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The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy works locally and globally at the intersection of policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems.

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.




August 10, 2011

Waiter, There's a Newfangled Technology in My Soup

This commentary was originally published August 8, 2011 on http://www.otherwords.org.

The unregulated nanotech industry is spreading through the U.S. food system.

By Andrew Ranallo

The U.S. food system has a new bedfellow, and it may already be on your plate.

Increasingly, the coatings that keep supermarket produce fresh-looking and the chemicals used in pesticide-intensive farming are incorporating nanotechnology — a technology still in its infancy. Is it safe? And, perhaps more importantly, is it really necessary?

Nanotechnology, put simply, is the science of manipulating materials at tiny atomic levels to enhance or create certain novel properties that can often only be seen with a microscope. In agriculture, one of the applications of nanotechnology involves increasing the plant surface area to which toxic pesticides are effectively applied — reducing the amount of pesticides needed. The risk? Making the pesticide more "available" to plants could also make it more available to the farmworkers that apply it or to the consumers eventually handling the produce and eating their fruits and veggies.

Currently, like all other U.S. agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has no regulations to ensure that nanotechnology products introduced into the market are safe for human health and the environment. As the estimated 888 million pounds of pesticides applied annually in the U.S. gradually employ more and more nanotechnology, all under the EPA's purview, regulators have a lot of catching up to do.

The potential risks identified in laboratory experiments could have major consequences. For instance, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's (IATP) latest report, "Racing Ahead: U.S. Agri-Nanotechnology in the Absence of Regulation," Chinese researchers have discovered in animal testing that the absorption of nano-silver could interfere with the replication of DNA molecules and possibly reroute molecular networks, causing genetic mutations. While several companies have applied to allow pesticides with nano-silver into the marketplace, the EPA believes there are already unapproved and unregulated pesticides with nano-silver being used.

Encouragingly, the EPA, along with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has taken the first step toward regulation and issued draft voluntary guidance to industry on reporting nano-pesticide data and studies, but there is still much to be done. Currently, if the FDA does not object to a company's determination that a material is safe, a company could incorporate the material's nano-sized counterpart into products without reporting it to the FDA. This lack of oversight is cause for concern.

Nanotechnology in the food system extends beyond pesticide use. Nanomaterial residues in coated produce that could potentially fail to be washed away by consumers are already reportedly being exported from Latin America to the United States — without safety assessment or regulation.

With the myriad of potential risks to health, worker safety, and the environment, it seems like a no-brainer that nanotechnology developers should be required to submit safety and environmental data for agency review before going to market. While U.S. agencies debate how much to regulate products with nanomaterials, they continue to be developed and deployed — some as part of the U.S. food system.

Is the use of nanotechnology in food production really necessary? Are the potential risks to health and the environment worth the claimed benefits? Probably not. Strategies already exist for reducing pesticide use in food production, and it's certainly more affordable for us to avert a food safety crisis than to deal with its aftermath. While the agencies' first step toward regulation is encouraging, it's likely not enough to inspire companies to publicly self-regulate, since many of their applications are classified as confidential business information.

The EPA's draft guidance is open to public comment until August 17. Let's hope the message from commenters is clear: Collect all of the data on nanotechnology before putting U.S. farmworkers and consumers at risk.

Andrew Ranallo is the communications associate at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. www.iatp.org

Kendra Cuthbertson

June 28, 2011

Small insights about the big picture in climate negotiations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Suppan

June 27, 2011

Agriculture to feature as a key issue on the Road to Durban: opens up critical debates

Shefali Sharma blogged from Bonn, Germany climate talks. See her presentation from IATP's official side event for more.

As the UNFCCC negotiations came to a close Friday evening (June 17) in Bonn, the stage was set for a heated fight on agriculture as governments head to Durban for COP 17. South Africa, as well as the United States, have indicated that they would like to see agriculture as a “deliverable” in Durban.  

There are nonetheless numerous issues of contention to be resolved: what the defining focus of agriculture should be in the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA ) under the negotiating agenda “cross-sectoral approaches and Bonn  sector-specific actions” (linked to the Convention Article 4, para (c)[1]); whether parties will agree to launch an agriculture work program in the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA) and when; if so, what the scope of prioritizing adaptation and food security would be; and what role carbon markets and agriculture offsets will play in emissions reductions and accounting loopholes.

Agriculture, a critical issue for the food security of the planet, food sovereignty of communities and governments, opens up a pandora’s box in the UNFCCC.  For instance, it could instigate a WTO fight in the UNFCCC since mitigation of emissions related to livestock (methane) and nitrous oxides (fertilizer) pit one country’s production processes against another’s. It also initiates a debate about the environmental integrity and economic feasibility of soil carbon accounting on agricultural lands and appropriate incentives for agroecological investment in the sector. In addition, soil carbon offsets to feed carbon markets would require the aggregation of thousands of hectares and thousands of farmers. Social and human rights impacts in developing countries and environmental and financial costs of devising monitoring reporting and verification (MRV) systems geared for carbon accounting and thus carbon offset credits must be vetted for their appropriateness.   

Countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States will include agriculture in their Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs). Both are also part of the 34-member Global Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases launched at the margins of Copenhagen when the agriculture text was first introduced in the LCA. Spearheaded by New Zealand, the United States, Canada and other developed countries, the alliance now “provides a framework for voluntary action” and has grown to include developing country members. It is composed of three research groups covering  croplands, paddy rice, and livestock, but also two cross-cutting issues: soil carbon and nitrogen cycling, and inventories and measurement.

According to a new study by the Stolkholm Environment Institute, Annex 1 countries accounting loopholes “more than” negate the emissions reduction pledges they have made to get us to a 2 degree goal of global warming.  The rise in emissions due to carbon accounting loopholes and their subsequent impact on food production and farming systems must therefore also be an integral part of discussion on agriculture and climate change.  

What happened in Bonn?

Agriculture first came in with a mitigation focus as  in draft decision “J” in the LCA text in Copenhagen under the umbrella of article “I.b.iv” of the Bali Action Plan referred to as “cross-sectoral approaches.”  Given the overloaded agenda of the UNFCCC negotiations, only a handful of countries have actively participated in agriculture discussions since the end of 2009—namely the agriculture export dominated “Umbrella Group” countries of New Zealand, Canada, Australia, but also Switzerland and the United States. From developing countries, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Philippines, Thailand, Bolivia have been active in the debate at different times.  Saudi Arabia also remains engaged on this issue given that oil and energy are critical elements of “cross-sectoral” mitigation actions. In Bonn, India and African countries also engaged on this issue. 

While the agriculture chapter was taken out of a final Cancún outcome, it emerged again in Bangkok this spring largely as an agenda fight: where best to put agriculture in the LCA. New Zealand and Canada proposed a direct SBSTA work program or a broader discussion in the LCA outside of 1.b.iv, while the G-77 insisted that the framework of the Bali Action Plan be adhered to and thus agriculture should remain under 1.b.iv. 

Much of the discussion in Bonn (see my other recent blog from Bonn), as in Bangkok, centered on an agenda fight—New Zealand, Canada and Switzerland lobbied that agriculture be directly included in the SBSTA agenda and a work program be launched. Failing its adoption in the Bonn SBSTA, they proposed that it be included as a SBSTA work program in SBSTA 36 (June 2012). They also pushed to address address agriculture within the LCA in “additional matters” rather than under “cross-sectoral approaches” so as to remove references to trade in previous agriculture drafts. In the end, the G-77 fought hard to keep agriculture under cross-sectoral approaches, where they felt a general framework for cross sectoral approaches needed to be developed balancing all sectors, including bunker fuels. New Zealand and others wanted to launch the work program and/or deal with agriculture outside of cross-sectoral approaches to avoid a trade discussion. They also asserted that they wanted to address both adaptation and mitigation regarding agriculture. 

In the end, agriculture did not enter the SBSTA agenda but remained in “cross sectoral approaches.”  Large parts of the new Bonn text remain unchanged from August 14, 2010 (pg 70), however new language was added by Brazil, India, Bolivia and Saudi Arabia, backed by other developing countries such as China and others. A struggle continues between developing and developed countries on the language around trade.

New language clearly stressed agriculture adaptation as the priority for discussion, followed by objections to carbon markets and mitigation offsets in developing countries (Bolivia):

Recognizing that adaptation for developing country Parties is the outmost priority and that market-based mechanisms, particularly offsets, for mitigation in the agriculture sector will not achieve the necessary emission reductions due to, inter alia, non-permanence, additionality and leakage.

Other new language stressed the importance of the sector to development priorities (Brazil):

[…] sector-specific actions in the agriculture sector should not limit the ability of developing country Parties to pursue economic and social development and poverty eradication, and, to that end, that it is essential that cooperative sectoral approaches and sector-specific action in the agriculture sector are undertaken in a manner that is supportive of an open international economic system.

And in paragraph 4:

[Decides that cooperative sectoral approaches and sector-specific actions in the agriculture sector shall be based on the best available science, taking into account fully differences between agricultural systems regarding geographic, economic and social conditions and specific national development priorities and circumstances, in particular of developing country Parties, in accordance with equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and in the light of the fact that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing country Parties.]

Unilateral trade measures on agriculture by developed countries was a primary concern to the G77 including India and Brazil. India proposed new specific language:

[…] developed country parties shall not impose unilaterally any technical regulations, sanitary and phytosanitary measures or market-based mechanisms on any grounds related to climate change, including stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations, emissions leakage and/or the cost of environment compliance, that will have a negative effect on trade in agriculture from developing countries.

In addition, new and critical linkages to agriculture mitigation, climate change and food price rises was also made by the net food importer, para. 3 ( Saudi Arabia):

[Decides that cooperative sectoral approaches and sector-specific actions in agriculture shall not lead to increases in the prices of agriculture products, and shall not threaten food security in any way]

Consensus in the run up to Durban or at Durban will likely be difficult. However, it is also clear that the World Bank wants to ramp up its engagement on agriculture by convincing African governments in particular, that agriculture could be a lucrative opportunity to attract carbon finance (see Guardian coverage of IATP research on the Bank’s Biocarbon project). With talk about “partnership,” “readiness” and “early action,” it appears that the World Bank and others would like to launch a similar process with agriculture as REDD. There seems to be a hope that, as in REDD, pilot projects can create a political momentum for carbon markets to include soil carbon. This is likely to be a tough sell to sound investors given the numerous difficulties the carbon market is facing today and with the carbon price crashing. 

Regardless, Annex 1 countries are heavily advocating for carbon markets and various associated financial instruments as “innovative sources” of carbon finance in an area of negotiations called “Various approaches […]” through which sectors such as agriculture can be included. A similar move continues in the LULUCF discussions with the draft text proposing to consider the expansion of the CDM to include “additional land use, land-use change and forestry activities.” The CDM currently only includes afforestation and reforestation activities and limits these LULUCF credits to 1 percent of total CDM credits. 

There was also a big fight on what the general framework on cross-sectoral approaches should be and on bunker fuel. This means that there are three simultaneous fights under the “cross-sectoral approaches" agenda—none of which are resolved. One option out of four proposed for a general framework says “approaches and actions shall be of a voluntary nature” while others make no mention of this. The fourth option proposes “no need for a general framework.”

Democratic deficit in discussions about agriculture and climate change

The Eastern Africa Farmers Federation, and umbrella platform of over 20 million farmers in Eastern Africa and PACJA, a network of 300 African civil society organizations issued a joint declaration on the eve of the Bonn talks regarding agriculture and climate change. Among other issues, they highlighted the democratic deficit of the UNFCCC discussions on agriculture, which to date, have completely ignored the perspective of small-scale producers and civil society organizations. The  Joint Declaration states:

[...] farmers organizations and other civil society organizations [must] play a central role in the design, implementation and review of all climate-related policies, including national adaptation plans of action (NAPAs) and nationally appropriate mitigation actions (NAMAs) and in the formulation of all sectoral, national, regional and international policies affecting [their interests].

The declaration continues:

We express our concern over the handling of agriculture issues in the UNFCCC negotiations. Inadequate consultation has taken place at both the national and international level with farmers and other members of civil society. We are concerned with attempts to create new agendas to address agriculture in UNFCCCC subsidiary bodes as distracting attention from the urgent need for compensation and finance for adaptation and for measure to address loss and damage and response measures that undermine rural poor communities in developing countries, including perverse subsidies. We believe that discussions in the UNFCCC must be based on prior extensive consultation with rural communities if their rights and interests are to be protected.

They call for a development approach, centered on food security and rural livelihoods with full consultation on national, regional and global levels and one which includes a variety of organizations in addition to UNFCCC such as the FAO, UNEP and others.

Finally, as this debate picks up, the key body that coordinates all food agencies response to food security, the Committee on Food Security has also commissioned its high-level panel of experts to conduct a study on the impacts of climate change on food security and nutrition, including the challenges to adaptation and mitigation. The CFS’s leadership will be an important contribution to getting the right focus on climate and agriculture with food security at the center. Unlike the UNFCCC where civil society is increasingly excluded from the proceedings, the CFS allows all stakeholders to participate in its deliberations, making it a much more representative space to lead the discussions on agriculture and climate change. 

—Shefali Sharma 

Image used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user benkamorvan.

[1] Parties shall “promote and cooperate in the development, diffusion, including  transfer, of technologies, practices and processes that control, reduce, or prevent anthropogenic emissions […] in all relevant sectors including the energy, transport, industry, agriculture, forestry,  and waste management.”


Andrew Ranallo

June 22, 2011

Spotlight G-20: Agriculture Ministers should strengthen government role in volatile markets

Grain Tomorrow the first ever summit of G-20 Agriculture Ministers will take place in Paris. The French government is to be commended for the initiative. Concerned by the evident disarray in government responses to the food price crisis of 2007-08, the French government moved quickly and deliberately to consider how best to respond. One of their investments, one that might be overlooked in the drama of a G-20 summit, has been in research to understand what kinds of tools governments have used to respond to price spikes and volatility, and how effective those tools have been, particularly in developing countries, and particularly with an eye on reducing poverty and vulnerability to hunger. The results of that investment is informing the debate at many levels, and is a welcome addition to a literature that is otherwise rather too orthodox.

One of the main contributors to this research is Franck Galtier, who works with part of the French agricultural research institution CIRAD. Galtier makes the point that countries are each quite different and need their own distinct mix of policies to respond to the specificities of their situation. Galtier has built a typology of responses to price volatility with four categories: measures to prevent (or mitigate) volatility and measures to cope with it, crossed with measures that are designed to leave the private sector in charge versus measures that require the state to intervene. One of his important conclusions is that, by far, the largest share of international policy advice (and money) for the last twenty years has focused on policies and programs that use public funds either to build infrastructure and open borders, or to manage risk and facilitate participation in commodities markets. Public interventions to mitigate volatility—to keep prices stable—have been widely neglected. Yet common sense and long experience suggest they might be the best use of money.

 A number of governments (notably the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Australia) remain firmly committed to this lopsided policy agenda. We can expect the neglect of important public policy tools to regulate markets to be evident in the summit outcomes, even though a number of G-20 countries intervene heavily in their domestic agricultural markets, and to great effect, successfully limiting the incidence of hunger in their countries (for instance in China and Indonesia). The report prepared for this meeting at the G-20’s behest by ten international institutions (and discussed on this blog by Jennifer Clapp last week) also betrays an allergy to public regulation of markets.

 It is ironic that many of the countries so averse to public policies that interfere in markets have biofuel policies that illustrate the worst kinds of market distortion. The U.S. even dares describe its biofuel sector as an “infant industry”! Demand from the biofuel industry, propped by billions of dollars worth of public subsidy and minimum use mandates, has exacerbated price spikes and increased the vulnerability of populations whose food supply is in some measure dependent on imports from international markets. Another example of market distortion is the role of excess speculation in financial markets. In 2009, the G-20 Heads of State set themselves the task of improving the governance of commodity futures markets, acknowledging their role in causing price volatility: “We have agreed to improve the regulation, functioning and transparency of financial and commodity markets to address excessive commodity price volatility.” Yet on this question, too, the U.S., Canada and others continue to block action (see here for a commentary on U.S. efforts to block reform).

One of the most obvious ways to intervene to reduce the likelihood of excessive price volatility is to manage a public stock. The international organization report was dismissive of the tool as expensive and ineffectual and made no recommendations for any stocks policy beyond an emergency reserve to be operated by the World Food Program. Even this is too much for the U.S. and—U.S. officials claim—some others in the G-20; this small but important step is now the only issue still not agreed ahead of the summit. The U.S. suggests a feasibility study is needed ahead of the pilot project now in discussion. This is nonsense, of course. The point of the pilot is to see if the idea can work; there is more than enough experience—and need—to move on this question without holding things up with time-wasting exercises.

In practice, the question is not whether or not to hold stocks—countries mostly have stocks—but how best to use them. The international community is letting developing countries down, especially the poorest developing countries, by refusing to acknowledge the political necessity of stockholding and applying themselves to ensure they are managed as well as possible. The U.S., Canada, Australia and others are firmly set against anything that might “interfere” in the market (unless it’s a biofuel mandate). They argue public stocks crowd out the private sector, which is no doubt true, but is Cargill holding stocks for the same reason a government might? How much might they hold? Would they tell anyone what they hold? Will they release stock to ease pressure on prices, or might they be tempted to hold stock to nudge prices higher? Is it reasonable to depend on the handful of global grain traders to handle something as politically sensitive as supply to international food markets? Remember, no one actually knows the exact numbers, but a 2003 estimate from the Boston Consulting Group claimed only four grain traders controlled 73 percent of global grain trade. Competition has definitely not improved since then.

Over the last twenty years, developing countries have shifted from net food exporters to net food importers and are more dependent than ever on international markets. Richer countries are managing things their way: China is not going to stop stockholding. Russia is not going to allow a prohibition on export bans. Yet the U.S. is all but refusing to allow a discussion of stocks, even though high levels of price volatility are closely correlated to low levels of reserves.

Meanwhile, G-20 Agriculture Ministers might want to think about who it is they hope to export their surplus grain to. Unless agricultural exporters are willing to give meaningful assurance to importers that there is plenty of supply in international markets, importers are going to look for other solutions. Indeed, they already are. And while much greater investment and support for local food production is essential, trade is a useful and important part of most countries’ food security strategies. Stocks provide a limited but essential tool in this mix; they provide a necessary level of comfort that the market will deliver. As such, they deserve more space on the G-20 agenda—too late for tomorrow’s summit, maybe, but it’s time to look again at that neglected quadrant of tools called public regulation to curb the likelihood of excessive volatility. It’s time for political pragmatism to prevail.

—Sophia Murphy, IATP's senior advisor on trade, food security and global governance issues. This post also appears on the Triple Crisis blog. 

Ben Lilliston

June 21, 2011

On dead zones, flooding and money

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, the solutions come relatively cheap.

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

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

Julia Olmstead

June 20, 2011

The Farm Bill, public health and the next generation of farmers

NRCSFL97010 Our friend Jill Krueger at the Public Health Law Network has written a great post about why, if you care about getting more fruits and vegetables into schools, hospitals and people in general, you have to support policies that support farmers. This requires taking a hard look at a food system that prizes cheap food and confronting the challenge of getting more young farmers into the field. Jill points to our Healthy Farms, Healthy People Summit held in May in Washington, D.C. as a positive step toward creating a stronger alliance between public health, farmers and other key stakeholders.

Read the entire post.

Kendra Cuthbertson

June 16, 2011

Agriculture in the spotlight at Bonn climate talks

UNFCCC IATP's Shefali Sharma is blogging from the UN climate talks in Bonn, Germany. See her presentation from IATP's official side event for more.

The two-week climate talks in Bonn are supposed to be winding down tomorrow. Some countries will take up the issue of agriculture again in informal sessions closed to observers. During week one, heated debates took place about what to “do” with agriculture in the UNFCCC. In the Cancún final decision at COP 16, the agriculture chapter was taken out of the track known as Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA). However, this year, countries such as New Zealand, Canada and Switzerland have been pushing to bring it back. New Zealand and Canada are major agriculture exporters and would like to see the topic of agriculture emissions handled with care. One area of contention, though not openly shared, is livestock-related emissions and competition with major meat exporters such as Argentina and Brazil. 

Switzerland, not a big agricultural exporter but an avid supporter of the “multifunctionality” of agriculture and pasturelands, is promoting the concept of food security in developing countries and “sustainability” in agriculture, presumably also to be rewarded for their agricultural practices which they say are less damaging compared to those in other countries. 

Unlike last year, all of these countries are stressing the importance for agriculture for food security and for adaptation to climate change for developing countries. By casting the net wider to include areas of interest to developing countries, they hope that the idea of a work program on agriculture can gain support where climate mitigation can also be addressed. However, at least in Bonn, that is not likely to happen.

The United States also hopes to see a decision on agriculture at the next Conference of the Parties (COP17) meeting in Durban in December. The U.S. climate bills which were not passed contained large prospects for forestry and agriculture offsets from both domestic and international sources, though agricultural offsets were mainly geared domestically. And the U.S., still a major proponent for carbon markets, would like to see the expansion of REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) to include agriculture. In previous REDD discussions, the U.S. has advocated for a “whole landscape” approach. Here in Bonn, the U.S. has asked that the REDD SBSTA (Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice) discussion on drivers of deforestation, which mainly refers to agriculture, be discussed as early as Durban, though the deadline for the outcome of this discussion is due by COP 18. This is seen as an unusual demand given the number of agenda items to be negotiated in Durban.

Though New Zealand and Canada proposed to start an agriculture work program in the SBSTA by June 2012, this was shot down today in an informal meeting today by members of the G-77. In addition to agriculture, water and the notion of “blue carbon” (carbon captured by marine-living organisms) and rights to mother earth were also rejected as potential issues to be discussed under the SBSTA. Blue carbon is supposed to be carbon sequestered through mangroves, coastal areas and potentially even tidal salt marshes and sea grass. 

Meanwhile, the stage is being set at the UNFCCC to make agriculture the big success story out of Durban. The Chair of the AWG-LCA, United States representative Daniel Reifsnyder, said to civil society organizations yesterday that agriculture is likely to be a deliverable in Durban. In response to questions, he said it is difficult to address forestry without also addressing agriculture. 

The World Bank is providing financial support to South Africa to host a ministerial where both agriculture and environmental ministers will discuss agriculture from September 1–3. There will undoubtedly be pressure on countries present to create an African position on agriculture in the lead up to Durban. Activity has already been taking place around the formation of a potential “partnership” around agriculture that involves civil society, governments, the World Bank, the FAO and others. The first meeting took place at the World Bank several weeks ago. The next meeting will be hosted by the FAO in Rome, July 25–27. Several other high-level meetings are slated in the run up to Durban. 

The World Bank is once again “the first mover” on setting itself up as the carbon broker on agriculture. It has played a similar role in the creation of developing country plans to reduce emissions through REDD projects. The Bank helps countries prepare these plans, pilot REDD projects and hopes to eventually get them carbon credits through its forest carbon fund. While the World Bank moved ahead with these activities, governments were and are still negotiating key aspects of REDD, including whether REDD should be financed through carbon markets. After demonstrating “early action”  on REDD, the World Bank hopes to do the same with agriculture.  

Having publicly launched its first pilot soil-carbon sequestration project in Western Kenya through its BioCarbon Fund, the World Bank hopes to convince developing countries and donors that carbon markets can deliver finance for agriculture  and small farmers. However, IATP’s calculation of the carbon payments generated by this project amount to $1 per farmer per year—see my presentation for more. Using the World Bank’s own figures of carbon revenues and transaction costs, it becomes evident that at least one of the “triple wins” (of increased production, carbon payments and adaptation) will not be delivered to small farmers through the carbon market.The project is in its early phases and entails the adoption of the “sustainable land management practices” (SALM) by 60,000 farmers on 45,000 hectares over 20 years. And while agroecological practices, such as intercropping, covercrops and use of manure for fertilizer can be applauded, it remains to be seen whether there will be tradeoffs for the farmers involved in meeting measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) requirements for soil carbon for their other needs. It will also be critical to monitor whether, in fact, the practices deliver on the ecological, climate resilience and food security objectives of the project and whether land tenure and other social conflicts result. The project will not actually measure soil carbon because of its high costs, but instead use an “activity based monitoring survey” as the basis of generating carbon credits. The methodology for obtaining these credits is still in the process of being approved in the voluntary market with the Verified Carbon Standard, but the World Bank has gone ahead with the marketing of its success at international meetings.

Tomorrow, the concluding negotiations on agriculture will take place in the LCA under “cross-sectoral approaches” ( agenda item 1.b.iv under the Bali Action Plan). The text in the LCA track that was adopted in Copenhagen (chapter IX), and omitted in the Cancún Decisions, is now back as the main negotiating text on agriculture in the LCA.    

Ben Lilliston

June 15, 2011

Carbon emissions trading at the Bonn climate change negotiations: alive but not so well

Pollution Lying among the position papers of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) at the June 6–18 climate change negotiations in Bonn, Germany, was a badge stating, “Cap and Trade – Alive and Well (and not just in Europe).” IETA’s more than 170 organizations include large industrial firms subject to a cap on their carbon emissions, as well as financial firms that trade carbon emissions in metric tonnes, mostly under the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Indeed, the ETS provides 97 percent of global demand for carbon trading, according to the World Bank’s “State and Trends of Carbon Markets 2011.” Nevertheless, IETA’s members see a near term future in voluntary carbon markets, as well as in an expansion of the ETS. As corporations with deep financial resources, they can afford to wait for the U.S. Congress to pass a climate change bill that includes the creation of a tax-payer financed, mandatory cap-and trade-program. In the Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House of Representatives in June 2009, but not taken up in the U.S. Senate, permits to pollute worth tens of billions of dollars are given to the largest industries while they adjust their operations to a gradually, if all too slowly, tightening limit on greenhouse gas emissions. Hence the message on IETA’s badge, “Cap and Trade – Alive and Well.”

IATP and the British NGO FERN co-organized a June 14 side event, “New Market Mechanisms, Land-Based Offsets and Alternatives: Critical Considerations,” for the Bonn negotiations. The overall message from five speakers, including IATP’s Shefali Sharma and Steve Suppan, was that there are sound scientific and financial reasons that cap and trade is not well. An expansion the trading of carbon emissions offset projects, based on agricultural practices to sequester carbon in the soil, provides almost no financial benefits to farmers. There are many scientific and methodological disputes about measuring how much carbon can be sequestered in soil, whether that sequestration is permanent and where to set a baseline from which to measure greenhouse gas reductions in a given area of land.

According to Shefali’s case study in progress of the World Bank’s poster child project for carbon sequestration, eventually 60,000 farmers in Kenya will be paid about a $1 USD (one dollar!) a year each for twenty years to use good agricultural practices to reduce carbon emissions from their soils. Instead of paying carbon project design consultants about $1.5 million to design the carbon accounting system that would result in offset credits to be traded largely under the ETS, why not pay the $1.5 million to farmers to allow them to adapt to the droughts, floods and other afflictions that are affecting agricultural production and food security?

The exploitation of farmers to produce—for almost nothing—offset credits whose purchase by polluters allow them to manage the costs of their polluting, without necessarily adopting low-carbon emissions technologies and otherwise cleaning up their operations, is awful. Worse still is that the World Bank will be the interim trustee of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) Green Climate Fund (GCF) and is providing staff to help design the GCF to carry out more Kenyan like projects. Steve pointed out that like IETA, the World Bank sees carbon trading as essential to “leveraging” finance (using public money to attract private investors) for reducing GHGs and for adapting to climate change. Yet even the World Bank’s own carbon market forecasts show a very weak demand for carbon credits in the voluntary markets, and hence very weak environmental performance for reducing GHGs. The $50 million of the World Bank’s Global Environmental Facility projects for adapting to climate change pales compared to their $2.1 billion USD group of Bio-Carbon Funds, largely for the financing of offset projects for the carbon market.

Time constraints (we have to get back to the negotiations venue to find out about the governments’ debate on an agricultural work plan!) in the UNFCCC agreements are preventing us from summarizing the rich presentations of Oscar Reyes, of Carbon Trade Watch, Jutta Kill of FERN, and Kate Horner of Friends of the Earth U.S. Their presentations and related publications will be posted at the side event website. Suffice it to say that Oscar showed how the ETS is even sicker than we had thought as a source for fraudulent trading and environmental performance failure; Jutta outlined how cap and trade not only failed to reduce GHG releases from deforestation but actually incentivized that destruction in some cases; happily, Kate concluded the panel with an outline of the kinds and amounts of alternative finance to that of carbon trading that could become available to adapt to climate change and to reduce GHGs before the human and environmental suffering produced by climate change becomes irremediable.

Image used under Creative Commons license roberthuffstutter.

Steve Suppan, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

Ben Lilliston

June 13, 2011

An invitation to return

Graduation1 Rural leaders from across the country gather later this month to discuss the future of rural communities.   Paramount to the discussions at this joint gathering of the National/Midwest Rural Assembly will be the establishment of environments that attracts young adults to work, live and engage in rural communities. So it’s natural, with graduation season on our doorstep and the National Rural Assembly right around the corner, that I am weighted down with thoughts about our future education system,  the vibrancy of our rural communities and how we fit youth into the picture. 

At the heart of it

Most rural communities operate under the principle that the school is the heart of the community. It causes me to wonder, then, how we will have successful communities with dwindling school enrollment. While many of the 2011 graduating classes in rural Minnesota are large and prosperous, the future looks bleaker for class sizes coming down the pipe. As school districts foresee these smaller class sizes and simultaneously face increasingly tight budgets, action is necessary to change and adapt the system in order to remain resilient.    

So what do these small-town rural communities do when faced with future dwindling class sizes, resulting in the dismissal of qualified teachers, administration and staff who have invested in their community and served as important leaders to the students? While students may rarely think about the long term impact of the class size issue, they are indeed personally impacted in meaningful ways. In one rural community it means farewell to a beloved principal, a guiding star to both struggling students and those whom seemed to make excelling look easy; it means, for some of the students, their first real-world lesson that life is not fair

When life is not fair

When students of the Benson High School graduating class gathered this last week, all 109 of them, they faced this reality head-on. While heartfelt student speeches and Baccalaureate addresses tackled all of the classic sentiments of graduation, one leader in the community addressed an issue that weighed heavy on the hearts of not only the students, but the entire community. With elementary classes at Benson carrying half the number of students of this graduating class, cuts were inevitable. The Baccalaureate addressee—as community pastor, father of a graduate, long-time school board member and universal fan of the graduating class of 2011—offered up his sympathy for this first post-graduation life lesson, but gave it to them with a dose of reality. He offered the students a choice. He said, your beloved principal can stay if half of you stay and redirect life’s next journey to re-enter the education system at Benson High school. And while eager to take on the next adventure—to head off to college or take a job in the real world—it must have been astounding to see many of the student’s hands reach high in the air as a testimony to their principal and friend. The students’ reaction was heartfelt, though clouded with the weight of reality.  

The message to the graduates was simple, yet heavy. Deep relationships with teachers, principles, community members, underclassmen, parents and others who share their definition of home, have irreversibly changed the students. While they will carry this change with them in their character, they cannot re-live their last adventure; it is time for the next journey to begin, a journey that will continue to show them that life is neither fair, nor just. 

Circle them back

But perhaps our message to rural youth is not complete; perhaps it is not quite that simple. Our message to our rural youth empowers them to stretch their boundaries, push against their comfort zones, travel, move away and spread their wings; it prefaces that life is not fair, yet regardless they must push forward. Perhaps we also need to send along one other message in conjunction with these: that while pushing forward, it may mean that we return to where we started. Perhaps we need to extend, along with the supportive push out the door, a deliberate open-ended invitation to return home. We must emphasize that life is not a one-directional path, and circular paths don’t indicate set-backs, but instead are the most fulfilling paths we can take.   

In fact, recent studies support this trend, as discovered several years ago by Ben Winchester, a research fellow with Minnesota Extension. In a paper titled “Rural Migration: The Brain Gain of Newcomers,” Ben shared research showing that rural counties in West Central Minnesota were losing high school graduates, but were gaining college educated adults who were migrating to small towns to raise their families.

Invest and be proud

Lastly, there is a message to be heeded by the community. While the students head on to their next adventure, carrying with them a wild excitement that is only slightly dampened by sentiments of home, the rural community must carry something with them as well: pride. In rural communities that suffer daily reminders of depopulation and the out-migration of their youth, it is easy to feel helpless, but I tend to agree with Mike Knutson, of the Rural Learning Center. The reality is that "rural residents have as much responsibility for the future of their communities as free market economics or government policies. We choose where we buy our groceries. We choose how trashy or vibrant our communities look. And we choose how our young people feel about their communities by what we tell them and how we invest in them." By the actions of this graduating class of 2011, I say that many rural communities are investing well.  Furthermore, what goes around comes around; there is hope that with an invitation to return, 2011 graduates across rural America will circle back, in time, to the place they call home.   

Join us in Saint Paul for the National Rural Assembly, June 28–30, to talk about strategies and issues of concern to existing, new and returning rural residents, among many other topics pertinent to rural America (http://2011.ruralassembly.org/).


Anna Claussen

Join the Healthy Legacy coalition at the Toxie Awards on June 16

Toxic chemicals are about to get the recognition they deserve.

On Thursday, June 16, the Healthy Legacy coalition (IATP is a cofounding member) will host a viewing party of The Toxies, a satirical awards ceremony which will recognize toxic chemicals for the harmful health effects they are linked to and their prevalence in our lives. Toxic chemicals Formaldehyde, Bisphenol A (BPA), Lead and others, portrayed by actors at the event, will be in attendance, hoping to accept awards in categories such as “Worst and Longest Running Performance” (Mercury) and “Worst Chemical Body Burden” (Dioxin).

The Toxie Awards were created by Californians for a Healthy and Green Economy (CHANGE) and led by Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PSR-LA). Now, several supporting organizations are hosting viewing parties all across the nation to raise awareness around the issue of toxic chemicals in everyday products that are linked to cancer, developmental disorders, infertility and other health problems.

The event will take place in Hollywood and be broadcast live over the internet around the country. Healthy Legacy’s screening at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis (map) will be a full satellite event, complete with local actors, Minnesota-specific awards, and a reception including complimentary appetizers and drinks. Registration for the event is free with a suggested donation at the event of five to ten dollars.

In the spirit of the farcical nature of the show, Healthy Legacy has crafted blog posts and videos as if the chemicals themselves had created them.

Attendees are also encouraged to vote in advance for “Worst Performance of the Year” by a toxic chemical in Minnesota. The winning chemical will receive a Minnesota Toxie live at the event.

Healthy Legacy is a diverse public health coalition of 34 member groups that works to phase out the use of toxic chemicals in consumer products. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is a co-founding member of the coalition.

Jacob Taintor, Healthy Legacy/IATP Social Media Intern

Ben Lilliston

June 10, 2011

Fueling Resistance: Rx for Trouble

Ethanol IATP’s Dr. David Wallinga has posted a piece at the Huffington Post on the use of antibiotics in ethanol production. Some ethanol producers add human antibiotics to their fermentation tanks in order to control growth of bacteria that might reduce their yields. This practice creates yet another source of unnecessary antibiotics in our food system—on top of the 74 percent of all American antibiotics that the FDA says are added to animal feeds—and contributes to the rapid decline in effectiveness of certain antibiotics in treating sick people.

Read the entire article.

Kendra Cuthbertson

June 09, 2011

More evidence on speculators and food prices

Chart The G-20 agriculture ministers will meet on June 22–23 in France to discuss how to address the major challenges facing agriculture. A report issued this week by a U.N. agency on the growing influence of financial speculators on commodity markets, including agriculture prices, should be required reading.

"The 'financialization' of commodity markets has changed trading behaviour and significantly affects the prices of such basic goods as staple foods," reported the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) on Monday. The UNCTAD report documented the new forces of financialization in commodity markets beginning in 2004—and its role in steadily rising prices, accompanied by increasing volatility.

The study's findings, backed by interviews with physical traders and financial investors, determined that the rise of the commodity derivatives market had encouraged herding behavior to the point where financial investment, rather than market fundaments like supply and demand, increasingly influences prices. The report's findings concluded that acting against the majority of investors, even if justified by market fundamentals, may result in large losses. "It may therefore be rational for market participants to ignore their own information and follow the trend."

UNCTAD recommends greater transparency in commodity trading, internationally coordinated regulation of commodity exchanges, and direct intervention by market authorities to deflate price bubbles.

The UNCTAD report is consistent with a 2008 report by IATP on the damaging role of speculators in commodity markets, as well as a reader we published earlier this year, offering a variety of perspectives on this increasingly urgent problem.

Fortunately, stronger regulation of commodity futures markets is on the G-20 agenda. While agriculture ministers will discuss proposals to improve financial regulations later this month, G-20 finance ministers will make the final decision on those proposals. IATP outlined its concerns about the G-20 approach to commodity market reform in a comment to UNCTAD earlier this week.

As agriculture markets become increasingly volatile, it's becoming harder and harder to deny the deep and destructive influence that financial investors are having on the global agricultural economy. The G-20 agriculture ministers have an opportunity later this month to advocate for new, tough rules for commodity futures markets that will benefit both farmers and consumers.

Ben Lilliston

Looking forward, looking back: the story and potential of food at TEDxTC

Tedxtc Among the varied insightful voices at the TEDxTC event Monday night in St. Paul, I had the distinct privilege of listening to the talks of two giants working on the intersection of food and justice: Winona LaDuke, activist and author from the White Earth Reservation, and LaDonna Redmond, originally hailing from Chicago but recently joining our IATP team here in Minneapolis. Each activist cut the issue of food justice in a personally, culturally and geographically relevant way, and each story resonated close to what our relationship with food could be.

Winona shared the experience of her people, the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe). Until around one hundred years ago, the Anishinaabeg were entirely food secure and self-sufficient. Diabetes, heart disease and the other rampant afflictions of our modern industrial diet were unheard of. But what's more, the relationship the Anishinaabeg had with their food was truly that: a relationship. Winona expressed that "all food comes from our relatives, whether those with fins, legs or roots." That familial relationship with food continues to this day, despite European colonists, and the American government that followed, working to forcefully eradicate it. With the rise of genetic engineering and the patenting of life, a new kind of threat emerged to that relationship. Winona recounted the stories of the Anishinaabeg's successful fight to preserve Manoomin, or wild rice, against genetic engineering, the success of the Native Hawaiians fight to protect the taro root from genetic modification, and the success of the Maori's fight to preserve the peruperu potato against genetic patenting. So, all of these fights were against commodification, against yet another strain of colonization, and against inappropriate technologies, but what were they for? The answer from Winona was that it's a fight for family, culture and spirit every time: "These are the stories of our relatives with roots."

Where Winona outlined the workings of the food system on cultures, peoples and extended families, LaDonna illustrated the perils of a broken food system beginning through a personal lens. LaDonna shared how she had not been active in the food system until her son was born with extensive food allergies. What was previously a ten-minute stop at the supermarket now became hours-long excursions. She first attempted to decode the labels at convenience stores, then stuck to the perimeter of grocery store aisles, then, learning more about pesticides, antibiotics and genetic modification, was forced to take trips far outside of her neighborhood for healthy food for her family. This galvanized her interest in food access and urban agriculture activism, setting up local farmers' markets, small co-op grocery stores and urban CSA deliveries. Yet, as a now-seasoned food justice activist, she realized the solutions were not to scale. Even with community gardens and new fresh produce stands all around, LaDonna's neighbors were not able to choose healthier food due to income, familiarity or assistance barriers. It also remains possible to purchase a jar of salsa made from local, organic produce, but not possible to know the work conditions, pay, or treatment of the workers who planted, picked and processed the produce. As LaDonna explained, "there is only one food system," and it's impossible to buy or choose your way out of it, so there is still much work to do. And to what end? LaDonna answered in this way: She used to believe that, as a mother, she was there to protect her son's potential and allow it to bloom. Instead, she realized that her son came into her life to help her own potential bloom—that of reconnecting with the land and the earth, of rediscovering the spirit and soul of relating with food, and of loving self, family, and local, global and ecological community.

Each of these stories demonstrated the true depth of our relationship with food, a depth we’ve lost in our current broken system. Rather than merely a boxed commodity to be purchased at the local grocery store, food literally sustains our lives, and food that is culturally, geographically and healthfully appropriate helps us thrive in our lives. Each speaker challenged us to reflect on this vision and turn the questions on ourselves: What is our own story around food? How are we relating with our food? What is our potential to achieve with and through food? And, from those reflections, what is the work we must set ourselves to? Is it understanding the farm bill, creating viable funding for agriculture to adapt to climate change instead of current faulty proposals, starting a business that respects farmers, consumers, and the land, or some other way to get our hands in the dirt? As Winona’s father once put to her, "You're a really smart woman, but I don't want to know your philosophy if you can't grow corn."

Eleonore Wesserle

June 08, 2011

Major contributor of arsenic in animal feed halts practice

Poultry Today, IATP and the Center for Food Safety issued the below press release on a major announcement to temporarily halt the use of arsenic in some animal feeds. IATP issued a report in 2006 on the heavy use of arsenic in animal feeds. In 2009, we partnered with the Center for Food Safety to petition the FDA to halt the use of arsenic in animal feed.

Major contributor of arsenic in animal feed halts practice

Center for Food Safety and Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy urge continued action to remove all arsenic from animal feeds permanently

Washington, D.C., June 08, 2011 – The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today announced that Alpharma, a division of the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, has agreed to stop selling (for now) its arsenic-containing product, 3-Nitro, for use in chicken, turkeys and swine. In 1944, 3-Nitro became the first arsenic-containing product approved by the FDA for use in food animals.

When combined with antibiotics and other drugs, 3-Nitro is widely used by poultry producers to help control a parasitic disease in animals, but also has been used to induce greater weight gain and to create the appearance of a healthier color in meat. IATP estimated in its 2006 report, Playing Chicken: Avoiding Arsenic in Your Meat, that more than 70 percent of all U.S. chickens raised for meat are fed arsenic. Neither European poultry producers nor organic producers use 3-Nitro.

The sales suspension follows new FDA findings that use of 3-Nitro, which contains the organic arsenic roxarsone, also increases cancer-causing inorganic arsenic in chicken liver. The FDA did not test chicken muscle, the meat that most people eat.

The FDA stressed that it did not think the increased arsenic in chicken posed a human health threat. Inorganic arsenic, however, is known to cause multiple cancers in humans, and the science suggests that any additional exposure in food or elsewhere will increase the risk across the population of developing those cancers.

“The use of arsenic in meat production is unnecessary, and, from a public health perspective, reckless,” says Dr. David Wallinga, a physician and author of the IATP report. “Given what we know about this age-old poison, our exposure to all arsenic should be reduced—especially in food.”

Pfizer markets 3-Nitro by itself as a feed additive. However, the suspension also affects another 70 or so other products containing 3-Nitro in combination with other antibiotics and other ingredients, also marketed to poultry producers. In effect, the Pfizer move to voluntarily take its product off the market means that after 30 days, none of these 70 products will be on the market. However, Pfizer is not giving up the NADA or FDA-approval—it could resume manufacture and sale of its product at a later point in time.

“We applaud Pfizer’s voluntary step,” says Paige Tomaselli, staff attorney with the Center for Food Safety, “but we urge the FDA to now move forward on banning all arsenic-containing additives in animal feed. These include Pfizer’s own feed additives containing nitarsone, another arsenic compound as well as those containing arsanilic acid and carbarsone. Clearly, producers can do without them, and they pose a very real threat to public health.”

As IATP and the Center for Food Safety asserted in a 2009 petition to the FDA calling for a roxarsone ban, there is abundant science both that organic arsenics are directly toxic, but also that they convert into the more worrisome inorganic forms of arsenic in chickens, in chicken meat, and in humans. The 2009 petition is also supported by Food Animal Concerns Trust, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, San Francisco Physicians for Social Responsibility, Food and Water Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Center for Environmental Health, Institute for a Sustainable Future, Health Care Without Harm and Ecology Center of Michigan.
On April 12, 2011, Rep. Steven Israel introduced H.R.1487, the Poison-Free Poultry Act of 2011, which would ban all uses of roxarsone as a food additive.

Read the FDA press release.

Read the full petition:

Read IATP’s 2006 report, Playing Chicken: Avoiding Arsenic in Your Meat.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy works locally and globally at the intersection of policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems. On the web at: www.iatp.org.

The Center for Food Safety is national, non-profit, membership organization, founded in 1997, that works to protect human health and the environment by curbing the use of harmful food production technologies and by promoting organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture. On the web at: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org


Photo used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user whyswomen.

Ben Lilliston

June 04, 2011

Agroecology comes to Capitol Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen Hansen-Kuhn

June 03, 2011

Cuts versus investment in farm policy

The U.S. and the European Union are both beginning to rewrite farm policy, and the differences in the process are wider than the Atlantic. The 2012 U.S. Farm Bill will set farm and food policy for the next five years. Europe's new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will enter into force in 2014, guiding policy through 2020.

Two recent developments reveal just how different the Europeans and Americans think about food and farm policy. In the U.S., there is no public goal-setting that sets priorities for the kind of food system we want. Instead, policy is based on backroom politicking and knee jerk responses to the latest headlines (budget cutting all the time). So, it wasn't surprising that the U.S. House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday took a chainsaw to Farm Bill spending and slashed nearly everything in sight—including massive cuts to a variety of farm programs (including for conservation), nutrition and international food-aid programs, while blocking efforts to restore fair markets for livestock producers and handcuffing the Commodity Futures Trading Commission as it tries to limit Wall Street speculators from gambling on agricultural commodity markets. (See IATP's letter to Congress last week outlining our concerns.)

Contrast this haphazard approach with the European Union. Last year, the European Commission (EC) held a very public input-gathering process for defining the next CAP, including an online forum. In November, the EC published a communication summarizing the input, including identifying areas of priority including: food security, sustainable practices and renewable energy, and strengthening the rural economy.

Last week, the European Parliament's Agriculture Commission approved a report that maintains existing spending and shifts the focus of existing programs to emphasize its priority areas. As part of an effort to green the CAP, programs will incentivize farmers to practice climate-friendly and sustainable methods. The report emphasizes the need to take steps to address speculation in agricultural markets and increase bargaining power for farmers in the food chain.

Both processes are in the early stages, but the differences are striking. While the CAP process is far from perfect, Europe does recognize that to reach long-term goals, it must invest in a strong food system and involve the public in the process. In the U.S. House of Representatives, our food system is treated like just another budget line item to cut—one that we all will likely pay for later.

Ben Lilliston

May 31, 2011

Minnesota farmers embrace Farm to School, finds new survey

Produce2 Farmers, ranchers and other food producers are interested in 
providing more of their fresh, locally grown food to Minnesota K-12 schools, according to a new survey released today by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

The survey, completed by 67 small- and medium-scale producers and multi-farm collaboratives, showed strong interest in selling more locally grown foods to Minnesota K-12 schools and broad support for educating students about local food and farming issues. Ninety-five percent of respondents indicated that they are either “very” (60 percent) or “somewhat” (35 percent) interested in selling to K-12 schools. When asked about the reasons for their interest, respondents’ top three reasons were to “educate children about the food system,” to “increase access to healthy, locally grown food” and to “[generate] new revenue for my farm.”

“Farmers’ enthusiasm, not only for supplying locally grown food to schools, but for helping our young people understand where and how their food is grown, is very encouraging,” said IATP’s JoAnne Berkenkamp. “The number of Minnesota school districts engaged in Farm to School has risen from just ten in 2006 to 123 districts in 2010. This represents a terrific new opportunity for farmers and schools to partner more closely in making fresh, local foods available to K-12 students around the state.”

“The benefits of building connections between Minnesota farms and schools are clear,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Frederickson. “Our students, our farmers and our local economy all win when local farm products reach school cafeterias.”

Among the respondents who have sold to K-12 schools in the past, 50 percent described their experiences as “very successful,” with 37 percent calling the experience “somewhat successful.” Key challenges include meeting schools’ particular product specifications and volume needs, and building closer relationships and purchasing mechanisms between farmers and school food buyers.

As one farmer put it, “Tremendous opportunity exists, and it's exciting to see it beginning to come together! As some of the hurdles are addressed, the growth could be terrific.”

The survey is part of IATP’s ongoing Farm to School initiative and compliments a similar survey of Minnesota K-12 foodservice directors released in March 2011. The full survey results and more information about IATP’s Farm to School initiative are available at www.iatp.org and www.farm2schoolmn.org.

Download this press release as a PDF or see the full survey results.


Ben Lilliston

May 26, 2011

Antibiotics in ethanol? Just say no.

Image used under Creative Commons license from Fickr user Argonne National Laboratory Here's an issue you don't hear very much about: antibiotic use in ethanol production.

You heard me right. Some ethanol producers use antibiotics to keep bacteria under control in their fermentation tanks (yields can go down if bacteria get out of control). Unfortunately, the residues from these antibiotics are turning up in what are called distiller's grains, a byproduct of ethanol production that's fed to livestock—yet another source of unnecessary antibiotics in our food system.

We've been tracking this issue for a while. We've found that there are very good alternatives to antibiotics on the market, and many ethanol producers are not using antibiotics at all. Unfortunately, this fact hasn't stopped the ethanol supply industry from continuing to push antibiotics.

Antibiotic use in ethanol production occupies a regulatory gray area. The drugs aren't added directly to the feed, so the Food and Drug Administration hasn't yet begun regulating their use—but they might. To fend off any potential objections to human-grade antibiotics winding up in livestock feed, the ethanol supply industry is trying to get the antibiotics they market approved as food additives.

This is a dangerous business. Time and again, research has shown that that antibiotic overuse in agriculture contributes to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and has caused severe threats to human health. The fact that effective, affordable alternatives to antibiotics are readily available to ethanol producers means there is absolutely no reason for continued antibiotics use in ethanol.

On Wednesday, IATP submitted comments to the FDA in response to a petition by Ferm Solutions, Inc. (a company that sells antibiotics to ethanol plants) to make erythromycin an approved food additive. You can read our comments, written jointly with our partners in the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition. For more information on the issue of antibiotic use in ethanol production, please read our report, "Fueling Resistance."

Image above used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user argonne.

Julia Olmstead

May 24, 2011

Healthy Farms, Healthy People Summit

Deputy Sec. of Ag. Kathleen A. Merrigan at HFHP The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy joined with Public Health Insititute, Public Health Law & Policy, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, California Food & Justice Coalition, and American Farmland Trust to convene the CDC-funded Healthy Farms, Healthy People Summit last week in Washington, D.C (See the event agenda). The blog post below from our partners at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition provides an overview of the topics and discussions that took place over the course of two-day summit.

Healthy Farms, Healthy People Summit
May 19th, 2011

A diverse group of over 100 farm, food and health stakeholders came together in Washington, D.C., Tuesday and Wednesday for Healthy Farms, Healthy People: A Farm & Food Policy Summit for a Strong America. The summit was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and convened by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Public Health Institute, California Food & Justice Coalition, Public Health Law & Policy, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and American Farmland Trust.

A.G. Kawamura, former California Secretary of Agriculture and co-chair of Solutions From the Land, opened the summit with a discussion about the current state of agriculture and public health, both domestically and abroad.  He said that he would add to USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative a “Know Your Century” element, reminding attendees that we are no longer in the twentieth century – we must unite both the best practices in agriculture and public health to develop solutions that match today’s challenges.

Dr. William Dietz, Director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity in the Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at CDC, then offered a slew of facts about challenges and opportunities for agriculture and public health:

  • one-third of Americans have high blood pressure;
  • two-thirds of water and half of pesticides used in the U.S. are for agriculture;
  • 70 percent of water pollution stems from agriculture;
  • 44 percent of fruits and 16 percent of vegetables consumed in the U.S. are imported;
  • 4 percent of Americans live in a “food desert" yet 40 percent lack access to fresh food because they are more than one mile from a supermarket;
  • grass-fed beef contains less saturated fat and more omega-3 fatty acids than its conventional counterpart;
  • sugar-sweetened beverages now account for 250 calories in the average child’s daily caloric intake; and
  • feeding programs now touch 1 in 4 Americans.

Dietz encouraged participant consideration of how these facts in agriculture and public health are intricately linked.

When asked about the Administration’s priorities in the next farm bill, keynote speaker USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan (pictured above) mentioned the need for an expanded farm safety net, a strengthened rural development focus, and a beginning farmer intiaitve aimed at securing 100,000 new farmers and ranchers. She also suggested that the gains for specialty crops from the 2008 Farm Bill “are not going anywhere” with leadership efforts by Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Dr. Kimberlydawn Wisdom, former Surgeon General for Michigan, kicked off the second day of the summit. She noted the need for more physicians to be a part of the conversation on food and farm policy. Dr. Wisdom mentioned farm to school and farm to institution programs as examples of ways to improve health outcomes.

Dr. Mike Hamm, C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State, gave the second day’s keynote. He offered three tasks for the next farm bill: (1) preserve the gains of the last two farm bills (e.g., Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) rule and conservation programs); (2) fund important programs for food access (e.g., Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative; and (3) build for the future.

Dr. Hamm then spelled out the reasons for needing local and regional food systems instead of the current reliance on a few states for a majority of our nation’s food supply. He noted that populations and energy costs are rising and thus there will be less land, water, and energy with which to produce more food for more people and added that with projected temperature increases in California, the state will no longer be able to supply for the U.S. the 50 percent of fruits and vegetables that it currently does.

Furthermore, Dr. Hamm noted, these considerations are all in the context of a nation that currently eats only half of the daily recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables; if consumption increases, so too will the need to produce more. As he put it, we will need two to three more Californias and thus there are plentiful opportunities in agriculture and economic development. Dr. Hamm proposes “locally-integrated food systems,” defined as “a dynamic blend of local direct, local indirect, regional, national, and global” food systems, with the first step being to buying local when possible.

Dr. Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, concluded the summit by highlighting the similarities between the agriculture and health worlds: both have traditionally focused on fixing problems rather than on preventing them. From soil loss and pests in agriculture to obesity and diabetes in health, the model has been on correcting what has already happened. He envisions a shift in which both fields can align around forward-thinking prevention.

With a wide range of stakeholders in attendance, there were many and varied conversations.  Some of the themes that emerged included:

  • Despite historical tensions between agriculture, nutrition, and anti-hunger groups, there are real opportunities to partner with one another for the upcoming farm bill cycle. Public health is a key part of this dialogue.
  • A significant point of general agreement is the need increase access to and consumption of fruits and vegetables.
  • Nonetheless, public health goes beyond obesity and food access—it includes environmental health, farmworker health and safety, and production methods, among others.
  • Social justice must be an important part of the conversation—socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, farmworkers, food service employees, and other low-income Americans are part of our food system and have an important voice.
  • Farm credit and access to capital, land, and training are important needs for beginning farmers and ranchers.
  • Great strides were made in the last two farm bills and a campaign is needed to maintain and build upon the progressive accomplishments; otherwise the “last hired” will be the “first fired.”

The conveners of the summit will be surveying participants on next steps including the possibility of forming a farm bill public health coalition of some kind. They will host a series of discussion webinars over the summer to explore the feasibility of and interest in various policy options and will organize a meeting for advocates.

-- by Helen Dombalis, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (See original post.)

Kendra Cuthbertson

May 20, 2011

Exploding watermelons and exploding headlines in China

A new spate of food safety scares has hit China this spring, from tales of exploding watermelons (caused by application of a dodgy growth accelerator) to cadmium in rice to pork tainted by a dangerous feed additive

This sudden rush of bad news is not happening because food has become less safe (it has been unsafe for a while now!) but because of a change in government policy toward press reporting on this sensitive issue, according to the Associated Press

Zhang Yong, the director of the executive office of the new Cabinet-level Food Safety Commission, recently praised the media's "important watchdog role" after being asked why journalists have frequently able to find food safety problems before inspectors. 

Used under Creative Commons license from flickr user Bert van Dijk. Until recently, reporting on tainted or fake food was a risky move for the media, so Director Zhang is playing a new tune here, but if the government’s hope is that bad press alone will shame food companies into more responsible behavior, as is being reported, it’s a terrible miscalculation and an unfortunate abdication of regulatory responsibility. 

It's unlikely that media scrutiny and public opinion will compensate for the deficiencies of state regulatory power in China, where libel laws are notoriously pro-plaintiff, and companies frequently bring suit and win on the grounds that their profits have suffered due to statements made in the press or on the internet. They don’t even need to file suit themselves. Instead, they can go to sympathetic local officials, who often use criminal libel laws to silence anyone critical of either government behavior or of companies deemed vital for local employment or tax revenue.

It is certainly true that a century ago, muckraking played an important role in improving food safety in the U.S., but public shaming alone seldom changes corporate behavior. In most countries, press exposés of corporate abuses have brought reforms by fuelling public outrage, which was converted into political action by social movements that pressured government to reign in corporations. (Can you spot the missing link in that causal chain in China?) 

What’s needed is not a change of heart by embarrassed “bad actors,” but a transformation of the food system, which is currently built around making money above all else. Food is treated as just one more manufactured good, and in the search for market share and profits, companies will do virtually anything to lower costs and move product; a weak press and a weaker civil society can't fix that. If China’s leaders decide that they want a food system based instead on ensuring a supply of safe, healthy food for the Chinese people, the quest for profit will need to take a back seat to the rights of more empowered consumers, press and regulators, and a well-regulated market will work better for all but the most unscrupulous players, since consumers with a higher level of trust in the system will be less skeptical of all products. 

If regulation of the food system in China operates like policing other parts of the economy and society, we can expect that the current spate of food safety horror stories will lead to a “strike hard” campaign. There will be video footage of courageous police and perp walks, and then, within a few months, the status quo ante will return.

Jim Harkness