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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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May 2010

May 31, 2010

Biotech in Africa

In mid-May, the Des Moines Register published a 7-part series on Africa by reporter Philip Brasher. He traveled to Kenya and South Africa to obtain information for the series. It focuses on corn (maize in Africa) and on the role of biotechnology (its political, as well as its yield aspects) in providing food for sub-Sahara Africa—an area that is short on quality soils, has poor rainfall distribution and is expanding rapidly in population.

The first in the series “High hopes and high stakes” puts the United States government’s pro-biotech bias in perspective. He quotes former Iowa Governor and current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as saying that Gates-sponsored Monsanto and biotech industry projects in Africa will help “knock down some the concerns that are expressed globally and domestically about biotechnology.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed similar views and both echo President Obama’s cheerleading efforts (which probably come more from the medical side of biotech).

Still, it now seems to be the U.S. government against most everyone else when it comes to biotech seeds. Often Brasher characterizes Europe as the main force working against biotech in Africa. But only Southern Africa has approved the maize seed for commercial use. And many countries in Asia are just as opposed to biotech seeds. Are he and others using Europe as a scapegoat?

Truly King Corn is worldwide in its influence. Yet corn (white corn, but Brasher does not differentiate) is a key staple for the poor African; 300 million Africans depend on it, some three times a day and so far Africa’s rate of corn production has lagged behind its rate of population increase. Clearly more corn and other staple production is needed. So the question is: How to go about increasing production?

Perhaps the question is already being answered, at least in the short term. South Africa (Africa's Iowa) had the largest corn harvest in 2010 since 1982. Increased land in cultivation, timely rains and better cultivars have contributed to the increase. In fact, South Africa corn prices have dropped more than 30 percent this year and growers are considering withholding corn from the market to increase prices. Part of the problem is the lack of infrastructure to ship the corn to the parts of Africa, such as Kenya, where it is needed.

At the BIGMAP symposium I attended before reading Brasher’s opus, it was painfully clear that a major barrier for many African countries is more fundamental than seeds: it is the lack of infrastructure. In addition, many do not have adapted seeds (open-pollinated and hybrid) to respond to inputs such as fertilizer, they lack rainfall to maximize yields (sometimes just to germinate the seed) and things are getting more dire with climate change. They lack plant breeders, seed distribution centers, lines of credit, and post-harvest storage. In other words, the challenges are much more than just yield.

The Gates-funded projects with Pioneer and Monsanto that we've previously written about hope to incorporate two major traits in the new corn seeds: drought tolerance (Monsanto) and increased nitrogen efficiency (Pioneer). The corn already contains the genetically engineered Bt trait for insect control. These seeds will need to produce higher yields that override the almost certain increased costs of the seed, the fertilizer and other production costs associated with GE crops. And remember that farmers in Africa don't have the abundance of government programs available to U.S. corn farmers if weather or the market impacts profitability.

Brasher's series emphasizes the problems biotech companies have in finding adequate field plots to conduct breeding and yield trials. Not mentioned is the fact that industry restricts independent scientists and others from studying the seed. Further, a lack of established regulations hinders the establishment of field trials.

Brasher's comparison of the acceptance of biotech in South Africa, the European Union and America was revealing. Essentially Europe still says no, driven by consumer resistance. But Brasher indicated that a report by USDA in Rome argued that consumer resistance in the EU was not as strong as believed and that an “education” (read propaganda) campaign targeted to Italy might be a good place to start turning things around. No doubt there are other stealth campaigns to try to get biotech crops into Europe.

The series continues to beg the question: What is behind all these efforts to foist GE technology on Africa? It can't be direct profit from African sales; that will be vanishingly small. Not Africans feeding Africa, that is impossible until the numerous infrastructure problems are dealt with. One has to wonder whether it really is about the image of Monsanto and Pioneer in the U.S. (and possibly EU in the future), and the vast pro-biotech lobby that resides within the USDA. And it is about market share, not just in Africa but worldwide.

Two agronomists have recently won the World Food Prize for work they have done in Africa. They have somewhat different views on how to improve African agriculture. Gebisa Ejata, who just won the World Food Prize in 2009, feels African farmers need basic knowledge about farming methods. In a recent paper in Science, he stated that Africa needs both strong internal leadership and external assistance, particularly in the areas of human and institutional capacity building. Pedro Sanchez, who won the World Food Prize in 2002, feels that increased access to markets and more fertilizer use could also help and that drought tolerance is essential to combat the threat of climate change.

In the end, no one can predict the correct path. Improved genetics certainly is part of the puzzle, but even more is the need for infrastructure. Infrastructure was an essential part of Norman Borlaug’s green revolution. Even Gates millions cannot create miracles. Only hard work by Africans and attention to African needs and climate will bring about the level of food production needed. And that may not be enough. The struggle against encroaching climate change, overwhelming population pressures and misguided government aid programs will only slow efforts.

The Brasher reports reflect these stark challenges. Unfortunately, they stride the political barbed wire fence by putting more emphasis on biotech than it can possibly deliver—without exploring the role of more needed alternatives.

Dennis Keeney

May 28, 2010

An official thumbs-up for organic ag in China

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China.

China’s organic trade show opened in Shanghai yesterday. While visiting the exhibition hall, Agriculture Vice-Minister Chen Xiaohua gave his ministry’s stamp of approval to the organic industry. China uses chemical fertilizers and pesticides even more heavily than the United States, and last fall the government gave approval for field trials of genetically-modified food crops, so an expression of support for organics from such a high-ranking official is certainly significant. But...   

BioFach China, now in its fourth year, is organized by the German conference firm NürmbergMesse, which runs similar conferences in a number of other countries and regions. Last year there were about 240 exhibitors and over 10,000 visitors, and those numbers will probably be even larger this year. I blogged from BioFach China in 2008, but am missing it this time. The focus is very much on Big Organic and international trade (For American organic readers: this ain’t no MOSES!), Organic principles, local foods and the interests of small farmers are crowded out by talk of certification and phytosanitary codes for exporters. While the press release says “China’s middle class acquires a taste for organic,” this is seen as good thing primarily because it will provide a growing market for imports. At the same time, the release cites certification agencies as estimating that organics could make up 5 percent or more of China’s food exports by 2020.

Chemical agriculture is a huge problem in China (it was recently identified in a government report as a bigger pollution source than industry) so I cannot say that export-oriented organic agriculture is an unambiguously bad thing—even despite all the energy and climate issues associated with global food trade and the threat that such trade poses to local food producers in other countries. But neither can I overestimate the yawning gap between the "organic industry" that is being promoted at BioFach and the kind of food system we just talked about for two days with Chinese farmers and community groups: one that reconnects producer and consumer based on principles of trust, community and respect for nature.

The vice-minister, likewise, is in favor of organic agriculture, but not all organic agriculture. In wonderful ministry-speak, he says organic products should be promoted, but that it should be done, “positively and deliberately, guided by market demand, based on national characteristics and the principle of adapting to local circumstances, in a portion of regions that have environmental advantages, appropriate resources and special local products.”

Well, it’s a start.

Jim Harkness

Food cooperatives—from Minnesota to China

Earlier this week, Jim Harkness blogged about a fascinating two-day workshop on consumer cooperatives held in Beijing, China. Below, you can watch video reports about the conference from IATP's Jim Harkness, The Wedge Community Co-op's Lindy Bannister, and IATP's China Program Officer Chang Tianle.



Ben Lilliston

May 26, 2010

Exploring consumer cooperatives in China

IATP President Jim Harkness reports from Beijing on a workshop on consumer cooperatives. See the full collection of photos from the workshop in the Facebook photo album.

Zhang Yuqing a food activist from Nanjing Zhang Yinghui Beijing's First Organic Farmer's Market organizer and Chen Hsiu Chih Board Chair of Taiwan I couldn’t help but feel strange today, watching activists in Communist China listen with rapt attention as American and German speakers explained the theory and practices of cooperatives. After all, virtually all of China was organized into cooperatives in the 1950s, in one step on the very fast route (between 1949–58) from feudalism to Mao’s version of socialism. Of course, those coops did NOT sell Marie’s Gluten Free Organic Flax Crackers. And whatever ideological stigma may have been attached to that earlier form of social organization, the people in today’s workshop see “consumer cooperatives” not as a slippery slope to totalitarianism, but as one of the few tools they have to secure access to safe, healthy food in a society where common people live at the whims of an arbitrary state and poorly-regulated market. (In above photo: Zhang Yuqing, a food activist from Nanjing; Zhang Yinghui, Beijing's First Organic Farmer's Market organizer; and Chen Hsiu Chih, Board Chair of Taiwan Homemaker's Union Consumer Coop)

This meeting is a follow-up to the international conference on sustainable agriculture and food systems that we co-hosted with several Chinese and foreign partners in March. Most of that conference focused on food production, but it also became clear that farmers aren’t the only ones losing out in China’s food system. Many of the questions and comments were from consumers worried about food safety and skeptical of government “green food” and organic certification schemes. For them, Community Supported Agriculture and coops show promise as ways to regain control over their food supply. In her travels around China, IATP's Chang Tianle met a variety of groups and individuals at various stages of considering these ideas. And the China office of the Social Science Research Council expressed interest in organizing a small workshop to bring different groups together for a focused discussion on food coops.

Food activists are developing their plan for a coop in a park There are participants from all over China, here for a variety of reasons: rural organizers who see coops as a new way to connect farmers and consumers: a buying club associated with Waldorf Schools in Guangzhou wondering how they can organize themselves more effectively; an Urban-Rural Fair Trade Store that can’t figure out how to set prices or manage stock; an NGO in Henan province that’s worried about food safety; and a community-run handicrafts shop from Beijing that’s wondering about expanding into food sales.

What they all share is not simply an interest in safe food, (although that is a universal worry in China) but a concern for rebuilding community; for relationships that go beyond the cash nexus. China is a society that is undergoing incredibly rapid changes, and the autonomy and mobility that have replaced the smothering embrace of village and commune life are experienced as both freedom and alienation. The disruption of traditional sources of cultural meaning under Mao, followed by the abandonment of Maoism itself and its replacement with “To Get Rich Is Glorious” has left a spiritual void that some people feel very acutely. Maybe this is why so many of China’s organic farmers and fair traders are also devout Buddhists or Christians.

Jim and Lindy But I digress! Although the workshop was organized on short notice, we were able to invite speakers from the U.S., Germany and Taiwan to participate. We also got an eye-opening introduction to Japanese grocery coops—which have 22 million members!—from professor Li Zhonghua of Qingdao Agricultural University.

As a proud Minnesotan, I was delighted that we were able to get Lindy Bannister as a speaker. Lindy is the general manager of The Wedge, based in Minneapolis and America’s largest single-store coop. (It’s just a few blocks from IATP’s offices, so staff get a lot of lunches and snacks there.) (In photo: Here I am with Lindy)

Coop plans After hearing the international case studies and nine short reports from nascent coops or related efforts in China, participants split into groups and developed draft “business plans” for coops in four different cities. These discussions revealed that for all of China’s uniqueness, people here are grappling with the same issues as those who organize or join coops anywhere. How do we balance environmental or social concerns with the need for competitive prices? What are the obligations of members? What should we sell, where can we get it and how do we negotiate prices with our suppliers? How big should we be, and how much like a conventional supermarket in our organization or product mix?

In the end, many of the draft plans were similar, and similarly modest. Several people had begun by speculating about the need to reach a certain scale in order to cover costs, and there was talk of rather ambitious financing plans. Most final reports seemed focused on starting small and keeping it simple, aiming for a few hundred to a thousand members in the first few years. Legal status is a particular concern here, of course. As one person said, “We’re too small to be bothered now, but at some point, local tax and commercial authorities will come around.” Many of the financial and legal aspects of cooperatives and coop financing seem to be in a gray area. Overall, people seemed encouraged by the knowledge that all coops start small, and that there are many different possible models out there.

The group ended not with a bold declaration, but with strong interest in continuing the learning process and supporting each other as the growing variety of experiments with consumer coops in China moves ahead.

Ben Lilliston

River subsidy sidelines Minnesota agriculture

Currently, the navigation infrastructure on the Mississippi costs the federal government an estimated $100 million a year to maintain—a subsidy that supports the export of Minnesota's agricultural products. Now, the navigation industry is pushing for more: nearly $270 million. In a new commentary, published yesterday in the Star Tribune, IATP's Mark Muller explains why increased investment in export channels like the locks and dams from Minneapolis to southern Illinois is bad for Minnesota agriculture.

“Now that the Farm Bill has encouraged all of this corn and soybean production, federal policymakers apparently feel some responsibility for facilitating the export of these crops,” he writes. “When agriculture production is narrowed down to just a couple of crops [...] economic opportunities that provide a greater return are lost. This hurts the Midwest farmers that have little choice to grow these crops even when prices are lousy, and hurts rural communities that need economic development.”

Read the entire commentary, “Don't give up on Minnesota's agriculture innovation,” here (pdf).

Andrew Ranallo

May 24, 2010

Nanotech and the oil spill

As BP and government agencies struggle to stem the devastating flow of oil now hitting the Louisiana coast, there is growing desperation to find a solution—and fast. Green Earth Technologies, Inc. (GET) is seeking approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to disperse manufactured nanoparticles in the Gulf of Mexico to remedy the oil spill. IATP and more than a dozen other organizations think this is a bad idea.

In a letter organized by Friends of the Earth, IATP and others urged EPA to deny approval of this project. Manufactured nanoscale chemicals measure less than 300 nanometers. A human hair is about 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers. The large surface to volume ratio of nanoparticles is supposed to prevent the oil from coagulating and then being carried by ocean currents to damage coastal areas. The problem is that nanoparticles have been found to be toxic to humans, mammals and aquatic life. Manufactured nanoparticles can travel up the food chain from smaller to larger organisms. In this case, the exact composition of nanoparticles being used by Green Earth Technologies are trade secrets so the extent of toxicity is unknown.

The groups wrote, "We understand the enormous technical and regulatory challenges posed by the oil spill. However, two wrongs do not make a right. Exacerbating this grave situation by allowing GET to add pollutants to contaminated land and water should not be allowed, especially considering that the GET nanoparticles could be impossible to recover once introduced into the environment. We fully oppose this irresponsible, unscientific and dangerous experiment."

IATP has been looking into food and agriculture applications of nanotechnology and the lack of strong regulations to protect the environment and public health.

Read the full letter on nanotech and the oil spill.

Ben Lilliston

May 21, 2010

Press release: Financial reform bill important for agriculture

Senate vote on historic financial reform critical for agriculture
New rules would help address excessive speculation in agricultural futures contracts

May 21, 2010
Contact: Ben Lilliston, (612) 870-3416, ben@iatp.org

Minneapolis – The Senate’s approval of an historic financial reform bill last night is a first step toward preventing the excessive financial speculation that has wreaked havoc in agricultural commodity futures contracts over the last several years, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

Most importantly for agriculture, the Senate bill requires that previously unregulated over-the-counter (OTC) trades be traded on public exchanges. Currently, OTC trades are exempt from regulatory oversight by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). IATP is part of the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition working to close regulatory loopholes that allow OTC trading and excessive speculation to continue unabated. The Senate bill must now be reconciled with the House of Representatives’ “Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.” 

“The Senate bill helps make the market function like a market should—in an open and transparent way, instead of like a casino where only five big financial firms know what is going on,” said IATP analyst Steve Suppan. “Excessive speculation has hurt U.S. agriculture by undermining the original purpose of commodity exchanges—to help commodity sellers and buyers manage price risk. We don’t want a repeat of 2008, when prices were so volatile that U.S. grain elevators couldn’t hedge their own risks on commodity exchanges. Some elevators refused to contract to buy farmers’ grain in advance, leading to a cash flow crisis on many farms.”

By requiring that nearly all trades be executed on public and regulated exchanges, the Senate bill enables the CFTC to analyze daily trade data and determine when traders have exceeded the CFTC’s commodity-specific position limits. OTC traders benefit from public exchange price data but hide the price data of their own deals, a huge and unfair trade advantage that has benefitted big financial firms. Position limits refer to the percentage of all commodity contracts open for trade during a specific trading period. Enforcing position limits enables the CFTC to prevent the excessive liquidity that induced price volatility on agriculture commodity markets during 2007–2009.

In 2008, IATP first reported on the role of big financial firms in contributing to steep food price increases in late 2007 to early 2008. Commodity prices later collapsed an aggregate of 60 percent between June and November 2008 as the insolvency of major investors, including commodity index fund dealers, led to U.S. taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street firms.

The extreme price volatility not only affected U.S. agriculture, but ultimately 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 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) have reached similar conclusions on the role of excessive speculation in creating extreme volatility in agricultural and non-agricultural commodity prices.

“If the Senate and House conference committee eliminates the loopholes that enabled the crisis in both financial and commodity markets, President Obama will be able to sign a bill to make markets work for agriculture and all Americans, and not just for Wall Street and the transnational corporations that hide their deals in OTC trades,” said Suppan.

Andrew Ranallo

Energy Conservation Angel visits Syttende Mai in Milan, Minnesota

IATP Crew Syttende Mai (May 17) is Constitution Day in Norway. In Milan, Minnesota, out on the western prairie, hundreds of Norway’s distant sons and daughters gather on Syttende Mai to celebrate their Scandinavian heritage, language, food, music and customs. IATP joined the celebration this year in a parade that wound its way through the village and down Main Street. Our contribution to the festivities included an angel, a devil and one sinner towing the IATP banner in support of community-based energy conservation and the Milan Sustainable Energy Utility project.

Before lining up for the parade we went to the Kviteseid Smorgaas Tea in the Little Norwegian Church basement. We were welcomed by Anne and Chuck Kanten, the presiding Milan Citizens of the Year. Our own little IATP devil, Emily Barker, identified the wonderful food served in the smorgasbord, including two kinds of lefse, flatbreads, krumkaaka, spritz, Norwegian meatballs, blod klub, Gjettost with cloudberry jam, rommegrot and coffee. And then even more coffee.

Chuck Kanten provided an update on the sugar beet crop, with almost all the beets in the ground. The next week or so, when the first cotyledons appear, the sugar crop is vulnerable. Chuck explained that if a frost occurs, the young leaves fly up into the air like helicopters and the field will need to be replanted.

We took a quick side trip to Watson, Minnesota, just down the road from Milan to visit a small, but very intensive community vegetable garden owned by Aziz Ansari. Mr. Ansari and his wife ran into trouble with the town council over the garden and recently settled a law suit  with the garden staying where it is and Aziz receiving $50,000 in compensation.

Mud Boots Crew marching band Back in Milan, the IATP Energy Conservation Angel and High-Priced Energy Devil joined Electric Bill and Phantom Load Phil and lined up in the parade behind the Mud Boots Band, a group of Community Supported Agriculture farmers and farmworkers who played an incredible collection of instruments, including the bass drum, saxophone, accordion, garbage can covers and a trumpet, to name a few. Behind the IATP contingent was a 1967 lime green Mustang convertible with three women playing a variety of popular tunes on their car horn. Erik Thompson, the town banker showered our path with candy insuring applause as we passed by.

Hundreds of people lined the street and were sitting in their front yards watching the fun as we handed out leaflets inviting them to attend a series of trainings on creating a community controlled revolving loan fund to pay for conservation and renewable energy projects using the best possible resources and technology available. The dates for the four workshops are Wednesdays from 6:30–8:30 p.m. on July 21, August 25, September 22 and October 13 at the school. IATP’s Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy has been leading the project and working with the Greater Milan Initiative to raise startup money and get the word out.

Not every Syttende Mai day has an Energy Conservation Angel, but in Milan you can always count on celebrating May 17 with a community that treasures its traditions and is committed  to keep their village strong and hopeful.

View all the photos from our visit to Milan for Syttende Mai here.

Dale Wiehoff

May 20, 2010

New study uncovers alarming frequency of BPA in canned foods

What do over 90 percent of 50 cans from 19 states and one Canadian province have in common? BPA. It's not a riddle, but the disturbing results of a new study (No Silver Lining) released Tuesday by the Chemical Safety Workgroup. The Healthy Legacy Coalition (IATP is a steering committee member) is a contributor to the workgroup and has published a new blog post that details some key findings of the report.

Perhaps more important than the alarmingly high 90-percent incidence rate are the implications of where and at what levels BPA was discovered. The samples were made up of "real life" meal options—fruits, vegetables, soda, fish and others—and the levels of BPA were radically inconsistent between identical products: Two different cans of the same brand of peas (with different "lot numbers") contained very different levels of BPA, for instance. Both the broad swath of BPA's presence, and the lack of consistency, make avoiding exposure challenging to say the least.

Read Kim LaBo's blog entry over at the Healthy Legacy blog for more findings of the study and Healthy Legacy's next steps in the fight against toxics in consumer products.

Andrew Ranallo

The evolving relationship of NGOs and the UN

IATP's Sophia Murphy attended an invite-only meeting outside of Dublin earlier this week organized by the UN High-Level Task Force for the Global Food Security Crisis.

Home today from Dublin. I ducked in and out around the ash cloud—some 30 of the 150 or so expected participants at the Dublin meeting didn't make it when the airport shut down. A pity. It was a good meeting—serious, purposeful, good humored; a good mix of UN and NGOs, with a sprinkling of government officials. We were there to discuss the update to the Common Framework for Action in response to the Global Food Crisis (IATP's comments here). The discussions were all off-the-record, but here are a few thoughts on what happened. 

First, it is encouraging that the framework is being updated. The original wasn't bad—a bit patchy, some jarring assertions (to my eye) and a lot of good ideas. It was done in a rush, and that showed; though actually things done in a rush are not necessarily worse that things lingered over, especially when you involve some 20 or so UN agencies plus the World Bank (which is technically UN) and the WTO (which is explicitly, though controversially, outside the UN system). Anyway, well done to the High-Level Task Force team for pushing through with an update.

Second, the first go round involved no NGOs or civil society voices. This round has. Not that the document is consensus based, or even for NGO ownership. The Dublin meeting was a consultation, not the creation of any formal partnership. The document is intended for sign-off by the heads of all the agencies involved, and thereby to guide agency work related to food security. NGOs can walk away and bash at the CFA take II all they like, but it was a serious consultation, with time and enormous effort put into both acknowledging the written submissions (which came from some 51 NGOs and CSOs) and thinking how best to allow participation from the audience. 

Third, I used to work in NGO relations for the UN, with an office called the Non-Governmental Liaison Service. I have attended many of UN meetings, both on the UN side (helping UN agencies understand how NGOs work, and trying to get them to pay more attention to what NGOs could contribute) and on the NGO side, before and after my stint at the UN. I think things have come a long way since I was really involved in this kind of work in the 1990s. The whole culture has changed. While the UN is run by governments, NGOs represent a very different perspective that is invaluable. NGOs are on the ground, facing different constraints and opportunities. The interaction among the UN officials themselves seemed relaxed and constructive, with few turf lines drawn, and between the UN and NGOs, somehow natural and uncomplicated. It was a very welcome atmosphere. The meeting was co-chaired by Tom Arnold, CEO of the NGO Concern International, and David Nabarro, the UN Secretary General's appointment to head the task force. 

The draft still has to be finalized and is expected soon—possibly as early as mid-June. I think it will reflect this consultation and the ideas that were put forward—and will be the better for it. Moreover, I think the UN knows and appreciates that this is so. It was a good way to spend two days.

Sophia Murphy

May 19, 2010

Where does the BIGMAP lead?

BIGMAP is not an overweight atlas, but rather an acronym for Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products. Their seventh annual symposium, entitled “Food, Feed, and Fuel for the World: Seed and Biotechnology” was held on April 27–28 in southern LA (Lovely Ames, Iowa). This symposium is open to all registrants at no cost. The Gateway Hotel really knows how to put on conferences, with spacious rooms, great snacks and a delicious lunch on the 28th.

BIGMAP is a program of the Iowa State University Seed Science Center. Directed by Manjit Misra, the SSC has seen rapid growth over the past two decades. The stated mission of the Seed Science Center is to “improve production, quality assurance, marketing, utilization, and regulatory environment of seed through research, testing, teaching, outreach, and international programs.” BIGMAP’s mission is to “provide science-based analysis of the risks and benefits of genetically modified plant and animal products. It will provide guidance and education to help safeguard consumers and the environment.”

This will be the third BIGMAP conference I have attended; I can’t resist a free lunch. But seriously, it consistently has good information, even if it's not necessarily what IATP might agree with. I am always treated well, even though the IATP name tag brings some quizzical looks. This year one conference staffer asked what I was doing there, since IATP always works against the use of GMOs. My reply is that GMOs are part of the bigger system and we all need information.

The conference presented several mixed messages. It was polite to the core, no disagreements or negative body language (except for a few nodding off now and then). It had little to say about feed or fuel, but rather concentrated on food and almost exclusively on sub-Saharan Africa (referred to from now on as Africa) and Southeast Asia, with a bit of South America thrown in.

Biotech in food-deficient countries is presenting major issues for science, regulatory agencies, the private seed sector and NGOs. There are regulatory issues such as “low-level presence” (how to regulate presence of minute amounts of GMO genes and how to properly evaluate biosafety). African, Latin American and Indian scientists and bureaucrats talked about the development of seed enterprises in their regions, a big problem regardless of seed sources. There is a huge deficit of infrastructure for building quality commercial seed systems. These will not be solved in the short-term. Lack of access to credit, which would allow the purchase of quality inputs such as adapted seeds and fertilizers, lack of technical expertise in crop production and post harvest processing and handling, problems accessing markets and limited collective action are also issues. NGOs were not on the agenda.

Part of the discussion focused on the regulatory systems for GMOs in various parts of the world. I was appalled at the regulatory climate, especially in India, where the number of approval agencies in each state is huge and disparate. In Africa, many nations have minimum regulatory and testing agencies, and little commonality in regulations. Harmonization is definitely needed.

Joe DeVries of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) gave an outstanding overview of the challenges to a sustainable seed supply in Africa. It should be noted that AGRA has considerable Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funding. While plant breeding was a key to food security in Africa, infrastructure needs such as seed distribution, seed policies, etc., must go along with good genetics. He did not even mention use of biotechnology. Another part of the theme is the lack of trained plant breeders. In the U.S., public plant breeding has been shoved to the bottom of the agronomy heap and industry took over. So training the cadre of needed scientists will not come overnight. The overall goal is to provide quality seed at low costs, preferably higher yielding hybrids, but in some cases open pollinated varieties are sufficient.

An example DeVries gave: a local variety of maize without fertilizer yielded 13 bushels/acre, with fertilizer, 20 bushels/acre, while a hybrid without fertilizer yielded 19 bushels/ acre and a hybrid with fertilizer was 31 bushels/acre.

More than just maize seed is needed, as Africa has a wide variety of climates and ecological regions, each benefiting from different crops such as cassava and rice. To this end, more farmer participation and networking will be required to help breeders and private seed distributors meet farmers' needs. Similar situations exist in India and South America, but not as severe as in Africa. But little, if any, attention was given to saving landraces or seed conservation, except for yield traits. Sometime, maybe even now, Africa will need these seeds.

Finally, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation weighed in. The presentation was impressive, what was behind the veil is unknown. Yilma Kebede talked about the core values of the foundation: “all lives have equal values.” They have a limited set of issues including health, education and policy. Their agriculture development program focuses on Africa and Southeastern Asia. It aims at small farms, women, environmental market opportunities and innovation. The foundation is developing three levels of funding: high-risk, partnerships and sure things. They will spend considerable funding on evaluation of progress. Still, they spoke as a funding agency, not a driver of progress.

It was a conference of mixed messages and hidden agendas. I did not get the feeling of a big cheering squad for biotech from the scientists and technocrats. And there was a feeling that they know who is paying the bills. The needs are great, the time is short, and so far, there has been more talking than doing.

Dennis Keeney

May 17, 2010

Action on the global food security crisis

IATP's Sophia Murphy is attending an invite-only meeting outside of Dublin this week organized by the UN High-Level Task Force for the Global Food Security Crisis. 

Some 150 people have gathered in Malahide, Ireland, just along the coast from Dublin, for a two-day workshop to review the Comprehensive Framework for Action of the UN High-Level Task Force for the Global Food Security Crisis. First put forward in 2008, the High-Level Task Force is completing a review and update that has taken months. The task force has considered written submissions from some 51 NGOs (you can read IATP's submission here) and social movements as well as many meetings of the reference group created by the UN to guide the work. 

Today in Malahide, the review will take a further step in a two-day workshop, hosted by the Government of Ireland and the Irish NGO Concern. The draft revised document will be handled by six working groups: food assistance, social protection systems, food production and value chains, better managed ecosystems for food security and nutrition, trade and tax policies in international food markets, and information and monitoring systems. There are four cross-cutting issues that will be considered in all the working groups: the right to food, gender, nutrition and environmental challenges (e.g., climate change). Each working group will have two co-chairs, one from the UN system and one NGO representative. I'll be representing IATP as co-chair of the group on trade, taxation and markets with a representative of the World Trade Organization. 

The setting is beautiful, and the UN team has clearly worked very hard to do justice to the comments they received. They are working with Concern to get the most out of the next two days. The mix of organizational politics, institutional cultures and philosophical leanings should make for a lively debate. The trade chapter is particularly marked by clearly different understandings of how trade works and what it should do—the existing draft is not internally coherent, and from an NGO perspective, continues depressingly to rely on the Doha Agenda to do things to address the food crisis that it is patently unfit to do. Let's see if we can improve on things in the next 36 hours.

Sophia Murphy

Food reserves needed to respond to global food crisis

IATP helped organized a letter signed by more than 60 civil society groups calling for the United Nations to consider food reserves as a tool to address global hunger. Below, see the press release we sent out earlier today.

Food reserves needed to respond to global food crisis, civil society groups say
UN meeting in Dublin should focus on addressing agriculture volatility and hunger


Minneapolis/Dublin – Civil society organizations today called on governments and United Nations bodies to honor previous commitments to explore the potential of food reserves to address hunger and stabilize agricultural markets. The letter, signed by more than 60 groups, was presented at a UN meeting being held in Dublin on May 17–18 on the global food crisis.

The civil society letter challenged global leaders to “take decisive action to address the structural causes of food insecurity and to prevent a repeat of recent food price spikes. Food reserves are a valuable tool in improving access and distribution of food. They can strengthen the ability of governments to limit excessive price volatility for both farmers and consumers.”

The Dublin meeting was convened by the United Nations High-Level Task Force for the Global Food Security Crisis. Participants, which include representatives from governments and civil society organizations, will discuss the task force’s Comprehensive Framework for Action.

“Rising rates of hunger, and the loss of rural livelihoods—particularly in developing countries—has highlighted the urgent need to act,” said the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s Sophia Murphy, who is attending the Dublin meeting and will co-chair the working group on trade. “Food reserves make sense: putting food aside when it’s abundant, to use later when the need is greater. Governments have expressed interest in reserves, indeed, most governments operate a reserve in some form or another. Now is the time to get reserves working the way they should to protect food security and promote resilient rural communities.”

During the High-Level Conference on World Food Security in 2008, then again at the World Food Summit in 2009, governments recognized the potential of stockholding to deal with humanitarian food emergencies and to limit price volatility, calling for a review of reserves. But that review has yet to take place. In March 2010, Brazil, Russia, India and China (the BRIC countries) also committed to helping countries establish national grain reserves.

In the letter, civil society groups requested that the UN High-Level Task Force conduct a comprehensive review of food reserves by allocating resources and setting a firm timetable for completing the review in 2010. Additionally, they called on individual governments to increase foreign and domestic investment to achieve culturally appropriate local and regional food security reserves; establish an international commission on reserves, possibly coordinated by the FAO Committee on Food Security; support multilateral, regional and bilateral agricultural trade rules; and renegotiate the Food Aid Convention to include food security reserves. The full letter is available here.

Last year, IATP published “Strategic Grain Reserves in the Era of Volatility,” examining the potential role of reserves in stabilizing agriculture markets. IATP, Collectif Stratégies Alimentaires and Oxfam Solidarity will hold a civil society meeting in Brussels on food reserves on June 1–2.  For more details see our Food Security page.

Ben Lilliston

May 14, 2010

Let's get arsenic out of animal feed

Four years ago, IATP released test results of chicken bought in U.S. grocery stores and fast food restaurants. The results revealed detectable levels of arsenic in the majority of chicken tested. What in the world is arsenic doing in chicken?

It turns out that arsenic-containing compounds have been approved as additives to animal feed since the 1940s and continue to be used in chicken, turkey and swine production. These arsenic-containing feed additives are not used to treat sickness. Instead, they are generally approved for increased weight gain and improved pigmentation. In other words, the use of this known carcinogen in animal feed is entirely unnecessary.

In December, IATP and the Center for Food Safety petitioned the Food and Drug Administration, calling on the agency to immediately withdraw approvals for all animal drug applications for arsenic-containing compounds used in animal feed.

Now others are joining the call. Last week, nine food coops in Minnesota sent a letter to the FDA calling for the agency to act on the petition. The coops cited numerous suppliers to their stores who provide healthy meat and poultry, and do not use arsenic in their feed. "Although some chicken, turkey and swine producers use arsenical-containing compounds in their animal feed, they are not necessary to provide a wholesome product or to treat animal sicknesses," the coops wrote.

The European Union has never approved the use of arsenic as an animal feed additive. Time for the U.S. to get with the program.

Ben Lilliston

May 12, 2010

Appropriate tech, safe chemicals and the state of nanotechnology

The power of new technology is undeniable. If adopted blindly, however, technology can carry with it a multitude of risks: to health, the environment or to a broad range of sociopolitical considerations. In the latest episode of Radio Sustain, we assess the potential and pitfalls of new technology.

Last month, IATP toured Compatible Technology International's (CTI) workshop in St. Paul to get the scoop on how their low-tech devices are used to improve quality of life while remaining appropriate—culturally, economically and environmentally—for the communities they are intended to assist. In our interview, Dan Grewe discusses CTI's work and what the engineers consider in each of the technologies they create.

Next we get Kathleen Schuler's take on the Safe Chemical Act of 2010. As co-director of the Healthy Legacy Coalition and an IATP senior policy analyst, she applauds the bill and offers some key changes to make the legislation more effective.

Finally, IATP's Steve Suppan explains what nanotechnology is and why we need a more informed regulatory framework before it spreads throughout the food system.

Have a listen now and let us know your thoughts!

Radio Sustain episode 25 (mp3)Linda turning the hand-powered grinder at CTI.

Andrew Ranallo

May 11, 2010

Testing the food revolution

In the Huffington Post last week, IATP's Mark Muller addressed both fans and critics of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution pointing out that Oliver's efforts—dismissed as failure by some, despite his fervor and earnestness—are not in vain, but simply incomplete. Steps like encouraging students to make healthy choices and providing nutritious menu items are necessary but must be understood in a larger context and will not succeed in isolation. As Muller writes, “Our food choices combine availability, taste, cost, time availability, and attitudes and perceptions of our friends, family and community. Choices are also impacted by larger drivers such as food and agricultural policies and the marketing campaigns of the food industry.”

Muller's argument centers on keeping policymakers open to adaptation while addressing the complexities of the food system in relation to student culture, school budgets and the mammoth food industry. This strategy, put simply, is the process of trying, observing and then being open to change when trying again—also known as adaptive management. So while the word “revolution” may sound uncompromising, drastic and once-and-for-all (and maybe even exciting), Muller argues that the long view will be more valuable. “Practitioners of adaptive management need to start with a dose of humility,” he writes. “Rather than creating a multiyear plan and sticking with it, we have far more success if we test assumptions, adapt approaches based on the successes and failures, and learn from what is tried.”

In considering the Child Nutrition Act, up for reauthorization this year, Muller argues that “imposing unachievable standards and inadequate funds on school districts” will not work. Rather, we can learn by “freeing school district food service personnel to unleash their creativity at the local level, essentially providing us with hundreds of school meal test labs.”

So on with the revolution! But on, too, with the conversations, humility, experiments and creativity. Read Mark Muller's piece here and join the conversation.

Andrew Ranallo

May 10, 2010

The “quiet room” of lobbying: The killing floor of reform

The U.S. Senate debate to regulate over-the-counter (OTC, off-exchange and largely unregulated) derivatives enters its third week. Everybody, it appears, is now a proponent of “reform,” especially erstwhile acolytes of deregulation. But what the rhetoric of reform giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the dozens of exemptions from regulation proposed by Wall Street on behalf of major financial institutions and their corporate clients.

Derivatives are financial instruments based on the value of an underlying asset, such as the price of a corn futures contract or an interest rate. Derivatives, such as those created and sold by Goldman Sachs for the government of Greece, can help disguise debt as an asset, at least long enough to postpone the day of reckoning. A chart compiled by Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition (CMOC) member Sean Cota shows the extent to which the contract face value of OTC derivatives dwarfs the value of exchange-traded commodities, stocks and bonds, and the global Gross Domestic Product—i.e., goods and services, including those provided by retail financial institutions.

Commodity Futures Trading Commission chairman Gary Gensler has called OTC derivatives a major factor in causing the financial and commodity market bubble that burst in 2008 when major OTC dealers couldn’t pay up for failed OTC trades. In mid-April, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed a bill that would force most OTC trades onto public and regulated exchanges to enable both CFTC and Securities and Exchange Commission regulators to monitor market data and prevent excessive speculation and other violations of U.S. financial law. Among the financial industry lobbyists opposing the bill are 40 former Senate staffers and former Senator Trent Lott. Normally, the access of these staffers to their former bosses—and in Senator Lott’s case, access to the Senate floor during voting and last-minute deal making—would ensure another Wall Street victory against reform. But these are not normal times.

On April 29, the Coalition of Derivatives End Users (organized by the Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers) responded to the Senate Agriculture Committee bill with language that would exempt coalition members, mostly transnational corporations and their banks, from trading on public exchanges. Chairman Gensler has estimated that such changes would leave up to 60 percent of OTC trades in the unregulated “dark market.” On May 4, the CMOC, of which IATP is a member, wrote to the Senate leadership to outline their opposition to creating the broad exemptions proposed by the coalition. The letter stated, “Our coalition opposes any expansion of exemptions in the derivatives title in such a way as to create new loopholes for financial market interests.” On May 7, the Americans for Financial Reform, comprising more than 250 consumer, employee, investor and civil rights organizations, wrote to all senators to oppose an amendment by Senator Saxby Chambliss that incorporated the coalition language for broad exemptions from regulation.

The amendments supported by the CMOC and AFR are dismissed out of hand by Wall Street lobbyists as “whack jobs.” According to The Washington Post, “‘They've got to get this thing off the [Senate] floor and into a reasonable, behind the scenes’ discussion, said one lobbyist. ‘Let's have a few wise fathers sit around the table in some quiet room’ and work out the details.” His confidence in the ability of the lobbyists to undo the work of the Senate agriculture committee OTC derivative bill was bolstered by a certainty that nobody would pay attention to “quiet room” changes favoring their clients in a 1,300-page bill that only the lobbyists would read.

The density of proposed Wall Street exemptions led the Financial Times to wonder whether financial reform could be better defended if U.S. legislators combined their rule-oriented approach with a principles-based financial regulation practiced in Europe. Would the lobbying power of the “quiet room” diminish if the principles at the outset of a bill were clear and binding statements to eliminate the loopholes and waivers that triggered the legalized chicanery of the financial services industry during the past decade? One place to answer that question would be the conference of Senate and House of Representatives members appointed to negotiate differences between the two bills, assuming that the Senate will pass a financial reform bill. Binding principles could be added to make it more difficult for Wall Street to circumvent the bill.

President Barack Obama would like to go the Group of Twenty meeting, June 26–27 in Toronto, with his signature on a financial services reform bill. It will be difficult to assert U.S. leadership on financial reform without a signed bill. If the Senate passes its bill prior to the end of May Senate recess, and the differences between the House and Senate bills can be negotiated during the first three weeks of June, President Obama may go to Toronto with a reform template that he will try to sell to other G-20 members. But if the bill contains the broad exemptions demanded by Wall Street, he may find that other heads of state, whose taxpayers are still paying the costs of U.S. deregulation and financial “innovation,” aren’t buying.

Steve Suppan

May 07, 2010

Agriculture's largest threat

William Neuman and Andrew Pollack of the New York Times dug deeper earlier this week into the growing story of Roundup-resistant weeds and the chaos this is causing within the agriculture community. The Times story quotes Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts as saying, "It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen." And Tennessee farmer Eddie Anderson says, "We're back to where we were 20 years ago. We're trying to find out what works."

Why is growing resistance to Roundup in weeds such a big deal? Roundup Ready genetically engineered crops are one of the linchpins of conventional agriculture. Roundup Ready crops allow farmers to douse their crop with Roundup to kill the weeds, while the crop survives. Currently, more than 80 percent of corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered, and most are Roundup Ready.

As we wrote last month, the Natonal Research Council's assessment on the impact of GE crops on farmers pointed to nine species of weeds that have been identified in the U.S. as being resistant to Roundup. As Roundup loses its effectiveness, other—more toxic—herbicides will likely take its place.

But the Times story also points out how the loss of Roundup affects no-till farming, at least the way corn farmers practice it. No-till has been touted as more environmentally friendly by curbing erosion and runoff of fertilizers and pesticides. It also has been hyped as an important part of a prospective carbon market. By not tilling, carbon is sequestering in the soil, and hence could become an additional income stream for farmers as part of a carbon-offset system. But as the Times points out, with the decline in Roundup's effectiveness, commodity crop no-till may no longer be practical.

What might make more sense? A new study by researchers out of Iowa State found that farmers using a two-crop rotation (corn and soybeans) could cut their fossil fuel use in half by switching to a four-crop rotation (adding oats and alfalfa)—and they could make the same amount of money.

The emerging challenges of Roundup-resistant weeds point out once again why climate change policy needs to get it right on agriculture.

Ben Lilliston