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.
September 30, 2008
The WTO and the Food Crisis
Last week, IATP convened a high-level panel at the WTO Public Forum titled: “The Food Price Explosion: What Can the WTO Do?” The idea was to further a debate on the WTO's role in the food crisis, with some world leaders identifying the completion of the Doha Round to further liberalize global trade as part of the solution, while others, starting with civil society representatives, arguing that the model promoted by the Doha Round is partially responsible for the food crisis.
We put together a panel that represented these different perspectives, trying to base the discussion on facts and figures so as to identify possible bridges between various approaches. Hoping to reconcile such "schizophrenic" (in the words of one of the speakers) approaches in two hours would have been overly ambitious. What came clearly out of the discussion were two main points:
Below are some quotes from the panel. You can listen to the entire session (a little less than 2 hours) by clicking here.
“Long before food prices actually exploded, a long running agrarian crisis fueled by the development strategy of trade liberalization had already deprived millions of poor people access to their food entitlements (…). And on the other hand, the power of global corporations expanded enormously under globalization. Transnational agribusiness corporations such as Cargill or ADM have even made a killing out of the food crisis.”
“Agriculture needs to return to its function as provider of life rather than a source of huge profits for transnational corporations.”
Brad McDonald, representative for the International Monetary Fund in Geneva, stressed:
“Speculation can in principle increase or reduce futures prices and spot prices from the levels justified by fundamentals. Whether that possibility has been a reality is an empirical question that must be examined carefully using actual data of course. Speculative positions and commodity prices have indeed moved together; they are positively correlated. The interesting question then becomes whether there is a causal link between the two and, if so, in which direction. . .Statistical analysis, at least so far, finds little evidence that speculation has been behind the increase in food prices”
Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, highlighted:
“The problem is not so much high prices per se. Rather, the problem is the unpreparedness of States who have been addicted to cheap food and who have under-invested in agriculture as a result.”
“I will be preparing a report on the impact of the WTO on the right to food and I will very much put forward the need to anticipate the risk that because of their trade commitments, States might be obliged to sacrifice their obligations towards the right to food and this may not be allowed to happen; they must have the policy space necessary for them to protect the rights of their populations.”
Ambassador Ujal Singh Bhatia, Permanent Representative for India to the WTO, added:
“As things stand, the [Doha] Round cannot be expected to deliver a major outcome for expanding food production in developing countries or for addressing the food crisis in any substantial manner. Conversely, those who expect the Doha Round to worsen the global food situation perhaps give it too much credit.”
“The challenge of food security requires distributional interventions as much as production incentives. In developing countries, governments have to retain the power to maintain price stability in the interest of producers as well as consumers.”
Wally Smith, vice president, Dairy Farmers of Canada, said:
“I can assure you that Canadian supply managed farmers stand behind India and the developing countries in their effort to protect through SSM their farmers and their production vehicle.”
“Regulated systems like supply management provide better solutions and help prevent significant price instability. Our unique Canadian supply management experience is one example of how a country can effectively keep the lid on inflation for consumers, because according to official estimates, Canadian consumers paid 3 percent more this year for dairy products in a context of rising prices. However in contrast, consumers in France, Europe and the U.S. saw double digit increases for both eggs and dairy products in their countries.”
September 29, 2008
Questions for Candidates on a Fair Farm and Food System
As election season hits high gear, what should candidates be talking about regarding the future of our food and farm system? The Backbone Campaign is trying to elevate the political discourse by asking various experts to pose questions to all candidates.
You can go here to listen to IATP President Jim Harkness on the challenges facing our food and farming system heading into 2009.
Jim's commentary is drawn from an article IATP contributed to an essay collection from leading progressive think tanks, led by the Institute for Policy Studies, on important first steps for the next administration, to be released following the election. Last week, IATP contributed ideas on how the U.S. could rejoin the global community in the collaborative report, New Progressive Voices.
September 26, 2008
A 21st Century New Deal?
I’ve probably heard and read dozens of times over the past two weeks that this is the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. Our stock market and confidence in the banking system are allegedly on the brink of a 1929-style collapse.
But what is fascinating and somewhat alarming is how our collective perception of the economy has shifted in the past 75 years. In the early 20th century, agriculture was the backbone of the country. When commodity prices went south, people suffered. And the effects went well beyond the farm gate because farm income provided the capital for businesses in rural communities all over the country. The lack of jobs and farm income resulted in poverty and hunger.
Now, instead of an economy built on the labor of farmers and manufacturing, the backbone is perceived to be Wall Street. Debt and financial instruments are the new wheat and corn. The rising costs of housing, food and gasoline have been a concern for a few years, but it took the collapse of financial institutions to create a national panic. The proposed solutions to this crisis by Congress and the Bush administration are much different than the response in the 1930s.
Seventy-five years ago, the New Deal focused on getting people back to work and getting farmers a fair price for their commodities. Nowadays, the solutions largely revolve around assuring adequate assets in financial markets, and bolstering domestic and global confidence in our financial institutions. I’m glad that a poor farm economy, like the downturn in the late 1990s and early 2000s, no longer devastates the country, but perhaps we’ve drifted too far from a Main Street focus to a Wall Street focus.
I have no idea if using $700 billion to provide Wall Street this assurance is the best way of avoiding a financial crisis. But it is striking how much the current focus is on a top-down approach of fixing global markets rather than the previous grassroots approach of getting adequate income back into workers’ pockets. With such an emphasis on financial indicators such as stock prices, currency valuations and interest rates rather than focusing on the well-being of workers and families, the 21st century New Deal may be missing the forest for the trees.
September 25, 2008
New and Improved Consumer Guides Now Available!
New research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the health risks from the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), found in many plastic and children's products, highlights the challenge for consumers to find safer plastics.
To help consumers navigate the myriad of choices they face in the marketplace, IATP yesterday released two new consumer guides:
1-- Smart Plastics Guide: Healthier Food Uses of Plastics. This is an updated version of our most popular consumer guide, also known as the publication that crashed our server when it appeared on the Today Show and the entire viewing audience decided to download it at once. The new Smart Plastics Guide includes the latest science and marketplace developments to help consumers make wise choices about the types of plastics they purchase. The guide includes information on all seven labels for plastic products, health and environmental risks of chemicals used in plastics, the latest on green chemistry and 10 tips for safer use of plastics in storing food. And because there are so few resources out there for consumers on plastics, we also have produced a Common Questions and Answers to accompany the Smart Plastics Guide
2-- Guide to Safe Children's Products. Co-produced with the Minnesota-based public health coalition Healthy Legacy, this guide helps parents learn about synthetic chemicals commonly used in children's products (and how to avoid them). It includes a full-page insert on safer children's products ranging from baby bottles, utensils, pacifiers, teethers and more.
As IATP's Kathleen Schuler said in our press release, "Ultimately, consumers shouldn't need these safe product resources. But as we are eagerly anticipating government regulation of these toxic chemicals, we wanted to provide consumers with a way to make smart and safe choices for their families."
September 24, 2008
IATP's Common Sense New Progressive Voice
IATP’s contribution to a new report from the Progressives Ideas Network, New Progressive Voices: Values and Policies for the 21st Century, addresses the need for the U.S. to re-engage with the world. The report is intended to be a guide for the next administration as it tackles the big problems facing the nation. Recent events, including the collapse of the credit system and continued speculation in the commodity markets, drive home the pressing need for new voices to save us from the failed arguments of market fundamentals—or as George Soros puts it, “the belief that markets assure the best allocation of resources.” The “market” has yet again given ordinary citizens and the world’s poor a massive $700 billion bill for its greed and avarice.
To be honest, IATP’s contribution to the New Progressive Voices is not so much new ideas as it is common sense thinking based on historical experience. One would think that being an active player in global issues would be an obvious goal for the U.S. in a period of serious challenges that can only be solved through global cooperation. The Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive war along with a “go-it-alone” approach to international problems has left the nation isolated and distrusted in the world.
A recent New York Times article by Adam Liptak—The Supreme Court, Long a Beacon, Guides Fewer Nations—indicates how far-removed we have become. The article paints a disturbing picture of the decline of U.S. Constitutional law as a model for the world. Citing a number of studies by researchers in the U.S. and abroad, Liptak reveals a worldwide shift away from respect for U.S. constitutional law. A New York Times survey of the Canadian Supreme Court found the U.S. Supreme Court cited 12 times a year between 1990 and 2002. In the last six years, the annual citation rate has fallen to six. In the field of human rights law, where the U.S. had been a leader for decades, “foreign courts in developed democracies often cite the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in cases concerning equality, liberty and prohibitions against cruel treatment,” according to Harold Koh, dean of the Yale Law School.
In New Voices, IATP calls for the next administration to take on a broad range of common sense alternatives to the notion that the “the market knows best,” including a proposal to create a new global food convention to address issues of food security, hunger and market stability. If any proof is needed for why this proposal is long overdue, the announcement by the UN on September 19 that 17 million people in the Horn of Africa urgently need food should help focus our attention. This represents an increase of nine million in the number of people at risk of starvation since May of this year. Is the world callously waiting to see the gruesome sight of millions of hungry people suffering and dying? That there is more than enough food in the world to prevent this sort of crisis is universally recognized.
In the New Progressive Voices report, IATP’s proposal for a global food convention includes the establishment of worldwide grain reserves to prevent price instability and starvation. The idea of grain reserves is as old as time. The U.S. had adequate reserves until Nixon came along. By the time Reagan came in preaching the blessings of the market, it was just a matter of sweeping out the bins to put an end to our reserves. In 1990, Republican Kent Conrad of North Dakota drafted one of the last bills calling for the re-establishment of our grain reserves, but it never saw the light of day.
IATP’s contribution to New Progressive Voices proposes solutions to global problems created by unregulated global markets. The next administration must work with the world community to put an end to market volatility in food and agriculture. When market fundamentals fail the credit system, there is little hesitation by government to act to save large financial institutions. When whole regions of the world are threatened with hunger and starvation, it is only common sense that we act together to find sustainable long-term solutions. Let’s hope somebody is listening to the New Voices.
September 23, 2008
Another Europe is possible - Change Europe in 2009
After a colorful march through the Southern Swedish city of Malmö on Saturday afternoon that included some 15,000 people from all over Europe, the 5th European Social Forum ended with the Assembly of Social Movements on Sunday morning. Compared to previous forums, this one has been rather small in the number of participants. Yet the debates and discussions--as well as the results and proposals that have been developed in over 250 seminars, workshops and assemblies--are promising.
One of the key issues debated during this forum has been the neoliberal policies of the European Union that attack labor and social rights, both for Europeans and migrants living in Europe. The EU Commission and EU governments plan to finalize two directives this year that would severely affect workers and migrant workers without legal status. The EU's Working time directive aims to increase the weekly working time of up to 65 hours for workers (currently in most countries the weekly working time is set between 35 and 40 hours) and to destroy the collective bargaining right of trade unions. The directive on the punishment of employers of "clandestine workers" proposes that one consequence for employers could be to pay the costs of returning these workers to their home countries. These two directives, plus a series of decisions of the European Court of Justice during the past months attacking workers and trade union rights (see the information on the European Trade Union Confederations Web site), have led to a strong call for mobilization against the destruction of labor and social rights at a European-wide level. A first mobilization will take place on December 6 in Paris, during the end of the French EU Presidency, followed by a European movements counter summit in March 2009, next to the EU governments' spring meeting, traditionally dedicated to social issues.
Another key issue at the European Social Forum has been climate change. Discussions have focused on climate's impact on people and the environment in the South and North, a critical assessment of proposed policies and solutions by governments, and the development of social movement strategies and alternatives. With two key moments of intergovernmental discussions and negotiations over this issue happening in Europe in 2008 and 2009, European Social movements are calling for mobilizations. A first key date is December 6, 2008, where besides a mobilization in Poznan, Poland, a Global Day of Action is proposed. The second key date is December 2009 in Copenhagen, where a post-Kyoto Protocol shall be agreed upon by UN members.
Additionally, two further calls for mobilization have been proposed by all European movements: an anti-war mobilization next to the 60th anniversary of NATO, which will be celebrated in Strasburg on April 4th and an anti-G8 mobilization in early summer in Italy.
Besides this, new important European-wide networks have been established, such as the European Water Network and the European Movement Towards Food Sovereignty. Both networks bring together activists and groups working on the respective issues at the European level, and are developing joint strategies in order to achieve food sovereignty. In addition, they seek clean water access to be defined as a public good (and hence, publicly managed). For the water network, an important moment of mobilization is happening soon, with the holding of the World Water Forum in Istanbul in March 2009. A broad mobilization is planned at this moment, also aiming to strengthen the links between water movements and food sovereignty movements, given the important link between agriculture and water use.
Building a European Movement for Food Sovereignty
Given the current social and ecological crisis facing the food system in Europe and elsewhere, the Assembly on Food Sovereignty held during the 5th European Social Forum in Malmö decided to work together to build a European movement for food sovereignty. Participants to the assembly included the European Coordination Via Campesina, Friends of the Earth Europe, Attac groups from different European countries, civil society groups working on genetically modified organisms and for a moratorium on agrofuels, Red FAL (a network of local communities working toward sustainable local food economies) and consumer groups. The participants of the assembly concluded that in order to move toward food sovereignty in Europe, the development and construction of a socially and ecologically sustainable food system is needed. In addition, key European policies regulating the food system and agricultural production must be strengthened and reformed.
The focus on reforming policy may spur a renewed debate on the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP). To date, only a few groups have engaged in the discussion and shaping of the CAP, and overall, the work around food and agriculture policies has been rather fragmented in Europe. This network will hopefully develop strong joint campaigns and collaboration toward reforming the food and agriculture system in Europe.
Several concrete first steps have been agreed upon by the participants of the assembly for work in 2009:
- Developing communication tools that support European collaboration on food sovereignty;
- Making April 17 a European-wide day of action for Food Sovereignty in Europe;
- Ensuring a strong presence (and visibility) at the Anti-G8 mobilization in Italy (early summer) and the climate justice mobilizations in Copenhagen (December); and
- Jointly organizing a European Forum for Food Sovereignty in late 2009 or early 2010.
September 22, 2008
Like Food, Does Money Need to Go Local?
The current Wall Street financial crisis has me thinking about potential parallels to food. Not long ago, the vast majority of Americans had little choice but to consume a diet dominated by industrially produced food. We were becoming the culture of Wonder Bread. But then some alternative ideas started to break through. Environmental groups raised concerns about the chemicals used in agriculture and the impact those chemicals had on soil, water and health. “Foodies” sought heirloom varieties of vegetables, heritage breeds of livestock, pasture-raised animals, locally produced foods and other culinary treasures. Community leaders recognized the quality of life benefits of agricultural open space, farmers markets and localized food systems. We still have a food system dominated by the centralized, industrial production model, but we also have local food, organic food, slow food, and many other labels and initiatives. People now have more choice in the food marketplace.
This exciting new food system is developing and booming because of the growing recognition that food is more than the body’s delivery system of protein, fats and carbohydrates. Appropriately produced food can provide many other benefits to communities, ecosystems and economies. Perhaps this is the reason that so many cultures and religions consider food to be sacred and perform rituals around food—the benefits of good food are too numerous and far reaching to be quantified.
Money, on the other hand, is rarely thought of in such lofty terms. It is perceived to be simply a vehicle for facilitating commerce. And just like industrial farm equipment continues to get larger and more complicated, it has become even more difficult to comprehend exotic mortgages, derivatives and other schemes of finance.
Perhaps the looming financial collapse will create new relationships with money and more opportunities for people who want to avoid supporting the bizarre money-making schemes of Wall Street. Just as consumers now have a better opportunity to buy into local food systems, the time is ripe for a more localized money system that re-circulates money within the community. Will I soon be able to purchase a mortgage, insurance policies, and car loans with assurance that my loans and investments are being used to help others locally? Given what is happening on the international financial scene, I would pay a little more for that alternative.
September 21, 2008
New Alliances for Healthy and Affordable Food for All
For the first time at a European Social Forum, a joint discussion on the food crisis among representatives from farmer, worker, consumer and anti-poverty networks in Europe took place. The discussion centered on the root causes of the current food crisis and possible new alliances, with a specific focus on the situation in Europe.
Participants included representatives from Via Campesina, the European Anti-Poverty Network, Comité pour l'annulation de la dette du Tiers Monde (CADTM), the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the Italian trade union CGIL.
Among the participants, a consensus emerged that speculation on commodities and the current structure of the food system are core problems, leading to low incomes for farmers, low wages for farmworkers and high prices for consumers. There was also consensus on the need to have public policies and regulations secure the production of healthy and accessible food, as well as appropriate levels of income for consumers to afford food. Besides a reform of agriculture policies, new regulations to increase competition and curb speculation were emphasized. Participants emphasized that competition policies need to be developed at the international level, and in general reformed, taking into account not only consumer interests, but also those of the workers and producers. Given the role of speculation in the current food crisis, a prohibition for speculation on commodities was suggested.
To develop consensus on new policies, participants concluded that a debate over a joint vision of what kind of food system is needed has to take place first.This vision needs to take into account the different interests and needs of farmers, farmworkers and consumers. A trade union representative discussed the challenge of farmers as employers and the potential conflict of interest between farmers and farmworkers. He referred to farmworker experiences as among the most exploited ones on the side of production. He also emphasized the need of workers' organizations to develop a better analysis and understanding of the current structures and problems of the food system.
Today, in a Food Assembly, the results and proposals of the different discussions will be shared and the building of a European Movement for Food Sovereignty will be discussed.
September 19, 2008
Is the EU's Trade Policy Good for Workers?
While discussions about free trade agreements at past European Social Forums (ESF) have centered on the WTO's Doha Round and its impact on people in the Global South, the trade debates at this ESF have taken a new focus. Organizations that don't usually deal with trade policy are exploring the linkages and/or impacts of the current European trade policy with their issue of concern. Given the increased levels of unemployment, stagnant wages and the deterioration of job quality and social security, the impact on labor is an important lens through which to analyze the EU´s current trade policy. The EU´s trade policy, titled “Global Europe – Competing in the World,” claims to contribute to growth, jobs and the European Social Model. Representatives from trade unions in Europe and Latin America, as well as groups working on trade policy and labor issues in the EU and U.S., shared their analysis and experiences of how trade policies affect labor.
John Hilary from War on Want, Tim Costello from the U.S.-based Global Labor Strategies project and Gonzalo Berron from the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas outlined the negative effects of free trade agreements on workers in the Global South and North America. Hilary also referred to soon-to-be published data on the effects of free trade agreements on labor in the EU. Ana Camposampiero from an independent Italian trade union (Sdl) explained that most European trade unions still believe the opening of other countries' markets for EU products secures jobs and creates new ones, as long as there are social clauses included in such free trade agreements. A young member of the Metal Workers Union of Germany commented that German workers in transnationalized companies are supportive of the free trade agenda: they see their jobs saved if more export possibilities are secured. This spurred a discussion over the need for trade unions to develop transnational solidarity and collaboration. It also showed the need for more discussion and educational work to be done among workers.
Overall, the majority of participants in the discussion concluded that the EU's external trade strategy will further deteriorate job conditions and social rights, not only in the Global South, but also in Europe, and will further dismantle the European Social Model. Based on this assessment, changing the supportive approach of most EU trade unions was considered a key challenge for the near future, together with the need to develop alternative proposals for trade and investment rules that truly respond to the interests of workers.
Why the FDA's Notion of BPA "Safety" May Not Pass the Laugh Test
A Dow Jones story last week, titled “FDA To Face Public Upbraiding Over Ingredient In Plastic,” points to a longstanding contradiction between what federal regulators consider good science and what scientists consider to be good science.
This latest example revolves around Bisphenol A (BPA), the synthetic estrogen put into the polycarbonate plastic found in baby bottles, water bottles and the liners of some food and infant formula cans. BPA isn’t bound within the plastic, so with heating or normal wear it leaches out into the food, breast milk, formula or water in these containers.
The disagreement between the FDA and the scientific community seems to be about whether or not this is okay. The FDA claims there is no science indicating that BPA poses a risk to humans. That’s because the FDA only considers the science (i.e. toxicity studies) submitted to it by pharmaceutical companies or plastics manufacturers using something called Good Laboratory Practice (GLP). GLP criteria are those ensuring cleanliness and good hygiene in the industry-operated labs or the labs they have paid to conduct the studies.
GLP does not address at all whether the work actually done by the labs is well-designed, has answered the "right" questions from a public health standpoint, or even whether the study sent to the FDA accurately reports what happened in the lab - i.e. the experimental outcomes.
On the other hand, academic laboratories don’t go to the trouble or great expense of getting themselves certified as using GLP. The quality of their work is ensured by the fact that it’s peer-reviewed, submitted for publication and the results are made publicly available.
The not-so-funny result is that the FDA ignored hundreds of published scientific studies suggesting that BPA does pose a risk to humans, and relied instead on two industry-funded studies that were negative, but which did use Good Laboratory Practice.
What the industry studies didn’t use were the most up-to-date, sensitive techniques for measuring potential effects from exposure to BPA. This isn’t uncommon. In fact, it’s typical that the requirements codified into law that dictate which tests of chemical or product safety federal regulators require of manufacturers are scientifically out-of-date. The science of testing is ever-evolving; chemical regulations often aren’t revised for decades. In fact, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the chief law regulating industrial chemicals, hasn’t been revised since 1976.
Similarly, the EPA acknowledges there are some 140 approved pesticides that it now considers toxic to the brain and nervous system. Under the code of federal regulations, however, the EPA still doesn’t require that new pesticides be tested for neurotoxicity before being put on the market. The EPA doesn’t require that any chemical--industrial or pesticide--be tested for its potential to damage the young, developing brain before being put on the market.
So, the next time you read a warning from scientists that some common chemical or pesticide may not be safe, followed by assurances from the industry that the FDA or EPA has called it “safe,” know this: both are right, depending on their view of what constitutes “safety” or good science.
Independent scientists are saying that the latest published science raises new concerns (or strengthens longstanding suspicions) about a chemical product already on the market. Industry, meanwhile, is saying that the chemical has been tested and passed the weak and often outdated testing standards that the FDA or EPA has set for them.
That’s why a regulator’s notion of “safe” may not pass a parent’s laugh test.
September 18, 2008
Agriculture in need of a little innovation?
Thanks to Business Week, I finally have a name to put on a topic that has been rattling around in my brain over the past several months - innovation economics. The September 11 issue of Business Week has a cover story called “Can America Invent Its Way Back.”
As I understand it, the concept is relatively simple and uncontroversial. "Ninety-five percent of economists agree that innovation is the most important thing for long-run growth," says Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Given that near unanimity, why haven't we developed better methods of measuring innovation, and better policies for promoting it?
We know how to measure growth, and politicians and business leaders talk endlessly about promoting growth. But growth and innovation are not the same thing. Recent growth has been the result of consumption, not innovation. The rise in housing prices creates growth in the economy, but it does not necessarily mean that any innovation has occurred. A factory can develop a way of making a product more efficiently and therefore contribute to growth, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the fundamental way of doing business has changed.
Innovation economics addresses the gap between spending and results. After all, spending billions of dollars on research and development does not guarantee that innovative technologies will emerge. The Business Week article points out that huge amounts of money have been spent on biotechnology and nanotechnology, but few breakthroughs have been commercialized.
Presidential debates on economics largely focus on things like tax policy, deficit spending and trade. These issues are of course important, but perhaps they should take a backseat to innovation policy. After all, if policies can foster a higher rate of innovation, many other fiscal problems vanish.
It’s intriguing to think of innovation economics in the context of the current concerns about rising food prices. I would argue that much of the agribusiness industry and federal agricultural R&D has abandoned innovation for efficiency. Here in the U.S. Midwest, we have spent the past 40 years developing an agricultural system based on corn and soybean production and feeding those commodities to feedlots and ethanol plants. Both public and private research tends to focus on efficiency – a couple more bushels of corn per acre, for example, or increasing the feed efficiency of livestock. Efficiency, after all, doesn’t cause turmoil in an industry like innovation sometimes does.
What about more integrated agricultural systems that can produce many, many more food calories per acre? Farmers around the world, such as Joel Salatin in Virginia, have developed extremely productive farming systems. Why do we leave that very important research to a smattering of underfunded farmers?
I wonder what would happen if USDA or some other agricultural entity took a fraction of their budget and created a food and agriculture prize that offered, say 10 annual awards of $100,000 each, to farmers for developing innovative on-farm production systems. My hunch is that we could do more for long-term agricultural productivity with such awards than the billions that have been spent to date on biotech corn.
September 16, 2008
Making Another Europe Possible
Under the slogan “Another World Is Possible!” more than 20,000 activists from social movements, trade unions and civil society organizations are expected to participate in the fifth European Social Forum (ESF) in Malmö, Sweden from September 17-21. This space has become an important meeting point for social activists across Europe to share their struggles, analyze recent developments, and develop joint actions against neoliberal policies promoted by their governments.
The fifth ESF takes place at an important moment in time: the European Integration process pursued by EU governments has become very unpopular. During the four days, social activists from throughout Europe will discuss alternatives and form alliances aimed at moving toward a social, democratic, ecological and peaceful Europe. The role of Europe in the world will be a key axis of debate, but representatives from social movements and trade unions in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the U.S. will also attend the Forum. Several new European-wide networks are expected to emerge from the ESF.
For the first time, food and agriculture themes will have a big presence at the Forum. A broad range of European networks--consisting of farm, environmental and consumer groups--are co-organizing a series of seminars and assemblies to discuss the current food crisis and alternatives. The overall objective is to build a European movement for food sovereignty. Given the responsibility of the U.S. and the EU in today’s failed global model of agriculture and trade, and the importance of building alternatives within these two trading powers, IATP is engaging more actively within Europe.
Collaborating with a diverse range of European-wide networks (Seattle to Brussels Network, Labor and Globalization Network, European Coordination Via Campesina and European Food Sovereignty Network, among others) IATP has helped to organize a series of seminars and discussions on food sovereignty and the EU’s external trade policy. IATP has taken the lead to organize a seminar on the explosion of food prices, as well as one on the impacts of free trade agreements on labor in Europe and the Global South. I will be blogging from the ESF throughout the week.
September 12, 2008
Nayakrishi Farming and Happiness
Last night I was given the opportunity to speak at a forum in Adelaide, where I live, organized as part of the One Just World series. The forum is designed to educate the public on development issues, organized jointly by the International Women's Development Agency, World Vision Australia and the Australian bilateral aid agency, known as AusAID.
The highlight for me was a chance to hear an old friend and colleague speak, Farhad Mazhar. Farhad lives and works in Bangladesh, and last night he presented a movement of agro-ecological farming that now includes 2000 farmers in the country: Nayakrishi Andolon
Here is Farhad describing the movement: "In its simplest expression, it is an act of ananda, a happy way to relate with nature and enjoy life. It is production, distribution and consumption of happiness among and within the members of the world of human and non-human beings, both organic and inorganic. Why do you practice Nayakrishi? The response from the farmers is: 'I want to be happy, that's all!'"
Nayakrishi farming means using the land to generate the inputs you need: fertilizer, seed, pest management, and so on. Farhad said the movement has the seeds to grow more than 2000 varieties of rice, though that is just a fraction of the estimated 15,000 varieties that could once be found in Bangladesh alone. With the seeds is a knowledge base that is unparalleled in formal institutions such as seed banks. The movement does not eschew science or new learning, but rather, integrates it into a model that is focused on the health of the whole farm, which avoids creating dependence on external inputs.
The movement works with what people have, not looking for ways to bring in stuff from the outside (all of which would cost money--something the farmers are not endowed with). It plays to their strengths: use lots of labor; use the land for multiple purposes (raise fish in ponds or even in the rice paddies--something that makes the use of pesticides impossible; or, grow crops not just for their yield of food, but for their other uses: fodder for livestock, waste for compost or energy-generation); preserve multiple varieties so you can cope with late rains, floods, or a persistent pest that seems to like the variety you grew last year. These are all simple precepts but none of them is popular with the big development funders. They would rather subsidize fertilizer (until when? And what then?) and encourage biotech seed, which will cost money for the intellectual property and will go on costing money because the farmers are not allowed to save the seeds.
The movement was inspired in part by women, who wanted to end the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides because of what the chemicals were doing to their health, and their children's health, as they worked on the farms. The connectedness of the thinking and vision and practice is what makes Nayakrishi so exciting--and so powerful. And the movement has sisters around the sub-continent, linked in a network called the South Asian Network on Food, Ecology and Culture (SANFEC).
The panel also included Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision, who gave an important speech on how the food price crisis is linked to climate change, and why climate change is an issue linked to fighting poverty and for justice. My speech was on why trade is not the solution to food security. A transcript of the event will be online shortly at the University of South Australia site-- UniSA (as it is known) was a co-host of the Adelaide forum.
September 10, 2008
China Meets Lou T Fisk
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I drove out to Western Minnesota to check in on Ms. Shi Yan. She has been working at the Earthrise Farm, an organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, since early April, as part of IATP’s ongoing relationship with the School of Agriculture and Rural Development at People’s University in China. Shi Yan’s blog posts (read translated posts here) have been wonderful. She opens a window not only into the everyday life of a CSA farm but also into the heart of a young Chinese woman from a city of 20 million coming to the U.S. for the first time and finding herself on a farm. Reading the blog, it seemed that Shi Yan had fallen in love with this doubly foreign environment, but I had enough experience with farm work and Chinese politeness to worry that she might be having a harder time than she let on.
Pulling into the driveway of Earthrise Farm around supper time, I was dismayed to see broken trees, damaged crops and big piles of brush and tree limbs scattered around the yard. A big storm had come through a few days before, with hail and 90 m.p.h. winds, and although no one was hurt, it clearly hit the farm hard. One casualty of the storm was Lou T Fisk (see right), the town mascot of Madison, MN. (pop. 1654). A Norwegian-American community worthy of A Prairie Home Companion, Madison calls itself the Lutefisk capitol of the world, and old timers still say, “Takk,” instead of, “Thanks.”
After exchanging greetings, Nick, one of the full-time farm managers at Earthrise, said, “We have just been dealing with downed trees and other storm damage for the past few days. Tomorrow’ll be the first time we can actually get back into the fields.”
Shi Yan came up and gave me a big, un-Chinese hug. She looked right at home in work clothes, with an armful of vegetables she had picked for supper. She was happy to see the Chinese ingredients I had brought from Minneapolis, but quickly put them aside and joined in with the meal preparation. I got an introduction to the farm from Nick and Joan (the other manager) over supper, and met the other intern, Emma.
Only after dinner, back at the small farmhouse where the interns sleep, was I able to talk with Shi Yan alone about her experience. And to my relief, she was just as excited about organic, community-supported agriculture in person as she had been in her blog posts. She spoke with admiration about the kindness and dedication of the Fernholz Sisters, founders of Earthrise; the hard-working Nick and Joan; and her friendships with her fellow interns, one of whom had already left for school. It has been a momentous summer back in China, with the tragedy of the Sichuan earthquake and the triumphant Olympic Games in Beijing, but thanks to the internet Shi Yan has been in touch with her boyfriend and family almost daily.
Above all, organic farming has been a revelation to her. She described her plans for managing a CSA farm on a plot of land owned by her university in Beijing’s northern suburbs, how she would use student labor and get organic certification and sell vegetables on campus. And she asked about visiting farmers’ markets and grocery co-ops when she comes to Minneapolis on her way back to China, in October.
It was wonderful to see how Shi Yan has taken to rural Minnesotan life, and how the people of Chippewa County have taken to her. Thanks to the rarity of Chinese nationals in those parts, and a long profile of her in the local paper, Shi Yan is a bit of a local celebrity, but she is also clearly well-liked by those who have met her. When we visited another farm, a local Fair Trade coffeeshop or a County Board meeting, people already knew her and there were always hugs all around.
As we weeded the storm-damaged pumpkins and carrots at the farm, Shi Yan would look up and wave at every pickup that rumbled past. (And they’d wave back.) This last point might not sound odd to most readers, but take my word for it: it’s not standard operating procedure in China. Social relationships there are more formalized, and there is a much sharper distinction between people you have a relationship with and strangers. (Hence the incredibly strong Chinese family unit and gracious spirit of hospitality to guests on one hand and the regular spectacle of shoving matches or fights between strangers waiting at ticket windows or bus stops on the other.)
Intellectually, Shi Yan is getting more focused on the comparative research that she will take back with her, honing in on the aspects of her American sustainable farming experience that are and are not relevant to small farmers back home in China. But her summer as a Minnesota farmer has also been a wonderful cultural exchange that I think neither she nor the people of Chippewa County will soon forget.
September 09, 2008
The Stockholm International Water Institute issued a new report (while many of us were vacationing in August) that is worth revisiting. The report covers an aspect of the global food crisis that is often missed: waste.
The report walks the reader through the food chain--from the field, to pre-processing, transport, storage, processing, marketing and finally, your kitchen--and estimates that up to half of all food produced is lost. These losses within the food chain are not the same for rich and poor countries. Broadly speaking, in poor countries most food losses occur at the beginning of the food chain, often in the field due to poor harvesting, or as a result of poor storage and transport facilities (made worse in hot and humid weather). In industrialized countries, the losses occur toward the end of the food chain, where food is wasted in wholesaling, retailing, and among consumers who tend to throw away a significant amount of food.
The authors point to the role of globalization in food loss and in turn make the case for stronger local food systems: "One reason for losses in the food chain is an increasing distance between the places where food is produced and where it is consumed. . .Because more and more of the world's population are moving out of agriculture and into urban centers, the food chain is becoming longer and more complex."
The SIWI report's main conclusions and recommendations are consistent with many of the conclusions of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology, released in April, which looked at how to address the food crisis in an era of climate change and has been endorsed by 57 countries.
September 05, 2008
Counseling the USDA on Food Safety
One foundation of the U.S. regulatory system are the advisory committees required by law to provide federal agencies with information and counsel. Full of hopes for good regulatory governance, I went to Washington last week to attend a National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection (NACMPI) meeting on international food safety equivalence, hosted by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). NACMPI members include academics, consultants, small-scale meat processors and one consumer representative, Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumers Federation of America. Tony Corbo, of Food and Water Watch, substituted for Carol, whom USDA had double booked to attend a biotechnology advisory committee meeting.
U.S. law (e.g. USC, Section 120) requires that exporting countries have food safety systems "at least equal to" the U.S. food safety system in order for importers to be certified by the Secretary of Agriculture. However, U.S. legislation to join the World Trade Organization changed the law to allow food imports if U.S. regulators judge the food safety measures of foreign exporters to be "equivalent" to U.S. measures in protecting consumer health. About 11 percent of all meat and two percent of poultry consumed in the U.S. are imports, largely from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Officials from those countries made presentations urging NACMPI to recommend the expansion of equivalence agreements to cover whole food safety management systems, rather than individual food safety measures, such as the cleaning of food contact surfaces in meat processing plants. Presentations to NACMPI are posted here.
Transnational corporations with foreign export facilties (e.g. Tyson Foods in Mexico, Cargill in China, Smithfield in Poland etc.) hope to increase, perhaps double, U.S. meat and poultry imports within a few years. To do so, FSIS must certify that either exporting countries can comply directly with U.S. food safety requirements or agree that those countries have food safety measures that are "equivalent" in the protection they provide to consumers. FSIS usually leads U.S. negotiations at the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the international food standards body recognized as authoritative by the WTO on guidance for international equivalence agreements. However, FSIS said not a word about its Codex work, and instead made presentations to advocate for "risk based" inspection of meat and poultry products at U.S. ports of entry and "third party" (neither exporter nor importer) certification of export facilties as safe, in order to reduce border inspection. Mike Robach, Cargill's vice president of food safety and regulatory affairs, made the Grocery Manufacturers Association case to NACMPI for third party certification to expedit trade and target inspection resources to products and facilities identified as "high risk" by FSIS. The USDA Inspector General, in a report issued on August 27th, augmented its criticisms of the FSIS plans for risk -based inspection.
FSIS gave NACMPI subcommittees just two hours to respond to FSIS questions, including whether FSIS should drop components of equivalence agreements that the agency had already committed to supporting at Codex! I was able to speak briefly about FSIS Codex work and distribute a statement to subcommittee members that urged NACMPI to request the participation of General Accountability Office and USDA Inspector General auditors at NACMPI's next meeting to explain shortcomings in FSIS food safety management controls for protecting U.S. consumers. FSIS hopes that the industry's self-regulating audits of export facilities and the targeting of imports for inspection according to FSIS management defined risk will enable meat and poultry imports to increase sharply from the present four billion pounds a year. FSIS plans to maintain the current inspection force of 70 inspectors at 110 U.S. ports of entry. GAO identifies FSIS management as a "high risk" program. We agree with GAO and think that NACMPI should receive GAO's advice before FSIS asks it to make further recommendations on international food safety.
September 04, 2008
U.S. Court Rules Against Mad Cow Testing
On August 29th, the U.S. Federal Appeals Court in Washington, D.C. ruled against an appeal by Creekstone Farms to allow the farm to test slaughtered cattle for Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (BSE or Mad Cow disease). Human consumption of meat infected with BSE materials is the most likely cause of the rare but invariably fatal new variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease. The most likely cause of BSE is the feeding of cattle or other ruminants' remnants to cattle.
Creekstone proposed to test all its slaughtered cattle as demanded by its Japanese customers, who have indicated they would be happy to pay the test's ten cents a pound cost. Creekstone would use the same testing kit employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which opposed Creekstone's appeal. IATP has written occasionally about Mad Cow over the last decade, particularly regarding the failure of U.S. government agencies to enforce rules to prevent BSE and the U.S. government rationale for testing a far smaller percentage of cattle for BSE than in other countries. IATP also has joined a friend of the court brief to require greater safety enforcement from the USDA.
In the case decided last week, the USDA argued that the Virus Serum Toxin Act (VSTA) of 1913 authorized the agency to prohibit private testing of BSE on the grounds that the test was one of the "analogous products" referred to in the Act. Former IATP intern Gregory Berlowitz disputed USDA's interpretation of the VSTA in a 2006 University of Illinois Law Review article. While agreeing with Creekstone that the VSTA language did not apply to the BSE test kit as "worthless, contaminated, dangerous or harmful," the Court nevertheless deferred to USDA's regulatory authority over BSE, sustaining USDA's contention that the post-mortem test was an animal "treatment" analogous to that of a serum. IATP has only scanned the Court's ruling but believes that there are grounds for Creekstone to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. As Chief Judge Sentelle's dissent suggested, there is plenty of reason for Creekstone to test whether the USDA's assertion of regulatory authority is "arbitrary and capricious."
We will analyze this ruling in greater detail, but for now, the protection of U.S. consumers with regards to mad cow disease rests on faith and hope. We hope that the General Accountability Office was wrong when it criticized the Food and Drug Administration's enforcement of feed formulation rules to prevent BSE. We hope that the USDA's Inspector General exagerrated in documenting USDA's failure to enforce slaughtering and processing regulations to prevent BSE. We likewise hope that USDA's main "scientific" justification for not testing for BSE, a Harvard University Center for Risk Analysis study, was not as riddled with error and dubious assumptions, as critics like Consumers Union maintain. We hope that USDA's argument to the Court that universal testing would be "meaningless" because of BSE's long incubation period is valid, while wondering why USDA's "targeted sampling" tests are meaningful, when the Harvard risk analysis provides weak targeting rationale. Finally, we hope that McDonald's warning to its suppliers to follow the company's more stringent feed formulation and slaughter requirements or lose their supply contracts had the desired effect of securing the compliance that FDA and USDA could not.
September 03, 2008
Smart Fish Choices and Air Pollution
This week, the National Institutes of Health-published journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, included an article on yet another health benefit of omega-3 fatty acids: they appear to protect against the heart-damaging effects of toxic air pollutants. Those taking fish oil had much greater antioxidant function that did another group taking soy oil instead. You can read more here.
(ed note, this post comes from David Wallinga, M.D., Director of IATP's Food and Health program)