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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.

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April 2009

April 30, 2009

Ethanol's Contentious Carbon Footprint

Despair abounds in the ethanol industry after the California Air Resources Board (ARB) voted 9 to 1 in favor of the so-called Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) last week. The regulation aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels 10 percent by 2020.

Taking firm steps toward greenhouse gas emissions reductions is, of course, a good thing. But the new law could potentially cross corn ethanol off the list of fuel options for not only California but also the 11 states planning to adopt programs modeled on the LCFS.

The LCFS will rate the carbon intensity of different transportation fuels by calculating carbon emissions during each fuel’s production, transportation and consumption. Fuel refiners, blenders and distributors will be required to phase out high carbon intensity fuels or to purchase credits from utilities companies selling low-carbon electricity to power electric cars.

Greenhouse gas emissions from consuming and even transporting a fuel are pretty easy to measure. What are much harder to calculateand far more controversialare the emissions caused by a fuel’s production.

The biofuels industry has cried foul over ARB’s inclusion of emissions from what’s known as biofuels’ “indirect land use change” effect. Indirect land use change (ILUC) is an attempt to calculate the effect ethanol production has beyond just the land where the corn is grown and the refinery where it’s processed.

According to the scientists ARB commissioned to calculate ILUC, when American farmers sell their corn to ethanol plants, bypassing traditional food and feed markets, farmers on the other side of the globe cut down rainforests and plow up grasslands to plant crops to fill the gap. The resulting release of carbon dioxide from decomposition of exposed organic soil is large, many researchers argue, and must be included in corn ethanol’s carbon footprint.   

It’s not so simple, say ethanol producers and a different set of scientists. Not only is it almost impossibly difficult to accurately quantify the influence U.S. farmers’ actions have on decisions made a world away (how do you sift out other market pressures, politics, etc?), but also, say the critics, the ILUC burden falls unfairly on biofuels: no one is calculating the indirect emissions of petroleum, for example (add up the emissions created by our military in defense of our oil supply, and the number would likely be significant).

I’ve struggled with this one as I’ve watched the lead-up to this decision. Prominent scientists on each side have sent compelling letters to ARB defending or decrying ILUC. I’ve watched heated debates between ILUC inclusion’s defenders and those that support the ethanol industry. I’ve seen public policy students here at UC Berkeley, where I’m a graduate student (in journalism, not public policy), furrow their brows and scratch their heads over its muddled-ness.

How, then, to think about it?

The easiest part is this: to applaud California’s leadership on carbon emissions reductions, something we desperately need bold action on. After that, things get trickier. Clearly, indirect land use change exists, and it’s something we need to address. But is it responsible or useful to quantify this for policy? I’m not sure that it is. The work that’s been done on these calculations (much of it by UC Berkeley professors) has been good. But if you read the literature, you’ll find that an awful lot of uncertainty, unknowns and assumptions go into the calculations. That’s okay for academic worka process of continual refining, debate, review, revisionbut it’s problematic when it comes to policy that will have a big impact on the biofuel industry (and here I’m thinking most about the farmers who either grow biofuel crops, have a stake in local refineries, or both).

The critics here might say, “Well, what’s the alternative?” or “As compared to what?”

I don’t think it’s an either/or.

Until we can figure out a way to accurately calculate ILUC and other fuels’ indirect effects in a way that hasif not consensusbroader scientific and stakeholder support, ARB and eventually the EPA (who is watching this closely as a possible model), would be better off making carbon emissions reductions and indirect land use change two different issues.

ARB has committed to reviewing again the carbon intensity calculations before the LCFS becomes binding in January 2011. Let's hope they will decide to include only biofuels’ direct emissions, as they do for other fuels. Then let's enter into a separate dialoguewith separate policy initiativesto work on indirect land use change and the indirect effects of other fuels. Let the scientists continue the ILUC debates, and let the stakeholdersboth here and abroadcome together to find immediate ways to tackle the actual problem of ILUC.

My guess is that we’d make more progress on both fronts.


Julia Olmstead

April 29, 2009

Are foodstocks taboo at FAO?

Last week I was in Rome, attending a bunch of FAO meetings related to the food crisis. On Monday, April 20, we co-organized our own event at the FAO, a two-hour discussion on the merits of foodstocks and other market regulatory instruments for food security and long-term development. The discussion was very well attended, proof of the interest in these issues in the wake of the 2008 food crisis.

FAO mtg We had five very interesting presentations (thanks to Alex Danau, Collectif Stratégies Alimentaires, for the photo). Mamadou Cissokho and George Eward, respectively representing West and East African farmers federations, both highlighted how stockholding schemes have been dismantled in their regions and yet are essential to achieving food security and helping farmers take advantage of better marketing opportunities. Daryll Ray, from the University of Tennessee, presented concrete proposals for setting up an international reserve some of which are also valid for national or regional schemes. Yves Leduc presented the impacts of the Canadian supply management system during the food price spike. He highlighted the role of this scheme in minimizing the abuse of market power by processors and retailers. Finally, Maria Squeff, representative of Argentina, insisted on the need for any new agriculture policy measures to comply with WTO rules. She also talked about the central role of developed country support measures in distorting international markets. Argentina plays a critical role in discussions on the global governance of agriculture since it is chairing the group in charge of reforming the Committee on World Food Security.

We thought holding such a meeting in an UN agencyat a time when government delegates participated in the first FAO trade committee since the food price spike broke outwould be an opportunity to pick government experts' brains about innovative policy tools to once and for all address hunger. It sounded to us like the different policy measures governments have taken as a response to the crisis last year show they realized the need to regulate markets.

But I have to admit that we were a little disappointed by governments' responses. Most of those who spoke at the event pointed at past failures as a reason to not consider foodstocks or grain reserves as an option. In the official meeting, the U.S. delegation argued that the best way out of the crisis is to "simply let markets work."

Now why are governments so stubborn when more than 100 million people have just been added to the ranks of the hungry? Is that not proof enough that something is seriously wrong with the way markets work right now? The point is not to go back to past measures, but to create something new that can help. In Africa, farmers organizations are working on agriculture policies that work for small farmers. It would certainly help if they had international support.

Anne-Laure Constantin

April 28, 2009

The Mystique of Cheap Food

With increasing public concern and awareness about climate change, food safety, health, immigration, and even swine flu, industrial agriculture’s grip on the American food and agriculture system is starting to loosen. Nowhere was this more evident than at the St. Anthony Main movie theater in Minneapolis on Sunday, where people filled an already packed theater—sitting on the floor and in the aisles—and where many others were turned away from the sold-out showing. For a 9:20 p.m. Sunday night time slot, I figured turnout would be minimal, and especially for Food, Inc., a documentary about the horrors of our industrial agriculture system. But instead, a rapt audience sat for 94 minutes as filmmaker Robert Kenner took us through the origins of U.S. industrial agriculture, the devastating consequences for workers, consumers, animals, and the environment, and how people are fighting back. As part of the 27th Annual Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Fest, Food, Inc. was billed as “one of the most radical” films of the festival.

With renowned writers and activists like Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin and Eric Schlosser, the film examines the illusion of choice and “diversity” in the typical American supermarket, and exposes the numerous hidden costs of our cheap food: appalling conditions in slaughterhouses—both for the animals and the exploited laborers, who are a disposable workforce composed primarily of undocumented workers (many of whom were farmers in Mexico before NAFTA drove 1.5 million Mexican farmers off their land) and people of color; destructive environmental consequences from Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) run-off and pesticides; and farmers who are in such debt to corporations that they have little to no choice about how to run their farms. And while agribusiness makes a huge profit, we are the ones who pay. 

At the end of the film, audience members cheered at Food, Inc.’s call for activism and list of ways to break out of industrial ag’s stranglehold. And while most of the suggestions were positive (e.g., shopping at farmers markets), many were too focused on individual behavioral changes. After a powerful systemic critique, the film could have offered more systemic solutions; much of the ending emphasized market-based solutions, when more weight could have been placed on policy-level ones. When the rules at the policy level are stacked against organic/sustainable agriculture, market-based solutions are limited.

Watch for the film to be in local movie theaters soon.

Allison Page

April 27, 2009

Fossil fuel interests reach tentacles into Summit

(Editor note: Liza (Guerra) O'Reilly is attending the Indigenous Peoples' Global Summit on Climate Change in Anchorage, Alaska, on behalf of IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy. Liza is blogging this week from the Summit. Photos from the Summit can be viewed at the Anchorage Daily News Web site.)

I should not have been surprised. Sustainable economic development that would create jobs and long-term economic security as a concrete strategy to adapt and mitigate climate change met its greatest enemy, face to face, when a well-oiled hand prominently extended itself into the last day of discussions at the Summit.

Recall that according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the combustion of fossil fuels is one of the greatest contributors of greenhouse gases resulting in climate change. Despite this well-known fact, the fossil fuel Medusa raised its ugly heads against strong language advanced by the Indigenous youth caucus and the majority of the regional caucuses, who called for an immediate moratorium on new fossil fuel development and the phase-out of global fossil fuel use in the yet-to-be released Anchorage Declaration.

On the table was a perverse interpretation of Article 26 of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN-DRIP). Article 26 provides in relevant part that: "Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired."

One of the Indigenous regional caucuses asserted their right to development, citing Article 26 of UN-DRIP, and initially positioned themselves against any immediate call for a moratorium on new development of fossil fuels, and also a phase-out of global fossil fuel use. Instead, their interests would allow for compromise of softer language recognizing the right to development.

Contrary to what had been reported, many elders from the respective regional caucuses stood in solidarity with the youth and also vehemently opposed any soft language that would accommodate fossil fuel interests.

There is a false argument that appears to pit the right to development against the right to livethat is to say, the right to breathe clean air, to have access to ecologically bio-diverse food and medicines, to have meaningful access to places of spiritual well-being, water, forests and so on. These rights are all-encompassing rights articulated in the UN-DRIP, but must not be negated by a perverse interpretation of the right to develop.

The right to development, and any other right for that matter, must not compromise another individual's human rights. In the Americas and since 1492, most colonial models imposed upon Indigenous peoples to develop brought much social degradation in all forms. These models were, and continue to be, based on exploitative capitalistic development of Indigenous nations' natural resources and contradict the public health and welfare of Indigenous peoples. To see the effects of this exploitation, we simply need to reflect on our quality of health today as evidenced by disproportionate rates of diabetes, cancer, mental health trauma, suicide, heart disease, violence against Indigenous women and the stealing of Indigenous children by governments. The discussion must move from a colonial interpretation of a right to development to a right that sustains life. The inherent nature of the UN-DRIP is to sustain life, not to destroy it vis-à-vis development.

The Indigenous regional caucus who asserted their right to develop may be interpreted as a call for development that dignifies them, their environment and Mother Earth. Everyone must be enfranchised with the fundamental human right to develop and live well, but not to the disparagement of others. A sustainable development model must be consistent with UN-DRIP and the respective Indigenous Nations' autonomously identified needs.

According to the IPCC, the regions most affected, such as the Arctic, Caribbean and Amazon, are where most of the Indigenous people live, said Sam Johnston of the Tokyo-based United Nations University, a co-sponsor of the Summit. Those most affected are owed a significant ecological debt of reparations. If a down-payment is made on this debt to the creditors most impacted by climate change, we may consider this a well-overdue first step. 

Polluters and their regulators must pay by providing financial and other support mechanisms to Indigenous nations to secure their respective right to develop, economically and otherwise. Nation states, multinational corporations, and other entities that historically exploited and/or unlawfully appropriated Indigenous peoples' resources owe the ecological debt we speak of when we tell the world that the polluters must pay. Polluters and their regulators are the ones who allowed for the exploitation and appropriation of Indigenous resources that have hurled our Mother Earth into the perilous condition we find ourselves. 

I am willing to believe that if the proper resources were made available, and with free, prior and informed consent, the Indigenous regional caucus that sought softer language in the Declaration would not have opposed the call for a moratorium and phase-out of fossil fuel development, and instead, would have chosen to advance payment of the ecological debt owed to them for sustainable development.

That bill from Mother Earth and her Indigenous peoples was sent long ago. 

Ben Lilliston

April 24, 2009

Padre announced a Madre

(Editor note: Liza (Guerra) O'Reilly is attending the Indigenous Peoples' Global Summit on Climate Change in Anchorage, Alaska, on behalf of IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy. Liza is blogging this week from the Summit. Photos from the summit can be viewed at the Achorage Daily News Web site.)

Some 350 peoples from 80 different Indigenous nations engaged in multilateral discussions today from the seven regions of the world: the Maasai from Tanzania, the Hmong from Vietnam, the Maya from Belize, the Inuit from the Arctic Circumpolar region, the Chukotka from the far east of Russia, the Samoa from the South Pacific, and the Tewa from the Southwest of North America. From these very distinctive and reflectively diverse regions of the planet, and adorned with the finest artisan clothing and regalia, the Indigenous peoples of the world continued into day four of deliberations to address our utmost immediate needs and determine long-term architectural plans created by climate change.

Today the Indigenous Peoples' Summit welcomed a priest who had arrived with a new word. This not-so-ordinary Catholic and gifted priest, whose power broke loose the tongue of France President Sarkozy by inspiring Sarkozy to repeat the priestly message of love with his fellow brethren at the G-20, was none other than the United Nations General Assembly President, Miguel D'Escoto. Padre D'Escoto, who had stimulated Sarkozy's tongue to speak of humanity, announced that, at the behest of President Evo Morales of Bolivia, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing April 22, from now into perpetuity, as International Mother Earth Day. (See also Padre announced there was a Madre.)

Who would have thought that a simple priest could help resurrect the consciousness of reasonable men? Here, at the Summit, word spread about the bold move the General Assembly made recognizing the Indigenous feminine energy, spirit and power, where the roots of the UN's own organic rules of consensus had sprung. The Assembly's unanimous adoption of a resolution designating April 22 each year as International Mother Earth Day was made to advance the protection of the global climate for present and future generations of mankind.

Following the Padre was David Choquehuanca Céspedes, Bolivian minister of foreign affairs, speaking on behalf of President Morales, who expressed his profound regret that he was unable to attend the summit. Minister Choquehuanca Céspedes, a powerful voice from the snow-capped peaks of the Andean mountain region, called on us to help slow the melting of the white ponchos covering the Andean mountain peaks. 

We live on the skirt of Mother Earth, Minister Choquehuna proclaimed. So, if we are all on the skirt of Mother Earth, then we must all be brothers and sisters. We are all--plants, animals, humans, water and air--related. Hmmm, let's see what happens to Sarkozy's tongue before Copenhagen in December.

Ben Lilliston

April 23, 2009

Wipe the soot from your eyes

(Editor note: Liza (Guerra) O'Reilly is attending the Indigenous Peoples' Global Summit on Climate Change in Anchorage, Alaska, on behalf of IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy. Liza is blogging this week from the Summit.)

Indigenous Yesterday, Indigenous people from the four directions gathered on day three of the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change (IPGSCC) and continued to explore thematic sessions of health and food security, Indigenous knowledge and decision-making, environmental stewardship, and energy generation on the precipice of climatic collapse. Each thematic session provided the necessary space and meaningful opportunity for participants to help set our top three priorities and/or critical messages through a Declaration anticipated to be announced at the conclusion of the IPGSCC.

One of the top three critical messages reaffirmed in the energy generation thematic session honored our ancestors for their wisdom passed down from time immemorial when they first felt the sun, tasted the sweet water, breathed the fresh air and pushed their hands into the folds of the earth. This very timeless wisdom recognizes our capacity to lead "developed" Nation/states, corporations, and other failed institutions and models out of the dark, wiping the soot out of their infirmed and capitalistic eyes to look at the Indigenous-based model of micro-energy, developed and controlled by the people.

Our ancestral model revolves around community, not upon it. It is controlled by community, not privatized by it. It is locally developed and constructed by the community, not exploited by it. And it transforms large-scale, centralized energy systems from their collective destructive power to community collective power, as we relearn how to “sustain ourselves within ourselves.” This is a “clean” energy paradigm that rejects false solutions propagated under nuclear power, large-scale dam projects and biofuels. 

Our ancestral energy model is a teaching moment to our little brothers to look upon our Indigenous communities/nations as we: (1) autonomously assess our energy needs; (2) determine our energy mechanisms and impacts; (3) develop our localized model that best preserves and advances sustenance in our relationship with mother earth; and (4) construct and sustain our localized energy model, bringing true “green jobs” into our communities. 

In this way, when we generate the energy necessary to live well, we can still hear the flute’s penetrating and vibrant sound move with the wind, singing our stories of sustenance. Little brothers, we want you to live well too; we will help wipe the soot from your eyes.

Liza (Guerra) O'Reilly

Ben Lilliston

April 22, 2009

Shrinking My Water Footprint

I live in Minneapolis where I have a 24-hour water supply. I take it for granted that I will have running water whenever I need it—for brushing my teeth, drinking, cooking or cleaning. I often forget what a luxury it is!

Before coming to the United States, I lived in a small town in western India called Rajkot for a few years. There, I lived in an apartment complex surrounded by a still developing concrete jungle. The apartment complex promised a regular water supply, which meant that running water was available for an hour each in the morning and in the evening. I was living by myself, and I would collect enough water in the morning hours to meet my personal needs for the day.

But for my neighboring families—with at least four to five members—it was a struggle to meet their water needs from this municipal water supply. They would often resort to water supplied through tankers from neighboring villages—never mind if those villagers were selling water to the city because it was more profitable than raising crops, or even if it was lowering the water table so much that people without mechanical pumps could no longer get enough water for their basic needs. The impact of urban water use in Rajkot on surrounding villages was clearly visible to all.

These water-poor villagers are now among the numbers often cited in United Nations global water statistics: 2.6 billion without water for basic sanitation needs and 1.1 billion without access to safe drinking water.

Now I live by the Mississippi River and our public water system provides me with excellent water at a very reasonable rate. In the U.S., the same clean water is used for washing our cars, watering our lawns and filling our backyard pools, making the average water use of a U.S. resident 151 gallons a day. Compare this with the average water use in most African countries: less than 15 gallons a day. Living in Minneapolis, the connection between my water consumption and the global water crisis is not so clear.

I realize that my daily water consumption— for drinking, cleaning, cooking and washing—is only a small part of the water I use. Most of the water I use is invisible to me—it is in the food I eat, in the soda I drink and in the clothes I wear. It is in the making of the gas I put in my car and in the generation of electricity that I use to light my home. It is also in the making of computers, cell phones and cars that I use. With the exception of my summer vegetables, most of these things are not made or grown in Minnesota and thus most of the invisible water I use is not Minnesota water. The water I use could be from California or Florida, or it may be from Australia, China or Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, public policies promote invisible water consumption at individual and societal levels.   National policies on agriculture, industry and energy production often assume that water is plentiful or cheap. Water is rarely a limiting factor in setting public policy. 

For example, our Farm Bill supports a dominant agriculture model of just a few primary commodity crops that are extremely water-intensive. Agricultural practices that include water stewardship, such as sustainable agriculture, are not similarly rewarded. In moving forward, it is essential that we shift public policy to acknowledge the importance of water, and break this vicious cycle in which we are trapped.

This Earth Day, I found some ideas to reduce my personal water footprint: canning and/ or freezing  summer vegetables (instead of buying fresh imported vegetables next winter); reducing meat and other animal-based food items in my diet; shifting to local and/or fair-traded products that are sustainably produced; reducing the amount of processed food I buy and the food I waste; carrying a stainless steel water container; using bio-degradable and less polluting cleaning products; using public transport; and buying less. That is a start for me!

Shiney Varghese

April 21, 2009


Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

April 16, 2009

Onions 1 About three weeks ago I sat patiently in the greenhouse with a pair of scissors, trimming onion tops. We trim our onion tops down to four inches about two weeks prior to transplanting in the field (photo). Researchers tell me that doing so invigorates the plants for transplanting and once transplanted, they really kick into gear. On that note, here’s a bit of what I know about onions: 

Onions are day-length sensitive. While the days are lengthening, the earlier they are set out, the more chance they have to make top growth. The more top growth, the greater the bulb size. After summer solstice and day length begins to shorten, their energy switches to bulb growth.

Onions contain allicin, which benefits the heart and immune functions and aids the onion plant with antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. Gardeners and small-scale farmers often use a garlic spray to help in protecting against diseases. Researchers have seen effective results in the use of liquid allicin compounds against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in hospitalsand maybe now for hog farmers. Research at Cornell University has shown that the more pungent the variety, the more cancer-fighting antioxidants it contains. Breeders are trying to develop sweeter, less pungent onions that retain the nutritional benefits.

Onions 2 Onions provided an important part of the diet in ancient Egypt. Seeds were found in a tomb dating from 3,200 BCE, according to Allison and Paul Wiediger in Growing for Market, Greek athletes ate pounds of onions, drank onion juice and rubbed the juice on their bodies to prepare themselves for competition.

Onions are second only to tomatoes as the world’s most economically important vegetable. In the United States they have a $4 billion annual retail value. While the average American eats 18.7 lb per year, Libyans consume almost four times as many per capita. 

All in all we planted more than 10,000 onion plants. It took us approximately three full days. About 7,000 of the total are storage onions that will be used for distribution beyond the expected harvest sometime around the middle of July. We expect 10,000 onions will cover our 120-member CSA for approximately 16 weeks of our 23-week distribution season.

Devin Foote

April 20, 2009

The Poor to Blame for Climate Change?

On the front page of The New York Times on Thursday, April 16 was an article titled: “Third-World Stove Soot Is Target in Climate Fight.” The article was informative but troubling in terms of its framing of the climate change problem. There has been a tendency in public policy to direct focus of the problem to the most vulnerable, as was done in the recent U.S. financial crisis, where poor African-Americans were cited by some as the reason for the collapsing global financial markets: it was the home foreclosures of the most vulnerable that caused the problem, not the complex and freewheeling derivatives market structures or predatory lending practices. Likewise, this New York Times piece focused on the actions of rural poor women from the global South as a significant cause of climate change pollution and the problem.

This is part of a larger reframing effort that’s been going on to put more emphasis on Southern countries as a "source" of the problem of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. It puts "blame" on impoverished Third World women, which is problematic on many fronts as it diminishes the real problem of Northern country pollution and the high-energy growth-oriented policies of many Southern country elites. It doesn’t acknowledge that “all carbon is not created equal." Emissions for basic sustenance purposes (i.e., cooking food) are not the same as those emitted for creating widgets in factories to increase the Gross Domestic Product.

Shalini Gupta

April 17, 2009

Getting it Right in Treviso

This weekend, the G-8 agriculture ministers are meeting in Treviso, Italy, to discuss the global food crisis. In a pre-meeting commentary, IATP's Anne Laure Constantin outlines the good, the bad and the ugly on the G-8's agenda. 

Anne Laure writes, "The key players at the G-8 meeting are countries largely responsible for creating the crisis in the first placeand they are entirely unapologetic about it. G-8 countries, particularly the United States and the European Union, have pushed agriculture policies that reward short-term private profits over essential public priorities like food security, jobs and proper management of scarce natural resources. Aggressive trade liberalization polices and agreements, focused on the commercial interests of G-8-based firms, have shaped an unfair and concentrated global agriculture market."

Aside from trade, another controversial aspect of the G-8 agenda is its promotion of industrial agriculture, particularly biotechnology, as a solution to the global food crisis. Earlier this week, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack discussed the need to overcome resistance to biotech in developing countries. IATP is part of the U.S. Working Group on the Food Crisis, which issued a press release yesterday calling on the G-8 to reject the high-input, biotech approach and to follow recommendations by the International Agriculture Assessment on Technology, Knowledge and Development for more low-input, sustainable agriculture that uses local knowledge.

On Monday, Anne Laure will be in Rome co-organizing a meeting at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on strategic food reserves and other supply management strategies to address the food crisis. The G-8 Agriculture Ministers should skip out of Treviso early and attend.

Ben Lilliston

April 16, 2009

Monsanto's Kool Aid

When genetically engineered (GE) crops were first marketed in the U.S. in the mid-1990s, the central promise biotech companies made to farmers was greater yields. The promise to everyone else was that GE crops would help feed the world. These promises continue today in a new Monsanto ad campaign touting GE crops as the solution to the global food crisis. Now, more than a decade later, it turns out that GE crops don't deliver.

Failure-to-yeild-136px A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that after 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to increase U.S. crop yields (with the exception of a marginal gain under certain circumstances with Bt corn). In fact, while yields have increased during this period, these gains are attributed almost entirely to traditional breeding, not genetic engineering. The UCS report focuses on GE corn and soybeans.

"After more than 3,000 field trials, only two types of engineered genes are in widespread use, and they haven't helped raise the ceiling on potential yields," said Margaret Mellon, a microbiologist at UCS.

When considering the staggering amounts of money (including USDA research grants) invested in developing GE crops, it's hard not to wonder what kind of bang for our buck we could get from investing comparable money in research related to increasing yields through sustainable or organic practices. In February, we reported on a United Nations paper that reported that organic agriculture in African countries had seen increases in yields of more than 100 percent. This type of low-cost, low-input approach using traditional knowledge is also what was recommended in the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD)  report issued last year.

The UCS report makes the recent statement by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack that developing countries must overcome their resistance to GE crops even more troubling. Vilsack needs to stop drinking  Monsanto's Kool-Aid on GE crop yields. This weekend in Treviso, Italy, Vilsack will attend a gathering of G-8 Agriculture Ministers to discuss the global food crisis. While he's on the plane, let's hope he reads the new UCS and IAASTD reports for new ideas on how to feed the world.

Ben Lilliston

April 14, 2009

Are Organic and Local So 2008?

In an article in the March/April issue of Mother Jones, author Paul Roberts takes a provocative view of U.S. foodies pushing for local and organic food. Roberts challenges the notion that "organic and local" can ever actually scale up to meet the food needs of billions of people.

Roberts writes, "If we want to build large-scale capacity, we're going to need to broaden our definitions of sustainable practices. . .the local-food movement, too must learn to bend. The reality of 21st century America is that food demand is centered in cities, while most arable land is in rural areas."

"We can't wait for the perfect solution to emerge," writes Roberts. "We need to start transforming the food system today--probably with hybrid models. . .that take the best of both alternative and mainstream technologies and acknowledge not only the complexity of true sustainability, but the practical reality that the perfect is often the enemy of the good."

The article touched a nerve and got a huge response. Now, Mother Jones is hosting an online forum to discuss the issues outlined in Roberts' article. IATP President Jim Harkness, Lisa Gosselin, Ryan Zinn and Paul Roberts will be debating and answering readers' questions all week on the future of food. Roberts' article is worth reading and responding to. 

Ben Lilliston

April 09, 2009

Reducing Our Foodprint

Foodprint_Main_Feature Agriculture has a unique place in the debate on what to do about climate change. Perhaps no sector is more affected by changes in climate. Already farmers around the world are experiencing first-hand the effects of climate change. Agriculture and our food system is also a contributor to climate changeparticularly energy intensive industrial agriculture. And finally, agriculture also has the potential to be a mitigator of climate change through carbon sequestration.

A new IATP paper, Identifying Our Climate Foodprint, examines the entire U.S. food chain, from agriculture production through processing, transportation and consumption. It assesses what we know on each step's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and makes recommendations on how to transition toward a more climate-friendly system.

The paper concludes that throughout the food chain, it is industrial farming systems that depend on massive resource inputs (such as synthetic fertilizers) for crops and livestock that are by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases

“The good news is that by transitioning toward more sustainable practices on the farm, we can better adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change," said co-author Jim Kleinschmit in our press release. "Many farmers, food companies and consumers are already implementing climate-friendly practices. Now we need smarter public policy to make the larger systemic changes we need."

Check out the full report and find out what you can do to reduce your climate foodprint.

Ben Lilliston

April 08, 2009

Agriculture's emissions: on the road to exemption?

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin is in Bonn, Germany, this week for global talks to develop a new international framework to address climate change. The Bonn meeting is leading up to the larger global climate meeting in Copenhagen in December 2009.

OK, seriously, no one dares to utter the word "exemption." But special treatment, certainly! Livestock exporters argue that agriculture should be considered a special case: there are limits to how much you can reduce methane emissions from cows and sheep. According to them, it is impossible to achieve similar emission reductions in agriculture as in other industrial sectors. Their ultimate argument is that imposing excessively strict limits on agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions could jeopardize global food security.

One idea they are floating around is that for agriculture, emission reduction targets should be expressed on an "intensity" basis. Countries with a large part of their emissions from agriculturelike New Zealand, Uruguay and Argentinawould be granted special treatment whereby they don't necessarily have to reduce their emissions in absolute terms, but rather, only the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted for a given quantity of product (say a ton of milk for example). The countries argue that since world food production will have to increase to fit the needs of a growing population, "realistic expectations" are necessary regarding the possibility of reducing emissions from the agriculture sector.

There is no formal proposal around this idea, but Bonn was an occasion to test the waters. Judging from the important New Zealand delegation (government and industry hand-in-hand) in Bonn, and the attractiveness of the idea to other countries as well (from South and Central America in particular... but there is no reason why the U.S. would not buy that too!), it could develop quite quickly.

That would be a very dangerous road to go down on. Agriculture represents around 12 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, not counting associated emissions from deforestation, transport and processing of food products. Given that developed countries need to cut their emissions by at least 40 percent by 2020 (compared to 1990), it is unlikely they can afford to disregard such an important sector. Revising production methods in the crop sector will be one way to go, and quickly. It also becomes more and more clear that the typical Western diet based on heavy meat consumption will have to change.

Anne-Laure Constantin

April 06, 2009

Agriculture: the next challenge for climate talks?

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin is in Bonn, Germany, this week for global talks to develop a new international framework to address climate change. The Bonn meeting is leading up to the larger global climate meeting in Copenhagen in December 2009.

Awg_bonn_01_600 On Saturday, April 4, I attended a workshop focused on agriculture's contribution to mitigating climate change. That workshop was part of a session of negotiations on climate that has been requested by a large group of countriesmostly developed countries or agricultural exporters. It was organized by the UNFCCC, the UN body in charge of making sure an international deal is agreed to by the end of the year to avoid the devastating effects of global climate change.

I will be writing more about the prospects for agriculture and food in the context of these negotiations. In the meantime, just a few thoughts:

  • For those of you who are interested, you can watch the whole session (3 hours), or specific country interventions (about a dozen made presentations) here. You can also find the different PowerPoints that were presented on that same page;
  • All country representatives who spoke agreed that agriculture has to be part of the effort to fight climate change. The HOW is what remains to be answered! It was striking to see the wide range of countries' concerns: competitiveness issues (Saudi Arabia seems to be very worried that it won't be able to sell oil in the future!!), how to foster the development of technologies (including methane vaccines), the need to cope with immediate threats to food security, a focus on accessing climate funding, and so on.
  • While large exporters like New Zealand stressed that expectations on the possibility to reduce emissions from agriculture have to be realistic (i.e., small, at least for now), poor countries like Bangladesh and Senegal pointed out that mitigation was an absolute need if they were going to be able to keep producing. 

The climate talks are not moving fast enough. There is increasing concern around a possible failure to reach an agreement in Copenhagen at the end of 2009. Adding agriculture to the picture is very risky. But at the same time, ignoring it is impossible.

Anne-Laure Constantin

April 05, 2009

A New Opportunity on Human Rights

HRC Human rights advocates are thrilled with a recent decision by the Obama administration. On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department announced it would seek a seat on the Human Rights Council, an inter-governmental body within the U.N. system made up of 47 elected members. The U.N. Human Rights Council was created three years ago by the U.N. General Assembly with the main purpose of addressing human rights violations. At the time, the Bush administration and its ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, shunned the U.N. HR Council, consistent with the then U.S. policy of disengagement with the United Nations.

For water justice advocates, this is an interesting moment. Barely 10 days ago the United States government was in the forefront of efforts to thwart an initiative to declare water as a fundamental human right (meaning accessible and safe for all). The World Health Organization outlines the need for the right to water.

The venue was the triennial World Water Forum Ministerial in Istanbul from March 16-22. Though organized by the private French association World Water Council, this forum has evolved into one of the largest water events, and is accompanied by a ministerial session attended by most governments.Since 2000, the World Water Forum and its ministerial session has attracted protests and criticisms from rights advocates for its resistance to declare water as a fundamental human right.

In 2002, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued a General Comment confirming the right to water. Yet in 2003, the World Water Forum ministerial would only declare that water is a human need. This was repeated in 2006.

At each World Water Forum, spanning both the Clinton and Bush administrations, the United States took the position that water is a need, not a right!

This year, at the World Water Forum, after failing to reach agreement on the right to water within the Forum Ministerial, 25 countries--led by Venezuela, Uruguay and Bolivia--signed on to a statement declaring water as a fundamental human right. In a sense, that statement was a victory for human rights activists. But the final statement that came out on March 22 still does not say water is a human right. It said: "We acknowledge the discussions with the UN system regarding human rights and access to safe drinking water and sanitation. We recognize that access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a basic human need."

Unlike earlier ministerials, which had insisted that water was a human need, this one at least acknowledged the discussions in the U.N. system and left the decision to national spaces.

This acknowledgment was articulated best by U.S. State Department spokesman Andy Laine: "The United States does not oppose any government adopting a national right to water or sanitation as part of its own domestic policy. We do, however, have concerns with a statement that would require all countries to adopt a national right to water or sanitation or would establish an international right to water or sanitation."

Unfortunately, this position still undermines the work that has so far been done under the United Nations system toward the recognition of water as a fundamental human right.

Thus it is heartening to see the statement earlier this week from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the Human Rights Council: "Human rights are an essential element of American global foreign policy...With others, we will engage in the work of improving the U.N. human rights system. . . . We believe every nation must live by and help shape global rules that ensure people enjoy the right to live freely and participate fully in their societies."

This reiteration of the need for global rules to help ensure that people enjoy the right to live freely and participate fully in their societies is an important reversal of decades of U.S. foreign policy that we need to celebrate.

There will of course be debate over what the "right to live freely and participate fully" involves. Still, Secretary Clinton’s statement gives us a new opportunity. Our next steps should be to ensure that human rights are understood in an inclusive way, so that U.S. policies on agriculture, trade and investments do not undermine, but instead support, peoples' rights, including the right to food, right to water and right to a healthy environment. In other words, to live freely and participate fully in their societies.

Shiney Varghese

April 02, 2009

Biodiversity, Slow Money and Slow Travel

Page_radiosustain Want to hear about how organic agriculture can expand biodiversity and combat climate change? Looking for an alternative to Wall Street that encourages local investment? Ever want to travel around the world without flying?

If the answer is yes to any of these questions, or if you're just mildly curious, check out our latest Radio Sustain podcast. We interview Atina Diffley, founder of the organic farm Gardens of Eagan, Woody Tasch, author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money, and former IATPer Larissa Lockwood and Tom Fewins of the award-winning World in Slow Motion blog. You can find all of our Radio Sustain podcasts on our archives page.

Ben Lilliston

April 01, 2009

The G-20's Opportunity on Speculation

A new global poll finds that 70 percent of people across 24 countries believe that "major changes" are required to the way the global economy is run. A good place to start is the G-20 meeting scheduled to begin this week.

While greater regulation of financial markets is on the agenda, conspicuously absent are commodity exchanges. Last year, IATP published a report documenting the role of the excess speculation on commodity exchanges in the global food crisis. Last week, IATP and more than 180 organizations from around the world sent President Obama and congressional leaders a letter calling for greater regulation of commodity markets.

In a new commentary, IATP's Steve Suppan makes the case that the G-20 should include tougher  regulation of commodity exchanges on their agenda, because of the broad influence commodity exchanges have over food and gas prices around the world. The G-20 should get the ball rolling, but Steve writes that ultimately, a global approach to regulating commodity exchanges needs to come through the G-192 at the United Nations.

Ben Lilliston