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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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.



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August 2008

August 27, 2008

Who Would Benefit From Doha?

While most believe the Doha Round of negotiations at the WTO are dead, a few countries, led by Brazil, are desperately trying to re-start discussions. Yesterday, IATP's Anne Laure Constantin wrote about Brazil's evolving role at the WTO: from a leading voice for developing countries when talks collapsed at the Cancun Ministerial in 2003, to a persistent advocate for a Doha deal this July in Geneva. As Anne Laure wrote, Brazil has huge agriculture export interests that stand to benefit from a deal at the WTO, particularly in this new era of rising commodity prices.

But a new analysis by researchers at Tufts University Global Development and Environment Institute points out that, unlike Brazil, most developing countries would be left out of any projected export boom, while suffering the negative consequences (loss of farmers, greater vulnerability to price volatility) due to rising food imports. The few developing countries that stand to gain are those with greater capacity for production with vast tracts of high-quality land, modernized agricultural production and infrastructure: Brazil, Argentina, China and the former Soviet Union.

The Tufts researchers write, "To emerge a winner from agricultural trade liberalization, other developing countries will need to out-compete not just the global North but these emerging agricultural export powerhouses."

The Tufts research shows yet again the weakness of a one-size-fits-all approach to agricultural trade rules being pushed at the WTO. They write, "Trade liberalization globalizes not only markets, it globalizes market failure."

Ben Lilliston

August 26, 2008

Could Lula succeed where Lamy failed?

Last week, a major alliance of Latin American trade activists--the Hemispheric Social Alliance--organized a meeting in Rio, Brazil to discuss the prospects for trade agreements in the region. IATP was invited to join and discuss the recent Doha collapse. Brazil's role in the WTO negotiations was the focus of most of the discussions.

No one can question Brazil's key role in the Doha negotiations. Since the WTO Ministerial in Cancun in 2003, developed countries have come to consider Brazil as one of the major trouble-makers at the WTO.

In July 2008, Brazil came to Geneva in a very different mindset. According to Adhemar Mineiro, a Brazilian civil society trade expert: “From the very first day of the July ministerial, the Brazilians worked towards closing the deal. As a result, in practice they played the role of advisers to Pascal Lamy rather than that of actual negotiating parties.”

Although Brazil’s stance in the negotiations had been softening over the past few months, it was particularly notable at the Geneva meeting. “The G-20 suffered badly from the new Brazilian position. It became an empty structure, which did not take any position on the outstanding issues of the negotiations,” said Mineiro.

Brazil minister Celso Amorim’s press conference at the end of the July ministerial was pretty blunt. He said he was not sure Doha could be salvaged. But President Lula disagreed. And Amorim had to backtrack: on August 12, 2008, he announced in an interview that President Lula would work towards another Doha meeting in Brasilia in September.

Brazilian trade activists see two main reasons why their country won’t let go on Doha. First, Brazil has huge farm export interests. Although the increase in market access secured through Doha will be modest, Brazil will enjoy a significant part of the gain. But Brazil is also seeking return for its investment in the multilateral system. The country is very wary of bilateral or bi-regional trade negotiations, with the experiences of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and Mercosur-EU trade agreement leaving bad memories. And it should be noted that Brazil is also taking a lead role in other multilateral instances, like the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

However important they consider multilateral trade rules to be, Brazilian social movements have many concerns with Lula’s Doha strategy. But Brazil’s president seems determined to try hard, and to be Pascal Lamy’s number one supporter. Other WTO members remain very skeptical.

Anne-Laure Constantin

August 22, 2008

Monsanto Sells Off BGH

It didn't take long for Monsanto to unload its controversial milk hormone business. On Wednesday, Eli Lilly announced that it would pay Monsanto $300 million for its recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (also known as Posilac) business.

Two weeks ago, we wrote about the nearly 15-year battle over rBGH and the strong consumer and business rejection of the product. You have to wonder whether Eli Lilly understands what it is getting into. In a Dow Jones story, Jeff Simmons, president of Lilly's Elanco animal-health unit, implied that the criticism of rBGH has come only from "small groups." But we have to agree with Wenonah Hauter at Food and Water Watch, "Eli Lilly is not helping its shareholders by buying a product that the marketplace is already abandoning."

Ben Lilliston

August 21, 2008

U.S. Sustainable Agriculture Through Chinese Eyes

“You should tell more people around the world about America’s non-mainstream agriculture and food system. Then they won’t hate you so much!” This was the blunt advice I got from Professor Wen Tiejun, as I bade him farewell at the Minneapolis airport in September 2006. Wen, an old acquaintance and influential advisor to the Chinese leadership on agricultural issues, had stopped in Minnesota for a few days on his way to give a lecture at Harvard University. During his visits with IATP staff and his lecture at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, he had been surprised at how many people seemed to agree with his harsh critique of U.S. industrial agriculture and the policies that support it. He was even more surprised when I took him to visit The Wedge, America’s largest grocery co-operative, and several Community Supported Agriculture farms. Where was the McDonald’s and KFC, the junk food? Where were the massive government subsidies and terrible environmental damage? The emergence of a fairer and more sustainable way of growing and selling food within the home of globalized industrial agriculture (Cargill is based in Minnesota, after all) was a bit of a shock to this champion of China’s small, family farmers.

At first glance, farming in China and the U.S. seem to have nothing in common. China has about 300 million farms, the U.S. only 2 million. The average farm size in the U.S. is about 450 acres, and it’s not uncommon for a farmer to have a million dollars or more tied up in machinery. A typical farm in China covers only about one acre, and family members do much of the cultivation by hand. And although China’s communes were broken up over 25 years ago, ownership of farmland remains in the hands of village governments or the State. But despite these huge differences, a closer look reveals similar challenges facing farmers in both countries. In both places:

  • farmers are losing their land or getting stuck in contract arrangements that make them effectively hired hands on their own farms;
  • supply chains are getting longer and more complex, cutting into farmers’ profits and endangering food safety;
  • over-dependence on chemical inputs and a narrowing range of hybrid seed varieties is poisoning the environment, threatening human health and taking more and more control of the food system out of the hands of the people who grow or eat food and putting it under the control of corporations.

To foster greater understanding between Americans and Chinese about the farming systems in each country, and share some of Minnesota’s experience with sustainable agriculture, we decided to invite a student from Professor Wen’s School of Agriculture and Rural Development to spend a season on an American farm. The School, part of People’s University, was involved in experiments with rural cooperatives, and following Wen’s visit to IATP had worked to develop pioneering Community Supported Agriculture and consumer food co-operative projects. To gain a better understanding of how a working CSA operates, incoming doctoral candidate Shi Yan arrived in Minnesota in the second week of April 2008 to start a 5-month internship at the Earthrise Farm.

Ms. Shi has been blogging in Chinese about her experiences at Earthrise, a small CSA farm run by two Catholic nuns near the Minnesota-South Dakota border, since the day she arrived. We present translated selections from her blog entries to date, and will upload subsequent entries until the end of her sojourn, which she wryly refers to as a contemporary twist on the Cultural Revolution movement to send educated youths to the countryside.

(Ed. note: this entry was written by IATP President Jim Harkness)

Ben Lilliston

August 13, 2008

Global Food Safety Takes Center Stage

We've written a lot about holes in the U.S. food safety inspection system. But when it comes to food, we live in a global system. Food contamination in one country can affect consumers in multiple countries. Can we improve the safety of food transported around the world?

In a new e-newsletter, Global Food Safety Monitor, IATP's Steve Suppan will cover the challenges of setting strong international food safety regulations that protect public health. In the first issue, Steve writes about the U.S.-Korea Beef dispute, attempts to reach a food safety agreement between the U.S. and China, and a U.S. dispute with the European Union over chicken exports.

As Steve writes, "This bulletin will provide analytic context for what might otherwise appear as 'isolated incidents' of food contamination, livestock abuse, regulatory violations and/or complaints of the unfair use of standards to block trade. Many of these incidents are not isolated after all. They are symptoms of a broken global food system that urgently needs broad reform."

You can go here if you are interested in subscribing to this free quarterly newsletter.

Ben Lilliston

August 11, 2008

One mini-market at a time

In the U.S., a food desert has been described as a large geographic area where mainstream grocery stores are absent. Most U.S. food deserts are found in low-income communities where residents often struggle to find fresh fruits and vegetables.

This summer, IATP helped organize six mini-farmers markets in low-income communities in Minneapolis. The mini-farmers markets, made up of five or fewer vendors, are a low cost way to bring healthy, local produce to any neighborhood. The mini-markets are hosted and managed by local community organizations at major community centers like apartment buildings, churches and busy street corners. Each mini-market is authorized to accept government food assistant coupons to purchase fruits and vegetables.

These markets are already providing many benefits beyond just healthy food. Small-scale farmers targeting the Twin Cities' market are making additional sales. The markets are strengthening a sense of community by connecting neighbors. And the markets are linked to local food shelves, who receive hundreds of pounds of unsold produce donated by the vendors.

The mini-markets became possible after working closely with the City of Minneapolis to develop a simplified approval process for community organizations who wanted to start a farmers market. To help other organizations interested in starting their own mini-market, IATP and the City of Minneapolis have published a "how-to" guide, which includes everything you need to know about licensing, government assistance programs, and finding farmers and locations to sell.

Ben Lilliston

August 08, 2008

Can Global Institutions Help Solve the Food Crisis?

How can global institutions better respond to the food crisis? In a new article in Foreign Policy in Focus, IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch analyzes the response to the food crisis by the UN, the WTO and World Bank, and calls for a new Global Food Convention to directly address food sovereignty and the agricultural dimension of climate change.

Ben Lilliston

August 07, 2008

Monsanto's Step Back

Monsanto's announcement yesterday that it was selling its much-maligned milk hormone business was a watershed event for those critical of the biotech industry. Monsanto decided to cut its losses in the milk business and focus on counting all the money they're making selling Roundup herbicide and biotech seeds. It's a testament to the company's stubbornness that it took 15 years to finally drop the product, despite polls showing that 80 percent of consumers didn't want their milk from cows injected with the hormone.

Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), marketed as Posilac, was one of the first agriculture biotech products on the market when it was introduced in 1993. It was marketed to dairy farmers as a way to increase milk production. The downside was that it also increased udder infections, forcing farmers to increase their antibiotic use, which, among other effects, increased the potential to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Additionally, the hormone raised levels of IGF-1 in cows and cow's milk. There is a concern that IGF-1 levels in milk might be passed on to humans, and increase the risk of certain types of cancer. Healthcare Without Harm has a good backgrounder on health concerns with rBGH.

When rBGH-produced milk hit the market it sparked outrage from many consumer groups. There were milk dumps in front of grocery stores. Monsanto fought back aggressively in the media. Public relations firms attempted to infiltrate and spy on consumer groups opposed to rBGH.

But ultimately what killed rBGH was consumer labeling. Consumers wanted rBGH-free milk and were willing to pay for it. Monsanto took extraordinary steps to keep consumers in the dark about rBGH-free milk. Last year, Monsanto went to the FDA and FTC asking that dairy companies stop using "deceptive advertizing" in labeling their milk hormone-free. Earlier this year, the company took the battle to the states, trying to go state-by-state to restrict labeling. Consumers Union was a leader in blocking this effort. In the meantime, Monsanto sued companies directly who labeled their milk BGH-free.

But the consumers' voice was too powerful and it carried up the food chain. Companies like Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Kroger, and Dean Foods began to sell milk only from cows that were not treated with artificial hormones. Many of these companies do business around the world where every other major industrialized country had rejected rBGH for use, including Canada, all of Europe and Japan.

We've written a lot here about market power and concerns that U.S. agribusiness has too much. Score one for the market power of consumers.

Ben Lilliston

August 06, 2008

We Need a New Global System

As the failed seven-year odyssey to complete the Doha Round of negotiations at the WTO has shown, we need to start developing new systems of global governance. This is particularly true when it comes to agriculture and food.

A series of three reports IATP published today look in detail at how global institutions like the WTO, World Bank and IMF have undermined basic human rights, stalled international development and harmed the environment. The reports are part of our "New Global Contract" series, which highlights conflicts between global institutions and internationally-recognized rights, and points toward more accountable and sustainable alternatives.

Values in Conflict: How Trade and Finance Rules Curtail Our Rights, by Andre du Plessis, maps out where global trade and finance systems directly conflict with the environment, human rights, publlic health and agriculture.

Promoting Human Rights and the Environment in Trade and Finance Rules, by Maria Julia Oliva, identifies successful strategies by civil society groups to challenge unfair multilateral rules.

A Framework for Rebalancing Global Norms, by John Foster, analyzes the role of global trade and financial institutions in undermining human rights, and identifies strategies for global organizing in support of a new system.

As IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch put it in our press release, "From volatile financial markets to skyrocketing oil prices, food riots and the growing gap between rich and poor - the current system is not sustainable. The food and climate crises compel us to re-build a new global system based on the needs of people, communities and the environment."

Ben Lilliston