What's standing in the way of healthy, sustainable agriculture?
Transforming U.S. agriculture to make it healthier and more sustainable is suddenly a hot topic. Last week, Science published an essay in its policy forum, Transforming U.S. Agriculture, concluding that we already have the technology to grow healthier food more sustainably. Standing in the way is the domination of agricultural markets by monopolies and oligopolies, the lack of means for getting up-to-date information to farmers, and, maybe most importantly, the lack of appropriate policies that incent farmers to adopt healthier, more sustainable practices.
This week’s Healthy Farms, Healthy People Summit in Washington, D.C., zeroes in on those policies. The CDC-funded meeting aims to find the common policy ground for helping Americans get access to healthier food while enabling farmers to make a living producing that food. The meeting agenda is viewable at HealthyFoodAction.org.
Finally, on Thursday, May 19, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) is convening a day-long conference entitled "Farm and Food Policy: The Relationship to Obesity" as part of a series of IOM reports on accelerating progress in preventing obesity, which is already epidemic and costing the nation hundreds of billions of dollars yearly.
China’s pig industry has global impact, new report finds Shift to industrial production affects farmers, food security and environment
Minneapolis – China’s decision to shift toward industrial pig operations, and away from smaller-scale production, has important implications for the future of China’s farmers, the environment and global agricultural markets, finds a new report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).
“China’s pig industry has become more and more dependent on multinational agribusiness investment and imports for feed,” said IATP President and China expert Jim Harkness. “This development has changed the dynamic of agriculture in China and pushed smaller-scale pig producers out of business. It has also played a role in increasing demand for agricultural land internationally.”
China is the biggest pork producer in the world—almost all of its 50 million metric tons of production in 2010 (half of all the pork in the world) was consumed domestically. While domestic companies dominate the Chinese pork industry, transnational agribusiness firms like Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge and Cargill dominate the country’s soybean crushing industry. The growth of the country’s pork industry is a direct result of polices that have liberalized trade for some products, like soybeans, and retained protections and other policy tools like a pork reserve, in others.
The policies are a response to growing demand for meat in China, but they will not close the dietary and income inequalities that persist, and serious environmental and public health costs are escalating, according to the report. The increased liberalization of agriculture is taking a toll in rural China, where smallholder farmers struggle to access markets and make a living. Industrial livestock production generates more than 4 billion tons of manure annually, which has grown into one of the largest sources of pollution in China’s waterways. Globally, as more land is converted to soybeans to feed China’s pigs, there is an increase in pesticide and fertilizer use, as well as a loss of biodiversity. The heavy use of feed additives, such as hormones and antibiotics, in China’s livestock production has been linked to a variety of health concerns.
“The crises of industrial agriculture are emerging in China as it is elsewhere in the world,” said Schneider. “This signals an opportunity for policymakers to consider supporting more sustainable ways forward.”
The paper recommends that China reassess the impacts of its strong adoption of industrial pork production and pig feeding on China’s population and environment. Redirecting research and subsidies from industrial systems to locally embedded systems, while maintaining food reserves, are steps in the right direction that could help meet national food security, development and environmental needs.
G-20 struggles to face up to agriculture price volatility
Last week, a background paper for the G-20 Summit of Agricultural Ministers on price volatility from eight international organizations appeared . The paper, dated May 2, was presented last week to the sherpas who are preparing for the summit, to be held in Paris on June 23.
The analysis treats the failures of international markets seriously. It provides a clear and useful explanation for why price volatility, so useful at low levels in the movement of goods, becomes a serious problem when price swings are too large. Yet the paper is fundamentally dissatisfying.
The start and end points of the recommendations (more so than the analysis) is how to ensure open market liberalization works. And even at that, ends up compromised by the politics of free trade, in which poorer countries can be held to a much higher standard than the richer countries that fund the international agencies providing the advice. So on the one hand, developing countries should further increase their dependence on international markets, while relying on finance (including loans) from the international system—finance that has a poor track record to date, both for timeliness and adequacy. On the other hand, the G-20 countries themselves can continue to disrupt those same international markets, asked only to moderate their public subsidies and mandates for biofuels.
The authors of the report do not question whether the emergence of high levels of volatility in international markets, at a time when international markets are more important to more countries’ food security than ever before, warrants a more fundamental rethink from the governments that are so central to agricultural trade (most of the them G-20 members). Given the mix of agencies involved in drafting the paper, and the critiques some of those organizations have provided of globalization, especially since the food price and financial crises in 2008, this is a pity.
New elements—fundamentally important elements—have been introduced into this final version of the paper, which is the third version to have circulated. For instance, the paper now discusses how to tackle very high levels of food waste, which plagues rich and poor countries alike, though for quite different reasons. Some of the more questionable claims (such as the need to increase food production by 100 percent by 2050) have been toned down, though they remain problematic (the final version suggests a 70-percent increase is needed).
Yet the recommendations are anything but bold. Volatility in international agricultural commodity markets is a problem that is both hurting G-20 interests and that G-20 member states could largely remedy. Instead of promising money to other countries, and thinking of new ways to manage risk, the G-20 need to look to their own policies to consider how to mitigate the causes of uncertainty that are feeding current levels of volatility.
The G-20 includes most of the major exporters of food. Most of the members continue to push for market access for their products—even those, such as China and India, that carefully control their domestic agricultural markets. The G-20 (and the companies they host) have a lot at stake in ensuring international markets function in ways that meet importers’ interests. G-20 members, such as Argentina and India, exacerbated the 2008 food crisis by taxing or banning certain food exports. Others, such as the United States, Canada and European Union persisted in biofuel subsidies that created pressure on demand, and raised prices, at a time when a number of countries were facing food riots. The implications of what the food exporting countries did were not lost on poor net food importing countries (known by the acronym NFIDCs), which are now looking with significantly renewed interest at the possibility of increased food self-sufficiency.
With hindsight, the failure of net food exporters to accept the legitimacy of NFIDC demands for safeguards to protect their access to food, while at the same time insisting on their right to distort international markets with domestic preoccupations was probably the last straw for the Doha negotiations. There is no sign, unfortunately, that the international organizations who authored the report have been given (nor yet taken) the leeway to comment on this crisis in the consensus that has shaped international trade policy since the early 1990s.
Members of the G-20 house the world’s largest agribusinesses, the commodity exchanges that set commodity futures prices, produce most of the grain-fed livestock and provide the subsidies and mandates that prop up the industrial biofuel industry. While the NFIDCs turn to diversifying their food security strategies to encompass more than increasingly unreliable international markets, the G-20 has it within its power to lessen the likelihood and the degree of volatility itself. They have a significant interest in using that power. Unfortunately, there is far too little in the IO contribution to the G-20 Agricultural Ministers’ Summit to help them achieve this realization.
 FAO, IFAD, UN HLTF, UNCTAD, and WFP, together with the World Bank, IMF, WTO and the OECD.
Loud and clear: Report finds state laws get BPA out of baby bottles, sippy cups
The Minnesota-based public health coalition Healthy Legacy, cofounded by IATP in 2006, has some good news for parents today.
In a new market survey, Message in a Bottle: A Market Survey on Bisphenol A (BPA) in Baby Bottles andSippy Cups(PDF), Healthy Legacy found that state legislation was a key driver in actions of key states, parents in states with BPA bans can be pretty sure that baby bottles, sippy cups and breast-milk storage products on the market are free of bisphenol A (always look for a BPA-free label, though). Unfortunately, states without BPA laws, like Oregon, still have BPA-containing children’s products lurking on some store shelves.
The market survey checked the inventory of baby bottles and sippy cups in 89 stores from 35 communities in five different states. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Chicago and New York all have laws on the books that ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups. The survey findings confirm that in these locations, nearly all bottles and sippy cups are BPA-free and labeled as such. However, in Oregon where legislation to ban BPA is still pending, parents need to be alert for BPA containing products still on store shelves. Based on our samples, parents should be particularly alert on shelves of dollar stores, value stores and drug stores.
Both state and federal action are needed to ensure that parents in every state, no matter where they live or where they shop, need not worry about BPA in baby products such as bottles and sippy cups. While the U.S. lags behind the European Union, China and Canada in federal action to restrict BPA, states are still moving to phase out BPA in baby products and food can linings. Beyond baby products, families should have information that makes it easy to make BPA-free purchasing choices when it comes to canned food and other consumer products.
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is a cofounding member of Healthy Legacy, a diverse public health coalition with 34 member organizations, representing over one million Minnesotans. Healthy Legacy promotes healthy lives by supporting the production and use of everyday products without toxic chemicals by advocating for consumer education, business leadership and protective policies to advance safe alternatives in Minnesota.
Ethanol subsidies: better to burn out than to fade away?
Ethanol’s main subsidy—the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC)—is on the chopping block. Given the current fiscal climate, even ethanol proponents have resigned themselves to the fact that VEETC—an annual $6 billion tax credit, set to expire at the end of this year—is probably on its last legs.
This week, those that would kill the 45-cent blenders’ credit subsidy quickly, and those that would prefer a long farewell, drew their lines in the sand. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced a bill Tuesday that would fully end VEETC and the import tariff on foreign ethanol by July 1, 2011.
A day later, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Kent Conrad (R-N.D.) released a bill that would gradually make the tax credit counter-cyclical over the next five years. Under their bill, VEETC would drop to 20 cents next year and 15 cents in 2013. After that, the credit would be pegged to oil prices, ranging from 30 cents a gallon when oil is at $50 per barrel or less, to zero when oil reaches about $90 per barrel. It would also keep the import tariff, but lower it to 20 and then 15 cents in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Co-sponsors of the Grassley-Conrad bill include Minnesota DFL Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.
Essentially, this week’s legislative action is the culmination of efforts on two sides of a heated debate around VEETC (and corn ethanol generally, but I’ll stick to VEETC in this blog). Team A: a strange-bedfellows coalition of environmental and hunger organizations (including Friends of the Earth, Environmental Working Group, NRDC, Oxfam and others) and livestock and processed food producers (groups like the American Meat Institute and Grocery Manufacturers of America). Team B: the ethanol industry (Renewable Fuels Association, Growth Energy, etc.) and the National Corn Growers Association. Bet you can guess which team likes which bill.
Regardless of how it happens, there’s no denying it’s well past time to make a shift in our biofuels policy. The question is, will federal policy drive better, or just more, biofuels? (Even if VEETC dies, we still have a federal manadate for biofuel production). The sooner we can get to an approach that rewards performance (see our colleague Loni Kemp’s “Greener Biofuels Tax Credit” for an idea of one such approach), rather than gallons, the closer we will be to better biofuel policy.
Second thoughts on lessons of children's health in China
Nick Kristof opined a few days ago in the New York Times that while there’s every reason to be critical of China’s human rights record, we should also recognize the country’s achievements, especially in the field of health. The average life expectancy of children born in Shanghai, he points out, is now higher than the average life expectancy for American children. I admire Kristof’s work, both his writing from China a couple of decades ago and he and his wife’s wonderful work on behalf of women’s rights. And I think that in general, we need more analysis that reveals the complexities of China to U.S. readers, who are fed too many sensational and even xenophobic Yellow Peril stories in the mainstream press. But while the stats in his story seem to contrast the two countries, a closer look shows that his snapshot of the present ignores trends toward China and the U.S. becoming more and more alike, and not in a good way.
The apparent difference between Chinese and U.S. children’s health is, in part, an artifact of the two statistics he chooses to compare. Instead of the average Chinese child and average American child, it is the average Shanghainese child versus the average American child. In the U.S., average life expectancy is affected by the tens of millions of poor, uninsured people whose lives have gotten worse since 1980. And in China, a range of policies during this same period have sucked wealth out of rural areas and into cities, widening the wealth gap so that today, even relatively poor urbanites are still far better off than their country cousins. (And as one of China’s wealthiest cities, Shanghai is an increasingly unrepresentative subpopulation.) So yes, China has made admirable strides in children’s health programs, but because—like the U.S.—societal inequality is increasing, not everyone the same chance to benefit.
The other concern I felt while reading Kristof’s piece had to do with an article I had read a few days prior. It was an announcement from McDonald’s Corporation that they would be opening 700 new stores in China over the next two years. In all but the poorest countries, neither starvation nor communicable disease are the real threats to a long and happy life. Instead, people’s lives are shortened (and made more miserable) by non-communicable diseases brought on by the overconsumption of alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy foods. In the U.S., rates of obesity and associated illnesses shot up back in the 1980s, (and along with increasing inequality, have pushed down our life expectancy). But until just a decade ago, China’s diet was hailed as one of the healthiest in the world. Recently, though, China has seen a rapid increase in the consumption of meat, sweets and edible oils—much of it in the form of processed and fast foods—bringing on an obesity epidemic and skyrocketing rates of diabetes. (Alcohol and tobacco abuse are also on the rise.) The McDonald’s expansion in China, part of a fierce war for market share with other international fast food chains, shows that this trend is not slowing. So while there may be many things we can learn from China about children's health, it also appears that China may be following a dietary (and social) trajectory dangerously similar to ours.
New primer on excessive speculation in agricultural commodity markets
IATP has just released a first-of-its-kind collection of writings about excessive speculation in commodity markets and the toll it has taken on agricultural prices. Excessive Speculation in Agricultural Commodity Markets: Selected Writings from 2008–2011 includes a total of 19 different pieces covering everything from the basics of what speculation in commodity markets looks like to why such speculation is responsible for the agricultural price crisis, as well as information on regulating excessive speculation.
In the foreward, IATP's Steve Suppan writes:
As former National Director of Intelligence Dennis Blair told a stunned U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 12, 2009, the global economic crisis, triggered by financial and commodity market deregulation, has replaced Al-Qaeda as the number one U.S. national security threat. Blair’s intelligence agencies forecast widespread regime destabilization if the economic crisis continued to fester without major policy and political reform within two years. His agencies did not specify what reforms were needed nor advocate for their enforcement. That is up to us.
Among others, the extensive list of authors includes Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael W. Masters and Adam K. White, Daryll E. Ray, Harwood D. Schaffer, David Frenk and IATP's own Steve Suppan.
Download the full text, or each section individually:
When IATP started Peace Coffee in 1996, its position as the country's first certified 100-percent organic and fair-trade coffee company was more than just a first—it was the central idea behind the company. Peace Coffee's use of fair-trade, organic green coffee beans helps connect farmer cooperatives around the world to consumers. Over the years, IATP has continued its work advocating for fair trade and Peace Coffee has flourished, with a new coffee shop in Minneapolis and an ever-growing, passionate staff. The piece below first appeared in Peace Coffee's April Peace Spokes newsletter, written by Anna Canning, Peace Coffee's project manager. It addresses the issues affecting the rising price of coffee and what it all means for farmers, co-ops and coffee drinkers.
Harvest Update, by Anna Canning
Perhaps you've already noticed it in the grocery aisle; perhaps you're an avid follower of the commodity markets; or perhaps you've read, seen, or heard the news lately: coffee prices are up. "What's going on in the commodity market?" seems to be the question of the season. It's a complex system and experts disagree on the precise causes of the rapid rise in coffee prices that have now reached 34-year highs -- and no one can say for sure whether they'll continue to rise or fall. General consensus is that we're experiencing the interaction of a few factors. As we reported last year, recent harvests in many areas have been lower, which producers are attributing to changing weather patterns, putting pressure on the available supply of quality coffee. Add to that increasing coffee consumption around the world in producing countries such as Brazil and as well as in emerging markets such as China, where more people are reaching for a coffee mug every day.
So far, that's classic supply and demand, forces whose interactions are sketched quite neatly in a straight diagonal line across the pages of high school econ text books across the country. Real life, however, is not so neat. In recent years, as the rosy glow paled on the notion of investing in real estate and vague mortgage products, investors flocked to diversify into commodities. Increased speculation has increased volatility across the markets for various products and means that an increase in coffee prices can no longer be so cleanly linked to bad weather in Brazil, for example (if curious, our parent organization IATP has thought extensively on this topic.
All these factors impact commodity market prices for basic, Folgers' grade coffee. Similarly, as more coffee drinkers come to appreciate coffee as more than a generic caffeine delivery system, demand is increasing for specialty grade coffee. We've long told the story of the coffee we roast as being unique from region to region, community to community, not just "decaf" or "regular" or the "washed mild" of the trade. That's not just marketing hype and just as the flavor of each bean is unique, so too is the impact of recent developments on each farmer group.
Fifteen years ago, the story of Fair Trade could be distilled into a few talking points: in those days of low market prices, the goal was to pay coffee farmers a fair, stable minimum price, provide access to markets and financing while cutting out the middlemen who profit at the expense of small-scale farmers. When prices are up, the simple story "Fair Trade pays higher prices to farmers" is no longer quite so true. Indeed, high commodity market prices can cause logistical challenges for co-ops as they scramble to communicate with their sometimes far-flung members and compete with deep-pocketed local middlemen for coffee.
Queen Bean Lee recently returned from a trip to Guatemala to visit some of our producer partners there: Apecaform (from whom we've been buying the beans that make up the Guatemalan Dark roast and the backbone to this year's Pollinator Blend) and Chajul, another long-time trading partner. Her stories of this trip sum up some of the evolution of Fair Trade, and what remains relevant in these days of high coffee prices.
Last year when we were beginning to look ahead to this year's harvest and the escalating coffee market, we sat down with the other members of our importing cooperative and the farmers that we buy from. It was quickly clear that this was to be a year in which cash would be crucial. At the request of several savvy farmer co-ops, we increased the amount of pre-financing that we'd help secure and increased the minimum price on the contracts to allow access to that financing (read more on how this works). This means that while some organizations have struggled to come up with the cash to purchase their member's coffee, well-managed co-ops such as Apecaform and Chajul are currently able to collect coffee in a competitive marketplace. For isolated communities such as Chajul, these well-run co-ops play an especially vital role—not only are they paying competitive prices for coffee, they continue to provide much needed community projects (for more on this, see Kyle's account of the trip in this issue).
The next chapter in this new Fair Trade market remains to be written. One thing seems clear: amidst all these changes, it's no longer really meaningful to speak of a Fair Trade market or a specialty coffee market in general; the local market is key. Similarly, the answer to whether these higher prices are good for coffee farmers ends up being a qualified "it depends" on which ones and where. At Apecaform, yields are down which means that while the price per pound may be high, less coffee means that individual farmers aren't getting a raise. Meanwhile, at Chajul, times are good. Weather patterns that have set back other farmers haven't reached their fields. A few months ago when in Ethiopia, Lee observed that country's response to higher prices for the crop that makes up such a large part of the economy: Plant more coffee! Such large-scale projects to increase cultivation of coffee could of course create a glut of Ethiopian coffee in a few years when this spring's seedlings start to set cherries. Yet which of these trends will prevail remains to be seen. What is clear is that a well-managed co-op continues to serve its members well, in good markets and in bad, providing good economic stability and development.
Just as each year's harvest arrives with slightly different nuances in the cup, so too each season's harvest has its themes, its challenges and its successes. While the challenges are clear, it's truly inspiring to see how our long-term producer partners are responding to them. This is the eleventh season that we've been buying coffee from Apecaform and that relationship continues to evolve and to demonstrate the potential for the next decade, whatever it may bring.
Later this month, carbon market investors will gather in Nairobi at a meeting hosted by the World Bank's International Finance Corporation. The meeting will connect heavy hitters in the carbon market world like Barclays Bank, JP Morgan, and the German bank KfW with African project managers.
Part of the reason for the meeting is the March 24 launch of the Africa Carbon Exchange (ACX). The ACX is positioning itself as the hub of climate change business on the African continent. But as IATP's Shefali Sharma writes in a new commentary, "existing and attempted carbon emissions exchanges in Europe and the United States have suffered one blow after another—fraud, carbon credit theft, poor legislative design, even profits for some major polluters—all at the expense of ordinary citizens and the environment." Due to these failures, Bloomberg recently characterized carbon trading as "a backwater of the global commodities market."
Shefali writes, "There is a real danger that carbon offsets will become a major policy distraction and capital diversion from the real climate change challenges that Africa faces: the urgent task of climate change adaptation and ensuring resilience of communities." You can read the full commentary here.
The two-year fellowship provides an annual stipend of $35,000 in addition to communications support, trainings and travel. The program supports leaders working to create a food system that strengthens the health of communities, particularly children. For this class of fellows, a selection committee focused on work that creates a just, equitable and healthy food system from its roots up. Over 560 individuals applied for fellowships.
“We had more than three times the number of applicants of previous classes. Such a talented and diverse pool of people working for food systems change was exciting and challenging for our selection committee and application readers. We look forward to this class building on the great work of previous classes,” said IATP’s Mark Muller. “The six-person selection committee provided a diversity of expertise and perspective that was essential for the decision-making process.”
“This new group of fellows parallels their predecessors in skill, capacity and experience,” says Keecha Harris, a food systems and public health expert, member of the very first fellowship class and member of the selection committee. “The selection process demonstrates that this country has a cadre of profoundly dedicated individuals committed to better food in their communities and improved food policies in all levels of government.” The new class of fellows represents work from Bainbridge Island, Washington to west Georgia, and from southern New Mexico to Queens, New York.
Another selection committee member, August Schumacher, former USDA Undersecretary of Farm and Agriculture Services agrees. “The caliber of the final awardees reflects extraordinary capabilities, outstanding and innovative proposals, and plain hard work,” Schumacher says.
“The Food and Community Fellows have always been change agents,” says Jim Harkness, President of IATP.” We invest in individuals that have a vision and plan for bettering the food system. These fellowships aren’t about incremental change; we want big visions that have the potential to provide our children with new opportunities for growing, processing, eating and thinking about food.”
To follow the work of the new class of IATP Food and Community Fellows, visit our website and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Class VIII IATP Food and Community Fellows
Brahm Ahmadi, founder of People’s Grocery and CEO of People’s Community Market in Oakland, is a social entrepreneur redesigning food retail to better engage, serve and support food desert communities.
Jane Black is a Brooklyn-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues.
Don Bustos is a traditional farmer in New Mexico working on issues of land and water rights using community-based approaches and providing farmer-to-farmer training.
Cheryl Danley, an Academic Specialist with the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University in East Lansing, engages with communities to strengthen their access to fresh, locally grown, healthy and affordable food.
Nina Kahori Fallenbaum, the Washington, DC-based food and agriculture editor of Hyphen magazine, uses independent media to engage Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in local and national food policy.
Kelvin Graddick, a west Georgia-based, fair food system advocate, manages a cooperative that maintains a local sustainable food system, promotes healthy living, builds cultural and economic knowledge, and creates economic opportunities.
Haile Johnston, a Philadelphia-based social entrepreneur, works to improve the vitality of rural and urban communities through food system connectivity and policy change.
Jenga Mwendo, a community organizer based in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, focuses on strengthening community through urban agriculture.
Raj Patel, a writer, academic and activist in San Francisco, works in support of Food Sovereignty in the US and the Global South through advocacy, analysis and protest.
Kimberly Seals Allers, an award-winning, Queens-based journalist and author, is the leading voice of the African American motherhood experience and a champion for children through her work advocating for improved maternal and infant health and increased breastfeeding in the black community.
Valerie Segrest, a member of the Muckleshoot Tribe outside of Seattle, works as a Community Nutritionist and Native Foods Educator to create a culturally appropriate system of health through traditional foods and medicines. Kandace Vallejo, a staff member at Austin, Texas-based Proyecto Defensa Laboral/Workers Defense Project, coordinates the organization's Youth Empowerment Program, where she works with low-income, first-generation Latino youth and their families to educate, organize, and take action to create a more just and equitable food system for workers and consumers alike.
Rebecca Wiggins-Reinhard works with La Semilla Food Center to improve access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate foods in the Paso del Norte region of southern New Mexico and El Paso, Texas.
Malik Kenyatta Yakini, an activist and educator, is Interim Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, chairs the Detroit Food Policy Council and serves on the facilitation team of Undoing Racism in the Detroit Food System.
Agriculture in rural India: How will it cope with free trade?
IATP's Shefali Sharma is part of a delegation visiting rural areas in India to assess the human rights impacts of the country's trade and investment policies.You can view her previous post here.
New Delhi – Last I wrote, I was embarking on a journey into some of the most rural villages of Southern India. Over a four-day period, our team met with groups of farmers—men and women—in the State of Andhra Pradesh. We travelled from west to east across Chittoor District and then took an overnight train to the Northern district of Medak, covering hundreds of kilometers.
Our difficult task was to understand what small farmers in India grow, how much they keep for eating and how much they sell to the market. We wanted to understand if they can continue to sustain themselves and their consumption needs through growing food alone and whether they have access not just to food, but adequate nutrition all year long.
We also wanted to understand whether a European Union–India Free Trade Agreement (FTA), currently under negotiation, would have an impact on their livelihoods. In particular, what role does dairy and poultry play for their income and food security and what would liberalizing investment with the European Union do to land access and natural resources for local farmers. Historically, the European Union has a habit of dumping both dairy products and poultry parts in developing countries, decimating small-scale dairy and poultry producers in the process. For example, Ghana’s poultry sector was wiped out when frozen poultry parts flooded Ghanian markets and the EU-India FTA is likely to include an “asset”-based definition of investment, including both “movable and immovable property.”
In the village of Yalakallu, we met both with small producers and landless agricultural wage workers (all photos here by Harneet Singh). Often the small farmers were also wage laborers because they did not have income all year from growing food and were forced to work for daily wages as income. A small farmer in the Indian context means ownership of as little as .5 to 5 acres of land. The farmers with whom we met owned on average only one to three acres of land. The bulk of their growing sustains food consumption for their families and any surpluses are sold to the local market. Water, however, is an acute problem in the village and most of the agriculture is rainfed. Increasingly erratic weather means heavy rains at unwanted times and drought in other parts of the growing season. These farmers have two growing seasons. They grow crops like rice, finger millet and vegetables in the rainy season (July to October), and grow lentils like red gram and green gram in the dry season (November to May or June). Some are also growing tomatoes and cabbage to sell to wholesale retailers, but because the prices of tomatoes had recently crashed, many of the tomato growers said they would be watching their tomatoes wither in the fields this year.
For these farmers, dairy plays an important role because they receive payments every two weeks from cows and buffalo they raise on the farm while feeding them with crop residues from their own fields. Most of the farmers we talked with owned one or two cows that deliver 2–4 litres of milk a day. But a system of small traders delivers this milk to the local dairy. For decades, India has invested in developing a cooperative dairy sector that has been increasingly privatized over the past decade. Cheap imports of skim milk powder from Europe to make cheap reconstituted milk would certainly impact these small farmers.
It was immediately evident that their ability to withstand even a little risk was very small. Some farmers we talked with have tried ventures like small poultry operations (from 1000 to 5000 chicks) to supply to domestic chains, but when the chicks die or get diseases, the company they sell to can abruptly terminate the contract. These risky business arrangements can involve loans and indebtedness—a common feature amongst all of these farmers. Rising food prices haven't necessarily helped these farmers yet because the wholesalers and retailers have retained most of those gains. In other parts of the same district, farmers with up to five acres of land are contracting with domestic broiler chicken firms. They are raising up to 5000 chicks, taking out loans to do the initial investment in setting up these farms. At the end of the year, they earn about 100,000 Indian rupees—spending 50,000 INR on loan repayment, keeping the rest for themselves. The profit margins are low to minimal and debts pass over from year to year. Water for the chickens competes with water for their farms.
Our visit to the next neighborhood in Yalakallu was with landless Dalits (the lowest caste in India’s extremely hierarchical caste system). The women and men depend on wage labor and forest produce for feeding their families. Thanks to India’s public food distribution system, they are able to procure rice and sometimes lentils from government-subsidized ration shops at prices as low as 2 rupees per kilon but rising food prices mean their income brings less and less food. During these times, they compromise on food security—eating rice or finger millet with a watery juice of tamarind. In better times, their diet is supplemented with leafy vegetables and lentils, a key source of protein in these villages.
Owning livestock is difficult. Without land, farmers cannot supplement their income and nutrition through dairy or goats, though many of them keep raise poultry, feeding them with kitchen waste, and local chicken varieties are much hardier than chickens produced for the broiler industry.
It quickly became evident that these small farmers and landless laborers are facing obstacles when it comes to accessing land. Urbanization, real estate developers and industrial operations are increasingly fencing these people out of grazing land. Access to land is critical. Those who own land, even a small plot, can feed their families through most of the year, and have a much better chance at nutrition and healthier lives than their counterparts who live on wage labor alone.
The EU and India’s investment provisions will mean more demand for land and natural resources as EU investors look to extract minerals in India and set up mechanized processing plants. This has already been the case with Indian companies taking over land in the countryside. It also means greater competition for scarce water and electricity.
We heard numerous stories over the last few days about the tradeoffs and choices these small food growers and agricultural laborers are making, even now. More difficult choices may not be far off.
The U.S.-Colombia trade agreement: A volatile agenda on agriculture
The new Obama trade policy, as embodied in its free-trade agreement with Colombia, sadly resembles the old Bush trade policy: promoting growth in exports and investment at the expense of local economies and resilient food systems. This is unfortunate, not only because it fails to deliver Obama’s promised “21st-century” trade agenda, but also because it ignores some of the key lessons from NAFTA and the 2008 food-price crisis. Globalization has tied our economies together so that price changes in one country transmit around the world, increasing hunger and undermining efforts to rebuild rural communities and resilient food systems.
For decades, the primary problem for agriculture had been low prices, stimulated by U.S. and European agricultural policies that compelled farmers to continue to produce more and more to make up in volume what was lost in falling prices, and to seek ever expanding markets, whether at home or abroad. Cheap imports flooded the markets of developing countries, devastating small-scale farmers in poor countries while failing to stabilize farm incomes in the U.S. and Europe.
Trade policy is not neutral; it is a specific set of rules, embodied in agreements that tend to favor specific actors. Rather than learning the lessons of the 2008 food-price crisis, that governments need the ability to shield key markets from extremes so they can rebuild food systems, the rules in the Obama administration’s first two trade agreements proudly replicate the 20th-century model. White House fact sheets on the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement proclaim that the trade deal:
Immediately eliminates duties on almost 70 percent of U.S. farm exports including wheat, barley, soybeans, soybean meal and flour, high-quality beef, bacon, almost all fruit and vegetable products, peanuts, whey, cotton, and the vast majority of processed products.[i]
Like NAFTA, the Colombia agreement would subject local farmers to immediate competition from U.S. exports on a broad range of products. While prices are high for now, many Colombian farmers will find it difficult to compete with goods whose prices can vary so dramatically. As in Mexico under NAFTA, tariffs on corn and a few other sensitive products will be phased out over a longer period (although the agreement does allow countries to speed up that transition). The Mexican experience—in which more than 2 million farmers have been displaced from agriculture—shows that even a long transition may be inadequate when no real alternatives for rural employment exist. Many of those farmers were compelled to migrate to urban areas or the United States to find work.
The White House fact sheet also boasts that the agreement:
Immediately eliminates Colombia’s use of Andean Price Bands (variable tariffs), thereby ensuring that Colombia stops applying high duties under this mechanism.[ii]
Colombia and other Andean countries have utilized price bands to stabilize prices. When prices are high, tariffs remain low, and when prices drop, tariffs are raised temporarily to stabilize prices. This is similar to the Special Safeguard Mechanism, one of the central proposals made by developing countries in the WTO talks to protect food security and rural livelihoods, a proposal resisted by the U.S. government since the Bush administration. Its removal could undermine Colombian farmers, as well as contribute to rising food-price volatility in other Andean countries.
While Article 2.18 of the Colombia FTA allows for temporary safeguards, they can only be triggered by sudden increases in the quantity of goods, not volatility in prices. Those safeguards could only be applied to goods not already subject to duty-free treatment. That provision also specifies that any safeguard mechanisms agreed to at the WTO would not apply to goods from parties in this agreement.
In describing “Trade and the U.S.-Colombia Partnership,” the administration cites the Colombian government’s proposals to restore land to those displaced by civil conflicts.[iii] Whatever the merits may be of that program, there is no assurance that farmers facing competition from exports, or new investments facilitated by expanded trade, would be able to stay on their land. ActionAid Guatemala has documented numerous cases of Guatemalan farmers pressured by palm oil and sugar producers to sell their land to make way for industrial-scale monocrop production. Many of these farmers had been granted titles in the wake of that country’s civil war, only to lose them again when inadequate access to credit and other inputs made it impossible for them to earn a living.[iv] Deregulation of financial services provided for in the new trade deal could reduce available farm credit. The U.S.-Colombia accord replicates most of the investment and financial services provisions in NAFTA and CAFTA.
The lessons of this export-led model are not encouraging for U.S. farmers either. Despite rising agricultural exports, the number of small but commercially viable farms has dropped by 40 percent in the last 25 years. Very small farms serving local markets (and relying on off-farm income), and very large farms, have increased substantially. In a new report,[v] Tim Wise documents shrinking farm incomes among small- to medium-scale farms, as “Expenses have risen to gobble up higher sales revenues, and government payments have declined because some are triggered by lower prices. With the recession, off-farm income has declined dramatically, leaving family farm households worse off than they were earlier when crop prices were low.”
U.S. farmers, like their Colombian counterparts, need reliable public support and consistent market signals so that they can invest in local, regional and national food production to feed their communities and their nations. Trade should supplement local food systems, not seek to replace them. The U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement will leave farmers and consumers at the mercy of volatile prices and markets rather than learning from the very real experiences of very recent history to build a new approach that ensures fair, healthy and resilient food systems for all. We’re still waiting for a 21st-century trade policy.
– Karen Hansen Kuhn is the director of IATP's International program.
i U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement: Expanding Markets For America’s Farmers And Ranchers, Fact Sheet, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/IncreasingAgriculturalExportstoColombia.pdf, accessed April 12, 2011.
Safe Chemicals Act introduced, good news for people and families
Today, the Senate introduced the Safe Chemicals Act, which seeks to reform the outdated and badly broken Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). We think this is good news for people and families across the United States. Why? Because TSCA has failed so completely to protect our health! Of the more than 80,000 chemicals on the market today, only about 200 have ever been tested for safety. Of those, only five have been banned. Despite 10 years of rulemaking, the EPA could not even ban asbestos, a substance widely known to be harmful to health.
Now, more than 35 years after TSCA was passed, there is no shortage of stories about toxic chemicals, like BPA, phthalates, formaldehyde and lead ending up in the products we use everyday. These chemicals don't just end up in our products, they end up in food. For example, one of the most prevelant exposure routes for people to BPA is canned foods (can linings almost always contain BPA, which leaches into the contents of the can). A recent study from Environmental Health Perspectives found that by eliminating canned foods, levels of BPA were reduced by an average of 60 percent in study participants, after only three days!
The Safe Chemicals Act will change all of that by changing the way we review and regulate chemicals.
Here's what we like about the bill:
Takes fast action to address highest risk chemicals.
Further evaluates chemicals that could pose unacceptable risk.
Ensures safety threshold is met for all chemicals on the market.
Provide broad public, market and worker access to reliable chemical information.
Promotes innovation, green chemistry and safer alternatives to chemicals of concern.
Toxic chemicals, and their health effects, know no party lines. Let's hope Congress moves this bill forward quickly.
Free trade and human rights: a voyage into India's countryside
IATP's Shefali Sharma is part of a delegation visiting rural areas in India to assess the human rights impacts of the country's trade and investment policies.
I am in Bangalore tonight—a key metropolis for India’s economic growth story. In Bangalore reside many of India’s premier IT companies and back-end offices for multinational companies, be it for telecommunications or travel. But I won’t be staying in the silicon valley of India for long. Tomorrow, a team of us—from an Indian NGO called Anthra, a German development organization called Misereor, the Heinrich Boell Foundation, a photographer and I—will be waking up at the crack of dawn and driving three hours from the South Indian state of Karnataka to another southern state called Andhra Pradesh.
Over the next four days, we'll visit the districts of Chittoor and Medak and talk to people in the villages of Yallakulu, Raipedu and Chennapur. Our purpose? To understand how changes in India’s international trade and investment policies are likely to affect dairy farmers and food growers in some of the most rural areas of India.
India is negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union and talking about possibilities of a future trade deal with the United States. While such deals often take place behind closed doors between governments and their industrial lobbies, such agreements can have drastic impacts on environmental and other public interest laws and regulations. Trade and investment policies also have a lot to say about who will continue to eke out a living while facing increased competition. Under these agreements, the most powerful and the least powerful must be treated “alike” under the free trade concept of nondiscrimination.
Human rights law, on the other hand, stresses the need to discriminate in favor of the marginalized and vulnerable populations and claims supremacy over all other international law. This principle sets the stage for our next few days where we will be learning about the lives of people dependant on dairy production (something the European Union wants to import into India with much greater ease) and growing other agriculture commodities. In particular, based on the stories they will tell us, we will analyze to what extent the right to food—the “physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or the means to its procurement”—is being respected under the liberalization policies the Indian government has steadily been adopting. And how a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU may strengthen or undermine this critical right.
We begin this journey after an intensive, two-day consultation in New Delhi on building a Human Rights Impact Assessment of key areas of the FTA that are likely to impact small food producers in India. These consultations provided us with data and information we needed to understand the changes that are taking place in the dairy, poultry, food retail, India’s public food distribution system and in land-based investments. Now, we go to the field to see how these changes are playing out in the lives of vulnerable people themselves. Stay tuned.
Higher prices for crops mean higher profits for farmers, right? Not so fast, says a new Policy Brief by Timothy Wise at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. Looking at the latest data available (through 2009), Wise finds that while agriculture commodity prices are rising, so are costs to farmers. In fact, small- and mid-sized farmers (between $100,000 and $250,000 in sales, not profit), with an average of 1,100 acres, have seen a decline in net farm income. In 2009, small- and mid-sized farms had an average net farm income of just $19,274—continuing to rely heavily on non-farm income to stay on the land.
Where is all the money going? "As any farmer knows, those small gains were obliterated by higher costs, as prices for fertilizers, chemicals, seeds, feed, fuel and other inputs followed the same upward curve as crop prices," Wise writes, accompanied by graphs like the one to the right.
In the current climate of rabid budget cutting, and higher commodity prices, agriculture programs have been a popular target. The media are trumpeting the farm boom but Wise's paper reminds us that if we want small- and mid-sized farmers to survive and thrive, we need to look deeper than the headlines—and pay closer attention to who is really reaping the rewards of higher prices.
Five reasons carbon markets won't work for agriculture
Carbon markets are viewed as the primary source of climate financing. The experience to date demands a reevaluation of their ability to exact real, sustainable change, particularly in relation to agriculture. Here are five reasons why poorly designed and regulated carbon markets should not be part of a global climate treaty.
1. The high cost to people, health and the climate
Market-based mechanisms aim “to enhance the cost-effectiveness of, and to promote, mitigation actions.” But thus far, carbon emissions trading has been cost-effective only for those firms that have received billions of dollars in carbon credits for free from governments that can afford to subsidize their industries. It is certainly not cost-effective for the millions of people whose health is impaired because they live near industrial facilities that choose to buy offset credits rather than invest in pollution prevention. (U.S. courts are beginning to investigate the public health effects of carbon markets.) Nor is it cost-effective for the indigenous peoples dispossessed of their land to make way for carbon-offset investors’ projects.
Market-based mechanisms should be evaluated according to broader criteria, such as vulnerability, harm to food production and sustainable development, and on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities.
2. Fostering excessive speculation
One new market proposal is “green sectoral bonds” from the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA). Under this proposal, “green sectoral bond” investors would receive developing-country carbon credits to repackage and trade as derivatives. Developing countries would incur debt in contracts for which they, and not private contractors of mitigation technologies, would bear liability for failure to meet stipulated GHG reductions. Because countries, not private firms, are liable for bond performance failure, an ensuing chain of climate debt could prevent developing countries from accessing capital markets. This proposal would also shift historic responsibility for mitigation significantly to developing countries.
The derivatives component of market proposals are vulnerable to excessive speculation that has plagued commodity markets since at least 2007 and exacerbated price volatility. There is considerable evidence of excessive speculation in commodity markets, aided by deregulation, especially in energy. Carbon and energy prices tend to move together. When hedge funds and commodity index funds add carbon to their portfolios, this speculation—and volatility—will increase.
Market mechanisms are also vulnerable to the common crimes, deceptive market practices and tax fraud that have plagued trading under the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).
3. Exacerbating food price volatility
When wheat and other cereal prices surged in September 2010, the FAO’s Committee on Commodity Problems held an emergency meeting. The committee found that speculation was one of the key factors in the prevailing volatile and escalating prices in the cereal market and agreed that further work must be done to enhance transparency and manage the risks associated with new sources of market volatility.”
Carbon is considered a commodity like oil, rice, maize and wheat. Excessive speculation in carbon is likely to exacerbate food and commodity price volatility. Bundling carbon derivatives into index funds with other commodities would also tend to destabilize prices. Highly volatile oil and food commodity prices impact economic stability and the agriculture sector as a whole, given the high dependence on fossil fuels for synthetic fertilizers, transport, distribution and storage.
4. Measurement difficulties and transaction costs
Offset projects in the agricultural sector would create significant challenges of measurement and environmental integrity. Like the forestry sector, leakage (carbon sequestered in one project leaked through land-use changes elsewhere), permanence (carbon is highly variable in soil and may not be stored permanently) and additionality (the degree to which the carbon stored is additional to what would have been stored in a business-as-usual scenario) are significant barriers to the environmental integrity of soil-carbon offsets.
There is a lack of data and measurements of in situ soil types, climate variability, past and future land use, and management practices. Soil carbon content can be highly variable depending on crops and their cropping cycles, human activity, land tenure and the climate itself. A costly combination of quantitative and qualitative field data with sophisticated models would be required to achieve greater accuracy with no guarantee of lasting emissions reductions.
The World Bank BioCarbon Fund’s pilot soil-carbon sequestration project in Western Kenya acknowledges that it cannot accurately measure carbon in the soil. Instead, the World Bank will use a series of proxies to measure for soil-carbon sequestration. The transaction costs associated with this project are more than 1 million USD.
The FAO acknowledges the high transaction costs involved in these projects and the potential impacts on small-scale farmers and food security. It estimates that close to 17 billion euros could be required between 2010 and 2030 to establish appropriate mitigation measures, monitoring, reporting and verifying methodologies and convert them into carbon credit equivalents.
Carbon market “readiness” projects that include agriculture will divert institutional, human and monetary resources away from direct support of climate adaptation for small-scale farmers.
5. Undermining the transition to sustainable agriculture that respects human rights
Offset projects could create additional challenges for land rights and food security. To be profitable, agriculture soil carbon projects will require that a large number of farmers’ activities are aggregated into a “carbon pool.” Such schemes require a large number of hectares to be profitable for project developers, investors and traders. Aggregating small farmers for the sake of carbon credits will create the potential for increased social conflict and human rights violations around land tenure, land grabbing and the displacement of food production in favor of more easily calculated carbon sinks.
Such aggregated projects could foster a range of untested, costly and controversial technologies that farmers are asked to adopt as “quick fixes” for ease of measurability. Technologies such as biochar and genetically modified mono-cropping could be promoted at the expense of locally appropriate, affordable and ecological approaches that help small producers adapt to climate change while sequestering carbon.
A different approach
There is a real risk that the market-based approaches under consideration at the UNFCCC will continue to fail—both financially and environmentally. Market-based offsets that do not result in emissions reductions further jeopardize the agriculture sector’s ability to adapt to a dangerously warming planet. The focus on market mechanisms is a critical distraction from curbing the real sources of pollution and supporting agricultural practices that reduce emissions while ensuring food security, environmental integrity and rural livelihoods. The reduction of nitrous oxides associated with synthetic fertilizers and emissions from the industrial livestock industry should be starting points for mitigation actions related to agriculture. Direct public support for local seed banks, agroforestry and organic practices are only a few of many that are much less costly and can provide adaptive and mitigation benefits.
Alternative proposals for climate finance exist and need the political courage of governments be to put into action.
U.S. subsidizes Brazilian cotton to protect Monsanto's profits
On February 18, Republicans in the House of Representatives defeated an obscure amendment to the House Appropriations bill by a 2-to-1 margin. The Kind Amendment would have eliminated $147 million dollars that the federal government pays every year directly to Brazilian cotton farmers. In an era of nationwide belt tightening, with funding for things like education and the U.S. Farm Bill on the chopping block, defending payments to Brazilian farmers may seem curious.
In order to understand this peculiar political move, one has to look all the way back to 2002, when Brazil filed a case in the WTO challenging U.S. cotton subsidies. In 2004, the Dispute Settlement Body of the WTO found in favor of Brazil, ruling that government subsidies afforded U.S. cotton producers an unfair advantage and suppressed the world market price, which damaged Brazil's interests. After multiple appeals the WTO upheld the original ruling, and by 2009 the U.S. still had not reformed its cotton programs. Brazil then asked the WTO for permission to retaliate against the U.S. by imposing trade sanctions. The WTO decided that Brazil was entitled to impose 100-percent tariffs on over 100 different goods of U.S. origin. Even more importantly, however, Brazil was entitled to suspend intellectual property rights for U.S. companies, including patent protections on genetically engineered seeds.
In WTO language, Brazil was allowed to suspend its obligations to U.S. companies under the Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. This constituted a major threat to the profits of U.S. agribusiness giants Monsanto and Pioneer, since Brazil is the second largest grower of biotech crops in the world. Fifty percent of Brazil’s corn harvest is engineered to produce the pesticide Bt, and Monsanto’s YieldGard VT Pro is a popular product among Brazilian corn farmers. By targeting the profits of major U.S. corporations, the Brazilian government put the U.S. in a tough spot: either let the subsidies stand and allow Brazilian farmers to plant Monsanto and Pioneer seeds without paying royalties, or substantially reform the cotton program. In essence, Brazil was pitting the interests of Big Agribusiness against those of Big Cotton, and the U.S. government was caught in the middle.
The two governments, however, managed to come up with a creative solution. In a 2009 WTO “framework agreement,” the U.S. created the Commodity Conservation Corporation (CCC), and Brazil created the Brazilian Cotton Institute (BCI). Rather than eliminating or substantially reforming cotton subsidies, the CCC pays the BCI $147 million dollars a year in “technical assistance,” which happens to be the same amount the WTO authorized for trade retaliation specifically for cotton payments. In essence, then, the U.S. government pays a subsidy to Brazilian cotton farmers every year to protect the U.S. cotton program—and the profits of companies like Monsanto and Pioneer.
In 2005, I attended the committee meeting of Brazil’s foreign trade ministry where Pedro Camargo Neto—a Brazilian trade lawyer and then-president of the Brazilian pork producers association—proposed suspension of the TRIPS agreement as retaliation for U.S. non-compliance with the WTO ruling on cotton. It was a brilliant political tactic, and dramatically shows the power of private firms in both countries to influence trade policy in the WTO. When I interviewed him as part of my dissertation, Camargo said the Brazilian cotton case would never have been launched without political pressure and funding from Brazil’s powerful cotton industry. Despite facing substantial resistance from the Brazilian government in launching the case, he said, “the producers were really backing it.”
Today in the U.S., taxpayers are bearing the cost of the cotton subsidies and the cost of failure to reform them. Although major news outlets called the payments yet another insane perversion of already insane U.S. agricultural policy, it clearly wasn’t just about preserving subsidies. In 2006, Steve Suppan anticipated the use—and drawbacks—of TRIPS suspension as a one of few tools of cross-retaliation available to poorer countries. However, because of the size of the market for genetically modified seeds there, TRIPS suspension was Brazil’s trump card. Apparently when the stakes are high enough for American business interests, the government will make sure that American taxpayers subsidize not just agriculture, but intellectual property, too.
Emelie Peine is an assistant professor of international political economy at the University of Puget Sound.
Buying better chicken for schools, hospitals and other organizations
Making healthy choices can be difficult, even when you know what you're looking for. The myriad of standards and certifications can be hard to navigate, especially in poultry: Does antibiotic-free mean no antibiotics in the feed or no antibiotics used in raising the animal? Do poultry producers have to list whether or not arsenic is used? Now, imagine being responsible for feeding a school's student body, or a hospital. Getting enough of the right product, and getting it on time, can be difficult when trying to source healthier alternatives.
Large-scale food purchasers now have a resource guide to help them make healthy decisions when purchasing poultry for their organizations. Today, IATP is releasing a new fact sheet entitled "Buying Better Chicken," which helps sort out the complicated system of certifications, standards and terminology in the poultry industry.
IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.
On our last day in Brazil, we got the hard pitch on sugar ethanol from UNICA: an association of 110 companies producing 60 percent of the country's ethanol and sugar production. UNICA has done a masterful job marketing sugarcane ethanol as the cleanest, lowest carbon fuel in the world—garnering a 2009 Bulldog Public Relations Award for their efforts. But our discussion was more than just a flashy powerpoint, there was a lot to be impressed by as well.
Brazil is the largest sugarcane producer in the world—and the world's second largest ethanol producer (next to the U.S.). According to UNICA, sugarcane production uses less fertilizer than corn (the primary U.S. feedstock), needs only to be replanted every six years or so, and uses a variety of integrated pest management tools to help lower pesticide use. All sugarcane mills are energy self-sufficient because they burn both the leftover stalk from the sugarcane as well as bagasse (waste leftover after the sugarcane has been processed). About two-thirds of sugarcane processing plants can switch between ethanol or sugar, depending on what that market demands.
We asked UNICA about the harsh treatment of workers at sugarcane plantations we had heard about from the Landless Rural Workers Movement earlier in our trip. UNICA pointed to a recent joint government/industry/NGO commitment on labor conditions it had made in 2009. The industry is also moving to lower the need for labor by increasing mechanization. In Sao Paulo—the largest sugarcane producing state in Brazil—all the plantations will be mechanized by 2017. What will happen to workers who formerly worked on these plantations is unclear. And there are still a lot of sugarcane plantations that operate both outside of UNICA, and outside of Sao Paulo.
On the environmental front, UNICA is pushing to reform (some would say weaken) Brazil's Forest Code, which prohibits agricultural expansion into protected areas and requires landowners to set aside 35 percent of their land for forests. The Forest Code is currently being debated in Brazil's legislature. UNICA claims that 90 percent of producers don't comply and meeting the code's requirements is burdensome and nearly impossible. While UNICA does not see sugar production directly extending into forests, they do hope to expand into pasture land, which could be affected by the Forest Code.
Currently, 80 percent of Brazilian ethanol is used domestically, aided by a mandatory blending requirement and the growth of the country's flex-fuel vehicles. But a major UNICA priority is to expand trade and "consolidate ethanol as a global commodity," including knocking down ethanol tariffs in the U.S. and EU. This emphasis on an international market differs from the U.S. farmer cooperative members that were on our trip. In a strange turn that we didn't get fully explained, Brazil actually imported U.S. ethanol earlier this month.
After nine days in Brazil, meeting with farmers, academics and NGOs, our group was well-armed with questions. But in the end, UNICA gave us a lot more to think about on biofuels and land use as we said our goodbyes and began our 10-hour flight back to the U.S.
A new peer-reviewed study published today in Environmental Health Perspectives has found evidence suggesting that food packaging is a major source of exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA).
The study, conducted by the Breast Cancer Fund and the Silent Spring Institute, recruited five families (each with two parents and two children, for a total of 20 people) and tested them for levels of BPA and certain phthalates in their urine while feeding them a diet of freshly prepared foods.
BPA is a known endocrine-disrupting chemical and has been linked to numerous health effects, including behavioral changes, early-onset puberty, reproductive harm, diabetes and even cancer. Due to its dubious reputation, it was also recently named on the Minnesota Priority Chemicals list, which includes toxins that are harmful to children and are present in products kids are exposed to. Phthalates are no treat either, having been linked to poor sperm quality, obesity and cancer.
What did the study do?
On the first two days of the study, participants ate as they normally do. On the following three days they were provided with freshly prepared organic meals—no canned food, and no plastic storage containers. After that they went back to their normal diets.
The levels of BPA and a particular phthalate called DEHP (used in food packaging) dropped substantially (an average of 60 percent for the BPA, and 50 percent for DEHP) during the three days when participants were only eating the freshly prepared foods.
Reduce your BPA exposure
These findings suggest that food packaging (e.g., canned food, grease-resistant wrappers and polycarbonate bottles) is a major exposure route for BPA, and that removing it from food packaging would lead to an immediate and significant drop in BPA levels in the general population.
One recommendation from the authors is to cut out consumption of prepackaged foods and to cook from fresh as much as possible. They've even created this handy chart (right) which shows the top ten canned foods known to leach the most BPA, so start by avoiding those if you can.
BPA and phthalates have both been linked to certain types of cancer. You can act now by asking President Obama to take a strong stand on getting these cancer-causing chemicals out of our products.