About IATP

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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December 2007

December 20, 2007

Agri-food in Brisbane

I spent three days at the end of November in Brisbane, a booming but still small-ish city, some 930 km North of Sydney, on Australia's east coast. I went for the 14th annual meeting of the Australasian Agri-Food Network, which brings social scientists of various stripes (rural sociologists, agricultural economists, foresters, nutritionists) together with a few public health officials, NGOs and others for a few days of discussion around the food system. The food system writ large, that is. Issues discussed ranged from the growth of private sector devised and implemented quality standards, to the social causes of obesity, to urban gardens.

The keynote address was given by Tim Lang, professor of Food Policy at City University, London. Tim is also Natural Resources and Land Use Commissioner on the UK's Sustainable Development Commission, an independent public body that reports to the Prime Minister on sustainable development policy issues. Tim's keynote speech talked about the food system and the role of social scientists in advocating urgently needed changes. Tim highlighted the very imperfect nature of the connection between evidence and policy in the real world, suggesting the need for more flexible but also more directed advocacy to avoid getting bogged down in proving each detail of the proposals made.

Drawing on his recent book, Food Wars, written with Michael Heasman, Tim discussed the big picture fight in the food system: emerging from decades of "productionism," where policy and technology have focused on increasing the total food supply available, come two divergent new paradigms. The first the authors call the Life Sciences Integrated Paradigm, which is centred on biotechnology and a view of food that is akin to medical science. Where the productionist view pushed chemical inputs to raise yields, the Life Sciences view uses biology - particularly gene research - to manipulate food to repress or enhance given traits (from drought-resistance to micro-nutrient content). The contrasting paradigm is called the Ecologically Integrated Paradigm. It is also rooted in biology, especially the biology of our ecosystems. But the approach is holistic rather than reductionist, and is based in integrated approaches to food that respect human and environmental health. As the authors say, this approach is not new, but it has been on the margins of food policy discussions for decades. With widespread agreement that our existing model has failed, we have the chance to put an integrated approach at the front of a renewed food system.

A simple example contrasting the two approaches relates to public policy responses to obesity. The first is to engineer foods to taste as sweet without the calories. The second is to think about the relative cost of food (candy bars and soft drinks that cost less than an apple), to think about where and how we shop (can we walk to the store or must we drive?) and to rethink policies that allow companies to market junk food to children, using films or pop stars to encourage unhealthy eating habits.

Together with Tim Lang, IATP is interested in and contributing to the emerging body of work that links human, animal and environmental health to farm policy and the food system. IATP's healthobservatory provides articles and analysis on these issues, ranging from campaigns to ensure hospitals serve ecologically sound and healthy food to their patients to monitoring antibiotic resistance that results from prophylactic use of antibiotics in "confined animal feeding operations" (industrial livestock facilities).

Brisbane was a heartening experience. A group of diverse, committed academics who are reaching out to the wider policy world with their work, committed to using their research to make a better world, and who know how to have a good time doing it (am I biased by having been part of the winning team on quiz night? Maybe just a little). The detailed program of speakers and papers presented shows the range of talent and ideas on display. For this "auslander", still new to the food policy circles of Australia, it was a wonderful few days of learning. My own contributions were a few thoughts on biofuels that had occurred to me working on a paper on the trade and investment issues emerging from the growing biofuels sector worldwide. More on that another day....

Sophia Murphy

December 18, 2007

Food Sovereignty in Mexico, Part II

(IATP's Steve Suppan is reporting from Mexico City, where he met with Mexican farmers protesting the final implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. This is the second of two posts.)

Angel de la Independencia

Mexico City

December 14th

Victor Suárez, of the National Campaign for Food Sovereignty, opened the press conference at 11 a.m. under an intense sun that quickly sun-burned the winter white skin of this Minnesotan. Victor described the week’s events and introduced the speakers, beginning with IATP, then Professor Suzanne Gzech, a professor of law at the University of Chicago and a human rights activist, followed by Dr. Roberto Escalante Semerena, Director of the Faculty of Economics of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). 

We read the solidarity letter out loud and then summarized a press handout describing the origin of the letter at the October 24 strategy workshop that followed the “Lessons of NAFTA” conference and the gamut of individuals and Canadian, U.S. and international civil society and farmer organizations that signed the letter. We explained that the letter was part of a modest work plan, agreed at the October 24 workshop on agriculture, NAFTA, migration and the North American Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). 


We also described the bill presented by Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) to the U.S. House of Representatives that would require the United States to withdraw from NAFTA unless extensive reforms were negotiated to the agreement. As the U.S. Congress winds up its 2008 session to focus on the November elections, the bill will become a forum for discussing the increase in economic exiles resulting from NAFTA’s failures, in contrast to the right wing demonizing of migrants.

No longer speaking on behalf of the solidarity letter signers, in my statement I argued that there was no legal reason that a renegotiated NAFTA could not exclude the foods in the “basic basket” from the elimination of tariffs scheduled to take place on January 1, 2008.  We said NAFTA must be legally consistent with the World Trade Organization agreements, including the Agreement on Agriculture for which a Special Products designation is under negotiation for reasons of enhancing food security, rural development and livelihoods. If the Special Products provision becomes part of the renegotiated AoA, NAFTA will have to contain something like a Special Products provision to be consistent with the AoA.  We urged the press to ask Mexican trade negotiators to present their position on Special Products and how it would apply to the foods in the “basic basket.”

Susan Gzech gave a brief analysis of the deteriorating situation of migrant and human rights in the United States, and the precarious position of undocumented Mexicans in the United States. Her remarks resonated with a public that had protested earlier in the week about the Mexican Congress’ approval of the removal of rights guaranteed by the Mexican Constitution. The new laws were put forward as part of the Calderón administration’s implementation of the SPP’s plan to ‘extend the U.S security perimeter’ and ‘thicken’ the U.S.-Mexican border with behind the border measures.  The new law allows ‘preventative detention’ of individuals for up to 80 days without accusing the detained of a crime and allows the Mexican police to search homes without a court warrant. Columnists wrote in La Jornada that the new law was the beginning of “hard dictatorship.”

Dr. Escalante Semerena, gave a blistering economic analysis of NAFTA, based on the work of several macro and agricultural economists. He said that 2008 was projected to be another very bad economic year for most Mexicans. His analysis came the same day as the United Nations Commission on Latin America published its annual report on Latin American economies. Mexico’s level of economic growth in 2007 was about the same as the weakest economies in the region, Haiti and Nicaragua. The chief investment bank of Spain reported that the sale of Mexican private and state companies in the name of Foreign Direct Investment had not benefited Mexico.

Victor concluded the press conference with a challenge to President Calderón Hinojosa to use his powers to suspend the removal on tariffs on white corn and beans on the basis of the Mexican Constitution and Mexico’s ratification of several United Nations human rights instruments. Victor said that there would be another drastic increase in the price of basic foods after Calderón administration regulations take effect on January 1. The National Campaign will carry out several actions between now and January 1 “to avoid the disaster.” Further Campaign action will be determined at a December 19 meeting, the same day that a protest in front of the Mexican consulate in New York will demand an end to agricultural liberalization under NAFTA. He then declared the fast, “a dynamic fast” whose purposes were known throughout the country, closed. 

Steve Suppan

December 17, 2007

Food sovereignty in Mexico, Part I

(IATP's Steve Suppan is reporting from Mexico City, where he met with Mexican farmers protesting the final implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement)

Angel de la Independencia

Mexico City

December 13, 2007

The National Campaign for Food Sovereignty and Revitalization of Rural Mexico invited IATP to present a solidarity letter at a press conference on behalf of more than 70 U.S., Canadian and international civil society and farmer organizations and 15 individuals who signed the letter. The site of the press conference is the Angel de la Independencia, a plaza constructed in 1910 to celebrate Mexico’s 100th anniversary of independence. In other words, not your typical press conference.

About 30 members of the Campaign began a fast on December 10 to call attention both to widespread food insecurity - more than 40 percent of rural Mexicans or about 52 million are malnourished - and to the Campaign’s proposals for a new agricultural and trade policy under a food sovereignty framework. We visited more than a dozen of those fasting who were camped out on a cool and cloudless night under the watchful eye of the Angel, a statute whose grandeur is but poorly reflected in the snapshot here.


Among the Campaign’s proposals is the renegotiation of the agricultural chapter of the North American Free Trade Agreement to exclude corn and beans from trade liberalization. Corn and beans are crucial to Mexican food security. On December 11, they attempted to deliver a letter demanding the renegotiation of NAFTA to the U.S. Embassy but were turned back by municipal police. The event was featured in the national press.

On the morning of December 13, well known Mexican artists, movie stars and intellectuals came to the Angel to announce their support for the National Campaign and the hunger strikers. Again the press covered the event. I visited the hunger strikers in the afternoon, bringing gifts of tee-shirts and bandanas from our Rural Youth Summit held in October in Ames, Iowa.  I signed the Campaign’s petition to the government to renegotiate NAFTA and wrote a brief testimonio in the visitor’s book.

During the afternoon, university students and participants in protest against the privatization of Mexico’s state owned oil company visited the fasters. We talked about the U.S. Farm Bill, NAFTA and the U.S. led project to replace Mexico’s more than 80 varieties of corn developed over centuries by indigenous groups all over Mexico with transgenic corn whose patents are owned by U.S. companies, above all Monsanto.

As the sun set, cold began to creep into our bones and we shook hands all around and said good night as some of those fasting crawled into sleeping bags and slept or read under the Angel’s light. We left, a little guiltily, in search of something for supper.

Steve Suppan

December 13, 2007

Clock Ticking on NAFTA

You may have thought NAFTA was old news. But surprisingly, over a decade later, it still has not been fully implemented. Because NAFTA was so controversial in all three countries when it came into effect in 1994, the deal delayed implementation of the final agriculture provisions until January 1, 2008. And those final provisions are a big deal - particularly for Mexico. In January, NAFTA will require the removal of tariffs on white corn, beans, powdered milk, and other staple foods for many Mexicans.

Thirteen years of experience says the removal of those tariffs will be devastating for Mexico's food producing economy. Following the passage of NAFTA and the first wave of tariff reductions, U.S. agriculture exports to Mexico exploded. According to a USDA analysis that compared the time periods 1991-93 to 2003-05, U.S. agriculture exports to Mexico increased by 522 percent for corn, 381 percent for wheat, 329 percent for rice, 373 percent for soybeans, and 455 percent for pork.

IATP's A Fair Farm Bill and Immigration documents how agricultural employment in Mexico lost more than 2 million jobs from the early 1990s to 2006. Many former Mexican farmers have been forced to come to the U.S. to find work, as Claudia Melendez Salinas of the Monterrey Herald reported in an excellent article earlier this month.

Mexican farm groups are worried. Last week, Mexican sugar farmers shut down the country's sugar mills, demanding a price increase before the January 1 deadline which will open the border to high fructose corn syrup from the U.S.

Mexican farm groups are asking their legislature to suspend the final provisions of NAFTA, renegotiate the agreement to prioritize food sovereignty, and invest in modernizing Mexico's agriculture. Earlier this week, over 70 U.S., Canadian and international organizations wrote to leaders of the three NAFTA countries expressing support for the Mexican farm groups' proposal. IATP's Steve Suppan will present the letter to Mexican farm groups at a press conference later this week in Mexico City.

In a December 12 press release, the National Family Farm Coalition's George Naylor and the Canadian National Farmers Union's Darrin Qualman point out that NAFTA and free trade agreements have not benefitted U.S. or Canadian farmers either - and instead the big beneficiaries have been multinational agribusiness companies. The NFU Canada has a great little report looking at how Canadian farmers have faired since free trade agreements with the U.S. first came into effect in 1988.

IATP's Steve Suppan will report more next week on efforts by Mexican farm groups to suspend NAFTA following his trip to Mexico City.

Ben Lilliston

December 11, 2007

Sustainability in the Farm Bill

This week, the Senate will vote on 40 final amendments to the Farm Bill. One amendment the Senate should support comes from Senators Wyden and Harkin. The amendment would restore sustainable production criteria to the Bioenergy Crop Transition Assistance Program (BCTAP) within the Farm Bill's Energy Title.

In the Farm Bill coming out of the Senate Agriculture Committee, the BCTAP would assist farmers and foresters who want to produce cellulosic bioenergy crops for the next generation of bioenergy refineries. The Wyden-Harkin Amendment would go a step further by creating incentive and cost share payments to farmers growing perennial bioenergy crops that meet certain sustainable stewardship thresholds to promote clean water, healthy soil, wildlife habitat, and reduced carbon.

Over 90 organizations, including IATP, sent a letter to Senators on Friday outlining why the Wyden and Harkin amendment is important. The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture has put together an Action Alert on the Wyden-Harkin amendment.

The current corn-based system for ethanol threatens to cause a number of environmental problems. IATP has written about potential water quantity and water quality issues related to a strictly corn-based system. An article co-authored by IATP's Dr. Dennis Keeney and Mark Muller in the June issue of the journal Science, outlined how perennial grasses could help lead the way towards a more sustainable cropping system that has long-term environmental and rural development benefits.

The current biofuel sector in the U.S. has devotedly followed the incentives set by public policy. Past Farm Bills have encouraged the mass production of biofuels' first primary feedstock - corn. The policies we set in the 2007 Farm Bill will play a big role in determining the long-term sustainability of the next generation of biofuel crops.

Ben Lilliston

December 10, 2007

Does more Aid for Trade mean less Aid for Climate Change?

Two years have gone by since Aid for Trade was launched at the WTO. Pascal Lamy has just completed the first Global Aid for Trade Review. The picture does not look good. There is still no clearly accepted definition of what counts as an Aid for Trade initiative, no guidelines for accessing funds, and no effective monitoring and evaluation mechanisms.

But the big question on everyone’s lips is what about the money? When Aid for Trade was launched, WTO members asked Pascal Lamy to find appropriate mechanisms to securing additional financial resources for Aid for Trade. No funding is secured. It is now confirmed that there will be no additional money over and above existing aid, formerly known as Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), pledges. Instead, the Director-General must seek to get a bigger share of aid for trade initiatives. The OECD-WTO data estimates that trade initiatives currently soak up 40 percent of existing aid money. If no additional money is found, there is a serious risk that other sectors, like health and education, may find they receive a much smaller share of the pie in the future.  Overall development aid declined in 2006.

Worse, other global issues are desperately in need of a massive boost of funds. Perhaps most importantly, steps to mitigate the devastating effects of climate change. The UN Development Program (UNDP) recently issued their annual Human Development Report which accuses rich nations of failing to do their bit to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to help developing countries cope with climate change. To date, only $26 million has been delivered under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UNDP says developed countries need to provide US$86 billion a year by 2015. US$44 billion would go for climate-related infrastructure. US$40 billion would help the poor cope with climate-related risks. The other US$2 billion would go to strengthening responses to natural disasters.

Going ahead with the Aid for Trade agenda in the current climate at the WTO would be disastrous. For now, donors and recipients should invest their energy in improving the effectiveness of existing aid schemes. WTO members should get back to the task of creating a better multilateral trading system. If WTO members are able to build a better framework for the multilateral trading system then Aid for Trade could be a useful and important addition.

Carin Smaller

December 06, 2007

A Smarter Investment for the Farm Bill

Most public policy comes down to money - how much and for what - and the Farm Bill is no different. Editorial pages, with the Washington Post leading the charge, and broad range of organizations have focused narrowly on commodity subsidies and setting limits for how much individual farmers can receive.

But of course farm programs aren't only about farmers. A better way to look at farm programs is outlined in IATP's latest paper "A Fair Farm Bill for Taxpayers" by Heather Schoonover.

Schoonover writes, "Public money should provide public benefits, and public money for agriculture can benefit everyone. Far from being just about farmers, agriculture can provide us with healthy food, well-managed natural resources and resilient rural communities. Everyone has a stake in a well-functioning food and agriculture system. Achieving the agricultural system we want is not a question of investing more; it is a question of investing better and smarter."

The paper calls for fundamental, systemic change that focuses not strictly on reforming subsidies, but rather on ensuring price stability in the marketplace for farmers and consumers. As Schoonover points out, "Proposals to replace or augment subsidies with mechanisms such as farmer savings accounts or revenue-basd payments face the same deficiency as subsidies: they do nothing to address overproduction and low prices. . .in other words, they are more of the same."

At this point, it's unclear whether the Senate will vote on a new Farm Bill before the end of the year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is trying to cut a deal to limit amendments. The uncertainty in the Senate makes it unclear when a new Farm Bill will be completed - or even if Congress will simply decide to extend the existing Farm Bill until 2009. Regardless, how taxpayer money is spent will ultimately be at the heart of the debate.

You can read all nine parts of IATP's "Fair Farm Bill" series and follow the latest Farm Bill developments at IATP's Farm Bill page.

Ben Lilliston