatives from the Rural Workers Union told us how many small-scale farmers had difficulty getting access to land 10 years ago, and laborers faced terrible working conditions. But conditions have improved. Many who were previously landless now have land they have either rented or bought collectively (divided equally in two-hectare increments). They are on the verge of launching a coop that will include 500 farm families from 10 districts in the area, and hope to market a variety of foods—vegetables, milk, poultry, pork—produced by traditional ecological practices. Their goal is to meet the region's foods needs—somewhat surprising given the agricultural activity that surrounds the town. But similar to many U.S. rural farm areas, the large-scale production in Lucas Do Rio Verde is destined for elsewhere. Poultry to Arab states and the pork to Venezuela, a local government official told us. (Photo: trucks of soybeans heading out of town.)

Edu Laudi Pascoski, the Minister of Agriculture and Environment for the region, told us about the area's unique history when it comes to environmental protection. In the 1970s, the Brazilian government offered incentives to clear the land and turn it into farm fields. After massive deforestation, and under rising  international pressure to better protect the environment, the Brazilian government reversed itself. Farms in this region are required to leave 35 percent of the farm in forests or replant forests if they've alreay been cut (imagine such a law in the U.S.). And land along waterways is required to have a significant natural buffer from farmland.

Enforcement of these environmental requirements has been difficult, Pascoski told us. A farmer may buy forested land somewhere else in the country, just to cover his 35 percent requirement. This is difficult to verify. And, if a watered down revision of the country's Forest Code gets approved by the Brazilian government, the pressure to protect land won't be as strong.

20110321_lucas23 One result of Brazil's environmental requirements is that there can be no more agriculture land expansion in Lucas Do Rio Verde. But that doesn't mean production can't become more intensive and efficient. We were given slick marketing material (titled in English "Everybody's Land"). Pascoski mentioned that he had recently hosted 120 Americans visiting the region. He said U.S. and other foreign interests both rent and own existing land in the region. (Photo: A statue and biodiesel plant in front of our hotel.)

This optimistic town has another reason for optimism: A coming railway, which will reduce transportation costs and time. And send Lucas do Rio Verde's bounty to the rest of the world.

Ben Lilliston

March 22, 2011

Challenges of Mato Grosso

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

On Sunday, we travelled to Cuiaba—a city of half a million in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Cuiaba is a gateway city between two critical biospheres in Mato Grosso: the Pantanal to the south, and savannahs of the middle and northeast. The savannahs are home to springs that feed into many rivers in Brazil, including the Amazon, which dips into the northwest part of Mato Grosso. Aside from its biodiversity, Mato Grosso is culturally diverse, home to 35 distinct Indigenous peoples. The region is also home to some of the largest agricultural expansion in Brazil. While most agricultural land is for cattle ranching, and increasing number of hectares are going towards soy production.

1300626460089 On a hot and extremely humid day, we met with representatives from FORMAD (Mato Grosso Environment and Development Forum), which includes representatives of human rights, environmental, indigenous rights and small-scale farmer organizations. FORMAD is developing alternative models to help reach social and environmental goals together.

Like many other parts of Brazil, the main disputes in Mato Grosso are over land. Pressure to increase expansion of soy, cattle and lumber production are overrunning the need to protect environmentally sensitive areas, as well as traditional lands for indigenous peoples, according to FORMAD. Currently, there are geographic boundaries that define what is private and indigenous land. But enforcement is weak, and big landowners are pushing to redraw the boundaries.  

FORMAD members discussed how the growth of soy and cattle ranching has drawn indigenous people away from their land; leaving behind traditions, culture and a greater diversity of agricultural production.  This trend stands to be a major loss for biodiversity, as the pointed to research showing that indigenous communities are the best stewards of these lands, even better at protecting natural areas than national parks and other government preserves. “In indigenous land, the protection of biodiversity is part of a cultural tradition to preserve nature. Indigenous people have an economic model that is based on nature. And sacred values based on protecting nature,” a FORMAD representative told us.

The changes in agricultural land in Mato Grosso have had a number of adverse effects, according to FORMAD. There has been a major loss of rural populations, with many migrating to the cities. Slave labor continues to be a problem: In 2009, 5,000 workers were saved from slave labor in Mato Grosso by Brazil’s Labor Department. Pesticide contamination is affecting health (found in breast milk) and water quality throughout the region. Many pesticides currently banned in the U.S. and EU are still being used here.

20110320_cuiaba12 FORMAD representatives were very interested in the reality of U.S. farming. Several of the Minnesota corn farmers with our group talked about the loss of family farmers in the U.S., the increasing absentee ownership of farmland, the push to increase value in what they produce (through ethanol), the migration of children in farm families to urban areas, and the growth of larger farms and loss of mid-sized farms.(Left, FORMAD members talk to our delegation)

Transportation holds the key to Mato Grosso’s future. Right now, agriculture products are transported almost exclusively by trucks, but there is a growing push to expand and improve railways and river navigation. FORMAD believes that transportation improvements designed largely for agribusiness will bring increasing pressure to expand agricultural land in Mato Grosso, and further damage to the region’s rich biological and cultural diversity.

Ben Lilliston

Land and power in Brazil

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

“Land in Brazil is a source of power. The landowners are the powerful. Inequality in Brazil can be traced directly to who owns land,” Paulo Alentejano, a Geography professor at the University of Rio de Janeiro told us on Friday. We were at the union hall of Brazilian oil workers at a meeting hosted by the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) to help us understand the relationship between land ownership and the agricultural economy in Brazil.  

20110319_rio110 Professor Alentejano made four key points about the concentration of land in Brazil:1) there has been a persistent concentration of ownership; 2) there is an increasing influence of globalization on Brazilian agriculture; 3) increased mechanization is reducing labor opportunities; 4) there continues to be persistent violence and environmental degradation associated with land use throughout the country.

The GINI Index measures inequality among countries and Brazil’s is among the highest in the world. According to Alentejano, this is linked to increasing control of the land by agribusiness interests. He cited the presence of companies—like Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, ADM, Cargill, Bunge and Dreyfuss—as deeply influencing land-based decisions. Land ownership by foreign interests is increasingly a concern, particularly as China becomes the country’s largest trade partner.  

Alentejano pointed out that exact statistics on land ownership are impossible, and that’s part of the problem. “The country doesn’t know much about who owns the land. We don’t know how much land is in foreign control. The Brazil agency has no data. They just don’t know,” Alentejano told us.

As agricultural land increasingly serves the interests of agribusiness by focusing mostly on five products (sugar, soy, cattle, lumber and corn), food insecurity is increasing, according to Alentejano. There has been a reduction in production of rice, beans and mandioca—staples of Brazilian diets—over the last 20 years. 

Somos Todos Sem Terra Marcelo of the Landless Rural Workers Movement talked with us about how land ownership affects sugarcane workers. Marcelo described horrific working conditions,  including tightly packed trucks (often the same trucks used to transport animals), slave labor and regular exposure to toxic pesticides. Sugarcane workers are often uneducated and unaware of their rights. “To earn more, workers need to eat less, drink less and endure degrading labor conditions,” Marcelo told us. Workers that don’t complain are rewarded.

Sugarcane production in Brazil continues to expand, particularly around Sao Paulo and Rio. One driver of this expansion is increasing mechanization, which also requires less workers. Another driver is biofuels (agrofuels as MST calls them) produced by the sugarcane. MST believes the expansion of sugarcane production is crowding out food production. “Energy production can work with family farms, but you can’t stop producing food,” said Marcelo. “We can’t enter into this production model and undermine the other model.”

Ben Lilliston

March 21, 2011

On the ground in Rio with a diverse set of opinions

Nathanael Greene coordinates renewable energy work at the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC). He is travelling on an IATP-led delegation to Brazil to study agriculture, biofuels and land use. IATP is reposting views from others on the trip. This blog first appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

I'm in Rio De Janerio today on my first full day of a nine-day trip to explore the impacts on biofuels policy here in Brazil and back home in the U.S. on land-use change here (ILUC). As I wrote about earlier this week, the trip was organized by IATP and includes a mix of farmers, ethanol producers, environmentalists and one academic who also fits into a number of those other categories.

We all got to Rio with no problems and spent the afternoon wandering along the beach and downtown. This is a beautiful and incredibly lively city, and our conversations kept switching between biofuels and policy, land-use and agriculture, and hey look at that!Sugar Loaf at sunset

We sat down early on in the afternoon and shared our reasons for coming on this trip. The perspectives on the link between biofuels policy and land-use change are all across the board. Some largely rejected the idea of ILUC but wanted to understand why others believed in it. Some are trying to understand the details better so they can better explain and refine the accounting for the emissions from ILUC. All of us expressed interest in both understanding what's happening on the ground in Brazil from Brazilians and at the same time getting a broader perspective on the important and extremely complicated set of links between policy, biofuels production, land use, food and feed production, food prices, food security, economic development, energy security... the list goes on.

On the one hand, ILUC is very simple and direct: biofuels today require land that could be used to produce food or feed. Group picture in RioThis land is limited. If we produce even a little less food or feed, the markets adjust. We call it indirect, but it's really very direct and fundamental to any product that requires large amounts of land. We should think about oil the same way, but I've yet to identify a aspect of oil production that is as fundamental to gasoline as land is to current biofuels. But of course, there is little that is simple in the world of energy policy, land-use policy or agriculture policy. 

As John Sheehan from the University of Minnesota said during this initial discussion, biofuels keep taking us to ever deeper and wider into the questions around sustainability.

One thing I already learned is that the threat to the Pantanal is not from filling but from conversion of the neighboring Cerrado. The Cerrado drains into the Pantanal and is being converted for soy and sugar cane and the concern is that the fertilizer, herbicides, pesticide runoff and changes in hydrology maybe damaging the Pantanal.

Oh and we saw this too!

Christo from the beach

Ben Lilliston

Brazil: In the middle of the game on agriculture

IBASE Wall

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

“In Brazil, the pressure of the market is overwhelming,” John Wilkinson, professor at the Rural Federal University in Rio, told us as he described Brazilian agriculture in stark terms. We were in the offices of the Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE) to get the state of play on biofuels, agriculture and the environment in Brazil. IBASE is a long-time friend of IATP (one of IBASE’s four directors, Candido Grzybowski, served many years on IATP’s board).

Wilkinson outlined the history of biofuels in Brazil to an audience hungry for information. Ethanol went from being heavily subsidized by the Brazilian government in the 1970s to a more market-driven approach aided by flex fuel requirements beginning in 2003, according to Wilkinson. Consumers can now decide whether to purchase ethanol or gas (their gas still has 25 percent ethanol) at the pump. More than 90 percent of new cars on the market in Brazil have to be flex fuel, and now that Brazilian sugar ethanol has been classified as an “advanced biofuel” it is expected to increasingly find its way into the U.S. The highly concentrated sugar complex, dominated by sugar, agribusiness and petrochemical companies, is ready to take advantage. Sugarcane processing plants can easily switch from producing sugar to ethanol (depending on what is getting the higher price).

20110318_rio32 Wilkinson (left) pointed out that the new leaders of the Brazilian sugar industry are very attuned to environmental and social criticisms of the industry. “They believe that ethanol can only survive if it is perceived as a better solution to oil,” said Wilkinson. “The product will die if consumers associate it with deforestation.” One response has been the phase out of manual labor: 50 percent of sugarcane production is now mechanized. Another is the sugar association’s zero deforestation in the Amazon policy. A downside of further mechanization is increased unemployment. And as sugarcane production expands around Sao Paulo, other agricultural production, like raising cattle, is moving into other parts of Brazil experiencing deforestation.

Biodiesel had a different story in Brazil, explained Wilkinson. The government included social requirements that favored family farmers (defined by size, labor and ownership) and it was to target primarily the domestic market, but rapid demand for biodiesel has pushed smaller farmers out of the market, which is now dominated by what is known as the soy-meat complex of mostly large producers (80 percent soy and 16 percent animal fat).

Sergio Schlessinger of FASE (Sustainable Brazil) described Brazil’s natural advantages when it comes to agriculture production, including water, land and tropical temperatures. Despite these advantages, there is little effective land-use planning in Brazil that fully incorporates environmental threats. For instance, land zoning does not take climate change into account. He argued that current environmental certification systems associated with biofuels are too narrow, and should instead consider the entire system.

Chico Meneses, of IBASE, talked about the social implications of Brazil’s push toward an industrial model of agriculture. While hunger and food security continue to be major factors in Brazil’s elections, he pointed to several policies of the Lula government that helped reduce national hunger rates, including straight income transfers. And he highlighted the work of Brazil’s newly formed National Food Security Council, which has created an institutional market for family farmers. The institutional market—government offices, hospitals and schools—need to make 30 percent of their purchases from family farmers. “This is 48 million school meals per day—a market that was unimaginable a short while ago,” said Meneses.

Nevertheless, major disputes over land and agriculture are constant and escalating, according to Meneses. “We are in the middle of the game in these disputes. Where it will end is very difficult to predict.”

Ben Lilliston

March 18, 2011

Learning about Brazilian agriculture

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IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

The first phase of our trip to Brazil was a success: we all arrived in Rio on time. For the Minnesota contingent, our arrival meant a sharp 50-degree swing upward in temperature. Today, was the first time the entire group met face to face. The impressive group is very diverse in backgrounds and opinions about the role of biofuel production on land use. Aside from four staff from IATP, we have representatives from Heartland Corn, Chippewa Valley Ethanol Cooperative, Frontline Bioenergy, Central Minnesota Ethanol Cooperative, the Natural Resource Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota. (Photo: Bill Lee of Frontline Bioenergy and Nathanael Greene of NRDC check out land use on the Rio beach.)

In an opening meeting, everyone expressed an eagerness to learn more about Brazilian agriculture broadly and, more specifically, how the Brazillian biofuel industry operates. We'll get our chance to get a broad overview as we meet with a panel of local experts at the Rio-based Institute for Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE) tomorrow. Over the next week, we'll meet with small-scale sugarcane farmers and farmworkers; UNICA (the Brazilian sugarcane association); travel to Mato Grosso to visit soybean farms and the Pantanal; and meet with a variety of Brazilian environment and agricultural officials.

Pictures from Brazil are available on IATP's Flickr page. Stay tuned for more throughout the trip.

Ben Lilliston

March 17, 2011

Going to Brazil to study biofuels and land-use change

Wednesday night, I will travel to Brazil with a group of American farmers, environmental advocates, academics and journalists to explore how biofuels policies here and in Brazil are influencing land-use change in Brazil. The trip, organized by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, will take us to the Pantanal wetlands, one of the world’s most biodiverse and carbon-rich landscapes and a expanding agricultural region. There we will learn about the local ecology and speak with Brazilians farmers, academics and conservations about the threats these lands face from agriculture expansion.

Wikipedia map of Brazil

I cannot imagine preserving Brazil’s rich ecosystems without immediately considering the immense Amazonian rainforest. But Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands are an equally valuable natural treasure and an internationally recognized UNESCO World Heritage site. The region is known for its extraordinary diversity of plants and animals, with over 650 species of birds and 400 species of fish. Dense populations of globally threatened jaguar, marsh deer, giant otter and hyacinth macaw can all be found in the Pantanal’s river corridors, seasonal grassland, freshwater lakes and open gallery forest.

I hope to document a tiny fraction of this rich biodiversity on film and video and post it here. But my larger goal is to better understand and help illuminate the connection between our own biofuels policies, Brazil’s biofuels and agricultural policies, and these precious wild places thousands of miles away.

Wikipedia map of Mato Grosso home of the PantanalHere at NRDC, we’ve written extensively about biofuels—their promise if done right and their dangers if done wrong. We’ve focused much of our attention on ending subsidies for the most environmentally harmful biofuels, such as ethanol made from corn.

Not only does corn ethanol create more global warming pollution than the gasoline it replaces, but it raises global grain prices by diverting a huge share of our annual corn crop to fuel production—nearly 40 percent and growing!— with devastating consequences for the world’s most vulnerable communities. This also increases pressure to convert our last remaining wild landscapes, like the Pantanal, into agricultural lands to address the unmet demand for food and animal feed.

Recent food riots around the world have signaled a second global food crisis in just three years and many journalists have freshly addressed soaring food prices and the role biofuels mandates in the U.S. and other industrialized countries are playing in pushing up the price of grains. [This recent Wall Street Journal article is just one example.] Other factors like population growth, increasing demand for meat, rising oil prices and agricultural devastation caused by extreme weather events—an intensifying consequence of a changing climate—further complicate the web of policy and market dynamics at play.

These issues can seem remote and abstract to us here in the United States. I hope this trip will allow me to view some of the impacts of our policies firsthand, understand a bit of the local economic development imperative, and speak directly with the people whose lives and livelihoods place them at the center of these complex issues.

How does a U.S. farmer in the Midwest decide what he’s going to plant and how much? With corn prices expected to average roughly $6.25 a bushel this year, is there anything more profitable to do with his land than grow corn? How have crop failures in other parts of the world affected his profits? What about rising oil prices?

What connects that Midwest farmer to a Brazilian farmer planting soybeans in recently drained acres of Pantanal wetland? How does that Brazilian farmer respond to increased demand for soy this year? What’s the role of large landowners in the Pantanal? What’s role of subsistence farmers?

These are the questions I will be asking during my time in Brazil and reflecting upon here. I hope that trying to capture the perspectives of the people I meet along the way will be both interesting and informative, so please stay tuned!

Nathanael Greene coordinates renewable energy work at the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC). He is travelling on an IATP-led delegation to Brazil to study agriculture, biofuels and land use. IATP is reposting views from others on the trip. This blog first appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

Ben Lilliston

March 16, 2011

The Brazil connection: agriculture, biofuels and land use

Today, four IATP staff will lead a small delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (we'll be reporting here on the trip throughout the next week). We're traveling to Brazil to learn more about something called "indirect land-use change" (ILUC)—a concept that has important implications for farmers, food security, the climate and, of course, land in both Brazil and the United States.

Indirect land-use change, very broadly, is the idea that what we grow on agricultural land in the U.S. affects agricultural production in other parts of the world. For example, more corn grown in the U.S. to meet biofuel markets has come at the expense of soybean production, signaling soybean producers in other parts of the world to expand production, often damaging the environment, so goes ILUC thinking. Disagreements over whether ILUC actually takes place, and if so, how much is occuring, have been part of heated debates over California's low-carbon fuel standards, national renewable fuel standards, the EU's biofuel mandates and at global climate talks. Disputes over ILUC have frequently pitted environmentalists against farmers.

ILUC discussions also often include Brazil. Like the U.S., Brazil has a booming biofuel sector. Like the U.S., it is a major player on international agricultural markets, particularly for soybeans and sugar. While the U.S. has long transformed most of its native landscape into farmland and cities, Brazil is still home to some of the most unique, biodiverse ecosystems in the world, including the Amazon and the Pantanal. And the biggest threat to these environmental treasures is expanded agricultural production.

Our trip brings together people with different perspectives on ILUC in the U.S. to get a better sense of what is happening on the ground in Brazil. We hope to learn more about Brazil's agriculture sector. What are the pressures driving increased production? What role is government policy (U.S. or Brazilian) playing? How are these pressures affecting the environment and water systems? How are they affecting farmers, farmworkers and Indigenous communities?

Answers to these questions are becoming ever more urgent. With rising agricultural commodity prices worldwide, pressure to further expand agricultural production is not likely to ease any time soon. We'll be reporting on meetings throughout this trip and including the perspectives and blog posts from participants. Stay tuned...

Ben Lilliston

March 15, 2011

IATP welcomes LaDonna Redmond to lead food and justice project

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy announced today that LaDonna Redmond will lead a new project focusing on health, justice and the food system. 

The project will center on health disparities resulting from the food system, from the farm to consumers—particularly as they affect low-income populations and communities of color.

“We are excited to have LaDonna lead this area of work,” said IATP President Jim Harkness. “A more fair and healthy food system has to include everyone, not just those who can afford it. LaDonna’s extensive experience working at the community and policy level will be a tremendous asset.”

Redmond is a long-time community activist who has successfully worked to get Chicago Public Schools to evaluate junk food, launched urban agriculture projects, started a community grocery store and worked on federal farm policy to expand access to healthy food in low-income communities. Redmond is a frequently invited speaker and occasional radio host. In 2009, Redmond was one of 25 citizen and business leaders named a Responsibility Pioneer by Time Magazine. Redmond is a former Food and Society Policy Fellow. 

“We have a food system that has largely been built on the backs of people who don’t have a lot of rights and access to our public policy infrastructure,” said Redmond. “We need to collectively better understand the inequities in the food system and make sure we include people who have faced these inequities in finding solutions.”

Redmond will be leading efforts at IATP to identify research gaps related to health in the food system, and connect researchers with those facing inequities in the food chain, including farmers, farm and food workers, and consumers.

Here is a short video featuring LaDonna talking about food justice, health and what role IATP can play:

Download the press release (PDF) or watch the video on YouTube.

Andrew Ranallo

March 10, 2011

Minnesota schools increasingly eat farm fresh

A new survey of Minnesota foodservice leaders released today shows, in just four years, the number of Minnesota schools participating in Farm to School has sharply increased: From just 10 in 2006 to 123 this year. 

F2s Foodservice leaders representing 50 percent of the K-12 districts in the state responded to the survey, conducted by IATP, in partnership with the Minnesota School Nutrition Association (MSNA).

“Minnesota is lucky to have the three key ingredients for Farm to School: dedicated food service leaders,  innovative farmers seeking local markets, and passionate students and parents,” says IATP's JoAnne Berkenkamp.

See the press release for more information, or read the full survey results. For more Farm to School resources and information, and to see a map of Minnesota school districts participating, be sure to check out Farm2SchoolMN.org!

 

Andrew Ranallo

March 08, 2011

Reclaiming rights on International Women’s Day centennial

The year 2011 started with the news of food price hikes around the world pushing even more people, especially women, into hunger. But then along came images of women in Egypt in the forefront of a revolution to get rid of a government that has been in power for over 30 years! Victories such as the ones in Egypt are occasions for celebrating the strength and resilience of women even under the most oppressed circumstances, and their ability to defy prevalent stereotypes.

So, what will 2011, the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, bring for women?[1]

In the initial years, tragic events such as the "Triangle Fire" of 1911 (which killed more than 140 working women in New York City) became a focus of International Women's Day. Since its beginnings in Europe, International Women's Day has grown to become a day of recognition and celebration across the world. Drawing attention to the abject working conditions women faced, and to issues such as land rights and food security, domestic violence and trafficking in women, and at the same time expressing solidarity with sisters across cultures and regions, IWD has grown in strength and visibility.

Yet on this 100th anniversary, what is foremost in my mind are the continuing challenges that women and girls face. In least-developed countries, nearly twice as many women over age 15 are illiterate compared to men.[2] Girls account for two-thirds of children denied primary education, and 75 percent of the world’s 876 million illiterate adults are women.[3] And women and girls make up over 70 percent of the 1.3 billion people living on less than a dollar a day. They form the majority of the water poor and food insecure. Given that 75 percent of the poor live in rural areas, and that there is a gender dimension to rural-to-urban migration, it is safe to say that most of these women, living on less than a dollar a day, are in rural areas. It is their responsibility to eke out a living from their surrounding environment for themselves and any other family members dependent on them.

A little over 10 years ago it was estimated that “women work two-thirds of the world's working hours, produce half of the world's food, and yet earn only 10 percent of the world's income and own less than 1 percent of the world's property.”[4] I have not been able to find a comparable figure for women’s involvement in food production systems in this decade, even though the trends in seasonal and annual male migrations away from rural areas likely have increased women’s share of work in food production.

Women are likely to be especially hard hit this year by the hike in agricultural prices. The U.N.’s food-price index rose 34 percent from a year earlier.[5] The price of onions increased by more than 60 percent in some South Asian markets, while that of tomatoes doubled in Middle East. According to World Bank estimates, 44 million people have been rendered food insecure by the recent rise in food prices. Even though we do not have a gender breakdown for these numbers, it would seem fair to assume that at least 70 percent of these 44 million are women and girls. 

But there are also reasons for hope. In several climate-challenged communities in Asia and Africa, women have taken a lead of developing climate-resilient food systems. Examples include that of women farmers of Mkuranga District [40 km south of Dar es Salaam] who came together under the umbrella organization, Muungano, to grow organic vegetables and process them for income and food security.[6] Similarly dalit women farmers, of Zaheearabad in India, practice dry-land agriculture in an attempt to adapt to climate change. By following a system of interspersing crops that do not need extra water, chemical inputs or pesticides for production, and by selectively applying farmyard manure once in two or three years depending on soil conditions, the women have been able to meet their food security and improve their livelihood options.[7]

Gender-based differences are evident in developed countries too. In the United States, the highest poverty rate is for rural female-headed households (37.1  percent), followed by female-headed households in other parts (27.1 percent); for single-male headed households these numbers were much lower (16.6 percent for rural and 12.3 percent for urban).[8] Thus in the United States too, food price volatility will be experienced most acutely by members of female-headed households.

However unlike in Africa and parts of Asia, here in the United States, agriculture is a male- (and machine-) dominated activity. In the few cases where women are principal operators, the farms tend to be smaller and tend to grow niche or specialty products.[9] The move towards, smaller, organic and local farms have seen an increasing number of women entering agricultural sector. But for many of them it is not viable as a primary profession yet. Even as we celebrate these efforts of women’s entrepreneurship, we must also make sure that these tasks do not remain as unacknowledged and underpaid as they have in the past!

Like their counterparts in developing countries, women in most developed countries bear a disproportionate burden of child rearing in a family. For poorer women, belonging to marginalized communities, this implies the additional burden of ensuring food security for family members, even as they lack access to resources or control over means of production. Thus both in developed and developing countries women are facing increased challenges in feeding their families. 

There are also promising calls for international policy initiatives. For example, releasing its 2010-11 edition of The State of Food and Agriculture report the FAO said yesterday: “If women in rural areas had the same access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets as men, agricultural production could be increased and the number of hungry people reduced by 100–150 million.”

This new focus on women in agriculture can cut both ways: more women in food production can ensure more food for families; but unless care is taken, women can end up being yet another instrument to achieve narrow development goals. It is necessary that this new focus is as much about achieving food security, and building a climate-resilient food system, as about the empowerment of women and their meaningful participation in decisions that affect their lives. Only such an approach can address the obstacles that block women from claiming their economic, cultural and social rights.

The centennial year, 2011, is an opportunity to recognize women’s role in advancing alternate food systems that are both just and resilient around the world. It is also an opportunity to stand in solidarity with women and girls across cultures and nations that continue to face tremendous challenges in realizing their social, economic and political rights as individual women, as mothers and daughters, and as community members.



[1] A hundred years ago, in 1911, the first International Women's Day (IWD) was organized on March 19. Following discussions in 1913, International Women's Day was transferred to March 8 and since then has remained the global date for IWD.

[4] World Development Indicators, 1997, Womankind Worldwide.



Shiney Varghese

March 04, 2011

BPA-free doesn't mean estrogen free


IStock_000006558719Medium_webA new study in Environmental Health Perspectives found that most plastic containers that come  into contact with food or beverages leach chemicals that mimic estrogen, even when they are advertised as being BPA-Free.

Bisphenol A has been under fire in recent years because it is a compound used in products like baby bottles and sippy cups which releases an estrogen-like chemical that disrupts hormones in the human body. The exposure is believed to be problematic especially in children's products, because their bodies are still developing, making them more vulnerable.

The controversy over BPA has led many countries (Canada was the first) and states in the U.S. (Minnesota was the first) to ban it in certain products. Consumers have also become increasingly concerned about the chemical and have switched to buying BPA-free alternatives.

Researchers purchased more than 450 product samples between 2005 and 2008 to test for leaching of estrogen-like chemicals in common plastic products that come into contact with food and/or beverages. The tests included polycarbonate baby bottles (which contains BPA), and also products that are marketed and labeled as being "BPA-Free."

The testing found that most (over 70 percent) of the products released estrogen-like chemicals when initially tested. After exposing products to simulated sun exposure and heating, the percentage increased to over 90 percent.

The new study reminds us that we can't phase out chemicals on a case by case basis. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is the federal law meant to regulate chemicals in the United States but it is flawed and badly broken, allowing manufacturers to substitute one problem chemical with others that may also be problematic.

It's time for chemical companies to stop playing games with our health. We need real reform that protects people, especially the most vulnerable among us, from exposure to toxic chemicals.

--Katie Rojas-Jahn, Healthy Legacy Coalition Coordinator, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

Katie Rojas-Jahn

March 03, 2011

Food Matters: Training for clinicians

Are you a clinician? What should you know about the food system to help ensure your patients’ healthy pregnancies, and the future life of their fetus and children?

Healthy Food Action’s David Wallinga, MD is teaming with Health Care Without Harm and Physicians for Social Responsibility to do a food system science and advocacy training this Spring to help prepare clinicians to answer that question.

Register now for the Food Matters: Clinical Education and Advocacy Program. Trainings are scheduled in Oakland, March 5, Philly, May 7, Boston, May 14, and Burlington, VT (date TBD).

See the Food Matters website for more information.

– David Wallinga, MD

 

Ben Lilliston

HFCS by any other name: Like putting lipstick on a pig

Tell the FDA you vote no on High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) being renamed “corn sugar.”

Two years ago, we published the first evidence that some HFCS was mercury contaminated. Ever since then, the corn refining industry has been growing ever more shrill in claiming there’s really no concern around HFCS. Take their multimillion dollar “Sweet Surprise” PR campaign, for example. (Methinks they protest too much.)

Now that consumers are shying away from food products carrying HFCS on their label, the Corn Refiners have a new gambit: Just change the name!

That’s right, they are petitioning the FDA to let them stop calling it high fructose corn syrup and to call it “corn sugar” instead. How sweet.  

This isn’t a science issue. It’s a simple matter of having a food system that’s transparent for everyone, and to eaters most of all. Transparency is key to the joint Principles for a Healthy, Sustainable Food System developed by the nation’s nurses, dieticians, public health folks and planners.

Maybe you disagree. And that’s fine. In a democracy you can and should tell the FDA what you think:

Click on this link to the FDA, click “Submit a Comment,” lodge your thoughts, and hit send.

David Wallinga, MD