About IATP

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

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

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



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January 2011

January 26, 2011

Banning BPA from food containers

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a hormone-disrupting chemical. CDC data indicate BPA is present in the bodies and urine of more than 90 percent of Americans. It's widespread use in everything from food can liners to ATM receipts accounts for the exposure. Exposure to BPA has been linked to a variety of hormone-related diseases, from cancer to reproductive problems.

Yesterday, Rep. Ed Markey (D –MA) introduced a bill that would ban BPA’s use in food and beverage containers. Markey sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Canada declared BPA a toxin in 2008, and banned it from baby bottles, followed in 2010 by bans in France and Denmark. In January 2010, U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials stated they too had “some concern” about BPA’s safety, particularly for infants and young children. Now, it's Congress's turn to act.

David Wallinga, MD

Ben Lilliston

January 25, 2011

Will Obama's trade agenda undermine global food security?

During tonight's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama is expected to tout an expanded trade liberalization agenda as part of his plan to generate more U.S. jobs. But does this push to open up markets square with the Administration's plan to address global food security?

President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative promotes ending global hunger by bolstering food production by small-scale farmers—especially women, through programs led by developing countries. While the U.S. development agenda emphasizes increasing local food production in developing countries, the trade agenda pushes in the opposite direction, aiming to double U.S. exports in the next five years. In a new paper, IATP’s Karen Hansen-Kuhn documents how the Obama Administration’s agricultural trade policy is very much a continuation of past policies—policies that have undermined small-scale farmers and global food security. The paper identifies much needed reforms in U.S. trade policy to recognize current challenges associated with food security and climate disruptions. You can read the full paper here.

Ben Lilliston

January 24, 2011

Feeding Animals Antibiotics: Not Helping U.S. Meat Export

At a 2010 Congressional briefing sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter, I warned the continued and routine overuse of antibiotics in U.S. meat production could be shooting the global competitiveness of that industry in the foot.

Data finally released last month by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do little to allay those fears, while confirming the findings of a decade-oldreport from the Union of Concerned Scientists: More than 70 percent (74 percent, in fact) of all U.S. antibiotics are being used in food-producing animals. Most of our "medically important" antibiotics, like penicillins, tetracyclines and erythromycins, are used in animals, not people. And, nearly all of these are routine uses in feed for animals that are not clinically sick. Rather than to treat disease, these antibiotics are used for growth promotion or to avert sickness in animals that are stressed from the confined conditions in which they are raised.

There is no scientific basis for doubting the public health import of allowing antibiotics to be used in this way. The Center for Disease Control Director, the leadership of the Food and Drug Administration, the leadership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the medical literature all conclude that agricultural overuse of antibiotics in feed is worsening the scourge of antibiotic resistance affecting the human and animal population.

The trade issue we raised in our presentation last March was that other countries, particularly in Europe, are also increasingly pointing to these feed antibiotics as worrisome and grounds for restricting imports of U.S. meat products.

In fact, a December 6, 2010 Congressional Research Service report itself confirms what we were saying six months earlier: "Although antibiotic use in animals has not been a significant factor affecting U.S. trade in meat products to date, evidence suggests that country restrictions on the use of these drugs could become an issue in the future and could affect U.S. export markets for livestock and poultry products."

What seems clear is that U.S. meat production is at a crossroads. Either we can try and cling to the way things have always been done, despite evidence that it is harming our citizens as well as putting our agriculture economy at risk. Or, we can all work together to make future meat production healthier, using fewer antibiotics, and become more competitive in a marketplace where people and countries care more and more about how their food is produced.

This post, by IATP's David Wallinga, M.D., originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Ben Lilliston

January 21, 2011

New US interagency study on carbon markets

On Tuesday, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission released an interagency study on carbon emissions markets. The 54-page study for the U.S. Congress was mandated by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. While much of the study is taken up with explaining existing oversight tools and how they would apply to trading carbon emissions permit credits and offset credits, the agency authors leave no doubt that the legislative design of carbon markets will greatly affect whether carbon trading results in a reduction of greenhouse gases or an increase. They note, "[F]or the most part, absent specific action by Congress, a secondary market for carbon allowances and offsets may operate outside the routine oversight of any market regulator." Therefore, they recommend that Congress develop legislative authority specifically for trading carbon emissions credits in commodity futures markets.

The CFTC requested comments on 11 questions posed by interagency staff, but, unfortunately, not on the study itself. IATP was one of 23 organizations to submit comments. We informed the interagency group about the regulatory, methodological and scientific challenges in ensuring that carbon offset credits actually represented verifiable GHG reductions. Fraudulent and deceptive activities in carbon trade accounting and marketing, including for trades under the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme, are reported on a near weekly basis. The interagency report addressed fraud and market manipulation only insofar as carbon would be regulated as if it were a consumable, and not a legislatively created, commodity.

The CFTC and other agencies are struggling to issue rules to implement Dodd-Frank under a torrent of criticism from financial industry service lobbyists and now a Republican majority in the House of Representatives that has called for repeal of parts of Dodd-Frank. Given this huge workload for generally understaffed agencies, it is understandable that the report cannot address all the legislative design challenges for carbon markets that Members of Congress, NGOs, academics and industry lobbyists have outlined. But if there is a single great fault in this relatively short report, it is the lack of any mention of the dearth of environmental integrity in many of the offset credits created in China, Brazil and elsewhere outside the United States (which is not to say that U.S. offsets are all environmentally effective). Under the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed by the House of Representatives in June 2009, more than half of all U.S. industry compliance with GHG caps would be accomplished by purchasing international offset credits, rather than by actually reducing GHGs. To rely to such an extent on the trading of assets of dubious environmental effectiveness to meet GHG caps is to invite disaster. Interagency staff whose agency budgets are on the Congressional chopping block may not be in a position to inform Congress about the very high risks of relying on carbon markets for climate change finance. NGOs and academics should not hesitate to perform this urgently needed due diligence.

Steve Suppan

January 20, 2011

Chipotle's "integrity" challenged over treatment of workers


Update: Hear an interview with former Chipotle employee Maria Cortes on the latest Radio Sustain (mp3)!

Ten blocks north of IATP's office in Minneapolis, a boisterous crowd braved 5-degree temperatures to march in front of Chipotle. The  Chipotle 002 restaurant chain, who touts "food with integrity," was under fire over its mistreatment of workers. A few weeks before Christmas, Chipotle fired—without notice—nearly 700 immigrant workers in Minnesota, and at least some were fired without paying back wages.

"We’re seeking the truth and to get the company to sit down and engage in dialogue with us because they have refused to do so," said Maria Cortes, a former Chipotle employee who had been fired along with 13 co-workers at the restaurant where she worked. "We’re here because we are seeking that our rights be respected."

Chipotle has been national leader in sourcing environmentally friendly food from family farms, often within regional food networks. The company has told the media that it is simply following the law after it was subjected to a 1-9 audit by U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE). But it is standard practice for employers to give employees 90 days to clear up any problems with their immigration documents, according to the Service Employees Interational Union (SEIU). Instead, Chipotle fired employees in question immediately. SEIU also believes Chipotle has potentially violated a number of Minnesota state employment laws.

Chipotle 004 Minnesota's local food leaders, including IATP, have sent a letter to Chipotle CEO Steve Ells, calling for the company to pay back wages to workers, and to stand up for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Signs at today's protest stated, "Chipotle Treats their Chickens and Produce Better than they Treat their Employees" and "Chipocrisy: Selling Mexican Culture and then Selling Out Mexican Workers." A website, Chipocrisy, has more details.

"I worked at Chipotle for over nine years and always treated my job as if I owned the restaurant, wanting to do my best for my managers and for my customers," explained Jaunita Cruz, a Chipotle employee fired in December. "But getting fired so abruptly was a disrespect to my nine years of service."

Chipotle 013While the rapidly growing local and healthy foods movement has made many gains over the last several years, food and farm workers are often left out of the equation. But there can be no "food with integrity" without fair treatment of workers.

Ben Lilliston

January 14, 2011

Who owns a movement?

TransFair USA, the largest fair trade certifier in the U.S., changed its name to Fair Trade USA and is trying to trademark that name. What a shame.

It was only 12 years ago that IATP started TransFair USA. We didn’t hold on to it for long, since at the same time we also started Peace Coffee, a 100 percent fair trade coffee company (later certified by TransFair). To avoid a conflict of interest, IATP transferred all the accounts and assets of TransFair to another legal entity, and hired Paul Rice—who is still TransFair’s president—to run it. During the past 12 years, TransFair has grown from a small project to a globally significant institution, by far the leading fair trade certifying organization in the United States. IATP believes strongly in the principles of fair trade—paying producers a fair price, transparent contracts, independent third party certification. TransFair’s success story should make us proud. It doesn’t. TransFair’s growth has seemed to come at the expense of some of the core values of fair trade, making it increasingly more difficult to defend. But changing its name to Fair Trade USA and then trying to trademark it? This is the last straw. It also does not bode well for TransFair’s future.

Let’s remember this: TransFair didn’t grow in a vacuum. Over this same period the fair trade movement in the U.S. and globally has multiplied beyond all expectation. TransFair developed a business model that aggressively pursued signing up large coffee roasters and retailers to the TransFair label. While not the model IATP had in mind when we started TransFair, it has been very successful. The TransFair label can be seen from Starbucks to Wal-Mart. A downside of this model is that 100 percent fair trade coffee companies, who tend be smaller, more local, and, frankly, more fair trade—not only in percentage of business, but in paying producers more, having more transparency and supporting small producer cooperatives, etc.—have felt disenfranchised and are either migrating to a new label or considering self-certifying—a tremendous step backwards since independent third-party certification is a cornerstone of consumer confidence. At the same time, TransFair has turned its focus to the larger growers to assure the large roasters and retailers adequate supplies of coffee. This has led to small co-operative producers being edged out. TransFair could have done any number of things to differentiate a 100 percent fair trade coffee company like Peace Coffee from a Starbucks, for instance, but didn’t.

By trying to claim exclusive rights over the term Fair Trade USA, TransFair is making claim to a movement that, in large part, it is abandoning. We urge TransFair to reconsider plans to trademark the words fair trade and to focus building a strong fair trade movement that does the best it can by the producers, importers, retailers, and ultimately, the consumers who believe that trade can be fair and just.

Dale Wiehoff

January 11, 2011

Minnesota's green chemistry building blocks

No amount of clean living and eating can entirely avoid it: We all have toxic chemicals in our bodies, according to the Center for Disease Control. Exposed through the air, water, food and consumer products, we are bombarded everyday by these toxic chemicals. Fortunately, a new movement in chemistry is working to stop toxic chemicals before they start—in the laboratory.

The first event convened by the Minnesota Green Chemistry Forum and partners at the University of Minnesota: Adding Value through Green Chemistry conference, was held at the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs last week. Nearly 200 representatives from government, business, academia and nonprofit organizations gathered to share ideas about how to advance the practice of green chemistry in the state.

Shapeimage_2 Dr. John Warner, of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry and one of the early leaders of the movement, described green chemistry as the use of chemicals that pollute less; perform as good or better; and provide a better economic return. To expand the practice of green chemistry, Dr. Warner told participants that we must reform the way chemistry is taught in the United States. He explained how universities currently don't require chemists to take courses on toxicology, environmental impacts of chemicals, or law and policy.

"In chemistry, it was a fait accompli that it had to be hazardous," said Dr. Warner. "All the talk was about mitigating exposure. Green chemistry says, let's look at the intrinsic hazard in the firstplace. Does that molecule have to be toxic? Do I have to spend the money to store, transport, treat and dispose of this hazardous technology?"

Business leaders like Aveda, Segetis, Ecolab and NatureWorks told participants about how they are already implementing green chemistry practices.

Pascal Bordat of the hair and skin care product company, Aveda Corporation, told the group that green chemistry and sustainability were entirely compatible with profitability. Aveda is pushing for 100 percent green ingredients and packaging by 2020.

Segetis is a Minnesota-based company developing alternatives to petrochemicals through sustainable bio-based materials like agriculture crops. Cora Leibig, of Segetis, said a growing emphasis in business on carbon footprints and sustainability gives green chemistry a number of long-term economic advantages. By developing processes that are not toxic, bioaccumulative or persistant, Leibig said companies can save money and resources by not having to invest so much in end-of-the-pipe safety testing.

GreenChem 021 The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's Kathleen Schuler told participants that green chemistry practices could save at a minimum $5 billion a year in health costs in the U.S. "Prevention is the core of public health and green chemistry is definitely a piece of the puzzle," said Schuler. "Green chemistry can potentially prevent air pollution, surface and groundwater pollution and food chain pollution." (left, Kathleen and Senator Al Franken at the Adding Value through Green Chemistry conference)

The new Commissioner for Minnesota's Pollution Control Agency, Paul Aasen, pointed out that the  economic benefits of green chemistry should not only include savings from reduced regulatory costs, but also environmental and health benefits. "Green chemistry is as much about changing culture and thinking as it is about science," said Aasen. "We need to make environmental decisions part of everyday decisions."

GreenChem 004 Former IATP President Mark Ritchie (see right), now Minnesota's Secretary of State, and current Minnesota Senator Al Franken also touted the benefits of green chemistry. "Green chemistry is the way forward," Franken told participants.

More details on the presentations at the Green Chemistry Forum, including powerpoints, videos and photos, will be available soon at: greenchemistrymn.org.

Minnesota 2020 has created a short video on green chemistry in Minnesota featuring the University of Minnesota's William Tolman and IATP's Kathleen Schuler. See below:


Ben Lilliston

January 10, 2011

A climate-friendly Farm Bill

We’re in a rut when it comes to taking action on climate change. Congress has stalled on passing climate legislation. International negotiators failed to agree on binding emission cuts in Cancún late last year. And it’s unclear whether the EPA will have the power to regulate greenhouse gases.

Fortunately, we have a tool to help us make a real impact on slowing climate change: the Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill, which Congress passes once every five years or so, is the single most influential piece of legislation affecting agriculture in the United States. It goes a long way in determining not only much of what is grown in the United States (by way of commodity crop programs), but also how farmers grow crops and raise livestock. That’s important, because agriculture can be a real winner or a real loser when it comes to climate, depending on how you farm and how much energy you use to do it.

Synthetic fertilizers, manure lagoons and other mainstays of industrial agriculture are why agriculture is the direct source of six percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions and 13 percent worldwide, mostly in the form of nitrous oxide emissions.

Cover crops (quick-growing crops planted between production seasons to protect the soil), well-managed pastures and other mainstays of organic and sustainable agriculture mean not only that those farming systems have much lower direct emissions, but that they also can serve as “sinks” for carbon emitted elsewhere by sequestering it in the soil. These systems have other benefits as well. They’re more resilient to the extreme weather climate change is triggering, and less dependent on fossil fuel–based inputs. That means farmers face less risk as energy prices rise.

The Farm Bill is perhaps best known for the billions of dollars in subsidies it provides for commodity crops like corn, soybeans and wheat. For several decades, farm programs have been designed to encourage hyper-production of these few crops, at a serious environmental cost. But the Farm Bill also funds conservation and on-farm energy programs that have already begun to help farmers transition toward more efficient, climate-friendly agriculture systems.

Climate-friendly agriculture isn’t just about cutting carbon emissions. It’s about designing agricultural systems that provide multiple benefits, including carbon sequestration, clean air and water, wildlife habitat, and, of course, crops for food, fiber or fuel. The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) are two of the best examples of the right path for climate-friendly agriculture. They are working-lands conservation programs, meaning they reward and support farmers not for setting land aside, but for making improvements to productive land and farming practices.

Neither of these programs (nor any other program in the Farm Bill) names slowing the pace of climate change as a specific goal. But many of the practices they support contribute to meaningful emissions reductions and carbon sequestration.

CSP, EQIP and other Farm Bill conservation programs are a good start at moving agriculture in a more climate-friendly direction. But these programs haven’t gotten the fiscal support or public fanfare to make them big enough for all farmers to participate. And right now, these programs are at risk of losing significant funding. Although they have a “mandatory” funding status, Congress can raid programs such as these (and indeed, has already threatened to do so) through the appropriations process.

Comprehensive federal climate legislation and binding international agreements on emissions reductions are paramount if we wish to avert disaster from climate change. But the Farm Bill can complement those processes. It’s a tool we already possess that can make real, measurable contributions to emissions reductions and carbon sequestration.

As lawmakers get rolling this year on the next Farm Bill, they should recognize the critical role it can play in climate protection. Congress should boost funding for conservation programs including CSP and EQIP, not reduce it. And lawmakers should make climate mitigation an explicit goal of conservation programs, just as water, soil and air quality already are.

This commentary was written by IATP's Julia Olmstead and originally appeared on OtherWords.org on January 10, 2010. Download the PDF.

Ben Lilliston

January 07, 2011

Health leaders call for healthy Farm Bill

A growing and impressive number of health professionals are calling for changes in the next Farm Bill. Below is our press release from today:

Health leaders call for healthy Farm Bill

Next Farm Bill should put Americans on path to healthier eating and living

Minneapolis – U.S. health professionals are calling on new leadership in Congress to make health a priority in writing the next Farm Bill. National health leaders, including Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Marion Nestle, have signed onto a “Charter for a Healthy Farm Bill.” (See the full list of signatories at HealthyFoodAction.org.)

The Charter for a Healthy Farm Bill calls for a food system that incorporates health into the entire lifecycle of how food is produced, processed, consumed and disposed. Such a food system must protect the environment as well as ensure farmers and workers are fairly compensated. The charter’s principles emphasize a food system that is healthy, sustainable, resilient, fair, diverse, economically balanced and transparent.

Congress is expected to begin work on the five-year Farm Bill this year. The Farm Bill includes programs for farmers and for food assistance. Traditionally, Congress has not integrated public health issues into Farm Bill programs, despite strong scientific evidence that food production and consumption patterns are linked to rising health costs and associated diseases. 

“The Farm Bill helps create an American food environment where unhealthy food is the cheapest and most readily available,” says David Wallinga, M.D., of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). “Given the enormous health costs of obesity and other food-related epidemics, integrating health goals into the next Farm Bill is a good investment and smart public policy—a real no-brainer.”

“Healthy food is fundamental for good health,” says noted physician and author Dr. Andrew Weil. “It only makes sense that the Farm Bill should encourage production of more foods that are good for our health and are grown in ways that do not undermine our health.”

“The links between agriculture, public health and the environment become more apparent every day,” says Marion Nestle PhD, of New York University and author of Food Politics. “The next revision of the Farm Bill presents the perfect opportunity to create American food policies that promote healthier and more sustainable diets for everyone.”

Healthy Food Action, a project of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, works to engage health professionals as advocates for a healthier, more sustainable food system. Read the full charter at HealthyFoodAction.org.

Download this press release in PDF.

Ben Lilliston

January 06, 2011

Are genes for disease a mirage?

Is chronic disease mostly a product of environment, and not genes, as we've been led to believe? That provocative question is the focus for a new report by The Bioscience Resource Project. The report, "The Great DNA Data Deficit: Are Genes for Disease a Mirage?", concludes that for common diseases, including heart disease, stroke, cancers, diabetes and others, "a significant role for genetic causation can now be ruled out with a high degree of confidence." This finding indicates that other environmental factors, like food, pollution, stress and tobacco use, likely play a larger role than previously thought. Interestingly, the four mentioned diseases—among the six leading causes of death—are all closely linked to an unhealthy food system and unhealthy eating.

David Wallinga, MD