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.
September 30, 2009
Vilsack robs Peter to pay Paul to address the hypoxic zone
At the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient task force meeting, Sept 24, 2009, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the release of $320 million to fund a new Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI). The initiative will “fund efforts in 12 states along the 2,350-mile long Mississippi River.” The states are Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin. The funds will be available over the next four years.
According to the USDA news release, the initiative will be managed by the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) at USDA. Partner organizations will include state and local agencies and agricultural producers. Partners mentioned in an interview of NRCS chief David White by Frank Holdmeyer, include the Farm Bureau, commodity organizations and the Environmental Defense Fund, among others. These partners will “coordinate their resources in areas requiring the most immediate attention and offer the best returns on the funds invested.” It will be a voluntary program.
Conservation methods that avoid, control and trap nutrient runoff will be implemented by agricultural producers. The initiative will be performance oriented. This means that ”measurable conservation results are required in order to participate.” It will concentrate on 8-digit or smaller watersheds, those that are known to contribute high loads of nutrients into the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Watersheds will be identified by an in-house evaluation process. According to White, each state will select one to three large watersheds of 250,000 to 1.2 million acres and then select a sub-watershed of 10,000 to 40,000 acres for application of the conservation measures. White said that the agency wants proposals by the end of October and plans to select eligible watersheds by late January or early February.
Reading through the releases and statements, it is obvious that this is not new money, but a re-direction of funds from other programs such as the Cooperative Conservation Initiative, Conservation Innovative Grants, and the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program. It would appear that other funds will be shaved from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, and the Conservation Stewardship Program.
My take on the MRBI is that it is a shuffling of the chairs exercise. Since no new funds are allotted, and established programs that have had the benefit of outside comment before establishment are being short-sheeted, the program may well end up as another of those ghost acronyms that float across the political landscape. Consider these issues:
Targeting is not likely: In spite of indications that the projects will be targeted, all 12 states will have participating watersheds. While $320 million is not a small amount of money, when spread over 12 states and four years, only about $6.6 million per state, before administrative costs, will be available each year. Unfortunately, peanut buttering is the typical outcome of watershed programs and ensures they will be limited in scope. Consider that about 160 to 165 million acres of corn and soybeans are grown each year (these crops are often planted alternate years and both cause nitrate leaching and erosion). Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois have about 60 million of these acres, or about 38 percent of the total annual row crops, and contribute close to 40 to 50 percent of the nitrate runoff, yet may receive only about 25 percent of the funds.
Measuring Performance: The initiative appears to call for measurable conservation efforts in order to participate; yet we know that measured outcomes require background monitoring, usually for a decade or more, to account for weather variation and then another decade or more of measurements after the practices have been implemented. In the MRBI, we have a 4-year program and no apparent requirement for monitoring before or after the project. Thus watershed selection will be based on less than perfect criteria and likely performance will not be evaluated. White admitted there are some complicating issues that will have to be worked out such as how to establish good baseline and the lag time between when the conservation practices are applied and measurable results. "It can take from several months to 15 years to see results he noted. But I think we can work through this.”
It's Voluntary: All conservation programs have been voluntary as far as I can recall. The agricultural community lives in fear of regulations that might be binding, and refuses to cooperate unless the program is voluntary. But we know over the years that voluntary has not worked. Again, this assures that little will be gained.
Who will be around to ensure that the expensive conservation practices will be maintained over time, as crop land changes ownership or management? Who will continue the monitoring on a voluntary basis? In the end, the MRBI promises to be another initiative that solves little, creates more work for bureaucrats, and could actually lessen the effectiveness of the excellent programs already underway in NRCS. But it sounds good.
Secretary Vilsack can be thanked for trying something, especially in years of extremely tight budgeting. But I would remind him and others that a lot of money is flowing from Washington to keep the current corn and soybean system intact and expanding. From various crop supports to large biofuel (primarily ethanol) subsidies, many billions are spent each year. Moving $320 million from existing programs to the MRBI seems to me to be a pitifully small token payment toward addressing a key national environmental problem, namely Gulf of Mexico hypoxia.
We will have to do better.
September 28, 2009
Fresh ideas on food
If you could make one major change in our food system, what would it be? This is the question IATP's Food and Society Fellows program put to some of the leading food system thinkers in the country. The results are in the first FAS digest, chock full of great ideas to transform our food system to become more healthy, fair and sustainable. You'll find ideas on improving school lunches, combining food and faith, helping women farmers, ensuring fair working conditions for farmworkers and fair prices for farmers, and the launching of school gardens.
As IATP's Mark Muller writes in the digest's intro, "These remarkable ideas give us a greater appreciation for what is possible. The diversity of the fresh ideas also demonstrates the breadth of issues affected by food systems."
Check out Fresh Ideas on food.
September 25, 2009
Why Agriculture and the Climate Bill don't Mix
It seems everyone is in a tizzy over agriculture and the climate change bill. Environmentalists are mad about concessions given to farm-state legislators to get the bill—known as "Waxman-Markey," after its two principal sponsors—through the House last July. The industrial farm lobby is mad about the climate bill generally, worried it will raise energy costs. And farmers are unsure how, if at all, they will benefit from the offset credits they could receive, and what they would need to do to get them.
It is high time we took steps as a nation to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Tackling climate change is perhaps one of the most important and difficult challenges we have faced as a society; but including agriculture in the Waxman-Markey bill is bad for farmers, eaters and the planet.
For the bulk of human history, we’ve grown food, fiber and energy without reconfiguring the atmosphere, but the industrial revolution made the bulk of agriculture highly dependent on fossil fuels. Today in the U.S., agriculture accounts for about 13 percent of our nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and it also contributes heavily to soil erosion, water contamination and the loss of biodiversity—but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Waxman-Markey has recognized agriculture’s enormous potential to not only mitigate the ills it has caused, but to also act as a carbon sink. This is the basis for the bill’s carbon offsets program for agriculture, where farmers would receive government credits for doing things like tilling their soil less and planting trees on cropland. Polluting industries and investors could buy these credits, in theory helping fund these on-farm carbon-sequestering activities.
This program is troubling for several reasons. Technically, carbon offset projects are notoriously difficult to measure and verify—making the incentive for change subject to the whims of a speculative market dominated by Wall Street banks. And making it awfully difficult to ensure that offsets will be a long-term, reliable solution to climate change. Falling carbon offset prices would be poor incentives for farmers to switch to climate-friendly agriculture practices. It is hard to envision this having much of a positive impact—for farmers or the planet.
Agriculture is among our greatest achievements and one of our most precious resources. It gives us season after season of food and fiber. Done right, it builds healthy soils, helps purify our drinking water, provides wildlife habitat, and yes, even helps mitigate climate change. With support, agriculture creates livelihoods for farmers, helps preserve the culture and knowledge of food production, and promotes an ethic of land stewardship and preservation. And let’s be clear, good farming has been the basis for a sustainable planet for centuries. Agriculture should in no way be given a free pass when it comes to climate change mitigation, but it is not the source of the climate change problem.
Making Waxman-Markey a primary vehicle for debating agricultural sustainability schemes distracts from making real progress toward more climate-friendly, sustainable agriculture, and takes away much needed resources.
We should not aim to define agriculture’s role in our society through a climate bill. Instead, we should begin a separate, equally urgent process to decide how best to promote agricultural systems that provide us with the kind of farms, rivers, livelihoods, and climate we value as a society. The USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays farmers for sustainable practices on working, productive lands, provides one good place to start such conversations. Expanding such programs should be a clear priority for policymakers and the public, but ultimately, agriculture policy will have to reach much further, to a vision and scale that match the historic challenges we face.
Let’s push forward with strong climate policies, but let’s not use agriculture to circumvent the source of the problem. Our food system is too precious. We already know that agriculture can benefit us all; let’s find a way to make certain that it does.
September 24, 2009
G-20 must boost social investment
At the top of the agenda for the upcoming G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh on the global economic crisis should be a commitment toward greater investment in social programs, according to Social Watch—a global network of civil society organizations.
Every year, Social Watch publishes a report evaluating the progress of over 60 countries in areas of poverty, inequality and human rights. IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch co-authored the U.S. chapter of the 2009 Social Watch report. The U.S. chapter looked at the crisis in housing, job losses, escalating domestic hunger and international engagement. It concluded that in the U.S., “blind loyalty to the `free’ market as the best arbiter of social, environmental and economic matters has created a `perfect storm’ of failing institutions, weak democratic infrastructure, and a safety net woefully inadequate to the scope of human suffering and displacement.”
September 22, 2009
New database exposes the pervasiveness of toxins in our daily lives
It seems like everyday when I turn on the news there’s a story about another product recall or unsafe chemical in consumer products. When I hear these stories, I can’t help but wonder how widespread the problem of toxic chemicals really is.
Last week, I got a partial answer to that question as Healthy Legacy, a public health coalition in Minnesota of which IATP is a founding member, co-released a new consumer product database, HealthyStuff.org, with a Michigan-based group, the Ecology Center.
The new database contains testing results for over 5,000 products from many different categories, including: pet products, women’s handbags, back-to-school supplies, children’s toys and the latest on cars and children’s car seats. We use so many different products in our day-to-day lives and the testing results from HealthyStuff.org show just how pervasive toxic chemicals are in those products. Healthy Legacy’s Co-Director, Kathleen Schuler, was on KSTC (channel 45 in Minneapolis) to discuss the testing results. Take a look!
What’s the solution?
Healthy Legacy is pushing for comprehensive chemical policy reform and is part of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign. The campaign is working to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), our country's outdated legislation meant to regulate chemicals.
The reform platform would place the burden on chemical manufacturers (not product manufacturers or retailers) to test chemicals for their effects and develop hazard information. The platform would phase out chemicals we know are toxic and it would promote the development and use of safer alternatives.
The HealthyStuff.org database will help us find safer alternatives to the chemical-laden products that populate our lives, but most of us aren’t able to do an exhaustive research project before heading out to the store. That’s why we need a comprehensive reform of laws that regulate chemicals in this country. We should all do what we can to make our lives safer on a daily basis, but we should also expect our government to use its resources to prevent harm before it happens!
To find out more about the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign, go visit http://www.saferchemicals.org/.
September 21, 2009
Why Danish farmers stopped feeding antibiotics to their animals
A war of words has erupted between the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and some leading advocates for reducing unnecessary antibiotics in animal feed, like Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Production.
The best public estimates currently say that 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to healthy animals, to help them grow faster on less animal feed, and to compensate for the fact that animals are typically raised under stressful, closely confined conditions that tend to increase their likelihood of getting sick.
So it's particularly timely to read a new report from the chief government veterinarians in Denmark, where more than 10 years ago—and at the behest of that country's meat producers—they stopped feeding human antibiotics to animals to make them grow faster.
Why is Denmark so important when it comes to antibiotics and animals? Well, it's a leading meat producer and the largest exporter of pork in the world.
So, what happened? More than a decade ago, Danish meat producers looked hard at their own use of antibiotics and realized that not only could it undermine public health, but that their markets for exporting meat products were at risk as well. Specifically, Danish veterinary experts had been warning that continuing the use of these antibiotics could compromise their future effectiveness for treating serious infections in both humans and animals, since they seemed to be helping to create more antibiotic resistant bacteria.
From 1998 to 1999, Danish producers stopped using antibiotics to promote animal growth, first in chickens, then in hogs. Eventually, their entire agricultural use of antibiotics dropped by over half. Among several different kinds of bacteria found in farm animals and on food, drug resistance declined in a major way. This represents a huge improvement to public health.
Other benefits outlined by the report:
Getting rid of routine antibiotics added to animal feed in the U.S. would seem to be the kind of public health win-win that everyone could get behind. Not the AVMA, for some reason. Could it be that the largest producers of animal antibiotics, like Bayer and Pfizer, are major supporters?
September 17, 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.
In the last posting on Late Blight in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast this season, I failed to mention its potential effects on this year's potato crop. In monitoring our potato fields we found that Late Blight had arrived on our potatoes. In late July I decided to mow all of our potatoes in order to kill any living tissue matter that the late blight fungus could attack and cause a potential crop failure. Since then we've started digging our potatoes. The results have been mixed with more success in the last few diggings than the earlier attempts.
In the spirit of fall and the tremendous varieties of potatoes I beg to ask: Do you recall the original Mr. Potato Head?
My grandfather tells me that back when it was introduced in 1952, the head wasn’t plastic. The toy consisted of plastic features that children stuck into a real potato which their parents provided. Different potato sizes and shapes increased the fun!
No other crop produces more energy per acre. Hardy and adaptable, potatoes grow from sea level to 14,000 ft in the chilly Andes, and produce food in a wider range of soil and climatic conditions than any other staple crop. The average American eats 120 pounds of potatoes a year. That is almost 365 potatoes per person—a spud a day! There are only 100 calories in an 8-ounce baked potato. Potatoes are only 20 percent solids and 80 percent water! Potatoes are fat free, contain vitamin C, are rich in potassium and are an excellent source of fiber. Potatoes shouldn’t be stored in a refrigerator, but kept dark and dry with good ventilation: ideally between 45 and 50 degrees.
Although last year was the United Nations International Year of the Potato it isn’t too late to go out and celebrate—vodka anyone?
Fact for the future: China and India harvest one third of all potatoes in the world, and developing countries are climbing in potato production while developed countries are on the decline. See the World Potato Production Chart for more information.
For the time being I think we’ll just worry about our single acre of production. Even after a battle with the infamous Colorado Potato Beetle and the newly arrived Late Blight fungus, we are finding an above average potato year. And with 650 pounds of seed potatoes in the ground we hope to get over 5,000 pounds in return!
To the potato!
September 15, 2009
Close Encounters of the Mashed Potato Kind
In one of two new videos released last week, a boy named Dreyfus builds a mash potato mountain at the school lunch table. This spoof of Close Encounters of the Third Kind has Dreyfus telling his classmates, "What we eat. It means something." Suddenly, his mountain of unappetizing mashed potatoes transforms into healthy food and the kids celebrate.
The second video is a Mastercard spoof focusing on the "priceless" value of healthy school lunches. The videos, by IATP Food and Society Fellows Shalini Kantayya, Nicole Betancourt and Debra Eschmeyer, are helping to launch the One Tray, One Nation campaign, pushing for a new school food system that supports healthy children, local farms and smart schools.
The Child Nutrition Act, which expires on September 30, determines what more than 30 million children eat at school. The One Tray, One Nation campaign is advocating for $250 million over 5 years, with $50 million mandatory, to support local foods, farm to school and school garden grants to schools; the establishment of a farm to institution initiative within the Secretary of Agriculture’s Office; and increased funding for improving and evaluating school food procurement. The Farm to School Network gives you the details.
Check out the great videos, and take action with One Tray, One Nation to support healthier school lunches for all.
September 14, 2009
Food, water and filmmaking: this month's Radio Sustain
In the newest IATP Radio Sustain podcast, we sit down with Brother David Andrews to discuss the fundamental human right to food and water and how this right is being established internationally. Next, we talk with Wayne Rogers of the Toronto Food Policy Council about what a food policy council is, and why every city could use one. Lastly, Filmmaker Ana Joanes discusses her new documentary FRESH and the optimism she found after exploring the farms, businesses and people that are changing—and improving— the American food system.
Listen to the entire episode here (mp3).
September 11, 2009
Climate equity: Ensuring a just response to climate change
The facts shared at last night's IATP event, "Climate Equity: Ensuring a Just Response to Climate Change," were at many points staggering—at others, supremely encouraging. Dr. Cecilia Martinez and Fellow-in-Residence Shalini Gupta, from IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy (CEED) hosted an event to discuss the inequity that exists within our highly inefficient energy infrastructure. As Dr. Matinez pointed out, our current energy system is often built on the backs of whole sets of populations, while those consuming the energy, and creating energy policy, see little consequence.
Both internationally and within the U.S., the inequity between those that produce carbon and those that pay for its impacts, is real and widening. Dr. Cecilia Martinez credits this gap, among other things, to a highly inefficient infrastructure built on outdated, short-sighted and sometimes discriminatory ideals. She cited Robert Moses, the twentieth century urban planning giant responsible for much of New York City's current suburb-oriented design. Moses's tendency to favor highways over public transit did more than influence urban planners around the country—it separated communities from the inner city (often low-income) from those who could afford cars and to live in the suburbs. This energy-intensive transportation system still exists today and as Dr. Martinez pointed out: if modern policies are to succeed and ensure justice, they will need both physical goals (reducing carbon emissions, etc.) as well as social and political goals (improving a broken community infrastructure and ensuing equal access to energy).
Shalini Gupta addressed the international issues surrounding climate change, including past and present proposals for cutting emissions. Who has rights to the atmosphere? Currently, in the U.S., we produce about 20 tons per capita annually of carbon emissions. India, on the other hand, a mere 2 tons per capita, annually. Gupta said, if the world was truly to be equal, carbon emissions would need to reduce to 3.3 tons per capita globally—quite a far off goal when you consider the currently proposed goals; the most aggressive of which comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which proposes reducing carbon emissions by 40 percent from the 1990 levels. Such a reduction would still only put the U.S. at around (conservatively) 11 tons of carbon emissions per capital annually.
Among the daunting figures and historical injustices discussed at last night's event, a thread of "Where do we go from here?" connected the problems with solutions. Efforts like Sustainable Energy Utilities (detailed in this article coauthored by Dr. Martinez) and the determination to push for diversified, small-scale energy solutions, can and will serve to not only reduce our dependence on a commodified, highly inefficient energy infrastructure, but will provide equity for those who have long been denied equal access to energy and energy independence. As Dr. Martinez put it last night, energy must be viewed not as a commodity, but as a commons.
September 10, 2009
Industry standards vs. public welfare in produce food safety policy
A new report, issued today by IATP and Food & Water Watch titled “Bridging the GAPs: Strategies to Improve Produce Safety, Preserve Farm Diversity and Strengthen Local Food Systems,” explains why the current (non) food safety system for produce growers needs to change, and offers several ideas on how to improve safety and balance the playing field for small, diversified and organic farms.
Currently, a patchwork of public and private protocols are being used ostensibly to ensure food safety on produce farms, including the federal Good Agriculture Practices (GAPs), the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), private industry “super metrics,” and international food safety protocols. In the absence of federal regulations governing on-farm food safety, private industry third party auditors are quickly becoming the standard—not only for companies, but also for larger institutional buyers like hospitals or schools.
But these private industry protocols are geared almost exclusively towards large-scale, single crop operations. For small and diversified farms, the industry requirements effectively close them out of the market. Audit requirements differ greatly among buyers, most require extensive documentation, testing and other added costs; and many requirements conflict with those of environmental programs supported by state and federal agencies.
“Most produce-related food-borne illnesses have been traced to processors, not to the farm,” said IATP's Marie Kulick in today's press release. “For farmers, it’s important to have transparent, inclusive standards that reflect the diversity of U.S. farm operations. A nationally supported produce safety program can benefit everyone—more farms participating, safer food for consumers.”
September 09, 2009
Family farm, ag groups push to restrict overuse of antibiotics for animals
Numerous agriculure and family farm organizations have issued a letter to President Barack Obama and Senate leaders urging support for the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) S. 619, in an effort to reduce the widespread overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture.
IATP President Jim Harkness said in our press release, "The FDA believes we should act. We have thousands of farmers around the country who are already raising livestock without antibiotics. Now, it’s time for Congress to act.”
For more on how the overuse of antibiotics in raising food animals effects public health, check out the Keep Antibiotics Working Web site.
September 04, 2009
Farm to Fork Dilemmas for Food Safety
Farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSAs) are the ultimate in food traceability. But they make up only a tiny portion of the food system. The rest is more difficult. There's been a decade-old global push for an integrated food safety system from farm to fork. In the latest issue of Global Food Safety Monitor, IATP's Steve Suppan reports on why building a "farm to farm" food safety system is so difficult.
Steve reviews the political compromises that watered down the food safety bill passed by the House of Representatives in July, Nestle cookie dough contamination and private company testing, and the latest from the World Health Organization and Codex Alimentarius Commission on food safety.
You can read the full Global Food Safety Monitor here.
September 03, 2009
The WTO's Identity Crisis
In the latest issue of Geneva Update, IATP's Anne Laure Constantin reports on the unusually quiet summer at the World Trade Organization. Despite WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy's best efforts, there is no serious momentum to re-start the WTO's Doha round of negotiations to further liberalize global trade rules. The Obama Administration has yet to appoint a new WTO Ambassador. And an upcoming WTO ministerial in late November is more a formality than an attempt to advance negotiations.
The global financial crisis, the rising number of hungry people around the world and international negotiations on climate change have all usurped the WTO in international circles. Constantin writes that it is time for "a realistic assessment of the specific role of the WTO and a better definition of how it fits within the broader multilateral system when it comes to food."
Read the full Geneva Update here.
September 01, 2009
Farmers and the Health Care Debate
Farming is one of the most dangerous jobs out there, with a fatality rate nine times higher than the average job. Farm families, including children, are also at risk for injuries and death. So, the stakes are particularly high for farmers in the current debate over national health care.
In an August analysis, the USDA's Economic Research Service breaks down the health risks to farmers: "Farmers face risks from working with machinery and animals as well as from potential exposures to high concentrations of hazardous substances associated with agricultural chemicals, including pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. As a result, farmers are at high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries, work-related respiratory diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin diseases, and certain cancers associated with chemical use and prolonged sun exposure."
As far as health insurance, farmers are on their own. The challenge of finding affordable insurance is why many farmers themselves, or members of their family, take off-farm jobs. Among non-elderly whose primary occupation is farming, the USDA found that one in five (and 5 percent of seniors) did not have health insurance; not surprisingly one in five farmers struggle with medical debt, according to the Access Project.
The current health care debate rivals the farm bill in its complexity—but one of the key issues is whether a public option from the government will be included. A public option would compete with private insurers and could provide particular benefits for individuals who are not part of an employer plan—like farmers. The Center for Rural Affairs makes a strong case for why a public option plan is good for rural communities overall.
With so much at stake for farmers, where do the two biggest U.S. farm groups come down on health care? The American Farm Bureau Federation is against a public option. The National Farmers Union is for it. Does the Farm Bureau's position reflect its heavy investments in the private insurance industry (among other industries) laid out in a 2000 report by Defenders of Wildlife?
The failings of the our health care system affect all farmers—big and small, conventional and organic. Maybe we need a new variation on a popular bumper sticker: "No healthy farmers, no food."