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.
Food and Health
December 15, 2010
A victory on mercury and HFCS
In my more desperate hours, I sometimes wonder whether raising my physician voice is enough to foster change, to make the food system healthier and more sustainable.
This week brought fresh evidence that it is. Early last year, I teamed up with other scientists to release data indicating that both commercial high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and processed foods that contained high amounts of HFCS could be contaminated with mercury.
We surmised the likely problem was that some of the latter products were made using HFCS created from caustic soda produced in so-called “mercury cell” chlorine factories. In fact, the food industry referred to this as “mercury-grade” or “food-grade” HFCS. A few American chlorine factories continued to make cell mercury–grade caustic soda despite these problems.
Our reports were the first published information pulling the curtain from this scary practice. Now it appears the chlorine industry took notice. The giant chemical maker, Olin, announced it was spending $160 million to convert its dirty mercury cell chlorine plant in southeast Tennessee to non–mercury polluting technology. Another Olin plant, in Augusta, Ga., will also stop using mercury for manufacturing in 2012. Wahooo!
What changed their minds? Let’s listen to Olin CEO, Joseph Rupp: "Over the past 18 months we have experienced a steady increase in the number of our customers unwilling to accept our products manufactured using mercury cell technology," he said.
IATP’s work on mercury in high fructose corn syrup came out January 2009.
David Wallinga, M.D.
December 03, 2010
How health professionals can green their practice
There is growing scientific evidence that environmental exposures affect both individuals' health and the health of the population as a whole. Our health professionals are on the front lines treating diseases associated with a variety of environmental contaminants.
In a new article for Medscape titled "Greening Your Practice," IATP's David Wallinga, M.D., outlines how clinicians can address two critical environmental issues with important health consequences: the daily exposure of people to combinations of toxic chemicals, and an unhealthy "obesogenic" food environment. Dr. Wallinga writes, "Because chemical and food environments are inherently community issues, clinicians may find advocacy for healthier chemical and food policies to be an essential component for reducing the unhealthy food and chemical exposures already affecting their patients."
You can read the full article here.
November 30, 2010
Animals and our obesogenic environment
Many things “cause” the obesity epidemic, acting together. But the general consensus around how to respond to this fact has changed significantly.
The new approach is to change the default environment that appears to constrain individuals to make bad choices and become obese in the first place by eating more calories than they can burn. A permissive culture that allows even the youngest, most vulnerable children to be bombarded with soda and other junk food ads is one example. Local zoning that leaves many neighborhoods lacking in sidewalks or bike lanes—or virtually any way of getting from point A to B except by car—is another.
This week, Nature reports on a study that looks at the obesity epidemic of the four-legged kind. (Though it’s hard to see how pets and laboratory animals would be as impacted by marketing or zoning as are kids.)
November 09, 2010
Fast food advertising to children is relentless
Yesterday at The American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual meeting in Denver, researchers from Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity released Fast Food FACTS (Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score). They found that children as young as two are seeing more fast food advertising than ever before and that children are targeted through various media and in the restaurants themselves.
Read this summary of their findings and a rundown of the best and worst kids meals available at popular fast food restaurants. If you're going to visit one, be sure to ask for the healthy sides (milk, fruit, yogurt). The study found that if you leave the choice to the restaurants, most will serve your kids french fries and soda.
October 26, 2010
Health disparities and neighborhoods
The Twin Cities are lot like other parts of the U.S. when it comes to health. "Health is strongly connected to race, income and the specific parts of the metro area in which people live in," according to a report released earlier this month by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation of Minnesota.
Specifically, the report found that when compared to whites, mortality rates were 3.5 times higher for American Indians, and 3 times higher for U.S.-born blacks in the Twin Cities. Residents in the highest income areas in the Twin Cities had an average life expectancy of eight additional years compared to those in the lowest income/highest poverty areas.
In a comment on the report, IATP's David Wallinga, M.D. writes about the role of a community's environment in public health. "Abundant science now shows that people who live in less healthy, more polluted neighborhoods are sicker and at greater risk for a slew of chronic diseases and conditions than people that are not living in those neighborhoods. And these neighborhoods generally are lower income and more populated by people of color. It is through conscious changes to neighborhood environments that many health improvements are to be had in Minnesota."
One of the essential elements of a neighborhood's environment is access to healthy food. But David writes, "Many lower-income communities also lack access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods, or even access to full-service supermarkets."
You can read the full report and comments from David and other local leaders here.
October 22, 2010
Parent Earth: videos about food for families
How can we foster a world that nurtures healthy, thriving children?
Parent Earth, a new website which launched Sept. 29, serves up entertaining and informative videos about the topic on every parent’s mind today: food. Working closely with noted nutritional, medical and educational leaders, the site is produced by two award-winning filmmakers and moms, and features more than 100 original and hand-picked videos covering cooking, gardening, nutrition and behavior.
Created by Emmy Award–winning filmmaker and Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) Food and Society Fellow Nicole Betancourt and co-founder and filmmaker Sarah Schenck, the two mothers have gained support from enlightened corporate sponsors including Happy Baby and Stonyfield Farm.
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Check out our latest press on Bon Appetite.
This post was originally published on the IATP Food and Society Fellows Fresh Ideas blog.
October 18, 2010
Good meat makes good food
As we put the summer garden to bed and our thoughts turn to winter meals of slow-cooked stews and roasts, a welcome guide to cooking and sourcing sustainable meat has arrived from Deborah Krasner. Good Meat: The Complete Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Meats, published by Stewart, Tabori and Chang,combines all the information needed to understand what sustainable meat production is, where to find it and—most gloriously—how to cook it. With over 200 recipes and photographs, the James Beard Award winning author of The Flavors of Olive Oil has opened a window on the world of delicious meats—kept on the farm for far too long for the private enjoyment of farm families. Guinea fowl, lamb shanks, pig’s tails, rabbit hearts, livers, tongues and kidneys of all sorts. In addition to the uncommon, Good Meat is replete with the standard steaks, ribs, loin roasts, sausages, chops and hams. Rounding out the platters of meat are complimentary side dishes, deserts and salads.
The opening section provides an insider’s view of what sustainable meat is and where it comes from. It is this picture of the farmers, the farms and the animals that separates sustainable meats from meat produced in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and industrial meat processing plants. There is a reason you won’t find a cook book that combines pictures of industrial meat production and preparing food for dinner: Nobody would come to the table. From the animal feed to the slaughtering techniques, Good Meat introduces us to a way of producing and preparing food that benefits the farmer, nature and those who eat the food. Krasner has included a substantial resource section, which we are proud to say includes the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy as a source for information about good, safe and local food.
With the apple harvest nearly over and the cider press waiting, I was easily drawn to a recipe for roast chicken with apples, sausage and cider on page 302. My only suggestion is to follow the meal with glass of Calvados and to start planning what new fruit trees to plant in the orchard next spring.
October 04, 2010
Health issues limit agricultural exports
The Obama administration has pledged to double exports by 2015. The administration will have trouble reaching that goal for agriculture if it continues following the lead of the big meat companies and ignore health issues raised by top U.S. trading partners.
The largest U.S. meat companies, and now Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, continue to disappoint by downplaying the now indisputable science linking antibiotic overuse in livestock to worsening epidemics of antibiotic-resistant infections in people.
In case you missed it, Vilsack kicked off the recent debate when he told the National Cattleman's Beef Association that the USDA thought America's livestock producers already use antibiotics "judiciously."
Of course, Vilsack is a lawyer and not a doctor who treats life-threatening infections in people. If you listen to the latter, you get a different picture.
The New York Times notes that Center for Disease Control Director Thomas Frieden—a physician—wrote to Congress last July about “compelling evidence” of a “clear link between antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans.” Much of that evidence shows that antibiotic overuse on farms helps create reservoirs of antibiotic resistant superbugs that can cause food poisoning in people when they eat the meat from those animals.
Minneapolis infectious disease expert Dr. James Johnson, also quoted by the Times, notes "the evidence is unambiguously clear. Most of the E. coli resistance in humans can be traced to food-animal sources.”The best estimates still available are that over 70 percent of all antimicrobials used in the country are given to healthy animals—not because they're sick, but for growth promotion and other avoidable uses. Many of these antibiotics are also common human drugs, like tetracyclines or erythromycins.
What's this have to do with the success of meat industry exports? Well, many U.S. trade partners have banned—or are threatening to ban—U.S. meat imports because of our overuse of antibiotics, and the food safety risks it helps to create. In 2008-09, for example, Russia refused pork imports from U.S. plants—including those owned by Tyson and Smithfield—due to traces of tetracycline and oxytetracycline in tested pork. Russia previously banned U.S. poultry because of tetracycline residues. This was a blow because in many years Russia has been the largest importer of U.S. chicken—a multi-billion dollar industry.
So, it seems like Secretary Vilsack and the big meat industry players have something of a shared delusion going on. They may want to continue believing that current overuses of antibiotics are "judicious." But if U.S. trade partners listen our nation's physicians, instead of our big meat companies, doubling agriculture exports may be yet another shared delusion.
August 19, 2010
Bringing EBT to Minneapolis farmers markets
One of the best places to find fresh, healthy food is your local farmers market. Our current food stamp program uses Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards (a kind of debit card) which were designed primarily for supermarkets. As a recent Community Food Security Coalition report found, there are a number of social, economic and technological challenges to expanding EBT use at farmers markets. Fortunately, a growing number of farmers markets around the country are overcoming these hurdles.
This week, IATP along with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, the City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and the Minnesota Department of Health announced a new program to expand EBT use at three of Minneapolis's largest farmers markets. Now that these farmers markets accept EBT cards, the challenge is to let EBT users know about it and take advantage of what these markets have to offer. As an added incentive, Market Bucks coupons matching the first $5 of purchases by EBT users, will be available at the markets. See more details in our press release below:
August 10, 2010
Unlocking fresh produce
This month's Radio Sustain is all about farmers markets, community gardens and empowerment. First, we talk with Joe Rice, director of the Na-Way-Ee Center School in south Minneapolis, about the school's garden and how it connects students with the earth, their food and their native traditions.
Next, Pastor Steve Lomen, operator of the St. Olaf Community Campus Mini Farmers Market, fills us in on his expanding vision. What used to be an empty grass plot on the campus grounds is now a 40' by 60' garden providing fresh food to the community—and he has even bigger plans.
Finally, IATP Food and Society Fellow Andy Fisher, executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition in Portland, has co-authored a new report detailing what stands between those on federal food assistance programs and the fresh produce at farmers markets.
Listen to the entire episode here (mp3) and let us know what you think: Radio Sustain Episode 28 (August 2010).
August 05, 2010
Food safety on the cheap
While billions of dollars are invested each year by food and agriculture companies in developing new technologies, only a small fraction is invested in ensuring food safety, writes IATP's Steve Suppan in the latest issue of the Global Food Safety Monitor.
The latest example of this unfortunate practice is the enormous investments being made in developing new food and agriculture applications for nanotechnology: the manipulation of molecular level matter. Governments and companies are developing nanotech applications in food packaging, plant production, animal breeding and food appearance, without establishing or investing in any clear system to ensure safety.
The Global Food Safety Monitor reports from this summer's NanoAgri 2010 conference in São Pedro, Brazil, where over 300 scientists and a handful of regulators and nongovernmental organizations discussed the latest nanotech applications and national and international regulatory issues.
The Monitor reports, "For governments hoping that nanotechnologies will create a new generation of jobs and wealth, product development, and not development of environmental, health and safety data about nanotechnologies, is the priority."
August 03, 2010
Environments, individuals and the food gap
With 30 percent living below the poverty 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.
July 26, 2010
Farmers market power
Two years ago, we launched an 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.”
The 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:
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.
June 11, 2010
Superbugs, food coops and global hunger
Our latest Radio Sustain podcast is packed! First, Maryn McKenna, author of SUPERBUG, discusses the antibiotic-resistant MRSA—an epidemic that kills nearly 19,000 Americans per year—and why our reliance on antibiotics in agriculture is partially to blame.
Next, Lindy Bannister from the Wedge Natural Foods Coop in Minneapolis reflects on her recent trip to China with IATP president Jim Harkness, where they held a workshop to explore opportunities for consumer food coops in China (Read a blog post about their trip here.)
Finally, IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn describes the highlights and shortfalls of new food security legislation currently before Congress. Will U.S. aid have strings attached in support of genetically modified crops or allow countries facing hunger the flexibility to decide what types of agricultural practices are best for them?
Listen to the episode here (mp3) and let us know what you think!
May 20, 2010
New study uncovers alarming frequency of BPA in canned foods
What do over 90 percent of 50 cans from 19 states and one Canadian province have in common? BPA. It's not a riddle, but the disturbing results of a new study (No Silver Lining) released Tuesday by the Chemical Safety Workgroup. The Healthy Legacy Coalition (IATP is a steering committee member) is a contributor to the workgroup and has published a new blog post that details some key findings of the report.
Perhaps more important than the alarmingly high 90-percent incidence rate are the implications of where and at what levels BPA was discovered. The samples were made up of "real life" meal options—fruits, vegetables, soda, fish and others—and the levels of BPA were radically inconsistent between identical products: Two different cans of the same brand of peas (with different "lot numbers") contained very different levels of BPA, for instance. Both the broad swath of BPA's presence, and the lack of consistency, make avoiding exposure challenging to say the least.
Read Kim LaBo's blog entry over at the Healthy Legacy blog for more findings of the study and Healthy Legacy's next steps in the fight against toxics in consumer products.
May 14, 2010
Let's get arsenic out of animal feed
Four years ago, IATP released test results of chicken bought in U.S. grocery stores and fast food restaurants. The results revealed detectable levels of arsenic in the majority of chicken tested. What in the world is arsenic doing in chicken?
It turns out that arsenic-containing compounds have been approved as additives to animal feed since the 1940s and continue to be used in chicken, turkey and swine production. These arsenic-containing feed additives are not used to treat sickness. Instead, they are generally approved for increased weight gain and improved pigmentation. In other words, the use of this known carcinogen in animal feed is entirely unnecessary.
In December, IATP and the Center for Food Safety petitioned the Food and Drug Administration, calling on the agency to immediately withdraw approvals for all animal drug applications for arsenic-containing compounds used in animal feed.
Now others are joining the call. Last week, nine food coops in Minnesota sent a letter to the FDA calling for the agency to act on the petition. The coops cited numerous suppliers to their stores who provide healthy meat and poultry, and do not use arsenic in their feed. "Although some chicken, turkey and swine producers use arsenical-containing compounds in their animal feed, they are not necessary to provide a wholesome product or to treat animal sicknesses," the coops wrote.
The European Union has never approved the use of arsenic as an animal feed additive. Time for the U.S. to get with the program.
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!