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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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.



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Environment and Agriculture

June 28, 2011

Small insights about the big picture in climate negotiations

Bonn2 It is axiomatic that negotiations successful for all sides require good faith. It would be inaccurate to say that good faith was completely absent during the climate change negotiations, June 6–17 in Bonn, Germany. Nearly two weeks of negotiations among the contact group for Long-Term Cooperative Action (LCA) produced a draft decision text to enhance action on adapting to climate change. There was progress on agreeing to the terms for authorizing an invitation to host the Climate Technology Center and Network. The institutions chosen by the Conference of Parties (CoP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will implement the terms of the Technology Mechanism decided at the CoP in Cancún, Mexico in 2010. The Center and Network will respond to developing country requests for needs assessments and technology options advice to adapt to climate change and reduce greenhouse gases. However, the Technology Mechanism will not pay for transfer of technologies to developing countries, as is required by Article 4.5 of the convention.

Money, or rather lack of it, was one motivation for accusations that the United States was negotiating in bad faith. The U.S. refusal to discuss the sources of the $100 billion Green Climate Fund by 2020 agreed in Cancún, the U.S. suggestion that the fund might not reach $100 billion, and its meager contribution to the Fast Start Finance promised by developed countries in Cancún, reinforced an impression that the United States was negotiating in bad faith: the U.S. government would not pay the costs of adaptation to, and mitigation of, climate change on anything near the scale of its historic and current responsibility as a major emitter of GHGs.

But perhaps at the core of the accusations of bad faith, and not just those directed at the U.S. delegation, was the belief that no matter what position papers parties advanced, no matter the extent of consensus among parties for some of those positions, the decision-making process would be controlled by a few developed countries and the UNFCCC secretary. At a Friends of the Earth (FoE) press conference, Michelle Maynard of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, said that she could still not get a satisfactory answer about who wrote the Cancún CoP decision document that was presented to delegates with less than three hours time to review on a take-it-or-leave -it basis. In Bonn, Maynard put the question to Patricia Espinosa, the President of the Cancún CoP, who replied that the decision was the result of a “new methodology.” As to the rumor that the decision was drafted under the supervision of a “U.S. legal expert,” Secretary Espinosa had nothing to say.

Last year Martin Khor, executive director of the South Centre, characterized the Cancún decision-making process as uncannily like that of the opaque “Green Room” process of the World Trade Organization negotiations. Will the Green Room become the new normal of convention negotiations and if so, will that process be used to decide on an agricultural work program in advance of a work program in any other economic sector? Will agriculture, along with forestry, be reduced to providing carbon emissions offsets for other sectors to buy, in order to comply with voluntary or mandatory GHG caps?

South Africa, the president of the 2011 CoP, has announced that agreement to commit to an agricultural work program will be its signal achievement. To procure an African consensus for the CoP, South Africa will host a September 1–3 meeting of African agriculture, environment and finance ministers, financed and co-organized by the World Bank. The bank has a long announced interest in expanding its $2.1 billion in Bio-Carbon Funds by a CoP decision to allow agricultural land based carbon emissions offset credits to provide an underlying asset for the carbon derivatives market. Despite the mandate, from Cancún previous decisions, to have a balance between the funding of adaptation and mitigation projects, including carbon emissions offsets, the bank’s Global Environmental Facility has invested just $50 million in adaptation.

In Bonn, the Substantive Body on Scientific and Technology Advice (SBSTA), refused to establish an agricultural work program. However, the 2011 chair of the ad hoc working group on Long-Term Cooperation is Daniel Reifsnyder, a U.S. official. The U.S. and other developed country supporters of an agriculture program, with the aid of an African “consensus” on agriculture resulting from the September 1–2 meeting, and the bank’s offer of public money to support African carbon offset projects, in exchange for African support, may be able to forge an agreement to launch an agricultural work program.

Since U.S. Vice President Al Gore made inclusion of carbon markets a condition of the U.S. signing on to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the carbon market designers have struggled to make the markets work to reduce GHGs. The U.S. failure to join the Kyoto Protocol after developing countries reluctantly agreed to inclusion of a carbon market provision is one of those demands that may or may not have been demanded in bad faith.  Now, when Japan, Russia, Canada and the United States oppose an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, with its mandatory caps on GHGs, “new market mechanisms” are proposed in addition to the ones that haven’t worked.

IATP has written elsewhere about the many vulnerabilities to failure of carbon markets. A broad range of these vulnerabilities were presented at the IATP and FERN co-organized side event on June 14. IATP has recommended a due diligence review of carbon emissions market performance before parties commit to supporting “new market mechanisms."

Carbon market failure would not be a matter of gravest concern if other programs to reduce GHG were working. At this point, however, parties cannot even agree on a target year for the peaking of GHGs nor what that target should be, nor whether developing countries should be obliged to assume reduction commitments that the developed countries have been unable to achieve. Instead there is a mercantile approach to climate governance, trying to lock in climate commitments from other parties, while ensuring that none of those commitments damage trading interests. Such language is included in a proposed draft LCA decision for a SBSTA program in agriculture that may be agreed during the next CoP, November 28 to December 10 in Durban, South Africa.

It will be a tragedy if Bolivia alone opposes such a Durban decision, due to a Green Room procedure that excludes most parties, as Bolivia did in Cancún. Instead there is ample substantive grounds to oppose a decision whose implementation would almost certainly benefit carbon market investors far more than it would enable agricultural producers and rural communities to take urgently needed action to adapt to climate change.

Steve Suppan

June 21, 2011

On dead zones, flooding and money

Algal Blooms Lake Erie. That’s how big this year’s dead zone—the largest ever—in the Gulf of Mexico is likely to be, according to National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration predictions.

Dead zones (aka hypoxic zones) are low-oxygen aquatic areas that can no longer support life. They form when algal blooms, fed by nutrient pollution, eat up all available oxygen. Much of this pollution enters the water far upstream in the form of nutrient run-off from farm fields. For the Gulf of Mexico, it’s the corn and soybean fields of the Upper Mississippi River Basin that are the primary nutrient contributors.

There are lots of elements that contribute to dead zone formation, but this year’s record-breaker is the result of three primary factors:

  1. Climate change, which is making “freak” weather events like flooding and droughts the norm
  2. Monoculture industrial agriculture systems that rely heavily on synthetic nutrients and don’t hold on to them very well
  3. An overly engineered river system made up of locks and dams (in place to manage navigation, not flooding) that has isolated the river from its floodplains and limited its natural resiliency and ability to self-regulate

Dead zones are a huge problem with huge costs; estimates put the damage to the U.S. economy at about $82 million annually from algal blooms, affecting everything from the gulf's fishing industry to public health. Add in the dollars that flow off the farm in the form of nutrient run-off (as fossil fuel prices rise, so do fertilizer costs) and you have one very expensive problem.

Fortunately, the solutions come relatively cheap.

In the short term, farmers need to improve nutrient management on the farm to make sure they apply the right amounts at the right times to minimize run-off. In the medium term, we need to help farmers transition to better farming systems based on perennials and crop diversity, systems that require fewer nutrient inputs and that can hold on much better to those they do need. There are many farmers already moving in these directions, and they need as much support as we can give them.

Second, we need to restore our river systems to make the Mississippi and its tributaries more resilient to flooding. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would like to see us go the opposite direction by spending billions of dollars to build more locks and dams along the rivers, a request that is not only wasteful and unnecessary, but would further degrade the river environment. As the planet warms, increased resiliency of all our natural systems—waterways and agriculture included—will be paramount.

Julia Olmstead

June 04, 2011

Agroecology comes to Capitol Hill

Staff from congressional offices, development agencies and family farm organizations jammed into a crowded briefing room on Capitol Hill on Thursday to hear more about new approaches to food security that help farmers feed their communities while working with nature. The briefing was sponsored by IATP and the Interfaith Working Group on Global Hunger and Food Security, and hosted by Rep. Jim McGovern. 

Deschutter Olivier de Schutter, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food (see right with Cheryl Morden), led off the event with a bold assertion: we’re not actually facing a hunger crisis, but really three interlocking crises: a poverty crisis, an environmental crisis and a nutrition crisis. In many cases, the volume of food available isn’t really the issue. Poor people can’t afford the food that is available, and they can’t influence agricultural prices and policies. Unsustainable farming practices that rely on agrochemicals derived from petroleum products mean that farmers can’t afford the inputs, and that the land becomes degraded. And, many countries are facing a new nutrition crisis, with obesity rates in some communities increasing at the same time as hunger persists in others.

There is no magic bullet to solve these problems, he said, but there hasn’t been nearly enough attention paid to agroecological approaches that have huge potential to address the three crises. Agroforestry, for example, can help retain moisture in the soil, reduce dependency on chemical inputs and lower costs for farmers. More diverse farming systems mean more diversity on plates too, i.e., better nutrition. He called for more investment in public goods, sharing local knowledge, and farmers’ organizations with a strong focus on gender. Rather than relying on global supply chains, he said, we need to re-localize food systems that prioritize linkages between rural producers and urban consumers.

Susan Bradley from USAID spoke next on Feed the Future, the Obama administration’s signature initiative on food security. She emphasized the need to better integrate environmental and economic resilience in very vulnerable households. They are trying to improve analysis of the constraints facing women farmers across value chains, so that they take women’s positions of power into account, and increase their access to extension and financial services.

Cheryl Morden from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (a multilateral agency focused on small-scale farmers and rural poverty) spoke about the need for an “evergreen” revolution. It’s simply not possible to intensify agricultural production using the same old technologies; It won’t work, and there are serious environmental consequences. Some 70 percent of IFAD’s projects are on degraded lands, so they’re looking at how to increase productivity in perpetuity with sound natural resource management and livelihood security, recognizing that all of these approaches must be site specific. She said the hallmark of their programs is community empowerment and capacity building, as political and economic marginalization is at the heart of the problem.

Timi Gerson from American Jewish World Service concluded the event with the story of Ruth, a landless and migrant widow who only survives because she is able to use the tradition of "gleaning" food left from the harvest in the fields. The story emphasizes that caring for the poor is an obligation, not an option. She emphasized the faith community’s commitment to foreign assistance programs that support local communities’ efforts to claim their right to food.

Karen Hansen-Kuhn

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.

This week’s Healthy Farms, Healthy People Summit in Washington, D.C., zeroes in on those policies. The CDC-funded meeting aims to find the common policy ground for helping Americans get access to healthier food while enabling farmers to make a living producing that food. The meeting agenda is viewable at HealthyFoodAction.org.

Finally, on Thursday, May 19, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) is convening a day-long conference entitled "Farm and Food Policy: The Relationship to Obesity" as part of a series of IOM reports on accelerating progress in preventing obesity, which is already epidemic and costing the nation hundreds of billions of dollars yearly.

by David Wallinga, M.D.

Kendra Cuthbertson

May 17, 2011

The global impact of China's pig industry

China’s pig industry has global impact, new report finds
Shift to industrial production affects farmers, food security and environment

Chianapig 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.

Read the full report.

Andrew Ranallo

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 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

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


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


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 01, 2011

Greater action urged on hormone-busting chemicals

The world's largest public health group, the American Public Health Association (APHA), has just announced a new policy calling for greater government action to protect the public from hormone-disrupting chemicals in the food supply.

Congress and government regulators should pay attention. APHA's policy statement follows official positions released earlier in 2010 by both the American Medical Association (AMA) and the Endocrine Society, the nation's premier professional association for medical experts in hormone physiology and medicine.

We now live amidst a virtual sea of synthetic environmental pollutants that can mimic or disrupt hormone function. Perhaps not surprisingly, a slew of hormone-related diseases, which are especially costly to treat, are common or on the rise. They include many cancers, obesity, diabetes, thyroid disease and infertility and other reproductive problems.

Much of our exposure to these endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) comes via a contaminated food supply. EDCs known or identified include several dozen pesticides and fungicides, arsenic, industrial pollutants like PCBs and dioxins, plastic monomers like bisphenol A, plastic additives like phthalates, as well as pharmaceuticals.

APHA's resolution supports several steps, including recommending that federal agencies with regulatory oversight for various individual EDCs better coordinate amongst themselves given the scientific "recognition that collectively EDCs likely will have common or overlapping effects on the endocrine system."

Specifically, the APHA policy urges government agencies to better regulate and restrict human exposure to EDCs in the food chain. The government should heed data on the ability of these hormone-like chemicals to have significant effects even at "low-dose" or minute levels of exposure, in addition to the more conventional assumption in toxicology that looks only at high-level effects.

The message from the public health community on EDCs is clear and urgent: It's time to act. View the APHA resolution for more.

David Wallinga, M.D.

Ben Lilliston

February 09, 2011

Women at the center of climate-friendly approaches to agriculture and water

Extreme weather events consistent with climate change are already playing havoc with the livelihoods and food security of much of the world’s poor. This is particularly true for arid and semi-arid areas of the global South. Yet, most proposals for agriculture being discussed at the U.N. global climate talks and elsewhere focus on new technological developments, like genetically engineered crops. But these approaches are based on still unproven claims and do not fully consider their impact on the natural world.

In a new paper, IATP’s Shiney Varghese examines proven agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and strengthen resilience to climate change through a case study of the Tamilnadu Women’s Collective in India. The collective, a federation of village-level women’s groups with over 150,000 members—the majority of which belong to the lowest caste—follow three principles for food security: 1.) empowerment of women; 2.) democratic local governance; and 3.) multifunctional agriculture.

Shiney will present her findings at the United Nations in New York on February 22 as part of a workshop, titled “Climate Adaptation Challenges from a Gender Perspective.” The workshop is expected to contribute towards the fifty-fifth session of the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women. You can learn more about how the Tamilnadu Women’s Collective is using traditional knowledge and practices to increase food security and climate resilience by reading the full paper here and at www.iatp.org.

Ben Lilliston

January 06, 2011

Are genes for disease a mirage?

Is chronic disease mostly a product of environment, and not genes, as we've been led to believe? That provocative question is the focus for a new report by The Bioscience Resource Project. The report, "The Great DNA Data Deficit: Are Genes for Disease a Mirage?", concludes that for common diseases, including heart disease, stroke, cancers, diabetes and others, "a significant role for genetic causation can now be ruled out with a high degree of confidence." This finding indicates that other environmental factors, like food, pollution, stress and tobacco use, likely play a larger role than previously thought. Interestingly, the four mentioned diseases—among the six leading causes of death—are all closely linked to an unhealthy food system and unhealthy eating.

David Wallinga, MD