About IATP

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

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

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



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December 2008

December 22, 2008

New U.S. Trade Rep Will Face a Big Job

It's hard to know what to say about President-elect Barack Obama's selection of Ron Kirk as the next U.S. Trade Representative. He has relatively little international experience and really no international trade experience to speak of. The selection may support some of what Representative Xaviar Becerra said when he announced he was turning down the job, "I don't see how it can be the front-burner issue for him (Obama), nor should it be, quite honestly."

A cooling off period on new trade agreements may be a good thing as we turn to the serious business of setting a new course on U.S. trade policy. Below is our press release from Friday on the Kirk announcement:

President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for the next U.S. Trade Representa¬tive, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, must fix a broken U.S. trade policy, which has caused enormous harm to farmers, workers, communities and the environment, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

Kirk’s public record on U.S. trade policy is thin—particularly for agriculture. “We look forward to finding out more about Ron Kirk’s positions on trade,” said IATP President Jim Harkness. “We hope he recognizes that the push to blindly deregulate trade has failed not only people in the U.S., but also people around the world. To build a better approach to trade, we must put people and the environment at the center. Recognizing the importance of basic human rights is a critical start. A new approach must also recognize that agriculture and food are unique and should not fall under the same trade rules as tv sets. Countries must have the policy flexibility to address the current global food crisis. We look forward to working with the new trade representative to ensure that more voices, not just big business, are at the table as we develop a more fair and sustainable approach to trade.”

Kirk has a number of major tasks ahead of him, including:
• Following through on President-elect Obama’s campaign pledge to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. A commitment to review provisions on the environment and labor rights are a start. But NAFTA’s investment provisions, which empower corpora¬tions over governments, and agriculture rules, which have devastated rural communities and increased food insecurity, must be renegotiated with a stronger emphasis on human rights and sustainable development.

• An increasing number of bilateral and other free trade agreements reproduce the unfair and destructive features of NAFTA. The Bush administration expanded bilateral agreements to include conditions on military cooperation. We must undo the militarization of trade policy.

• The recent food crisis has shown that poor countries need to reduce their dependence on imported food and focus on strengthening their domestic agriculture. U.S. trade policy shouldn’t continue to insist on forcing open markets in basic food crops and instead should allow developing countries the space to protect their own food security.

• The World Trade Organization’s Doha Round negotiations are stalled, largely because the agreement does not fulfill its original mandate: to help poor countries. It’s time for a fresh approach to the multilateral trading system, starting with scrapping the Doha Round and re-thinking global trade rules to improve the lives of people and support human rights.

• The administration must work closely with Congress in the new fair trade climate. U.S. vot¬ers strongly supported fair trade candidates, adding an additional 40 fair trade supporters to the House and five new fair trade challengers to the Senate in November. The TRADE Act, sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Rep. Michael Michaud (D-ME), requires an assessment of existing trade agreements and helps to chart a new course.

IATP has been working on international trade issues for over 20 years. You can read more about international trade at: www.tradeobservatory.org.

Ben Lilliston

December 19, 2008

Advice for the New President on Re-engaging with the World

Without question, one of the major challenges for President-elect Barack Obama will be to improve relations with the rest of the world after a disastrous eight years. At this point, we don't have a choice. Too many of the crises facing the U.S. domestically (the economy, climate, agriculture and food) are actually global in nature and will require global cooperation.

We are fortunate at IATP to have six international board memberseach of whom are significant civil society leaders in their own right. When they visited Minneapolis in November, we asked them how the Obama administration could take immediate concrete and symbolic steps to become a positive force in the global community. We got some interesting responses.

IATP Board Chair Arie van den Brand, former member of the Dutch parliament, spoke about the importance of actively engaging in global climate talks. Dr. Candido Gryzbowski, General Director of the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE) and one of the founders of the World Social Forum, spoke on the need for the U.S. to stop imposing its power in an imperialistic way on other countries. Mika Iba, of the National Coalition for Safe Food and Environment in Japan, spoke about the necessity of allowing other countries to establish stronger food safety regulations. Dr. Joseph Rocher, of the European Network of Food and Agriculture (NGOs), asked that the U.S. stop militarizing trade deals. And Canadian public interest lawyer Stephen Shrybman discussed how a better U.S. energy policy could improve relations with Canada.

You can watch short videos from each of IATP's international board members, as well as view a post-election evening presentation by all of them at our homepage.

Ben Lilliston

December 17, 2008

Another year without Doha

Now, 2008 has ended without agreement on the Doha round of trade negotiations. Today, the World Trade Organization held its last "Trade Negotiations Committee" (TNC) of the year.

TNCs bring together all WTO members to take stock of the state of play, and starts with a speech by the Chair--the Director General. Pascal Lamy's speech is here. He looks back at the past few weeks, when efforts to convince ministers from a small group of countries to agree on agriculture and industrial goods deals failed. Most importantly, he outlines ideas for the way forward.

What is clear from the discussions at the TNC is that technical negotiations will resume in Geneva as soon as mid-January, giving a chance for members to react to the new draft texts (see the ag text here, and the NAMA one here). The outstanding issues remain the same as after the July breakdown: special safeguard mechanism, preferences, sectorals, cotton, etc. (This leaves one wondering what really has been achieved through the tremendous pressure put on negotiators here over the past few weeks!) Meaning, without a change in the political backing of this round, there is little to no hope for Doha!

All eyes are obviously on Washington. Recent news that Xavier Becerra--previously identified by press reports as a potential new U.S. Trade Representative--was preparing to refuse the job have triggered new hypotheses. In a recent interview, Becerra explains that he thinks trade will be very low on the Obama administration's agenda. Guess that would not bode well for the Doha round!

In this context, WTO members today stressed that everything at the WTO is not about Doha. And Pascal Lamy, who insisted that he wants to "strengthen the relevance of the WTO as a system which is more than a forum of negotiations," highlighted two tracks of particular interest/concern:

  • The WTO could take on the task of monitoring trade measures adopted by countries in response to the financial crisis. This is new, but seemed to have a lot of traction among the main actors at today's meeting. It is not all that clear what this will mean, and what the consequences will be for members. A first report should be produced this week, and a first review among Members in January;
  • Some members suggested that the WTO should take on the organization of brainstorms "over issues which are beyond the scope of the negotiations but which relate to areas interfacing the WTO." This was a circumvented way of talking about the food, climate and energy crises. M. Lamy does not seem all that enthusiastic about this idea.

The WTO is clearly in a quest for political relevance. The lack of Doha progress in the midst of the current global economic crisis highlights governments' skepticism over the record of decades of market deregulation. They want to tread carefully with trade in the current context. The crisis is shaking the foundations of the organization. Refusing to acknowledge this will not help the WTO out of the deadlock. Members have a few quiet weeks to think about an alternative way forward.

Anne-Laure Constantin

New Ag Secretary Faces Big Challenges

Here's our press release from today on President-elect Barack Obama's choice of Tom Vilsack as the next Secretary of Agriculture:

President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack must quickly shift the agency’s focus toward stabilizing volatile agriculture commodity prices, improving market competition, supporting sustainable farming systems and encouraging the production of healthier food, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

“As Iowa’s Governor, Vilsack has shown a fairly conventional perspective on agriculture—particularly related to biotechnology and the siting of factory farms—that seems to indicate a status quo approach,” said IATP President Jim Harkness. “But these are unconventional times, and with his charge to implement the national vision for agriculture of President-elect Obama, he has an opportunity to address the concerns of farmers—big and small, organic and conventional—and consumers, as well as environmental challenges facing the country.”

The number one challenge in agriculture is extreme price volatility—the spikes and drops in farm gate and food prices causing enormous problems for farmers, consumers and the environment. Farmers could face a very difficult 2009 with commodity prices dropping, while fertilizer, land and seed costs remain high.

“His first test will be to address the volatility that has caused havoc in agriculture over the last several years,” said IATP’s Rural Communities Program Director Jim Kleinschmit. “We can’t make the changes we need in agriculture, like expanding environmentally sustainable farming systems or greater production of healthier food, without stabilizing prices for farmers and consumers. Efforts to fix deregulated agriculture markets will have to include greater antitrust enforcement and market transparency, such as the ban on packer ownership of feedlots. ”

The U.S. agriculture economy is undergoing a transition on many fronts. Other key challenges facing new Secretary Vilsack include:

  • The bioeconomy is trying to rapidly transition from corn-based ethanol toward more sustainable feedstocks. But what was once a primarily farmer-owned industry is increasingly being dominated by absentee corporate owners, providing fewer community benefits
  • Consumers want more organic, locally produced and healthier food, but government programs still offer relatively little support and multiple obstacles to meet this market demand.
  • As the number of farmers declines and the average farmers’ age rises, significant barriers prevent much-needed new farmers from entering the sector.
  • Along with adapting to climate change, agriculture is being identified as both a contributor and possible mitigator of climate change. The USDA will have to lead a shift toward a climate-friendly agriculture.
  • A rising number of major food recalls and internal government audits have exposed serious weaknesses in the USDA’s food safety oversight.

“Secretary Vilsack faces a tall order. We look forward to working with him,” said Harkness.

Ben Lilliston

December 16, 2008

So much to do, so little time

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin was at the global climate talks in Poznan, Poland last week.

Climatechange The Poznan conference adjourned last weekend, late in the night between Friday and Saturday. Expectations were not high before the conference started, and there were no surprises at the end. The outcome is modest, at best.

It was hoped that countries would be able to agree on the modalities of an "adaptation fund" aimed at supporting developing countries' needs to deal with the effects of climate change. However, despite some progress, they weren't able to reach closure on this subject. More importantly, lack of progress in this area prevented any serious discussion on targets for emission reductions, and the conference ended with a sense that the North/South divide was widening.

French NGO GRET has a nice and short summary of the week and a way forward here.

There was some news on the agriculture front in Poznan. While the sector had previously been relatively absent from the talks, some governments decided to bring it back to the forefront this time. First of all, the 100 page technical paper by the UNFCCC secretariat on "Challenges and Opportunities for Mitigation in the Agriculture Sector" is a comprehensive review of key issues.

New Zealand also made it clear that agriculture is one of its top priority in these talks. Developing countries, led by the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), presented the "African biocarbon initiative," advocating "the expansion of eligible categories to benefit from carbon credits and other international incentives in the post-2012 treaty to include sustainable land management, including sustainable agriculture, sustainable forest management, afforestation and reforestation, reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, thereby enabling `greener agriculture' and promoting agricultural productivity in a way that improves resilience and adaptation to climate change." You can find the COMESA ministerial declaration here, or view the press conference featuring the secretary general of COMESA.

Also, farmers organizations participated, with IFAP even formally addressing the conference of parties. The Via Campesina delegation focused on raising awareness about the limitations of the current negotiations, and the possible perverse effects of market-based instruments such as REDD.

Despite all this activitiy (to which you would need to add much more, including efforts by the Rome agencies and non-governmental organizations), there is absolutely no consensus on how to move forward with agriculture in a carbon-constrained world. Farming communities around the world already have to grapple with adaptation, which is THE emergency. And experts are stressing that significant efforts to reduce emissions are key to preserving agriculture production potential over the next decades.

The specifics of how to promote resilient farm and food systems in the short-term needs to be worked out by governments. They will no doubt have to tap into various sources of expertise around the world. They need to make that decision and take action, quick!

Anne-Laure Constantin

December 12, 2008

Climate change and food security

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin is reporting from the global climate talks in Poznan, Poland this week.

Climatechange We're getting closer to 1 billion... I'm not talking about the amount of money poured into banks and financial institutions over the past few months: we're way past that point already!

No. On Wednesday, the FAO announced that the number of people suffering from hunger has risen by 40 million in 2008, bringing the global number to 963 million.

The FAO identifies high agriculture commodity prices as the main reason behind this increase. And directly (through extreme weather events in some of the main grain producing regions of the world) or indirectly (through the search for alternative, allegedly climate-friendly fuels or through the anticipation of speculators looking for increasingly scarce natural resources), the threat of climate change has been a major reason behind this increase in prices.

The WFP, FAO, IFAD and IPCC all stress the vulnerability of the existing food system to climate change. They warn that if nothing is done in the very short term, the "perfect storm" we've witnessed in 2008 would become a "regular storm" in the coming decades. M. Huq, climate expert at IIED, stressed, "We should not be afraid of what the IPCC predicts. We should worry about what they cannot anticipate."

But when looking at how to stop the rise in hunger, we should take climate into account "as part of a nexus of multiple factors," said Martin Parry, formerly a member of the IPCC. This is what all food security experts here are emphasizing: preparing food systems for the climate change challenge implies strengthening their resilience and at the same time, that of rural communities. The food, fuel and financial crises, the climate crisis, and access to health and education are all very closely connected. Addressing one and not the others is bound to fail. A comprehensive approach to our food systems is more necessary than ever. In the words of FAO expert Alexander Muller, we need "a paradigm shift in agriculture."

Anne-Laure Constantin

December 11, 2008

Tell Obama Who You Would Like To See at USDA

A number of us have written a letter to President-elect Barack Obama regarding the importance of appointing a Secretary of Agriculture who is well-grounded and experienced in supporting farmers and advancing sustainable agricultural practices that restore economic viability to rural America, safeguard public health and farmworker safety, protect the environment, and deliver healthful, nutritious food for all. Although we recommended specific candidates, the point of our letter was to bring home to President-elect Obama and the transition team the kind and depth of experience that we believe will be needed to bring needed change to the country's food and agriculture system.

Right now, we are asking only individuals, not organizations, to sign on, in keeping with the grassroots nature of this effort. So far, over 23,000 people have signed and we are hoping for many more. Please consider reading the letter and signing on to this effort.

Jim Harkness

December 10, 2008

REDD Concerns

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin is reporting from the global climate talks in Poznan, Poland this week.

Climatechange M. Sarwadi has come all the way from Indonesia to face the cold of Poznan and the agitation of the international conference center. Back in the province of Jambi, he is a farmer involved in subsistence agriculture. He has come here as part of the delegation of Via Campesina.

M. Sarwardi has a note of caution to deliver to negotiators here, who are negotiating a new mechanism called REDD: reducing emissions due to forest degradation and deforestation in developing countries. There is hope that this program will provide incentives for developing countries to preserve their forests, which have a huge potential to store carbon. A short blog here highlights some of the issues at stake.

But Sarwardi is warning that these incentives could damage farmers' and indigenous peoples' livelihoods. He shared the experience of his community when a major forest restoration project was launched that pushed the people off their land. He stresses that indigenous people and peasants are not responsible for deforestation, that their livelihoods are based on a lively and diverse forest environment.

Voices from vulnerable communities are very scarce here. Their experiences need to be heard and taken into account, especially since they will be most affected when climate change strikes. If the mechanisms put in place here end up being more detrimental than beneficial to them, we will not have made any progress. Sarwardi, and representatives from small farmers and indigenous peoples, need to be properly involved in the discussions on climate change. The are stressing the need to focus on serious mitigation commitments as a matter of priority.

Anne-Laure Constantin

December 09, 2008

A Brave New World at Climate Talks

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin is reporting from the global climate talks in Poznan, Poland this week.

Climatechange Agriculture is not a major topic in the current climate change negotiations (I will come back to this in an upcoming post). But in the corridors, many people are raising the issue of agriculture's vulnerability to climate change as a matter of emergencyall of them admitting there is no ready made solution. Yesterday, the International Federation of Agricultural Producers held its side event. Although the session was late, the room was packed.

The discussions were quite surprising. Although they were introduced by an organic dairy farmer from Sweden and kicked off by an intervention stressing the need to associate farmers with the development of knowledge on how to adapt to climate change, the rest of the session focused on the possible paths that biotechnology could open to limit greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. The most astonishing to me was the presentation by a representative of the New Zealand government: research institutions there are not really trying to reduce agricultural emissions due to livestock production, but rather to moderate their increase. And this means genetic manipulations, vaccinations, and other ideas to prevent cows from producing methane! Look just at the PowerPoint; the slides speak for themselves.

After this presentation, I felt like we would soon be living in a brave new world in the name of climate change mitigation!

Discussing this with colleagues here makes me realize more and more that the reality of the negotiations at the UNFCCC is based on hopes that science or market-based mechanisms are going to provide the answer to climate change. Talks about changing our energy-intensive production model are very marginal. Not a very encouraging sentiment.

Anne-Laure Constantin

December 08, 2008

The rhetoric of climate change...

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin is reporting from the global climate talks in Poznan, Poland this week.

Climatechange I'm just coming out of a GREAT presentation by Sivan Kartha from the Stockholm Environment Institute on the greenhouse development rights framework. Really, really worth a read (OK, here is an executive summary. At least do that!). It is an attempt at designing a multilateral framework that guarantees the right to development in a climate-constrained world. No need to say that the corresponding measures are hugely ambitious... especially relative to what's being discussed in this conference.

The discussion was organized by the Heinrich Boll Foundation, which brought together various stakeholders of the ongoing negotiations (including a representative from Mexico, a representative from Norway and representatives from the UNFCCC and IPCC secretariat). Throughout the meeting I was struck by a basic (but I think important) challenge to how we address climate change: the rhetoric.

How do we change the way we talk about the fight against climate change? All around, people refer to "burden," "efforts," "costs," etc. No wonder, if you consider who's involved in these discussions: mostly people who will have to significantly change their energy-intensive lifestyle in the process. But another way to frame the discussion is to discuss how many people would clearly benefit from a new environment-friendly production model, not only in the long run (Nicholas Stern already demonstrated that it is economically irrational to not come to grips with climate change right away), but also immediately! So many people are losing out from the current model and no one talks about them! Smallholder, subsistence farmers in the developing world, indigenous people in most parts of the world, fisherfolks whose livelihoods would be preserved etc.

Maybe if we changed the focus of whose lifestyle has to be ensured, the negotiations would be easier to conclude? This is a serious question about who is represented here!

PS: Speakers in the sessions I'm attending are overwhelmingly male and predominantly over 50. Why is that?

Anne-Laure Constantin

December 07, 2008

Warming up for climate talks in Poznan

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin will be reporting from the global climate talks in Poznan, Poland this week.

After a 22-hour-train journey from Geneva (I had to control the climate footprint of this trip!), I finally arrived in Poznan, Poland this afternoon. More than 11,000 delegates are gathered here at the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

This UN conference, which started on December 1 and ends on December 12, aims to strengthen international action on climate change. If all goes well, the current negotiations should lead UN member States to sign onto an ambitious global pact next year in Copenhagen, Denmark. There are four main areas of work: mitigation (commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions); adaptation (how to deal with the inevitable consequences of climate change); technology transfer; and finance (these include commitments by developed countries to support developing countries' efforts to curb emissions). The UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) provides a useful "climate change glossary" here.

To be honest, the conference center looked very quiet this afternoon, since no official meetings were happening on a Sunday. Only a few social movement representatives were busy making plans for how to collaborate to put pressure on governments for real and adequate commitments to address the climate challenge.

Tomorrow is also off, due to the observance of the Islamic feast of Eid-Al-Adha. However, a lot of "side-events" are scheduled, so Monday will likely be a busy day.

Climate change and agriculture are inextricably linked. Agriculture depends fundamentally on the weather. Climate change has already caused a negative impact on agriculture in many parts of the world because of increasingly severe weather patterns (IATP's Sarah Ellis recently compiled a literature review on this issue). And yet, the challenges to agriculture do not seem to be taken seriously enough by governments. I will report on discussions in Poznan around climate and agriculture over the next few days.

Anne-Laure Constantin

December 04, 2008

Call for Greater Commodity Market Regulation

Last month, IATP published a study examining the role of excessive commodity speculation by multi-billion dollar index funds in the rapid rise and fall of global food prices in 2007 and 2008. As lead author Steve Suppan explained, "The underlying fundamental for these funds is not the supply and demand of physical commodities, but the profit target. As long as Wall Street players could hide their government-permitted debt loads, they were free to induce price volatility in excess of what could be explained by fundamental factors, and then profit by betting on the induced price movements."

This week, a coalition of consumer, energy and agriculture groups (including IATP) sent a letter to President-elect Obama calling for greater regulation over excessive commodity speculation. Specifically, the coalition asked for greater transparency and accountability in market trading, including currently unregulated over-the-counter and off-shore trades, and more resources for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The coalition also called for greater coordination with international regulators.

For family farmers, suporters of sustainable and climate-friendly agriculture and those who are facing hunger, tougher regulation on speculative trading is absolutely essential. The extreme volatility in commodity markets has contributed to skyrocketing costs for farmers, losses in sustainably farmed land, and a dramatic increase in the number of hungry people around the world. Time for a change.

Ben Lilliston

December 03, 2008

Toxic Toys

One of the most unfortunate outcomes of the steady effort to weaken U.S. regulatory agencies has been the proliferation of children's toys on the market that contain chemicals known to be harmful. Remarkably, U.S. agencies don't require full safety testing of chemicals before they are added to toys. Even after chemicals have been found to cause harm, the government often doesn't restrict their use. To make matters worse, toy makers are not required to label the chemicals in toys, leaving parents in the dark.

Healthy toys To help parents as the holiday season approaches, the environmental health coalition Healthy Toys released their second annual consumer guide to toxic chemicals in toys. Researchers tested over 1,500 toys for lead, cadmium, arsenic, chlorine and other harmful chemicals. One in three of the toys tested contained "medium" or "high" levels of chemicals of concern.

IATP is a co-coordinator of the Minnesota-based Healthy Legacy coalition, which helped release the healthy toy report today. Healthy Legacy has been pushing for the phase out of toxic chemicals in everyday consumer products. In 2005, IATP and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy found that toxic chemical exposures were costing Minnesota approximately $1.5 billion a year connected to childhood disease. This new consumer guide makes the case louder than ever for strengthening our regulation of toxic chemicals.

Ben Lilliston

December 01, 2008

Prioritizing Food Safety

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified food safety as one of the top 13 issues of urgent priority for the Obama administration. In the latest issue of the Global Food Safety Monitor, IATP's Steve Suppan covers the big food safety stories affecting the world, including World Trade Organization efforts to assess private standards set by big food retailers, low morale at Europe's top food safety authority, the latest on the melamine tragedy, meat contamination in Canada and blocked imports from Mexico. Go here to subscribe to the Global Food Safety Monitor.

Ben Lilliston