The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.
Founded in 1986, IATP is rooted in the family farm movement. With offices in Minneapolis and Geneva, IATP works on making domestic and global agricultural policy more sustainable for everyone.
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About Think Forward
Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health.
May 31, 2011
Minnesota farmers embrace Farm to School, finds new survey
Farmers, ranchers and other food producers are interested in
The survey, completed by 67 small- and medium-scale producers and multi-farm collaboratives, showed strong interest in selling more locally grown foods to Minnesota K-12 schools and broad support for educating students about local food and farming issues. Ninety-five percent of respondents indicated that they are either “very” (60 percent) or “somewhat” (35 percent) interested in selling to K-12 schools. When asked about the reasons for their interest, respondents’ top three reasons were to “educate children about the food system,” to “increase access to healthy, locally grown food” and to “[generate] new revenue for my farm.”
“Farmers’ enthusiasm, not only for supplying locally grown food to schools, but for helping our young people understand where and how their food is grown, is very encouraging,” said IATP’s JoAnne Berkenkamp. “The number of Minnesota school districts engaged in Farm to School has risen from just ten in 2006 to 123 districts in 2010. This represents a terrific new opportunity for farmers and schools to partner more closely in making fresh, local foods available to K-12 students around the state.”
“The benefits of building connections between Minnesota farms and schools are clear,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Frederickson. “Our students, our farmers and our local economy all win when local farm products reach school cafeterias.”
Among the respondents who have sold to K-12 schools in the past, 50 percent described their experiences as “very successful,” with 37 percent calling the experience “somewhat successful.” Key challenges include meeting schools’ particular product specifications and volume needs, and building closer relationships and purchasing mechanisms between farmers and school food buyers.
As one farmer put it, “Tremendous opportunity exists, and it's exciting to see it beginning to come together! As some of the hurdles are addressed, the growth could be terrific.”
The survey is part of IATP’s ongoing Farm to School initiative and compliments a similar survey of Minnesota K-12 foodservice directors released in March 2011. The full survey results and more information about IATP’s Farm to School initiative are available at www.iatp.org and www.farm2schoolmn.org.
May 26, 2011
Antibiotics in ethanol? Just say no.
Here's an issue you don't hear very much about: antibiotic use in ethanol production.
Image above used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user argonne.
May 24, 2011
Healthy Farms, Healthy People Summit
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy joined with Public Health Insititute, Public Health Law & Policy, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, California Food & Justice Coalition, and American Farmland Trust to convene the CDC-funded Healthy Farms, Healthy People Summit last week in Washington, D.C (See the event agenda). The blog post below from our partners at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition provides an overview of the topics and discussions that took place over the course of two-day summit.
Dietz encouraged participant consideration of how these facts in agriculture and public health are intricately linked.
The conveners of the summit will be surveying participants on next steps including the possibility of forming a farm bill public health coalition of some kind. They will host a series of discussion webinars over the summer to explore the feasibility of and interest in various policy options and will organize a meeting for advocates.
-- by Helen Dombalis, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (See original post.)
May 20, 2011
Exploding watermelons and exploding headlines in China
A new spate of food safety scares has hit China this spring, from tales of exploding watermelons (caused by application of a dodgy growth accelerator) to cadmium in rice to pork tainted by a dangerous feed additive.
This sudden rush of bad news is not happening because food has become less safe (it has been unsafe for a while now!) but because of a change in government policy toward press reporting on this sensitive issue, according to the Associated Press:
Zhang Yong, the director of the executive office of the new Cabinet-level Food Safety Commission, recently praised the media's "important watchdog role" after being asked why journalists have frequently able to find food safety problems before inspectors.
Until recently, reporting on tainted or fake food was a risky move for the media, so Director Zhang is playing a new tune here, but if the government’s hope is that bad press alone will shame food companies into more responsible behavior, as is being reported, it’s a terrible miscalculation and an unfortunate abdication of regulatory responsibility.
It's unlikely that media scrutiny and public opinion will compensate for the deficiencies of state regulatory power in China, where libel laws are notoriously pro-plaintiff, and companies frequently bring suit and win on the grounds that their profits have suffered due to statements made in the press or on the internet. They don’t even need to file suit themselves. Instead, they can go to sympathetic local officials, who often use criminal libel laws to silence anyone critical of either government behavior or of companies deemed vital for local employment or tax revenue.
It is certainly true that a century ago, muckraking played an important role in improving food safety in the U.S., but public shaming alone seldom changes corporate behavior. In most countries, press exposés of corporate abuses have brought reforms by fuelling public outrage, which was converted into political action by social movements that pressured government to reign in corporations. (Can you spot the missing link in that causal chain in China?)
What’s needed is not a change of heart by embarrassed “bad actors,” but a transformation of the food system, which is currently built around making money above all else. Food is treated as just one more manufactured good, and in the search for market share and profits, companies will do virtually anything to lower costs and move product; a weak press and a weaker civil society can't fix that. If China’s leaders decide that they want a food system based instead on ensuring a supply of safe, healthy food for the Chinese people, the quest for profit will need to take a back seat to the rights of more empowered consumers, press and regulators, and a well-regulated market will work better for all but the most unscrupulous players, since consumers with a higher level of trust in the system will be less skeptical of all products.
If regulation of the food system in China operates like policing other parts of the economy and society, we can expect that the current spate of food safety horror stories will lead to a “strike hard” campaign. There will be video footage of courageous police and perp walks, and then, within a few months, the status quo ante will return.
May 18, 2011
What's standing in the way of healthy, sustainable agriculture?
Transforming U.S. agriculture to make it healthier and more sustainable is suddenly a hot topic. Last week, Science published an essay in its policy forum, Transforming U.S. Agriculture, concluding that we already have the technology to grow healthier food more sustainably. Standing in the way is the domination of agricultural markets by monopolies and oligopolies, the lack of means for getting up-to-date information to farmers, and, maybe most importantly, the lack of appropriate policies that incent farmers to adopt healthier, more sustainable practices.
May 17, 2011
The global impact of China's pig industry
Minneapolis – China’s decision to shift toward industrial pig operations, and away from smaller-scale production, has important implications for the future of China’s farmers, the environment and global agricultural markets, finds a new report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).
The report, Feeding China’s Pigs: Implications for the Environment, China’s Smallholder Farmers and Food Security, by Mindi Schneider, traces the history of China’s pig industry as it has evolved over the last several decades from backyard production to highly industrial operations. The paper examines the global implications of China’s decision to rely on imported soybeans to feed the country’s pig industry.
“China’s pig industry has become more and more dependent on multinational agribusiness investment and imports for feed,” said IATP President and China expert Jim Harkness. “This development has changed the dynamic of agriculture in China and pushed smaller-scale pig producers out of business. It has also played a role in increasing demand for agricultural land internationally.”
China is the biggest pork producer in the world—almost all of its 50 million metric tons of production in 2010 (half of all the pork in the world) was consumed domestically. While domestic companies dominate the Chinese pork industry, transnational agribusiness firms like Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge and Cargill dominate the country’s soybean crushing industry. The growth of the country’s pork industry is a direct result of polices that have liberalized trade for some products, like soybeans, and retained protections and other policy tools like a pork reserve, in others.
The policies are a response to growing demand for meat in China, but they will not close the dietary and income inequalities that persist, and serious environmental and public health costs are escalating, according to the report. The increased liberalization of agriculture is taking a toll in rural China, where smallholder farmers struggle to access markets and make a living. Industrial livestock production generates more than 4 billion tons of manure annually, which has grown into one of the largest sources of pollution in China’s waterways. Globally, as more land is converted to soybeans to feed China’s pigs, there is an increase in pesticide and fertilizer use, as well as a loss of biodiversity. The heavy use of feed additives, such as hormones and antibiotics, in China’s livestock production has been linked to a variety of health concerns.
“The crises of industrial agriculture are emerging in China as it is elsewhere in the world,” said Schneider. “This signals an opportunity for policymakers to consider supporting more sustainable ways forward.”
The paper recommends that China reassess the impacts of its strong adoption of industrial pork production and pig feeding on China’s population and environment. Redirecting research and subsidies from industrial systems to locally embedded systems, while maintaining food reserves, are steps in the right direction that could help meet national food security, development and environmental needs.
G-20 struggles to face up to agriculture price volatility
Last week, a background paper for the G-20 Summit of Agricultural Ministers on price volatility from eight international organizations appeared . The paper, dated May 2, was presented last week to the sherpas who are preparing for the summit, to be held in Paris on June 23.
The analysis treats the failures of international markets seriously. It provides a clear and useful explanation for why price volatility, so useful at low levels in the movement of goods, becomes a serious problem when price swings are too large. Yet the paper is fundamentally dissatisfying.
The start and end points of the recommendations (more so than the analysis) is how to ensure open market liberalization works. And even at that, ends up compromised by the politics of free trade, in which poorer countries can be held to a much higher standard than the richer countries that fund the international agencies providing the advice. So on the one hand, developing countries should further increase their dependence on international markets, while relying on finance (including loans) from the international system—finance that has a poor track record to date, both for timeliness and adequacy. On the other hand, the G-20 countries themselves can continue to disrupt those same international markets, asked only to moderate their public subsidies and mandates for biofuels.
The authors of the report do not question whether the emergence of high levels of volatility in international markets, at a time when international markets are more important to more countries’ food security than ever before, warrants a more fundamental rethink from the governments that are so central to agricultural trade (most of the them G-20 members). Given the mix of agencies involved in drafting the paper, and the critiques some of those organizations have provided of globalization, especially since the food price and financial crises in 2008, this is a pity.
New elements—fundamentally important elements—have been introduced into this final version of the paper, which is the third version to have circulated. For instance, the paper now discusses how to tackle very high levels of food waste, which plagues rich and poor countries alike, though for quite different reasons. Some of the more questionable claims (such as the need to increase food production by 100 percent by 2050) have been toned down, though they remain problematic (the final version suggests a 70-percent increase is needed).
Yet the recommendations are anything but bold. Volatility in international agricultural commodity markets is a problem that is both hurting G-20 interests and that G-20 member states could largely remedy. Instead of promising money to other countries, and thinking of new ways to manage risk, the G-20 need to look to their own policies to consider how to mitigate the causes of uncertainty that are feeding current levels of volatility.
The G-20 includes most of the major exporters of food. Most of the members continue to push for market access for their products—even those, such as China and India, that carefully control their domestic agricultural markets. The G-20 (and the companies they host) have a lot at stake in ensuring international markets function in ways that meet importers’ interests. G-20 members, such as Argentina and India, exacerbated the 2008 food crisis by taxing or banning certain food exports. Others, such as the United States, Canada and European Union persisted in biofuel subsidies that created pressure on demand, and raised prices, at a time when a number of countries were facing food riots. The implications of what the food exporting countries did were not lost on poor net food importing countries (known by the acronym NFIDCs), which are now looking with significantly renewed interest at the possibility of increased food self-sufficiency.
With hindsight, the failure of net food exporters to accept the legitimacy of NFIDC demands for safeguards to protect their access to food, while at the same time insisting on their right to distort international markets with domestic preoccupations was probably the last straw for the Doha negotiations. There is no sign, unfortunately, that the international organizations who authored the report have been given (nor yet taken) the leeway to comment on this crisis in the consensus that has shaped international trade policy since the early 1990s.
Members of the G-20 house the world’s largest agribusinesses, the commodity exchanges that set commodity futures prices, produce most of the grain-fed livestock and provide the subsidies and mandates that prop up the industrial biofuel industry. While the NFIDCs turn to diversifying their food security strategies to encompass more than increasingly unreliable international markets, the G-20 has it within its power to lessen the likelihood and the degree of volatility itself. They have a significant interest in using that power. Unfortunately, there is far too little in the IO contribution to the G-20 Agricultural Ministers’ Summit to help them achieve this realization.
 FAO, IFAD, UN HLTF, UNCTAD, and WFP, together with the World Bank, IMF, WTO and the OECD.
May 11, 2011
Loud and clear: Report finds state laws get BPA out of baby bottles, sippy cups
The Minnesota-based public health coalition Healthy Legacy, cofounded by IATP in 2006, has some good news for parents today.
In a new market survey, Message in a Bottle: A Market Survey on Bisphenol A (BPA) in Baby Bottles and Sippy Cups (PDF), Healthy Legacy found that state legislation was a key driver in actions of key states, parents in states with BPA bans can be pretty sure that baby bottles, sippy cups and breast-milk storage products on the market are free of bisphenol A (always look for a BPA-free label, though). Unfortunately, states without BPA laws, like Oregon, still have BPA-containing children’s products lurking on some store shelves.
The market survey checked the inventory of baby bottles and sippy cups in 89 stores from 35 communities in five different states. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Chicago and New York all have laws on the books that ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups. The survey findings confirm that in these locations, nearly all bottles and sippy cups are BPA-free and labeled as such. However, in Oregon where legislation to ban BPA is still pending, parents need to be alert for BPA containing products still on store shelves. Based on our samples, parents should be particularly alert on shelves of dollar stores, value stores and drug stores.
Both state and federal action are needed to ensure that parents in every state, no matter where they live or where they shop, need not worry about BPA in baby products such as bottles and sippy cups. While the U.S. lags behind the European Union, China and Canada in federal action to restrict BPA, states are still moving to phase out BPA in baby products and food can linings. Beyond baby products, families should have information that makes it easy to make BPA-free purchasing choices when it comes to canned food and other consumer products.
We also need to fix the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the broken and out of date law that is failing to protect public health from exposure to toxic chemicals. Current legislation introduced by New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg seeks to fix many of the problems with TSCA through the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011. In Minnesota, Senators Franken and Klobuchar are both co-sponsors of the bill. Take a moment to thank them for their support.
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is a cofounding member of Healthy Legacy, a diverse public health coalition with 34 member organizations, representing over one million Minnesotans. Healthy Legacy promotes healthy lives by supporting the production and use of everyday products without toxic chemicals by advocating for consumer education, business leadership and protective policies to advance safe alternatives in Minnesota.
By Katie Rojas-Jahn, Healthy Legacy Coalition Coordinator
May 06, 2011
Ethanol subsidies: better to burn out than to fade away?
Ethanol’s main subsidy—the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC)—is on the chopping block. Given the current fiscal climate, even ethanol proponents have resigned themselves to the fact that VEETC—an annual $6 billion tax credit, set to expire at the end of this year—is probably on its last legs.
This week, those that would kill the 45-cent blenders’ credit subsidy quickly, and those that would prefer a long farewell, drew their lines in the sand. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced a bill Tuesday that would fully end VEETC and the import tariff on foreign ethanol by July 1, 2011.
A day later, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Kent Conrad (R-N.D.) released a bill that would gradually make the tax credit counter-cyclical over the next five years. Under their bill, VEETC would drop to 20 cents next year and 15 cents in 2013. After that, the credit would be pegged to oil prices, ranging from 30 cents a gallon when oil is at $50 per barrel or less, to zero when oil reaches about $90 per barrel. It would also keep the import tariff, but lower it to 20 and then 15 cents in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Co-sponsors of the Grassley-Conrad bill include Minnesota DFL Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.
Essentially, this week’s legislative action is the culmination of efforts on two sides of a heated debate around VEETC (and corn ethanol generally, but I’ll stick to VEETC in this blog). Team A: a strange-bedfellows coalition of environmental and hunger organizations (including Friends of the Earth, Environmental Working Group, NRDC, Oxfam and others) and livestock and processed food producers (groups like the American Meat Institute and Grocery Manufacturers of America). Team B: the ethanol industry (Renewable Fuels Association, Growth Energy, etc.) and the National Corn Growers Association. Bet you can guess which team likes which bill.
Regardless of how it happens, there’s no denying it’s well past time to make a shift in our biofuels policy. The question is, will federal policy drive better, or just more, biofuels? (Even if VEETC dies, we still have a federal manadate for biofuel production). The sooner we can get to an approach that rewards performance (see our colleague Loni Kemp’s “Greener Biofuels Tax Credit” for an idea of one such approach), rather than gallons, the closer we will be to better biofuel policy.
May 03, 2011
Second thoughts on lessons of children's health in China
Nick Kristof opined a few days ago in the New York Times that while there’s every reason to be critical of China’s human rights record, we should also recognize the country’s achievements, especially in the field of health. The average life expectancy of children born in Shanghai, he points out, is now higher than the average life expectancy for American children. I admire Kristof’s work, both his writing from China a couple of decades ago and he and his wife’s wonderful work on behalf of women’s rights. And I think that in general, we need more analysis that reveals the complexities of China to U.S. readers, who are fed too many sensational and even xenophobic Yellow Peril stories in the mainstream press. But while the stats in his story seem to contrast the two countries, a closer look shows that his snapshot of the present ignores trends toward China and the U.S. becoming more and more alike, and not in a good way.
The apparent difference between Chinese and U.S. children’s health is, in part, an artifact of the two statistics he chooses to compare. Instead of the average Chinese child and average American child, it is the average Shanghainese child versus the average American child. In the U.S., average life expectancy is affected by the tens of millions of poor, uninsured people whose lives have gotten worse since 1980. And in China, a range of policies during this same period have sucked wealth out of rural areas and into cities, widening the wealth gap so that today, even relatively poor urbanites are still far better off than their country cousins. (And as one of China’s wealthiest cities, Shanghai is an increasingly unrepresentative subpopulation.) So yes, China has made admirable strides in children’s health programs, but because—like the U.S.—societal inequality is increasing, not everyone the same chance to benefit.
The other concern I felt while reading Kristof’s piece had to do with an article I had read a few days prior. It was an announcement from McDonald’s Corporation that they would be opening 700 new stores in China over the next two years. In all but the poorest countries, neither starvation nor communicable disease are the real threats to a long and happy life. Instead, people’s lives are shortened (and made more miserable) by non-communicable diseases brought on by the overconsumption of alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy foods. In the U.S., rates of obesity and associated illnesses shot up back in the 1980s, (and along with increasing inequality, have pushed down our life expectancy). But until just a decade ago, China’s diet was hailed as one of the healthiest in the world. Recently, though, China has seen a rapid increase in the consumption of meat, sweets and edible oils—much of it in the form of processed and fast foods—bringing on an obesity epidemic and skyrocketing rates of diabetes. (Alcohol and tobacco abuse are also on the rise.) The McDonald’s expansion in China, part of a fierce war for market share with other international fast food chains, shows that this trend is not slowing. So while there may be many things we can learn from China about children's health, it also appears that China may be following a dietary (and social) trajectory dangerously similar to ours.