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The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

Founded in 1986, IATP is rooted in the family farm movement. With offices in Minneapolis and Geneva, IATP works on making domestic and global agricultural policy more sustainable for everyone.

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Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health.



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Main | June 2007 »

May 2007

May 30, 2007

Globalization and Food Safety

The recent discovery of a toxic chemical in animal feed imported from China into the U.S. has produced a slew of criticism of U.S. food safety agencies and Chinese regulators. But IATP President Jim Harkness points out that widespread contamination of imported food is an inherent weakness in a global food system. Harkness writes, "Our food system’s increasing dependence on imports is no accident. Import dependency is a defining characteristic of an industrial food model driven by U.S. farm and trade policies over the last half century on behalf of agribusiness. U.S. farm policy has encouraged the mass production of only a few cheap crops largely used as food ingredients, animal feed and exports. U.S. trade policy has aggressively pushed for the removal of trade barriers paving the way for the global food trade."

Recently, two of our top political columnists have caught on to the role of globalization in food contamination cases. Harold Meyerson writes in the Washington Post on May 23 about how we've missed "in all those impassioned defenses of globalization, the part about uninspected and unregulated food from distant lands showing up, unannounced, for dinner." Paul Krugman admits in the New York Times (sub required) on May 21 that "those who blame globalization do have a point." He points out that the FDA only has the resources to inspect a small percentage of imports, "this leaves American consumers effectively dependent on the quality of foreign food-safety enforcement."

As Congress writes a new Farm Bill this summer, it has an opportunity to re-think this global export/import model for our food system. It's clear consumers are thinking about it. We've seen an explosion in the number of farmers' markets around the country and supermarkets are including increasingly more information about where their food is produced. A recent poll by Consumer Reports found that 92 percent of Americans want Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for all food. In 2002, Congress passed COOL for meat, poultry, fish and fruits and vegetables. But agribusiness has successfully delayed implementation of COOL for all but fish.

Harkness writes that the Farm Bill is, "an opportunity to accelerate the transition toward a more local-based food system by funding greater crop diversification, incentives for local food purchasing in schools and other government institutions, and full implementation of country of origin labeling in 2008. It’s time to put the public’s interest ahead of agribusiness in setting our nation’s food policy."

Ben Lilliston

May 29, 2007

What Smells in Secret Trade Deal

In May, House Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Charles Rangel announced at a rushed news conference a secret trade deal with the Bush Administration that purportedly would include international labor and environmental standards in pending trade agreements. One big problem, the final language of the deal hadn't been written - and still hasn't been made public. Second big problem, addressing the enormous damage caused by unregulated agricultural trade - one of the major stumbling blocks in trade agreements and at the WTO - was completely ignored.

IATP's Dennis Olson and Alexandra Spieldoch wrote in response to the deal, "Nowhere addressed in the trade deal is how to address the false promise consis­tent in free trade agreements that all farmers will find prosperity by increasing their export market shares. Of course farmers don’t export, multinational corpo­rations do. Instead of leading toward prosperity for farmers, free trade has driven an export-led corporate model of agriculture that has substantially increased the dumping of agricultural commodities onto world markets at below the cost of production. Small-scale farmers, who make up as high as 70 percent of the population in some of the poorest countries in the world, cannot compete with these below-cost imports."

The Citizens Trade Campaign points out, among other problems, not a single labor, environmental, consumer, family farm, faith or small business group has endorsed the deal, while it has received gushing support from business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce. What's not right with this picture?

Writer David Sirota has been all over other problems with this trade deal, particularly related to its alarming secrecy.

Olson and Spieldoch write, "The closed-door, backroom nature of the deal shows once again, like at the WTO and negotiations for other free trade agreements, how deeply flawed outcomes inevitably result from closed and non-transparent processes."

Ben Lilliston

Rachel Carson's Legacy

One hundred years ago on May 27, Rachel Carson was born. Considered by many to be the mother of the environmental movement in the U.S., Carson's seminal book Silent Spring was published in 1962 and changed the way we think about toxic chemicals in the environment. Carson died two years later of breast cancer. As IATP's Kathleen Schuler and Carin Skoog write in a commentary that appeared in the Duluth News Tribune, "Her writing warned of the risks of DDT and other pesticides to the environment, to wildlife and to human health. Though many have tried to discredit Carson, her courageous work has stood the test of time and offers continued inspiration for reducing our exposure to toxic chemicals."

And boy have they tried to discredit her. Opposite Schuler and Skoog's commentary is a rebuttal by a representative of the industry-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute, charging that Carson used "junkscience to advance an anti-chemical agenda." CEI began as a front group funded largely by the tobacco industry, and most recently has fought efforts to address global warming with big money from Exxon/Mobil.

Fourty-five years after her death, the toxic chemical industry is still scared of Rachel Carson.

Ben Lilliston