About IATP

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

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

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



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November 2008

November 28, 2008

Tackling the Toxic Table

"Rising prices and food recalls have exposed the myriad challenges facing our global food system," writes IATP's David Wallinga, M.D., in a new commentary. "Signs of an emerging crisis: melamine in baby formula and candies; a rise in obesity and diet-related diseases; air and water pollution from factory farms; and the record-sized `Dead Zone' in the Gulf of Mexico,caused in large part by natural gas-derived corn fertilizers flowing from the Mississippi. And we are likely heading for more changes because our industrialized food system relies on costly and polluting fossil fuels, used intensively in the form of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers as well as for transporting food around the world."

Despite these challenges, Dr. Wallinga gives us 10 steps we can all take to steer our global food system in a healthier direction. Find out what you can do!

Ben Lilliston

November 25, 2008

The Stubborn World of Reality

Food_crisis_confronting_conference Our conference on the Confronting the Global Food Challenge is in full swing. I am too tired to do it justice, but wanted to share the thoughts of Olivier de Schutter, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the right to food. For more details, you can read his pre-conference paper, A Human Rights Approach to Trade and Investment Policies. In his talk, he gave a summary of where we are in relation to the food crisis, the right to food and the Doha Round. He sat next to the Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Pascal Lamy, as he spoke. In short, he contrasted the world of economic assumptions—such as perfect competition—with a world he characterized as “the stubborn world of reality.”

He gave five reasons why free trade is not the answer for governments preoccupied with the realization of the right to food: 1) Free trade increases countries' exposure to volatile prices; 2) Free trade exacerbates the duality of the agricultural system in which the (vast) majority of smallholders are made to suffer while the small number of big farmers take all the benefit from public policy outcomes; 3) Free trade increases the power of commodity buyers, processors and food retailers, at the expense of farmers and consumers; 4) Free trade undermines the viability of small-scale agriculture in much of the world. Many of the costs of larger farmers are assumed by the public, while small farmers’ costs make them less competitive; 5) Free trade worsens greenhouse gas emissions by rewarding industrial agriculture methods.


It was a great speech. Set against that of Pascal Lamy, it was all the more impressive. Lamy, among other things, dismissed concerns about speculation by saying that all farmers speculate (as if the worry was farmers, as opposed to the tens of billions in investment funds that have so distorted commodity markets in 2008). The WTO DG made some good points about agriculture’s “special” status, but overall was disappointing in his misunderstanding (whether real or apparent) of the audience’s concerns.


You can listen to a number of the presentations, and read backround papers, at our conference web site.

Sophia Murphy

November 24, 2008

Of Lame Ducks, Swaps and Food Czars

In U.S. political vernacular, the legislative period following an election but before the victorious take office is called a "lame duck" sessiondefeated members being the "ducks." Often, little legislative progress is made during the "lame duck" interim. What a difference a global financial crisis makes!

On November 13, IATP released a short report, "Commodities Speculation: Risk to Food Security and Agriculture." The report anticipated that the U.S. Senate would take up some time in 2009 to discuss the "Commodity Markets Transparency and Accountability Act" passed by the House of Representatives in mid-September. But on November 20, Senator Tom Harkin, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, announced that he would introduce the "Derivatives Trading Integrity Act of 2008" and hoped to hold hearings in December. Rather than allow the continued existence of an unregulated and privatized "shadow" banking system pioneered by the likes of Goldman Sachs, the American Insurance Group and Lehman Brothers, Harkin said in his bill that "every swap, every derivative, every [commodities] future [contract] will have to be traded on a regulated exchange."

Not to be outdone, also on November 20, Representative Collin Peterson, chair of the House Agriculture Committee, held hearings on credit default swaps (CDS), a financial derivative instrument that witness Eric Dinallo characterized as price-risk creating, rather than a risk-reducing transaction. The insolvency of major CDS traders and investors led to the $1.3 trillion and counting congressional bailout of Wall Street investment banks and other financial institutions. Chairman Peterson and ranking Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte rejected a proposed merger of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). They argued that the CFTC has the legislative authority to regulate CDS and other financial derivatives, and needs only adequate resources to do so. The creation of a new agency would cause delays and loopholes that could further destabilize financial and agricultural markets. Peterson said that committee members would travel to London and Brussels to discuss further how to best regulate financial and agricultural derivatives markets. The Peterson and Harkin bills are likely to get a rapid response from the Obama administration, since CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton is a member of the Obama transition team for agriculture.

Because, as numerous reports have indicated, commodities speculation has been a factor in exacerbating global food insecurity, new legislation and regulation of U.S. commodity markets could include a food security ombudsperson to ensure that food security has a seat at the regulatory table. Coinciding with World Food Day, on October 16, U.S. Representative Jim McGovern proposed that the next U.S. president create a new office to reduce growing global food insecurity, i.e., a "food czar." Though the proposal has been overshadowed by the global financial crisis, McGovern's proposal has the backing of powerful senators who are proposing more international food assistance in the context of overall U.S. agricultural trade policy. U.S. international food assistance has traditionally not only served humanitarian and diplomatic purposes, but, given the absence of government agricultural inventory management, has also served as a way to dump U.S. agriculture surpluses without increasing raw materials costs to agribusiness. Putting a "food czar" on the CFTC and adding food security criteria to the legislative definition of "excessive speculation" would be one way for Congress to ensure that commodities speculation not continue to make food insecurity worse. 

Steve Suppan

November 20, 2008

Leading on Health

Wallinga headshot Today, the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation is honoring IATP's own David Wallinga, M.D. with its Upstream Health Leadership Award. They couldn't have found a more worthy recipient.

"Dr. Wallinga is a leading voice for science-based public policies that better protect children from environmental pollutants, especially those that enter the food chain," said Foundation Vice President Joan Cleary. We couldn't have said it better.

David's research has focused on the health effects of chemicals used in pesticides and children's products, as well as the overuse of antibiotics in animals raised for food consumption.  

Also, kudos to the BCBS of MN Foundation for raising awareness about the connection between escalating health costs and our unwanted exposure to toxic chemicals throughout the food chain.

"Since environmental contributors to childhood diseases are largely preventable, educational efforts as well as public policies to protect the health of children by preventing exposures and pollution can provide significant health and economic benefits," said Cleary."Dr. Wallinga's leadership points to upstream causes and solutions, such as developing policies for more rigorous testing of chemicals and products before they enter the market."

Congrats, David!

Ben Lilliston

November 17, 2008

Food and Human Rights

How would our global food system be different if we started with a human rights perspective that guarantees everyone the right to adequate food? This is the fundamental question asked by IATP's Carin Smaller and Sophia Murphy in a new paper, Bridging the Divide: a human rights vision for global food trade.

Food_crisis_confronting_conference The paper found that current international trade rules set at the World Trade Organization (WTO) conflict with a human rights framework in several ways, including: discouraging state intervention; using exclusively a trade yardstick to measure progress; ignoring the most vulnerable groups; dictating only one economic model; and failing to meet minimum levels of participation and transparency.

A shift toward a human rights framework, based on international law already adopted by nearly all countries of the world, would require some important changes. A human rights approach makes explicit the requirement that available food must be affordable or otherwise accessible to every individual. And as important, reaching such a requirement does not dictate any one way of organizing markets or stimulating economic growth, giving countries the flexibility they need to reach this fundamental goal.

This new paper is part of a series of papers associated with the upcoming conference, Confronting the Global Food Challenge. The conference is being held in Geneva, Switzerland and includes civil society organizations from around the world. You can find additional papers, an agenda and background material in English, Spanish and French at our conference web page.

Ben Lilliston

November 14, 2008

Speculation and the Food Crisis

Between April 2007 and April 2008, the global food price index increased by 85 percent, according to a UN agency. Many reasons for the rise in food prices have been cited, including: the increase in oil prices, growing demand from countries like India and China, climate-related weather events and biofuel expansion. But as agriculture prices have plunged recently, mirroring drops in financial markets, it's becoming clear that the extreme volatility in agriculture commodities is following the volatility in financial markets.

A new report we released yesterday, Commodities Market Speculation: the Risk to Food Security and Agriculture, makes the case that speculation in commodity markets drove agriculture prices up over the last yearway beyond what was justified under supply and demand fundamentals. The report pointed to the speculative role of huge commodity index funds, led by Goldman Sachs and American Insurance Group, who bundled contracts of agriculture and non-agriculture commodities (like oil and metals) in an attempt to drive up prices and gain a profit. The report found that a series of U.S. deregulatory policies opened the door for these giant index speculators to enter and essentially destabilize traditional agriculture commodity markets.

The report draws ever stronger ties between the food and financial crises. Tomorrow, heads of state from the G-20 will meet with President Bush to discuss responses to the financial crisis. IATP's Steve Suppan offers some thoughts for the participants in our press release: “As President Bush and the G-20 meet this weekend, it is important to recognize that many of the deregulatory measures that brought on the Wall Street collapse also contributed to the food security and agricultural market crises. Only prudential regulation and tough enforcement will repair the damage caused by crony capitalism to these markets and the people markets are supposed to serve.”

Ben Lilliston

November 12, 2008

The Lame Duck Summit

On Saturday, lame duck President Bush will host a meeting of the G-20 to discuss a global response to the financial crisis. There were initially high expectations for the meeting, particularly from France and Great Britain. But, as the Wall Street Journal reported today, expectations have been ratcheted down considerably, partially due to the absence of President-elect Barack Obama, whose participation will be essential for any progress moving forward.

However modest the expectations, participants would do well to read a statement on the meeting signed by more than 630 organizations (including IATP) from 88 countries around the world, laying out a set of clear principles for future global summits:

  • Involve all governments of the world;
  • Meaningfully engage civil society, citizens' groups and social movements in the process;
  • Set a clear timeline for regional consultations with groups most affected by the crisis;
  • Be comprehensive in scope, tackling the full array of issues and institutions; and
  • Be transparent, with proposals and draft outcome documents made publicly available and discussed in advance of the meeting.

It's notable that President Bush rejected suggestions to hold the meeting in New York and to allow the UN to host the meeting. But a UN High Level Task Force on the Financial Crisis, chaired by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, would be a better place to structure a response to this global crisis. As IATP President Jim Harkness reported last week, several task force members understand that the financial crisis is not separate from the food and energy crisis. All share common origins and common solutions. President-elect Obama has been relatively quiet about how he would address these issues at the global level. The world is waiting.

Ben Lilliston

November 10, 2008

A Perfect Storm

Later this week, President Bush will hold a G-20 summit to discuss the deepening financial and monetary crisis besetting the world's markets. Some have likened the November gathering to the historic 1944 Bretton Woods conference.

The impetus for the Bretton Woods meeting was obvious to allyears of drought and famine followed by the Great Depression and World War II had destroyed any semblance of a world economy. As we approach this week's meeting, we need to ask ourselves how the current crisis came about and what lessons we can learn from Bretton Woods.

Economic storms start like other storms. The first drops of rain are very small and dispersed. They are only felt by a few. Just as in the 1930s, the first signs of our current economic storm blew in with a farm crisis. In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of farm families were driven off the land by low prices and unbearable debts. Foreclosures were rampant. Rural communities were feeling the first drops of rain from a corporate-driven storm to have global markets determine food and agriculture policy. This policy eventually became known as the “Washington Consensus” when it was applied to the developing world.

The peak of the “Washington Consensus” arrived in 1994. It started out as policy prescriptions for financially strapped countries like Mexico and Argentina by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Eventually the “Washington Consensus” became shorthand for the full neoliberal agenda that called for unleashing market forces and removing all regulation on capital. The pinnacle achievements of this movement of market fundamentalism are the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and, that same year, the transformation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Also in 1994 was the 50th anniversary of the Bretton Woods conference, the world economic summit that gave us the World Bank, the IMF and GATT. As the world’s financial leaders and economists celebrated the globalization of markets, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy celebrated by bringing the surviving participants back to the historic Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. The same place where 50 years earlier they had met to ensure that the world would never again experience the kind of worldwide suffering and destruction caused in part by a failed international monetary system.

Book cover As the surviving Bretton Woods participants arrived for the anniversary meeting, it became obvious that this was not going to be a gathering of old timers reminiscing about the good old days of World War II. Most arrived with draft critiques of what went wrong back in 1944 and even more about how the institutions they had labored so hard to create as regulators of national and corporate avarice had been subverted and misused to promote a Cold War agenda.( IATP collected the critiques and published them as The Bretton Woods-GATT System: Retrospect and Prospect after Fifty Years.)

200px-WhiteandKeynes Following the Great Depression and World War II, it was obvious to all the Allies that to prevent a repetition of the chaos that had preceded the war, it would be necessary to regulate international economic activity. All the participating countries had, in one form or another, a market-based system, but all agreed that cooperation on monetary policy was essential. The two major players at Bretton Woods were the United States, represented by Harry Dexter White, and Britain, represented by John Maynard Keynes (White and Keynes in photo to the right). The U.S. held sway over the outcome, with its focus on controlling inflation trumping Keynes’ and others' hope of ending poverty. Mechanisms were put in place to help developing countries maintain stable monetary systems, but with a steady outflow of unregulated loans and grants from the U.S. (including the Marshall Plan and other aid programs), it was only a matter of years before post-war cooperation was replaced by the Cold War, growing national debts and dependency in the developing world.

The end of the Bretton Woods era is linked to Nixon’s decision to decouple the dollar from gold. His financial and monetary programs were the beginning of the economic storm we are drowning in today. When the Bretton Woods era ended, the “Washington Consensus” introduced structural adjustment programs that have recreated the same inequities and chaos that led to the Great Depression and World War II.

At the 50th anniversary of Bretton Woods, a small group of older men and women gathered in New Hampshire to say that a return to unregulated markets would not work. They knew from experience that unbridled capitalism and national competition would lead to misery and war. Few listened then as they called for a new Bretton Woods summit to prevent the collapse of the world’s financial markets.

Today, most of the survivors of Bretton Woods are gone. But if we hope to salvage the world economy from the failed policies of the last 30 years, we must start with their commitment to justice and human dignity over the interests of property and wealth. The Bush summit is unlikely start from that position, but if we can believe President-elect Barack Obama, a brighter day might be coming.

Dale Wiehoff

November 07, 2008

Become a fan of IATP on Facebook!

IATP has joined Facebook! Check out our page and become a fan!

Allison Page

November 06, 2008


"And all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the worldour stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand."

These words, excerpted from Barack Obama's acceptance speech on the night of his election are perhaps those that struck me most when I finally was able to play the video of his speech on a jammed youtube.com

Wow, an American president (-to-be, all right) speaking about the rest of the world without mentioning terrorism? Did someone remember this is possible? Few in my generation, for sure! OK, I might be exaggerating slightly. But George W. Bush’s last speech at the UN General Assembly was illustrative: he mentioned “terror” 31 times, but seemed never to have heard about the Millennium Development Goals.

What’s most beautiful about this victory is that it’s the success of hope over fear. U.S. citizens have chosen the only viable path out of the unprecedented crisis their country is facing (the Onion's latest satire highlights how bad times can drive change). But there is also so much to do to fix the way the U.S. relates to the world. And how an Obama administration will go about this is still very unclear.

Reuters gave a go at summarizing Obama's positions on trade. The Congress of South African Trade Unions gave a sobering reaction to Obama’s election.

All in all, it is very clear that this election is historic. Barack Obama's personality and history mean a lot to people all around the world, in Kenya, Indonesia but also in Europe. It is no guarantee, though, that he will bring the change we need. His election is an opportunity. It will take much more to make change a reality.

It will take, first and foremost, a continued effort for democracy to prevail around the world and at the global level. The Obama campaign strategy, and its success in mobilizing millions, is an inspiration to all of us!

P.S: The New York Times has a great video on reactions to Obama's elections around the world.

Anne Laure Constantin - IATP - Geneva

Anne-Laure Constantin

November 05, 2008

President Obama Opens the Door

President Barack Obama. Incredible! We all need to get used to saying it. It's impossible to overstate what this election means for someone like my father, who grew up in segregated Virginia. The last time we talked, he repeated what I've heard and read from many of his generation: "Never in my lifetime did I believe this could happen."

There has been a lot written about President-elect Obama's positions on issues we care about. Farm Aid breaks down Obama's position on agriculture. (One positive sign: he has actually read Michael Pollan's recent article, Farmer in Chief.) Grist outlines Obama's commitment to the environment and renewable energy. Reuters reports on Obama's position on trade.

But what is said on the campaign trail and what ends up as policy can be very different. In 1992, when Bill Clinton was first elected president, I was living in Washington, D.C. My strongest memory from that time was the incredible parties. They seemed to drag on for days, including an amazing series of free concerts on the mall. People celebratedmaybe a little too much. 

From my perspective, one of the important differences between Clinton and Obama is their organizing philosophy. Clinton's was strictly a top-down operation, and he ran his campaign and his administration that way. His supreme confidence in his own intellectual brilliance (and political calculations) often made it difficult to bring new ideas into his administration, and even tougher to pressure him to do the right thing (i.e. on NAFTA/WTO and the 1996 Farm Bill) when he disagreed with citizens' groups.

President-elect Obama's campaign was revolutionary in many areas, not the least of which was its bottom-up organizing strategy. Republicans openly mocked Obama's experience as a "community organizer," (despite the fact that many of their own troops are led by community organizers, as the Daily Show pointed out). But there is no doubt that Obama's organizing experience on the South Side of Chicago shaped his view about campaigns. His organizing approach is based on bottom-up citizen empowerment and included many people who have previously felt excluded from the political process. He believed listening to the voices of citizens is fundamental, as is talking and listening to those you disagree with. This is our opportunity.

While there is much to be optimistic about what candidate Obama has said, there is no doubt that with the inevitable compromises that come with governing, we will differ with the Obama administration. In the report New Progressive Voices, we outline how the Obama administration can positively re-engage with the world. And in the upcoming book, Mandate for Change, we outline what the Obama administration's farm and food policy should look like. Of course, we are under no illusion that the policy changes we propose will be quickly and easily adopted, ratified through Congress and implemented.

The outcome of yesterday's election has opened a door (closed the last eight years) for new ideas on building community-, people- and environment-centered trade and food systems. But it has only opened the door. Now we all need to do the work that will allow us to walk through that door into a better world.

Ben Lilliston

November 04, 2008

Eat! Grub!

GRUB When I was growing up, the word “grub” meant only two things: a thick-bodied larva that burrowed beneath my parents’ grass, and food. But for Bryant Terry—eco-chef, author, Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow, and food justice advocate—and Anna Lappé, “grub” refers to food that is healthy, local and sustainable, and that supports community and justice. Grub should be available to everyone.

Last Friday, I heard Bryant Terry speak about grub (also the title of his book with Ms. Lappé), food justice and his activist trajectory during his lecture for Augsburg College’s Convocation Series. Titled “Just Food: Cooking as an Organizing Tool in the Food Justice Movement,” Terry began with a rousing call and response (eat! grub!), and used his Oakland, Calif. home to highlight the necessity of connecting racial and economic justice to the local food movement.

“In my neighborhood, I can go to the People’s Grocery, a farmers market, a Whole Foods, or a Safeway,” he said. “But less than two miles away, I’d be in West Oakland, where the 30,000 or so residents are largely black and Latino, and where there are 53 liquor stores and zero supermarkets. To add insult to injury, the same grocery items at these stores are 30-100% more expensive than at supermarkets.”

Many communities around the country and in Minnesota are trying new strategies to address these so-called food deserts. As Terry acknowledged, North Minneapolis is another food desert, where local activist Annie Young is currently working to develop a food co-op. And IATP's mini farmers market project is also working to bring healthy local food to underserved communities in Minneapolis.

During graduate school, Terry discovered the food programs that the Black Panthers implemented as a response to so many young people of color going to school hungry. "The free breakfast program started in Oakland in 1969," said Terry. "Within one year, it had spread across the nation, and 10,000 people were being fed each day." Inspired, and fueled by the knowledge that low-income and communities of color were disproportionately affected by diet-related health problems, Terry founded b-healthy! (Build Healthy Eating and Lifestyles to Help Youth) in 2001 to raise awareness about food justice and to empower low-income youth of color through food and healthy eating.

Terry closed by urging students to examine their own life stories—the “Aha!” moments and the space for increased activism—and recommended making a delicious meal as a way to make change. “Food is a great way to connect issues: racial justice, economic justice, and immigrant rights,” said Terry. “We need to go beyond direct service and shift power…it’s about taking ownership in your community.”

--Allison Page

Allison Page

November 02, 2008

The "G192" Respond to the Financial Crisis

I was in New York on Friday to attend the "Interactive Panel on the Global Financial Crisis” convened by the United Nations. Last month, President Bush announced an exclusive summit for leaders of G8 and G20 countries to begin formulating a coordinated response to the financial crisis, to be held in Washington D.C. on November 15th. But civil society organizations and developing country governments have objected to this approach. To them, the solution to this global crisis must be developed and agreed on by the international community as a whole. The Interactive Panel was clearly meant as a multilateral response to Bush’s announcement.

200209-brockmann UN General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto opened the meeting with a statement that set the tone for the day. “It is time to stop viewing the global economy as the private dominion of some exclusive clubs,” he said, clearly referring to the November 15 meeting. Instead, this is a job for “the G192,” i.e. the United Nations. D’Escoto’s opening speech was followed by remarks from members of the High Level Task Force he convened to develop recommendations for dealing with the financial crisis. 

Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz re-enforced D’Escoto’s argument, pointing out the irony that developing countries, who managed their financial sectors responsibly, are now suffering from the shoddy regulation and greed of wealthy countries. Other Panel members elaborated on this point, illustrating the ways in which the crisis would effect not only the finance sectors of developing countries, but their “real” economies as well, because of the drying up of international credit and depressed prices and demand for the commodities exported by developing countries. They also noted the particularly severe hardships that will be experienced by poor, rural and female citizens in the Global South.

To me, the most exciting presentation was that of Indian economist Prabhat Patnaik, who talked about the relationship between the finance and food crises, and urged the global community to make guaranteeing food security the centerpiece of its response to both crises:  “…the new growth stimulus will have to come not from some speculative bubble but from enlarged government spending that directly improves the livelihoods of the people, both in the advanced and in the developing economies…the new paradigm must entail a foodgrain-led growth strategy (on the basis of peasant agriculture) sustained through larger government spending toward this end, which simultaneously rids the world of both depression and of financial and food crises.”

Speaking for the Group of 77 + China, Antigua’s representative decried the “fundamentally weak and undemocratic international financial governance system,” and stressed the need for a multilateral solution. He cited the upcoming Doha Conference on Finance for Development as a key forum for forging solutions, noting that it will have broad representation and will tackle a broader set of issues than just the financial sector.

Most other statements (e.g. Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, Jamaica, Argentina, Japan, Spain) echoed this sentiment, and the anger of developing country governments at their victimization by an economic disaster not of their making was palpable.

France’s representative, speaking for the EU, called the November 15 meeting a first step, but also recognized the importance of the Doha conference. He re-affirmed the EU’s commitment to overseas development assistance and achievement of the Millenium Development Goals.

The U.S. representative’s remarks contrasted sharply from virtually all others. He focused on the November 15 summit rather than acknowledging the need for truly multilateral solutions, called on the international community to “keep level heads,” and said we all must “maintain our commitment to economic freedom, open markets and open investment regimes.”

Jim Harkness