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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Farm and Food Policy

August 03, 2010

Environments, individuals and the food gap

With 30 percent living below the Mwinnepoverty line, Hartford, Connecticut, is nearly the poorest city in the United States according to the 2000 Census. From 1979 until 2003, Mark Winne served as Executive Director of the Hartford Food System a grassroots nonprofit organization “dedicated to fighting hunger and improving nutrition." This experience, as well as co-founding multiple food policy organizations (including the Community Food Security Coalition) has given Winne a unique, multi-level view of food insecurity.

Our food system today is at an interesting junction: While the organic and local food movements are gaining momentum at an unprecedented rate, hunger, food insecurity and obesity are higher than ever. At IATP's event "Closing the Food Gap" last night, Winne continually returned to the central question: Where does responsibility lie? With the individual or in the food environments we have created? Winne proclaimed to have "one foot firmly planted in each camp," despite also being aware that in today's food environment—especially in low-income communities where healthy food is often scarce—one must be extremely strong, and discerning, to make healthy decisions.

So what changes are necessary to make healthy food more accessible and individuals more prepared to make the decision to eat healthy? Winne listed environmental changes as simple as building more supermarkets, altering bus routes to reach healthy foods, building farmers markets in food-scarce neighborhoods and efforts like community-owned grocery stores like People's Grocery in West Oakland.

On the individual level, Winne spoke of competing with the barrage of billboards, soda machines and television ads that children are exposed to by including more food education—cooking, preparation and nutrition—in our schools' curricula. And, on a larger scale, encouraging participation in "food democracy." As the food industry becomes more centralized, and more powerful, are we truly able to impact what food enters our communities? Yes, Winne admitted, as consumers we are able to vote with our dollars, but we are competing with powerful corporations. Low-income neighborhoods often become overrun with fast food operations while supermarkets are nowhere to be found—what good is a vote when nothing on the ballot is beneficial? 

Winne's answer? Food Policy Councils. Yes, the national fight must continue through avenues like the Farm Bill and the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, but local change can happen now. State and local policy councils are springing up across the country thanks to Winne's model of interacting constructively with local and state government to bring about change. Justice, not charity: Individuals, taking responsibility for the environment in which they live, to help bring healthy, sustainable solutions to hunger, and diet-related illness. 

For more information, check out Mark Winne's books Closing the Food Gap and the upcoming Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin' Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture

Andrew Ranallo

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 23, 2010

Shedding a light on race, equity and food

A couple of years ago I took on an in the food movement. I have to admit that I didn’t know much about the United States ShirleySherrodassignment to write about racial equity and social justiceDepartment of Agriculture or its history of inequity. So I started with what I knew to do: research. I typed in race and farming. It made sense to me. I needed a background, a point of reference. To my surprise there was entry after entry on discrimination against black, Native American and Hispanic farmers. The discrimination resulted in a class action suit filed by black farmers, known as the Pigford Case. I went on to interview a few black farmers to get their take on this. For more information on the Pigford Class Action Suit go here.

Fast forward to July 21, 2010. Shirley Sherrod, an employee of the USDA was asked to submit her resignation because she told her truth. Back in March she made an honest and open speech in front of the NAACP about her personal journey and evolution around race while she was working in rural Georgia at the Federation of Southern Cooperative/Land Assistance Fund. So she lost her job at USDA for an experience she had when she was employed by another organization 24 years ago.

I am sure that Ms. Sherrod never set out to be the next Rosa Parks. And I am sure that she never expected to lose her job for telling the truth. Instead, the head of the USDA reacted to a snippet of a tape of her speech. The NAACP reacted as well, throwing her under the bus for a speech that Ms. Sherrod made at one of their meetings months before. One that she says she has made several times to illustrate her change of heart.

I am sure it couldn’t have been easy for her to work with farmers in rural Georgia. I bet she has some stories about being called names and threatened by the white farmers she tried to help over the years. Whatever she saw, and felt, she clearly was able to move past it. It is a lesson that we all need to hear. And we could have heard it, if the tape hadn’t been edited.

The rest of the tape addresses lots of things including Sherrod’s story of the death of her father in a racist act. She talks about having crosses burned on her family’s lawn and about her commitment to stay in the South to change things. Yet, if you read the Tea Party blogs, or watched only Fox News, you would have heard only a couple of lines of her speech—out of context.

When a spokesperson for the Tea Party admitted that it was their intention to embarrass the NAACP by editing and sending this tape out virally, they set in motion a firestorm that made a whole lot of people look bad. The house may be on fire, but remember there was somebody standing there with a gas can and a match. Will we continue to let the flame throwers set the Shirley Sherrods of the world on fire for sport?

If you think that we live in a post-racial society, now that we have the first African American president, then think again. My heart broke a little when I heard Ms. Sherrod say “I can’t believe I am out of a job.” Shirley, I can’t either. I am not surprised that extreme conservatives work tirelessly to stir up the tensions of race. But I am horrified that the NAACP and the USDA were so reactionary. Right now I am sure that Tea Party members all over the country are having a great laugh at the expense of a woman in her 60s who told a story about how she has come to view race and poverty.

As a child of the 60s, I have seen hate around race. I have seen how far we’ve come. But I see how much healing we need to do. As of this writing, Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack has apologized to Ms. Sherrod and offered her a job. Not her job, but a job. The NAACP also apologized. But when will we stop being a PR machine, reacting to save funding and chase a few public opinion points? I am sure that the USDA acted to curb any embarrassment to the administration. How’d that work out USDA? Are you willing to shake the trees and go back to and chase out the hundred or so years of discrimination against black, Native American, Asian and Hispanic farmers?

I also want to thank CNN for doing real journalism. They teach us a lesson. Blogs and tweets are just sources—not the story. Real journalists roll up their sleeves and vet stories. They look at real tapes. They give balanced coverage. In fairness to other media outlets, it is true that there is a rush to get the story out there as quickly as you can in the 24-hour news cycle. We feed the beast as fast as we can. Maybe we need to slow down and ask some questions, especially when we call for someone to get fired.

The media has a lot of work to do. And so do we: the food advocates, the innovative thinkers, the food and public health policymakers, and the pundits. Race is an uncomfortable conversation. But I am now convinced that we need to have more conversations, even in the food world. When the food advocates talk about where our food comes from and where it goes, we need to talk about disparities and equity. We need to address our humanity and our diverse American culture. We need to find our own courage to let this moment be the catalyst for change. It’s easy to get angry about injustice. But it is difficult to be a part of the change. Let’s take a deep breath and move forward in truth, honesty and equity in food. Thank you Shirley Sherrod for the lesson.

This blog post was written by IATP Food and Society Fellow Andrea King Collier.

Andrew Ranallo

July 21, 2010

Wall Street reform bill a win for farmers and rural communities

It was late 2008 when IATP first sounded the alarm on the role of Wall Street speculators in driving agriculture prices up and down like a yoyo—hurting both farmers and consumers alike—and contributing to growing hunger around the world. A few hours ago, President Obama signed into law a Wall Street reform bill that closes many of the regulatory loopholes that allowed big financial players to wreak havoc on agriculture commodity futures markets. Wall Street lobbyists armed with hundreds of thousands of dollars and a legion of former Congressmen did everything they could to defeat this bill. Amazingly, they didn't. In the press release we issued today (pasted below), we explain why this bill is an important win for farmers, consumers and rural communities.  

Wall Street reform bill signed today will limit excessive speculation in agriculture

New rules to curb Wall Street’s influence over food and farming

Minneapolis – TThe Wall Street reform bill signed today by President Obama will severely restrict excessive speculation on agriculture commodity futures markets that has harmed U.S. farmers and countries battling hunger, according to the Institute

for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

“This landmark bill is a first step toward preventing the excessive speculation by big Wall Street banks that has created enormous price volatility in agriculture and energy markets,” said IATP commodities expert Steve Suppan. “This is an important win for farmers and rural communities whose economic futures are so tightly linked to agriculture and energy.”

The bill requires the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to set per-commodity limits across all markets on the number of derivatives contracts that can be controlled by any one entity and its affiliates during a trading contract period. Previously, Wall Street firms and others took advantage of the “Enron loophole” and other regulatory exemptions to purchase and then sell off derivative contracts for agriculture and energy without limits, driving prices up and down.

Just as importantly, the bill requires that most derivatives presently traded “over the counter,” i.e., in private deals not subject to CFTC rules and reporting requirements,

be traded on public and regulated exchanges. The legislation also strengthens enforcement standards and prosecutorial resources for initiating fraud and market manipulation investigations.

“This bill will help markets work for agriculture and all Americans, not just for Wall Street and the transnational corporations that hide their deals in private markets,” said Suppan. “With a return to a more transparent price setting process on public and regulated exchanges, farmers and ranchers again will be able to sell their products in advance to generate the cash flows they require for planting, livestock purchases and other farm management expenses.”

Greater transparency and tougher position limits in the U.S. will also benefit many developing countries. Countries dependent on agriculture

imports for food security will be able to forward contract at fairer and more predictable prices. Developing countries that rely on agricultural exports will similarly benefit from greater price predictability and stability as they forward contract sales.

The bill also requires a study of proposed mandatory trading of carbon emissions credits under CFTC authority to induce investments to meet greenhouse gas emission targets. The study will estimate the price volatility and trading volume effects of carbon trading under proposed climate change legislation. Last year, IATP reported on the risks of excessive speculation on proposed carbon markets.

“The next critical phase of Wall Street reform comes in the regulatory implementation of this bill,” said Suppan. “Wall Street lobbyists and industry associations fought hard to maintain their insider privileges. This opposition will be at least as vigorous in the rule-making process.”

IATP will continue to work alongside the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition, Americans for Financial Reform and other allies to ensure effective implementation and enforcement. The implementation process with regards to agriculture will begin at an Agricultural Markets Advisory Committee meeting at the CFTC on August 5.

In 2008, IATP first reported on the role of big financial firms in contributing to steep food price increases. This dramatic price volatilitynot only affected U.S. agriculture, but ultimately contributed to increased hunger in many of the two-thirds of developing countries that are food-import dependent and that rely on U.S. markets for predictable purchase prices.

Ben Lilliston

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 21, 2010

Declaring Food Independence this July 4

Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International (KGI) and former IATP Food and Society Fellow, is well-known for KGI's “Eat the View” campaign that helped to bring an organic garden to the lawn of the White House. Now KGI, with help from the IATP Food and Society Fellows, is pushing for food independence this July 4.

The goal of the petition, according to the press release, is “50 states. 50 governors. 50 first families celebrating July 4 with locally sourced food,” in order to inspire their constituents to “source local and sustainable ingredients for their holiday meals.”

FoodindependenceThe petition is available at www.FoodIndependenceDay.org. Including last year’s signatures, more than 6,000 have already signed but many more are needed. To show your support, organizers encourage four steps:

  1. Show your support for locally grown foods by becoming a fan of Food Independence Day on Facebook
  2. Invite 4 (4 as in July 4th) friends to join the page
  3. Sign the Declaration of Food Independence (6000+ food revolutionaries and counting!)
  4. Add your July 4th local foods feast to the group map 
So this year, declare your food independence and show support for locally sourced, sustainable, healthy and delicious foods!

Andrew Ranallo

June 17, 2010

Local food system: Under construction

We know demand for more locally produced food is growing. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study found sharp increases in direct farmer-to-consumer marketing ($551 million in 1997 to $1.2 billion in 2007), the number of farmers markets (2,756 in 1998 to 5,274 in 2009) and community supported agriculture organizations (400 in 2001 to over 1,400 in 2010).

But, as the USDA study also pointed out, direct farmer-to-consumer sales still account for less than one percent of the overall food system. How do we ramp it up? Currently, most local food production comes from small farms. While helping more small-scale farms succeed is critical, we also need to bring more medium-sized farms into the picture.

Last year, IATP began working with Compass Group of North America to design a new “Ag in the Middle” initiative aimed at expanding markets for mid-sized, independent farmers. Compass is a leading food service management company that serves over 10,000 hospitals, colleges, K-12 schools and other accounts in the United States. The Ag in the Middle initiative was launched last year with pilot programs in Minnesota, North Carolina and Washington, D.C. Yesterday, the company announced the initiative would be rolled out nationwide. In 2009 alone, Compass purchased $17 million in local food products (Local is defined as food produced within 150 miles or less of where it is consumed.). Compass plans on purchasing from 2,013 mid-sized farmers providing local food by 2013.

“This initiative is about building mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and buyers and creating a new way of doing business with the farming community,” said IATP's JoAnne Berkenkamp in a Compass press release.

The Compass/IATP partnership is just one of a number of innovative efforts around the country involving mid-sized farms in local food production. An excellent new report by Farm Aid documents a number of other efforts around the country—utilizing a variety of models—helping mid-sized farms take advantage of local food opportunities. It all makes you wonder what could be achieved if government policy—like the Farm Bill—devoted more resources toward local food systems that work for farmers and consumers. 

Ben Lilliston

June 15, 2010

CIW anti-slavery work recognized by Secretary Clinton

On Monday IATP Food and Society Fellow Sean Sellers and the CIW Modern Slavery Museum parked outside the U.S. State Department for the release of the most recent Trafficking in Persons report, a global evaluation of progress in the global fight against slavery. The museum was the backdrop for a ceremony hosted by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in which Laura Germino of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was named a 2010 “Anti-Trafficking Hero” by the U.S. State Department. As part of the annual report's release, the State Department recognizes people from around the world who have shown extraordinary commitment and leadership in the fight against slavery. The Fort Meyers News-Press notes that Germino, coordinator of the coalition's Anti-Slavery Campaign, is the first U.S.-based recipient of the recognition.

The fact that the State Department included the U.S. in these ratings is significant: An NPR story notes that “by admitting it faces this issue, the U.S. has a powerful diplomatic tool to encourage others to help tackle modern slavery.”

In her address, Secretary Clinton touched themes important to the CIW:

“Traffickers must be brought to justice. And we can’t just blame international organized crime and rely on law enforcement to pursue them. It is everyone’s responsibility. Businesses that knowingly profit or exhibit reckless disregard about their supply chains, governments that turn a blind eye or do not devote serious resources to addressing the problem, all of us have to speak out and act forcefully.”

Germino was recognized for doing just that. On Monday, she expressed hope by saying “thanks to the growing number of transnational global corporations that have adopted new purchasing policies, thanks to the Campaign for Fair Food that includes zero-tolerance—enforceable zero-tolerance policies for slavery in their supply chain.”

On NPR, Lucas Benitez of the CIW expressed gratitute for the recognition of the Obama Administration but adds that “at the same time it's really sad that in 2010 we're still giving out awards and recognition for fighting against slavery in the United States and in the world. We shouldn't have to do that.”

View the CIW photo report of the State Department 2010 “Trafficking in Persons” (TIP) Report Ceremony.

This blog entry was written by Abigail Rogosheske and originally published on the Food and Society Fellows' Fresh Ideas blog.

Andrew Ranallo

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 26, 2010

River subsidy sidelines Minnesota agriculture

Currently, the navigation infrastructure on the Mississippi costs the federal government an estimated $100 million a year to maintain—a subsidy that supports the export of Minnesota's agricultural products. Now, the navigation industry is pushing for more: nearly $270 million. In a new commentary, published yesterday in the Star Tribune, IATP's Mark Muller explains why increased investment in export channels like the locks and dams from Minneapolis to southern Illinois is bad for Minnesota agriculture.

“Now that the Farm Bill has encouraged all of this corn and soybean production, federal policymakers apparently feel some responsibility for facilitating the export of these crops,” he writes. “When agriculture production is narrowed down to just a couple of crops [...] economic opportunities that provide a greater return are lost. This hurts the Midwest farmers that have little choice to grow these crops even when prices are lousy, and hurts rural communities that need economic development.”

Read the entire commentary, “Don't give up on Minnesota's agriculture innovation,” here (pdf).

Andrew Ranallo

May 12, 2010

Appropriate tech, safe chemicals and the state of nanotechnology

The power of new technology is undeniable. If adopted blindly, however, technology can carry with it a multitude of risks: to health, the environment or to a broad range of sociopolitical considerations. In the latest episode of Radio Sustain, we assess the potential and pitfalls of new technology.

Last month, IATP toured Compatible Technology International's (CTI) workshop in St. Paul to get the scoop on how their low-tech devices are used to improve quality of life while remaining appropriate—culturally, economically and environmentally—for the communities they are intended to assist. In our interview, Dan Grewe discusses CTI's work and what the engineers consider in each of the technologies they create.

Next we get Kathleen Schuler's take on the Safe Chemical Act of 2010. As co-director of the Healthy Legacy Coalition and an IATP senior policy analyst, she applauds the bill and offers some key changes to make the legislation more effective.

Finally, IATP's Steve Suppan explains what nanotechnology is and why we need a more informed regulatory framework before it spreads throughout the food system.

Have a listen now and let us know your thoughts!

Radio Sustain episode 25 (mp3)Linda turning the hand-powered grinder at CTI.

Andrew Ranallo

May 11, 2010

Testing the food revolution

In the Huffington Post last week, IATP's Mark Muller addressed both fans and critics of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution pointing out that Oliver's efforts—dismissed as failure by some, despite his fervor and earnestness—are not in vain, but simply incomplete. Steps like encouraging students to make healthy choices and providing nutritious menu items are necessary but must be understood in a larger context and will not succeed in isolation. As Muller writes, “Our food choices combine availability, taste, cost, time availability, and attitudes and perceptions of our friends, family and community. Choices are also impacted by larger drivers such as food and agricultural policies and the marketing campaigns of the food industry.”

Muller's argument centers on keeping policymakers open to adaptation while addressing the complexities of the food system in relation to student culture, school budgets and the mammoth food industry. This strategy, put simply, is the process of trying, observing and then being open to change when trying again—also known as adaptive management. So while the word “revolution” may sound uncompromising, drastic and once-and-for-all (and maybe even exciting), Muller argues that the long view will be more valuable. “Practitioners of adaptive management need to start with a dose of humility,” he writes. “Rather than creating a multiyear plan and sticking with it, we have far more success if we test assumptions, adapt approaches based on the successes and failures, and learn from what is tried.”

In considering the Child Nutrition Act, up for reauthorization this year, Muller argues that “imposing unachievable standards and inadequate funds on school districts” will not work. Rather, we can learn by “freeing school district food service personnel to unleash their creativity at the local level, essentially providing us with hundreds of school meal test labs.”

So on with the revolution! But on, too, with the conversations, humility, experiments and creativity. Read Mark Muller's piece here and join the conversation.

Andrew Ranallo

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

April 26, 2010

Better agriculture competition workshops

The U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Agriculture are holding a series of historic workshops throughout this year on the effects of decreased competition in the agriculture sector. In March, we wrote three reports (one, two and three) on the first workshop—held in Ankeny, Iowa—which focused on the effects of market concentration on farmers. Upcoming workshops will be held in Alabama (poultry), Wisconsin (dairy), Colorado (livestock) and Washington, D.C. (price margins).

While the Iowa workshop succeeded on many fronts, a different format could have greatly strengthened the meeting. IATP helped organize a letter to the USDA and DOJ, signed by 40 organizations, outlines a series of proposed reforms for future workshops:

  1. Public participation should be expanded throughout the agenda so each panel has at least 30 minutes of public comments and questions.
  2. Incorporate an assessment of the impact of global agricultural market concentration and the role of trade and investment agreements into future workshops.
  3. Add an additional workshop focused solely on seeds and the implications of seed patenting in relation to competition potentially undermining sustainable agriculture.
  4. Include the Federal Trade Commission, which has jurisdiction over retail grocery stores and most food manufacturers, in the workshops.
  5. Add more regional workshops in states that have a strong agriculture sector with different characteristics, such as California, Minnesota, Texas, Florida and states in the Northwest and Northeast.

The Iowa workshop was impressive in demonstrating the commitment of high-level officials, like Attorney General Eric Holder and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, to addressing competition issues in agriculture; improvements in the workshops' organization would be another step in the right direction.

Ben Lilliston

April 22, 2010

FoodCorps: Shovel-ready to connect farm and school

In an exciting new project, Debra Eschmeyer and Curt Ellis (IATP Food and Society Fellows) are working to connect farms, schools and the peoplepower that is often lacking when trying to bring them together. Something almost everyone can agree with is schools should offer healthier, fresher foods to students—how to actually do that has been a difficult question for many.

FoodCorps is a hybrid between farm to school and an Americorps service-learning opportunity. According to the press release, “Once launched, FoodCorps will recruit enthusiastic members for a yearlong term of public service in school food systems in communities of need. Service members will build and tend school gardens, conduct nutrition education, and build Farm to School supply chains.”

The value-added in a program like FoodCorps is its multifunctionality. “Beyond increasing access to healthy food in public schools, the program promises to train a new generation of American farmers. FoodCorps can help make farming ‘cool’ again,” said FoodCorps co-creator Curt Ellis. “It’s a chance to get your hands dirty and consider agriculture as a career.” 

If you missed the Food and Society Fellow program's webinar about the Food Corps program, it's available to view here. Also, make sure to check out www.food-corps.org for more information and to sign up and stay informed!

Andrew Ranallo

April 21, 2010

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 12, 2010

Challenging the obesity system

This past weekend Dr. David Wallinga, director of IATP's Food and Health program, was featured on Huffington Post. His blog entry, “Challenging the Obesity System,” looks at the obesity epidemic as a symptom of the larger issue of an unhealthy food system.

“As a cheap calorie policy, U.S. farm policy has been a success. Foods high in fats, sugars and calories, such as cooking oils, snacks, fast foods and sugared sodas, are some of the cheapest foods in the American diet,” he writes. “But for public health, U.S. farm policy's focus on a few commodities is outdated.”

What about solutions? Dr. Wallinga offers three suggestions:

  1. Establishing an independent Healthy Foods Commission of non-governmental public health, agriculture and food system experts.
  2. Partnering with America's farmers to grow healthier food by offering support equal to that offered in the current commodity-focused system.
  3. Raising the standards of the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.

Read the full post here and join the conversation. How can public health and food policy come together?

Andrew Ranallo

April 08, 2010

Fight for farmworker justice in the Sunshine State

In the latest Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) Campaign for Fair Food initiative, Publix—a large supermarket chain based in Lakeland, Florida—has come under fire. While other food industry giants—including McDonald's, Subway and, most recently, Aramark—have signed agreements, Publix has failed to work with CIW to improve the wages and working conditions of farmworkers in Florida.

In response, the CIW has initiated an Email Action Alert asking supporters to email Publix CEO Ed Crenshaw and ask that the supermarket chain work with CIW to establish an agreement to provide improved wages and working conditions to those that harvest the tomatoes Publix sells in its produce department. There is also a planned march (April 16–18) that will incorporate pickets and prayer vigils at both a Publix supermarket and the Publix headquarters.

CIW represents tomato workers that have been exploited for decades. The low wages and poor working conditions, combined with instances of abuse, have often raised comparisons to modern day slavery—a comparison that is more than apt. In fact, CIW has aided the Department of Justice in prosecuting multiple slavery operations which took advantage of hundreds of farmworkers. IATP Food and Society Fellow Sean Sellers has worked closely with CIW since 2003 and recently went on tour around Florida showcasing these injustices as part of a Modern-Day Slavery Museum.

As an official endorser of the Alliance for Fair Food, IATP encourages you to join the Email Action Alert and learn more about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' fight for farmworker justice.

Andrew Ranallo

April 02, 2010

Radio Sustain: Agriculture, food and perspective

If music is the international language, food—and where it comes from—is the international conversation piece. In the newest Radio Sustain, the conversation takes us through four distinct perspectives on the international issues of farming, food, sustainability and land management.

First, IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch discusses her experience attending the first USDA/Department of Justice workshop on concentration in corporate agriculture. What are the workshops' goals? What, if any, changes to policy may result and how will the debate domestically impact the international one over competition, monopoly and overall agribusiness domination?

Then, we sit down with IATP President Jim Harkness to talk sustainability in China. In March, IATP hosted the first International Workshop on Sustainable Food and Agriculture at China's Renmin University. What happened there and how will China feed itself?

Dr. William Moseley, a Geography professor from St. Paul's Macalester College, visited IATP in March and joined us to discuss his recent research on the effects of neoliberal trade policies on livelihoods and food production in the three African countries of Gambia, Cote d'Ivoire and Mali.

Finally, IATP Senior Fellow Dr. Dennis Keeney revisits the 2008 Iowa flooding and discusses how commodity crop production has altered the Midwest landscape. How are crops like soybeans and corn impacting the land's ability to absorb floods and what changes could be made?

Listen to the latest episode here!

Andrew Ranallo

On job creation—local fruits and vegetables vs. corn and soybeans

It turns out that foods that are better for you may also be better for farmers and local job creation. A new study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University found that expanding fruit and vegetable production in the upper Midwest could bring significantly more economic benefits than conventional corn and soybean production on the same acreage.

The study, by Iowa State Research Scientist Dave Swenson, looked at the potential for fruit and vegetable production in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. It identified 28 kinds of fruits and vegetables that farmers are able to grow in the region. Currently, much of the fruits and vegetables in the region come from other parts of the country or even outside the country.

Some key findings on the economic impacts on the region as a whole:

  • Increased fruit and vegetable production in the six states could mean $882 million in sales at the farm level, and more than 9,300 jobs. Corn and soybean production on that same acreage would support only 2,578 jobs.
  • If half of the increased production was sold in farmer-owned stores, it would require 1,405 such stores staffed by 9,652 people.
  • Only 270,025 acres—roughly equivalent to the average cropland in one of Iowa's counties—would be needed to grow enough fruits and vegetables for the six-state region.

Previous research found that smaller sized farms (50 acres and smaller) are more likely to produce fruits and vegetables than standard-sized farms so it is likely that more, smaller farms would be needed. Researchers assumed that 50 percent of fruit and vegetable production would be directly marketed in-state by farmer-owned stores. Local and regional ownership of the food chain will be essential for maximum job creation.  

The study breaks down the numbers by state and metropolitan region so it's easy to get a sense of what your neck of the woods could be doing to create new local food jobs.

The barriers to transitioning toward more fruit and vegetable production in the Midwest are enormous. Farmland is hard to come by as values are seen as a better investment than the stock market. U.S. farm policy greatly incentivizes corn and soybean production in a number of ways, including helping farmers to manage risks and supporting research for those crops. And then there's the lack of infrastructure needed to help local food systems serve a booming market. Despite these barriers, this study gives us a guidepost for the potential economic benefits of a new model for agriculture that produces healthier and more locally grown food.


Ben Lilliston