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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July 2009

July 31, 2009

Join Government and Rural Leaders at Summit

Mra75 No part of the U.S. has been spared from the current financial crisis, but rural communities—already among the nations poorest—have been hit particularly hard. Rural unemployment exceeds urban and exurban unemployment, according to a report by the Daily Yonder.

On Monday, August 3, the Daily Yonder's Bill Bishop will conduct a webinar focusing on rural demographics and political shifts in rural districts. The webinar will be from 10 a.m.–11 a.m. CST. Reserve your webinar seat now and learn more about the past and future of rural politics.

Bill's webinar is a lead-in to the Midwest Rural Assembly, scheduled for August 10–11 in Souix Falls, South Dakota. The assembly, sponsored by over 25 Midwest groups, will bring together national, state and local-level policy makers and rural residents to discuss the challenges facing rural communities—and opportunities for change. It will feature USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager; USDA Deputy Under Secretary of Rural Development Victor Vasquez; state rural development directors from Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota; U.S. Representative Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin; and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

The assembly will focus on rural health care, education, sustainable working landscapes, rural technology access and leadership development.

The registration deadline is Monday, August 3—so register and join us in Souix Falls!

Facebook users: Become a fan of the Midwest Rural Assembly.

Ben Lilliston

July 29, 2009

WIC Gets an Upgrade

The Women, Infants and Children Nutrition program (WIC) is one of the most important government programs for low-income families. WIC's food package provides vouchers for milk, eggs, cheese, cereal and other food items. Now, for the first time in it's 35-year existence, it's getting an overhauland that requires retail food vendors who accept WIC vouchers to make fresh fruits and vegetables available.  

States have until September 30, 2009, to update their food package and there is some latitude among states in how they will implement the new requirements. Minnesota will implement its new rules on August 1. Those rules take the fruits and vegetables requirement a step further by setting a minimum stocking requirement. Many low-income communities, in both rural and urban parts of the country, do not have easy access to grocery stores. WIC participants are often forced to rely on corner stores without much of a selection of healthy foodparticularly perishable items like fruits and vegetables.

IATP is working with the Minnesota Department of Health to publicize the new rules in corner stores around the state. And we are working with food distributors in Minnesota that supply corner stores to make it easier for those stores to stock fresh, high-quality produce. Our press release has the details.

Ben Lilliston

July 28, 2009

Ethanol Industry Explores Options to Antibiotics

Earlier this month, IATP reported on the widespread and unnecessary use of antibiotics by the ethanol industry. IATP's Julia Olmstead visited a Wisconsin ethanol plant last week that is using a hops-based alternative to antibiotics to manage bacteria growth in the fermentation process. Watch her video below to learn more.

Ben Lilliston

July 24, 2009

Krugman on Carbon Derivatives: A Rebuttal

Steve Suppan, Senior Policy Analyst with IATP, has responded to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman regarding his recent blog post "Is the threat of speculation a reason to shun cap and trade?" (July 21, 2009) about the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009.

The entire commentary is reproduced below or available to view or download as a PDF here.

Krugman on Carbon Derivatives: A Rebuttal
By Steve Suppan

In his eagerness to support climate and energy legislation, Paul Krugman oversimplifies and thereby distorts the opposition to the carbon derivatives provisions in the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES) as “[…] basically ‘Eek! Markets! Wall Street! Speculation! Bad!’” (“Is the threat of speculation a reason to shun cap and trade?” July 21, 2009). Granted it is only a blog post, and not yet a topic of his very influential and widely syndicated New York Times column; yet given his influence, even his blog merits a rebuttal.

Krugman would have us believe that trading carbon emissions permit derivatives is just like trading a wheat futures contract. Not so. Wheat futures contracts allow market participants to manage short-term (usually 90 days) price volatility, including “bets” that hope to drive down the price of wheat. How will a statutory purpose of ACES—“to reduce green house gas pollution”—be fulfilled if speculators are allowed to drive down the price of carbon below even the price of the emission permits Congress gives away to industry in ACES? The data reporting requirements for ACES indicate that “short only” bets to decrease carbon prices will be allowed. 

Following what European traders have done, Wall Street will slice, dice and package the claimed dollar per ton value of carbon-reducing claims made in projects to offset increases in carbon emissions elsewhere. Offset-based carbon derivatives contracts could proliferate on nothing more than the expectation of regulatory approval of projects claiming to offset carbon emissions. As Friends of the Earth’s Michelle Chan testified to the House Ways and Means Committee in March, profits could be taken on offset-based derivatives far in advance of any proof that an offset project has resulted in verifiable greenhouse gas reductions. 

Wall Street forecasts at least a $2 trillion market in carbon derivatives within five years. The current estimated value of all agricultural and non-agricultural commodity derivatives traded under Commodity Futures Trading Commission authority is $4–5 trillion. If the forecast is accurate, carbon derivatives could become a major component of commodity index fund formulas. The ACES trader data reporting requirements anticipate that carbon derivatives will be bundled into commodity index funds. Depending on how traders formulate the mix of commodities in the fund formula, it is likely that carbon emissions could become the dominant “commodity” in some fund formulas, displacing oil. Agricultural commodity prices, and to a lesser extent global food security, could be vulnerable to a swing in carbon derivatives prices, as carbon dominant index funds roll over to take profits.

Krugman still believes that speculation was not a major driver of commodity price volatility in 2008; and hence believes that excessive speculation can be easily regulated for carbon derivatives. He bases the former belief on a blog by Scott Irwin at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who dismisses a just-published U.S. Senate report on wheat speculation because it incorporates the views of market participants—and benefits too little from Irwin’s own work and that of other U.S. agricultural economists. However, as Christopher Gilbert at the University of Trieste has shown on the basis of CFTC data, index funds controlled about a third of all corn futures contracts from 2006–2008. (The disparity in 2008 futures contracts held by index funds vs. commodity traders subject to CFTC contract holding limits is even more severe; e.g., 1.5 billion bushels in Chicago Board of Trade March 2008 corn contracts held by the Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley managed funds vs. 11 million bushels held by users and traders of that commodity.) After demonstrating how the funds could swing the price of corn, Gilbert concludes that the “fund formula is the fundamental.” 

In February, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, convinced that excessive speculation was a major factor in commodity price volatility in 2008, passed a bill to prevent the trading practices that lead to excessive speculation. However, Wall Street has set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to finance a sotto voce lobbying campaign against this and similar bills in the Senate. As a result of this campaign, a future House and Senate compromise to reform the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA) may result  in some of the financial service industry practices that have triggered the destruction of much of the global economy. 

As Satyajit Das wrote in the Financial Times (“How to design derivatives that dazzle and obfuscate,” July 8), “Financial products must be opaque and priced inefficiently to produce excessive profits.” Although Das writes about financial derivatives, he could just as well be writing about commodity derivatives, which provided the original model for financial derivatives. If the CEA, an underlying legislative authority for ACES, allows the opacity for over-the-counter derivatives that have contributed so much to the present depredations, we could soon live in the worst of all possible carbon-derived worlds. Huge institutional investors, such as pension funds, could be plowing money into carbon derivative offsets, while ACES enriches Wall Street but fails to reduce carbon emissions.

Traditional speculators provide liquidity needed to clear trades in commodity futures markets; but their role must be tightly regulated in order that excessive liquidity not result in the extreme price volatility that has disrupted agricultural and non-agricultural commodity markets.  This need for tight regulation is all the greater when it concerns the reduction of green houses gasses. The purpose of ACES should not be to “get carbon prices right” but to achieve the long-term reduction of carbon emissions of which the legion of benefits is ultimately beyond pricing. The carbon derivatives subtitles of ACES do not provide the statutory basis to achieve that purpose. We would suggest that instead of caricaturing the  opposition to carbon derivatives in ACES, Krugman dedicate more time to analyzing the bill itself.

Steve Suppan is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Andrew Ranallo

July 20, 2009

At it again: the G-8 talks food

I doubt you missed it, even if you only caught a headline out of the corner of your eye: the G-8 leaders gathered for three days, July 8-10, (in what looked like a splendid meeting room) in L'Aquila, Italy (63 miles east-north-east of Rome). They meet every July, and every year I hope the very expensive habit will somehow have died a quiet death. No luck so far, but reportedly Angela Merkel of Germany agrees with me. I see that as a positive sign that change is nigh. Not that Merkel's proposal is all that usefulit sort of misses the point about exclusion. But it is better than just 8.

Anyway, the leaders talked about food, as they did last year. In fact, this year saw the first ever G-8 meeting of Agriculture Ministers, back in April. (Check it outVandana Shiva was there). The G-8 leaders made a statement on the food crisisread it here. The statement was signed by a big crowd of others (see the last para of the statement), all of whom attended the day given over to the food crisis. All this is heartening to me. It would be nice to see some farmers and peasants invited, not just business dressed in technology for charity garb, but nonetheless, it is important and useful to see that the G-8 does not think it can do this on its own. There was a big build-up to the meeting, and IATP joined others in sending their thoughts on what the governments should do to the press. Our press release was joint with CIDSE, a network of Catholic social justice organizations. (Read it here.)
The official declarations is a parson's egggood in parts. Which is better than being all bad. More production, more trade, more private sector (all in need of lots of finessing to be palatable); also more power for small-holders and women, more civic engagement and an emphasis on access (whewnot just about production, which has become almost a code word for funding particular kinds of biotechnology that have little if anything to do with food security or small-holders' needs). Last year's interest in grain reserves seems to persist. This year's text says:

"The feasibility, effectiveness and administrative modalities of a system of stockholding in dealing with humanitarian food emergencies or as a means to limit price volatility need to be further explored. We call upon the relevant International Institutions to provide us with evidence allowing us to make responsible strategic choices on this specific issue."
(last para in bullet point 6)."

All good. Not about the pros and cons anymore, but about evidence-based choices: we seem to be making some small but important headway. For the U.S., the big announcements are potentially really big. At least, expensive. For instance, the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations (as reported in the Financial Times by Javier Blas on 6 July) claims, "US annual spending on African farming projects topped $400m in the 1980s, but by 2006 had dwindled to $60m." Obama is now talking about US$3.5 billion for agriculture over 3 years: the U.S. share of the $20 billion commitment for agriculture signed by the G-8 governments (not that they deliver on their promises, most years).  

So now the crux of it all: how will the money be spent? Note that absent from the G-8 food crisis confab was the IAASTD; or UNEP and UNCTAD, who jointly published a fascinating and important report on the value of organic agriculture in Africa. Why is that? Well, because all the talk about technology and boosting production and opening trade highlights what the governments just don't get yet.

I hope Obama gets eight years to get it rightat this rate, on trade and on development both, he looks like he is going to need the time. Full kudos on getting past food aid, which is where U.S. public investment in agricultural development has been stuck for two decades. Now for a little honest self-reflection on what Africa really needs and how the U.S. can best support what is needed. Hint: the money can certainly be used, but it is much more about policies, including U.S. domestic agricultural policies. Are you ready, Mr. President? Do you really want to end the scourge of hunger? Because we can do it. Not with lectures about governance abroad. Let's start in your own backyard. Literally. The Victory Garden and all it stands for is the place to start building your answers.

Sophia Murphy

July 16, 2009

Getting Antibiotics Out of Ethanol

Unnecessary antibiotic use in livestock production is a massive contributor to the growing specter of antibiotic resistance. But in a study released today, we report on a lesser known source of non-therapeutic antibiotic use: the ethanol industry.

For decades, ethanol producers have added antibiotics to the fermentation process to control bacterial outbreaks. The practice attracted little concern until last year, when the FDA began testing samples of distillers grains, a nutrient-rich ethanol co-product that is sold as feed for cattle, dairy cows, pigs and poultry. The testing revealed residues of four types of antibiotics, and the results implied that these antibiotics (erythromycin, tylosin, virginiamycin and penicillin) are moving from the fermenter tanks to our food system. 

Unnecessary antibiotic use is the bad news. But our research found some good news, too. Effective, cost-competitive antibiotic-alternatives are widely available and are already used by nearly 45 percent of the ethanol industry. We found that statistic inspiring, and in our new report, we ask the ethanol industry to go a step further and enact a voluntary antibiotics ban. Given the risks of antibiotic overuse, and given the effective, widely available antibiotic alternatives, there is really no good argument the ethanol industry can make against this action.

Read all about it here, and learn why getting antibiotics out of ethanol just makes sense.

Julia Olmstead

July 13, 2009

Electric Cars vs. Big Mac

Earlier this week, the green machine known as McDonald’s (I say this with tongue in cheek, of course) announced they’re getting into the alternative energy biz. That’s rightthe hamburger chain will soon open an electric vehicle charging station at a restaurant in Cary, NC, with other stations to follow.

Says the press release, “The new McDonald's will deliver yet another new facet of energy conservation by enabling EV drivers to have a place to recharge their vehicles, while enjoying their meal.”

Well, okay, I’m on board with expanding EV charging stations, something we’ll need if electric cars are to become widespread. But the irony here is simply too great to ignore.

This “green” McDonald’s, as they call it, is still a hamburger restaurant, and feedlot beef is the most greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive food we can eat. A 2006 FAO study estimated that 18 percent of GHG emissions come from livestock production, more than transportation. And beef production makes up a Whopper whopping 78 percent of those emissions, even though beef consumption only accounts for 30 percent of meat consumption in the developed world.

Driving a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle will save you on average about 100 grams of CO2 per mile compared to a conventional car, according to a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency study. Cutting out the quarter pounder will net you somewhere around 3,600 grams of CO2, according to low estimates. That’s 20 miles worth of savings, in just one cheeseburger. Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

Of course, this works out very well for McDonald’s, which gets to claim even more green-ness than they already do. But for the rest of us, it’s clearly better to skip the burger (or if you can’t give them entirely up, as I haven’t, choose 100 percent grass-fed beef from a rotationally grazed system and eat them sparingly).  And, if you can, leave the car at home.

Julia Olmstead

July 10, 2009

The Coming Carbon Bubble

Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone has a written an explosive article on the exploits of Goldman Sachs. The article charts the bank's remarkable political influence, and its role in creating a series of inflationary bubbles (the Great Depression, tech stocks, housing and food/fuel), while somehow always emerging intact and lavishly compensating its employees.

Last year, IATP documented how Wall Street speculators, including Goldman Sachs, drove up agriculture commodity prices and contributed to the global food crisis. Taibbi reports on how Goldman is positioning itself once again to take advantage of the new U.S. carbon market established in the climate change bill passed by the House of Representatives on June 26.

Taibbi writes, "The new carbon-credit market is a virtual repeat of the commodities-market casino that's been kind to Goldman, except it has one delicious new wrinkle: If the plan goes forward as expected, the rise in prices will be government-mandated. Goldman won't even have to rig the game. It will be rigged in advance."

Ben Lilliston

July 08, 2009

Dimensions of the Global Food Crisis

I am recently back from an incredibly rich two days in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Take a lookit must be among the Southern-most settlements on the globe, and is home to the yellow-banded penguin, an albatross colony, an imposing statue of Queen Victoria and much else besides.) The conference was the 44th Foreign Policy School of Otago University and focused on the global food crisis. The audience was a mix of academics and students, a big crowd of newly joined employees of New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (dubbed the "baby dips"), with a few journalists, industry representatives, and NGOs alongside.

The list of speakers was extraordinarygrouping some of the most exceptional thinkers in the rich and complex world of food policy. A webcast of the event will be available soon at the Foreign Policy School Web site. Meanwhile, some highlights. 

First, for a country that is unusually dependent on agriculture and trade, there was hardly a murmur from the audience as speaker after speaker challenged the neoliberal assumptions that have driven New Zealand trade policy, in agriculture as in most else, during the last twenty years. Speaking from a number of perspectives, the speakers reinforced one another in asserting that trade liberalization was not just relatively powerless in the face of the food crisis, but also part of the problempart of the long-standing and deep crisis that besets global food systems: worldwide, we produce more than enough food, yet hundreds of millions (and, today, an estimated 1.2 billion people) live in chronic hunger.

Second, the solutions are complex and specific, not general. There is no blueprint that can sort us out. We know that the food systems we have are not sufficiently inclusive (too many cannot access the bounty). We know the systems are not accountable (too many policies are derived without consultation, derived from global negotiations where too few national governments are adequately represented, or are dictated by the interests of private firms with little consideration of the public interest). We know our food systems are environmentally destructive, using our water and soil at wholly unsustainable rates and creating an estimated 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, once the energy used for storage, processing, and distribution is counted. We know the systems deliver an unhealthy diet, with obesity rates that have exploded in just one short generation, not just in rich countries but in many poorer countries as well.

Third, there are solutions. The scale of the problem and the lack of a blueprint may be disheartening, but there are solutions. All over the globe, countless experiments and projects testify to the productivity of alternative agriculture, to its ecological healthiness, to its richness in social capital. Comparative advantage seems to have died a death as a compelling narrative (thank the gods). It will take a historian to date the moment, but the tide has turned and the Dunedin conference confirmed it for me. Everyone is asking what next, and some of those with answers are emerging to take a more central role in the debates.

A few highlights: hearing a New Zealander make a plea for agriculture's "special" nature. It was said in the context of climate change, not trade, needless to say, but it was still a bit of a shock. As someone who has argued that agriculture faces special constraints and demands to an audience of deeply skeptical trade and industry officials for 12 long years, to hear the same point from the private sector based in a country that is relentless in its quest to deny the distinct qualities of agriculture in trade circles was precious. Vive la différence!

Another highlight was provided by Alistair Mowat, speaking for Zespri, the farmer-owned co-operative that has a monopoly on NZ's kiwi fruit exports. In a conversation as we headed to our flight out of Dunedin, Alistair pointed out that while supply chains are generally depicted as linear, with producers as far from the consumers as it is possible to be, he saw the chain more like a horseshoe, with intermediaries at the center that were not really bothered about what it was they were buying and selling, but the two ends actually close in both their private (buyer/seller) and public (citizen) concerns (e.g., managing the natural resource base for the long-term, keeping prices from being too volatile, ensuring a safe product, etc.). 

Finally, long-time Green Party activist and food and garden writer, Christine Dann, in a closing comment to the conference from the floor, reminded everyone that food security starts at home: one central way to respond and deal with the food crisis is to plant a garden. And there it is, encapsulated so neatly: we have a crisis created by a focus on just growing more food. We need instead to also look at who grows the food, where they grow it and who eats it. The garden is the first place that countsfor the poor, because it provides an alternative to a market economy they are priced out of; for the rich, because by buying all our food from supermarkets, we generate demand that creates incredible waste for our already over-stretched planet. A few homegrown veggies from the garden, cultivated with the help of our children, can go a long way to the re-education we need to demand the space for another, better food system for the future. 

I had a great couple of days. And I can't wait to get back for another look at the penguins.

Sophia Murphy

Land Grabbing

When the sharp rise in food prices hit in 2007, countries and corporations began looking for land around the world that could produce both food and biofuels. The focus of so-called "land-grabs" has been on countries in Africa, South America and Asia. But, different from past forms of colonialism, much of the land investment is being led by southern countries or companies based in the southern hemisphere. In a new article in Foreign Policy in Focus, IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch reports on the extent of global land grabs and analyzes their potential effects on food production and hunger around the world.

Ben Lilliston

July 06, 2009

When the Fly in Your Soup May Carry Superbugs

The rise in illnesses due to antibiotic resistant bacteria has always been both easier and harder to understand than scientists have led us to believe.

Easier because on the one hand, the problem all boils down to one maxim: "The more we use them, the faster we lose them (antibiotics, that is)." In articulating his theory of natural selection, Charles Darwin fleshed out the concept. We live within a huge ecosystem of bacteria in which we humans are just one small cog. When we introduce a stressor into that systemantibioticswe create the conditions where the bugs that most naturally resistant those antibiotics will be the ones that thrive and come to dominate our mutual environments.

Harder to understand, perhaps, because this bacterial ecosystem is a much more complex, nuanced world than most of us ever think about. It turns out that bacteria can swap their genes with ease with even unrelated families of bacteria. This includes the genes that render them resistant to antibiotics. Moreover, because these drug resistant genes are often physically connected to one another, bacteria that before was killable with several antibiotics, could, in one fell swoop, become much less killable. 

What prompted this blog is the latest study (Graham J et al. Sci Total Environ. April 2009) showing that these bugs and the genes that make them resistant could be carried by fliesyes, fliesfrom farms to elsewhere. Now foolishly, about 70 percent of all antibiotic supplies in the U.S. are used as additives to animal feed for chickens, pigs and beef cattle to make them grow faster under more stressful, confined conditions prevalent in factory farms. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University looked at poultry manure from these factory farms and compared the drug resistance of the bacteria in the litter with the bacteria on the flies collected nearby. And guess what, the drug resistance was pretty much the same.

We don't know where else those flies were headed to, but wherever it is, the implications aren't good.

So, next time you do find a fly in your soup, just say, "Waiter, no superbugs, please."

David Wallinga, MD

July 02, 2009

Food Independence Day

FoodIndependenceDay_statueofliberty Americans are certainly good at one thing during national holidays: consumption of all kindsbut particularly of food. This year, let's make it local.

This July 4, Kitchen Gardeners International, with support from IATP's Food and Society Fellows Program and other individuals passionate about about local food, are calling for a Food Independence Day. To date, more than 5,000 people have pledged to eat a meal made with local food. On the campaign's Web site, people can share details, photos and locations of their locally sourced meals.

Let's all fly our Food Independence Day flag high this Fourth of July.

Ben Lilliston