About IATP

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

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

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About Think Forward

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



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February 2010

February 25, 2010

Three experts on child nutrition

The new episode of IATP's Radio Sustain looks at child nutrition through three very distinct lenses. First, Rod Leonard, former USDA official and IATP board member, shares his experience of helping launch the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program in the late 1960s. “The brain is growing at a much different rate up to age five than it does after that period, so […] the WIC program fulfills a social responsibility that can’t be met by any of the other food programs.”

We also talk with Rosemary Dederichs, Director of Nutrition for Minneapolis Public Schools, about a new set of USDA nutrition guidelines for the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. She was part of a panel of experts charged with bringing nutritious foods to the lunch table while staying within budget, a complex task when you consider that the National School Lunch program feeds more than 30 million kids every day.

Farm to school programs offer one emerging option for districts looking to bring fresh produce to their menus. JoAnne Berkenkamp, director of IATP’s Local Foods program, describes her goal as “emphasiz[ing] farm to school strategies that work within schools’ budgets. […] That’s critical, because when it works within the existing budget environment, that’s when you get change that becomes woven into how they do business. That’s a form of change that’s sustainable.”

Listen to the episode here (mp3).

Andrew Ranallo

Agriculture and floods

As the spring thaw begins in many parts the country, flood season in the Midwest will soon be upon us. Communities in the Red River Valley and even St. Paul are already bracing for the worst. Are we experiencing more floods in this age of climate change? What role is agriculture playing? And what could be done to better adapt or reduce their effects? These are some of the issues looked at in the new book "A Watershed year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008."

In June 2008, the rivers of Eastern Iowa rose rapidly, flooding farmland and displacing thousands of residents and hundreds of businesses in east-central Iowa and southeast Minnesota. While the book, edited by Cornelia Mutel, focuses on Iowa, it offers lessons for the whole Midwest Corn Belt, which stretches from Nebraska through Ohio.

Several of the chapters zero in on the role of the corn/soybean agricultural landscape (two-thirds of Iowa) in decreasing the region's ability to absorb water."It would be difficult to find two crops that do a worse job of handling Iowa's rainfall," write Laura Jackson and IATP Senior Fellow Dennis Keeney in a chapter on how perennial farming systems could better resist flooding. Perennial plant roots add to the organic matter of the soil, and that soil can absorb tremendous quantities of water without producing runoff into rivers and streams.

"Scientists studying the problems of surface and groundwater contamination, the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and flooding have arrived at the same conclusion: we need to re-perennialize the landscape," write Jackson and Keeney.They argue for more cover crops, longer crop rotations and more grass-based farming integrated with livestock. They suggest policy reforms that would reward farmers for the proportion of precipitation landing on their field that stays on the farm for a significant time period, and other farmer incentives to replace row crops with perennials.

"As flood damages increase, the need for hydrological resilience grows more urgent," write Jackson and Keeney. "A re-perennialized agricultural landscape will still produce food but also will restore community values and ecosystem services that have been lost."

You can order the book here.

Ben Lilliston

February 23, 2010

Proposed locks for Miss River: Big price, little benefit

Imagine the federal government chucking $2 billion down the Mississippi River. Wouldn’t happen, right? Unfortunately, it could, if the Army Corps of Engineers gets the go-ahead to build seven new navigational locks it wants on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.

As part of the Nicollet Island Coalition (NIC), IATP co-released a report today, Big Price, Little Benefit, criticizing the Army Corps’ plan to build the new locks, concluding that the project would be not only a waste of taxpayer dollars, but would also do nothing to repair devastated fish and wildlife habitats that river navigation systems have heavily damaged.

For years, the Army Corps has argued that the volume of traffic running down the Mississippi merits new lock construction. For just as long, IATP and the NIC have argued that the data just don’t bear that argument out. Since the 1970s, barge traffic has fluctuated, remaining relatively flat. Even the increase in corn production generated by the ethanol boom didn’t create increased barge traffic—most of that grain stayed local.

IATP wants Midwestern farms to thrive. It’s clear, however, that lock expansion on the Upper Mississippi will do nothing to help grow farmers’ incomes and would likely contribute to environmental degradation. Two billion dollars could go a long way toward investments in making Midwestern agriculture more diverse, more ecologically sustainable and more profitable.

Find the report and executive summary here: Big Price, Little Benefit.

Julia Olmstead

Chasing the chemical of the month

IATP Senior Policy Analyst Kathleen Schuler has written a new commentary entitled "Toxic chemicals are costing us—and we're paying with our health" that calls attention to the "toxic-chemical-of-the-month cycle" in which one chemical is banned (say, lead in children's products) then quickly replaced by an equally toxic successor (in this case, cadmium—a neurotoxin and carcinogen) by manufacturers looking to cut costs.

Beyond the obvious health concerns (neurological disorders, cancer) that toxic chemicals raise, Schuler also points to the toll they take on our budget. According to a January 2010 report from the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, "a 0.1 percent decrease in the incidence of chronic diseases would reduce direct U.S. health care expenditures by $5 billion per year by 2020."

Schuler, as a contributing author of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families report, is calling for legislative reform of the 1976 Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) that will increase testing and regulation of a broader range of chemicals. New legislation is expected in Congress soon. With chronic health problems on the rise, and health care costs a topic of constant national chagrin, chasing the chemical of the month just doesn't make sense.

Download the new IATP commentary here.

Andrew Ranallo

February 22, 2010

Join us for the webinar: Bridging Food Systems and Public Health

The latest issue of the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition (JHEN) lays out a blueprint for research and policy within agriculture, food and health to advance a food system that supports healthier diets and reduced obesity.

Three of the lead authors of the special JHEN issue will participate in a webinar tomorrow at noon Central time to discuss the latest research on food systems and health:

  • Angie Tagtow, MS, RD, LD and IATP Food and Society Fellow
  • Michael Hamm, PhD, of Michigan State University
  • David Wallinga, MD, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
You're invited! Space is limited, so please register here.

Ben Lilliston

February 19, 2010

The new face of USDA [and the old one]

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from the 2010 USDA Outlook Forum.

Where am I?

When I arrived early to the afternoon session at the USDA Outlook Forum on sustainable agriculture, I did a double take. On the screen at the front of the hall was a 30-foot-tall image of IATP’s Food and Society Fellows web site! Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan was at the podium preparing for her talk, and she wanted to download a video about the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act that she knew we were involved in producing. This is the new face of the USDA, and it’s evident everywhere. There were presentations on Native American tribes in South Dakota using community development financial institutions to build a locally-owned economy; 2000-member CSAs clearing $1 million/year in Pennsylvania; landscape approaches to sustainable biomass production; and lots and lots of talk about organic.

Exciting stuff, but really only half the story. Secretary Tom Vilsack’s keynote really embodied the conflicting interests and priorities that somehow coexist in the Obama USDA. There was a lot to be excited about, including a defense of U.S. support for long-term agriculture development (not just food aid) to poor countries, an enumeration of domestic programs to assist local and regional food systems, and a stirring call for a new generation of young Americans to rebuild rural communities. But the free trade and biotech agendas were also in there, including an ominous reference to our duty to “educate” other countries about the wonders of biotechnology. It was like listening to a mashup of Farm Aid and a Monsanto shareholders meeting.

It’s hard to imagine that a guy [Vilsack] so smart is unaware of the diametrically opposed views of food and agriculture the Department is espousing. Thanks to a refreshing new openness, you can decide for yourself: speeches and presentations should be available for download here after the forum concludes.

Ben Lilliston

February 17, 2010

Community building and climate justice

The non-binding Copenhagen Accord effectively failed to respond to the threat of climate change at the international level. Nationally, U.S. legislators are in limbo—some arguing for cap and trade, others for cap and dividend, and still others insisting that climate change simply doesn't exist. These stalemates—combined with the historical injustices that have left developing nations (internationally) and people of color and the indigenous (nationally) bearing the brunt of imbalanced policy decisions—beg the question: What can we do here and now to combat climate change and ensure that our communities have a place at the table?

Community members, artists and activists met at the All Nations Indian Church in Minneapolis for the "Communities of Color and Indigenous Peoples Climate Justice Debriefing" hosted by IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy (CEED) on Monday night. CEED Senior Policy Fellow Dr. Cecilia Martinez and CEED Director Shalini Gupta shared their experiences at the Copenhagen climate talks—one, not uniquely, full of long lines and being denied entry—and discussed the importance of working at the local level and utilizing indigenous knowledge in addressing climate justice issues.

Dr. Rose Brewer, a member of CEED's advisory board, summarized her experience in Pittsburgh at the most recent G-20 summit where demonstrators, organizers and activists worked hard to be heard. Among many other things, they hosted a People's Tribunal, putting the G-20 to trial for the impacts of their policies around the world with testimony from community members and policy experts. And, of course, there was a verdict. As she asked last night—can you guess what it was?

So, what can indigenous communities and communities of color do, on the ground level, to battle injustice and address climate change? Moderator LeMoine LaPoint (also a member of CEED's advisory board) talked about the power of indigenous knowledge—the fact that people have known about climate change for a while, even if the scientific community has only recently caught on. He then asked the group for emerging solutions they envision for their communities and organizations. Some common themes included sharing information among groups and linking organizations in order to create a stronger voice; becoming united under a holistic approach to changing consumption and production patterns; and using arts, ceremony and ritual to control the story, rather than internalizing the current system that unfairly impacts minorities, the indigenous and the impoverished.

The issue of green capitalism came up as well: one participant compared it to installing solar panels on the Titanic while making sure it doesn't change course—i.e., the same companies advocating for "green business" have a heavy interest in making sure the power structure stays the same. This issue of framing struck a chord with many in the room: Is the system broken, or working as it's supposed to in maintaining the status quo? Is climate justice an environmental issue or one of an economic and power structure that needs to change?

In the end, the group seemed to agree that keys to success were communication, building alliances and reaching a critical mass to take control of resources and energy consumption in their community, currently controlled by corporations and private interests. Energy sharing, cooperative solutions and developing sustainable systems through local food and energy production were all cited as potential projects. Furthermore, the idea of establishing a meeting place where organizers and community members could come together and discuss ongoing work gained traction around the room.

Was last night's meeting the start of something big for Minneapolis? It's very possible. What's certain, however, is that community building can happen now, while international summits and legislative filibusters are still floundering.


Andrew Ranallo

February 16, 2010

How serious are we about food safety?

President Obama's recent nomination of Dr. Elisabeth Hagen for the post of USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety has IATP board member and former USDA official Rod Leonard scratching his head in a new commentary entitled "The Volcker rule in food safety" published this week. Beyond questions about Hagen's experience and largely unknown status in academia, Leonard makes the point that perhaps leaving the post vacant for the last year is more telling: How high does the safety of our food rank on the current administrations priorities? Not high, according to Leonard's analysis, especially compared to the general public where regular news of food-borne illness outbreaks keep people on their toes. So what's wrong?

Leonard blames a long-standing and continually reinforced hands-off policy that limits food safety inspectors' recourse to filing paperwork should they find a breach, and a policy process that he compares to "a modern-day version of Alice in Wonderland's Mad Hatter tea party," in which "all the Washington players on food safety sit at the policy table possessed by mutual suspicions, and agreed in a mutual contempt for people who inspect food." In other words while food safety slowly deteriorates, policymakers in Washington continue to tie the hands of those actually safeguarding our food.

"This," he says, "is a classic example of program mismanagement: allocating time to paperwork and record keeping that would be better deployed in keeping the food system free of contaminated food." Reforming this system has proved a challenge but Leonard believes that the president holds the key, insisting that "[Obama] has the statutory authority to adopt an inspection system to safeguard the American food supply, and the power to begin restoring public confidence in food safety policy."

See the full text of Rod Leonard's new commentary here.

Andrew Ranallo

February 11, 2010

Game on for child nutrition

Earlier this week, First Lady Michelle Obama announced her Let's Move initiative to combat childhood obesity. Rising childhood obesity rates, however, tell only part of the story. As IATP Food and Society Fellow Andy Fisher writes in a new article, the states ranking highest for childhood obesity also have the highest rates of hunger. In other words, hunger and obesity are two sides of the same broken food system—where obesity-driving food prevails and healthy food is not accessible for everyone.

Fisher's article appears in the latest IATP Food and Society Fellows digest—a must read for those concerned about child nutrition. Congress is currently debating the Child Nutrition Act (CNA). The CNA comes up only every five years. Two big programs within the CNA are the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. In other words, the stakes are high for those dealing with obesity and hunger.

The digest includes articles by Debra Eschmeyer on the school lunch program; Arnelle Hinkle on healthy snacks; school lunch videos by Shalini Kantayya and Nicole Betancourt; Mark Muller on the child nutrition policy landscape; Alethia Carr on the WIC and SNAP programs; and IATP board member and former USDA official Rod Leonard on the origins of the WIC program.

In these times of tight budgets, it's hard to think of a better investment than child nutrition.

Ben Lilliston

Katie Couric challenges antibiotic use in factory farms

Katie Couric's two-part series (see part one and part two) on antibiotics and agriculture that ended last night won't help agribusiness sleep any better. The series highlights the human costs of this practice through the story of poultry workers infected with the antibiotic resistant MRSA bacteria (IATP's David Wallinga and Marie Kulick have highlighted this emerging threat). It includes an admission by FDA Deputy Director Joshua Sharfstein that monitoring (some would be a start) of antibiotic use at these industrial operations needs to be improved. And finally, it shows that this massive overuse of antibiotics isn't necessary—Denmark and other countries in Europe have seen their hog industry do just fine after limiting antibiotic use to sick animals.

It's hard to overstate how important this issue is to the big industrial hog and poultry companies. There is a sense of near panic in agribusiness publications like Feedstuffs and Meatingplace, where the challenge to antibiotic overuse is daily front page news.

What is most telling from the Couric series is the response from the National Pork Board, arguing that costs would increase for consumers without using antibiotics as the industry does today (largely for growth promotion and to prevent the spread of disease linked to overcrowding). The industry doesn't acknowledge the considerable hidden cost of contributing to rising antibiotic resistant bacteria—a cost not reflected in supermarket aisles. 

No wonder common-sense restrictions on unnecessary overuse of antibiotics in animal production, proposed in a bill rapidly gaining support in Congress, has kicked the industry's lobbying machine into overdrive. Hopefully, Couric's series will open a few more eyes in Congress. 

Ben Lilliston

February 09, 2010

CBS News on animal production and antibiotics—really this time

After holding off a week to include additional footage, CBS News with Katie Couric will finally run the first of a two-part series on public health risks associated with the overuse of antibiotics in industrial animal production. Antibiotics are often added to animal feed to increase growth and prevent disease in confined animal feeding operations. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that over 70 percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. are used in animal production. Such use is contributing to growing antibiotic resistant bacteria that is affecting our ability to tread disease. Just about every medical association, including the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association and the American Nurses Association, have called for an end to the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture, even many farm groups. The Keep Antibiotics Working coalition is supporting the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) in Congress to address this very issue. See a preview from CBS below:

Ben Lilliston

February 05, 2010

Getting US Dietary Guidelines right

Every five years since 1980, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture set the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for healthy eating and ways to reduce diet-related disease. These guidelines are about more than just personal advice. They serve as the basis for federal food and nutrition education programs including research, labeling and nutrition promotion. The U.S. school lunch program, the food stamp program and the Women, Children and Infant (WIC) program all use the U.S. dietary guidelines as the scientific underpinning for their work.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee holds its next public hearing to consider input on February 9–10 and you can view it via webinar. IATP submitted its comments earlier this week, encouraging the committee to take a systems-based approach to promote healthier food. This includes greater support for locally produced food, more fresh and less processed food, and an emphasis on grass-fed beef. 

The final guidelines are expected this fall. You can find out more at the Dietary Guidelines Web site.

Ben Lilliston

February 04, 2010

Do we need a US Department of Food?

If we want to fix our broken food system—a system that isn't working for farmers, consumers or the environment—changing government policy is essential. In the U.S., policy set by Congress and implemented by government agencies deeply affects what, and how, food is produced and consumed. Most food system reformers have rightly zeroed in on the USDA and the 5-year farm bill as the main targets for change.

A new IATP paper by Maggie Gosselin identifies many other government agencies that also impact our food system. The report, “Beyond the USDA: How other government agencies can support a healthier, more sustainable food system,” analyzes more than a dozen federal agencies and their role in administering programs, grants and regulatory oversight that affect food. This agency-by-agency review covers food safety regulations, community economic and housing development, health education, food procurement, labor standards, trade negotiations and transportation infrastructure.

Currently, there is no integrated approach among government departments and agencies to address food-related issues. It's not uncommon for the policies of one U.S. agency to undermine the work of another. The paper recommends that there be greater coordination among federal agencies and, as a start, that the USDA, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) convene an interdepartmental task force on food policy.

To find out more, check out the full report and our press release.

Ben Lilliston

February 03, 2010

CBS to air antibiotics and agriculture series

Update: The CBS feature has been moved to next week due to a high volume of material, which may expand the feature into a three-night series. More updates will be made on this story as information becomes available.

Tonight, CBS News with Katie Couric will air the first of a two-part series on public health risks associated with the overuse of antibiotics in industrial animal production. Antibiotics are often added to animal feed to increase growth and prevent disease in confined animal feeding operations. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that over 70 percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. are used in animal production. Such use is contributing to growing antibiotic resistant bacteria that is affecting our ability to treat disease. Just about every medical association, including the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association and the American Nurses Association, have called for an end to the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. Even many farm groupsKeep Antibiotics Working coalition are supporting the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act in Congress to address this very issue.

Ben Lilliston

Checking the Copenhagen report card

Under the Copenhagen Accord, January 31 was the deadline for participating countries to report their commitments to reduce climate change. The U.S. Climate Network has the list of country commitments including the U.S., EU, China, India and Brazil. According to the UN, fifty-five countries in total—representing over 78 percent of global emissions—made pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A quick perusal of the numbers, however, casts doubt on their value. They include a mix of goals that use different baseline years and measurements for reductions, making it difficult to compare commitments between countries. For example, many countries have emission targets. Others, like China, use carbon intensity (fossil fuels per economic unit). The weakness of the U.S. proposal stands out. Its proposed 17-percent reduction in emissions by 2020 is contingent on the passage of U.S. climate change legislation (Hello? Congress?).

The positive spin is that many countries are making their first public commitments within an international context. Some are raising previously announced goals and most are going ahead with national initiatives of some sort, despite the emptiness of the accord. Equally important is that by submitting their reduction goals, countries are demonstrating a willingness to continue working through the UN process despite its trials and tribulations.

Ben Lilliston