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.

IATP Web sites

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.



RSS feeds

 Subscribe in a reader

« July 2009 | Main | September 2009 »

August 2009

August 31, 2009

A life in the (commodity futures) pits

My Aunt Kathryn is the only person that I know who successfully and consistently invested in the commodities futures markets. During a visit to her and Uncle Claude's farm, as a 15-year-old, I tried to understand why she needed all those newspapers, a calculator and notebooks spread out on the kitchen table. She tried to explain to me, with increasing frustration, what she was doing; using the analogy of investing in the stock market, which we were studying in high school. She explained how traders made verbal deals on the trading floors (the "pits") of Chicago, New York, Minneapolis and Kansas City, and how commodity futures markets helped to set the cash prices for what Uncle Claude produced. Then she looked an uncomprehending me straight in the eye and said, "Stevie, the next stop after commodity futures is Las Vegas." Even a callow youth could understand that explanation. 

Aunt Kathryn turned 90 a few days ago and soon my parents and I will go down to Iowa for a big birthday bash paid for by a trust fund filled with her killings in pork belly and corn futures. She wouldn’t recognize the markets now. The traders and "pits" are gone, replaced by Bloomberg "Market Masters" and other marvels of 24/7 round-the-clock and round-the-world electronic trading. In February, the last open outcry called out in the pits of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, which I had first visited as an employee of IATP fourteen years earlier. I ran across my earnest notes from that visit: e.g., “speculators add enough liquidity to the market so that other speculators (farmers included) can get in and out of trades.”

Today liquidity is far in excess of what is required to clear trades. Huge financial institutions, such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, dominate the market, after having successfully lobbied for a decade to deregulate and de-supervise their industry. Among their achievements was the removal of the speculative position limits to which traditional speculators (such as Aunt Kathryn) had been subject. IATP joined other members of the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition (CMOC) in an August 5 letter to the Congressional leadership, calling for the same aggregate position limits for all market participants and other measures.  

We also sent an August 12 comment to the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in support of aggregate position limits. IATP noted that since the CFTC would be in charge of regulating the carbon emissions permit trading envisioned in the House of Representatives “American Clean Energy and Security Act,” (ACES) that the CFTC should hold hearings on how to write rules to prevent excessive speculation in carbon markets. If the CFTC fails to prevent excessive speculation in the carbon markets, the result could be more than the extreme price volatility affecting the market since 2007 (with a concomitant rise in food and energy insecurity). Speculators could jump in as short sellers to drive down the price of carbon emission futures, thus discouraging investment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change. Excessive carbon speculation could fuel an increase in GHG emissions and the economic damage forecast to result, after a two-degree centigrade increase in the global average temperature.

There are at least some signs that the CFTC recognizes the need to address position limits. On August 19, the CFTC withdrew letters permitting Deutsche Bank’s commodity service and Gresham Investment Management to exceed position limits in wheat, soybean and corn futures. These limits apply to traders who use the futures markets to protect themselves against price volatility in commodities they trade or use for manufacture (commercial traders). For a decade these limits had not applied to “non-commercial” traders, such as investment banks. During a CMOC conference call discussing this CFTC action and others, one CMOC member said, “two down and 700 to go.” 

Even if Congress acts to prevent excessive speculation in the commodity and financial markets and the CFTC continues to withdraw the hundreds of “No Action” letters that enabled excessive speculation, the process of restoring fairness to the market will likely be slow. Deutsche Bank and Gresham had already reduced their positions in advance of the CFTC ruling. According to The Wall Street Journal, the two financial institutions will have until October 31 to comply with the rulings, but both were confident that they could already meet their clients’ trading needs within the new limits. 

The late Al Krebs, in his indispensable The Corporate Reapers:The Book of Agribusiness (Essential Books, 1992) wrote, “No one enduring myth in American agriculture has taken deeper root than that which says that the law of supply and demand is the determining factor in establishing fair prices for agricultural commodities.” He documented how speculators in the1970s and 1980s determined prices by providing far more liquidity than what was needed to clear futures contract trades, 41 times as much liquidity in the case of soybean speculators. Al would not be the least bit surprised by the dominance of energy futures over agricultural futures in today’s commodity index funds—nor by the current spike in oil prices at a time when oil reserves are full to overflowing. 

I like to think that if Al had met my Aunt Kathryn (in the 1980s they lived fewer than 200 miles apart in Iowa), he would have advised her to get out the market until the CFTC started to provide a level trading field for commercial traders, such as Aunt Kathryn, with the financial speculators. And I like to think that she, despite the thrill of trading, which Al documents so eloquently, would have taken his advice.

Steve Suppan

August 28, 2009

MRSA on the farm—from pigs to vets to the rest of us

Last spring, Nicholas Kristof opened eyes about the link between pigs, health and MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).


The piece reported on science, stronger in Europe and less well-developed in the U.S., that farms are important reservoirs for MRSA, the staph superbug that is wreaking havoc in hospitals and healthcare budgets.


We now know there is MRSA in North American pigs and on farms. What's less clear is how much this is impacting the human population now and will into the future. The big worry is that farm-associated MRSA will open another pathway for this serious infection—which is resistant to treatment from multiple antibiotics—to pop up in communities. The more farmers, farmworkers and vets carrying MRSA (or, in technical parlance, are "colonized" with MRSA), the greater the risk that its appearance in communities will occur—if not now, then eventually.


In one European study, veterinarians were found to carry farm-associated MRSA at rates several hundred times greater than the general population. Until recently, though, we had no idea whether the same problem existed in U.S. vets.


Last year, though, U.S. swine vets used the occasion of one of their own conferences to swab the nostrils of 150 volunteers. Nostrils are one place where MRSA in particular likes to hang out in humans.


The results are as follows:


Results from 37 volunteers who were not veterinary graduates (mostly students) tested negative, leaving 113 actual working vets sampled: 26 from abroad and 87 from the U.S. Of those, 7 percent of the U.S. swine vets (and a comparable percent of the foreign vets) tested positive for MRSA. This rate is about seven times greater than the rate at which we find MRSA colonized in the average American.


The particular clone, or kind, of MRSA found is important, too. In five of the vets, the MRSA found was closely related to the "livestock-associated" MRSA that we now know is widespread in Dutch and Canadian hogs and, in some cases, on pork meat.


Since this farm-associated MRSA was found on vets working in three different states, it raises concerns that this MRSA clone is widespread across U.S. hog farms. Earlier this year, a limited study in Iowa found MRSA in 45 percent of hogs sampled from two swine facilities.

Researchers from Ohio, Iowa and Minnesota are now doing more comprehensive testing to see how widespread the problem is across the country. Expect to hear more this Fall as they start reporting their results.




David Wallinga, MD

August 27, 2009

A New Energy Utility Takes on Climate Change

As Congress debates a U.S. climate bill this fall, and governments around the world are focused on global climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December, a new community-based approach to addressing climate change is taking hold.

The Sustainable Energy Utility, or SEU, is turning the traditional role of an energy utility on its head in a growing number of states, cities and communities.

In a new article published in Delaware Lawyer, Dr. John Byrne of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy and IATP's Dr. Cecilia Martinez write, "The energy utility of the 20th century was invented to rapidly and continuously increase the energy supply. . .The 21st-century energy utility must have a different focus: to help every citizen and every business conserve energy and, when energy is needed, to utilize the energy gifts of our planet—sunlight, vegetation, the winds and the constant temperature of the earth's mantle just three meters below the surface."

But aggregating government, private and philanthropic resources, the SEU differs from traditional utilities by focusing on: 1) a transition to carbon-free energy sources; 2) a reorientation from energy as commodity to energy as a service; 3) the transition to distributed energy infrastructure; and 4) the direct involvement of energy users in energy decisions.

The SEU directly tackles two of the most difficult challenges in shifting our energy system: high upfront capital costs to obtain long-term benefits in efficiency and renewable energy; and the shock of significant energy price increases. Acting as a nonprofit, the SEU coordinates innovative approaches like third-party financing, tax-exempt bonds, revolving funds, federal and state incentives and grants, and funding from other public and philanthropic resources to invest in sustainable energy infrastructure with long-term savings that are shared by the community.

The SEU concept has been catching on and it's remarkably scaleable. The April 2009 issue of the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society reports on applications of the SEU in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia. In the U.S., Delaware has become the first state in the country to create a state-wide SEU.

In Minnesota, IATP is working with the small rural town of Milan in western Minnesota, and a community organization on the west side of St. Paul, to explore the SEU model.

The Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at IATP is working with West Side Citizens Organization to put an SEU into action in their neighborhood. The west side of St. Paul is a densely populated community of 16,000 in a former industrial zone, with a large percentage of low-income households and people of color. This SEU will focus on energy efficiency and on-site renewable projects.

In Milan, IATP is working with community leaders to develop the first rural-based SEU in the Midwest. Milan, a town of about 350 people, with an average annual household income of about $30,000, will be a model for rural communities in promoting energy affordability, community focused sustainability and attracting energy service businesses to their town.

New policies at the national and international level will set the framework for our collective efforts to stop climate change, but it will take transformative models like the SEU, working on the ground, in communities around the world, to get us there. You can find out more at IATP's SEU page.

Ben Lilliston

August 25, 2009

Foreign hormones in food—atrazine is just one of many

On Sunday, the New York Times reported on new research suggesting the common pesticide, atrazine (often used on corn), may be more dangerous to human health at lower levels than previously thought.

According to the Times, "Recent studies suggest that, even at concentrations meeting current federal standards, the chemical may be associated with birth defects, low birth weights and menstrual problems."

Atrazine is just one of a slew of foreign hormones that contaminate or are intentionally used in our industrialized food system. Like atrazine, science now implicates many of them as contributors—even at very low levels of exposure—to hormone-related chronic diseases.

The latter includes not only birth defects and reproductive problems, but also diseases of the immune system, nervous system, and cancer—especially including breast and prostate cancer. 

Today, IATP released its new Smart Guide: Hormones in the Food System—an overview of dozens of different chemical-disrupting hormones that we likely ingest or are exposed to each day.

The Smart Guide covers steroids and arsenic given to food animals to spur more rapid growth: rbGH, hormone-disrupting pesticides, synthetic hormones in food packaging, as well as other hormone-disrupting food contaminants (such as dioxins, PCBs and flame retardants).

The bad news is that common, low-level exposure to these hormones just keeps looking worse, the more closely scientists study them. On the other hand, consumers have some easy, common-sense steps they can take to reduce their exposure.

The Smart Guide recommends eating low-fat meats and dairy products, eating certified organic when possible, avoiding pesticide hormones and using hormone-free cans and bottles. The guide also lists a series of steps for policymakers to take.

Check out the full Smart Guide.


David Wallinga, MD

August 24, 2009

Do we need industrial agriculture to feed the world?

Okay, only fair to warn you. I do not answer the question here. Second, the subject is not really one for a blog, more for a book. But it's important to say short things as well as long. Third, I have a bias. We all do. In this case, it matters that I like Michael Pollan's writing and that I believe there is much wrong with conventional agriculture as practiced in the United States. You will see why that is relevant in just a moment. Now back to the question.

This one really matters. The world (I guess I mean governments, but also private companies and a lot of NGOs besides) is spending on agriculture like it has not in decades. So how the money gets spent is important. Is more of what we have already better than trying to grow (and process and transport and sell) our food differently? Can we do better? If so, how?

This blog is prompted by a recent short and angry piece from the CEO of the National Corn Growers Association—Rick Tolman—in the Delta Farm Press. His article drew my attention to another article, this one in the American Enterprise Institute's magazine, The American entitled "The Omnivore's Delusion" written by Missouri farmer Blake Hurst. The title is a play on Michael Pollan, "The Omnivore's Dilemma."

As I said, I am one of Pollan's fans—I think he writes persuasively and cogently; even if I do not always agree with him and find that he makes some issues too easy. So I was curious to see what Blake Hurst had made of it. Hurst writes well, which is always a pleasure. He makes some good points, too. But in the end, he fails to give his critics' point of view their due and thereby fails to persuade. Those who agree with him, people like Rick Tolman, are happy. But those who thought that conventional agriculture was the problem before will not change their mind after reading the piece. Sorry, but driving a tractor is no longer any kind of claim to special wisdom. The question on how we, as a planet, feed ourselves and the world deserves a lot more thought, humility and openness to debate. 

Rightly or not, farmers are having to fight hard to be heard, because they are not where the money is. They are not where the subsidies stick (they flow right back out the farm door), and they are outnumbered 440:1 (at a generous estimate) by the eating population (in the U.S. that is—in much of the world, those who grow food outnumber those who do not). As the most recent Farm Bill showed, the fight is no longer among farmers and between farmers and grain traders, or between food companies and consumers. The debate now engages doctors and public health experts, environmentalists and biologists, parents and school boards, anti-poverty organizations and churches, groups against racism, trade unions and a whole slew of more organizations. 

Hurst has his argument with Michael Pollan, but Pollan is just the journalist here—a smart, rhetorically astute, journalist. Behind Pollan are the people that inspired the stories that make Hurst angry—and Hurst's retort does not answer them. Because they, too, are farmers—some of them in a long line of farmers, and some of them new to the land. They are food workers, some of them living and working in conditions that have inspired latter day Upton Sinclairs to write about their condition (Eric Schlosser is just one for instance). And then there are the others—thousands of them, who, for myriad reasons, care about what we eat, how we grow it, and whether we can do better. 

Hurst opens with an attack on a man (nameless) who he overhears holding forth on all that ails the food system. The trouble for Hurst is, whether or not the man's diatribe is well informed, that man has a significant stake in what Hurst does. It is not a symmetrical relationship—Hurst would not presume, he tells us, to tell the man how to run his real estate or tax accountancy firm. All well and good. But actually, the man in question, just like every one of us, is directly involved in Hurst's business. We eat the food he grows, we pay to clean up the mess agriculture makes, we pay the costs of a grossly inefficient and market distorting farm bill—so we have a voice. Like it or not, agriculture in the United States is not "just another business." And with the somewhat hallowed ground of "feeding the world" comes a whole lot of necessary public oversight and meddling that is not optional, but just the way it is. 

There is a lot to respond to in Hurst's article, but let me focus on just one point: 

Hurst equates organic production with a return to 1930s technology. This would be news to people like Joe Salatin, whose farm Pollan is so enthused about in Omnivore's Dilemma. As Farhad Mazar with Nayakrishi Andolon in Bangladesh explained to me, organic production in his community is not about worshipping the past, but combining traditional knowledge with modern science, and respecting certain basic principles (e.g., do not use pesticides that kill the life you want to preserve on the farm, or that harm the farmer and the farm workers). Rather than organic agriculture being a vision that is frozen in time, or a movement inspired by romantic city dwellers trying to get in touch with Little House on the Prairie (as Hurst implies), it is more like Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," where the majority of U.S. farmers were pushed one way (industrial, increasingly concentrated, ever less diversified and ever more dependent on external inputs) and a few—now again on the ascendent, but still only about 1 percent of the total—chose to think about productivity per acre, not per plant; to think about how a symbiotic production cycle could be maintained among the sun, the rain, the plants and the animals (something Salatin's farm, as described so vividly in Pollen's book, brings alive). Alternatives to conventional agriculture are not historic relics. They are the future, and our present. 

The questions are: Do we know enough? Can we make it work well enough? Can we bring about the simultaneous changes required (in storage, transportation, distribution, processing, retail and standards) to make this a revolution now, or will it be more incremental and hesitant and messy? It will surely involve biology and genetics, but maybe not biotechnology to promote the use of particular pesticides and herbicides. It will surely involve the market, but maybe also functioning competition laws, and a radical reassertion of the public interest in food that is healthy for the planet and people alike. 

Farmer Hurst may not like what he hears about agriculture as he flies about the country, but he might want to pay a little more attention to the science and politics behind it. If Michael Pollan was it, he can ride his tractor in peace. Thankfully, Pollan is a sign of the times. Hurst might want to turn his attention to the President, for instance, and reflect some more.

Sophia Murphy

August 18, 2009

We Can Change the Weather: CEED and Aniccha Arts

The Weather Vein Project is a collaboration led by Aniccha Arts that examines—and reflects upon—the ways in which humans impact the weather. A live, interactive sound sculpture created by Mark Fox called "The Weather Oracle" is now on display at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis and runs through August 23. The exhibit was originally designed to be shown in the entry way of "Cloud Turn": an interactive dance presentation held in early June.

Cecilia Martinez and Shalini Gupta from IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy have been regular contributors to the We Can Change the Weather blog—an extension of the Aniccha Arts' Weather Vein Project that supplements the exhibit with news analysis, essays and general thoughts on the role of humans in changing the weather.

More information about the project and contributors is available here.

Andrew Ranallo

August 17, 2009

Honeybees, High Fructose Corn Syrup and Us

New science published on July 31st is the first to look closely at levels of HMF, or Hydroxymethylfurfural, in high fructose corn syrup used as a feedstock for commercial honeybee operations. The study is important not only because of how it might affect honeybees, but also due to HFCS’s ubiquity in many junk foods and beverages marketed to children.

Under certain conditions, fructose can degrade into HMF, which can be toxic to bees and humans. At sufficient levels, for example, HMF can cause ulceration of the gut, resulting in bee dysentery. In test tube studies, HMF also recently was found to damage DNA, which also has important potential implications for humans consuming HFCS. HMF metabolites in the body, like  5-sulfoxymethylfurfural, are also a potentially serious human threat, and are detected in urine after exposure to HMF in the diet.

 The new study found that under heat and over time, HMF levels in commercial HFCS can greatly increase. The pH of the HFCS also appears important. For the last several years, huge numbers of bee colonies have been dying off for as yet undetermined reason or reasons, deemed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This has obvious ecological implications, but also is a food security threat. Many human foods depend on bee pollination. HMF is found in honey, for example, and international food safety standards (Codex Alimentarius) prohibit the sale for human consumption of honey with HMF levels greater than 40 ppm (parts per million).


While this study falls short of naming HMF as a contributor to CCD, it does point to the need for routine testing of HFCS for HMF—there is none currently. Along with recent science pointing to the routine contamination of HFCS with mercury, due to the use of mercury cell chlor-alkali products in its production, this new science highlights how little oversight there has been of HFCS, which now accounts for an estimated one in ten calories in the average American’s diet.


David Wallinga, MD

August 14, 2009

Transportation and sustainable food systems: an open policy window?

IATP is exploring the roles that different federal departments and agencies play in America’s food system. While policies and regulations that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) implements and creates make the biggest mark on what we eat, cumulatively, other federal entities have significant and sometimes surprising impacts on how food is grown, distributed, transported, consumed and disposed of. With the upcoming expiration of the largest transportation bill in history, transportation and sustainable food advocates have an opportunity to find common ground to help reach the goals of both.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) made its biggest mark on the American food system with the creation of the Federal Interstate Highway System (IHS). When President Eisenhower signed the 1956 act that authorized construction of the IHS, lawmakers knew it would revolutionize the transport of food and other goods; the project’s full impact on eating and agriculture, however, would have been hard to imagine. Those 42,000 miles of new roads not only reduced our reliance on trains and increased the use of trucks for food delivery: they gave rise to the car-oriented culture that spurred the growth of the fast food industry, made suburban development (much of it on farmland) more attractive, and increased centralization in food industries.

Now, another opportunity exists for transportation policy to change our food system. DOT's mission is to “serve the United States by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future.” Consumer access to healthful foods and farmer access to markets are among the most vital of interests, yet no transportation-related policies or programs currently address the issues. The reauthorization of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) could be a vehicle to change that.

SAFETEA-LU, set to expire at the end of September, is the farm bill of transportation—a massive piece of legislation that guides federal transportation policy. Leading up to the passage of the bill and its predecessor, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), organizations like Occidental College’s Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) and the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) presented articulate cases for including food access in the bill. They suggested pilot programs and grants to improve food access and funding for mobile farmers' markets, among other things. While these proposals didn't make it into past laws, the argument for incorporating food-related programs may now be stronger. Two recently published government reports address the issue of “food deserts”: places where access to healthful and affordable foods is limited. One was carried out by USDA’s Economic Research Service to fulfill a statute in the 2008 Farm Bill. Another, from the National Academies Press, summarizes proceedings of a workshop titled “The Public Health Effects of Food Deserts” held earlier this year. Both documents cite transportation as a critical factor in remedying food access issues.

In July, Congress began debating the immediate fate of SAFETEA-LU. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2009, an 18-month extension of the current bill's policies. The committee, backed by the Obama administration, says that more time is necessary to craft a reauthorization. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by its chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.), strongly opposes this action—they are concerned that the Senate committee's approach will put the bill on a course similar to SAFETEA-LU’s passage, during which TEA-21 was extended 12 times. Instead, they’ve introduced a 6-year authorization that would replace SAFETEA-LU.

Whatever legislative path the new transportation bill takes, food advocates should weigh in on its contents. Let’s resurrect old ideas, like those put forth in this 2002 policy memo from UEPI and CFSC, and think of new ways that transportation policy can help both farmers and consumers. What would a transport system most supportive of sustainable food look like?

Many of the things that smart growth groups are already calling for—more money for bike trails and public transit, and rewards for communities that reduce their carbon emissions—could be helpful in improving food access and distribution, so if nothing else, sustainable food advocates should support the efforts of organizations like Transportation for America. Considering the role of transportation is one of many ways we can continue to broaden the definition of "food policy" and think beyond USDA to improve our food system.    

Maggie Gosselin

August 13, 2009

Food Safety in the Legislative Grinder

Before they broke for summer recess, the House of Representatives passed a bill designed to improve food safety. In a new commentary, IATP board member and former USDA official Rod Leonard dissects how jurisdictional battles among House committees ultimately weakened the bill and set back more fundamental food safety policy reform. You can read the full commentary here.

Ben Lilliston

August 12, 2009

Midwest Rural Assembly In Pictures

Thank you to anyone who submitted pictures of the Midwest Rural Assembly this week. A special thanks to Shawn Poynter of Rural Strategies. If you are interested in submitting photos, please upload them to Filckr and tag them "midwestruralassembly" so they will appear in the same photostream.

Andrew Ranallo

August 11, 2009

Live from the MRA: Herseth-Sandlin and the Blue Dog Democrats

South Dakota Representative Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin gave members of the Midwest Rural Assembly a window into the so-called Blue Dog Democrats—most of whom represent rural districts. She recently voted against the health care and climate change bills in the U.S. Congress. In both cases, she acknowledged the real need to address both issues—but felt that the concerns of rural America were not addressed in either piece of legislation.

On health care, Herseth-Sandlin criticized current Medicare reimbursement rates, and the inclusion of that same rate within a public health care option. She argued for a more equitable reimbursement rate for rural communities. She also emphasized the need to address the loss of primary health care doctors in rural America.

On energy and climate change policy, Herseth-Sandlin talked about how rural issues—both in agriculture and rural utilities—were not considered until the end of the legislative process. And again, she did not view the last minute additions as adequate for rural communities.

Judging by some of the questions Herseth-Sandlin took after her presentation, not all participants agreed with her positions on health care and energy and climate change; however, the central point that rural concerns have been largely left out of these two national debates seemed to resonate.

Ben Lilliston

Live from MRA: Making Ideas Happen

"When people love something, they take care of it together." This was the message of Minnesota Secretary of State, and IATP founder, Mark Ritchie at the Midwest Rural Assembly this morning as he linked together community pride, patriotism and rural revitalization. 

For rural communities, Ritchie talked about the importance of marrying short-term and long-term goals. He hearkened back to the farm crisis of the 1980s, where there was a need to address foreclosures and farmer suicides in the short-term, but also a long-term vision to plant the seeds for renewable energy in the form of wind farms and ethanol plants.

In facing current challenges, Ritchie emphasized that government officials are often more accessible and more interested in partnerships than many citizens recognize. He encouraged participants to reach out to government officials, particularly the USDA, and tell them what you need.

"In nearly every small community in Minnesota, you can find common interests," said Ritchie. He pointed out how in meetings with an Indian tribe in northern Minnesota and the Chamber of Commerce in the Twin Cities, he heard participants define civic participation as a love of country and community.

"They defined patriotism as love—so strong that we need to take care of what we loved," said Ritchie. "We say it and we share the responsbility of taking care of each other. It may be the land, community or family. If we can demonstrate this type of patriotism, we can help become a healing force for our society."

Ben Lilliston

August 10, 2009

Live at the MRA: Success Stories for Working Landscapes

Rural communities are part of the vanguard of new ideas promoting small-scale sustainable production and use of energy and food. One of the challenges in expanding and scaling up these ideas is getting success stories out there and allowing others to benefit from their experience. At the Midwest Rural Assembly this afternoon, four communities shared their stories.


Cheryl Landgren of Milan, Minnesota described the town's efforts to launch a Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) in partnership with IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy.Milan is a small farm town with a growing immigrant community. They are hoping to host the country's first rural, smalltown SEU—a community-led initiative to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy. An SEU is designed to be a one-stop shop to secure advantages of the new green economy encompassed in energy efficiency, renewable energy and biomass production. The SEU will identify funding resources, engage in public education, set up a revolving loan fund and invest in energy savings. Milan is in the early stages of developing an SEU, but ultimately it will be community governed and controlle, thereby allowing Milan to control its energy future.


Martin Kleinschmit discussed a three-year test project with 10 Nebraskan farmers focused on carbon sequestration. In this project, farmers grew a number of different crops to store carbon in the soil—emphasizing crops with longer root systems and longer growing seasons. He emphasized that there are more than just climate benefits in building carbon in the soil; these types of crops can help retain water and build the soil for future crop production.


Jacob Limmer gave his unique perspective as the owner of the Cottonwood Bistro in Brookings, S.D. and the operator of nearby Glacier Till Farm. Jacob talked about the challenges of sourcing local foods (usually from multiple farmers with different billing methods), the challenges of farming for local markets and the need to find off-farm work to keep the farm going. He emphasized the need for improving collective local food distribution systems—which would allow buyers to more easily source local foods and provide larger, more consistent buyers for farmers.


And finally, Linda Meschke of Rural Advantage told attendees about efforts in Madelia, Minnesota to use renewable bioindustrial processing to provide a market for new crops (outside of the corn/soybean rotation). The town went through a public process to set priorities for the new facility and agreed to emphasize both community investment, perennial crops and local sourcing (within 25 miles). The project could bring multiple benefits to the community, including: water quality, renewable energy, habitat preservation, greater sustainable agriculture, and keeping wealth within the community.


There are many stories like these being shared at the assembly—where interesting ideas continue to grow.

Ben Lilliston

Live from the MRA: USDA's Tonsager Outlines Rural Agenda

At the Midwest Rural Assembly this morning, USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager got everyone's immediate attention by emphasizing that the agency has twice as much money as it had last year—and it needs to get that money out the door and into the countryside. But perhaps most impressive was his emphasis on government as a partner with rural communities and a clear belief that government can play an important role in improving peoples' lives.

Tonsager outlined his top priorities for USDA's Rural Development office as:

1) Improving collaboration between communities within the same region to better leverage resources.

2) Capitalizing on the economic benefits of local food systems.

3) Improving the effectiveness of community development programs already at USDA.

4) Expanding economic opportunity from bioenergy; including biofuel, biomass and cellulose.

5) Increasing broadband access to rural communities (See Julia's blog on this topic).

6) Identifying and working with strategic partners on the ground in rural communities.

7) Improving the flow of capital into rural communities to make important investments.

We sat down with Under Secretary Tonsager for a short interview to find out more:

Ben Lilliston

Live from the MRA: Broadband and Rural Communities

"If urban America has the technology and we don't, what does it say about democracy in this country?" — Loris Taylor, Native Public Media

Many of us who live in urban areas take for granted the digital access we have in our homes and workplaces. We use our lightning-fast connections for everything from reading the news, looking for jobs, doing our work and keeping in touch with friends. That's not the case for much of rural America, something I'm learning more about in a breakout session here at the Midwest Rural Assembly.

It's a great panel of four speakers: Beth McConnell from the Media and Democracy Coalition; Joshua Breitbart from the People's Production House; Loris Taylor from Native Public Media; and Edyael Casaperalta from the Center for Rural Strategies, who've all been discussing the digital divide—lack of access in rural areas to broadband technology, and particularly the lack of access that minority and lower-income populations have to high-speed internet service.

According to the speakers, this is an issue that goes beyond email and Facebook to actually strike at the heart of civic engagement. If rural Americans cannot get online, they cannot get the same access to news (something that's becoming ever-more important as print media collapses), to political tools and information, to healthcare information (as well as telehealth—something that's becoming an important part of rural healthcare strategies), and as important, to conversations that help build more vibrant rural communities.

Julia Olmstead

The Best of the Midwest Rural Assembly

Today and tomorrow, we'll be with government and community leaders in Souix Falls, South Dakota at the Midwest Rural Assembly to talk about the challenges and opportunities facing rural communities. We will hear from government officials like Dallas Tonsager, the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development at USDA, U.S. Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, among others. In turn, they will hear from community leaders focused on retaining young adults, expanding health care access and building working landscapes that promote environmental stewardship and healthy food.

Throughout the next few days, we'll be blogging from the Assembly, reporting on the presentations as well as interviewing participants. Look for more here soon.

Ben Lilliston

August 05, 2009

How Are Your Tomatoes?

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.

Between 1845 and 1852 the population of Ireland was reduced by 25 percent. Over a million people perished in one of Western Europe's great famines. The oomycete Phytophthora infestans was responsible for the—as it is more commonly known—Irish Potato Famine. Just three weeks ago P. infestans made its quiet arrival into our fields, and as rain continued to fall (near record levels this year) the spores began their tumultuous spread. Since its arrival we have pulled a quarter of our tomato plants. It has since spread to our potato plants, which we will soon mow to prevent the fungus from going tuber. Acting quickly, we have begun a spraying program on our crops with an organically approved fungicide.

Photo 1 Phytophthora infestans, or late blight, is a highly contagious fungus that destroys tomato and potato plants and has quickly spread to nearly every state in the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic. The spores of the fungus are often present in the soil, and small outbreaks are not uncommon in August and September; but the cool, wet weather in June and the aggressively infectious nature of the pathogen have combined to produce what Martin A. Draper, a senior plant pathologist at the United States Department of Agriculture, describes as an “explosive” rate of infection. There are two strains of late blight—tomato and potato—but the illness can jump between the species. A single open lesion on a plant can produce hundreds of thousands of infectious spores.

Fungicides can protect unaffected plants from disease, but there is no cure for late blight. Organic farmers, who are not permitted to use powerful synthetic fungicides, like chlorothalonil, have very few weapons against this aggressive pathogen.

Similar to the hand-me-down costs of our industrial food system, we now see residual effects by an  irresponsible industrial bedding plant nursery. The current outbreak is believed to have spread from plants in garden stores to backyard gardens and commercial fields. Geneticists at Cornell are tracking the blight, and have said the outbreak spread in part from the hundreds of thousands of tomato plants bought by home gardeners at Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot and Kmart stores starting in April. The wholesale gardening company Bonnie Plants, based in Alabama, had supplied most of the seedlings and recalled all remaining plants starting on June 26.

If the blight continues, there could be widespread destruction of tomato crops—especially organic ones— and higher prices at the market. “Locally grown tomatoes normally get $15 to $20 a box” at wholesale, cites John Mishanec, a pest management specialist at Cornell who visited our farm pre-blight. “Some growers are talking about $40 boxes already.” Almost every farm here in Dutchess County has been affected. It's the quiet gossip at our farmers markets—"How are your tomatoes?" we often ask one another.

Authorities recommend that home gardeners inspect their tomato plants for late blight signs, which include white, powdery spores; large olive green or brown spots on leaves; and brown or open lesions on the stems. Gardeners who find an affected plant should pull it, seal it in a plastic bag and throw it away—not compost it. Many unaffected plants in commercial fields are being sprayed with heavy doses of fungicides to prevent the spread of the disease. (More information can be found at this Cornell Web site,)

The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., where I visited this past spring, has lost this year’s tomato crop. Because long-term management of the disease is of greatest importance, we might soon be pulling our entire first crop of tomatoes. In regards to consumers and our CSA members, we will be providing a hand-written letter on how we are actively managing this year's tomato and potato crops. 

Devin Foote

August 04, 2009

Leave PVC Off the Back-to-School List

Believe it or not, August is already here and the first day of school is just around the corner! Parents are gearing up for the school year and literally “gearing up” their kids with all the implements their class lists require.

Remember those days? With your knees all scraped up from summer activities like bike riding, baseball and climbing trees—your parents would drag you through the department store for a new backpack, notebook or some ugly lunch box just because it was 40 percent off?

Well, it turns out that a lot of those school supplies—including lunchboxes, backpacks and three-ring binders—are made with polyvinyl chloride (also called PVC or vinyl)—a toxic plastic that is dangerous to our health and the environment; not only during its production but during use and disposal as well.

School supplies made with PVC can contain dangerous chemical additives, like phthalates and lead, which can leach out of the products over time and pose unnecessary health risks to our children.

You may already know that due to the risks posed by exposure to phthalates, the federal government banned them from children’s toys last year, but they can still be used in other types of products like school supplies. So Healthy Legacy, in partnership with the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ), is releasing the Back-to-School Guide to PVC-Free School Supplies. The guide is a tool parents can use to identify which products are made from PVC and provides tips and tricks to finding a product that’s just as useful, but made from a safer alternative.

(Products made from vinyl can often be identified by a number “3” inside, or the letters “V” or “PVC” underneath the recycling symbol. If a product isn’t labeled, contact the manufacturer to ask—you have a right to know.)

There’s also another reason to avoid products made from PVC. As previously mentioned, PVC—also known as “the poison plastic”—is toxic through its entire life cycle (that is, from its creation, through its useful life and to its disposal). That means that the communities where this plastic is manufactured are often at a higher risk for health-related problems.

That’s exactly the case in the historic African-American community of Mossville, Louisiana, which is home to more PVC plants than anywhere else in the U.S. Studies have shown that residents there are more likely to suffer from health problems like ear, nose and throat illnesses; central nervous system disturbances; and increased skin, digestive, immune and endocrine disorders. Would you want that in your neighborhood?

As you write up that list of “must-haves” and head out to the stores to prepare for the coming school year, make sure to go toxic-free and avoid products made from PVC!

Katie Rojas-Jahn

Free Trade and Agriculture—a Bad Idea

MR090701cvr_140 The July–August issue of the Monthly Review features IATP's Sophia Murphy and her essay "Free Trade in Agriculture: A Bad Idea Whose Time is Done;"  an examination of the original promises of free trade in agriculture and what actually happened—particularly to developing countries.

The essay also outlines alternative agriculture trade strategies that could help address hunger, build sustainable local foods systems and improve a trading system full of widening disparities.

The full issue of the Monthly Review is also worth checking out. Titled "The Crisis in Agriculture & Food: Conflict, Resistance, & Renewal," it includes articles by Walden Bellow, Miguel Altieri and Peter Rosset among many others. 

Andrew Ranallo