About IATP

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

Founded in 1986, IATP is rooted in the family farm movement. With offices in Minneapolis and Geneva, IATP works on making domestic and global agricultural policy more sustainable for everyone.

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Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health.



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November 2009

November 30, 2009

WTO G-20 meeting: More of the same

Adhemar Mineiro represents the Brazilian Trade Network REBRIP. He is blogging from Geneva this week at the WTO Ministerial.

The WTO G-20 Ministers that have met this Sunday in Geneva reaffirmed their position agreed to at their last meeting in Delhi. On the one hand, they reiterated the centrality of Agriculture (or, more specifically, agriculture exports) in the Doha Round. They claimed to want to conclude the round of negotiations. But on the other hand, Ministers of the G-20 continue to wait for others to put forth new proposals on trade, particularly on the reduction of subsidies, before making another move.

Finally, there seem to be strategic differences on how to deal with WTO and the multilateral trade system among G-20 Ministers. While some countries seem to put much of their efforts toward strengthening the WTO and ensuring its main role in the international trade system, other countries seem to be full of skepticism about the WTO and the multilateral trade system. We can expect a number of very interesting debates among member countries of this important negotiating group in the coming years.

Ben Lilliston

WTO violence—so disappointing…

Farmers kids The anti-WTO demonstration patiently orchestrated over the past several months by a coalition of Swiss groups (trade unions, social movements and other NGOs) in consultation with the international network Our World Is Not For Sale was set for success. On Saturday, November 28, more than 4,000 people (a huge number by Geneva standards) had gathered on Place Neuve, the starting point of the demonstration. They held colorful banners and consistent messages. Kids and older activists co-existed peacefully. Farmers, workers, musicians and environmentalists had joined the ranks and were ready to walk to the WTO. The protest organizers were thrilled. Alessandro Pelizzari, from the Swiss union UNIA, launched the demonstration with a very unifying speech.

But then the Black bloc decided it would be more fun if they started trashing windows and setting SUVs on fire.

Owinfs climate banner The protest had to be called off after about 500 meters. For those of us who work hours on end trying to make another world possible through a consistent critique of what’s wrong with the current system, this is a blow. Protesters were unable to convey their messages through the media about the need to change trade rules if the world is to overcome the conjunction of crises it is faced with.

I fear that all that will remembered from this demonstration are the burnt cars and broken windows. Eric Stauffer, Geneva’s extreme right leader, will no doubt thrive on this fiasco while proponents of another world will be associated with violence and fear. Was that the kids in black's objective?

Anne-Laure Constantin

November 17, 2009

Faster and Further in the Fight Against Hunger

IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch is blogging from Rome at the World Summit on Food Security.


At the summit today, there is a buzz of government delegates and media inside the halls of the Food and Agriculture Organization here in Rome. Unfortunately, the summit is a bit stale and out of sync at a time when so much more is needed. For example, governments adopted the final declaration on the morning of the first day of the summit, even as there are two more days of negotiations and roundtables to go before the summit officially ends. The declaration in and of itself isn’t bad. It isn’t groundbreaking either. In fact, it distinctly falls flat in terms of any new approaches being put forth.


In the declaration, governments support the Global Partnership for Agriculture, Food Security and Nutrition (GPAFS) without much clarity around what this kind of coordination actually means. They reference the sense of urgency to act and to coordinate actions that increase production and trade among other things, even as it is clear now that this approach has contributed to the failure of the food system and that different responses are needed. The declaration supports a stronger Committee on Food Security (CFS), a central part of the Global Partnership, and a coordinating structure. This is an important move in terms of increasing coordination and putting the emphasis on the important role of the UN, where it should be. Yet we also know there is the parallel track, which is the G20 push for a global trust fund to address hunger to be housed at the World Bank; this effort is moving very quickly outside of a UN process and is seemingly unaccountable to the broader commitments being made in Rome. Governments also commit to substantially increasing overseas development assistance (ODA) without giving targets or timeframes.


The declaration references the need to examine possible links between speculation and agricultural price volatility and the need to examine the role of reserves. This isn’t new language, but it is important. From IATP’s standpoint, it is right on track. It is a concrete measure that governments must get behind. In fact, some already are. In a press briefing yesterday, France and Brazil announced they will take concrete measures to curb price volatility and to regulate predatory investments in farmland (land grabs), expressing the importance of regional grain stocks. Farmer-owned, publicly-managed food stocks are a critical policy tool for improving the livelihoods of smallholder producers and to eradicating hunger and poverty.


In short, we have the tools to improve global food security. Now it is a question of political will. If the message from governments and the UN is that hunger is a collective tragedy and hungry people cannot wait, then leaders must invest in what is needed to change this horrible path that does not have to be.

Alexandra Spieldoch

November 16, 2009

World food summit: rhetoric or action?

Today at the World Summit on Food Security, there was plenty of lofty rhetoric. United Nation's Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon told delegates that "food is a basic right" and "our job is not just to feed the hungry, but to help the hungry feed themselves." And according to Bloomberg, Pope Benedict XVI  cited "greed which causes speculation to rear its head even in the marketing of cereals, as if food were to be treated just like any other commodity."

Fine words. But, like so many of the international meetings the past two years on the food crisis, missing from the various statements of government leaders were clear financial commitments and regulatory reforms to address failures in agricultural markets, like speculation.

When it comes to action, the summit represents an opportunity for the Obama administration to lead on a global stage (and according to a new USDA report released today, food insecurity is also hitting close to home). Just prior to the summit, IATP and over 20 other U.S. based organizations wrote to the Obama Administration with 10 ideas for action at the summit. Unfortunately, thus far,“Our officials, along with U.S. agribusiness, are spreading the myth that more intensive production can feed the world, a message that is not only incorrect but dangerous in terms of its harmful impacts on sustainable livelihoods for the majority of food producers, and its exacerbation of the converging climate, economic, water and energy crises,” the U.S. groups wrote. 

Today, we also delivered a specific proposal to government officials at the Rome meeting, urging their support for food reserves as a tool to better manage food supplies and address extreme volatility in agriculture markets. Last month, IATP and ActionAid USA organized a briefing in Washington on food reserves and how they might be used at the national, regional and international level.

IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch is in Rome following the discussions, briefing government officials and working with civil society organizations. Government leaders still have two more days to step up. 

Ben Lilliston

November 11, 2009

Looking for integrated solutions to climate at UN talks

From November 2–6 last week, negotiators met in Barcelona as a lead up to UN climate talks in Copenhagen in December. However, hardly any progress was made on the two issues that continue to be central to the deadlock: firm emission reduction targets for developed countries and financing that would allow developing countries to limit their emissions growth and adapt to the climate change impacts that are already inevitable.

Sometimes I wonder whether this is a blessing in disguise. Why? Because negotiators seem unable to grapple with how climate change intersects with other critical challenges related to agriculture and water.

In the case of agriculture, its contribution to climate change is significant but its potential for mitigation is high. It is not only a source of livelihood for close to half the world's population but provides food for all of us. Despite these characteristics, agriculture has only recently entered climate negotiations.

Water is another missing element of the negotiations. The climate impact on agricultural production will primarily be mediated through water (and humidity related changes in the presence of pests and pathogens). In Barcelona, UN-Water (composed of 26 UN organizations) released a statement urging climate negotiators to recognize the pivotal role of water in adapting to climate change in order to increase resilience and achieve sustainable development, stating: “Water is the primary medium through which climate change influences the Earth's ecosystems and therefore people’s livelihoods and well-being. [...] The sense of urgency for climate change adaptation and the recognition of the centrality of water therein, have not yet permeated the political world [...]." It added: "Innovative technologies and integrated solutions are needed at the appropriate scales, for adaptation as well as mitigation."

Three days later, in New York, a special event was held as part of the 64th Session of the UN General Assembly’s Second Committee (Economic and Financial), titled “Enhancing Governance on Water" during which experts discussed some of the key issues on the global water agenda, including strengthening the response to climate change through smart water management and reducing the impacts of water-related disasters. The UNGA event emphasized that water issues must be addressed in a holistic manner to address the climate crisis.

Earlier this year, IATP issued a report prior to the World Water Forum titled, Integrated Solutions to Water, Agriculture and Climate Crises. I hope UNFCCC negotiators heed these growing calls for integrated solutions to these global challenges.

Shiney Varghese

November 10, 2009

Bt refuge rules being ignored at our peril

The adoption of transgenic, or more commonly termed genetically modified (GM) crops, has greatly transformed the crop industry. Crops resistant to the general purpose herbicide, glyphosate or Roundup, are widely available. More controversy, however, has been generated by the use of Bt-corn hybrids. These genetically engineered hybrids produce a protein derived from a soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that is toxic to some pests but not to humans or animals.

While the biotech industry promoted Bt crops to control Lepidopterathe order of insects that includes moths and butterflies—and thus dramatically reduce the use of synthetic insecticides, Miguel Altieri in 1999 brought attention to the issue of insect resistance. He pointed out that Lepidoptera have species that have developed resistance to the Bt toxin and that ultimately the use of Bt crops will fail. The continuous expression of the toxin in the crop will create such a strong selection pressure that resistance will be certain to develop.

To overcome the concerns for resistance development, the refuge strategy was developed. The concept is simple in design, but difficult in execution. It was first presented by US EPA in 2000 for corn borer control. It involves planting at least 20 percent of land in non-Bt corn. In cotton areas, at least 50 percent of the cotton must be non-Bt (there is also a Bt cotton). The situation is more complicated for corn rootworm Bt (a stacked trait, containing both rootworm and borer Bt, that is becoming more common).

The thinking behind the refuge is that the resistance genes will be diluted by supplying susceptible moths that can mate with the rare resistant moth. Offspring of these pairings will likely be susceptible to Bt corn. If the Bt corn rootworm is planted, the refuge should be in an adjacent field. Whereas for the corn borer, the refuge can be up to a half mile away. This is because the rootworm mating is local whereas the corn borer moth has a fairly wide range of exploration, although most recommendations prefer that the refuge for both be in the same field.

Monsanto now has a new corn seed that is a triple stacked variety for broad control of corn earworm, European corn borer, fall armyworm, southeastern corn borer, southern cornstalk borer, corn stalk borer and sugarcane borer, as well as corn rootworm. This technology has an EPA approval for a 20 percent refuge in both corn and cotton-growing areas.

The refuge compliance is voluntary, but must be monitored yearly by the major biotechnology seed producing industries. Data for 2008, reported by Gregory Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and covered in The New York Times indicate a significant slippage in adherence to the refuge requirement, from a rather consistent 90 percent or above compliance in earlier years. They found:

  • Only 78 percent of growers planting corn-borer-protected crops met the size requirement, and only 88 percent met the distance requirement.
  • Only 74 percent of growers planting rootworm-protected crops met the size requirement, and 63 percent met the distance requirement.
  • Only 72 percent of farmers growing stacked varieties of GE corn—corn protected against both corn borer and rootworm—met the size requirement and 66 percent met the distance requirement.

These are serious breaches of a contract that is made with EPA and the biotechnology companies—and with the public, who counts on the agricultural industry to live up to its stewardship obligations.

CSPI has some strong and common sense recommendations, including the removal of registration of Bt corn varieties until the companies can demonstrate a higher level of compliance; large fines or seed sales restrictions if noncompliance remains high; requiring biotech companies to pay for independent third-party assessments of compliance; and requiring bag labeling to specify refuge requirements.

Why is compliance slipping? One can only speculate. But is it a coincidence that compliance dropped when the price of corn skyrocketed in 2007-2008? At the same time, prices of inputs also increased, squeezing the farmer’s bottom line even more. The refuge requirement is expensive; seed must be segregated, pesticides that might also cause resistance cannot be used and yields on the refuge areas might suffer because of the high pest pressure. 

Even more serious is the potential that organic farmers will lose the one best biological control of pests available to them; they commonly spray a mixture of Bt on crops to biologically control the Lepidoptera.

Dennis Keeney

November 06, 2009

Betting on climate change: the carbon derivatives market

This week in Barcelona negotiators are making one more attempt to resolve some of many differences for a new agreement to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). There are three UNFCC “flexibility mechanisms” intended to enable countries to meet their Greenhouse Gas (GHG) reduction commitments. One mechanism is the buying and selling of “carbon allowances,” i.e., permits to pollute, and “carbon offset credits,” largely based on agricultural or forestry projects to reduce or avoid GHG emissions. Industrialized countries claim that Article 17 of the Kyoto Protocol authorizes them to extend the primary carbon trading market into the world of financial derivatives.

As part of IATP’s preparations for the UNFCC summit, December 6–18 in Copenhagen, Denmark, as a member of the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition (CMOC), we helped to draft and signed an October 30 letter to Senators John Kerry and Barbara Boxer. The CMOC does not take a position on the overall Senate energy and climate change bill. Instead the letter outlines dangers that the carbon derivatives market poses to the realization of U.S. GHG reduction goals. The letter notes that Congress has yet to agree to fundamental reforms to the financial and commodity derivatives markets in which carbon derivatives would be traded. Indeed, there is strong opposition to most of these reforms from the financial services industry, which has created new loopholes in draft legislation that could induce extreme price volatility in derivatives markets, including that for carbon. Volatile and confusing carbon price signals would delay and inhibit investments in GHG reduction technology. Such investment delay would be a global warming accelerant.

To reduce the likelihood of extreme carbon price volatility, the CMOC letter calls for mandatory exchange trading—in other words, no more trading in the shadow banking markets. This demand is strongly opposed by the Coalition of Derivatives End Users, who claimed in an October 2 letter, that being forced to post the margin requirements to trade on exchanges would harm their economic interests. Most of the signatories to the letter—which originated when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, acting on behalf of the taxpayer, bailed out  “too big to fail” banks—will be trading carbon derivatives.

The CMOC letter also calls for banning commodity index funds and exchange-traded funds from trading carbon derivatives. In a November 2008 paper, IATP showed how the bundling of agricultural futures contracts into index funds was partly responsible for the extreme price volatility in agricultural futures contracts. The role of index funds in driving price volatility was confirmed in a June 24 U.S. Senate investigation of excessive speculation in wheat contracts. This price volatility made the use of futures contracts by both U.S. farmers and developing country importers too expensive and unpredictable. The price increases contributed to food riots in more than 30 countries, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Finally, the CMOC letter called on Congress to commission studies on the effects of a carbon derivatives market on agricultural, energy and other non-agricultural futures contracts. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) estimates that by 2017, the carbon derivatives market will trade $2 trillion in contracts. In 2008, the estimated value of all CFTC regulated contracts was $4–5 trillion dollars. No climate change bill should be passed before Congress has had time to review studies on carbon derivatives price volatility and the effect of carbon derivatives on other futures contracts, including contracts where carbon is bought to offset financial risks in the deregulated world of “mixed swaps” (i.e., with both security and commodity features).

Steve Suppan

November 05, 2009

Do agriculture offsets make good climate policy?

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich) introduced an amendment to the Kerry-Boxer climate bill yesterday. In it, Stabenow, along with six co-sponsors (heavy on the farm states), outlined an agriculture and forestry offset program for the cap-and-trade legislation (the Kerry-Boxer bill contained only placeholder language on ag offsets).

Stabenow’s bill, dubbed the Clean Energy Partnerships Act (CEPA), offers few surprises. As in the Waxman-Markey climate bill that passed the House last June, CEPA sets up a system in which farmers and ranchers would be eligible to earn carbon credits for certain climate-beneficial practices like no-till, methane capture, and cover crops. Capped industries (like steel plants, coal-powered energy plants, etc.) could then buy these credits, thereby reducing (at least on paper) their greenhouse gas emissions.

So is this good policy? In a word—no. As we’ve written before, offsets themselves are notoriously problematic. They’re hard to measure and hard to verify, and in many cases, it’s tough to say whether the carbon reducing activity would’ve happened regardless of the offset. Example: a cattle farmer who practices good grazing. Should we reward her? Absolutely—let’s make sure she has the support to keep doing it. Should it mean a coal plant can get out of some real emission reductions? I don’t think so.

Agriculture and the climate would be much better served by comprehensive farm policies that recognize that farming can do more than just sequester carbon—it can also benefit the soil, water, and of course, eaters. It’s a point we keep making, but one I think bears repeating. I will credit both Waxman-Markey and Stabenow’s bill for including non-offset programs to incentive climate-friendly ag practices. We need to talk more about policies like those, and less about offsets. Learn more about climate and agriculture here and here.

Julia Olmstead

Farm to school programs growing despite challenges

IATP's JoAnne Berkenkamp and USDA Deputy Secretary Merrigan When USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan toured the St. Paul School Commissary earlier this week, the first thing she talked about was how complicated the logistics are when trying to provide healthier school lunches—particularly for larger urban districts. Heads in the meeting room immediately nodded. (see photo: IATP's JoAnne Berkenkamp and USDA Deputy Secretary Merrigan)

Yet, despite these challenges, the urgency of improving school lunch programs is rising. The Centers for Disease Control reported last month that most kids aren't getting enough fruits and vegetables. And the Institute for Medicine also published a paper last month citing school lunch and breakfast programs as critical to ensuring the health of our children.

Healthy school lunch items! Farm to school programs are seen as one tool toward providing healthier food to kids—and communities around the country are recognizing this. There are now over 2,000 farm to school programs around the country.

In Minnesota, we have been working with the Minnesota School Food Service Association to expand farm to school programs. “It’s exciting to see Farm to School participation growing all over the state—in the cities, in the suburbs and throughout greater Minnesota. This movement is growing by leaps and bounds,” IATP’s JoAnne Berkenkamp said in a press release we sent out today.

This fall and early next year, Congress will renew the Child Nutrition Act—an important opportunity to expand resources for farm to school programs.

As Deputy Secretary Merrigan said, "The need is great, the challenges are great, but just because they're great doesn't mean we're not ready to tackle them."

Ben Lilliston

November 02, 2009

Estrogen with that drink?

CNN reported last week on at least two children, ages 10 and 13 being treated for aggressive breast cancer. It’s apparently part of a broader trend of breast cancer striking earlier and earlier. For this generation of women carrying the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, breast cancer is being diagnosed six years earlier than in the previous generation. No one can say why.

By and large, breast cancer isn’t a genetic disease. Like nearly all cancers and other chronic diseases, the causes are multiple, and a mixture of environment and genes. So it’s particularly concerning that we continue to put strong synthetic estrogens, like Bisphenol A, in our food and drink containers.

See IATP’s Smart Guide to Hormones in the Food System and Smart Meat and Dairy Guide for more information. The take home message: There’s nothing smart about adding synthetic hormones to the food chain. Especially not when girls, 10 and 13, are fighting breast cancer.

David Wallinga, MD

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

In an October 26 Think Forward post "Monsanto and Pioneer duke it out over biotech corn, farmers take the hit"  I incorrectly stated that Monsanto bought Garst Seed. Instead, they acquired DeKalb Genetics Inc.. I regret the error. 

Dennis Keeney