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October 2009

October 30, 2009

IATP 2009 Staff Garden wrap-up

IATP's Emily Barker—a flagship member of our Garden Crew—reports on the 2009 staff garden. Be sure to see our Facebook Staff Garden photo album!

The harvest this summer in the IATP staff garden was one of true beauty and bounty. Several weeks saw an abundance of tomatoes, green peppers, zucchini, basil, kale and chard, along with a good showing of cucumbers and eggplants. The carrots were a bit on the short side, but they were very tasty. The beans grew quite well, but were overtaken by the towering tomato plants, and therefore weren’t harvested before they became too woody to eat. Powdery mildew, mosaic virus and the ever present squirrels provided challenges, but reminded us of the reality of growing food in a sustainable, non-chemical-laden way. The reward was unforgettable. 

The season came to an end in early October, when freezing temperatures hit much of Minnesota. We were able to do a pre-frost dash to salvage many good sized, but not quite ripe tomatoes, and had a wonderful feast of fried green tomatoes. The snow a few days later forced us to finally admit that it was time to prepare the garden for a long winter sleep, although the kale, chard and ever hardy sage are still standing. Soon even these will be put to rest and all that will remain will be our memories (see our pictures on Facebook) and dreams of seasons to come.

Garden

Andrew Ranallo

October 29, 2009

Connecting the dots: Chemicals, food ingredients and learning disorders

Much of the U.S. regulatory system covering toxins is based on assessing individual chemicals and their effects on human health, rather than what happens in the real world—where we are exposed to multiple chemicals that interact with each other in a variety of ways. In a new article published in the peer-reviewed Behavioral and Brain Functions Journal, led by former FDA researcher Renee Default and co-authored by IATP's David Wallinga, M.D., among others, researchers look at the links between child learning and behavior disorders, low-level mercury exposure, mineral deficiencies and food additives.

The article suggests an important new model for assessing how these disparate factors in the food system may be interacting to create a much bigger overall problem than typically is appreciated by looking at these diet factors individually. For example, overall mercury exposure, including many sources aside from food, has been linked to an increased in rates of special education services and autism. The study’s authors looked at data going back to the mid-1980s provided by the State of California and found that cases of diagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder in California peaked at the same time as peak consumption years for high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the United States.

“Because many expensive behavior and learning disorders in kids appear to be on the rise,” says Dr. Wallinga in our press release, “it’s imperative that we take steps at many levels to eliminate unnecessary exposures to mercury and other known brain toxins we still expose our children to. In the real-world food and chemical environments we have created, children are exposed to many different toxic chemicals through multiple avenues. The latest science examines how these exposures and health effects interact. In these times of escalating health costs, it’s critical that public policy steps track this new systems thinking in updating our regulatory system for chemicals and food.”

In a peer-reviewed article published earlier this year in Environmental Health, scientists found detectable mercury in commercial HFCS samples collected by the FDA in 2005. Mercury cell chlor-alkali chemicals have historically been used to manufacture a number of food ingredients including color additives such as FD&C Yellow 5, FD&C Yellow 6 and HFCS. You can read the full article in Behavioral and Brain Functions Journal here.

Ben Lilliston

October 28, 2009

Monsanto and Pioneer duke it out over biotech corn, farmers take the hit

There is an old African saying “Whether elephants make love or war, the grass suffers.” The two elephants in the agricultural seed business are now making real war, although they have been wary of each other for years. Monsanto, a relatively recent entry into the business, has become the “dominant male” in the battle after moving to acquire a large number of formerly independent seed companies. Pioneer, content for years to be the premiere corn breeder in the world, has found itself suddenly defending its turf and trying to find ways to move into the new biotech ball game. The Des Moines Register recently covered this ongoing saga.

Monsanto has long been targeted as a corporate villain. From dioxin-laced Agent Orange for Vietnam to the industrial chemical, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), Monsanto was known as producer of persistent, deadly chemicals.  Lassotm, the alachlor-based pre-emergent grass herbicide with a long list of toxicity issues, was their first foray into agricultural chemicals.

Monsanto’s bottom line was being hurt by lawsuits and clean-up costs associated with dioxin and PCB pollution. Enter Roundup™ (glyphosate), launched in 1976. This is the chemical that made Monsanto the powerhouse it is today. Glyphosate is a broad spectrum nonspecific herbicide that has low acute toxicity and does not persist in the environment. It should be noted however that many questions remain regarding the long-term toxicity of glyphosate.

By 1982 they had the first genetically modified plant cells. Depending on definitions, humans have been genetically modifying crops for thousands of years. More correctly, these are termed transgenic crops, which involves inserting a gene that is not acquired by pollination. I have used genetically modified (GM) because it has become the standard term. Now plant life is patented, permitting GM companies to control technology, and prohibit use of seed from the GM crop.

In 1926, Henry A. Wallace and others founded the Hi-Bred Corn Company in Des Moines to develop and market the expanding hybrid seed corn business. Pioneer was added to the name in 1936. They moved into soybean seed operation in 1973, and soon became the leading corn and soybean seed producers. Pioneer gained the number the one corn seed sales spot in 1982 from its longtime rival, Garst. Pioneer, when I first came to the Leopold Center in 1988, was a family company: friendly, environmentally aware and benevolent. Its advances were based on classic plant genetics, not biotechnology. It was not to last.

Monsanto bought its way into the seed business by acquiring established companies including the number two seed corn producer, Garst. This predatory approach (Monsanto often paid more than market value for the seed companies) combined with its big breakthrough—developing genetically modified corn and soybeans resistant to glyphosate—gave them a huge market advantage. This initiated the trend to GM crops that is now dominant in the seed industry.

The predator habits of Monsanto long made Pioneer nervous. Patented Roundup Ready soybeans were first introduced by Monsanto in 1996. One year later, Pioneer had biotech corn and soybeans on the market, buying the technology from Monsanto. Pioneer Hi-Bred was purchased by DuPont (20 percent in 1997 and the remainder in 1999). Lawsuits began soon after.

By 2000, corn borer protection had been added by Monsanto (called YieldGardtm) and Pioneer had to enter into agreements to use the Monsanto technology in its corn. Pioneer paid big bucks to use the Roundup Ready and YieldGard traits. Now Monsanto is suing Pioneer over infringement of these patent rights and Pioneer is moving ahead with a new set of seed traits called Optimum GAT. Monsanto saw red, and has countersued. Monsanto also became very unhappy when Pioneer recently co-sponsored an anti-Monsanto seminar in St. Louis, the home of Monsanto. The issues are complex, and involve “stacking” of seed traits. This means that genetic characteristics for two or more traits are included in a single seed. Often these stacked seeds have not had full evaluation regarding their safety and efficacy. In the meantime, Pioneer slipped to No. 2 in seed sales.

Monsanto now licenses these traits to about 200 seed companies. Their powerful monopoly has blocked competition. They will not even allow experimenters to evaluate the seed corn for efficacy in other environments.

During this time, the price of seed corn and Rounduptm escalated rapidly. But now Monsanto is starting to lose money on its Roundup herbicide, mainly because it is off patent and others are now undercutting Monsanto on price. Furthermore, the pent up demand for glyphosate in South America had raised prices earlier, but this market now is being met.

So what does all this mean? I first encountered Monsanto in the early 1970s when at a regional research meeting in St Louis they invited the committee to tour their operations. At that time they were just getting into biotech and no one really saw its potential to make money.Then, about the time I was getting the Leopold Center programs underway, Roundup Ready soy field trials were under way on a site east of Ames. I had a tough decision to make on funding for field work that might involve GM materials, and decided we would not fund such work, but it soon became hard to delineate the lines between GM and non-GM. When Pioneer went over to Roundup Ready, and then both companies began stacking genes, I knew the game was lost. 

Genetically modified corn and soybeans dominate, especially in countries with high input agriculture. Claims that GM crops will “Feed the World” abound, especially around the time of the World Food Price presentations earlier this month. Other claims include the lowering of pesticide use and lessening of soil erosion. 

Monsanto now bills itself as a Sustainable Agriculture company! 

These are issues deserving of future blogs. I worry about how the world’s farmers are being shortchanged in the quest for improved and adapted seed varieties at reasonable costs. Now they cannot save seed for fear of the Monsanto cops taking them to court and ruining their lives. The seed industry is no longer competitive because about 90 percent of it is in the hands of two companies and the cost of seed is out of reach of small farmers. I worry about how the food system is now dependent on genetically engineered corn, soybean, cottonseed, canola and sugar beets (recently taken back off of the market). GM wheat, rice and other staple crops could follow as pressure continues to adopt these crops. The industry essentially says "We build it, you will use it."

We need to be smarter about these crops, question each claim and insist the government enforce antitrust laws. We should  resist the claims that they will solve the food shortage in countries where their use will do more harm than good. Specifically, this means the next food frontier, Africa, must not become a new “Green Revolution” based on the failed western world high technology model, rooted in GM crops.

Dennis Keeney

October 27, 2009

Boo! A scary surprise in Halloween face paints

PrettyScary_covernsJust in time for the horrors of Halloween, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics released a new report on the presence of heavy metals in face paints (Pretty Scary: Could Halloween Face Paint Cause Lifelong Health Problems?) today.

Researchers found that of the 10 face paints tested, all contained detectable levels of lead (from .05 to .65 parts per million [ppm]) and six of 10 contained nickel, chromium and/or cobalt (in the range of 1.6 to 120 ppm), which can be potent allergens.

The Centers for Disease Control, and that thing called “common sense,” recommends that children not use cosmetics that could be contaminated with lead. And as for the other heavy metals found in these face paints? Well, they can trigger allergenic reactions like skin rashes. In fact, according to the report, even industry-funded studies have recommended that the levels of nickel, chromium and cobalt should be minimized to the lowest possible levels in cosmetics.

What’s worse is that some face paints are mislabeled and draw in parents with claims of being “hypo-allergenic” and “non-toxic.” That’s the case for Snazaroo Face Paint, whose product was found to contain .56 ppm of lead and levels of 5.5 ppm for nickel and cobalt.

As you must already suspect, this puts parents in a tricky position when they pick out costumes for their children at Halloween. Reading product labels doesn’t provide information on which heavy metals are in different face paints due to loopholes in labeling requirements and which do not require companies to disclose contaminants.

Given the non-disclosure, and since all of the face paints tested contained lead, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics recommends that parents avoid using face paints on children until safety standards are put in place. Parents can consider choosing costumes that do not use face paint or masks (which can also contain toxic chemicals and impair vision and breathing) or they can try making their own face-paint with food-grade ingredients. The Campaign’s Web site includes a whole host of recipes for do-it-yourself face paints (and other products).

What can you do?

1. When you can, buy safer products. Hundreds of cosmetics companies have pledged to make safer products and safecosmetics.org has tips and resources to help you get started.

2. Help pass smarter, health-protective laws. Sign the petition to Congress at safecosmetics.org.

Healthy Legacy is a Minnesota-based public health coalition that was co-founded by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and is working to phase toxic chemicals out of everyday products.

Katie Rojas-Jahn

October 23, 2009

Asian farmers' short video about climate change

Two weeks ago, I took part in a meeting convened by the Asian Farmers Association (AFA) in Bangkok for its member organizations about climate change and agriculture.

As a result of the meeting, the AFA has developed a "call for gender-sensitive and capacity building for women on climate change."

More striking, they have developed a short and targeted video:

Anne-Laure Constantin

The Power of Food Reserves: Volume 4

One of the political challenges in talking about food reserves, at both the national and international level, is that they are too often dismissed as a tool that has failed. Of course, food reserves have seen success and failure. And because many reserves have been mismanaged, agriculture economist Dr. Daryll Ray reminds us, "We need to delineate between the concept of the reserve and the way it's administered."

Roger Johnson, President of the National Farmers Union, addressed this political obstacle at a meeting we organized with ActionAid on food reserves last week. "At this point in history, we've entered an era that government is looked upon as the problem, not the solution. And that the private sector should be in charge of everything, including food aid."

"There is this sentiment that reserves are an old idea," said Johnson. "Nobody wants to talk about an old idea. The other side will say, 'we tried that, it didn’t work.'" But he believes that there is a new political opportunity to gain wider support for reserves, and that could involve emphasizing the benefits for consumers and the disadvantaged of the world.  

"Reserves accomplish a lot of the same things whether you are a farmer or consumer," said Johnson. "The predictability in pricing is a good thing for both. It is essential for lesser developed countries. If they are going to become more developed, the most common way to grow is through agriculture."

Larry Mitchell, former CEO of the American Corn Growers Association, emphasized the national security implications of not having a food reserve. "Our current reserve is in the hands of multinational corporations," said Mitchell. "We are one short crop away from being at the mercy of their benevolence. We need a public option for food."

"This is pretty scary to me," said Mitchell. "When we went to war in March 2003, we had less than a day’s worth of corn and soybeans. The impacts of a reserve are well-past hunger. It is also an issue of national security. I know why we are at war in the middle east. I don’t know who we’ll be going to war with when we need food."

Mitchell compared the deregulatory effects of the 1996 Farm Bill on agriculture to the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 on the banking industry. He emphasized the need to return to sound food management through a food reserve. A new reserve system could include more than just traditional grain and would benefit both the livestock industry and the emerging bioeconomy.

"Most farmers I know are willing to give up $7 corn if they can get a consistent and guaranteed $4, and a proper food reserve can help us accomplish that," said Mitchell.

Victor Suarez, IATP board member and director of the National Association of Rural Commercialization Enterprises in Mexico, highlighted the urgent need for government intervention in agricultural markets, not only to address the food crisis, but also as a counterweight to big agribusiness companies.

"When we start talking about strategic food reserves what we’re really talking about is state intervention into the market," said Suarez. "Markets are not self-regulating, particularly with regards to food. There’s always been a need for organized societies to prevent risks. In Mexico, when food prices rise, the free market logic is that people simply stop eating. One thing we have learned is that organized small farmers cannot confront alone organized monopolies. It is in no way a free market."

Instead, Suarez stressed the need for people and governments to work together to address the breakdown in the global food system—because we all are affected.

You can find video interviews, powerpoint presentations and more blog postings from our meeting on global food reserves at our web site.

Ben Lilliston

October 22, 2009

The Power of Food Reserves: Volume 3

Details matter. This was clear in discussions about food reserves at a meeting last week we organized with ActionAid. How food reserves are run, by whom, and with what purpose, are all critical factors in determining whether a reserve is successful.

There is increasing interest in food reserves at the local, regional and international levels as a way to help better manage our food system. We heard two proposals about how institutions might best manage the details of food reserves.

Dr. Daryll Ray, of the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center at the University of Tennessee, outlined two central functions of a reserve: 1) to mitigate short-term disruptions or sudden demand; and 2) to stabilize world prices for consumers and farmers.

Ray pointed out that while critics have pointed to the costs of reserve programs, the costs of not having a reserve program can be enormous; including factors often not calculated by economists such as hunger, poverty, loss of food security and political destabilization. Ray suggested that poor management had unfairly given reserves a bad name. "We need to delineate between the concept of the reserve and the way it's administered," said Ray.

Food reserves can be useful at multiple levels, according to Ray. At the local level, families often use reserve concepts through traditional canning and freezing. But there are also different options for farmers, communities and local governments to store food in a shared facility. At the national and regional levels, reserves can be coordinated through governments and federations of cooperatives.

At the international level, with a goal toward stabilizing world supply and prices, Ray proposed an institutional framework similar to how the U.S. Federal Reserve operates. It would be politically independent, composed of regional chairs, and ultimately legitimized by the UN Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

"Food reserves are just one component of a food security system," said Ray. "We also need to look at production, infrastructure and increasing the purchasing power of people who are hungry."

Robin Willoughby of Share the World's Resources discussed food reserves within new efforts at the multilateral level to address a failed global food system. He emphasized that the context for reserves is very important. Food reserves are designed for a number of purposes, including: 1) to stabilize prices; 2) for humanitarian reasons; 3) for export promotion through regional trade blocs; or 4) to mitigate speculation.

He pointed out that there are severe institutional constraints to putting together a global food reserve. Global institutions have a patchwork of overlapping mandates with no obvious place to oversee such a system. And many of the most important actors (including smallholder farmers) are excluded from global discussions.

Because of these constraints, Willoughby proposed a Global Food Security Convention. It would encompass a new vision for food and agriculture that is based on human rights and multilateral cooperation. It would be based on three pillars: legal (human rights); political (inclusive and democratic); and technical (implementation).

You can watch video interviews and view powerpoint presentations from presenters at the global food reserve meeting at our web site. Next, we'll look at food reserves within the context of the U.S. and Mexico.

Ben Lilliston

The Power of Food Reserves: Volume 2

In a bow to the power of markets, the U.S. removed the last traces of its grain reserve program in the 1996 Farm Bill. The result have been damaging across the board, with increasing volatility in agriculture markets—along with big swings in farm subsidies from year to year. But other countries see the continuing value of food reserves and are using them in creative ways to serve a variety of different purposes.

At a meeting on food reserves we co-organized with ActionAid last week, we heard about how two of the world's biggest agricultural exporters, Brazil and Canada, use food reserves. And how West African countries, struggling to provide enough food for their people, are using food reserves at the local level.

Celso Marcatto, of ActionAid Brazil, described the role of the state-controlled food company CONAB. While plagued by mismanagement in its early years, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva instituted a series of reforms beginning in 2003 to refocus its mission. CONAB's purpose is two-fold: to ensure there is enough food in times of crisis and to help stabilize markets to limit speculation. In 2006-07, CONAB helped stabilize the corn market through the release stocks. In 2008, despite the dramatic spike in global prices for rice, CONAB's reserve program helped to stabilize prices within Brazil. "It was possible for Brazil to pass through the food price crisis without suffering too much," said Marcatto.

CONAB also helps run the Brazilian Procurement Program, known as PAA. The program purchases food from smallholder farmers and donates it to social organizations addressing people in need. The program also works with smallholder farmer organizations to help them set up their own reserves. The result is more stable prices for smallholder farmers and greater food access for those who  are hungry.

Marcatto and other civil society organizations are now targeting Mercosur, a regional trade agreement that includes most of South America. Currently, Mercosur is completely focused on commercial issues. "The idea is to pressure Mercosur countries to discuss hunger more seriously, said Marcatto. "We want Mercosur to be a policy space to support efforts to address hunger regionally—including reserves and support for small-scale farmers."

Ian McCreary, a former member of the Canadian Wheat Board and now with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, relayed the history of the international wheat agreement, which was launched at the end of World War II and included 47 countries. While there were certainly bumps, the agreement was largely successful until it was finally broken in 1969. McCreary said the wheat agreement offers some important lessons in looking forward, particularly the importance of good governance and accountability. Ultimately, we must ensure that stocks aren't used to punish other countries as the U.S. did in the mid-1980s when it released its wheat stocks onto the global market and devastated other wheat producers around the world, according
to McCreary.

McCreary had three recommendations for food reserves moving forward: 1) they should be commodity-specific; 2) they should be nation- and region-specific, and governance must be strong in those areas; and 3) there needs to be international disciplines to ensure that hardships are not externalized on other countries.

"We have to have a mixture of intervention engaged not as a cleanup factor, but to take the rough edges out of the marketplace. The process of reserves fits within that context," said McCreary. 

Saliou Sarr, of the West African Farmers' Network (ROPPA), sees food reserves in an entirely different context. ROPPA is a network of 16 countries. His region's challenge is to increase their own food production to feed their people, and reduce their dependency on aid from other countries. Sarr pointed to a confluence of factors contributing to hunger in the region, including: the lowering of food stocks in the U.S., Europe and China; structural adjustment programs pushed by the World Bank that discouraged public investment in agriculture; and limitations on the use of tariff protections imposed by the World Trade Organization.

In response to the food crisis in the region, ROPPA has taken multiple approaches to food stocks, including public stocks, stocks at the farm level and at local food banks. In public stocks, their experience has been troubled, undermined by political mismanagement. But local food banks have been more successful in Bali, Niger and Burkina Faso. There, a committee at the village level buys grain during harvest when prices are low. Then, they use collective storage, and sell it to families in need throughout the year at a price that is affordable. This model has been limited because of the lack of production capacity. Right now, they are exploring food reserves at the village and family level, to work alongside greater access to credit and seeds,  to help build production and ensure there is enough food.

"We think a good mastery of the management of stocks at the world level should include capacity building for production, active policies that give priority to internal markets, and reinforce regional integration," said Sarr. "People can have sovereignty with regards to their food supply."

You can view video interviews and powerpoint presentations of participants at our meeting on global food reserves at our Food Security Web site. Next, we'll look at proposals for how food reserves might work in a global context.

Ben Lilliston

October 21, 2009

The Power of Food Reserves: Volume 1

Make no mistake, the food reserve—a tool as old as food production itself—is a powerful idea. Most people think it's just common sense. The idea is simple: put some food aside in times of plenty to ensure there is enough in lean times. But a meeting we co-organized with ActionAid in Washington, D.C., last week, revealed how strongly this common sense idea challenges the free market ideology that permeates our global food system.

IATP's Sophia Murphy succinctly explained how reserves help address market failures that have plagued both farmers and consumers: "Reserves are really about how to make the market do its job better. They can put a floor or ceiling on prices in the face of monopolistic or oligopolistic markets."

We decided to organize the food reserve meeting for two main reasons: 1) the failure of agriculture markets is just too glaring to ignore. The FAO announced last week that the world's hungry has now reached 1.06 billion people; 2) countries, regions and international institutions are re-examining agriculture policy, particularly the role reserves might play to stabilize food systems.

Our first session gave an overview of the global issues around food reserves. Sophia pulled from an IATP report released last week outlining four main reasons food reserves are being considered: 1) to correct market failures; 2) to smooth volatile prices; 3) to complement and regulate the private sector; 4) for emergencies. Sophia also discussed the limitations of food reserves when it comes to addressing global hunger: reserves will not solve poor agriculture production which plagues many countries, or address chronic (as opposed to short-term) hunger that is often tied to people simply not having money to buy enough food.

The failure of global food markets has created a ripe political moment to assess reserves. "There is a new awareness among governments that food really matters—and a sense among governments that they've lost a lot of the tools that they've had when food is not available," Sophia told participants.

Chris Moore, at the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), reported that both donor and recipient countries are seeking advice from the agency on best practices for running food reserves. The WFP, the world's largest food assistance agency, is already using a variety of food reserves. Moore described reserves in Haiti and other Central American countries, community cereal banks in Cameroon and the Sahel region of West Africa, and a multi-partner national grain reserve system in Mali. The WFP is working with West African countries to assess a regional system to help multiple countries coordinate national stocks.

For countries assessing whether a reserve is the right tool to use, Moore outlined a series of key questions: What do we want reserves for? What other options have been tried? Can you ensure the reserve is well-managed? What transparency rules are in place? Can a regional group integrate reserves and food security needs across borders? And finally: How can reserves fit within a path toward food security?

Hui Jang, of the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), had a starkly different view on reserves. The FAS's mission is to expand U.S. agriculture exports. She argued that reserves distort relationships between supply and demand. And that the existence of a reserve does not guarantee stability. She cited the recent price spike in rice, even though many Asian countries had been building up their reserves for several years. Despite the reserves, countries stopped exporting and prices shot through the roof. Countries will undermine an international or regional reserve system because they will act in their own interest in times of crisis, Jang reported.

Instead, she proposed a financial reserve where countries struggling with hunger could purchase grains and inputs (seeds, fertilizer, machinery, chemicals and the hiring of consultants to boost production). In addition, she proposed a series of other tools to help poor countries like adding futures markets, catastrophic bonds, improved infrastructure and  crop insurance.

Jang's presentation follows the strong support for technological fixes (particularly biotechnology) to address global hunger pushed by her boss, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, at the newly minted National Institute for Food and Agriculture, and Bill Gates at the World Food Prize meeting last week.

But the growing consideration of food reserves around the world indicates that most aren't holding their breath for the next technological quick fix. Many see the market failures we are experiencing in agriculture as structural and ultimately requiring government intervention to ensure that everyone has enough healthy food to eat and farmers are paid a fair price.

You can view powerpoint presentations and video interviews with participants at our food security page. In our next blog, we'll report on how other countries and regions are using food reserves as a tool. 

Ben Lilliston

October 14, 2009

Grain Reserves vs. World Hunger and Market Volatility

With world hunger surpassing one billion people, in a time of extreme market volatility, IATP's Sophia Murphy has authored a new report exploring the option of strategic food reserves. The report, "Strategic Grain Reserves In an Era of Volatility," was released today—a day before a public briefing on food reserves in Washington, D.C. tomorrow. That meeting will include representatives from Brazil, West Africa, Mexico, Canada and the U.S. to discuss their experiences with food reserves and how a new system of reserves might work.

Though food reserves have been used for thousands of years (China has run an ever-normal granary since 498 A.D.! More info in the report, pg 5.) they have fallen out of discussion in recent decades. Sophia Murphy's research examines the risks and potential benefits of grain reserves in our current socioeconomic atmosphere:

“Given the extreme volatility we’ve seen in agriculture in recent years, grain reserves deserve another look,” said Sophia Murphy in our press release announcing the new report. “There are no magic bullets. Reserves alone will not end chronic hunger, and many reserves have been poorly run. But with sufficient resources, clarity of purpose, and effective governance, reserves can play a key part in a food system designed to eradicate hunger.”

Check back for updates from the "Food Reserves: Facing the Hunger Challenge," briefing soon!

Andrew Ranallo

The Cost of Palm Oil

Matilda "The day the (palm) seeds arrived in our country on the plane, I wondered, `what are these seeds?'" Matilda Pilacapio told us at a meeting in late September. Pilacapio is a human rights advocate from Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea and she stopped by our Minneapolis office on the way to a meeting with Cargill—the largest palm oil importer in the U.S.

Papau New Guinea
, a former British colony, contains some of the last remaining intact rainforests and 5 percent of global biodiversity. Palm oil first came to the island in 1994, when Pilacapio was the country's Minister of Agriculture. Palm quickly replaced coconut that had been grown on plantations owned by British companies and the British government's Commonwealth Development Corporation.

"Life has dramatically changed," Pilacapio told us. "We have a traditional life of sharing and giving. What we have, we share with our village. Now, our people live in a monetary world. Our people are at a crossroads."

In the mid-1990s, the World Bank required a number of structual adjustment programs in Papua New Guinea as conditions for a loan to the country's government, according to Pilacapio. Among the changes, were the user pay system—where people pay for things like education and health care—but also land registration (which opened up land that had previously been controlled by Indigenous peoples). Part of the World Bank loan to the country was to develop palm oil plantations, says Pilacapio.

Cargill owns three palm oil mills in Papua New Guinea. The company took over the mill in Milne Bay, where Pilacapio lives three years ago. She currently works with the Milne Bay Women in Agriculture to strengthen traditional agriculture systems in response to Cargill's expanding oil palm plantation in the region.

Pilacapio said young people in Papau New Guinea who want to farm no longer have access to land because so much is going toward palm oil plantations. Previously able to provide food for its own population, the growth in palm oil plantations has led Papua New Guinea to become heavily dependent on food imports.

Pilacapio came to visit Cargill as part of an effort by Rainforest Action Network to get the company to improve its practices at palm oil plantations, starting with simple things like creating buffer zones to protect water systems. Thus far, the company has not budged. Pilacapio is asking Cargill to: 1) stop the expansion of palm oil plantations, particularly from traditional landowners and onto virgin lands; 2) share its profits with local governments and landowners; 3) provide workers with better wages and working conditions; and 4) clean up water that is downstream from their milling plant.

So, what is the cost of palm oil? In the marketplace, the palm oil produced in Pilacapio's community certainly doesn't reflect all its costs, including damage to a traditional culture, diminished food security in the region, the loss of biodiversity and effects on global climate change. The "monetary world" Pilacapio describes is not working.

Ben Lilliston

October 09, 2009

Next stop: Barcelona

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin is blogging from Bangkok at the global climate talks.

Although the two week climate talks session in Bangkok formally ends today, specific discussions on how to reduce emissions from agriculture were essentially over yesterday. The outcomes of this week's agriculture discussions are now reflected in "non paper #17." The whole text is bracketed, as Uruguay and New Zealand (the two countries chairing the drafting group this week) were unable to produce a consensus among members.

As the process of drafting accelerated, many developing countries felt like they did not have enough capacity to follow the discussions, and not enough understanding of what the possible implications of this new part of the climate agreement would be. It seemed hard to reconcile the widespread feeling that agriculture should feature in the final agreement with the little time available until Copenhagen. UNFCCC members will resume consideration of the agriculture sectoral approach at the next negotiations session in Barcelona (Nov. 2–6).

Anne-Laure Constantin

October 08, 2009

IATP reports on Bangkok climate meeting

IATP President Jim Harkness just returned from Bangkok at the global climate talks. In this video, he reports on the state of the talks and what they could mean for agriculture.

Ben Lilliston

Walking a tightrope: Secretary Vilsack on U.S. agricultural policy

On October 5, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack came to Minneapolis to deliver the fifth and last Freeman Lecture at the University of Minnesota. The lecture’s namesake, Orville Freeman, was governor of Minnesota and then Secretary of Agriculture during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (1960–68). About a thousand people came on a rainy night to hear Secretary Vilsack speak and then engage in a “Great Conversation” program with University Deans Brian Atwood and Allen Levine. The audience included former Vice President Walter Mondale, former Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, Jane Freeman (Governor Freeman’s widow and political partner), and Senator Amy Klobuchar, who introduced Secretary Vilsack. IATP board member, Rod Leonard, Governor and Secretary Freeman’s aide, helped to organize the lecture.

However, before Secretary Vilsack arrived at the Ted Mann Concert Hall, he had to run a media gauntlet instigated by a New York Times story published the day before that recounted how a 22-year-old Minnesota woman had been paralyzed by consuming contaminated hamburger produced by Cargill, the Minnesota-headquartered, global agribusiness giant. As is usual with stories of alleged corporate malfeasance, the lawyers and public relations experts had told Cargill executives not to talk to the media, leaving Secretary Vilsack with the unhappy task of explaining why the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) is unable to require slaughterhouses to test for meat pathogens on carcasses before they are shipped to meat processors, such as Cargill. On the way from the airport, he was interviewed by Minnesota Public Radio, and parried questions about how both Cargill and FSIS had failed to detect the contamination and withdraw the hamburger from commerce before it could sicken Minnesotans and other consumers.

Secretary Vilsack had to walk an explanatory tight rope between USDA’s mandate, under different laws, both to protect public health and to advance agribusiness interests. Dr. Kenneth Peterson, FSIS’s assistant administrator, did not make the Secretary’s task any easier by telling the Times that FSIS “could mandate testing, but that it needed to consider the impact on companies as well as on consumers. ‘I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health.’” Dr. Peterson interprets FSIS’s statutory responsibility under the Meat and Poultry Inspection Acts as protecting the industry’s reputation and bottom line. So if mandatory testing would harm either, FSIS would not insist on testing. At the Freeman lecture, Secretary Vilsack didn’t clean up Peterson’s statutory confusion, but asserted correctly in a press release the following day, "Protecting public health is the sole mission of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.” And yet the damage had been done—again, not only to consumer health, but to USDA’s reputation for continuing to allow the meat industry to self-regulate in fact, if not in law.

The Secretary walked other USDA tightropes more artfully and eloquently, aided by the recently published "Agricultural Census 2007." First, he noted that he would deliver a eulogy today for Dr. Norman Borlaug, a former University of Minnesota plant breeder and Nobel prize winner for his work to “feed the world.” Then the Secretary followed with a series of paradoxes shaped by facts and the programs that he is required to oversee.

Recalling the loss of millions of U.S. farmers since President Woodrow Wilson exhorted the nation to plant victory gardens to aid the World War I effort, Secretary Vilsack sang the praises of how the remaining 200,000 farms of more than a thousand acres, aided by biotechnological research, had doubled and tripled crop yields to feed the U.S.—and the world. But the loss of 80,000 mid-size farms in the last five years is something that the Obama administration would seek to prevent from re-occurring.

More than a billion people still don’t have enough to eat, so the Obama administration will help private companies to export not only U.S. crops but U.S. technology—especially genetically modified seeds—to enable the world to feed itself, said Vilsack. The President’s new global food security initiative would start in Afghanistan by deploying 64 former and current USDA staffers to help Afghan agriculture. Vilsack emphasized support for the 5 percent of U.S. farmers who produce 70 percent of U.S. agricultural production. He promised to cut subsidies to U.S. farmers, if U.S. trading partners open market access to U.S. exports under World Trade Organization rules.

Although two-thirds of USDA’s budget goes to feed an increasing number of hungry Americans, 35 percent of U.S. children are obese, so USDA would work to improve nutrition, remove the stigma of free school lunches and breakfasts, and work with the National Football League on an exercise program for school children, said Vilsack.

The average age of farmers is 57-years-old, and getting older. More than 50 percent of all farmers work off-farm jobs more than 200 days a year (with 90 percent working off farm jobs at some point in the year) to enable them to stay on their farms. USDA’s new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program would support the small-scale farmers—108,000 new farmers from 2003–2008 alone—who would satisfy the demand (13 percent increase in local farmers markets in 2008) for local, largely organic food. USDA’s support for rural internet service would help them market that food and help rural people develop new businesses.

While the Secretary's presentation has been rearranged above, my overwhelming impression of him is that of a compassionate and politically adroit man trying to manage conflicting duties. The Secretary spoke about his visit to a Kenyan orphanage (he too was an orphan) and how his question “What do you like most about school?” to a child was met with the response, “Our meal.” He recalled how Secretary Freeman had initiated the first pilot project in federal food assistance and how it had grown to feed 38 million (climbing to 40 million due to growing unemployment or under-employment) Americans today. He clearly aspires to do something similarly great.

Jane Freeman closed the evening by thanking Secretary Vilsack, the University of Minnesota and the advisory group to the Freeman Lecture. Ever the politician to issue a challenge, she remarked that in Secretary Vilsack, the USDA has leadership to regain what had been lost during the previous administration.

Steve Suppan

October 07, 2009

Can food reserves address global hunger?

Almost since the beginning of time, people have put food away in times of plenty to ensure they have food in times of need. Many countries, including the United States, have utilized food reserves over the years for a number of reasons like addressing hunger, stabilizing food prices and ensuring a fair return to farmers.

Now, as global hunger has surpassed one billion people, and the global cereal stocks/to use ratio has tightened, there is talk at the international level of food reserves. At the G-8 meeting in July, leaders agreed to explore: "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." These sentiments were further supported at the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh last month.

In light of this interest, IATP and Action Aid are co-sponsoring an open briefing, "Food Reserves: Facing the Hunger Challenge" in Washington, D.C., on October 15. Representatives from Brazil, Canada, West Africa, Mexico and the United Kingdom will meet with U.S. agriculture experts to discuss:

  • past experiences with food reserves at the country and regional level;
  • what role international institutions might play within a food reserve system;
  • the opportunities and pitfalls of a strategic grain reserve in the U.S.

We hope you can join us. Watch the below video with IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch to learn more about the food reserve meeting.

Ben Lilliston

Another take on the WTO and food systems

What can the World Trade Organization (WTO) contribute toward addressing global hunger? IATP asked four experts from the Philippines, France, India and the U.S. at last week’s WTO Public Forum in Geneva. You can listen to the discussion here.

Of course, there was the usual argument about whether trade liberalization helps or hinders food security, but there were other important points of consensus:

  • Despite high-level calls and declarations to address the food crisis last year, nothing has been delivered to improve the coherence of global governance on food and agriculture: a major failure of the post-food crisis response.
  • The WTO is still unable to take into account rural development and food security concerns in its treatment of agriculture. Instead, it consistently reinforces an unsustainable model, characterized in particular by market concentration. Ambassador Bhatia of India pointed to a few improvements, but insisted that they fall far short of the needs.
  • The IAASTD report, a global assessment of agriculture at the turn of the 21st century, provides recommendations for the way forward on agriculture which WTO members should take on board to put the multilateral trading system back on track.

As the Doha negotiations remain deadlocked, IATP believes there is space to keep pushing on these issues. Next week, we will host a meeting in Washington, D.C. on the role of food reserves in responding to the global food crisis. We will also continue to push these issues at the World Summit on Food Security in November, at the WTO Ministerial Conference in December, and at the Copenhagen climate negotiations in December. Stay tuned!

Anne-Laure Constantin

October 06, 2009

Building bridges between climate and agriculture in Bangkok

IATP's Jim Harkness and Anne Laure Constantin are in Bangkok at the global climate talks. Below, Anne Laure blogs on what is at stake for agriculture.

Bangkok is humid (as it should be at this time), and much of South Asia is under heavy rain, with disastrous floods in South India and The Philippines hitting international headlines. Advocates for climate action are rushing around the UN Conference Center in Bangkok pointing to the floods as yet another example of the perils of climate change. The talks have been on for about 10 days and will end this week.

Further away from the conference center (a painful 40-minute ride in Bangkok’s busy traffic), the Asian Farmers Association is holding a series of meetings on agriculture and climate change, with some looking particularly at the role of women farmers. AFA also took an active part in the meeting we organized on Sunday with farmers' groups and climate activists.

And so, slowly, the new and growing call around international circles for the need to include agriculture in a new climate treaty is trickling down to those who really matter: farmers who grow most of the world’s food! As things move forward swiftly inside the climate negotiations, it is urgent that the voices of small farmers and Indigenous peoples be heard by negotiators working on agriculture. This is what we argue in our Benchmarks for Copenhagen and we will keep working to make it happen!

Anne-Laure Constantin

October 05, 2009

The risks for agriculture in global climate talks

IATP's Jim Harkness and Anne Laure Constantin are in Bangkok at the global climate talks. Below, Jim blogs on what is at stake for agriculture.

“Fifty years: no Bangkok!

In the sea!

Hot, hot! Very hot!”

This was the very surprising, almost haiku-like declaration of my taxi driver earlier tonight. He then said, “Ice: TOOM!,” illustrating the second word by chopping downward with one hand, in a motion that to me looked a lot like a huge chunk of the Ross Ice Shelf splitting off and falling into the sea.

Bkk_09_02_2_348 I am in Thailand’s capital with Anne-Laure Constantin for the penultimate preparatory talks before the Copenhagen climate summit in December. Earlier today, we had a workshop that brought representatives of grassroots farmers’ organizations from Asia, Africa and Latin America together with climate lobbyists from development and environment groups. One important conclusion, confirming what we had observed at earlier prep meetings from Poznan to Bonn, was that this kind of exchange is sorely needed, both to inform the national-level advocacy of farm groups and to deepen the international lobbyists’ understanding of what’s at stake for farmers in the developing world. For more background, see our new fact sheet, "Integrating agriculture in a global climate deal: Benchmarks for Copenhagen."

Now the connections among these groups are finally taking shape, and participants from our workshop met this evening with Climate Action Network, the largest and most influential non-governmental alliance pushing for a strong climate deal. The hope is that we can get wider backing for language about agriculture in the climate treaty that is informed by both strong science and the climate justice demands of developing country farmers. The drafts that we have seen to date have neither.

If the clearing of forests and grasslands to expand cultivation is included, then agriculture is far and away the biggest contributor to climate change worldwide. (Its climate footprint is considerably smaller in the U.S., not because our farming is climate-friendly, but because we wiped out all of the original vegetative cover by the end of the last century.)  It’s also incredibly complex, and the science is so far behind the rest of what we know about climate change that basic questions—like how much carbon soils can sequester and for how long—remain unanswered. As a result, wild and speculative (in more ways than one) schemes are being promoted—including techno-fixes like industrial biochar that would take enormous areas of land in poor countries out of food production and put them into the hands of rich-country investors. Some of these schemes actually have a chance of getting into the official text.

Not long ago, we were concerned that the important role of agriculture might be ignored in a climate deal. Now it appears the danger is that agriculture will be included with such broad or vague language that the door will be open to schemes that could gobble up vast areas of land and displace food production without actually helping to solve the climate crisis.

Jim Harkness

Ben Lilliston

October 02, 2009

Biomass program rolls out, raises eyebrows

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), launched in the last Farm Bill, was hailed as an opportunity to spur the wider adoption of new, more sustainable crops to feed a growing bioeconomy. Now, we are reminded once again that the intent of legislation and real-world implemention are two different things. In a new IATP commentary ("Questionable start for biomass program"), policy analyst Loni Kemp sheds light on why BCAP is raising eyebrows. Kemp writes:

The way the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has rolled out the first part of BCAP is raising eyebrows, as initial funding seems to be going to pay for already-existing biomass supplies used for renewable energy, instead of focusing on helping to jump-start the new cellulosic energy future.

In September, IATP submitted comments as part of BCAP's Environmental Impact Statement. We've also written a BCAP factsheet with a number of recommendations for implementation, including:

  • Perennial and multiple-species biomass feedstocks should be the focus of BCAP, with preference for native species. No invasive, noxious or genetically modified feedstocks should be included. If funds allow, then annual crops in a resource-conserving crop rotation would be acceptable.

  • Preference should be given to projects that provide local ownership opportunities; will
    have local economic benefits; and will involve new and socially disadvantaged farmers.

  • Annual payments are intended to be an incentive to establish new energy crops, and thus should not be drastically lowered if the crop is sold or if it is used for another purpose.

As Kemp writes:

Unfortunately, at least so far, USDA seems to be getting BCAP wrong. They should reconsider the true intent of the program and focus on helping farmers plant and deliver new crops for renewable energy.

Andrew Ranallo