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.
October 21, 2010
UN Committee on Food Security concludes on positive note
IATP's Sophia Murphy was in Rome last week for the Food and Agriculture's Committee on Food Security meeting. A version of this report also appeared on the Triple Crisis blog.
The 36th meeting of the FAO’s Committee on Food Security (CFS) concluded in archetypal U.N. fashion: one and a half hours of apparently aimless milling about followed by a call to order, a 10-minute exchange during which it becomes clear that the milling about was actually about last—very last—minute negotiations, and, finally, adoption of the report by acclamation. So ended the first meeting of a revamped piece of the U.N. system—a small but fascinating piece.
Why fascinating? Because last year governments agreed to a major overhaul of the way the committee works, and to give the committee a preeminent role in the coordination of U.N. food security policy. The FAO, World Food Program (WFP) and the International Fund Agriculture and Development (IFAD) jointly run the CFS. There are several new mechanisms alongside, including one defining a Civil Society Mechanism to ensure adequate and accountable participation from the nongovernmental sector writ large, and a recently constituted High-level Panel of Experts (yes, another acronym: HLPE) that will be commissioned by the CFS to write reports and more generally to provide the benefit of independent advice and thinking.
The mood was upbeat at the end. Government officials seemed tired but satisfied. And the CSOs did, too. Not excited or exhilarated, but not angry or bored, either. A few governments seemed determined to damn with faint praise (sadly for this Canadian, Canada comes to mind). But others engaged. The United States, for instance, while hardly visionary, was constructive. The budget discussion was a painful rehearsal of so many of the U.N.’s budgetary discussions, along strictly North-South lines. On the other hand, on substance, the divisions were not so predictable.
There are procedural issues to work out for next year. The governments spent hours (and hours) negotiating the outcomes from a roundtable, which seemed a bit tangled. Why not just adopt the report, and spend the negotiating time on outcomes the governments themselves will have to implement? As it is, the HLPE will have its work cut out to make sense of the many proposals and to pick among them because it has nowhere near enough resources to do them all.
On the other hand, there has never been anything like the CFS before—no intergovernmental body was even attempting to concert governments’ responses to food security. Let alone an intergovernmental forum so open to CSO contributions. Particularly in an age when governments have accepted that food security is not a simplistic equation of total availability of grains worldwide divided by the total global population, the need for a CFS in the U.N. system is clear. It is a hopeful sign that so many governments came prepared to engage.
The biggest fight during the meeting was probably around land grabs and how to tackle them. Two processes have somehow emerged, in parallel, serving different audiences. One is under FAO auspices and is known as the Voluntary Guidelines on the tenure of land and other natural resources. The other as RAI, or the “Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment that Respects Rights, Livelihoods and Resources,”— an interagency process (FAO, IFAD, World Bank and UNCTAD). It has angered many NGOs and CSOs because they have emerged without consultation and instead of starting with the universal human right to food, they build on various corporate social responsibility initiatives.The VG emerged from the 2006 International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development and have a better pedigree in terms of consultation and broader ownership by NGOs. Take a look at what the Special rapporteur on the right to food had to say: he should know.
For now, whatever happens next must happen soon. The international community has already sat by for too many years as national governments and investors have muddled and meddled in the highly (and rightly) sensitive issues of land ownership and land use. It was encouraging to see a fight in Rome, but it will be far more encouraging if the governments can actually act, and fast.
October 15, 2010
Volatile times discussed in Rome
I'm in Rome to talk about volatility (my powerpoint here). More precisely, the volatility in agricultural commodity markets and what can be done to a) mitigate it and b) better cope with its consequences. The topic was part of one of three issues the first meeting of the revamped FAO Committee on World Food Security (CFS) has on its agenda. It will be one of the first topics to be addressed by the High Level Panel of Experts created as part of the revamped CFS structure. It's also an issue close to the French government's heart, as it made clear in the short speech given yesterday by France's Minister for Agriculture. France's President Sarkozy has committed to making agriculture a central part of the agenda for the G20 meeting that France will host next May.
It's great to see that the topic is preoccupying governments. It should be. Of course agriculture prices fluctuate and of course that fluctuation plays a number of very useful purposes in keeping markets on track. Volatility, however, especially unpredictable and extreme volatility, hurts producers, consumers and ultimately undermines investor confidence, starving the sector of much needed capital.
The problem should be tackled both at the source, by limiting the occasion for extreme volatility to occur, and where it hits home, in poor households especially, by providing safety nets and risk management tools. It has to be tackled comprehensively, too. Volatility has several distinct components that need to be considered jointly. There are the futures markets and speculative investors, a problem much discussed by IATP, on this blog and elsewhere. There is the question of grain reserves, the issue I came to Rome to talk about and also a hot topic for IATP writing. Then there is trade - do we have the right rules? What can governments do better?
Climate change is affecting the heart of any food system: the weather. We don't yet know all that it will mean for the future, but for the millions of people coping today with record-setting disasters, from Central America through South Asia with too many stops in between, it is clear that there is a new and particular urgency to addressing volatility quickly and effectively, with as few ideological fights about governments and markets and their respective roles as possible.
This year should see renewed attention from governments on understanding the causes and taking action to at least mitigate volatility. The background paper for the discussion written for the CFS was disappointing: it gave a useful and concise discussion of how climate change was increasing vulnerability to food insecurity but then turned into a very unpersuasive discussion about responses, mostly highlighting the failures of past reserves policies, and not very convincingly. Here's hoping the next iteration serves governments better. Perhaps by CFS 37 (i.e. in one year's time), we could hope to see some binding government decisions on the issues. Fingers crossed.
Times they are a changing at the FAO
I'm writing from Rome, a beautiful city despite the cars. I'm attending the FAO's Committee on World Food Security, a once relatively sleepy piece of the sprawling UN system that last year was given a significant boost by a thorough revamp. Listening to the governments negotiate, agonizing over words (to launch or to discuss? To endorse or to notice? To act by the next session of the committee or at a future session of the committee?) I am mostly pulled back into memories of the days when a UN meeting was a regular part of my life.
But I am also struck by some differences.
There is the technology - someone now has the job of typing amendments into a computer, projected onto huge screens, so that everyone can see the text as it changes. There is the technique - maybe it was just a good day, but the working group report backs were exemplary. Short and on message. Not something I would have expected the system to be good at. But most revolutionary, really, is the presence of civil society organizations - the CSOs. CSOs are a part of the revamped committee, you see. So in the parsing of the sentences that goes into creating a government agreement, you see Via Campesina and FIAN and Oxfam asking for (and getting) the floor, just as the governments do. No governments first rule, no pre-agreed rules about which topics can be addressed. The CSOs spent days in advance discussing the agenda and drafting agreed language themselves.
Now let's see if all this change adds up to a Committee that can fulfill it's promise. This year will be too early to tell, but so far not bad. I'll know more when I get into the building this morning and find out what was decided after I left at 11pm last night.
October 12, 2010
Who benefits from volatility?
By nearly all accounts, agriculture prices worldwide have entered a new era of volatility. Earlier this year, wheat prices shot up an additional $3 a bushel over two months due in large part to concerns around a wheat export ban in Russia. This week, corn prices have risen dramatically due to a USDA report issued Friday, finding a less-than-predicted corn crop this year.
This era of extreme volatility dating back to the 2007-08 global food crisis has contributed to the nearly one billion people worldwide suffering from hunger. This week in Rome, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is hosting a five-day conference on efforts to address global food security. The meeting comes on the heels of an emergency meeting at the FAO last month focused on increased volatility in grain markets.
Of course, agriculture production has always experienced ups and downs due to a variety of factors—from the weather to pests, economics or war. Traditionally, one of the simplest tools to smooth out agriculture markets is to establish reserves: putting food aside in times of plenty to release in times of scarcity. This week, IATP published a series of short primers on: why we need food reserves, food reserves in practice, what's next on food reserves, and the WTO and food reserves. IATP's Sophia Murphy is attending the FAO meeting in Rome to speak on a panel focusing on volatility, where she'll be making the case for food reserves.
Some kind of food reserve is just common sense, right? Who could be against food reserves and efforts to stabilize agriculture prices? Who profits from volatility in agriculture markets?
Yesterday's press release from Cargill announcing that profits jumped 68 percent this quarter provides a clue. As Cargill CEO Greg Page stated, "Our results were led by the food ingredients and the commodity trading and processing segments, both of which experienced resurgence in volatility across agricultural commodity markets. The change put Cargill's global breadth, trading and risk management skills more acutely into play as we worked with customers to help them manage their price risk and raw material needs."
As agriculture commodity prices remain volatile, agribusiness companies like Cargill and ADM (up $388 million last quarter) with a global reach and diversified holdings throughout the food chain are uniquely positioned to benefit, and so far, they have.
October 08, 2010
Global food funds necessary, but not enough
The Obama administration continues to push for new investments to end global hunger. As part of that effort, Bloomberg news reports that the U.S. will urge other nations attending the upcoming G-20 Finance Ministers meeting and the World Bank/IMF meeting this week to contribute to the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP). GASFP was set up last year to channel funding requests for agricultural development. So far, the U.S., Canada, South Korea and Spain (along with the Gates Foundation) have contributed $880 million.
On the plus side, the fund is driven by host-country requests through partner agencies. Rather than setting up a cumbersome new set of rules and procedures, developing country governments can work with multilateral agencies like the International Fund for Agricultural Development, World Food Program and others, using their existing procedures. Some of those agencies, especially IFAD, have a long history of working with small-scale farmers and including women farmers. GAFSP’s steering committee includes donor and recipient governments, as well as representatives from Southern and Northern civil society organizations.
On the other hand, there is reason to be skeptical of a food security fund housed at the World Bank. Over the last 20 or so years, the bank’s structural adjustment programs required trade liberalization, privatization and cuts in public credit, technical assistance and other support to agriculture. In 2007, the World Bank’s own Internal Evaluation Group recognized that its under-investment in African agriculture, and its over-reliance on the private sector, had been a dismal failure. Since then, the bank has committed to mend its ways, but whether new programs housed at the bank can really contribute to food sovereignty—each country’s right to democratically determine its own path to achieve food security and the right to food—remains to be seen.
Obama is right that substantial new investment in agriculture is needed. But, as always, the devil is in the details. Over the last few years the FAO’s Committee on Food Security (CFS)—which meets next week in Rome (IATP's Sophia Murphy is attending and will report back)—has undergone a thorough reform process. It now includes active involvement by family farmers, urban poor, women, indigenous peoples and development organizations from the Nouth and Sorth. Can GASFP coordinate with the CFS to learn from experiences and priorities around the world? Will it support agro-ecological methods built on local knowledge and priorities or will it advance GMOs and other technological fixes? More money for sustainable agricultural development is necessary, but definitely not sufficient to end hunger.
September 28, 2010
NAFTA dumping on Mexican farmers
One of the most dramatic effects of deregulated trade has been an increase in agriculture dumping. In agriculture, dumping takes place when an agribusiness firm exports a crop—say, corn—at a price that is below what it costs the farmer to produce it. Dumping gives agribusiness an advantage in the importing country's market—and often puts that country's farmers out of business, making that country more dependent on imports for its food supply. Trade rules at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and regional trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) limit what countries can do to protect their farmers from dumping, including policy tools like tariffs or certain types of subsidies.
A few years ago, IATP published a report looking at dumping by U.S.-based agribusiness on world markets for five major crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton. We found a sharp increase in dumping following the enactment of the WTO's Agreement on Agriculture and the 1996 Farm Bill—which stripped away the last remnants of supply-management programs and encouraged U.S. farmers to over-produce.
Earlier this year, Tim Wise at the Tufts University's Global Development and Environment Institute released a new report looking even deeper into the damaging effects of dumping. In this case, the effects of dumping eight U.S.-produced agricultural products on Mexican agriculture after the passage of NAFTA. The numbers are astounding. Prices paid to Mexican farmers were depressed nearly $1 billion a year from 1997–2005 due to dumping. You can find more details at GDAE's website.
Or, check out the video interview we did with Tim at a major meeting of Mexican farm groups last month.
September 27, 2010
Rethinking the fundamentals of food security
After a lull in public attention over the last couple of years, rising food prices are back in the spotlight. A spike in prices triggered in part by the Russian export ban, and a deadly food price riot in Mozambique have rekindled the debate on global food security. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) convened a special meeting on global grain prices last Friday, concluding that measures are needed to increase market information and transparency in agricultural trades. Olivier de Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, released a new report on the need to address speculation on commodity markets. He called for regulation and the establishment of food reserves, along with a renewed focus on agroecological methods to increase food production in developing countries.
The last food crisis in 2007-08 highlighted some of the underlying problems of the broken global food system: decades of neglect of investment in agriculture; the foolhardiness of relying on trade for food security; and the vulnerability to wild swings in prices caused by deregulated speculation on commodities. World leaders have made some important new commitments to increase spending and attention to agriculture. And there have been some important first steps toward a new approach in the United States.
The recent financial reform legislation increases transparency and puts new limits on commodity speculation. The Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative and bills under consideration in Congress would increase spending on agricultural development, emphasizing production by small-scale farmers, especially women farmers. The Global Food Security bill sparked a vigorous debate on the kind of research needed to strengthen local food production. Family-farm, faith, environmental and social justice organizations slammed the initial emphasis on GMOs, insisting on agroecological approaches that protect and build upon local knowledge and reduce dependence on imported inputs. Compromise language now broadens the approach to include research on technologies appropriate to local ecological and social conditions, including ecological agriculture, conventional breeding, and genetically modified technology. Of course, how this will all eventually play out on the ground in developing countries is what really matters.
In addition to how food is produced, it is also vital to ensure that people have access to it when and where they need it. Feed the Future and the Global Food Security Act are silent on the question of food reserves. They do provide for some increases in local and regional procurement of food aid. The USAID budget for local food aid expanded to over $280 million last year. This is a breakthrough in U.S. food aid programs, which up to now have overwhelmingly supported in-kind shipments of food purchased in the United States, transported by U.S. shipping companies, and distributed by U.S. agencies and NGOs. Several GAO reports have documented how much more in-kind food aid costs than locally procured food.The USAID humanitarian assistance program is an important step. Unfortunately, it is still dwarfed by the in-kind food aid programs which continue at about $2 billion a year. There is no doubt that food aid saves lives in times of disaster, and that droughts and flooding and the consequent crop failures could become even more frequent as global warming destabilizes production. There will clearly be times when it makes sense to ship U.S. food to respond to a crisis. But the current approach to food aid skips any assessment of whether it would be cheaper or faster to buy food locally or regionally in developing countries. And it is unlinked from the root causes of food crises, including the vital importance of local production of food in markets controlled by local people. The default is in-kind aid because that’s what we’ve always done. Never mind the fact that the U.S. no longer holds public food reserves. Or that nearly all other countries providing food aid made the transition to local and regional procurement years ago.
These first steps towards increased investment in agriculture and experiments with locally procured food aid matter. They just aren’t nearly enough.
By Karen Hansen-Kuhn
September 23, 2010
Time to put food reserves on the table
Agriculture prices have always experienced their ups and downs. But in recent years, those ups and downs have become more sharp and extreme. And the result has been deadly to many of those around the world facing hunger.
Tomorrow the UN Food and Agriculture Organization will hold a special meeting to examine extreme volatility in global grain prices. The meeting was brought on by the recent spike in the price of wheat and concerns that the the world will once again experience escalating food prices - similar to what happened in 2007-2008.
Historically, one of the key tools that communities and governments have used to temper the inevitable swings in agriculture supply has been reserves. Food reserves set aside food in times of plenty and release food in times of scarcity.
Unfortunately, a several decade push toward market deregulation has discouraged the use of reserves. But the recent extreme highs and lows in agriculture prices have spurred a resurgent of interest - not only at the international level, but at the regional and local level too. In our press release today, we call on the FAO to consider the establishment of food reserves. And we issued a new report by Sophia Murphy on how the international trade rules treat food reserves.
September 10, 2010
World Bank on land grabs: Proceed with care
A much anticipated World Bank report was released a few days ago on a controversial but important issue: foreign direct investment in land, particularly in poorer countries. Dubbed "land grabs" by the critics, a surge in investor interest in buying or leasing land abroad was one of the unexpected but dramatic responses to the surge in food prices in 2007-08. For a while, newspapers were full of stories of big but vague deals between foreign companies and governments of land in some of the world's poorest countries (as well as some not so poor countries). In the most publicized case, in Madagascar, it was a bid for nearly half the country's arable land in 2008 by a South Korean firm, Daewoo, that tipped a country already rife with political dissent into demonstrations that overthrew the government. We have commented on the phenomenon from time to time, and Alexandra Spieldoch and I wrote a chapter on the issue for a book published by the Wilson Center in D.C.
It won't be hard to find fault with the World Bank report. It's a highly politicized issue, and the World Bank has a long and controversial history of financing investment in natural resource extraction in projects that fail to meet appropriate social and environmental standards. Too often, the WB fails to meet its internal standards. The audience of NGOs, in any case, is likely to be skeptical at best.
Without jumping into that controversy here, I think it's worth underlining some of what the report has to offer. First, as the authors say themselves, this is an issue where there has been considerably more talk than action. The report estimates that only 20 percent of the proposed ventures have actually started production, for example. Other data, though some of it only goes up to 2006 and therefore predates the big explosion of interest, suggests that a significant share of the investment is actually domestic. That is, while it's clear that a lot of land has started to change hands, it seems not all of it—in some countries not more than 10 percent of it—is being signed over to foreigner entities.
Second, the report does not pull punches as to the (many) areas of concern that the investments give rise to. For example, the report says:
Many of these same countries face chronic food shortages, are regular recipients of food aid from the World Food Program and have suffered from historically poor governance.
Third, the report makes a few points that need attention, with or without large-scale land deals. First, there is a significant gap between the actual and potential output of much of the world's existing farmland, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. This gap should be narrowed. Second, land rights need urgent attention and regulation in many local, national and international contexts, whether it be the struggles of indigenous peoples the world over, of women confronted with patriarchal customary laws, or of the landless, such as Brazil's landless workers (MST), forcibly occupying abandoned land in the name of their right to survive. Large-scale investments by foreign governments and companies bring attention to a much broader set of struggles for justice related to land. The World Bank report makes the point that, looking ahead, land is only going to get more valuable. In that process, the poor (and otherwise marginalized) will be dispossessed unless direct measures are taken.
There's plenty more to say on this topic, and on the report itself. For now, I think it's worth welcoming this contribution to the debate, not least for shining a carefully documented and thoughtful light on what has been and all too opaque and alarming trend.
September 03, 2010
Speculation and the new price commodity crisis: separating the wheat from the chaff
This blog by IATP's Steve Suppan originally appeared on the Triple Crisis blog.
Wheat prices had been climbing prior to the August 5 announcement of a Russian wheat export ban. Kansas Board of Trade wheat futures contracts had gone from $4.92 a bushel on June 10 to spike at $7.95 a bushel on August 5, prompting a reporter to ask, “How could a Russian drought in the age of instant information escape the world’s notice until the country’s wheat crop was devastated?” This excellent question does not yet have a clear answer.
The wheat price crisis has led the press and even policymakers to focus almost exclusively on the traditional supply-demand fundamentals that ostensibly set prices. It’s as if the press were relieved to point to that old standby, weather, as the culprit for a 50 percent increase in wheat futures prices in a few weeks. For a change from the last three years, excessive speculation in commodities by financial institutions would not be accused of driving price volatility. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, unlike 2007-2008, global grain stocks were high enough to supply countries that could afford them. Maybe the specter of speculators increasing hunger might be eluded.
But maybe not. The Financial Times reported on August 4 that Glencore, the largest global commodities trader, had requested the Russian export ban, which was granted the following day. The ban enabled Glencore and other traders to break and “re-price” their relatively lower-price forward and futures contracts. Glencore and other major traders stand to make a killing in the new wheat price environment. So market power, usually a subject for political economy rather than orthodox economics, had a role in moving the fundamentals of price discovery and price transmission.
Glencore and other traders operate under the protection of Swiss banking secrecy laws, safe from the European Commission’s proposed revision of its Market Abuse Directive, about which we have commented. Meanwhile the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) is deliberating how to regulate wheat and other commodity contracts. On August 5, the CFTC’s Agricultural Markets Advisory Committee (AMAC) met to discuss the now three-year old market failure when futures and cash prices for wheat failed to converge as futures contracts (generally 90 days for agricultural commodities) expired. Price convergence is what allows futures prices to be interpreted as reliable price benchmarks for forward contracting of commodities, both by commodity sellers and buyers. The pressure on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and other U.S. wheat trading exchanges to solve the price convergence problem was made more acute with the release in June 2009 of a U.S. Senate investigation into wheat prices. The investigation concluded that commodity index fund investors had driven prices by exceeding contract position limits unenforced by the Bush administration CFTC.
CME and other exchange officials had told the CFTC at an AMAC meeting in October 2009 they would redesign the wheat contract to eliminate the price convergence problem, which they attributed to changes in transportation and storage costs and in delivery points (e.g. from Chicago to Toledo, Ohio), rather than to excessive financial speculation in commodities. At the August 5 AMAC meeting, the clearly impatient CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler pressed CME as to when the redesigned contract would finally be ready for review. Six-to-eight weeks was the answer.
The CFTC has a lot on its regulatory plate. Just to implement the Over the Counter (off-exchange, unregulated transactions) trade provision of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, on July 21 the CFTC announced a schedule for 30 new rules. Among the rules will be one on agricultural “swaps” (OTC contracts) that directly affects wheat futures trading.
Because OTC trades are not reported to the CFTC, e.g. by such firms as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, until well after their market influence has waned, OTC traders do not contribute price information to fulfill the Commodity Exchange Act requirement of price discovery. Regulated exchanges must report their trade data daily to the CFTC for its weekly Commitment of Traders report, a fundamental regulatory tool for estimating trade trends, including market manipulation. Nevertheless, OTC traders take advantage of exchange-traded price information. For this reason and others, former CFTC commissioner Michael Greenberger testified to the CFTC in 2009 that agricultural swaps are per se violations even of the deregulatory Commodity Futures Modernization Act. If OTC wheat trading collapses as the result of a new rule on agricultural swaps, wheat and other agricultural commodity price volatility caused by so-called dark markets will greatly diminish.
But the CFTC faces a tough fight to implement the Dodd Frank legislation, not only because of the massive Wall Street lobby against enforced regulation, but because of continued efforts to deny that financial speculation played a role in price volatility and to argue therefore that Bush administration rules suffice. The latest denialist gambit, by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, to dismiss excessive financial speculation as a major commodity price driver in 2007-2008 has recently been demolished by a Better Markets Inc. study.
However, no amount of prudential regulation, however well-drafted, closely monitored and stringently enforced, will manage the longer term prospect of climate change induced agricultural supply volatility. True, relatively small infrastructure investments could protect the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of wheat that are rotting outside Indian warehouses or the 40 percent of African agricultural production that rots in the fields for want of basic post-harvest storage facilities and roads for domestic markets. But the biggest Greenhouse Gas emitting countries, financial institutions and even some NGOs are counting on carbon emissions markets to induce investments in low carbon technology. The International Emissions Trading Organization opposes limits on OTC trading, ostensibly to make the market “efficient” by increasing its liquidity. Of course, IETA members (many of the same firms that have speculated on agricultural commodities) want their chance to make a carbon killing too.
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 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.
June 09, 2010
Food reserves: Reports from Africa and Asia
At the food reserves meeting that IATP co-organized in Brussels, Belgium along with Collectif Stratégies Alimentaires and Oxfam Solidarity, I was particularly interested in reports from Africa and Asia. Speakers from the East African Farmers Federation (EAFF), the permanent Interstate Committee for drought control in the Sahel (CILSS) and West African Peasant Farmers Network (ROPPA) emphasized that before discussing food reserves, Africa needs broader investment in the agricultural sector to adapt to climate change and achieve food security.
In terms of establishing food reserve programs, it seems there are some initiatives already underway. One such example is the East African Grain Council initiative, which is working to establish warehouses and warehouse receipt systems. The East African Commission also intends to establish a regional mechanism for the management of food reserves by 2012, which would include an information management system to track food stocks. In East and West Africa, there is the World Food Program Purchase for Progress initiative (P4P), which facilitates the local procurement of food. The Club du Sahel is working toward the establishment of regional food reserves with minimal contribution from participating countries. Farmer organizations and cooperative societies can play an important role in their respective areas by constructing and managing food storage facilities. They are in a position to assist in the reduction of post-harvest losses and to serve as information hubs.
Southeast Asia has its own programs underway. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) already has an emergency rice reserve system that was established in 1979 and then amended in 1997. There is also the East Asia Emergency Rice Reserve (EAERR), which operates as part of ASEAN+3 (China, South Korea and Japan). It seems that neither of the programs was effective in responding to the most recent rice price crisis. Today, governments are working toward an ASEAN+3 Emergency Rice Reserve (APTERR) to better respond to shocks and food scarcity in the future. The Asian Farmers Association’s (AFA) position is that in order for a rice reserve mechanism to be effective, it must:
1. be easily accessible to address emergencies and related needs;
2. have safeguards so that it is not used to dump surplus rice;
3. not undermine incentives for local rice production;
4. have clear modalities (modes and triggers for access, price and/or volume shortages and mechanics of distribution of rice stocks from the reserves);
5. be subject to regular participative review and assessment.
AsiaDHRRA, a Philippines-based NGO, is working with small-scale producers to establish community reserves based on local traditions and Indigenous culture. Their programs support food preservation techniques, local rice banks and community nurseries, prioritizing the needs of women farmers, facilitating access and ownership of land by small-scale farmers and building public consciousness.
I walked away from the meeting wanting to know much more about regional, national and community reserves programs that already exist or those that are in formation. Clearly, each region is approaching this discussion differently and varied approaches are needed even as we discuss the need for a globally coordinated system to support reserves.
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:
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.
May 31, 2010
Biotech in Africa
In mid-May, the Des Moines Register published a 7-part series on Africa by reporter Philip Brasher. He traveled to Kenya and South Africa to obtain information for the series. It focuses on corn (maize in Africa) and on the role of biotechnology (its political, as well as its yield aspects) in providing food for sub-Sahara Africa—an area that is short on quality soils, has poor rainfall distribution and is expanding rapidly in population.
Still, it now seems to be the U.S. government against most everyone else when it comes to biotech seeds. Often Brasher characterizes Europe as the main force working against biotech in Africa. But only Southern Africa has approved the maize seed for commercial use. And many countries in Asia are just as opposed to biotech seeds. Are he and others using Europe as a scapegoat?
Perhaps the question is already being answered, at least in the short term. South Africa (Africa's Iowa) had the largest corn harvest in 2010 since 1982. Increased land in cultivation, timely rains and better cultivars have contributed to the increase. In fact, South Africa corn prices have dropped more than 30 percent this year and growers are considering withholding corn from the market to increase prices. Part of the problem is the lack of infrastructure to ship the corn to the parts of Africa, such as Kenya, where it is needed.
Brasher's series emphasizes the problems biotech companies have in finding adequate field plots to conduct breeding and yield trials. Not mentioned is the fact that industry restricts independent scientists and others from studying the seed. Further, a lack of established regulations hinders the establishment of field trials.
The series continues to beg the question: What is behind all these efforts to foist GE technology on Africa? It can't be direct profit from African sales; that will be vanishingly small. Not Africans feeding Africa, that is impossible until the numerous infrastructure problems are dealt with. One has to wonder whether it really is about the image of Monsanto and Pioneer in the U.S. (and possibly EU in the future), and the vast pro-biotech lobby that resides within the USDA. And it is about market share, not just in Africa but worldwide.
May 20, 2010
The evolving relationship of NGOs and the UN
IATP's Sophia Murphy attended an invite-only meeting outside of Dublin earlier this week organized by the UN High-Level Task Force for the Global Food Security Crisis.
Home today from Dublin. I ducked in and out around the ash cloud—some 30 of the 150 or so expected participants at the Dublin meeting didn't make it when the airport shut down. A pity. It was a good meeting—serious, purposeful, good humored; a good mix of UN and NGOs, with a sprinkling of government officials. We were there to discuss the update to the Common Framework for Action in response to the Global Food Crisis (IATP's comments here). The discussions were all off-the-record, but here are a few thoughts on what happened.
First, it is encouraging that the framework is being updated. The original wasn't bad—a bit patchy, some jarring assertions (to my eye) and a lot of good ideas. It was done in a rush, and that showed; though actually things done in a rush are not necessarily worse that things lingered over, especially when you involve some 20 or so UN agencies plus the World Bank (which is technically UN) and the WTO (which is explicitly, though controversially, outside the UN system). Anyway, well done to the High-Level Task Force team for pushing through with an update.
Second, the first go round involved no NGOs or civil society voices. This round has. Not that the document is consensus based, or even for NGO ownership. The Dublin meeting was a consultation, not the creation of any formal partnership. The document is intended for sign-off by the heads of all the agencies involved, and thereby to guide agency work related to food security. NGOs can walk away and bash at the CFA take II all they like, but it was a serious consultation, with time and enormous effort put into both acknowledging the written submissions (which came from some 51 NGOs and CSOs) and thinking how best to allow participation from the audience.
Third, I used to work in NGO relations for the UN, with an office called the Non-Governmental Liaison Service. I have attended many of UN meetings, both on the UN side (helping UN agencies understand how NGOs work, and trying to get them to pay more attention to what NGOs could contribute) and on the NGO side, before and after my stint at the UN. I think things have come a long way since I was really involved in this kind of work in the 1990s. The whole culture has changed. While the UN is run by governments, NGOs represent a very different perspective that is invaluable. NGOs are on the ground, facing different constraints and opportunities. The interaction among the UN officials themselves seemed relaxed and constructive, with few turf lines drawn, and between the UN and NGOs, somehow natural and uncomplicated. It was a very welcome atmosphere. The meeting was co-chaired by Tom Arnold, CEO of the NGO Concern International, and David Nabarro, the UN Secretary General's appointment to head the task force.
The draft still has to be finalized and is expected soon—possibly as early as mid-June. I think it will reflect this consultation and the ideas that were put forward—and will be the better for it. Moreover, I think the UN knows and appreciates that this is so. It was a good way to spend two days.
May 19, 2010
Where does the BIGMAP lead?
BIGMAP is not an overweight atlas, but rather an acronym for Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products. Their seventh annual symposium, entitled “Food, Feed, and Fuel for the World: Seed and Biotechnology” was held on April 27–28 in southern LA (Lovely Ames, Iowa). This symposium is open to all registrants at no cost. The Gateway Hotel really knows how to put on conferences, with spacious rooms, great snacks and a delicious lunch on the 28th.
BIGMAP is a program of the Iowa State University Seed Science Center. Directed by Manjit Misra, the SSC has seen rapid growth over the past two decades. The stated mission of the Seed Science Center is to “improve production, quality assurance, marketing, utilization, and regulatory environment of seed through research, testing, teaching, outreach, and international programs.” BIGMAP’s mission is to “provide science-based analysis of the risks and benefits of genetically modified plant and animal products. It will provide guidance and education to help safeguard consumers and the environment.”
This will be the third BIGMAP conference I have attended; I can’t resist a free lunch. But seriously, it consistently has good information, even if it's not necessarily what IATP might agree with. I am always treated well, even though the IATP name tag brings some quizzical looks. This year one conference staffer asked what I was doing there, since IATP always works against the use of GMOs. My reply is that GMOs are part of the bigger system and we all need information.
The conference presented several mixed messages. It was polite to the core, no disagreements or negative body language (except for a few nodding off now and then). It had little to say about feed or fuel, but rather concentrated on food and almost exclusively on sub-Saharan Africa (referred to from now on as Africa) and Southeast Asia, with a bit of South America thrown in.
Biotech in food-deficient countries is presenting major issues for science, regulatory agencies, the private seed sector and NGOs. There are regulatory issues such as “low-level presence” (how to regulate presence of minute amounts of GMO genes and how to properly evaluate biosafety). African, Latin American and Indian scientists and bureaucrats talked about the development of seed enterprises in their regions, a big problem regardless of seed sources. There is a huge deficit of infrastructure for building quality commercial seed systems. These will not be solved in the short-term. Lack of access to credit, which would allow the purchase of quality inputs such as adapted seeds and fertilizers, lack of technical expertise in crop production and post harvest processing and handling, problems accessing markets and limited collective action are also issues. NGOs were not on the agenda.
Part of the discussion focused on the regulatory systems for GMOs in various parts of the world. I was appalled at the regulatory climate, especially in India, where the number of approval agencies in each state is huge and disparate. In Africa, many nations have minimum regulatory and testing agencies, and little commonality in regulations. Harmonization is definitely needed.
Joe DeVries of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) gave an outstanding overview of the challenges to a sustainable seed supply in Africa. It should be noted that AGRA has considerable Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funding. While plant breeding was a key to food security in Africa, infrastructure needs such as seed distribution, seed policies, etc., must go along with good genetics. He did not even mention use of biotechnology. Another part of the theme is the lack of trained plant breeders. In the U.S., public plant breeding has been shoved to the bottom of the agronomy heap and industry took over. So training the cadre of needed scientists will not come overnight. The overall goal is to provide quality seed at low costs, preferably higher yielding hybrids, but in some cases open pollinated varieties are sufficient.
An example DeVries gave: a local variety of maize without fertilizer yielded 13 bushels/acre, with fertilizer, 20 bushels/acre, while a hybrid without fertilizer yielded 19 bushels/ acre and a hybrid with fertilizer was 31 bushels/acre.
More than just maize seed is needed, as Africa has a wide variety of climates and ecological regions, each benefiting from different crops such as cassava and rice. To this end, more farmer participation and networking will be required to help breeders and private seed distributors meet farmers' needs. Similar situations exist in India and South America, but not as severe as in Africa. But little, if any, attention was given to saving landraces or seed conservation, except for yield traits. Sometime, maybe even now, Africa will need these seeds.
Finally, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation weighed in. The presentation was impressive, what was behind the veil is unknown. Yilma Kebede talked about the core values of the foundation: “all lives have equal values.” They have a limited set of issues including health, education and policy. Their agriculture development program focuses on Africa and Southeastern Asia. It aims at small farms, women, environmental market opportunities and innovation. The foundation is developing three levels of funding: high-risk, partnerships and sure things. They will spend considerable funding on evaluation of progress. Still, they spoke as a funding agency, not a driver of progress.
It was a conference of mixed messages and hidden agendas. I did not get the feeling of a big cheering squad for biotech from the scientists and technocrats. And there was a feeling that they know who is paying the bills. The needs are great, the time is short, and so far, there has been more talking than doing.
May 17, 2010
Action on the global food security crisis
IATP's Sophia Murphy is attending an invite-only meeting outside of Dublin this week organized by the UN High-Level Task Force for the Global Food Security Crisis.
Some 150 people have gathered in Malahide, Ireland, just along the coast from Dublin, for a two-day workshop to review the Comprehensive Framework for Action of the UN High-Level Task Force for the Global Food Security Crisis. First put forward in 2008, the High-Level Task Force is completing a review and update that has taken months. The task force has considered written submissions from some 51 NGOs (you can read IATP's submission here) and social movements as well as many meetings of the reference group created by the UN to guide the work.
Today in Malahide, the review will take a further step in a two-day workshop, hosted by the Government of Ireland and the Irish NGO Concern. The draft revised document will be handled by six working groups: food assistance, social protection systems, food production and value chains, better managed ecosystems for food security and nutrition, trade and tax policies in international food markets, and information and monitoring systems. There are four cross-cutting issues that will be considered in all the working groups: the right to food, gender, nutrition and environmental challenges (e.g., climate change). Each working group will have two co-chairs, one from the UN system and one NGO representative. I'll be representing IATP as co-chair of the group on trade, taxation and markets with a representative of the World Trade Organization.
The setting is beautiful, and the UN team has clearly worked very hard to do justice to the comments they received. They are working with Concern to get the most out of the next two days. The mix of organizational politics, institutional cultures and philosophical leanings should make for a lively debate. The trade chapter is particularly marked by clearly different understandings of how trade works and what it should do—the existing draft is not internally coherent, and from an NGO perspective, continues depressingly to rely on the Doha Agenda to do things to address the food crisis that it is patently unfit to do. Let's see if we can improve on things in the next 36 hours.
Food reserves needed to respond to global food crisis
IATP helped organized a letter signed by more than 60 civil society groups calling for the United Nations to consider food reserves as a tool to address global hunger. Below, see the press release we sent out earlier today.
April 23, 2010
Walking a new path on climate change
IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn is blogging from Cochabamba, Bolivia at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.
The Climate Conference concluded today with a dialogue between social movements and governments. Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca described the process leading up to the meeting and the central role of indigenous people in the conference and on these issues, as guardians of the balance among peoples and between people and Mother Earth.
He also reported on the overwhelming participation in the conference. More than 35,000 people from 142 countries attended the meetings, 19,000 of them from outside of Bolivia. Some 47 governments were represented.
People from Australia, Malaysia, the United States and Bolivia reported back on the recommendations from the 17 working groups. They included proposals for a global referendum on climate change and the establishment of an international climate court. They insisted on the Kyoto Protocol as the only binding instrument to reduce global warming, and called on governments to review the failure of carbon markets. They held out agro-ecology and small-scale farming as the best way to feed the world while cooling the planet. The complete recommendations will be available on the conference website by April 26.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, as well as the vice presidents of Cuba and Ecuador, responded with endorsements of the proposals. President Morales offered to facilitate sending the recommendations directly to the UN Secretary General, as well as inserting them in the negotiating process at the UNFCCC.
Of course, not all of these proposals fit within the UNFCCC process, but that really isn’t the point. People from around the world came together in Bolivia to confront the impending climate catastrophe. Action is needed at all levels—local, national and international. The World Peoples Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth was an exhilarating step along the way.