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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May 26, 2011

Antibiotics in ethanol? Just say no.

Image used under Creative Commons license from Fickr user Argonne National Laboratory Here's an issue you don't hear very much about: antibiotic use in ethanol production.

You heard me right. Some ethanol producers use antibiotics to keep bacteria under control in their fermentation tanks (yields can go down if bacteria get out of control). Unfortunately, the residues from these antibiotics are turning up in what are called distiller's grains, a byproduct of ethanol production that's fed to livestock—yet another source of unnecessary antibiotics in our food system.

We've been tracking this issue for a while. We've found that there are very good alternatives to antibiotics on the market, and many ethanol producers are not using antibiotics at all. Unfortunately, this fact hasn't stopped the ethanol supply industry from continuing to push antibiotics.

Antibiotic use in ethanol production occupies a regulatory gray area. The drugs aren't added directly to the feed, so the Food and Drug Administration hasn't yet begun regulating their use—but they might. To fend off any potential objections to human-grade antibiotics winding up in livestock feed, the ethanol supply industry is trying to get the antibiotics they market approved as food additives.

This is a dangerous business. Time and again, research has shown that that antibiotic overuse in agriculture contributes to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and has caused severe threats to human health. The fact that effective, affordable alternatives to antibiotics are readily available to ethanol producers means there is absolutely no reason for continued antibiotics use in ethanol.

On Wednesday, IATP submitted comments to the FDA in response to a petition by Ferm Solutions, Inc. (a company that sells antibiotics to ethanol plants) to make erythromycin an approved food additive. You can read our comments, written jointly with our partners in the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition. For more information on the issue of antibiotic use in ethanol production, please read our report, "Fueling Resistance."

Image above used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user argonne.

Julia Olmstead

May 06, 2011

Ethanol subsidies: better to burn out than to fade away?

Ethanol’s main subsidy—the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC)—is on the chopping block. Given the current fiscal climate, even ethanol proponents have resigned themselves to the fact that VEETC—an annual $6 billion tax credit, set to expire at the end of this year—is probably on its last legs.

This week, those that would kill the 45-cent blenders’ credit subsidy quickly, and those that would prefer a long farewell, drew their lines in the sand. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced a bill Tuesday that would fully end VEETC and the import tariff on foreign ethanol by July 1, 2011.

A day later, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Kent Conrad (R-N.D.) released a bill that would gradually make the tax credit counter-cyclical over the next five years. Under their bill, VEETC would drop to 20 cents next year and 15 cents in 2013. After that, the credit would be pegged to oil prices, ranging from 30 cents a gallon when oil is at $50 per barrel or less, to zero when oil reaches about $90 per barrel. It would also keep the import tariff, but lower it to 20 and then 15 cents in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Co-sponsors of the Grassley-Conrad bill include Minnesota DFL Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.

Essentially, this week’s legislative action is the culmination of efforts on two sides of a heated debate around VEETC (and corn ethanol generally, but I’ll stick to VEETC in this blog). Team A: a strange-bedfellows coalition of environmental and hunger organizations (including Friends of the Earth, Environmental Working Group, NRDC, Oxfam and others) and livestock and processed food producers (groups like the American Meat Institute and Grocery Manufacturers of America). Team B: the ethanol industry (Renewable Fuels Association, Growth Energy, etc.) and the National Corn Growers Association. Bet you can guess which team likes which bill.

Regardless of how it happens, there’s no denying it’s well past time to make a shift in our biofuels policy. The question is, will federal policy drive better, or just more, biofuels? (Even if VEETC dies, we still have a federal manadate for biofuel production). The sooner we can get to an approach that rewards performance (see our colleague Loni Kemp’s “Greener Biofuels Tax Credit” for an idea of one such approach), rather than gallons, the closer we will be to better biofuel policy.

Julia Olmstead

March 31, 2011

The sweet sell on Brazilian ethanol

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

On our last day in Brazil, we got the hard pitch on sugar ethanol from UNICA: an association of 110 companies producing 60 percent of the country's ethanol and sugar production. UNICA has done a masterful job marketing sugarcane ethanol as the cleanest, lowest carbon fuel in the world—garnering a 2009 Bulldog Public Relations Award for their efforts. But our discussion was more than just a flashy powerpoint, there was a lot to be impressed by as well.

Brazil is the largest sugarcane producer in the world—and the world's second largest ethanol producer (next to the U.S.). According to UNICA, sugarcane production uses less fertilizer than corn (the primary U.S. feedstock), needs only to be replanted every six years or so, and uses a variety of integrated pest management tools to help lower pesticide use. All sugarcane mills are energy self-sufficient because they burn both the leftover stalk from the sugarcane as well as bagasse (waste leftover after the sugarcane has been processed). About two-thirds of sugarcane processing plants can switch between ethanol or sugar, depending on what that market demands.

We asked UNICA about the harsh treatment of workers at sugarcane plantations we had heard about from the Landless Rural Workers Movement earlier in our trip. UNICA pointed to a recent joint government/industry/NGO commitment on labor conditions it had made in 2009. The industry is also moving to lower the need for labor by increasing mechanization. In Sao Paulo—the largest sugarcane producing state in Brazil—all the plantations will be mechanized by 2017. What will happen to workers who formerly worked on these plantations is unclear. And there are still a lot of sugarcane plantations that operate both outside of UNICA, and outside of Sao Paulo.

On the environmental front, UNICA is pushing to reform (some would say weaken) Brazil's Forest Code, which prohibits agricultural expansion into protected areas and requires landowners to set aside 35 percent of their land for forests. The Forest Code is currently being debated in Brazil's legislature. UNICA claims that 90 percent of producers don't comply and meeting the code's requirements is burdensome and nearly impossible. While UNICA does not see sugar production directly extending into forests, they do hope to expand into pasture land, which could be affected by the Forest Code.

Currently, 80 percent of Brazilian ethanol is used domestically, aided by a mandatory blending requirement and the growth of the country's flex-fuel vehicles. But a major UNICA priority is to expand trade and "consolidate ethanol as a global commodity," including knocking down ethanol tariffs in the U.S. and EU. This emphasis on an international market differs from the U.S. farmer cooperative members that were on our trip. In a strange turn that we didn't get fully explained, Brazil actually imported U.S. ethanol earlier this month.

After nine days in Brazil, meeting with farmers, academics and NGOs, our group was well-armed with questions. But in the end, UNICA gave us a lot more to think about on biofuels and land use as we said our goodbyes and began our 10-hour flight back to the U.S.

Ben Lilliston

March 25, 2011

Touched by agriculture: The Pantanal

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

After being immersed in Brazil’s new soy frontier, we travelled to another eye-opening landscape—the Pantanal. The Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world and stretches from Brazil into Bolivia and Paraguay. The range of birds (we sorely missed the expertise of avid birder, and IATP President, Jim Harkness), frogs and other species is unlike anything on earth. Some photos below will give you only some idea of our short time there.

Because the Pantanal is under water six months out of the year, there is little direct threat from agricultural expansion onto the area. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t affected by agriculture. The Pantanal is fed partly by a series of rivers and tributaries, including Rio Cuiaba, which run straight through Mato Grosso’s soy fields. We talked with the owner of our lodge who expressed concern that runoff from Mato Grosso farm country was already affecting the Pantanal. Her worry is that the situation will only get worse. The flood cycle is now starting later in the year (consistent with concerns about climate change)—another source of unease in this amazing part of the world.

Wetland Bird in green                                                             

Birds Croc     


Capybara Parakeet

Ben Lilliston

Tale of two farms in Brazil

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

Today, we got our shoes dirty. We visited two very different types of farms outside this bustling agriculture town of Lucas do Rio Verde. One, struggling to survive, the other seemingly thriving. One small, one large. One growing all food, the other nearly all agricultural commodities. The stories of both farms reflect the challenges and promises of Brazilian agriculture.

The previous day we heard about a forming cooperative of small farmers, struggling to produce food in the margins around giant soy, corn and cotton farms. Sure enough, this morning we drove down a dirt road surrounded by cotton and corn fields, till the road split off in a V. In a triangle shaped wedge, 30 families (each with 2.5 hectares, or 6 acres) managed a series of highly diverse farms. Thesmallfarmer

The lead farmer we talked with (See photo to the right.) had finally been granted access to the land three years ago, after working in the fields for others in the area for 20 years. He had travelled north from southern Brazil, where his father owned a farm, but also had six children, meaning there wasn't enough room for everyone on the farm when they grew up. He headed north to claim his own farm. As he was introduced to our group, his deep blue eyes immediately went to peoples’ hands. He said he was trying to identify who were the farmers in our group.

The 30 families mostly farm to feed themselves. They grow a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, pigs, poultry and cattle. What they don’t eat, they sell in town at the market. While the government helped them locate the land, they receive very little other government support and technical assistance.

There are other challenges. Pesticides sprayed onto the larger farms often drift onto their land, with no buffers except a narrow dirt road. Bugs from nearby soy fields often migrated onto their land when spraying takes place. The farmers expressed concern that expanded corn acreage associated with U.S. ethanol production was increasing pressure to expand soy production in Brazil, and hence further squeeze their access to land in Mato Grosso.

It was clear that life and work on these farms was extremely difficult. When asked, he admitted that in some ways it was harder than life as a laborer, but they wouldn’t trade it. They were becoming self sufficient, and things were getting better.

We saw a different side of Brazilian agriculture when we visited with Carlos Pedrozan later that day. (Photo below, left.) Pedrozan owns an immaculate 500 hectare soybean and corn farm. His father travelled to Thebigsoyfarmer Mato Grosso from the south of Brazil 25 years ago. At that time, about 30 percent of his land was deforested. Now, 75 percent of the land is deforested. Over the last 25 years, land prices have increased “1000 percent.” And many foreign groups are looking for land to develop in the region, according to Pedrozan.

The farm began to grow soybeans right away. But it was only five years ago that they began to grow a different, second crop —corn—during the same season (something we can’t do in the U.S.). When we arrived his corn crop was in the field. While he’s not quite able to get the yields our Minnesota farmers on the trip reported, that’s not entirely the point. His corn is sold for feed connected to the giant pork and poultry facility in town run by Sadia. Salidameatpackign  (See picture to the right.) But it also serves to complement the soybeans to feed the soil.

Like U.S. farmers he talked about the challenges of low prices. Soybean prices are lower in the region
than elsewhere in the country because of the high costs associated with truck transport. Corn prices are also low. Like U.S. farmers he is a price taker, meaning he doesn’t set his prices and must take what the agribusiness companies pay him. He thought the level of production in the U.S. affects the price he receives for corn, but not so much for soybeans, because the market is more local (Sadia, and a nearby soy biodiesel plant).

Unlike U.S. farmers, Pedrozan receives no government support, like crop insurance or subsidies, when the market or weather hits a tough patch. Recently, his soybeans had been hit with a type of nematoid that sounded like cysts to our Minnesota farmers in the group.

Will there be room enough in Brazil for both types of farms, big and small? For a country this size, and all the benefits it has for agricultural production (land, water and tropical weather), and now money and investment, there should be room for both. But it appears government and agribusiness investment have mostly picked one type of farm over the other.

Ben Lilliston

March 24, 2011

Photos from Brazil

This week, IATP led a delegation of U.S. academics, environmentalists and corn and biofuel producers to Brazil to study biofuels and indirect land-use change. Photos from the trip are on IATP's Flickr page and there are plenty to see!

Andrew Ranallo

March 23, 2011

Everyone's land

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

Today we drove north five hours, from Cuiaba through soybean and cattle country, to a city that seems only possible in Brazil—Lucas do Rio Verde. The city was founded in 1988 and now is a bustling agribusiness town full of chemical and seed shops and farm equipment. As we drove into town many of the company signs were familiar to Minnesota farmers: Cargill, ADM, John Deere.

The town's population has grown from 19,000 in 2000 to 45,000 in 2010 thanks to agriculture. The giant meat processing plant takes chickens and pigs, fed by the large-scale soybean fields that surround the town (though we also saw a lot of corn). Forty percent of those soybeans go into the local biodiesel plant or animal feed for the poultry and hogs.

But the boom hasn't come without bumps in road, particularly related to land and environmental protection.

20110321_lucas43 Representatives from the Rural Workers Union told us how many small-scale farmers had difficulty getting access to land 10 years ago, and laborers faced terrible working conditions. But conditions have improved. Many who were previously landless now have land they have either rented or bought collectively (divided equally in two-hectare increments). They are on the verge of launching a coop that will include 500 farm families from 10 districts in the area, and hope to market a variety of foods—vegetables, milk, poultry, pork—produced by traditional ecological practices. Their goal is to meet the region's foods needs—somewhat surprising given the agricultural activity that surrounds the town. But similar to many U.S. rural farm areas, the large-scale production in Lucas Do Rio Verde is destined for elsewhere. Poultry to Arab states and the pork to Venezuela, a local government official told us. (Photo: trucks of soybeans heading out of town.)

Edu Laudi Pascoski, the Minister of Agriculture and Environment for the region, told us about the area's unique history when it comes to environmental protection. In the 1970s, the Brazilian government offered incentives to clear the land and turn it into farm fields. After massive deforestation, and under rising  international pressure to better protect the environment, the Brazilian government reversed itself. Farms in this region are required to leave 35 percent of the farm in forests or replant forests if they've alreay been cut (imagine such a law in the U.S.). And land along waterways is required to have a significant natural buffer from farmland.

Enforcement of these environmental requirements has been difficult, Pascoski told us. A farmer may buy forested land somewhere else in the country, just to cover his 35 percent requirement. This is difficult to verify. And, if a watered down revision of the country's Forest Code gets approved by the Brazilian government, the pressure to protect land won't be as strong.

20110321_lucas23 One result of Brazil's environmental requirements is that there can be no more agriculture land expansion in Lucas Do Rio Verde. But that doesn't mean production can't become more intensive and efficient. We were given slick marketing material (titled in English "Everybody's Land"). Pascoski mentioned that he had recently hosted 120 Americans visiting the region. He said U.S. and other foreign interests both rent and own existing land in the region. (Photo: A statue and biodiesel plant in front of our hotel.)

This optimistic town has another reason for optimism: A coming railway, which will reduce transportation costs and time. And send Lucas do Rio Verde's bounty to the rest of the world.

Ben Lilliston

March 22, 2011

Challenges of Mato Grosso

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

On Sunday, we travelled to Cuiaba—a city of half a million in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Cuiaba is a gateway city between two critical biospheres in Mato Grosso: the Pantanal to the south, and savannahs of the middle and northeast. The savannahs are home to springs that feed into many rivers in Brazil, including the Amazon, which dips into the northwest part of Mato Grosso. Aside from its biodiversity, Mato Grosso is culturally diverse, home to 35 distinct Indigenous peoples. The region is also home to some of the largest agricultural expansion in Brazil. While most agricultural land is for cattle ranching, and increasing number of hectares are going towards soy production.

1300626460089 On a hot and extremely humid day, we met with representatives from FORMAD (Mato Grosso Environment and Development Forum), which includes representatives of human rights, environmental, indigenous rights and small-scale farmer organizations. FORMAD is developing alternative models to help reach social and environmental goals together.

Like many other parts of Brazil, the main disputes in Mato Grosso are over land. Pressure to increase expansion of soy, cattle and lumber production are overrunning the need to protect environmentally sensitive areas, as well as traditional lands for indigenous peoples, according to FORMAD. Currently, there are geographic boundaries that define what is private and indigenous land. But enforcement is weak, and big landowners are pushing to redraw the boundaries.  

FORMAD members discussed how the growth of soy and cattle ranching has drawn indigenous people away from their land; leaving behind traditions, culture and a greater diversity of agricultural production.  This trend stands to be a major loss for biodiversity, as the pointed to research showing that indigenous communities are the best stewards of these lands, even better at protecting natural areas than national parks and other government preserves. “In indigenous land, the protection of biodiversity is part of a cultural tradition to preserve nature. Indigenous people have an economic model that is based on nature. And sacred values based on protecting nature,” a FORMAD representative told us.

The changes in agricultural land in Mato Grosso have had a number of adverse effects, according to FORMAD. There has been a major loss of rural populations, with many migrating to the cities. Slave labor continues to be a problem: In 2009, 5,000 workers were saved from slave labor in Mato Grosso by Brazil’s Labor Department. Pesticide contamination is affecting health (found in breast milk) and water quality throughout the region. Many pesticides currently banned in the U.S. and EU are still being used here.

20110320_cuiaba12 FORMAD representatives were very interested in the reality of U.S. farming. Several of the Minnesota corn farmers with our group talked about the loss of family farmers in the U.S., the increasing absentee ownership of farmland, the push to increase value in what they produce (through ethanol), the migration of children in farm families to urban areas, and the growth of larger farms and loss of mid-sized farms.(Left, FORMAD members talk to our delegation)

Transportation holds the key to Mato Grosso’s future. Right now, agriculture products are transported almost exclusively by trucks, but there is a growing push to expand and improve railways and river navigation. FORMAD believes that transportation improvements designed largely for agribusiness will bring increasing pressure to expand agricultural land in Mato Grosso, and further damage to the region’s rich biological and cultural diversity.

Ben Lilliston

Land and power in Brazil

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

“Land in Brazil is a source of power. The landowners are the powerful. Inequality in Brazil can be traced directly to who owns land,” Paulo Alentejano, a Geography professor at the University of Rio de Janeiro told us on Friday. We were at the union hall of Brazilian oil workers at a meeting hosted by the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) to help us understand the relationship between land ownership and the agricultural economy in Brazil.  

20110319_rio110 Professor Alentejano made four key points about the concentration of land in Brazil:1) there has been a persistent concentration of ownership; 2) there is an increasing influence of globalization on Brazilian agriculture; 3) increased mechanization is reducing labor opportunities; 4) there continues to be persistent violence and environmental degradation associated with land use throughout the country.

The GINI Index measures inequality among countries and Brazil’s is among the highest in the world. According to Alentejano, this is linked to increasing control of the land by agribusiness interests. He cited the presence of companies—like Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, ADM, Cargill, Bunge and Dreyfuss—as deeply influencing land-based decisions. Land ownership by foreign interests is increasingly a concern, particularly as China becomes the country’s largest trade partner.  

Alentejano pointed out that exact statistics on land ownership are impossible, and that’s part of the problem. “The country doesn’t know much about who owns the land. We don’t know how much land is in foreign control. The Brazil agency has no data. They just don’t know,” Alentejano told us.

As agricultural land increasingly serves the interests of agribusiness by focusing mostly on five products (sugar, soy, cattle, lumber and corn), food insecurity is increasing, according to Alentejano. There has been a reduction in production of rice, beans and mandioca—staples of Brazilian diets—over the last 20 years. 

Somos Todos Sem Terra Marcelo of the Landless Rural Workers Movement talked with us about how land ownership affects sugarcane workers. Marcelo described horrific working conditions,  including tightly packed trucks (often the same trucks used to transport animals), slave labor and regular exposure to toxic pesticides. Sugarcane workers are often uneducated and unaware of their rights. “To earn more, workers need to eat less, drink less and endure degrading labor conditions,” Marcelo told us. Workers that don’t complain are rewarded.

Sugarcane production in Brazil continues to expand, particularly around Sao Paulo and Rio. One driver of this expansion is increasing mechanization, which also requires less workers. Another driver is biofuels (agrofuels as MST calls them) produced by the sugarcane. MST believes the expansion of sugarcane production is crowding out food production. “Energy production can work with family farms, but you can’t stop producing food,” said Marcelo. “We can’t enter into this production model and undermine the other model.”

Ben Lilliston

March 21, 2011

On the ground in Rio with a diverse set of opinions

Nathanael Greene coordinates renewable energy work at the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC). He is travelling on an IATP-led delegation to Brazil to study agriculture, biofuels and land use. IATP is reposting views from others on the trip. This blog first appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

I'm in Rio De Janerio today on my first full day of a nine-day trip to explore the impacts on biofuels policy here in Brazil and back home in the U.S. on land-use change here (ILUC). As I wrote about earlier this week, the trip was organized by IATP and includes a mix of farmers, ethanol producers, environmentalists and one academic who also fits into a number of those other categories.

We all got to Rio with no problems and spent the afternoon wandering along the beach and downtown. This is a beautiful and incredibly lively city, and our conversations kept switching between biofuels and policy, land-use and agriculture, and hey look at that!Sugar Loaf at sunset

We sat down early on in the afternoon and shared our reasons for coming on this trip. The perspectives on the link between biofuels policy and land-use change are all across the board. Some largely rejected the idea of ILUC but wanted to understand why others believed in it. Some are trying to understand the details better so they can better explain and refine the accounting for the emissions from ILUC. All of us expressed interest in both understanding what's happening on the ground in Brazil from Brazilians and at the same time getting a broader perspective on the important and extremely complicated set of links between policy, biofuels production, land use, food and feed production, food prices, food security, economic development, energy security... the list goes on.

On the one hand, ILUC is very simple and direct: biofuels today require land that could be used to produce food or feed. Group picture in RioThis land is limited. If we produce even a little less food or feed, the markets adjust. We call it indirect, but it's really very direct and fundamental to any product that requires large amounts of land. We should think about oil the same way, but I've yet to identify a aspect of oil production that is as fundamental to gasoline as land is to current biofuels. But of course, there is little that is simple in the world of energy policy, land-use policy or agriculture policy. 

As John Sheehan from the University of Minnesota said during this initial discussion, biofuels keep taking us to ever deeper and wider into the questions around sustainability.

One thing I already learned is that the threat to the Pantanal is not from filling but from conversion of the neighboring Cerrado. The Cerrado drains into the Pantanal and is being converted for soy and sugar cane and the concern is that the fertilizer, herbicides, pesticide runoff and changes in hydrology maybe damaging the Pantanal.

Oh and we saw this too!

Christo from the beach

Ben Lilliston

Brazil: In the middle of the game on agriculture


IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

“In Brazil, the pressure of the market is overwhelming,” John Wilkinson, professor at the Rural Federal University in Rio, told us as he described Brazilian agriculture in stark terms. We were in the offices of the Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE) to get the state of play on biofuels, agriculture and the environment in Brazil. IBASE is a long-time friend of IATP (one of IBASE’s four directors, Candido Grzybowski, served many years on IATP’s board).

Wilkinson outlined the history of biofuels in Brazil to an audience hungry for information. Ethanol went from being heavily subsidized by the Brazilian government in the 1970s to a more market-driven approach aided by flex fuel requirements beginning in 2003, according to Wilkinson. Consumers can now decide whether to purchase ethanol or gas (their gas still has 25 percent ethanol) at the pump. More than 90 percent of new cars on the market in Brazil have to be flex fuel, and now that Brazilian sugar ethanol has been classified as an “advanced biofuel” it is expected to increasingly find its way into the U.S. The highly concentrated sugar complex, dominated by sugar, agribusiness and petrochemical companies, is ready to take advantage. Sugarcane processing plants can easily switch from producing sugar to ethanol (depending on what is getting the higher price).

20110318_rio32 Wilkinson (left) pointed out that the new leaders of the Brazilian sugar industry are very attuned to environmental and social criticisms of the industry. “They believe that ethanol can only survive if it is perceived as a better solution to oil,” said Wilkinson. “The product will die if consumers associate it with deforestation.” One response has been the phase out of manual labor: 50 percent of sugarcane production is now mechanized. Another is the sugar association’s zero deforestation in the Amazon policy. A downside of further mechanization is increased unemployment. And as sugarcane production expands around Sao Paulo, other agricultural production, like raising cattle, is moving into other parts of Brazil experiencing deforestation.

Biodiesel had a different story in Brazil, explained Wilkinson. The government included social requirements that favored family farmers (defined by size, labor and ownership) and it was to target primarily the domestic market, but rapid demand for biodiesel has pushed smaller farmers out of the market, which is now dominated by what is known as the soy-meat complex of mostly large producers (80 percent soy and 16 percent animal fat).

Sergio Schlessinger of FASE (Sustainable Brazil) described Brazil’s natural advantages when it comes to agriculture production, including water, land and tropical temperatures. Despite these advantages, there is little effective land-use planning in Brazil that fully incorporates environmental threats. For instance, land zoning does not take climate change into account. He argued that current environmental certification systems associated with biofuels are too narrow, and should instead consider the entire system.

Chico Meneses, of IBASE, talked about the social implications of Brazil’s push toward an industrial model of agriculture. While hunger and food security continue to be major factors in Brazil’s elections, he pointed to several policies of the Lula government that helped reduce national hunger rates, including straight income transfers. And he highlighted the work of Brazil’s newly formed National Food Security Council, which has created an institutional market for family farmers. The institutional market—government offices, hospitals and schools—need to make 30 percent of their purchases from family farmers. “This is 48 million school meals per day—a market that was unimaginable a short while ago,” said Meneses.

Nevertheless, major disputes over land and agriculture are constant and escalating, according to Meneses. “We are in the middle of the game in these disputes. Where it will end is very difficult to predict.”

Ben Lilliston

March 18, 2011

Learning about Brazilian agriculture


IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

The first phase of our trip to Brazil was a success: we all arrived in Rio on time. For the Minnesota contingent, our arrival meant a sharp 50-degree swing upward in temperature. Today, was the first time the entire group met face to face. The impressive group is very diverse in backgrounds and opinions about the role of biofuel production on land use. Aside from four staff from IATP, we have representatives from Heartland Corn, Chippewa Valley Ethanol Cooperative, Frontline Bioenergy, Central Minnesota Ethanol Cooperative, the Natural Resource Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota. (Photo: Bill Lee of Frontline Bioenergy and Nathanael Greene of NRDC check out land use on the Rio beach.)

In an opening meeting, everyone expressed an eagerness to learn more about Brazilian agriculture broadly and, more specifically, how the Brazillian biofuel industry operates. We'll get our chance to get a broad overview as we meet with a panel of local experts at the Rio-based Institute for Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE) tomorrow. Over the next week, we'll meet with small-scale sugarcane farmers and farmworkers; UNICA (the Brazilian sugarcane association); travel to Mato Grosso to visit soybean farms and the Pantanal; and meet with a variety of Brazilian environment and agricultural officials.

Pictures from Brazil are available on IATP's Flickr page. Stay tuned for more throughout the trip.

Ben Lilliston

March 16, 2011

The Brazil connection: agriculture, biofuels and land use

Today, four IATP staff will lead a small delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (we'll be reporting here on the trip throughout the next week). We're traveling to Brazil to learn more about something called "indirect land-use change" (ILUC)—a concept that has important implications for farmers, food security, the climate and, of course, land in both Brazil and the United States.

Indirect land-use change, very broadly, is the idea that what we grow on agricultural land in the U.S. affects agricultural production in other parts of the world. For example, more corn grown in the U.S. to meet biofuel markets has come at the expense of soybean production, signaling soybean producers in other parts of the world to expand production, often damaging the environment, so goes ILUC thinking. Disagreements over whether ILUC actually takes place, and if so, how much is occuring, have been part of heated debates over California's low-carbon fuel standards, national renewable fuel standards, the EU's biofuel mandates and at global climate talks. Disputes over ILUC have frequently pitted environmentalists against farmers.

ILUC discussions also often include Brazil. Like the U.S., Brazil has a booming biofuel sector. Like the U.S., it is a major player on international agricultural markets, particularly for soybeans and sugar. While the U.S. has long transformed most of its native landscape into farmland and cities, Brazil is still home to some of the most unique, biodiverse ecosystems in the world, including the Amazon and the Pantanal. And the biggest threat to these environmental treasures is expanded agricultural production.

Our trip brings together people with different perspectives on ILUC in the U.S. to get a better sense of what is happening on the ground in Brazil. We hope to learn more about Brazil's agriculture sector. What are the pressures driving increased production? What role is government policy (U.S. or Brazilian) playing? How are these pressures affecting the environment and water systems? How are they affecting farmers, farmworkers and Indigenous communities?

Answers to these questions are becoming ever more urgent. With rising agricultural commodity prices worldwide, pressure to further expand agricultural production is not likely to ease any time soon. We'll be reporting on meetings throughout this trip and including the perspectives and blog posts from participants. Stay tuned...

Ben Lilliston

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

April 15, 2010

Press release: Biomass Crop Assistance Program needs clarification, improvement, says IATP

Minneapolis – The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) must undergo significant revision before the program’s next phase is launched, said the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) in comments submitted on April 8 to the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA).

BCAP, a 2008 Farm Bill program, was created to help farmers grow and sell new biomass crops for renewable energy. But the FSA’s implementation of the program has come under widespread criticism for straying far the program’s original intent. The FSA began the initial phase of the program before setting clear rules for qualifying grants, and before it had completed a full environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). As a result, nearly all of the more than $164 million in funding that has been awarded so far has gone to the forest paper and products industries to burn lower-value wood for their own energy needs. But as most of these users were already buying or using biomass for pre-existing energy purposes, BCAP support does not seem to be contributing in any substantial way to new renewable energy production or new supplies of biomass.

“Done right, BCAP could go a long way toward helping farmers transition to growing perennial biomass crops and increasing renewable energy production,” said Jim Kleinschmit, IATP Rural Communities Program Director. “But so far, it appears neither farmers nor energy consumers have seen much benefit from the millions of dollars already spent on this program.”

The FSA is expected to finalize rules for BCAP implementation later this year. IATP’s recommendations for improving BCAP include:

  • Modifying the current collection, harvest, storage and transportation phase of the program to stop matching payments for woody, agricultural and herbaceous resources and waste materials unless they were sourced within a BCAP project area and used for new energy production.
  • Establishing a competitive ranking process for the selection of BCAP funded projects, giving priority to soil, water, climate and wildlife protection as well as to local ownership opportunities and beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.
  • Prioritizing perennial and dedicated energy crops by making residues of annual crops or forests, and food and animal wastes, ineligible for BCAP payments.
  • Prohibiting genetically modified biomass crops or irrigation in BCAP contract acres.
  • Clearly ruling out conversion of forests, wetlands, prairies or any natural ecosystems to biomass crops.

“There’s still time to right the ship on BCAP,” said IATP Senior Associate Julia Olmstead. “The best place to start is to revisit the original intent of the program, and take seriously the numerous constructive comments submitted on how to improve the program.”

IATP’s full comment to the FSA can be viewed here. The BCAP comment period closed April 9. The USDA will announce a final rule later this year.

Andrew Ranallo

January 13, 2010

Water consumption questions for biofuels—irrigated or non?

It is well accepted that consumptive water use in ethanol distilleries ranges from 3 to 4 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol, but this is only part of the story. Water consumptive use for crop growth differs by climate regime and  must be differentiated between rain-fed agriculture—where irrigation, if used at all, may supplement rainfall only during periods of extreme drought—and irrigated agriculture, as practiced west of the 100th meridian (essentially west of the Missouri River for the northern states).

If one calculates ethanol water use on a “gallons per mile” basis (a hard term to use because it depends on assumptions and vehicle fuel efficiency) the values are startling—up to 62 gallons of water are used per mile driven if irrigated corn is used for ethanol production. 

U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne, quoted in a recent issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine stated: “To reach our ethanol production target of 7.5 billion gallons per year by 2012 will require 30 billion gallons of water a year to process, or the amount of the annual water needs of Minneapolis, Minn. And if just 25 percent of the new corn crop requires irrigation, ethanol will demand more water than the combined annual usage of all cities in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Nevada. As we increase ethanol production, we must have a holistic approach that takes into account its impact on water supply.”

Yet, we are now slated for over 12 billion gallons of ethanol per year by 2012 and the U.S. already has a total capacity, as of September 2009, of over 13 billion gallons per year, which according to the Renewable Fuel Standard, is set to grow quickly to 36 billion gallons per year by 2022.

While ethanol from cellulosic sources is slated to overtake ethanol from corn, the difficulties of developing commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants are considerable. And there is no indication that cellulosic crops will actually lower water use. What is of concern is that the increasing push for ethanol from corn will result in corn production stretching beyond the usual rain-fed agricultural regions, where more of the land must be irrigated. For example over 80 percent of the corn land in Nebraska is currently irrigated and there are calls for increased land for irrigated corn production.

The title of a November 2009 GAO report stated it well: “Many Uncertainties Remain about National and Regional Effects of Increased Biofuel Production on Water Resources.” These uncertainties need to be better understood to ensure that biofuel production does not put our water resources at risk.

Dennis Keeney

January 12, 2010

BCAP boondoggle

By Loni Kemp, a consultant to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

While the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) designed to help farmers plant new energy crops languishes in administrative limbo (the BCAP that family farm, sustainable agriculture advocates and others fought so hard for in the 2008 farm bill) —the other BCAP has grown into a monster. What started out as a couple of paragraphs in the law to help pay for collection, harvest, storage and transportation of biomass has, under the hand of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Services Administration, morphed into another commodity entitlement program, this time for the wood products industry. I first identified these concerns in October.

Now, BCAP has caught the eye of the Washington Post, and the unintended ripples from the biomass subsidy program went public. It turns out that the vast majority of the 300-some renewable energy facilities approved on FSA’s BCAP list are pulp, paper and wood companies—most of which have burned their own wood wastes for energy for decades. Some have seen declining sales to biomass energy facilities which are now turning to cheaper energy supplies. USDA gave away $24 million last year in matching biomass payments, and announced they are giving away $514 million this year—the vast majority of which won’t support any new biomass or new renewable energy, but instead is free money for a struggling pulp and wood industry. They didn’t lobby for it, Congress certainly didn’t intend it, yet once the loophole was opened, the industry has come rushing in for it.

In a flash BCAP went from an estimated $70 million cost over five years, to $514 million in 2010 alone, and that is without the core program to help farmers plant energy crops.

Yet not all industry is happy. Composite wood manufacturers charge that BCAP is taking their feedstocks away by paying double the established market price for residual wood that can also be made into furniture, flooring and construction material, according to the Composite Panel Association. Others are concerned that established markets for all biomass are being destroyed, and will result in chaos when each facility comes to the end of their two year eligibility period.

How could FSA have gone so far astray? They seem to have interpreted the law itself in a number of unusual ways. They claim the program is an entitlement and that they have to make the full payments, despite the fact that BCAP says they “may”—not “shall”—provide payments of  “not more than $45 per ton.” They could have limited payments to biomass with no higher-value products, no adverse environmental impacts from over-harvest and biomass not already being used for energy. The draft environmental impact statement failed to consider impacts from the matching payments. Requirements for biomass removal only under a Forest Stewardship Plan or conservation plan do not seem to be monitored or enforced.

The opportunity for the Obama Administration to fix all of these problems is at hand. A draft rule covering both the matching payments and crop establishment is going to be released in the next couple of months. While the money for 2010 will probably be gone by then, USDA could put in place requirements for a sensible program that furthers renewable energy without the pulp and wood products boondoggle.

Ben Lilliston

October 14, 2009

The Cost of Palm Oil

Matilda "The day the (palm) seeds arrived in our country on the plane, I wondered, `what are these seeds?'" Matilda Pilacapio told us at a meeting in late September. Pilacapio is a human rights advocate from Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea and she stopped by our Minneapolis office on the way to a meeting with Cargill—the largest palm oil importer in the U.S.

Papau New Guinea
, a former British colony, contains some of the last remaining intact rainforests and 5 percent of global biodiversity. Palm oil first came to the island in 1994, when Pilacapio was the country's Minister of Agriculture. Palm quickly replaced coconut that had been grown on plantations owned by British companies and the British government's Commonwealth Development Corporation.

"Life has dramatically changed," Pilacapio told us. "We have a traditional life of sharing and giving. What we have, we share with our village. Now, our people live in a monetary world. Our people are at a crossroads."

In the mid-1990s, the World Bank required a number of structual adjustment programs in Papua New Guinea as conditions for a loan to the country's government, according to Pilacapio. Among the changes, were the user pay system—where people pay for things like education and health care—but also land registration (which opened up land that had previously been controlled by Indigenous peoples). Part of the World Bank loan to the country was to develop palm oil plantations, says Pilacapio.

Cargill owns three palm oil mills in Papua New Guinea. The company took over the mill in Milne Bay, where Pilacapio lives three years ago. She currently works with the Milne Bay Women in Agriculture to strengthen traditional agriculture systems in response to Cargill's expanding oil palm plantation in the region.

Pilacapio said young people in Papau New Guinea who want to farm no longer have access to land because so much is going toward palm oil plantations. Previously able to provide food for its own population, the growth in palm oil plantations has led Papua New Guinea to become heavily dependent on food imports.

Pilacapio came to visit Cargill as part of an effort by Rainforest Action Network to get the company to improve its practices at palm oil plantations, starting with simple things like creating buffer zones to protect water systems. Thus far, the company has not budged. Pilacapio is asking Cargill to: 1) stop the expansion of palm oil plantations, particularly from traditional landowners and onto virgin lands; 2) share its profits with local governments and landowners; 3) provide workers with better wages and working conditions; and 4) clean up water that is downstream from their milling plant.

So, what is the cost of palm oil? In the marketplace, the palm oil produced in Pilacapio's community certainly doesn't reflect all its costs, including damage to a traditional culture, diminished food security in the region, the loss of biodiversity and effects on global climate change. The "monetary world" Pilacapio describes is not working.

Ben Lilliston

October 02, 2009

Biomass program rolls out, raises eyebrows

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), launched in the last Farm Bill, was hailed as an opportunity to spur the wider adoption of new, more sustainable crops to feed a growing bioeconomy. Now, we are reminded once again that the intent of legislation and real-world implemention are two different things. In a new IATP commentary ("Questionable start for biomass program"), policy analyst Loni Kemp sheds light on why BCAP is raising eyebrows. Kemp writes:

The way the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has rolled out the first part of BCAP is raising eyebrows, as initial funding seems to be going to pay for already-existing biomass supplies used for renewable energy, instead of focusing on helping to jump-start the new cellulosic energy future.

In September, IATP submitted comments as part of BCAP's Environmental Impact Statement. We've also written a BCAP factsheet with a number of recommendations for implementation, including:

  • Perennial and multiple-species biomass feedstocks should be the focus of BCAP, with preference for native species. No invasive, noxious or genetically modified feedstocks should be included. If funds allow, then annual crops in a resource-conserving crop rotation would be acceptable.

  • Preference should be given to projects that provide local ownership opportunities; will
    have local economic benefits; and will involve new and socially disadvantaged farmers.

  • Annual payments are intended to be an incentive to establish new energy crops, and thus should not be drastically lowered if the crop is sold or if it is used for another purpose.

As Kemp writes:

Unfortunately, at least so far, USDA seems to be getting BCAP wrong. They should reconsider the true intent of the program and focus on helping farmers plant and deliver new crops for renewable energy.

Andrew Ranallo

July 28, 2009

Ethanol Industry Explores Options to Antibiotics

Earlier this month, IATP reported on the widespread and unnecessary use of antibiotics by the ethanol industry. IATP's Julia Olmstead visited a Wisconsin ethanol plant last week that is using a hops-based alternative to antibiotics to manage bacteria growth in the fermentation process. Watch her video below to learn more.

Ben Lilliston