About IATP

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

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

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About Think Forward

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



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February 2009

February 25, 2009

High Fructose Corn Syrup Redux

A few weeks ago we published research on the presence of mercury in many common food products that list high fructose corn syrup as their first or second ingredient. The paper was released in conjunction with a peer-reviewed article that reported on testing by the Food and Drug Administration, which found that nearly 50 percent of HFCS tested contained mercury.

In an article last week, Grist's Tom Philpott does a great job debunking efforts to discredit and downplay these findings by the Corn Refiners Association (aka ADM, Cargill, and so on) and the Food and Drug Administration

As we outline in a short FAQ about the report, we believe the smart way forward is simple and straightforward:

  • Congress should enact legislation proposed by then Senator Barack Obama two years ago to phase out the use of mercury cell technology in U.S. chlorine plants.
  • Corn refining companies that produce high fructose corn syrup should demand that their suppliers of caustic soda do not use mercury cell technology.
  • The Food and Drug Administration should begin testing high fructose corn syrup for mercury and make those findings public.

In the larger context of trying to eliminate preventable exposures of mercury there is some hopeful news. Last week, 140 nations agreed to develop a legally binding international treaty to reduce the use of mercury. And for the first time in a long while, the U.S. was actually a leader in pushing for the global treaty. Eliminating mercury from high fructose corn syrup seems the least we can do.

Ben Lilliston

February 23, 2009

Radio Sustain on Food Chemicals and the Global Food Crisis

Check out our latest Radio Sustain podcast including interviews with:

  • Dr. David Wallinga on mercury and high fructose corn syrup;
  • Kathleen Schuler on legislative efforts to reduce chemicals in foods and children's products;
  • Alexandra Spieldoch on the Madrid High-Level Meeting on the global food crisis;
  • Alexandra Strickner on the World Social Forum in Belem, Brazil.

You can listen to any of our Radio Sustain podcasts at our archives page or subscribe through RSS or ITUNES.

Ben Lilliston

February 20, 2009

Organic Agriculture in Africa

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) issued a remarkable little briefing paper last week titled "Sustaining African Agriculture: Organic Production." Right out of the gate, the brief directly takes on proponents for a "Green Revolution" in Africaa recipe for more investment in genetically engineered seeds and chemically-intensive agriculture being pushed by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA),

The UNCTAD brief states that a Green Revolution "cannot be sustainable in Africa, a continent that imports 90 percent of its agrochemicals, which most of the small-scale farmers cannot afford. It will increase dependencies on foreign inputs (agrochemical and seeds of protected plant varieties) and foreign aid. Africa should build on its strengthsits land, local resources, indigenous plant varieties, indigenous knowledge, biologically diverse smallholder farms and limited use (to date) of agrochemicals."

Instead, the brief called for an "African Sustainable Green Revolution" to "increase agricultural productivity by using sustainable agricultural practices that minimize harm to the environment and build soil fertility."

UNCTAD's research reported field trials finding that organic agriculture's production was equal to or better than conventional systems. UNCTAD's analysis looked at 114 cases in Africa that had converted or near-converted to organic and saw an overall increase in agricultural productivity of 116 percent.

The brief cited other benefits of organic agriculture for Africa, including: enhanced food security (because it is suited to smallholder farms and increases diversity in food crops, resulting in more varied diets and improved nutrition); protection of natural resources, including soil and water quality; less dependency on price volatility related to external inputs; and reduced illness and death associated with agrochemical exposure,

The UNCTAD brief echoed many of the recommendations set forth last year by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, with input from over 400 experts from around the world (including IATP's Steve Suppan).

Africa is currently home to 20-24 percent of the world's organic farms, according to UNCTAD. And while organic has the potential to bring in premium earnings to farmers, it also faces many challenges, including a lack of government investment, policies that support agrochemical subsidies, the lack of extension services and general misinformation.

The UNCTAD missed another big obstacle to organic agriculture in Africa: The big agrochemical and biotech companies haven't figured out how to profit from it.

Ben Lilliston

What Would Henry Wallace Do?

In this time of turmoil in our food systemcommodity prices going up and down like a yo-yo, food contamination cases becoming more commonplace, environmental and climate effects on agriculture becoming more serious, and the world's hungry growing at a startling ratehow would would the United States' greatest Agriculture Secretary, Henry Wallace, respond?

In a commentary published last weekend in the Des Moines Register, IATP's President Jim Harkness reflects on the challenges that Wallace faced during the Great Depression (another economic and farm crisis, combined with the Dust Bowl) and how he created a series of integrated programs to stabilize prices and transition farmers toward environmentally sustainable practices. Jim called on new Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to take bold steps: Rather than tinker around the edges, we must transform our food system.

M4C%20badge%20copy Jim and I have co-authored a chapter in the great new book, Mandate for Change, that outlines nine policy proposals for Vilsack and the Obama administration to start building a new food systemmany of them updates of principles outlined by Wallace's vision.

It's impossible to guess how Wallace would have responded to today's situation. But you can bet his approach would have been creative and bold, with a reverence for farmers and the land.

Ben Lilliston

February 18, 2009

What MN School Food Service Directors Think About Local Food

As demand for local food continues to grow, K-12 schools are looking for ways to incorporate food from local sources into their food and nutrition programs. A new survey, developed by the Minnesota School Nutrition Association (MSNA) and IATP, assesses Minnesota K-12 Food Service Directors’ interest in purchasing and serving locally grown food. The online survey was conducted over a one-month period, and roughly 20 percent of Minnesota School District Food Service Directors responded.

Key findings include:

  • Overall interest in buying local foods is high;
  • Thirty-five percent of respondents said that they purchased local foods directly from a grower during the 2007-08 school year;
  • Respondents were very interested in the potential local foods “tools” identified in the survey to help with Farm to School efforts.

The results will inform the work of the MSNA Farm to School Task Force in the coming year. We can expect school nutrition to be an important issue in 2009, as the Child Nutrition Act is due for congressional review in September.

Read the full findings from the survey here.

Allison Page

February 17, 2009

Biofuels Policy: What's Sustainable?

What does renewable energy really mean? And while we’re at it, what’s sustainability, anyway?

Seemingly simple questions, but they’re ones that crop up again and again as I get started in my work with the Rural Communities program.

Take, for instance, a set of biofuels policy recommendations released last week by a coalition of five green NGOs, headed up by the Environmental Working Group. I’ve pasted them below.

The proposals amount to a series of safeguards to ensure that federal policy incentivesthings like tax credits and subsidiesare tied to environmental performance standards. In other words, if the ethanol or biodiesel isn’t actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions or our dependence on foreign oil, its producers won’t get federal money for it.

Sounds pretty sensible, right? Indeed, the proposals are sensible. But in our view, they’re also too narrow.

Sustainability standards for biofuels and other rural-based renewable energy policies must take into account the economic concerns of family farmers. If we lose themand overly aggressive (albeit well-intentioned) policy moves like eliminating the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) probably won’t helpwe lose our best shot at both environmental sustainability and maintaining vibrant rural communities.

We applaud this group’s efforts, but we propose a couple of tweaks:

1. Policy incentives should be tied not just to environmental performance standards, but also to local and regional economic benefits.

2. Rather than eliminate the Renewable Fuels Standard, let’s view it as an opportunity to create and ensure a market for sustainably produced agricultural products. Mandates for local production and sourcing are a first step, along with a gradual shift of focus away from quantity, and toward economic and environmental quality.

I’ll be posting regularly about IATP’s bioeconomy work and analysischeck back soon.

From Environmental Working Group's Web site.

1. Ensure that all policy incentives for renewable fuels, including mandates and subsidies, require attainment of minimum environmental performance standards for production and use, to ensure that publicly supported “renewable fuels” do not degrade our natural resources. Such standards would: certify net life-cycle greenhouse gas emission reductions through 2050, taking into account direct and indirect land use change; and do not cause or contribute to increased damage to soil quality, air quality, water quality, habitat protection and biodiversity loss. Compliance with these standards must be verified regularly.

2. Restrict the RFS to fuel options that do not cause environmental harm, adverse human health impacts or economic disruption.

o Cap the RFS at current levels and gradually phase out the mandate for biofuels, unless it is clearly demonstrated that such fuels can meet minimum environment, health and consumer protection standards.

 o Establish feedstock- and technology-neutral fuel and environmental performance standards for all biofuels and let the market devise ways of reaching them.

 o Periodically reevaluate the sustainability and performance of renewable fuels.

 o Provide a mechanism and requirement to mitigate unintended adverse effects, including authority to adjust any mandate downward.

3. Tie the biofuels tax credits to the performance standards

o Phase out the biofuels tax credit to blenders while phasing in tax credits or subsidies for renewable fuels that are scaled in accordance to the fuels’ relative environmental, health and consumer protection merits.

4. Rebalance the U.S. renewable energy and energy conservation portfolio to reflect the relative contribution these options can make to reducing fossil fuel use, enhancing the environment, spurring economic development and increasing energy security.

o Subsidies to renewable energy and conservation should be distributed more evenly between alternative energy sources, and should be allocated in a manner that is fuel- and feedstock-neutral; biofuels, particularly corn ethanol, must no longer receive the lion’s share of federal renewable energy subsidies.

 o New policy must:

         * Emphasize energy conservation; we cannot drill or grow our way out of the energy crisis.

         * Create a level playing field among renewable energy options; set fuel-, feedstock- and technology-neutral standards, so as to reduce fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, improve environmental quality and biodiversity, and reduce pressure on agricultural markets.

5. Support research to improve the analysis of net climate impacts, net non-climate environmental impacts, commodity price impacts and other social factors that are substantially affected by policies that promote biofuels. All of the previous policy asks must be based on better research on the impacts from biofuels; understanding these impacts are crucial to developing sound policies.

Julia Olmstead

February 14, 2009

North American Livestock Producers Reclaim Power

Press conf I've just returned from an incredible, energizing meeting of livestock leaders from Mexico, Canada and the United States. The meeting was co-sponsored by IATP, the National Farmers Union in Canada, the Asociacion National de Empresas Comercializadores de Producores del Campo (ANEC), Food and Water Watch (FWW) and hosted by the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) in Billings, Montana from February 12-13.

We converged around the immediate need to challenge corporate-led livestock markets in order to prioritize producers and healthy food systems in North America. The facts are that since NAFTA, a few corporations now control and own the livestock industry. Companies like Cargill, based out of Minneapolis, Archer Daniels Midland, Smithfield and Tyson have been major beneficiares of NAFTA. And small producers in all three countries have lost their domestic and regional markets, while overall export dumping has increased.

Dennis O We heard reports from livestock producers In Canada and the U.S., where exports have doubled since 1989, but cattle ranchers’ incomes dropped dramatically during that period. Four corporate packers own the large majority of the U.S. cattle industry. Cheap cuts of U.S. meat are being dumped into Mexico and Mexican cattle and pork producers ultimately lack access to U.S. markets. Food safety inspections are not working for producers or consumers. And producers have been pitted against one another, while rural communities in all three countries have been hurt.

You can read a press release and statements from key participants at our NAFTA Watch web site

I also want to share some of the concrete proposals from the meeting that are being put forth by livestock producers from all three countries in response to President Obama’s promise to support the rural sector, to regulate corporations, and to renegotiate NAFTA:

  • A tri-national system to implement captive supply reform to force packers who own cattle to sell in an open, transparent market and without price manipulation.
  • Tri-national regulation to analyze mergers so that markets, prices and contracts are developed in a way that is transparent and provides equal access.
  • Tri-national rules and a political commitment to prohibit dumping and to allow for special safeguard measures to block import surges.
  • The removal of NAFTA’s Chapter 11, which allows investors to sue governments for lost profits.
  • Tri-national rules to allow for national standard-setting such as labeling and other food safety regulation. COOL II – Company of Origin Labeling was also proposed.

It is this kind of forward looking vision for food and agriculture that is so needed at this time. We are all ready for change.

Alexandra Spieldoch

February 12, 2009

Food Dyes and Valentines

Hearts Just about every corner store and grocery has its Valentine's Day candy on full display this time of year. And if you take a close look at the ingredients in those candy hearts, you'll likely find a number of petroleum-derived, synthetic food dyes like Yellow No. 5 and Red No. 3. Unfortunately, many of these purely cosmetic food dyes have been linked to hyperactivity and other disturbed behavior in children by a number of recent studies.

Last year, Britain's Food Standards Agency advised the food industry to voluntarily ban the use of six common synthetic food dyes, and many food companies are following suit. For example, Mars has removed its artificial colorings from Starburst and Skittles.

To help parents who want to reduce their child's intake of synthetic food dyes, IATP launched a new Web tool today called the BrainFoodSelector. The tool allows parents to search by food company, product or synthetic food dye. We also put together a Smart Guide to Food Dyes that outlines which food dyes have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the health concerns for children and what you can do to avoid them.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has filed a petition with the FDA calling for a ban on the use of synthetic food dyes in the United States. CSPI has also set up a Web tool where consumers can report any health reactions they may have experienced from synthetic food dyes to the FDA.

"The good news is that there are safer alternatives to synthetic food dyes and many food companies are already making the switch,” said IATP's David Wallinga, M.D., in our press release. “We need the food industry and U.S. government agencies to catch up with the latest science and start protecting our children. Until then, parents need to be armed with information when they go to the supermarket.”

Ben Lilliston

February 11, 2009

Yoplait Joins the no rBGH Club

Kudos to General Mills, who announced Monday that its Yoplait brand would stop using milk from cows injected with the synthetic hormone, recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH).

"Yoplait joins the growing number of companies that have listened to consumers and rejected dairy from cows injected with rBGH," said David Wallinga, M.D., Director of IATP's Food and Health program in our press release. "The marketplace is following the public health community, which has long been cautioning about the unnecessary use of routine hormones and antibiotics in animals used for food."

When rBGH arrived on the market as Posilac in 1994, it was one of the first genetically engineered agriculture products. Posilac was marketed as a way for dairy farmers to improve income by slightly increasing milk production. But the economic benefits never materialized for farmers. Fifteen years later, U.S. dairy farmers are experiencing the largest price drop in 50 years.

And the cows didn't react too well either. A side effect (listed on the rBGH label) is the propensity for the hormone to make cows sick with udder infections, forcing farmers to increase their antibiotic use. There is now a scientific consensus that heavy antibiotic use in farm animals increases antibiotic resistance, often transmitted back to humans. Health Care Without Harm has put together an excellent, well-referenced fact sheet on public health concerns with rBGH.

Consumers have consistently rejected rBGH, with almost 60 percent stating that they would pay a premium price for dairy products coming from cows not treated with the hormone. This consumer sentiment has driven the rejection of rBGH by a host of food companies. Monsanto, the original manufacturer of rBGH, was finally forced to sell the product last year to Eli Lilly. We blogged on Monsanto's decision and the 15-year history of rBGH last year.

For Minnesota consumers, IATP has produced a new Smart Guide to Minnesota Dairy Without rBGH, which lists milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, ice cream and restaurants that do not source from cows injected with rBGH. Sustainable Table and Food and Water Watch have also put together a great rBGH-free Dairy Map that covers the country.

General Mills' announcement was another nail in the coffin of rBGH. Who will be the next food company to join the no rBGH Club?

Ben Lilliston

February 09, 2009

Joined at the Hip: The Food and Financial Crises

Last week's headlines were blazing with Congressional hearings on the Bernie Madoff fraud scandal and President Barack Obama's proposal for some non-retroactive limits (no disgorgement of ill-gotten riches!) to Wall Street "senior executives'" (whatever that means) compensation (excluding options to buy stock at discounted rates) for financial institutions whose libertine imprudence has been rewarded with taxpayer bailouts.

Meanwhile on February 3-4, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture was holding unheralded hearings on the draft "Derivatives Markets Transparency and Accountability Act of 2009."  The bill is a revision of the "Commodity Exchange Transparency and Accountability Act of 2008," some of whose provisions IATP summarized in a short report on commodities market speculation and food security. The 2008 bill passed the House by a vote of 283-133. At the invitation of Committee staff, IATP submitted written testimony for the February 3 hearing to comment on the 2009 draft "Derivatives" bill.

The views of witnesses at the hearings (available here) can roughly be categorized into two camps. First, there were the Wall Street lobbyists who want to limit Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) regulation in order to enable "financial innovation" to contribute to economic recovery. They were concerned that limiting the number of contracts for investment instruments ("speculative position limits") derived from the value of underlying assets, such as corn, oil and real estate would eliminate Wall Street's ability to profit by managing price risks for its clients. These witnesses also criticized the bill's provisions to regulate the unlimited number of Over-the-Counter (OTC) trades among private entities that comprised a gargantuan "shadow" trading system unregulated by the CFTC. The bill would require that OTC trades be regulated on public exchanges, such as the Chicago Board of Trade. The proponents of current OTC practice maintained that the private trading system worked just fine for its clients and that the causes of the Wall Street meltdown were elsewhere, e.g., in subprime home mortgages, and not in the financial instruments used to spread the risk of the price collapse of those mortgages among investors.

Other witnesses supported the draft bill's provisions to expose to transparent and enforceable regulations the "shadow" system that flooded the commodities exchanges with speculative capital and "innovative" investment instruments, such as commodity index funds. One witness estimated that the agricultural and energy commodities bubble fueled by excessive speculation had cost the U.S. alone $110 billion in 2008. To allow the unregulated financial and trading system, bolstered by more than $1 trillion in taxpayer bailouts, to continue would be to invite further economic catastrophe. The National Farmers Union noted that its members could not sell their products at the high prices that prevailed until July 2008 because extreme commodity exchange price volatility meant that their buyers would not contract with farmers in advance of harvest. And now agricultural commodity prices have collapsed, while farmers are still paying high input costs. 

While IATP supported many provisions in the bill, we were concerned about "exclusions, exemptions and waivers" for regulation of OTC trades and the stripping (from the 2008 bill) of a provision for a thorough CFTC investigation into the effects of speculation in agricultural commodities markets. 

Soon the Senate agriculture committee will hold hearings not only on its bill to revise the Commodity Exchange Act, but also on the nomination of Gary Gensler, a Goldman Sachs partner and assistant secretary of Treasury during 1997-2001 at the beginning of deregulatory financial exuberance.

In a January 30 update to our commodities speculation report,  I noted that former Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson, Gensler's former boss at Goldman Sachs, had proposed that the CFTC be merged into the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). New SEC commissioner Mary Schapiro supports the merger, the argument for which is essentially that the CFTC should not have regulatory authority and that Congress' agricultural committees should not have legislative oversight of Wall Street. If the White House supports the merger, a House and Senate compromise bill to regulate the commodity exchanges might never arrive on President Obama's desk for signature. Given the past inefficiency delays in U.S. government agency mergers (think the Department of Homeland Security), it could be a long time before there are tough disciplines on speculation in the commodity exchanges. And firms like Goldman Sachs, which made an estimated $1.5 billion in commodities speculation, a third of its net income in 2008, according to a November 19 Wall Street Journalwill be able to continue to induce price volatility and profit from betting on it. These firms can even bet on the "fear index" of price volatility itself totally unmoored from any underlying commodity value.

IATP's testimony to the House hearing quoted a market consultant's newsletter to indicate just how dominant the market power of the financial speculators was over the commercial traders who buy and sell futures contracts to manage the price risks of the raw materials they use. The Brock Report of May 23 states, "No [commercial] speculator today can have a combined contract position in corn that exceeds 11 million bushels. Yet the two biggest index funds [Standard and Poors/Goldman Sachs and Dow Jones/American Insurance Group] control a combined 1.5 billion bushels." By taking profits on the price increases induced by such dominance of the market, traders like Goldman Sachs made a killing.

But there has been a very high price to pay for such a killing. In 2008, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) very conservatively estimated the global food import bill would top $1 trillion for the first time, an increase of 23 percent over 2007 and 64 percent over 2006. Much of this food import bill is paid with precious hard currency reserves by the two-thirds of developing countries who depend on imports for much of their food security. On January 26, at a UN Task Force Meeting on the Global Food Crisis, FAO Secretary General Jacques Diouf pointed to a very conservatively estimated 963 million people in 2008 who weren't getting enough to eat, an increase of more than 100 million since 2006. Diouf pleaded for much greater public and private agricultural investment in developing countries to improve their national production capacity, both for domestic consumption and for exports. 

But investors need well-regulated markets in order to estimate price trends, costs and their investment rates of return. Public officials in charge of investments likewise need well-regulated markets, in order to judge investment proposals and what public financial contribution will be needed to secure an investment to improve domestic food security. They need well-regulated markets that honestly assess internationally influential commodities reference prices for agricultural export planning. Instead, the commodity exchange markets of the last decade have offered no such regulation, only an environment in which crony capitalists made killings, sure in the knowledge that they were too big to fail and that former Wall Streeters in the U.S. government would come to their rescue. Taxpayer bailouts are now in the hands of these monumentally undeserving financial institutions. 

Yet it is not too late to regulate the commodity market exchanges, to prevent a further reign of Business As Usual, and to make those markets serve agriculture and food security. Indeed, a properly regulated futures and options market could have helped--in combination with managment of physical stocks--prevent the wild swings in rice prices, and consequent food riots. The draft "Derivatives Trading Transparency and Accountability Act of 2009" takes important steps toward making commodities exchange markets a real financial service, instead of a financial predator on food and energy security.

Steve Suppan

February 06, 2009

This is what colonialism looks like

When I landed in Geneva for a conference in mid-November, after the usual grueling 35 hours or so of travel from Adelaide, one of my first treats was to order a "renversé" (Genevois for café au lait) and to sit down to read the Financial Times, one of my favorite papers. It arrives in Adelaide so late and so expensive that I rarely get to indulge off-line. The story that grabbed my attention, and clearly that of the FT's editors as well, was about Madagascar. The South Korean firm, Daewoo, was announcing a deal with the government of Madagascar that would give the firm a 99-year lease on half the country's arable land. The proposal was that for no money at all, Daewoo would get the land to grow crops for the South Korean market (primarily maize and palm oil). Labor would be imported rather than local. And Madagascar would get to keep Daewoo's investment in the infrastructure needed to bring the production to port for export. 

I was shocked. Not into silenceI could hardly talk to anyone in the following weeks without bringing up the story. But shocked nonetheless, and at many levels. What of food production? Madagascar was and continues to be in misery, with an estimated 20 million people who are poor, hungry and, increasingly, angry. (That leaves about 40,500 people with enough to live well. Some, inevitably, live very well). What of the people who lived on or from that land? What of the need to create local employment? What were the implications of building infrastructure to service exports rather than local markets? What right does an elected (and contested) government have to sign anything away for 99 years?
More than one person I talked to shook their head sorrowfully and said, "Well, the country probably needs the money." But what kind of investment was this anyway? The land could be outright sold and perhaps generate more for the government. And surely there are 1,001 ways that an investment in land could both make a profit for the investor and meet some of the local priorities, like increasing access to food, creating local jobs, and strengthening the national economy through decreased dependence on food imports.

Earlier this week, I caught a new story about the situation in Madagascar. Law and order is breaking down as a political crisis drags on. Between 40 and 100 people are thought to have been killed in the violence. Madagascar's problems are not all related to land grabs, but it is hard to imagine that a government that rules thanks to a High Court decision after a hotly contested election (yes, it happens in other countries, too) thinks it can sign away half the country's arable land and win over the half of the country that liked the other guy better.

The panic triggered by the rapid and dramatic price increases in most agricultural commodity markets over about a year, from mid-2007 to last July, prompted quite a few wealthier countries to look around for land beyond their shores on which to grow more food. The NGO GRAIN has kept track, and their briefing on the subject includes an annex that lists more than 100 recent contracts for land. 

I don't know how the trend can be stopped. The breakdown in accountable politics is deep and in some countries will be hard to uproot. Many of the governments involved will likely ignore any attempt to set even guidelines at the multilateral level. But at the least, guidelines might offer governments that did want to do better a chance to join in some collective thinking on what kinds of agriculture investment make sense, versus those that are profoundly exploitative. Looking ahead, our immediate future offers us depleted soils, exhausted aquifers and ever less certain rains, coupled with a population of people living with hunger that has started once again to increase after several decades of shrinking. Surely we can hope these circumstances might prompt at least some governments to act? And not by signing away the land their people need to survive.
Governments just got home from Madrid and a follow-up UN meeting on the global food crisis. The verdict was lukewarmIATP had this to say; La Via Campesina released this statement. Some are disappointed; others relieved that (from their perspective) the situation was not worsened. The Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, just published his statement. The statement notes that the summary by UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, embraced the right to food as a mechanism for "analysis, action and accountability." Hooray! The Special Rapporteur provides a much stronger framework for realizing this goal than the governments agreed to in Madrid. His summary focuses on four points: The importance of national strategies for the realization of the right to food; the need to transform trade into a tool against hunger; the need to redress violations of labor rights in the agricultural sector; and, the need to protect the rights of landusers. 

In making that final point, Dr. de Schutter writes: "The questions of rights on the land and of responsible governance of land resources should therefore be central to the efforts of the international community to provide sustainable answers to the current challenges." Precisely. I hope the governments of South Korea and Madagascar, as well as Daewoo's Board of Directors and shareholders, are listening.
Last year was a wake-up call for food and agriculture. Those of us who collectively have been talking about a food revolution for decades need to use that momentum. The worldgovernments, local communities, farmer organizations, investors and agribusinessesneeds to sit down and rethink food and agriculture. It is not that we cannot do it: yes we can. What we cannot do is continue with business as usual. It won't be as profitable for some (frankly, I categorize as obscene the amount of money some companies made out of last year's hunger). And it won't be a local food system utopia, either. But it will move us closer to something that is healthier, fairer and more stable.

Sophia Murphy

February 05, 2009

Global Partnership on Food and Agriculture: Where Is It Going?

From January 26-27, I attended the High-Level Meeting on Food Security for All in Madrid, with participation from 126 governments, several inter-governmental organizations, and representatives from the private sector and civil society. The meeting was organized as a follow-up to the Rome Summit on the Food Crisis that the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization convened in June 2008, in the midst of an unprecedented global food price spike (see IATP's Carin Smaller's blogs from the Rome Summit).

Food Crisis panel The most sensitive discussions in Madrid revolved around the idea of a new “global partnership” for food and agriculture, a concept that emerged in Rome in June and has since then been discussed mostly among G8 members. In preparation for the Madrid meeting, the Spanish government circulated a document titled the “Madrid Process Towards an Inclusive Global Partnership on Agriculture and Food Security (GPAFS)." It lays out a proposal for the Global Partnership as a multi-stakeholder effort to increase the efficiency of the fight against hunger at both local and global levels. The document puts forward initial ideas for what the focus of the partnership should be and how it should work in terms of policy coherence, coordination of national action plans and clearer mechanisms for cooperation. It calls for an independent panel of experts and scientists or a “contact group” on a wide range of issues relevant to food and agriculture who would organize a series of consultations and identify mechanisms for review and action.

Officials seem to generally agree with the idea of a Global Partnership even if they have their own vision of what it might look like. There are broadly three visions for the Global Partnership. The first is that it would be a dynamic that builds on UN leadership but includes a mix of stakeholders. The second would be solely a UN initiative, with more funds being funneled into reform of existing agencies to be able to act quickly and accordingly. The third would be more of a direct relationship between donor countries and recipients to mobilize resources.

Jacques Diouf, the head of the FAO, states that institutions already exist and that new ones are not needed. His position is that the FAO should be the underpinning of any partnership. David Nabarro, head of the UN High-Level Task Force on the Food Crisis, seems more open to the Global Partnership having leadership in the UN but a mandate that could be broader. The representative from Italy, currently Chair of the G8, suggests that the developed nations should lead a global partnership.

Agribusiness groups such as Monsanto are active and present in this formulation of the Global Partnership while other representatives from the private sector--producers’ cooperatives for instance--are noticeably absent. IATP and others worry that this partnership could end up providing more space for corporate interests to shape the global political agenda on food in support of intensive agriculture, rather than bringing together different stakeholders on an equal footing to promote food security and resilient food systems. Although civil society is mentioned throughout the Spanish proposal for a Global Partnership, there is no clear mechanism through which to include them in a more official capacity; neither is there any mention of the need to mobilize funding to allow for farmers' participation.

The long and the short of it: While governments may have good intentions, genuine commitment to developing proper consultation among various stakeholders still needs to be evidenced. A Global Partnership has potential, but the process moving forward is quite unclear. We know already the pitfalls of not getting it right: more hunger, more global warming, more poverty and more inequality. We cannot let this one slip.

Civil society must absolutely shape any partnership moving forward to ensure that the UN is strengthened, that the Right to Food is prioritized, that market volatility is dealt with and that farmers and peasants’ voices frame the process for multilateral cooperation.

For more on the Madrid meeting, you can read IATP's statement at its conclusion, as well as a report from the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter.

Alexandra Spieldoch

February 02, 2009

World Social Forum Calls for a New Economic System

IATP's Alexandra Strickner is reporting from the 9th World Social Forum in Belém, Brazil.

The 9th World Social Forum (WSF) started with an Amazonian rainfall and it ended February 1 with another. As with the opening demonstration, activists from social movements, trade unions and non-governmental organizations did not allow the rain to stop them from gathering for the closing event of the Forum. With all its complications--among them the hot and wet weather and the sometimes tricky logistics---this Forum has shown that the movement for another world is present, growing and solidifying concrete alternatives.

The final conclusions from the different networks and social movements had a clear message: the current global crises we face, which have plunged millions more people into poverty, are the evidence of a failed economic model. This failed model does not secure the satisfaction of basic needs of all people on this earth. It destroys the natural basis of survival, and only benefits a small minority that accumulates unimaginable sums of monetary wealth.

The movements proposed to build an equitable, alternative economic system that satisfies basic human needs and restores and preserves the natural basis of life on this planet. This new economic system needs to be rooted in socially and ecologically viable local economies (providing people with jobs with dignity), and should promote solidarity among people regionally, as well as globally. Additionally, it must  prioritize healthy food, clean water, and qualitative public services that are accessible to all. This new economic system also includes a publicly controlled finance system--one that supports the implementation of the new economic model, as well as the democratic control of people over their economies. This means the way we produce and consume needs to radically change.

Besides the promotion of global days of action, WSF ended with two key proposals aimed at enhancing  the building of broad alliances and collaboration among movements and social organizations within the respective countries, as well as at the global level. The first proposal supports the concept of territory to define struggles. The Global Water Movement and the Farmers Movement gave an idea of this new approach: recognizing that the struggle for land and food sovereignty is intrinsically linked with struggles over water, these two movements will start to work together at the territorial level. On the global level, a broad range of global and regional networks have agreed to continue to build the collaboration they started for this Forum, organizing two cross-networking spaces.

Alexandra Strickner

February 01, 2009

Localization, Global Crises at the World Social Forum

IATP's Alexandra Strickner is reporting from the 9th World Social Forum in Belém, Brazil.

This is now my fourth World Social Forum and I continue to be fascinated by how the many discussions occuring at the same time help us to move forward in the building of a better world. What perhaps was new to this forum is that several groups targeted key themes, such as the financial crisis, climate change, labor and globalization or water, to name a few.

In these hot and wet days, I followed the climate change discussions and helped to organize some 20 global and regional networks on the afternoon of the 30th. Here is a flavor of the major outcomes.

The main aim of this cross-networking space was to share ideas on alternatives and strategies and to discuss how to collaborate across networks. We heard the proposals of groups working on food sovereignty, on water struggles, on the financial crisis, on labor struggles, on building a social solidarity economy, on climate change and many more. What was amazing in all these reports was that all of these groups refered to the need to build a different kind of economy, based on different values and scales, as the only possibility to address the global crises. There was strong support coming from all these groups towards the relocalization of the economy - whether it is to help build low carbon economies, to address the food challenges or to reclaim democratic control over water and resources. Participants also clearly voiced the need to redefine key economic parameters such as growth and competition and to build economies that have as their first and main objective the satisfaction of peoples' basic needs. All groups strongly supported the need to reclaim the commons and to democratize the economy to put control back into the hands of communities and citizens. The organizations concluded with a commitment to develop a joint document that outlines the key elements and principles of this new vision that was broadly shared in this space.

The convergence space on the issue of climate change took place in the afternoon of the 31st. Some 100 people filled the room, shared the results of their discussions during the past days and then started to discuss where to go from here. Also in this debate there was a large consensus across a broad range of groups - from farmers, workers, environmentalists - that the solutions proposed by governments to mitigate climate change (particularly for emissions trading and most of the technological fixes) are non-solutions. During this debate it also became clear that it was essential to formulate a joint vision of what a low carbon economy could look like and how such an economy would provide jobs for people while at the same time substantially reduce CO2 emissions. This vision must also include the concept of energy sovereignty, which is that communities and regions produce the energy they consume. This clearly implies that industrialized countries, which to date use far more energy than they themselves can produce, will have to reorganize their economies, their production and consumption in order to become more self-sustaining and sustainable.

Today is the last day of the Forum and people will share and debate in thematic assemblies the final results and outcomes.

Alexandra Strickner