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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March 2010

March 31, 2010

Untold costs of the food import boom

As global food trade expands, food companies want uniform food safety standards. For the multinational food company, an ideal world would have a set of global standards. If a food production export facility met those standards, the company could freely export anywhere around the world. But what if the global standards weren't strong enough to ensure safety? What if the cost of food-borne illnesses continued to rise? And what if governments didn't invest enough in regulatory agencies to ensure the standards were actually met?

These issues and more are covered in the latest issue of the Global Food Safety Monitor, edited by IATP's Steve Suppan. The issue looks into the underfunding of U.S. food safety agencies, failures in implementing the USDA's food safety programs and attempts to certify the safety of poultry imported from China. 

"If Cargill is investing an average of $100 million a year and cannot control E.coli in its U.S. plants, what is the likelihood that the Obama administration's proposed budget for federal food safety programs [...] will reduce the incidence of E.coli and other pathogens?" writes Suppan. Find out more in the latest Global Food Safety Monitor.

Ben Lilliston

March 25, 2010

FDA slow to act on food dyes

Despite growing concerns about the potential adverse effects of most currently approved food dyes, the Food and Drug Administration continues to sit on the sidelines. Meanwhile, many food companies have stopped using these food dyes of concern in European markets but continue to use them for the same foods sold in the U.S. market. (See this article from the Examiner about Kraft's Macaroni and Cheese.)

This week, IATP and seven other non-governmental organizations wrote to the FDA, calling on the agency to act on a formal petition filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in 2008 to ban currently approved dyes, including Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6.

Last year, IATP put out two consumer tools to help inform parents about food dyes. IATP's Brain Food Selector is a database that helps parents easily find which foods contain synthetic dyes. Parents can search by brand, product type or whichever dye they're concerned with. IATP's Smart Guide to Food Dyes describes why synthetic food dyes are used, associated children's health concerns and what parents can do.

Increasingly, these dyes have been found to increase hyperactivity and other disturbed behavior in children. Synthetic food dyes are unnecessary and provide no health benefits. The European Union will require companies to use warning labels on most food dyed foods beginning in July 2010.

"The latest science indicates that even modest amounts of synthetic food dyes can affect learning in children," says IATP's David Wallinga, M.D. "We need the food industry and U.S. government agencies to catch up with the latest science and start protecting our children. Until then, parents need to be armed with information when they go shopping."

Ben Lilliston

March 22, 2010

China's water challenges

IATP President Jim Harkness reflects on World Water Day and his recent visit to Beijing.

On this World Water Day, I can’t help but think of my departure from China a couple of days ago. I flew out of Beijing in the middle of a massive dust storm. Howling winds in parched Inner Mongolia picked up countless tons of fine red soil and deposited them over a large swath of Northeast Asia, Japan and Korea. As our plane bucked and lurched up into the dirty-orange gale, I tried to distract myself by reading the complimentary China Daily the flight attendant had handed me before takeoff, and found that the perennially water-short North China plain is not the only area of the country that is suffering. Southwest China is in the throes of its worst drought in over a half century, affecting over 20 million people in Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces. Harvests will likely be only 50 percent of their 2009 levels. The poorest farmers, who live in mountainous areas and depend on rains for their crops of maize or potatoes, will be hit hardest. This year reservoirs and rivers are also drying up. That means irrigated rice, the staple of urban populations, will also suffer.

The general thrust of China’s approach to water shortages has been to increase supply. Whether the underlying ideology was socialism or capitalism, more inputs (water, pesticides and fertilizer) and greater productivity have long been seen as the solutions to China’s food security challenge. As surface water disappeared from the North China plain, subsidized tube wells sucked groundwater from deeper and deeper, draining aquifers much faster than they could possibly re-charge. And in the past decade, with the wells running dry, work began on a massive project to transfer water from the South to the North via a network of reservoirs, pipes and canals that would divert trillions of gallons of the Yangtze’s flow northward. A recent decision to halt the most disastrous part of this project was a major victory for China’s scientifically and politically savvy water activists, but a more fundamental shift toward reducing waste and increasing efficiency of water use is still a long way off.

One of the more interesting sessions at the International Conference on Sustainable Agriculture and Food we co-hosted in Beijing last week was about efforts to drastically reduce water use in paddy rice farming through adoption of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). More a set of principles than a specific farming technique, SRI includes a focus on reduced use of inputs, wider spacing of seedlings and careful treatment of roots during transplanting. Instead of keeping the paddy flooded, SRI calls for the soil to be kept moist but aerated, in order to promote beneficial soil microorganisms. SRI has a growing host of proponents among grassroots development workers and farmers’ groups, but critics in major rice research institutions have questioned its scientific basis, and major field trials are currently underway.

One aspect of SRI that has made it difficult to assess is that it is intentionally flexible, so it can be adapted to local conditions, and the variation in local adaptations was evident in the contrasting approaches to SRI presented at our conference. Mr. Uwe Hoering, a German agronomist, described the widespread adoption of SRI in Cambodia, where it is essentially a very low-input, labor-intensive, organic farming system. Mr. Lu Shihua of the Sichuan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, one of the principal proponents of SRI in China, described a rather different system, using chemical fertilizer and substituting plastic sheeting for mulch as a weed control and moisture retention measure. This seemed much less environmentally friendly than the Cambodian version, but they shared the key element of water savings. In Sichuan, where over 100,000 hectares are now planted using SRI, two-thirds less water is used. The yields from SRI are marginally higher on average, but much higher in drought years, which are becoming increasingly common.

We will be posting Mr. Lu’s presentation, along with all of the others as well as video of the plenary sessions, in the next week or so. Stay tuned.

Ben Lilliston

Five actions steps on bottled water

IATP's Shiney Varghese gives us five things we can do as individuals and in our communities to reduce bottled water use.

1. If you are concerned about the quality of your local water:

2. If you have continued concern or if your building is old with the possibility of contamination:

3. Stop buying bottled water:

4. Write a letter to the local businesses and other places you visit, urging them to stop selling and/or serving bottled water:

  • Sample letters for restaurant, café, co-op and stores are available here.
  • Please consider writing similar letters to other venues you visit (e.g., gyms, offices and events).

5. Join a campaign to help spread the idea! Examples include:

Ben Lilliston

Bottling water, boxing in communities...

The release of the new video, ‘The story of bottled water,” on this World Water Day (2010) got me thinking. It has now been more than 10 years since I came across what was perhaps the first landmark study on the bottled water industry. It concluded that bottled water is not necessarily safer than tap water, pointing out that bottled water regulations are inadequate to assure consumers of either purity or safety. The Natural Resources Defence Council, authors of the 1999 study, petitioned FDA to "Establish [..] rules as stringent as those applicable to city tap water.” Despite the threat to consumer health that this report highlighted, bottled water sales skyrocketed in the intervening decade.

Since 2000, IATP has been promoting the human right to water through multiple venues, including a focus on the United Nations. Right to water, as we define it, is the right of people and ecosystems to have access to safe water to remain healthy. Effectively, we insist that every person has a right to access water in quantity and quality necessary to meet their basic needs—water for cooking, drinking, washing, sanitation and for meeting basic livelihood needs.

In practical terms, what does the right to water mean?

Ensuring that water supply systems are democratically governed; it means that not only those living in legal residential areas but also those in informal settlements are entitled to water services.

Ensuring that rural residents, and those who are not covered by piped water-supply systems, do not find their water sources are being diverted, polluted, contaminated or depleted without being considered a stakeholder.

In order to address the water needs of the poor around the world, a right to water campaign needs to address not only the domestic water needs, but also the water needs of the ecosystems that sustain a large majority of the water poor. Thus, we define the  right to water rather broadly as pertaining not only to current populations, but future generations as well.

The connection between this work and the proliferation of bottled water use around the world was made starkly clear to me in mid-2002, while on a visit to my home state Kerala, in India. A little over 10 years ago, Coca-Cola arrived in the Plachimada village, promising employment and local economic growth while building a 40-acre bottling plant: Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages, the bottling arm of Coca-Cola, began operations in March 2000. The factory was located between two housing colonies of poor landless laborers belonging to lower castes and indigenous groups. Their water woes began soon after the opening of the facility: water from the plant was dumped outside without any treatment, affecting their water quality. It was not long before farmers in the surrounding areas were affected by water depletion and other environmental problems including land and water pollution.

At the time, the Statesman reported on the situation of Shahidul Hameed, a small farmer in the region. Before the factory started operations, his “little patch of land in the green, picturesque rolling hills of Palakkad yielded 50 sacks of rice and 1,500 coconuts a year. It provided work for dozens of labourers.” By the summer of 2003, Hameed “could manage only five sacks of rice and just 200 coconuts. His irrigation wells have run dry, thanks to Coke drawing up to 1.5 million litres of water daily through its deep wells to bottle Coke, Fanta, Sprite and the drink the locals call without irony, “Thumbs Up.” But the cruelest twist is that while the plant bottles mineral water, local people—who can never afford it—are now being forced to walk up to 10 kilometres twice a day for a pot of drinking water. […] The disruption in life because of depletion of groundwater and contamination by pollutants has forced villagers to picket the factory for the past 470 odd days,” the Statesman reported. The vigil started on earth day in 2002!

Plachimada is about 120 miles from my home. On my second visit to Plachimada, I decided to take an overnight journey by train and to spend a couple of days in the village, where local people had been sitting on a dharna (vigil) for over two years: demanding that Coca-Cola shut down the plant, compensate them and leave the region. Several organizations from and around the region had come together under the name Plachimada Struggle Solidarity Committee in support of the Coca-Cola Virudha Janakeeya Samara Samithy (Anti Coca-Cola Peoples Struggle Committee)—the backbone of the struggle.

Mailamma, one of the Adivasi leaders of the campaign whom I had met during my previous visit, took me to the well in her courtyard. Monsoons were already here; unlike the previous time when the water was no longer at the bottom of her well. In fact, we could draw some water using a make-shift bucket in less than a few minutes. It was crystal clear, but it still had a horrible bitter taste. I had to spit it out.

Mylamma with plastic pitchers in the foreground According to tests conducted by various groups, the water contained too much dissolved salts to drink, cook with or even wash in. Fortunately their fight against Coke over the previous two years had yielded some minimal results: The government had ordered the company to stop drawing water, and subsequently the company had suspended its operations. Moreover, villagers were being supplied with water twice a day. To the right, you can see a picture of “waiting pots” with Mailamma in the background pointing to the pots. Another photo below shows a water supply tanker parked in front of the bottling plant.

Water tanker But they have not been as lucky when it comes to water for other livelihood needs. The villages around the Coca-Cola factory have many large farmers with relatively big land holdings (varying between 10 to 35 acres). These have been the primary source of employment for the majority of landless advasis and low-caste people, who account for close to 40 percent of the population. In addition, most people keep goats, chicken and other small animals as a source of livelihood. The bottling plant’s operations have affected the livelihoods of the farmers, of the laborers who work in these farms, and those who keep small animals.

In a landmark decision on August 9, 2006, the state government of Kerala imposed a ban on the production and sale of colas (both Coca-Cola and Pepsi) in the southern Indian state. Ten days later the Adivasi Samrakshna Sanghom leaders Velur Swaminathan and Mailamma called off the vigil that had lasted 52 months and had brought national and international attention to the small village.

Less than a year later Mailamma passed away. The bottling plant has been shut down for good but the campaign for justice continues. Plachimada Struggle Solidarity Committee and Adivasi Samrakshna Sanghom have been continuing their demand for compensation for the losses suffered as well as for the damages the bottling plant has caused in the area as a result of its reckless operations.

In June 2009, the government constituted an expert committee to study the nature and extent of losses suffered by the people of Plachimada as a result of the operation of the Coca-Cola plant there. It’s as if the call issued by the community earlier this year, on the third anniversary of Mailamma’s death (“A Call to struggle.. for water.. for life”), is beginning to get some response.

On March 18, 2010, the Petitions Committee of the Kerala Assembly, which looked into the environmental pollution and water shortage caused by the plant, wanted the government to take steps to get compensation from the multi-national giant for the losses suffered by villagers. Today, in a setback to Coca-Cola, the High Level Committee set up by Kerala Government suggested legal steps to realize Rs216.26 crore (approximately $47.5 million USD) as compensation from it for the “multi-sectoral” loss caused by its bottling operations in Plachimada.

It is fitting, even if coincidental, that such a recommendation by the State should be issued on World Water Day!

For more information, see Shiney Varghese's “Five actions steps on bottled water

Shiney Varghese

Colonialism is not dead

A version of this commentary by IATP's Dennis Keeney and Sophia Murphy appeared in the March 20, 2010 issue of the Des Moines Register. A PDF version is available for download here.

Bill Gates and the biotech juggernauts are doing their best to keep Africa dependent on imported technology, just like in the bad old days of colonialism.

In the latest iteration of “the rich world knows best,” it is Bill Gates in the company of the few, huge private biotech firms that have joined the long (sorry) list of those that think they know best how Africa should grow its food. If the history of colonialism and subsequent development practice has taught us anything, it is that all interventions must strengthen resilience, encourage diversity and be locally appropriate. The biotech seed proposal for Africa fails on all three counts.

A February 17 Des Moines Register article implies that the U.S. model of crop production will be exported to African nations by giving biotech seed to African farmers. Exporting a model developed specifically for the U.S. to the 47 countries of sub-Saharan Africa is bad enough; worse, this model is focused largely on high inputs for monoculture corn and has caused enormous problems in the United States. Why would we want to export it?

Biotech corn is designed for monoculture production on large acreages like we have in the United States: African agriculture is overwhelmingly small-scale (on farms of less than one acre) and diverse, allowing for a more diverse diet as well as greater overall output given the dependence on rain-fed agriculture and very limited access to external expensive inputs such as fertilizer. It’s often claimed that biotech seeds will yield larger crops: In fact, there is no evidence that crops from biotechnology seeds produce higher yields than do crops from conventionally bred seeds.

Both Pioneer and Monsanto claim they will make the seeds available royalty-free but nothing is said about providing seeds at cost. Nor is anything said about the biotech industry’s stringent rules prohibiting saved seed. Biotech becomes a vehicle to introduce a need for a slew of expensive, and commonly fossil fuel–based, inputs. African farmers have historically, and for centuries, provided necessary inputs for themselves on-farm.

If Bill Gates is going to be responsible for spending hundreds of millions on agriculture in Africa, we need his foundation to do better. So, what are the alternatives to high-input agriculture in Africa?

The Nigerian National Variety Release Committee is set to release improved corn varieties that address drought, low soil fertility, pests, diseases and parasitic weeds. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) developed these varieties in partnership with other African plant breeding programs in Nigeria. These include 13 open-pollinated varieties with varying maturities and four hybrids with drought tolerance. They do not have the costs or legal hassles associated with genetic engineered varieties and will be suited for small farmers.

Another example is the work of Dr. Pedro Sanchez who spent his career working to develop low-cost and comprehensive soil rejuvenation programs for Eastern and Southern Africa and other food-deficit nations. Dr. Sanchez, the 2002 winner of the World Food Prize, has shown how biodiverse small farms can not only produce more local food but also build soil fertility and rural economies. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development—now endorsed by over 50 countries—reached similar conclusions.

In the United States, the biotech industry has dictated the terms of the technology, trampling over the interests and concerns of farmers and the public alike. Biotech crops have resulted in fewer farmers growing more agricultural raw materials and less food, exactly the opposite of what is needed in Africa.

We suggest the Gates Foundation support ongoing African research rather than import capital-intensive technology developed to address problems that are far from most Africans’ concerns. The privately patented and tightly controlled model epitomized by biotechnology is all wrong for the estimated 33 million small farms that make up 80 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s agriculture.

Andrew Ranallo

March 19, 2010

Market deregulation and food security

Large financial institutions play a big role in our food system. From providing credit to farmers, to influencing commodity futures markets that ultimately play a role in setting food prices, big financial players deeply influence the food chain. The latest issue of Food Ethics magazine, published out of the United Kingdom, examines how the breakdown of our financial system has affected food security.

The issue includes articles on whether our finance system is set up to value the environment and hunger; the role of big financial speculators in creating volatility in food prices; food companies and tax avoidance; and how finance could best support a sustainable food system.

IATP's Steve Suppan contributes an article on the role of commodity market deregulation in the U.S. and global food prices. Suppan writes about how speculators like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley dominated agricultural futures markets to drive prices up in 2007 and early 2008, and then down as they disinvested from the market.

Food Ethics editor Tom MacMillan writes in his introduction: "The bottom line is that governments need to make the link between food security and financial regulation, to support long-term investment everywhere from the biggest companies to the smallest farmers around the world. Better rules and practices could speed us towards a sustainable food system. Right now, though, our financial institutions have their feet on the brakes."

Ben Lilliston

The role of agriculture in rural China

The conference we co-organized on sustainable agriculture in China exposed a variety of viewpoints and perspectives about the role of agriculture in China—and particularly in rural China. Leading up to the Beijing conference, IATP President Jim Harkness and Professor Wen Tiejun from Renmin University appeared on China's English language TV to discuss the role of agriculture in rural China. You can view part one and part two on YouTube or watch the embedded versions below.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Ben Lilliston

March 18, 2010

Genetically engineered foods a hot topic in China

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from Beijing.

As I mentioned in the last post, genetically engineered (GE) crops are a hot news topic in China right now. The government’s decision last fall to permit experimental planting of GE rice has caused a backlash that seems to be spreading. International NGOs, such as Greenpeace, have been advocating caution on this issue in China for years, but the government decision has brought many others into the debate. Furious (and often spurious) arguments and theories rage among China’s “netizens,” online commentators whose anonymity brings with it a license for extreme opinions. The Ministry of Agriculture, feeling somewhat embattled, conducted a long Q&A session on GE crops during the recent meeting of the National People’s Congress—China’s generally-weak-but-occasionally-feisty legislature.

Yokolee Naturally, given all this attention, the issue came up at our conference earlier this week on sustainable agriculture in China. Yokeling Chee, co-director of the Third World Network, summarized TWN’s analysis of the intellectual property issues in the plenary, pointing out the potential for patent claims against China by international biotech firms that have been developing their own GE rice varieties. And there was enough interest in the issue that we organized a lively breakout group as well, with scholars and NGOs looking at the science, economics and politics of GE crops in China and around the world. We also held the Chinese premier of The Future of Food, an award-winning documentary about GE foods, with filmmaker Deborah Garcia answering questions following the show.

Zhou People’s University Professor Zhou Li, who spent a month at IATP as a visiting scholar in 2008, has emerged as one of the more articulate academic critics of GE crops in China. He was interviewed on this issue by China Global Times after the conference. China Global Times is run by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party. Might such a prominent airing of critical views portend an official rethink of the controversial decision?

Speaking of controversial, People’s Daily also announced yesterday that the government has drafted a new law against animal cruelty. Chang Jiwen, a scholar at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, headed up the drafting effort, receiving over 700 comments from the public since the first draft was released last fall. This one seems like even more of a longshot than a ban on GE crops. My sources tell me that the draft is so extreme that it has no chance of passage, and some Chinese animal welfare advocates worry it will actually set back their cause. (Among other things, it outlaws consumption of dog meat, a widespread practice in East and Southeast Asia.)

I have to agree. A better approach would be to start by trying to outlaw some more widely recognized acts of cruelty, while building a case against factory farming of animals on environmental and public health grounds. A recent government report named agriculture as the country’s biggest source of pollution, and animal production is a big part of the problem. Working against the intensification of animal production—for a host of reasons—is emerging as an important component of our China work.

To see some pictures from the workshop, see our Facebook photo album.

Ben Lilliston

March 17, 2010

How should China feed itself?

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from Beijing.

“How Should China Feed Itself?” (rather than “Who Will Feed China?”) might have been a good title for the international conference on sustainable agriculture and food that IATP co-hosted in Beijing from March 12 to 15.

Over 100 people attended, including activists and scientists from South and Southeast Asia, the U.S. and Europe. Leading Chinese agricultural research institutions were represented, along with people from industry, government, NGOs, farmers and interested citizens. We gathered to examine the lessons of industrial agriculture and prospects of sustainable agriculture, in China and globally.

To set the stage for the discussions, we started with a pre-conference workshop to introduce the findings of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This major global scientific endeavor, coordinated by the World Bank and UN and comprising over 2,000 pages of analysis, represents the best thinking on where agriculture has been and where it needs to go. IMG_9044

Although many Chinese experts participated and China is one of the 60 official signatories to the assessment’s final report, IAASTD is surprisingly little-known here, even in policy circles. IAASTD co-chair Dr. Hans Herren (who was quoted in the local press) and several Chinese and international co-authors discussed different dimensions of the assessment and its implications for China’s agricultural development path.

Against that background, the conference then delved into both Chinese and international experiences with both industrial and sustainable agriculture. Co-organizer Professor Wen Tiejun, dean of the Renmin University School and Agriculture and Rural Development, said it is rare if not unheard of for a conference in China to seriously explore alternatives to the country’s official agricultural development model, which has kept farm production ahead of population growth, but done so at tremendous costs to the environment, public health and the welfare of rural people.

There waIMG_8926s spirited debate among panelists on several issues. Liu Denggao, president of the China Soy Association, reported on the devastatin g impacts that imported soy has had on Chinese farmers, to which Mr. Hu Bingchuan of the Academy of Social Sciences replied that opposition to free trade is unscientific and  based in “conspiracy theories.” Doubts were raised repeatedly about the productive potential of organic agriculture, despite detailed rebuttals by Chinese an international experts.

A number of speakers pointed to the many opportunities to reform conventional agriculture in China, rather than converting to organic production. China has the highest chemical fertilizer use rates in the world, and professor Zhang Weifeng of the China Agricultural University showed that a 30 percent reduction in fertilizer applications would actually increase yields while drastically cutting water pollution.

While many of the speakers were academics, China’s nascent “good food” movement was also present and very vocal. A student asked an official why he said that government certification would be the most effective way to promote organic agriculture when consumers consider existing labeling schemes to be unreliable. Another audience member asked why organic food is so much more expensive than conventional food in China. And there were several questions about the government’s controversial recent decision to allow experimental planting of genetically modified rice.

We alsoIMG_9012 arranged for the conference to be entirely catered using local and fair trade products. Food was  provided by several small organic farms in the Beijing area, and participants drank 100 percent fair trade organic Peace Coffee, which I lugged all the way from Minnesota! This is the first international conference in China to take this approach, and we have already had inquiries from other organizations that would like to follow suit.

More on the various presentations and discussion to come.

Ben Lilliston

March 15, 2010

Seeding monopoly

It made sense that the first USDA/Department of Justice workshop on competition in agriculture reserved a panel to focus on the beginning of the food chain: the seed industry. 

The panel at the March 12 workshop in Ankeny, Iowa zeroed in on Monsanto's control of the seed industry, primarily for corn and soybeans. The Justice Department has begun a preliminary investigation of Monsanto's practices in the soybean market. Seven state attorneys general are also investigating Monsanto's soybean pricing practices - where the company holds an estimated 93 percent market share, reports Bloomberg. Monsanto's practices were a common target at a Thursday night townhall forum in Ankeny that we blogged about last week.

For farmers at the workshop, rising seed prices and the lack of choices in the marketplace were the issue. Seed prices have risen some 146 percent since 1999, and 64 percent in just the last three years, according to a report by the Farmer to Farmer campaign. (For more on rising seed prices, see Dr. Charles Benbrook's comparison of organic and biotech seed premiums.)

Iowa grain farmer Eric Nelson told the 800 plus attendees that rising technology fees for biotech crops ate away any potential profits he might gain from increased yield. Nelson said he can get the same yield gains with conventional crops, and get a premium price. One of the main problems, according to Nelson, lies with current land grant research, which is funded by the big seed companies and not serving the greater public.

"We need to require that all germplasm be available to the public," said Nelson. "We need to look at the safety and wisdom of granting long-term patents on living things."

Not surprisingly, Monsanto VP Jim Tobin had a different view. Tobin argued that patents has attracted a great deal of innovation that wouldn't have occured otherwise. He said that innovation continues today - with a pipeline full of new products coming on the market. "There's a lot of choice today, they'll be a more choice in the future and tremendous competition for the farmer's needs," said Tobin.

The American Antitrust Institute's Diana Moss, who has written extensively on Monsanto's domination of the seed industry, was blunt in her analysis. She described the seed platform as essentially two markets, one for traits and another for traded seed.

"We've seen an increasing degree of vertical integration among these two markets," said Moss. "In the traits market, there is in effect a monopolist in Monsanto. In the downstream market, they give the illusion of choice."

Moss compared the seed industry to Microsoft's Windows operating system. You may buy a Dell or a HP or any number of computers - but they all have the same operating system. The result has been rising prices and less innovation.

The control of seeds goes to the heart of agriculture - both at the international and local level. While the USDA co-organized this workshop on Monsanto's control of the seed industry, earlier this month USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack touted efforts to gain greater acceptance of biotech seeds in other countries as part of the Administration's efforts to increase agricultural exports. And for those working to expand vegetable production targeting local markets in the U.S., keep in mind that Monsanto also owns Seminis, the world's largest vegetable seed company.

Scrutiny of the seed industry deserves much more than one panel at one workshop. The USDA and Department of Justice should add another workshop to their plans this year to focus exclusively on the seed industry.

Ben Lilliston

March 12, 2010

Notes from the agbiz concentration workshop: it's a national security issue

Does competition matter in agriculture? The Department of Justice, the Department of Agriculture and 800 plus others felt it was important enough to gather in Ankeny, Iowa today for the first ever workshop on competition in agriculture.

Coming into the meeting, it was an open question about whether the series of workshops planned this year would be more theater than a basis for action. Attorney General Eric Holder's appearance, along with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, tried to answer some of those questions. Vilsack talked about his deep concern for the future of rural America, and whether the benefits of efficiency that we supposedly gain from fewer, big companies dominating agriculture has come at the expense of farmers and rural communities. Holder emphasized that economic competition is a national security issue.

 "If this country doesn't have a functioning agriculture sector, that is a national security issue," said Holder "We've learned the hard way in the past few years how the effects of deregulation can result in harm.".

Christine Varney, Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, got everyone's attention when she talked about the agency's criminal authority. In her remarks she highlighted common themes that would be repeated throughout the day: a need for greater market/price transparency and the use of patents to create excess market power. As an example of Justice's newfound commitment toward agriculture competition, she pointed to recent DOJ efforts to blog mergers - one that included Dean Foods, another involving JBS and National Beef.

"Big is not bad, but with being big comes an awful lot of responsbility," said Varney.

In the next blog, we'll look more at what was said about competition in the U.S. seed industry.

Ben Lilliston

Call to "Bust Up Big Ag"

"It is a lie that we have a free market. It's a lie that we have an open market. It's a market controlled by corporations." This remark from an Iowa farmer last night captured the fiery sentiment at a townhall meeting of over 250 people, packed into a room at the Best Western in Ankeny, Iowa.

The townhall was held on the eve of the first ever U.S. government workshop on competition in agriculture, that will start in a few minutes. The joint USDA/Department of Justice workshop is the start of a series of similar events to be held around the country this year. The room last night was full of farmers from the region, local Iowans and the bright yellow shirts of United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) members from surrounding meatpacking areas.

Barb Kalbach, a fourth-generation farmer from Dexter, Iowa and part of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI), kicked off the meeting: "We’re here today to make sure the voices of everyday people are heard loud and clear. And that message is: 'bust up big ag.' A handful of multinationals have run roughshod for too long. Antitrust laws have not been enforced. We want action now and we expect the government to represent the people and the common good.”

The concentration of the seed industry and excessive use of patents took center stage with many of the comments - with Monsanto a common target.  "The only thing they haven’t done is put a patent on air and charge us for breathing it," said one farmer from Iowa.

"This monopolistic system is rigged against family farmers," George Naylor, a corn and soybean farmer from Churdan, Iowa and also part of ICCI, told the crowd. "This casino economy is rigged so farmers don’t have much of a choice of the seeds that they buy. Monsanto has intentionally bought up seed companies to eliminate competition."

Todd Leake, a wheat and soybean farmer from North Dakota told the crowd, "If anything belongs in the public domain, it’s the crops we grow for food."

Many also focused on the livestock and poultry industry. Rhonda Perry, a livestock farmer from Armstrong, Missouri and part of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, said, "A handful of meatpackers and poultry companies completely dominate the entire livestock industry.The big corporations say that they are more efficient. The reality is that they don’t have to be more efficient – they just have to control the market. It’s not good for farmers or consumers."

UFCW's Mark Lauritsen talked about growing up in a meatpacking family in Iowa during the farm crisis in the 1980s. " I saw the pain in the face of farmers – and I saw the meatpacking plants closed, and wages lowered for those that stayed open. Fewer and fewer corporations are controlling the food industry. The Justice Department needs to be pushed to include the impact of concentration on workers, family farmers and the communities we live in."

IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch talked about how farmers in the U.S., Mexico and Canada all were facing a simlar squeeze from a few big companies that now dominate the North American market. You can read our fact sheet we prepared for the meeting, as well as watch a short video of Alexandra summarizing IATP's comment to the USDA and DOJ.

Patty Lovera of Food and Water Watch, summarized the sense of people in the room as they await Friday's workshop: "Games have rules, they have referees. The government is our referee – it’s time for the referee to get back in the game."

Ben Lilliston

March 11, 2010

NAFTA and agribusiness concentration

Tomorrow, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice will host the first ever workshops on competition issues in agriculture in Ankeny, Iowa. A new IATP fact sheet looks at the role of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in accelerating agribusiness concentration. It includes short testimonies from farm groups in Mexico, Canada and the U.S.

“NAFTA opened the door to create one large, and increasingly concentrated, North American market for big agribusiness companies,” said IATP’s Alexandra Spieldoch. “Farmers in all three countries have been squeezed by a handful of companies. As the Justice Department and the USDA assess competition in agriculture, it is imperative that they consider the international impacts of corporate concentration and reforms needed to create fair markets. Competition reform cannot be viewed exclusively as a domestic issue.”

You can read the full fact sheet here.

You can read IATP’s comment to the USDA and Justice Department on the need to address corporate competition in agriculture here:

IATP will be blogging from Iowa later today and tomorrow on the outcomes of the workshop.

Ben Lilliston

March 10, 2010

Gearing up for agribusiness concentration workshops

For those who feel that the excessive market power of agribusiness companies is a big part of what's wrong with our food system: it's on. And it's historic. For the first time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice will hold a series of public workshops on market competition in agriculture. The series kicks off on Friday in Ankeny, Iowa. IATP will be there blogging away on all the highlights.

Earlier today, the final agenda and speakers were announced including USDA head Tom Vilsack, Attorney General Eric Holder, some state attorneys general, academics and company representatives like Monsanto. A first round of the agenda included only a few farmers, and fortunately, they've added an extra session to include more farmer voices.

The official goal of the workshop is to "promote dialogue among interested parties and foster learning with respect to the appropriate legal and economic analyses of these issues, as well as to listen to and learn from parties with experience in the agriculture sector."

But many farmers and consumers concerned about the effects of market concentration on our agriculture economy, our health and the environment believe much more is needed than "dialogue." Along those lines, IATP and many others will be at a Thursday night event hosted by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement titled Unleash Food Democracy: Taking on Corporate Power in our Food Supply. We'll be in Iowa tomorrow, reporting more on the first agribusiness competition workshop.


Ben Lilliston

March 09, 2010

Farm to school numbers up—and rising

A new survey, released today by the Minnesota School Nutrition Association (MSNA) and IATP, can serve as both encouragement for farm to school advocates and as a road map for schools, administrators or farmers looking to get involved in the growing movement. According to the survey, the number of Minnesota school districts purchasing fresh food from local farms has more than doubled in the last 15 months. Even more encouraging is the fact that 77 percent of the districts currently involved in farm to school indicated that they expect to expand their farm to school activities in the upcoming school year.

“Parents, students and educators know that good nutrition is essential if our kids are to be healthy and ready to learn. Small and mid-size farmers, whose products have largely been absent from America’s lunch trays, can offer our children fresh, less-processed choices and a chance to learn how and where their food is grown,” said IATP’s JoAnne Berkenkamp. “The momentum is rapidly building for farm to school programs and it’s great to see schools and farmers embracing this opportunity.”

Some other highlights of the survey include:

  • Nearly 43 percent of school districts purchasing Minnesota-grown food in 2009 did so by purchasing directly from a farmer or farmer co-op.
  • The biggest barriers to expanding farm to school purchases were the need for extra labor and preparation time in the cafeteria, pricing and tight food budgets, and difficulty finding nearby farmers to purchase from directly.
  • In the future, schools are most interested in purchasing local vegetables and fruit, with growing interest in bread/grains, dairy and meat.
  • The survey also showed strong interest in expanding student education about farm to school and growing food in school gardens.
See the entire survey or take a look at our press release for further information. Also, listen to our newest episode of Radio Sustain for an interview with JoAnne Berkenkamp.

Andrew Ranallo

March 08, 2010

“Oughta Be A Woman”—Celebrating International Women's Day

On March 8, 2010 and in this 15th anniversary of the World Conference on Women that took place in Beijing, China, we celebrate women worldwide as our leaders, our mentors, our mothers, our daughters, our sisters, our sources of strength. What does it mean to celebrate women in this world that is so mired in the multiple crises relating to international development, hunger, poverty and the environment? What does it mean to celebrate women in a patriarchal system of food and agriculture that marginalizes their voice? In fact, we cannot. Until we shift course from our current model of production, women will continue to suffer disproportionately even as would wish to celebrate them.

They are the majority of the world’s food producers and yet they have the least power. Eighty-five percent of farms that provide agricultural value-added crops to the global market are no more than two hectares and the majority of these are run—but not usually owned—by women, who lack access to land, water and other resources. Women are the main food providers in the world and are responsible for the care of their families in both rural and urban areas. As such, they are at the center of the ongoing global food crisis.

As we talk about solutions for the food crisis from a gender perspective, our approach cannot be to insert them into the global supply chain. Rather what women need most is to have their rights respected in relation to food, health, water, education, housing, land, work, and freedom from sexual discrimination and violence.

It is time for the world to truly celebrate women and get serious about implementing and strengthening their rights. Women are not waiting: We are moving. We are mobilizing for change.

Alexandra Spieldoch

Follow-up on cheap food policy

Last week, we wrote about the lastest issue of Health Affairs, which zeroes in strategies for addressing childhood obesity. The issue includes a chapter by IATP's Dr. David Wallinga on the connection between agriculture policy and childhood obesity. Health Affairs recorded the lengthy press conference at the National Press Club with authors of the special childhood obesity issue. You can watch short video presentations from some of the authors, including Dr. Wallinga, here.

Ben Lilliston

March 05, 2010

Chinese peasant farmers: making an impact globally, struggling locally

Mindi Schneider is blogging from China. She is a native Midwesterner currently living in China and working on her PhD in Development Sociology at Cornell.

In the last post, I outlined a few sustainable practices on the Ge family farm in their village in Hebei Province. Now I want to return to the idea of kunnan, the Chinese word for difficulties and problems, and think about farmers' challenges while living sustainable, low-carbon lifestyles.

As excited as I was to see these hallmarks of sustainability in action, I was equally overwhelmed by the farmers’ struggles. Mrs. Ge told me that when she was a child there was ample rainfall in the village. In recent years, however, rainfall has become much spottier. The creek beds are completely dry, water for crops is extremely limited and water conservation at home and in the fields and orchards is a must. This is one kunnan. In the early spring, villagers have to buy much of the food for their households since the fields and orchards are not yet productive, and stored foods are running low. I accompanied Mrs. Ge to the market one day to stock up on vegetables and eggs. We walked through the mountains 1½ hours to get to the market in another village, found the vegetables to be priced higher than usual because of Spring Festival, bought them anyway, loaded them into a feed sack, and walked 1½ hours back home. She makes this trip nearly every week to supplement the family’s production. This is another kunnan. At the market, we spent about 120 RMB (about $17.70 USD) for a week’s worth of veggies and eggs. This is over half of the family’s weekly income. Bills for electricity, coal, fuel for cooking and for the farm three-wheeler, telephone service and tuition for their 18-year-old daughter’s high school education take up the rest (their 21-year-old daughter is away in Beijing working). These are other kunnan. 

The list could go on and on, but I think it's better to try to understand the difficulties peasant farmers suffer in context. I asked a young newlywed woman whose husband was off laboring as a migrant worker, but whose parents were in the village farming, why she thought peasants’ lives were so difficult. She said the main reason was that rural areas were too far away from the cities. Their location was not at all “convenient.” I asked if she meant that they were too remote for farmers to access urban markets to sell their produce, since this is an argument commonly employed by development economists. She said no—rural areas were just inconvenient in general (bu fangbian).

One thing I hear this young woman saying is that rural areas have been left behind. Amid the great Chinese economic miracle, rural areas, rural people and rural agriculture—the so-called three rural problems, or sannong wenti—haven’t been invited to the party. The party, however, could not go on without them. Rural areas supply the migrant labor force that toils in the cities to literally build China’s economic miracle. Rural agriculture feeds rural and urban populations. And rural people struggle while urban middle and upper classes grow. The palpable feeling of being left behind, even in a village less than 150 kilometers from Beijing, is an issue that must be heard, understood and dealt with in thoughtful and equitable ways. There is much work to be done in this area.

I’d like to close with some questions that I think are particularly important to consider. First, what does it really mean to be “left behind” in the wake of post-1978 economic reforms and de-collectivization? Many propose full articulation of peasant agriculture and rural areas with ongoing waves of marketization as the ultimate solution to sannong wenti (i.e., land privatization; expanding rural markets for farm inputs, foodstuffs, consumer products, etc.; linking rural agricultural producers with international markets). Would this increase peasants’ kunnan? What do peasant families want for their own future? Has anyone bothered to ask?

Next, some would argue that promoting small-scale agriculture is nothing more than perpetuating poverty, as these farming practices that we hold as models of sustainability are really just the result of resource-poor communities struggling to get by. Can this be changed so that rural livelihoods improve, but ecological sustainability and local and culturally appropriate farming is preserved? Would this help create a countryside where people would want to live?

Finally, how do we reconcile this contradiction between the advantages of low-carbon, ecologically sustainable agricultural production and lifestyles, and the struggles and difficulties encountered by the people living them? In other words, if small-scale farms really are indeed a planetary asset, and if our future hinges in part on them not transitioning to large-scale, input-intensive, corporately controlled monocrop agriculture, then how can we expect the billions of peasant farmers living that low-carbon lifestyle to continue to struggle? What role does policy—both agricultural policy and developmental policy—play in this reconciliation?

These are some of the themes I’ll be working on and writing about in the coming year. My focus, however, will soon return to pigs!

Mindi Schneider

March 04, 2010

Protecting food from Wall Street speculators

As Congress dithers on regulating Wall Street, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is quietly acting to limit the role of speculators on energy markets—with a spillover effect that could help stabilize agriculture markets as well.

The CFTC has proposed a rule that would establish position limits on energy derivative contracts, which include specified crude oil, natural gas, heating oil and gasoline contracts. Position limits reduce speculation by limiting the number of derivative contracts that any one entity (say Goldman Sachs) can hold for a contract period. Because other commodities are position-limited, the energy position exemption is colloquially known as the “Enron Loophole.”

Why is this important for farmers and consumers? Commodity index funds bundle together energy derivatives and agricultural contracts, with the energy component being as much as two-thirds of the fund formula. So spikes and drops in energy derivative prices tend to pull the much smaller agricultural contract components of the fund along with it. In 2006–2008, index funds held about a third of all agricultural futures contracts.

The CFTC is accepting public comments on its proposed rule through April 26. The financial services industry is trying to block the new rule. IATP sent in its comment today, supporting the proposed rule with a few suggestions on how to make it stronger.

Trading energy contracts with no position limits has brought on unwarranted price increases and volatility in heating oil, gasoline and other retail and wholesale energy products. As we reported in late 2008, several loopholes, combined with a lack of effective enforcement, allowed excessive speculation to be a major factor in steep food price increases in late 2007 to early 2008. Commodity prices collapsed an aggregate of 60 percent between June and November of 2008 as the insolvency of major investors, including index fund dealers, led to U.S. bailouts of Wall Street firms.

“The lack of energy trade position limits has exacerbated excessive speculation and price volatility in agricultural futures contracts,” said IATP's Steve Suppan in a press release we put out today. “Excessive speculation has hurt U.S. agriculture by undermining the original purpose of commodity exchanges—to help commodity sellers and buyers manage price risk. Agricultural price spikes and volatility in U.S. markets have contributed to increased hunger in many of the two-thirds of developing countries that are food import–dependent and that rely on U.S. markets for predictable purchase prices.”

The CFTC's proposed rule has slipped under the radar of much of the media. That's what the speculators are counting on. We need to change that.

Ben Lilliston