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.
October 31, 2008
Can Green Purchasing Change the World?
Shifts in the marketplace toward more environmentally friendly products are happening because larger institutional buyers are demanding it. By working with local governments, hospitals, schools and large businesses, civil society groups are expanding markets for greener production and products.
The Mainstreet Media Project has put together a wonderful hour-long show on green purchasing. It features Chris Geiger (who discusses what the City of San Francisco is doing in green purchasing and non-toxic pest management), Gary Cohen (co-director of the coalition Healthcare Without Harm, of which IATP is a member) and Dean Edwards (of Kaiser Permanente).
Also on the show, IATP's David Wallinga, M.D., discusses the role of local food purchasing by larger institutions to help spur demand and meet healthier food objectives. You can listen to David's interview or the whole show.
October 29, 2008
African Immigrants Finding a Home in Rural Minnesota
Minnesota has always attracted new immigrant populations. The wonderful movie Sweet Land tells the more traditional immigrant story of the Minnesota plains and the culture clashes of the 1920s. Over the last decade, the state has become one of the country's most popular destinations for African immigrants, now estimated at 80,000 people. Minnesota also hosts the largest Somali population in the United States.
About 20,000 new African immigrants live in Minnesota's rural communities —many working in meat and poultry packing plants around the state. New immigrants in rural communities often feel isolated as they face the challenges of a much colder climate and a new language. On a day-to-day basis, rural communities have their own unique hurdles for new immigrants in transportation, housing, health care and jobs. IATP's Garat Ibrahim discusses some of the challenges for new African immigrants in Minnesota on this past podcast from Radio Sustain.
To help connect African immigrants in Minnesota to discuss common strategies for overcoming the challenges they face, IATP hosted the first Rural African Summit in St. Cloud, Minn. earlier this week. The meeting attracted about 150 participants, including community leaders from many smaller rural towns like Owatonna, Pelican Rapids and Willmar.
At the opening reception, the Reverend David Ostendorf of the Center for New Community gave a sobering history of the U.S. meatpacking industry and issued a call for people of all faiths to work together. "Meatpacking, more than any other industry that I know of, has perfected the ability to exploit race," said Ostendorf. He traced the history of meatpacking in the U.S., from the South Side of Chicago around the turn of the 20th century to rural communities today. When most of the country's meatpacking was based in a solid square mile of Chicago, the companies pitted different ethnic groups against one another, said Ostendorf. And when the unions started to grow, they brought in African-Americans from the south. Eventually, the companies moved to rural areas in the 1980s and began to hire Latinos and now African immigrants to do the very demanding work. Those two communities of new immigrants are currently being pitted against each other in some rural towns. "It is our responsibility to build relationships between workers. The companies won't do it," said Ostendorf.
Hussein Samatar, of the African Development Center based in Minneapolis, examined the history of new immigrants in Minnesota, pointing out that in the late 1800s there were 23 foreign languages on voting ballots, and in 1920, 60 percent of the population was foreign-born. Samatar urged the participants to recognize that "this is your state too"—and that the African immigrant population generates considerable economic activity and real buying power within the state.
Throughout a number of separate sessions, presenters discussed in-depth the issues that new African immigrants, many of whom are Muslim, face in the workplace, such as the need for prayer breaks, clothing restrictions and how to advance beyond entry-level jobs. As interesting were discussions about economic development, where new immigrants need to learn about how the American financial system works. Understanding how to build a credit history, improving financial literacy, as well as figuring out access to Islamic-financing (which forbids interest) were all discussed. Public safety, affordable housing, human rights, public health and education were also covered in lively sessions.
"We are not leaving," Fowzia Adde of the Immigrant Development Center in Fargo told participants. "There shouldn't be a delusion that we are going back. We have to be part and parcel of these communities. We opted to be here so we have to be productive. We have to integrate, we have to see democracy."
You can find more background about African immigrants in Minnesota in a short report by Neal Remington. Look for more on the summit, including materials, photos and videos on IATP's Rural African page soon.
October 27, 2008
Bill Clinton's Confession
Last week was a time for confessions. Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan told Congress that his 40-year faith in the self-correcting power of free markets had been misplaced, and declared himself in a "state of shocked disbelief."
Greenspan's confession garnered front page news in the United States and around the world. But a confession by former President Bill Clinton the same day was just as remarkable. Clinton told a UN gathering that "we blew it" on managing the global food system. Then, as only Clinton can, he succinctly outlined where things went wrong. The Associated Press quoted Clinton as saying that we need to stop "treating food like it was a color television set...Food is not a commodity like others." He went on to say, "We should go back to a policy of maximum food self-sufficiency. It is crazy for us to think we can develop countries around the world without increasing their ability to feed themselves."
Clinton sharply criticized the policies of the World Bank and IMF that pressured developing countries from supporting their own farmers and food systems, which forced poor countries to become more dependent on food imports.
Clinton went on to rip U.S. food aid policy for requiring the shipping of food to donor countries, rather than using a cash-based system that would more efficiently feed those in need while supporting local and regional food production in regions facing hunger.
Clinton's speech was exciting and maddening. Exciting because he seems to have had his "Aha! moment" in understanding "food is not a commodity like others" and pushing for reforms that civil society groups, including IATP, have been advocating for during the last several decades. Maddening because his administration rejected these arguments for treating food differently. Instead, he and his appointed Trade Representatives and Secretary of Agriculture aggressively advocated for, and helped build, a global system of rules that severely limit the policy options for countries trying to reach food self-sufficiency— including passing NAFTA and the Agreement on Agriculture at the World Trade Organization.
Let's hope that Clinton's words will open the eyes of more policymakers at the national and global levels. Admitting that "food is different" is the first step on the road to recovery from blind faith in the magic of free markets. If food is different than TV sets, then governments must act to ensure the food system works. If food is different, then we must identify what type of food system we want and the policies we need to achieve those goals.
If Clinton wants to follow his speech with action, there is much he could do. He could start by throwing his support behind (and help to raise money for) the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IATP's Steve Suppan served as one of the lead authors), which has outlined strategies to support food self-sufficiency based on traditional knowledge and already has the support of 57 countries. Clinton could play an important role in pushing for much-needed reform of U.S. food aid outlined in our 2005 report. And he could help launch discussions on how international and regional trade rules need to be reformed to reflect the growing consensus that "food is not a commodity like others."
October 24, 2008
Creating an Allergic Food Environment?
The first federal report on the issue documents an apparent rise in food allergies in American kids, now affecting about 3 million children.
Speculation by researchers that greater parent awareness may account for the increase makes me laugh. Sort of.
Mostly, it reminds me of what Dr. Phil Landrigan used to say about the increase in hypospadias in young boys. That's a condition where at birth the opening of the urethra comes out somewhere other than the tip of the penis, where it belongs. Dr. Landrigan pointed out that this is one condition where even health researchers couldn't say that greater awareness was responsible for parents noticing a problem.
Food allergies, which in many cases can send parents to the emergency room or running for an "epi pen" to stop allergic reactions, are another one of those conditions where "greater awareness" just doesn't pass the laugh test. Rather, I think it's clear that something is dramatically different in our children's environment. To my mind, it's possible a constellation of new factors may be interacting to cause a rise in food allergies—factors that we're not tracking very well.
Two possibilities come immediately to mind. The first is chemical pollution. There's ample documentation that exposure to environmental chemicals increases levels of inflammation in the body, perhaps including the kind of inflammation one sees at the level of the cell with allergic conditions. Some kinds of chemical pollution, like exposure to formaldehyde, can actually hypersensitize the immune system to develop more allergic-like reactions, like asthma.
Then, there's the American diet. Over the last 60 years or so, we've made a number of changes to our diets that have made them hyperinflammatory. Mostly, this has been the substituting of oils from corn and soybeans—our two largest crops, which are high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids—in place of more helpful oils that are higher in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, like canola, walnut or olive oils.
Some, like NIH scientist Joe Hibblen, M.D., worry that this inflammatory American diet could be behind the rise in numerous chronic diseases, from diabetes and stroke to heart disease and even allergies.
Seems like what kids today really may be allergic to is not foods, per se, but the bigger food system that we've created for them. Too bad more researchers aren't looking into that issue.
David Wallinga, M.D., Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
October 21, 2008
African Farmers Address the UN General Assembly
On September 25, the United Nations held a High-level meeting in New York to review progress on the road to the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs are eight goals defined in 2000 for completion by 2015. MDG1 aims at halving poverty and hunger.
As recent figures issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization show, the world is not on track to meet MDG1. Africa is especially far behind, particularly after this year's food price crisis.
In this context, Ndiogou Fall, President of the Network of Farmers' and Agricultural Producers' Organizations of West Africa (ROPPA), was invited to speak at the UN General Assembly to present African farmers' perspectives on the food and hunger crisis. Fall's speech is online here, and in two pages, provides a comprehensive and practical analysis. Foreign Policy in Focus has a good summary of the presentation.
Fall's presentation was a noteworthy event. The UN invitation for ROPPA to speak to heads of states and governments gathered in New York was a tribute to the hard and efficient work farmers' organizations have been doing over the past several decades to provide a voice for "the silent, scattered rural dwellers, some 70% of Africa's population and the majority of the region's poor," as Fall describes them.
IATP believes that farmers are essential in the fight against hunger. Too often, and for too long, their contribution has been neglected. Inviting them to speak was a first step. The UN Task Force on the Food Crisis should now follow suit and adequately include family and small-scale farm organizations in its planning.
October 16, 2008
World Food Day
The 25th World Food Day is today, and couldn't have come at a more important time as global hunger is on the rise. IATP has been part of the U.S. Working Group on the Food Crisis, which represents all points throughout the food system, from family farmers and farmworkers to anti-hunger, environmental and development aid organizations.
IATP has endorsed the Working Group's Call to Action, demanding that the next U.S. administration address the food crisis through fundamental changes in the government's food, agricultural, labor and international aid policies. More specifically, the statement calls for changes in the food system to stabilize prices for farmers and consumers around the world; re-balance power in the food system by addressing corporate control; make sustainable agriculture the standard; and guarantee the right to healthy food by building strong regional and local food systems.
You can read more about the Call and sign on.
There are many other important events taking place around the world. An interesting discussion has been organized by World Food USA, who is hosting a teleconference call with former IATP President Mark Ritchie, Dr. Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development and Dr. Siwa Msangi of the International Food Policy Research Institute. The call is hosted by Ray Suarez of the PBS Jim Lehrer Newshour.
October 14, 2008
Sewage Sludge and Food
Several million dry tons of sewage sludge, also known as biosolids, are used as fertilizer on agricultural lands and given away or sold for use by homeowners and landscape contractors annually in the United States. Currently, there are no labeling requirements for food produced on land treated with sewage sludge. And it's difficult for gardeners to even know if they are using a sludge-based fertilizer product.
Today, IATP released our latest Smart Guide for consumers: Smart Guide on Sludge Use in Food Production. The guide reviews the various disease-causing microbes, synthetic chemicals and heavy metals that have been found in sewage sludge, and explains how these contaminants can persist in the soil and enter the food system through food crops and food animals.
You can listen to an interview with the guide's author, Marie Kulick, or download the guide, a separate chart on the potential health effects of some of the more persistent synthetic chemicals in sludge, and a list of sludge-based fertilizer products marketed for home use.
"Given the high contaminant content of sludge, it makes no sense to allow the use of sludge on agricultural land or home gardens," sais Kulick in our press release. "This practice poses an unnecessary health risk, particularly when there are safer alternatives available."
October 10, 2008
The Food Crisis and the World Bank
As development and finance ministers from around the world gather in Washington, D.C. this weekend for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund meetings, the initial focus will be on the free fall plaguing global financial markets. Combined with recent sharp rises in energy and food costs, poor countries are facing a triple hit right now.
In preparation for the World Bank/IMF meetings, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Heinrich Boll Foundation hosted a discussion yesterday titled: The Global Food Crisis: Time for a Fresh Look at Sustainable Agriculture Alternatives. You can view the full discussion on C-Span's Web site (requires Realplayer).
Presentations came from Sandra Poloski of the Carnegie Endowment, IATP's Steve Suppan, Daniel De La Torre Ugarte from the Agricultural Policy Anaylsis Center, Davo Vodouhe of Pesticide Action Network in Benin, Arze Glipo-Carasco of the Integrated Rural Development Foundation of the Philippines and Steven Schonberger of the World Bank.
IATP's Steve Suppan discussed his involvement with the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, which recently issued recommendations to expand small-scale, low-input farming in developing countries and has been endorsed by 57 countries. Dr. Ugarte reported findings from an upcoming paper co-authored by IATP's Sophia Murphy on how developing countries can best improve food production and rural livelihoods.
World Bank President and former Goldman Sachs director Robert Zoellick would do well to consider the panel's ideas as a guide for addressing the food crisis.
October 09, 2008
Agriculture Lessons from Wall Street Bailout
A few weeks ago, IATP's Mark Muller wrote about a few lessons Wall Street investors might learn from the local foods movement. There are a lot of similarities to the debacle on Wall Street and what we have seen in farm country: in both cases government has largely deregulated the market and the ensuing volatility has caused enormous pain for people caught in the middle.
In his latest must-read column, Dr. Daryll Ray of the Agriculture Policy Analysis Center takes this comparison a step further, looking back at governmental responses to the Great Depression, when government intervention helped stabilize both financial markets and the farm economy. Dr. Ray then traces the 50-year effort to roll back government regulation in both sectors, culminating in the 1996 Freedom to Farm Bill and the 1999 partial repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. The result has once again been dramatic and harmful volatility in both sectors.
As Congress looks at further regulation to stabilize Wall Street's markets and our credit system, will they also look for solutions to address the enormous harm caused by the volatility in our agriculture economy?
October 07, 2008
The Fertilizer Mafia?
Costs for farmers around the world have gone through the roof—particularly for fertilizer. As the New York Times reported in April, rising fertilizer prices are limiting the production of farmers in developing countries trying to respond to the global food crisis. Is this just a case of tight supplies and growing demand, or is something else going on?
A class action lawsuit filed last month in Minneapolis alleges something else is going on: price-fixing. The lawsuit offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the global fertilizer trade. A small Minnesota-based company, Minn-Chem Inc., charges that seven companies in the United States, Canada, Russia and Belarus conspired to fix global prices for the fertilizer potash.
Potash includes mineral and chemical salts that contain potassium, and is widely used around the world as a fertilizer to increase crop yields. Over half of the world’s global capacity is located in just two regions: Canada and the former Soviet Union (Russia and Belarus).
Three Canadian companies (PCS, Mosaic and Agrium) and three former Soviet Union producers (Uralkali, Belaruskali and Silvinit) account for approximately 71 percent of potash market exports, according to the lawsuit. The Canadian companies are equal shareholders in Canpotex, which unifies sales, marketing and distribution for the three companies. Companies in the former Soviet Union have consolidated sales and marketing of their potash into a single entity called BPC.
The complaint alleges a global conspiracy by this exclusive potash club of seven companies to fix, raise and stabilize prices; allocate market shares and limit production; and share sensitive, non-public information about prices, capacity and demand. It alleges that the companies coordinated restrictions in potash production in 2006, 2007 and 2008, which resulted in higher prices. North American potash prices rose 60 percent in 2004-2005 and essentially doubled in 2007 and 2008, according to the complaint.
And as prices rose, so did the profits of potash companies. PCS's second quarter 2008 profits increased by 220 percent over the previous year's second quarter. In October, Mosaic (partially owned by Cargill)
The fertilizer industry, represented through the Fertilizer Institute, argues that increasing prices from all types of fertilizers is simply supply and demand at work. And certainly demand has increased as acres have expanded for highly fertilized crops like corn, soybeans and wheat to meet growing demand for food, animal feed and fuel.
But the claims of tight supplies seem to run counter to a UN Food and Agriculture report earlier this year that concluded, in the case of potash, “Global potash supplies are expected to keep well ahead of total demand with the surplus increasing from 5.7 to 6.7 million tonnes at an annual growth rate of 3% over the outlook period. During this period the surplus will fluctuate little at about 18% of demand.”
An October 2 story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune by Chris Serres went further: "In the eyes of many farmers and agriculture experts, fertilizer prices have seemed to defy the normal laws of economics." Serres reported that while prices have skyrocketed, Mosaic announced it has an over-supply of phosphate and potash and is cutting production. Bob Zelanka, of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association, told the Star Tribune, "It certainly does have the feel like they're controlling the supply to drive up the price."
Recent price increases all along the food chain are drawing the attention of regulators. According to the Wall Street Journal's John Wilke, the U.S. Justice Department confirmed it has opened investigations into price fixing in the tomato, egg and citrus-fruit industries, and "federal agencies are pursuing criminal or civil inquiries in markets including fertilizer, cheese and milk."
We may never know the real role of market collusion in the current food crisis, but we should sure try to find out.
October 06, 2008
No Gold Medal for Food Safety
In May, IATP published “U.S.-China Food Safety Agreement: Terms and Enforcement Capacity.” My paper summarized the views of U.S. Congressional investigators who doubted that the Chinese General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) could effectively implement and enforce the hundreds of pages of new food safety rules that followed the first round of melamine contamination of pet food last year, which sickened or killed an estimated 39,000 pets in the U.S. The profit and economic growth imperative of both industry and Chinese Party officials could veto inconvenient regulation when they deemed it necessary. Unhappily, the investigators were right. According to a September 29 article (sub required) in Food Chemical News, former FDA administrator William Hubbard said of the FDA-AQSIQ agreement analyzed in my paper, it “is not worth the paper that it’s written on.”
On September 25, the World Health Organization announced that more that 54,000 infants and young children had been treated for urinary problems and possible kidney stones that occurred as a result of consuming infant formula or dairy products laced with melamine. More than 14,000 have been hospitalized and at least three children have died from melamine poisoning. Chinese companies had added melamine to boost the protein content of milk that had been watered down. Melamine has many uses in the production of plastics, glues and other industrial products, but no uses of it are approved for food.
Following the resignation of the head of China’s food safety agency, China Central Television reported that the government had received complaints about illness caused by Sanlu Group’s infant formula as early as December 2007. According to an excellent September 27 article in The New York Times, journalists who tried to report on the contamination incidents were censored by the government and the Communist Party, whose top priority was to hold a “harmonious” Olympic Games to enhance the prestige of the government and spur economic growth. Now China’s gold medal for holding “harmonious” Games has turned to dross.
Several Asian countries have banned the import of all Chinese products containing powdered milk. United States and European Union food safety officials are scrambling to determine whether their imported foods contain Chinese powdered milk, particularly in products consumed in Chinese immigrant communities. But as food safety inspectors sought to prevent more damage to human health, U.S. and Chinese trade officials met on September 18 to discuss relations between the two countries - a meeting U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez described as “a very robust session with very robust outcomes.” The trade officials had nothing to say about melamine, the mention of which would have disturbed their “harmonious” relationship. And China Central Television reported that all dairy products still on the shelves are safe.
October 03, 2008
Canadian Groups Call For NAFTA Renegotiation
Earlier this week, ten Canadian civil society groups called on political candidates running in Canada's October 14 election to "stop ducking Obama's NAFTA challenge." Specifically, the groups asked for candidates to respond to U.S. Senator Barack Obama's pledge to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) if elected President.
The Canadian groups zeroed in on a number of key provisions of NAFTA that need renegotiation, including the energy chapter's "proportionality clause," which compels Canada to export oil and natural gas at a set rate to the U.S., even if it results in domestic shortages. It is NAFTA's proportionality clause that is partially driving the controversial and energy-intensive development of oil tar sands in Alberta. IATP's newsletter, Tar Sands Oil Review, is monitoring the issue.
The Canadian groups also called for the renegotiation of NAFTA's investment chapter (also known as Chapter 11), which grants corporations the right to sue governments in all three countries (through unelected and secret trade tribunals) to challenge regulations they disagree with. There have been over 50 such Chapter 11 cases filed under NAFTA.
Pressure appears to be building in all three countries to renegotiate NAFTA. In March, civil society networks in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada issued a similar call for the renegotiation of NAFTA at a Washington, D.C. conference co-organized by IATP. The March statement covered ten specific areas of NAFTA to be renegotiated. IATP contributed to the agriculture section, which calls for the protection of policies that support family farmers, sustainable agriculture and inventory management to stabilize prices. At the conference, legislators from all three countries also announced the formation of a tri-national "Task Force on Renegotiating NAFTA."
In June, the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment (TRADE) Act was introduced in Congress, which requires an honest, full-cost assessment of all existing trade agreements, including NAFTA, using a series of economic, environmental and social indicators. If the trade deal failed to adequately meet these indicators, it could be reopened for negotiation. The TRADE Act has had strong initial support and will likely be re-introduced next year.
A recent U.S. poll reported that 56 percent of Americans want to renegotiate NAFTA. Nearly 15 years after it came into effect, the fight over NAFTA appears to be far from over.
October 02, 2008
A Chance to Do the Right Thing
Last night I attended the Women’s Environmental Institute’s (WEI) Mother Earth Banquet and Fundraiser, which honored three mothers of the environmental justice movement: Devra Lee Davis, Winona LaDuke and Annie Young. The Minneapolis-based WEI works with IATP through the public health coalition Healthy Legacy to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in everyday products.
Karen Clark (DFL-Minneapolis), co-founder of WEI, began the evening by showing a map of Minneapolis with dots on the neighborhoods found to be the most contaminated with toxic chemicals. From there, she added layers with dots for arsenic, dots for kids with asthma, and finally, dots where both adults and children have been hospitalized for asthma. By the end, the Phillips neighborhood (comprised primarily of people of color and low-income households, and includes a federal superfund site for arsenic) was barely visible, but the importance of the issue couldn't have been clearer.
The environmental justice movement, which emerged in conjunction with the civil rights movement, refocused environmentalism to emphasize the issue of equity as it relates to low-income and communities of color. As Ann Bancroft, the evening’s emcee, explained, “We think of a polar bear and a penguin when we think about climate change. They are symbols. But there are huge amounts of indigenous folks who everyday live in these regions [the Arctic], whose languages are being lost because of the loss of their culture.”
As Annie Young pointed out, environmental racism includes "putting stuff where people don't want it." But it can also mean an absence of things people do want, such as access to healthy foods. Many low-income communities around the country and in Minnesota are trying new strategies to address these so-called food deserts. Annie Young is currently in the process of developing a food co-op for North Minneapolis, another food desert. And IATP's mini farmers market project is working to bring healthy local food to underserved communities in Minneapolis.
For Dr. Davis, author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer and When Smoke Ran Like Water, environmental justice means that people have a right to know what’s in their communities (and consequently, their bodies), so we can get beyond simply diagnosing and treating cancer to truly preventing it. In her book, Davis examines how scientific research about the environmental causes of cancer has been suppressed and dismissed by the very corporations creating the toxics. In case you missed her, Dr. Davis will be speaking tonight on the University of Minnesota campus in the Cowles Auditorium, Hubert Humphrey Center, at 7:00 pm.
Following Dr. Davis, Winona LaDuke offered a poignant critique of the United States’ current path, and the urgency of the situation regarding climate change and the need to build a green economy. “The politicians who are saying 2050 aren’t going to be here. The responsibility is with us. We are the people who are here at this moment, who have the chance to put the cap on climate change. . .What a great privilege it is to be the people born at this time. We have a chance to do the right thing.”
I was struck by this—the idea that at this moment in time, we are the ones with the choice to alter our course, and that it's a privilege to do so. What a great thing to keep in mind as we move forward and—as the environmental justice movement advocates—work together from the bottom up.