About IATP

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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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.

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July 26, 2010

Farmers market power

Two years ago, we launched Minimarketsan initiative with the help of the city of Minneapolis to help organize small (5 vendors or fewer) farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods without easy access to healthy food. Community organizations took the lead. IATP helped navigate the permitting process and connect with farmers. We had six markets the first year. This summer, we have 21. 

The reasons why community groups are setting up these small-scale markets vary. For instance, the Streetwerks Youth Farmers Market serves a northside Minneapolis neighborhood and includes produce from a youth garden project run by Emerge Community Development. The Brian Coyle Community Center hosts a market primarily serving the Somali community on Minneapolis’ West Bank. St. Olaf Community Campus hosts a market at a senior nursing home and apartments. The new market at Children’s Hospital was launched this summer in response to employee requests. Ebenezer Park and Ebenezer Tower Markets serve two high rises that are home to seniors and disabled veterans.

Minnesota Public Radio and the Twin Cities Daily Planet have written great stories on our mini farmers market project. Our press release from today also gives more details.

Community organizations around the country aren't waiting for a new Farm Bill to change our food system, or the next big grocery supermarket to open in their neighborhood. They're teaming up with local farmers to bring healthy food to their communities right now. And they're leading the way toward a new food future.

 

Ben Lilliston

July 01, 2010

Environmental justice, science leaders urge action linking climate and public health

In a letter sent to Congress and the Obama administration last month, leading voices in environmental justice, science and academics asked that: “1) the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs) should not be overturned or diminished; and 2) climate change policy should address the emissions of greenhouse gas co-pollutants, as well as the emissions of greenhouse gases themselves.”

The same facilities and vehicles that emit greenhouse gases also emit co-pollutants that lead to high rates of asthma and other serious public health concerns. In addition to the public health impacts associated with climate change itself, co-pollutants from coal plants and other fossil fuel sources disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color as these communities are largely located where fossil fuel facilities are located and where urban vehicle emissions are concentrated. This unique partnership of leading environmental justice activists, policy analysts, scientists and academics is the first of its kind.

While Congress has rejected initial attempts to undermine the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions for public health reasons, additional attempts to challenge EPA’s authority are expected. Shalini Gupta, director of the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at IATP, was among the 18 leaders who signed onto the letter. To find out more, read the press release and full letter.

Shalini Gupta

June 30, 2010

A final bite of kimchi?

According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. is poised to make a renewed push for completion of a free trade agreement with South Korea. If the agreement moves ahead it will help President Obama make good on his pledge to double U.S. exports in the next five years, but will do so by undermining public health in what was once touted as a model of health and wealth in Asia.

Korea’s experience up to just a few years ago showed that a sovereign nation that values its health and its culture can become wealthy without growing obese. As recently as 2001, nutritionist Barry Popkin and his colleagues wrote:

“South Korea provides an example of the possible benefits of promotion of health through retention of the traditional diet. Despite the very rapid economic change and the very high per capita GNP, South Korea’s fat intake level and obesity level are approximately half of what would be expected for a country at its level of economic development. In addition, its vegetable intake is much higher.

One plausible explanation is that movements to retain the traditional diet have been strong in South Korea. These include mass media campaigns, such as television programs that promote local foods, emphasizing their higher quality and the need to support local farmers. For example, KBS first station’s daily program, Six O’clock My Village, introduces famous products of South Korean villages and promotes consumption of traditional dishes. South Korea also promotes the concept of Sin-To-Bul-Yi, translated directly as “A body and a land are not two different things,” which is interpreted to mean that a person should eat foods produced in the land where he was born and lives.

Part of this effort is reflected in a unique training program offered by the Rural Development Administration. Beginning in the 1980s, the Home Management Division of the Rural Living Science Institute trained thousands of extension workers to provide monthly training sessions in cooking methods for traditional Korean foods, such as rice, kimchi (pickled and fermented Chinese cabbage) and fermented soybean food. These sessions are open to the general public in most districts in the country and the program appears to reach a large audience.”

Traditional diets were also maintained through government trade policies that protected Korean producers and largely kept out the worst international purveyors of fast food and junk food. Just this January, the government banned junk food advertising on television during the evening hours when most schoolchildren watch.

But as Popkin wrote in his subsequent book, The World is Fat, South Korea’s accession to the WTO and other free trade agreements (FTAs) weakened the government’s ability to discourage unhealthy imports. European food and beverage industry pundits drooled when the EU signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with South Korea in 2009 that “will bring the end of almost all tariffs between the two economies” by the middle of 2010.

These agreements, signed with almost no debate and in the face of widespread public opposition, have been devastating to the country’s farmers. But although protecting rural livelihoods and food security should be reason enough to reject trade deregulation, the mass movement in Korea against the FTA with the U.S. has also been rooted in deep concerns for national culture and public health. They know that along with Happy Meals and Chicken Nuggets, they will be importing Genuine American Style chronic disease and lower life expectancies.

Jim Harkness

June 22, 2010

Climate change and the World Cup

To be in Brazil during the World Cup of futbol (soccer) is to see both a massive outpouring of national pride and mass marketing of the very first order. Museums will change their opening hours and churches will change the times they offer mass on any day that Brazil plays. Brazil will host the World Cup 2014. The government is already planning for ways to sweep the streets of beggars and hide the shanty towns (favelas) behind walls, not so they won’t be seen but so the favelas and beggar residents cannot interfere with the tourism and commerce of the tournament.

I am here to talk with NGOs about U.S. climate change policy and more specifically the U.S. financial reform legislation that will have much to do with how carbon emissions are traded in commodity futures markets if and when they are established. Given the current diplomatic stalemate in climate change negotiations, it would be idle to suggest that countries must compete more fiercely to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than they compete to win the World Cup. Certainly the stakes of losing the GHG Games are immeasurably higher than the national disappointment or even disgust when its team is ousted but where is that commercial GHG hook that will have “Beat Climate Change!” T-shirts outselling "Go Brazil" T-shirts?

Granted, the U.S. climate change story is not a happy one or one easy sell to Brazilian groups. Unhappily I explain that our most immediate challenge is not the members of the U.S. Congress who don’t believe that climate change is happening or that it is not serious enough to warrant a massive change in U.S. technology and investment policy. Our most immediate problems are the environmental organizations who believe that carbon markets will induce investment decisions to reduce GHGs.

Earlier this month, IATP published a critique of an International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) proposal that would finance GHG reductions by selling bonds to developing countries. The bond terms would be defined and administered by a new International Green Bond Board that would displace the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol. The collateral for bond repayment would be developing country carbon credits that would be sold and resold in U.S. and EU markets. When I explained that several U.S. environmental organizations worked closely with IETA the Brazilian NGOs weren’t as shocked as I had been when I listened to IETA and the big enviros sing the same tune in Copenhagen.

They said that Brazilian conservation organizations, desperate for funds to fight the destruction of the Amazon by agribusiness, forestry and mining firms, had become believers that selling carbon offset credits to U.S. and EU businesses would stop the destruction of the Amazon. Indeed, as I had read in No Rain in the Amazon, some of the former deforesters were planting fast-growing eucalyptus trees to claim carbon offset credits from a space that once had been home to an immense wealth of biodiversity and climate stabilization. U.S. environmental groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), had sold Brazilian conservation groups on carbon markets in such market conditions.

If Wall Street and other financial centers remain fundamentally unreformed, they will create extreme price volatility in carbon markets, as surely as they did in agricultural and energy markets in 2006–2008. IETA has argued that there should be no limits on the number of carbon derivatives, based on the value of the carbon credits, that some draft U.S. legislation proposes to give away for free to the biggest polluters. Furthermore, IETA opposes any attempt to reduce unregulated trading in the over-the-counter markets.

IATP, with the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition (CMOC) and Americans for Financial Reform (AFR), is fighting to put binding limits on derivatives trading and allow OTC trading only for commodity traders, such as municipal power companies, for whom the greater cost of trading on public and regulated exchanges impedes their ability to provide energy to all consumers. As Wall Street rains campaign contributions on New Democrats to help the Republican Party defeat reform, we fear that if real reform is defeated, the next bill to be bought and paid for by industry will be climate change legislation. Then the only thing for which we will be able to cheer is the World Cup—if it isn’t disrupted by drought, flash floods and more frequent and violent weather.

Steve Suppan

June 09, 2010

Food reserves: Reports from Africa and Asia

At the food reserves meeting that IATP co-organized in Brussels, Belgium along with Collectif Stratégies Alimentaires and Oxfam Solidarity, I was particularly interested in reports from Africa and Asia. Speakers from the East African Farmers Federation (EAFF), the permanent Interstate Committee for drought control in the Sahel (CILSS) and West African Peasant Farmers Network (ROPPA) emphasized that before discussing food reserves, Africa needs broader investment in the agricultural sector to adapt to climate change and achieve food security. 

In terms of establishing food reserve programs, it seems there are some initiatives already underway. One such example is the East African Grain Council initiative, which is working to establish warehouses and warehouse receipt systems. The East African Commission also intends to establish a regional mechanism for the management of food reserves by 2012, which would include an information management system to track food stocks. In East and West Africa, there is the World Food Program Purchase for Progress initiative (P4P), which facilitates the local procurement of food. The Club du Sahel is working toward the establishment of regional food reserves with minimal contribution from participating countries. Farmer organizations and cooperative societies can play an important role in their respective areas by constructing and managing food storage facilities. They are in a position to assist in the reduction of post-harvest losses and to serve as information hubs.

Southeast Asia has its own programs underway. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) already has an emergency rice reserve system that was established in 1979 and then amended in 1997. There is also the East Asia Emergency Rice Reserve (EAERR), which operates as part of ASEAN+3 (China, South Korea and Japan). It seems that neither of the programs was effective in responding to the most recent rice price crisis. Today, governments are working toward an ASEAN+3 Emergency Rice Reserve (APTERR) to better respond to shocks and food scarcity in the future. The Asian Farmers Association’s (AFA) position is that in order for a rice reserve mechanism to be effective, it must:

1.   be easily accessible to address emergencies and related needs;

2.   have safeguards so that it is not used to dump surplus rice;

3.   not undermine incentives for local rice production;

4.   have clear modalities (modes and triggers for access, price and/or volume shortages and mechanics of distribution of rice stocks from the reserves);

5.   be subject to regular participative review and assessment.

AsiaDHRRA, a Philippines-based NGO, is working with small-scale producers to establish community reserves based on local traditions and Indigenous culture. Their programs support food preservation techniques, local rice banks and community nurseries, prioritizing the needs of women farmers, facilitating access and ownership of land by small-scale farmers and building public consciousness.

I walked away from the meeting wanting to know much more about regional, national and community reserves programs that already exist or those that are in formation. Clearly, each region is approaching this discussion differently and varied approaches are needed even as we discuss the need for a globally coordinated system to support reserves.

Alexandra Spieldoch

June 08, 2010

Food reserves: Deepening the debate in Europe

I am back in the office after an exciting meeting on food reserves that IATP co-organized in Brussels, Belgium along with Collectif Stratégies Alimentaires and Oxfam Solidarity. A food reserve, simply described, is when food is set aside in times of plenty to be used in times of scarcity. This meeting was a follow-up to another discussion on reserves in Washington, D.C. that IATP organized in late 2009, as well as a global sign-on letter urging governments to review the potential of food security reserves to address hunger and agriculture market instability.

In Brussels, we continued the dialogue with farmers, academics, development agencies, government officials and UN agency representatives. Some basic points that I appreciated from the discussion:

  • Even though food reserves alone will not solve the global hunger problem, no long-lasting food security can be achieved without including reserves as part of the policy package.
  • While much investment is going toward increasing food production, this could very well lead to oversupply in the long run, creating more volatile markets; in this context, better managing our global food supply is worth pursuing.
  • While local and regional reserves programs are already underway in many regions, such as West Africa and Southeast Asia, a globally coordinated system for holding some grain stocks at the international level could also provide some insurance that prices won’t go too high or fall too low and that emergency food will be available in times of depleted stocks.
  • There was strong interest—but not an agreement—among the participants to support the UN Committee on Food Security as the most appropriate body to provide global coordination.
  • More focus is needed on defining what role the government versus the private sector should play.
  • International trade rules as they exist today do not hinder countries from being able to set up reserve programs.
  • Virtual reserves (as opposed to physical stocks) may help against speculative bubbles, but will not address other causes of price instability relating to food scarcity.

While there is much to sort out, it is clear that the international community is moving on this issue. France and Brazil have already set up working groups to discuss joint measures for food reserves as a means to curb volatility. Brazil, Russia, India and China have also announced an initiative to review reserves more closely.

Managing risk and volatility will be one of the thematic areas of the next UN Committee on Food Security session in October 2010. IATP, along with others, is working to ensure that farmers’ voices are central to these multilateral debates and that governments remain true to their obligations to ensure the Right to Food.

Alexandra Spieldoch

May 31, 2010

Biotech in Africa

In mid-May, the Des Moines Register published a 7-part series on Africa by reporter Philip Brasher. He traveled to Kenya and South Africa to obtain information for the series. It focuses on corn (maize in Africa) and on the role of biotechnology (its political, as well as its yield aspects) in providing food for sub-Sahara Africa—an area that is short on quality soils, has poor rainfall distribution and is expanding rapidly in population.

The first in the series “High hopes and high stakes” puts the United States government’s pro-biotech bias in perspective. He quotes former Iowa Governor and current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as saying that Gates-sponsored Monsanto and biotech industry projects in Africa will help “knock down some the concerns that are expressed globally and domestically about biotechnology.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed similar views and both echo President Obama’s cheerleading efforts (which probably come more from the medical side of biotech).

Still, it now seems to be the U.S. government against most everyone else when it comes to biotech seeds. Often Brasher characterizes Europe as the main force working against biotech in Africa. But only Southern Africa has approved the maize seed for commercial use. And many countries in Asia are just as opposed to biotech seeds. Are he and others using Europe as a scapegoat?

Truly King Corn is worldwide in its influence. Yet corn (white corn, but Brasher does not differentiate) is a key staple for the poor African; 300 million Africans depend on it, some three times a day and so far Africa’s rate of corn production has lagged behind its rate of population increase. Clearly more corn and other staple production is needed. So the question is: How to go about increasing production?

Perhaps the question is already being answered, at least in the short term. South Africa (Africa's Iowa) had the largest corn harvest in 2010 since 1982. Increased land in cultivation, timely rains and better cultivars have contributed to the increase. In fact, South Africa corn prices have dropped more than 30 percent this year and growers are considering withholding corn from the market to increase prices. Part of the problem is the lack of infrastructure to ship the corn to the parts of Africa, such as Kenya, where it is needed.

At the BIGMAP symposium I attended before reading Brasher’s opus, it was painfully clear that a major barrier for many African countries is more fundamental than seeds: it is the lack of infrastructure. In addition, many do not have adapted seeds (open-pollinated and hybrid) to respond to inputs such as fertilizer, they lack rainfall to maximize yields (sometimes just to germinate the seed) and things are getting more dire with climate change. They lack plant breeders, seed distribution centers, lines of credit, and post-harvest storage. In other words, the challenges are much more than just yield.

The Gates-funded projects with Pioneer and Monsanto that we've previously written about hope to incorporate two major traits in the new corn seeds: drought tolerance (Monsanto) and increased nitrogen efficiency (Pioneer). The corn already contains the genetically engineered Bt trait for insect control. These seeds will need to produce higher yields that override the almost certain increased costs of the seed, the fertilizer and other production costs associated with GE crops. And remember that farmers in Africa don't have the abundance of government programs available to U.S. corn farmers if weather or the market impacts profitability.

Brasher's series emphasizes the problems biotech companies have in finding adequate field plots to conduct breeding and yield trials. Not mentioned is the fact that industry restricts independent scientists and others from studying the seed. Further, a lack of established regulations hinders the establishment of field trials.

Brasher's comparison of the acceptance of biotech in South Africa, the European Union and America was revealing. Essentially Europe still says no, driven by consumer resistance. But Brasher indicated that a report by USDA in Rome argued that consumer resistance in the EU was not as strong as believed and that an “education” (read propaganda) campaign targeted to Italy might be a good place to start turning things around. No doubt there are other stealth campaigns to try to get biotech crops into Europe.

The series continues to beg the question: What is behind all these efforts to foist GE technology on Africa? It can't be direct profit from African sales; that will be vanishingly small. Not Africans feeding Africa, that is impossible until the numerous infrastructure problems are dealt with. One has to wonder whether it really is about the image of Monsanto and Pioneer in the U.S. (and possibly EU in the future), and the vast pro-biotech lobby that resides within the USDA. And it is about market share, not just in Africa but worldwide.

Two agronomists have recently won the World Food Prize for work they have done in Africa. They have somewhat different views on how to improve African agriculture. Gebisa Ejata, who just won the World Food Prize in 2009, feels African farmers need basic knowledge about farming methods. In a recent paper in Science, he stated that Africa needs both strong internal leadership and external assistance, particularly in the areas of human and institutional capacity building. Pedro Sanchez, who won the World Food Prize in 2002, feels that increased access to markets and more fertilizer use could also help and that drought tolerance is essential to combat the threat of climate change.

In the end, no one can predict the correct path. Improved genetics certainly is part of the puzzle, but even more is the need for infrastructure. Infrastructure was an essential part of Norman Borlaug’s green revolution. Even Gates millions cannot create miracles. Only hard work by Africans and attention to African needs and climate will bring about the level of food production needed. And that may not be enough. The struggle against encroaching climate change, overwhelming population pressures and misguided government aid programs will only slow efforts.

The Brasher reports reflect these stark challenges. Unfortunately, they stride the political barbed wire fence by putting more emphasis on biotech than it can possibly deliver—without exploring the role of more needed alternatives.

Dennis Keeney

May 20, 2010

The evolving relationship of NGOs and the UN

IATP's Sophia Murphy attended an invite-only meeting outside of Dublin earlier this week organized by the UN High-Level Task Force for the Global Food Security Crisis.

Home today from Dublin. I ducked in and out around the ash cloud—some 30 of the 150 or so expected participants at the Dublin meeting didn't make it when the airport shut down. A pity. It was a good meeting—serious, purposeful, good humored; a good mix of UN and NGOs, with a sprinkling of government officials. We were there to discuss the update to the Common Framework for Action in response to the Global Food Crisis (IATP's comments here). The discussions were all off-the-record, but here are a few thoughts on what happened. 

First, it is encouraging that the framework is being updated. The original wasn't bad—a bit patchy, some jarring assertions (to my eye) and a lot of good ideas. It was done in a rush, and that showed; though actually things done in a rush are not necessarily worse that things lingered over, especially when you involve some 20 or so UN agencies plus the World Bank (which is technically UN) and the WTO (which is explicitly, though controversially, outside the UN system). Anyway, well done to the High-Level Task Force team for pushing through with an update.

Second, the first go round involved no NGOs or civil society voices. This round has. Not that the document is consensus based, or even for NGO ownership. The Dublin meeting was a consultation, not the creation of any formal partnership. The document is intended for sign-off by the heads of all the agencies involved, and thereby to guide agency work related to food security. NGOs can walk away and bash at the CFA take II all they like, but it was a serious consultation, with time and enormous effort put into both acknowledging the written submissions (which came from some 51 NGOs and CSOs) and thinking how best to allow participation from the audience. 

Third, I used to work in NGO relations for the UN, with an office called the Non-Governmental Liaison Service. I have attended many of UN meetings, both on the UN side (helping UN agencies understand how NGOs work, and trying to get them to pay more attention to what NGOs could contribute) and on the NGO side, before and after my stint at the UN. I think things have come a long way since I was really involved in this kind of work in the 1990s. The whole culture has changed. While the UN is run by governments, NGOs represent a very different perspective that is invaluable. NGOs are on the ground, facing different constraints and opportunities. The interaction among the UN officials themselves seemed relaxed and constructive, with few turf lines drawn, and between the UN and NGOs, somehow natural and uncomplicated. It was a very welcome atmosphere. The meeting was co-chaired by Tom Arnold, CEO of the NGO Concern International, and David Nabarro, the UN Secretary General's appointment to head the task force. 

The draft still has to be finalized and is expected soon—possibly as early as mid-June. I think it will reflect this consultation and the ideas that were put forward—and will be the better for it. Moreover, I think the UN knows and appreciates that this is so. It was a good way to spend two days.

Sophia Murphy

May 17, 2010

Action on the global food security crisis

IATP's Sophia Murphy is attending an invite-only meeting outside of Dublin this week organized by the UN High-Level Task Force for the Global Food Security Crisis. 

Some 150 people have gathered in Malahide, Ireland, just along the coast from Dublin, for a two-day workshop to review the Comprehensive Framework for Action of the UN High-Level Task Force for the Global Food Security Crisis. First put forward in 2008, the High-Level Task Force is completing a review and update that has taken months. The task force has considered written submissions from some 51 NGOs (you can read IATP's submission here) and social movements as well as many meetings of the reference group created by the UN to guide the work. 

Today in Malahide, the review will take a further step in a two-day workshop, hosted by the Government of Ireland and the Irish NGO Concern. The draft revised document will be handled by six working groups: food assistance, social protection systems, food production and value chains, better managed ecosystems for food security and nutrition, trade and tax policies in international food markets, and information and monitoring systems. There are four cross-cutting issues that will be considered in all the working groups: the right to food, gender, nutrition and environmental challenges (e.g., climate change). Each working group will have two co-chairs, one from the UN system and one NGO representative. I'll be representing IATP as co-chair of the group on trade, taxation and markets with a representative of the World Trade Organization. 

The setting is beautiful, and the UN team has clearly worked very hard to do justice to the comments they received. They are working with Concern to get the most out of the next two days. The mix of organizational politics, institutional cultures and philosophical leanings should make for a lively debate. The trade chapter is particularly marked by clearly different understandings of how trade works and what it should do—the existing draft is not internally coherent, and from an NGO perspective, continues depressingly to rely on the Doha Agenda to do things to address the food crisis that it is patently unfit to do. Let's see if we can improve on things in the next 36 hours.

Sophia Murphy

Food reserves needed to respond to global food crisis

IATP helped organized a letter signed by more than 60 civil society groups calling for the United Nations to consider food reserves as a tool to address global hunger. Below, see the press release we sent out earlier today.

Food reserves needed to respond to global food crisis, civil society groups say
UN meeting in Dublin should focus on addressing agriculture volatility and hunger

 

Minneapolis/Dublin – Civil society organizations today called on governments and United Nations bodies to honor previous commitments to explore the potential of food reserves to address hunger and stabilize agricultural markets. The letter, signed by more than 60 groups, was presented at a UN meeting being held in Dublin on May 17–18 on the global food crisis.

The civil society letter challenged global leaders to “take decisive action to address the structural causes of food insecurity and to prevent a repeat of recent food price spikes. Food reserves are a valuable tool in improving access and distribution of food. They can strengthen the ability of governments to limit excessive price volatility for both farmers and consumers.”

The Dublin meeting was convened by the United Nations High-Level Task Force for the Global Food Security Crisis. Participants, which include representatives from governments and civil society organizations, will discuss the task force’s Comprehensive Framework for Action.

“Rising rates of hunger, and the loss of rural livelihoods—particularly in developing countries—has highlighted the urgent need to act,” said the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s Sophia Murphy, who is attending the Dublin meeting and will co-chair the working group on trade. “Food reserves make sense: putting food aside when it’s abundant, to use later when the need is greater. Governments have expressed interest in reserves, indeed, most governments operate a reserve in some form or another. Now is the time to get reserves working the way they should to protect food security and promote resilient rural communities.”

During the High-Level Conference on World Food Security in 2008, then again at the World Food Summit in 2009, governments recognized the potential of stockholding to deal with humanitarian food emergencies and to limit price volatility, calling for a review of reserves. But that review has yet to take place. In March 2010, Brazil, Russia, India and China (the BRIC countries) also committed to helping countries establish national grain reserves.

In the letter, civil society groups requested that the UN High-Level Task Force conduct a comprehensive review of food reserves by allocating resources and setting a firm timetable for completing the review in 2010. Additionally, they called on individual governments to increase foreign and domestic investment to achieve culturally appropriate local and regional food security reserves; establish an international commission on reserves, possibly coordinated by the FAO Committee on Food Security; support multilateral, regional and bilateral agricultural trade rules; and renegotiate the Food Aid Convention to include food security reserves. The full letter is available here.

Last year, IATP published “Strategic Grain Reserves in the Era of Volatility,” examining the potential role of reserves in stabilizing agriculture markets. IATP, Collectif Stratégies Alimentaires and Oxfam Solidarity will hold a civil society meeting in Brussels on food reserves on June 1–2.  For more details see our Food Security page.

Ben Lilliston

May 10, 2010

The “quiet room” of lobbying: The killing floor of reform

The U.S. Senate debate to regulate over-the-counter (OTC, off-exchange and largely unregulated) derivatives enters its third week. Everybody, it appears, is now a proponent of “reform,” especially erstwhile acolytes of deregulation. But what the rhetoric of reform giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the dozens of exemptions from regulation proposed by Wall Street on behalf of major financial institutions and their corporate clients.

Derivatives are financial instruments based on the value of an underlying asset, such as the price of a corn futures contract or an interest rate. Derivatives, such as those created and sold by Goldman Sachs for the government of Greece, can help disguise debt as an asset, at least long enough to postpone the day of reckoning. A chart compiled by Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition (CMOC) member Sean Cota shows the extent to which the contract face value of OTC derivatives dwarfs the value of exchange-traded commodities, stocks and bonds, and the global Gross Domestic Product—i.e., goods and services, including those provided by retail financial institutions.

Commodity Futures Trading Commission chairman Gary Gensler has called OTC derivatives a major factor in causing the financial and commodity market bubble that burst in 2008 when major OTC dealers couldn’t pay up for failed OTC trades. In mid-April, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed a bill that would force most OTC trades onto public and regulated exchanges to enable both CFTC and Securities and Exchange Commission regulators to monitor market data and prevent excessive speculation and other violations of U.S. financial law. Among the financial industry lobbyists opposing the bill are 40 former Senate staffers and former Senator Trent Lott. Normally, the access of these staffers to their former bosses—and in Senator Lott’s case, access to the Senate floor during voting and last-minute deal making—would ensure another Wall Street victory against reform. But these are not normal times.

On April 29, the Coalition of Derivatives End Users (organized by the Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers) responded to the Senate Agriculture Committee bill with language that would exempt coalition members, mostly transnational corporations and their banks, from trading on public exchanges. Chairman Gensler has estimated that such changes would leave up to 60 percent of OTC trades in the unregulated “dark market.” On May 4, the CMOC, of which IATP is a member, wrote to the Senate leadership to outline their opposition to creating the broad exemptions proposed by the coalition. The letter stated, “Our coalition opposes any expansion of exemptions in the derivatives title in such a way as to create new loopholes for financial market interests.” On May 7, the Americans for Financial Reform, comprising more than 250 consumer, employee, investor and civil rights organizations, wrote to all senators to oppose an amendment by Senator Saxby Chambliss that incorporated the coalition language for broad exemptions from regulation.

The amendments supported by the CMOC and AFR are dismissed out of hand by Wall Street lobbyists as “whack jobs.” According to The Washington Post, “‘They've got to get this thing off the [Senate] floor and into a reasonable, behind the scenes’ discussion, said one lobbyist. ‘Let's have a few wise fathers sit around the table in some quiet room’ and work out the details.” His confidence in the ability of the lobbyists to undo the work of the Senate agriculture committee OTC derivative bill was bolstered by a certainty that nobody would pay attention to “quiet room” changes favoring their clients in a 1,300-page bill that only the lobbyists would read.

The density of proposed Wall Street exemptions led the Financial Times to wonder whether financial reform could be better defended if U.S. legislators combined their rule-oriented approach with a principles-based financial regulation practiced in Europe. Would the lobbying power of the “quiet room” diminish if the principles at the outset of a bill were clear and binding statements to eliminate the loopholes and waivers that triggered the legalized chicanery of the financial services industry during the past decade? One place to answer that question would be the conference of Senate and House of Representatives members appointed to negotiate differences between the two bills, assuming that the Senate will pass a financial reform bill. Binding principles could be added to make it more difficult for Wall Street to circumvent the bill.

President Barack Obama would like to go the Group of Twenty meeting, June 26–27 in Toronto, with his signature on a financial services reform bill. It will be difficult to assert U.S. leadership on financial reform without a signed bill. If the Senate passes its bill prior to the end of May Senate recess, and the differences between the House and Senate bills can be negotiated during the first three weeks of June, President Obama may go to Toronto with a reform template that he will try to sell to other G-20 members. But if the bill contains the broad exemptions demanded by Wall Street, he may find that other heads of state, whose taxpayers are still paying the costs of U.S. deregulation and financial “innovation,” aren’t buying.

Steve Suppan

May 07, 2010

Agriculture's largest threat

William Neuman and Andrew Pollack of the New York Times dug deeper earlier this week into the growing story of Roundup-resistant weeds and the chaos this is causing within the agriculture community. The Times story quotes Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts as saying, "It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen." And Tennessee farmer Eddie Anderson says, "We're back to where we were 20 years ago. We're trying to find out what works."

Why is growing resistance to Roundup in weeds such a big deal? Roundup Ready genetically engineered crops are one of the linchpins of conventional agriculture. Roundup Ready crops allow farmers to douse their crop with Roundup to kill the weeds, while the crop survives. Currently, more than 80 percent of corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered, and most are Roundup Ready.

As we wrote last month, the Natonal Research Council's assessment on the impact of GE crops on farmers pointed to nine species of weeds that have been identified in the U.S. as being resistant to Roundup. As Roundup loses its effectiveness, other—more toxic—herbicides will likely take its place.

But the Times story also points out how the loss of Roundup affects no-till farming, at least the way corn farmers practice it. No-till has been touted as more environmentally friendly by curbing erosion and runoff of fertilizers and pesticides. It also has been hyped as an important part of a prospective carbon market. By not tilling, carbon is sequestering in the soil, and hence could become an additional income stream for farmers as part of a carbon-offset system. But as the Times points out, with the decline in Roundup's effectiveness, commodity crop no-till may no longer be practical.

What might make more sense? A new study by researchers out of Iowa State found that farmers using a two-crop rotation (corn and soybeans) could cut their fossil fuel use in half by switching to a four-crop rotation (adding oats and alfalfa)—and they could make the same amount of money.

The emerging challenges of Roundup-resistant weeds point out once again why climate change policy needs to get it right on agriculture.

Ben Lilliston

April 27, 2010

Exploring the Cuban food system

The latest issue of the IATP Food and Society Fellows’ Digest, Exploring the Cuban Food System, reflects on the fellows’ recent visit to Cuba examining sustainable and urban agriculture systems. As the new digest explains, despite the fundamental differences between the U.S. and Cuba, there was much to learn. As Food and Society Fellows Program Director Mark Muller writes, “The urban food production in Havana was very impressive, and the ingenious ways that people found to grow food provides a model for local foods enthusiasts in the United States.We in the land of plenty can learn something from those who have struggled so much against scarcity.”

Some key topics explored in the issue include:

IATP Food and Society Fellows in Cuba

Andrew Ranallo

April 23, 2010

Walking a new path on climate change

IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn is blogging from Cochabamba, Bolivia at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

The Climate Conference concluded today with a dialogue between social movements and governments. Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca described the process leading up to the meeting and the central role of indigenous people in the conference and on these issues, as guardians of the balance among peoples and between people and Mother Earth.

He also reported on the overwhelming participation in the conference. More than 35,000 people from 142 countries attended the meetings, 19,000 of them from outside of Bolivia. Some 47 governments were represented.

People from Australia, Malaysia, the United States and Bolivia reported back on the recommendations from the 17 working groups. They included proposals for a global referendum on climate change and the establishment of an international climate court. They insisted on the Kyoto Protocol as the only binding instrument to reduce global warming, and called on governments to review the failure of carbon markets. They held out agro-ecology and small-scale farming as the best way to feed the world while cooling the planet. The complete recommendations will be available on the conference website by April 26.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, as well as the vice presidents of Cuba and Ecuador, responded with endorsements of the proposals. President Morales offered to facilitate sending the recommendations directly to the UN Secretary General, as well as inserting them in the negotiating process at the UNFCCC.

Of course, not all of these proposals fit within the UNFCCC process, but that really isn’t the point. People from around the world came together in Bolivia to confront the impending climate catastrophe. Action is needed at all levels—local, national and international. The World Peoples Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth was an exhilarating step along the way.

This post is one of a three part series of blog entries from Karen Hansen Kuhn's visit to Cochabamba:
Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

Karen Hansen-Kuhn

April 21, 2010

Bolivia climate conference opens with call for food sovereignty

IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn is blogging from Cochabamba, Bolivia at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

The Conference opened today with a series of speeches by delegations from around the world. Each stressed the urgency of going beyond addressing the symptoms of global warming to taking actions to achieve deeper systems change.

A representative of La Via Campesina spoke on behalf of Latin America, emphasizing food sovereignty as a central solution to climate change. Throughout the day, in different panels and workshops, Via Campesina members stressed locally produced foods and sustainable agriculture grown by small-scale farmers as essential to cooling the planet while reducing hunger and strengthening rural livelihoods.

The opening events concluded with a rousing speech by President Evo Morales. He began with a concise critique of the Copenhagen Accord and the need for all countries to re-commit to the Kyoto Protocol process. However, he echoed the concerns raised by other delegations that market-based solutions will not solve the problems they helped to create.

Then, perhaps straying a bit from his prepared speech, he spoke about the importance of local foods. Too often, he said, multinational corporations promote genetically engineered crops and other technological solutions when the answers are really closer to home. During the food price crisis, wheat became very expensive, and many Bolivians returned to eating quinoa—a local crop that had been neglected for years. Now, he said, the FAO has released a report saying that quinoa is one of the most nutritious grains in the world. He pointed to his own full head of hair and joked that perhaps one reason so many European men are bald is that they eat too many genetically engineered, hormone-laced foods, instead of nutritious, locally grown foods.

It’s hard to talk about climate change without looking at inequality, both within and among nations. And there are no easy answers to either of them. But it just might be that the creative ideas and alliances formed at this conference help us to move a few steps towards fresh new solutions to both.

Evo Morales

This post is one of a three part series of blog entries from Karen Hansen Kuhn's visit to Cochabamba:
Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

Karen Hansen-Kuhn

See Food Inc. tonight

If you haven't already, the Oscar-nominated film Food Inc. is really worth seeing. And lucky for you, it's on 8 p.m., Central Standard Time tonight on PBS. Director Robert Kenner riffs off the investigative work of Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan to cover our food system, from the field to the meatpacking plant to the supermarket. The film graphically depicts the stranglehold a few big corporations—like Monsanto, Tyson, Perdue and Smithfield—have on our food system. It's a powerful look at people caught in this system, including the poultry contractor, the family who lost a son to food poisoning, and the seed cleaner put ouf business by Monsanto. Viewers will also learn about inspiring stories of how many are fighting back. Finally, Food Inc. is a testament to the power of filmmaking itself, as it often gets to the heart of our industrial food system in ways that even great food writers can't.

Food Inc Big 
Food, Inc. A film by Robert Kenner
Credit: Magnolia Pictures   
  

Ben Lilliston

April 20, 2010

Farm groups talk climate in Cochabamba

IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn is blogging from Cochamamba, Bolivia at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

Bolivia Thousands of people from around the world streamed into the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (CMPCC) on Monday to continue discussions that started online on a range of issues related to climate justice. The location of the conference itself makes a political statement. This is the ten-year anniversary of the Cochabamba “Water War,” when thousands of local people rose up against the privatization of their water system. Walking into the conference site, the dramatic backdrop of the Andean mountains makes its own statement.

The online discussions were organized into 17 working groups on topics ranging from emissions reductions and finance to issues not on the official agenda, like migration and climate debt. Talks also centered on strategies, including the possible launch of a global peoples’ referendum on climate change. The final documents will help to shape the Bolivian government's positions on climate change and hopefully influence other government delegations arriving later in the week. 

Cochabamba More than 900 people registered for the working group on agriculture and food sovereignty (our contribution is summarized here) and, of those, 130 submitted comments electronically. Those talks continued in Cochabamba with presentations by Via Campesina, who asserted that as much as 57 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with industrial agriculture. This includes emissions all along the production chain, including processing, packaging and transport (especially for export). On the other hand, converting to agroecological, locally oriented, smaller-scale production could lower emissions as much as 50 to 75 percent, while advancing food sovereignty, according to Via Campesina.

The working group discussions continued throughout the day, focusing on the need to address the role of agribusiness in climate change, the obstacles created by free trade and the climate challenges facing women, among other issues. Organizers worked late into the night to incorporate comments into new drafts of the position papers to be finalized in the coming days. Whatever the outcome of the papers, these talks have deeply involved farm organizations, raised the profile of agriculture and climate, and led to new ideas moving forward.

This post is one of a three part series of blog entries from Karen Hansen Kuhn's visit to Cochabamba:
Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

Ben Lilliston

April 16, 2010

People's Conference on Climate Change next week

After official UN global climate talks stumbled again in Bonn last week, another global gathering will take a shot at reaching agreement on a plan to address climate change. Next week, the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth will run from April 19–22 in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The gathering is expected to attract civil society groups around the world, along with developing country–government representatives, to develop alternative proposals to address global climate change.

Bolivian President Evo Morales is leading the call for the meeting after many developing-country governments were frustrated with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change talks in December, which produced the Copenhagen Accord. Last week's Bonn meeting, the first since Copenhagen, revealed the growing rift between countries who want to continue negotiations based on the Kyoto Protocol and others, led by the U.S., who want to use the Copenhagen Accord as the basis for negotiations. IATP has been critical of the accord and the negotiating process in Copenhagen.

Organizers for the World People's Conference have set up 18 working groups to develop proposals on various aspects of a global climate treaty. IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn will report from Cochabamba next week. She is part of the "Agriculture and Food Sovereignty" and "Dangers of Carbon Markets" working groups. You can read Karen's submission on agriculture and climate change. A summary of IATP's concerns about the susceptibility of carbon markets to Wall Street speculators can be read here in English and in Spanish.

More from Cochabamba next week....

Ben Lilliston

April 13, 2010

What we don't know about GE crops

After 15 years on the market, and constituting 80 percent of soybeans, corn and cotton grown in the U.S., we still know remarkably little about genetically engineered (GE) crops; and some of what we do know is cause for alarm. This is one of the main conclusions of a report released today by the National Research Council.

First, the headline picked up by the New York Times and others: there has been a rapid rise in weeds resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (also known as Roundup) that could rapidly undercut any environmental or economic benefits of GE crops. Glyphosate-resistant crops allow farmers to kill weeds with the herbicide without destroying their crop. To date, at least nine species of weeds in the U.S. have developed resistance to glyphosate since GE crops were introduced. The other primary type of GE crop is designed to produce Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt), a bacteria deadly to insect pests. Thus far, two types of insects have developed resistance to Bt. The loss of effectiveness of glyphosate and Bt crops could lead to increased use of more potent herbicides.

"This problem is growing, it's real, and it's going to get worse," said chair of the NRS committee David Ervin, of Portland State University, at a press conference today.

But just as alarming as growing weed and pest resistance is the dearth of research data on so many fundamental issues surrounding GE crops. The NRC report focused on how GE crops are affecting U.S. farmers. The assessment looked at GE crops through the three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental and social. In the end, the researchers didn't have enough data. 

"As more GE traits are developed and incorporated into a larger variety of crops, it's increasingly essential that we gain a better understanding of how genetic engineering technology will affect U.S. agriculture and the environment now and in the future," said Ervin. "Such gaps in our knowledge are preventing a full assessment of the environmental, economic and other impacts of GE crops on farm sustainability."

More specifically, what we don't yet know about GE crops:

  • The full extent of weed resistance problems, or what those problems will mean in the future to the environment and farmers' bottom line.
  • Little understanding of how the use of GE crops affects water systems—positively or negatively.
  • The effects of GE crops on farmers not growing GE crops, including both conventional and organic farmers. The committee reported on anecdotal information that farmers have had trouble finding conventional non-GE seeds. And as Bob Scowcroft of the Organic Farm Research Foundation noted at the press conference, there is little peer-reviewed research on the enormous costs borne by organic farmers for testing to prove their crop is GE-free, let alone farmers who have lost organic certification from GE contamination.
  • The impact of consolidation in the seed industry—accelerated by the transition to proprietary GE seeds—on prices and seed choices.
  • Other social issues that have been overlooked include the impact of GE crops on labor dynamics, farm structure, farmer and community conflict and property rights.

The White House and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack should take a good look at this report. After 15 years, we still can't fully assess whether GE crops are good for U.S. farmers—let alone consumers. Yet, the White House and Vilsack continue to aggressively push for other countries to use GE crops. As IATP's Dennis Keeney and Sophia Murphy wrote last month in the Des Moines Register, GE crops that are widely used in the U.S. don't make sense for the challenges facing Africa, for example.

Given the NRC report's findings, it's hard to justify the enormous amounts of money spent on the development of new GE crops, and harder still to justify pushing the technology on other countries, until we fill in the enormous research gaps that remain.

Ben Lilliston

April 07, 2010

Steeling for a fight: U.S. Senate takes on derivatives

For those who think that headlines and newspapers still matter, this front page news appeared in the March 30 issue of the Financial Times: "Steel prices set to soar." The end of 40 years of forward contracting iron ore annually will be replaced by three-month contracts in the cash markets from which multi-billion dollar financial derivatives contracts in steel will emerge. Steel prices are predicted to rise a third and be passed along to consumers. Price volatility in iron ore and steel will increase. The highly concentrated iron ore mining industry will prosper, as will traders in steel derivatives.

What does this headline event have to do with the ongoing U.S. congressional fight over how to regulate over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives contracts currently traded in unregulated "dark markets?" Furthermore, what does the OTC legislation have to do with agriculture and agribusiness?

Next week the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee will begin to negotiate its version of the OTC derivatives provisions that will form part of the overall financial reform legislation. The Agriculture Committee oversees the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) which regulates the trade in commodity derivatives, such as iron ore futures. The banking committee oversees the regulation of financial derivatives, such as stock and interest rate futures. The Senate will take elements from both committees to incorporate in the final financial reform bill that Senate leadership hopes to move to a vote by June.

On March 25, IATP wrote to the agriculture committee as a member of the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition and to the entire Senate in a sign-on letter led by faith-based and nongovernmental organizations. Both letters asked Senators to authorize the CFTC to set and enforce limits on the number of futures contracts that any one entity can own in all trading venues during a specific trading period. The lack of these contract trading limits, called "aggregate position limits" in the draft legislation, enabled excessive speculation by financial institutions in commodity markets. In 2008, we reported on how more than $300 billion in speculative money drove extreme price volatility in both agricultural and non-agricultural commodities in 2007–2008.

Most of the excessive speculation took place in unregulated OTC trades, which led to a near meltdown of the global financial system in the last half of 2008, avoided only by a multi-trillion dollar taxpaper bailout. In dark markets, nobody knows which traders have enough reserves to pay up when their "bets" go bad. Wall Street lobbyists have written exemptions in the House of Representatives "Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009," passed on December 11, 2009. These exemptions to restrictions on OTC trading would leave up 60 percent of the $300 trillion U.S. OTC market still unregulated, according to a March 24 speech by CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler.

Many of the corporations represented by the Wall Street lobbyists are agribusiness firms, such as Cargill, Bunge and John Deere, that belong to the Coalition for Derivatives End Users. Like their industrial brethren, they use dark market instruments to hide debt, manage currency and interest rate fluctuations, and, yes, to manage price risks in physical commodities such as steel, which Cargill trades and John Deere uses. Traders on regulated public exchanges give price information to the whole market. Dark market traders give no information to discover prices, as is required by the U.S. Commodity Exchange Act: they only use public information to create unfair competitive advantage. 

On March 4, IATP submitted a comment to the CFTC that rebuts the Wall Street arguments to the Senate banking committee as to why trade in dark markets should continue. The comment is in response to a proposed CFTC rule on aggregate position limits for energy futures trades. The proposed rule, to close what is colloquially known as the Enron Loophole, is open for comment until April 26.

The CMOC and faith-based organization sign-on letters to the Senate argue for very strict limits to any exemptions from trading on public markets. Only bona fide users of commodities would be allowed to hedge risks off-exchange, and then only for commodity derivatives trades and for no other financial purpose. Those specifically exempted trades would require higher capital reserve requirements to prevent failure to pay and would be subject to strict daily reporting requirements, unlike the current six month lag of government reports of disaggregated OTC trade data to the Bank of International Settlements. (Six months is an eternity in the world of derivatives trading and cannot aid regulators to monitor trade flows and types.)

If the Senate allows transnational corporations to continue to trade in dark markets, all consumers of commodities and financial products will be exposed to the systemic risk of the "too politically connected banks" through whom the Coalition of Derivatives End Users members trade. Higher prices for consumer products using steel will seem like the good old days compared to the havoc that another global dark market failure could unleash. According to Simone Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, in the absence of tough regulation of the financial and commodity markets, another global financial crisis could hit within a year.

Steve Suppan