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 20, 2011

Exploding watermelons and exploding headlines in China

A new spate of food safety scares has hit China this spring, from tales of exploding watermelons (caused by application of a dodgy growth accelerator) to cadmium in rice to pork tainted by a dangerous feed additive

This sudden rush of bad news is not happening because food has become less safe (it has been unsafe for a while now!) but because of a change in government policy toward press reporting on this sensitive issue, according to the Associated Press

Zhang Yong, the director of the executive office of the new Cabinet-level Food Safety Commission, recently praised the media's "important watchdog role" after being asked why journalists have frequently able to find food safety problems before inspectors. 

Used under Creative Commons license from flickr user Bert van Dijk. Until recently, reporting on tainted or fake food was a risky move for the media, so Director Zhang is playing a new tune here, but if the government’s hope is that bad press alone will shame food companies into more responsible behavior, as is being reported, it’s a terrible miscalculation and an unfortunate abdication of regulatory responsibility. 

It's unlikely that media scrutiny and public opinion will compensate for the deficiencies of state regulatory power in China, where libel laws are notoriously pro-plaintiff, and companies frequently bring suit and win on the grounds that their profits have suffered due to statements made in the press or on the internet. They don’t even need to file suit themselves. Instead, they can go to sympathetic local officials, who often use criminal libel laws to silence anyone critical of either government behavior or of companies deemed vital for local employment or tax revenue.

It is certainly true that a century ago, muckraking played an important role in improving food safety in the U.S., but public shaming alone seldom changes corporate behavior. In most countries, press exposés of corporate abuses have brought reforms by fuelling public outrage, which was converted into political action by social movements that pressured government to reign in corporations. (Can you spot the missing link in that causal chain in China?) 

What’s needed is not a change of heart by embarrassed “bad actors,” but a transformation of the food system, which is currently built around making money above all else. Food is treated as just one more manufactured good, and in the search for market share and profits, companies will do virtually anything to lower costs and move product; a weak press and a weaker civil society can't fix that. If China’s leaders decide that they want a food system based instead on ensuring a supply of safe, healthy food for the Chinese people, the quest for profit will need to take a back seat to the rights of more empowered consumers, press and regulators, and a well-regulated market will work better for all but the most unscrupulous players, since consumers with a higher level of trust in the system will be less skeptical of all products. 

If regulation of the food system in China operates like policing other parts of the economy and society, we can expect that the current spate of food safety horror stories will lead to a “strike hard” campaign. There will be video footage of courageous police and perp walks, and then, within a few months, the status quo ante will return.

Jim Harkness

May 17, 2011

The global impact of China's pig industry

China’s pig industry has global impact, new report finds
Shift to industrial production affects farmers, food security and environment

Chianapig Minneapolis – China’s decision to shift toward industrial pig operations, and away from smaller-scale production, has important implications for the future of China’s farmers, the environment and global agricultural markets, finds a new report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

 The report, Feeding China’s Pigs: Implications for the Environment, China’s Smallholder Farmers and Food Security, by Mindi Schneider, traces the history of China’s pig industry as it has evolved over the last several decades from backyard production to highly industrial operations. The paper examines the global implications of China’s decision to rely on imported soybeans to feed the country’s pig industry.

 “China’s pig industry has become more and more dependent on multinational agribusiness investment and imports for feed,” said IATP President and China expert Jim Harkness. “This development has changed the dynamic of agriculture in China and pushed smaller-scale pig producers out of business. It has also played a role in increasing demand for agricultural land internationally.”

 China is the biggest pork producer in the world—almost all of its 50 million metric tons of production in 2010 (half of all the pork in the world) was consumed domestically. While domestic companies dominate the Chinese pork industry, transnational agribusiness firms like Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge and Cargill dominate the country’s soybean crushing industry. The growth of the country’s pork industry is a direct result of polices that have liberalized trade for some products, like soybeans, and retained protections and other policy tools like a pork reserve, in others.

 The policies are a response to growing demand for meat in China, but they will not close the dietary and income inequalities that persist, and serious environmental and public health costs are escalating, according to the report. The increased liberalization of agriculture is taking a toll in rural China, where smallholder farmers struggle to access markets and make a living. Industrial livestock production generates more than 4 billion tons of manure annually, which has grown into one of the largest sources of pollution in China’s waterways. Globally, as more land is converted to soybeans to feed China’s pigs, there is an increase in pesticide and fertilizer use, as well as a loss of biodiversity. The heavy use of feed additives, such as hormones and antibiotics, in China’s livestock production has been linked to a variety of health concerns.

 “The crises of industrial agriculture are emerging in China as it is elsewhere in the world,” said Schneider. “This signals an opportunity for policymakers to consider supporting more sustainable ways forward.”

 The paper recommends that China reassess the impacts of its strong adoption of industrial pork production and pig feeding on China’s population and environment. Redirecting research and subsidies from industrial systems to locally embedded systems, while maintaining food reserves, are steps in the right direction that could help meet national food security, development and environmental needs.

Read the full report.

Andrew Ranallo

May 03, 2011

Second thoughts on lessons of children's health in China

Nick Kristof opined a few days ago in the New York Times that while there’s every reason to be critical of China’s human rights record, we should also recognize the country’s achievements, especially in the field of health. The average life expectancy of children born in Shanghai, he points out, is now higher than the average life expectancy for American children. I admire Kristof’s work, both his writing from China a couple of decades ago and he and his wife’s wonderful work on behalf of women’s rights. And I think that in general, we need more analysis that reveals the complexities of China to U.S. readers, who are fed too many sensational and even xenophobic Yellow Peril stories in the mainstream press. But while the stats in his story seem to contrast the two countries, a closer look shows that his snapshot of the present ignores trends toward China and the U.S. becoming more and more alike, and not in a good way.

The apparent difference between Chinese and U.S. children’s health is, in part, an artifact of the two statistics he chooses to compare. Instead of the average Chinese child and average American child, it is the average Shanghainese child versus the average American child. In the U.S., average life expectancy is affected by the tens of millions of poor, uninsured people whose lives have gotten worse since 1980. And in China, a range of policies during this same period have sucked wealth out of rural areas and into cities, widening the wealth gap so that today, even relatively poor urbanites are still far better off than their country cousins. (And as one of China’s wealthiest cities, Shanghai is an increasingly unrepresentative subpopulation.) So yes, China has made admirable strides in children’s health programs, but because—like the U.S.—societal inequality is increasing, not everyone the same chance to benefit.

The other concern I felt while reading Kristof’s piece had to do with an article I had read a few days prior. It was an announcement from McDonald’s Corporation that they would be opening 700 new stores in China over the next two years. In all but the poorest countries, neither starvation nor communicable disease are the real threats to a long and happy life. Instead, people’s lives are shortened (and made more miserable) by non-communicable diseases brought on by the overconsumption of alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy foods. In the U.S., rates of obesity and associated illnesses shot up back in the 1980s, (and along with increasing inequality, have pushed down our life expectancy). But until just a decade ago, China’s diet was hailed as one of the healthiest in the world. Recently, though, China has seen a rapid increase in the consumption of meat, sweets and edible oils—much of it in the form of processed and fast foods—bringing on an obesity epidemic and skyrocketing rates of diabetes. (Alcohol and tobacco abuse are also on the rise.) The McDonald’s expansion in China, part of a fierce war for market share with other international fast food chains, shows that this trend is not slowing. So while there may be many things we can learn from China about children's health, it also appears that China may be following a dietary (and social) trajectory dangerously similar to ours.

Jim Harkness

November 16, 2010

Learning from China's food system

China faces the challenge of feeding 22 percent of the world's population on 9 percent of its arable land. What does this really mean for China's farmers, the environment and the world? And what can we learn from China's experience as we grapple with challenges of development, environment and hunger?

IATP President Jim Harkness, who lived and worked in China for 16 years, will examine the challenge of feeding China and explain why, despite two decades of dire warnings, China’s growing appetite has not brought famine to the rest of the world...yet.

Jim’s talk is part of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment’s fall 2010 Frontiers lecture series, scheduled for noon to 1 p.m., Nov. 17, at 380 VoTech Building, 1954 Buford Avenue, St. Paul.

You can watch the live webcast of his talk starting at noon central time here. Or watch it later at the Frontiers lecture series archive.

Find out more about IATP’s China Initiative here.


Ben Lilliston

July 13, 2010

Chinese farmer with rocket launcher fights back against forced relocation

Property rights are a hot and complicated issue in China today, with both the left and right calling for (very different kinds of) reform. As property developers rush to build the “New China,” they push farmers and residents off of their land, with little regard for compensation—and by using all the political connections and brute force they can muster.

Forced relocation of this kind is fully legal under current Chinese law. Farmers don’t own land outright, but rather lease it from local governments for terms of up to 30 years. These agreements are considered binding, until a property developer (state-owned, private or mixed) sets its sights on a particular tract of land, and the families with the land-use rights are relocated. Compensation is generally a pittance, and developers and officials rely on intimidation to move people out of their way.

Recently, Chinese media has increasingly reported on instances of people protesting forced relocation and low compensation by taking rather drastic measures. S-CHINESE-FARMER-II-largeThis week, the China Daily (English version) ran a story about Yang Yongde, a farmer from outside the city of Wuhan in Hubei province. Mr. Yang successfully negotiated a compensation package of 761,00 RMB ($111,000 USD) for his 25 mu (1.75 hectare) of land, including houses and a fishpond. He only reached this agreement, however, after building a watchtower above his home and launching homemade rockets from a bamboo bazooka at developers as they approached his land. This fight went on for about five months, and near the end, his brother was attacked and severely injured while guarding Mr. Yang’s land while he was off filing a petition.

I first saw this story on an English language blog called China Hush in June. The author of the post summarized news reports from the Chinese press about Mr. Yang’s struggles, which are linked here and here. Apparently, this media attention helped Mr. Yang get the settlement he wanted. The developers and officials involved succumbed to his demands soon after reports of his standoff were made public.

Mr. Yang’s story, along with those of many others who have fought to keep their homes or to be fairly compensated for their losses, are probably most unique in the sense that they have been reported. Forced evictions and relocations are commonplace in China today, but most of them go unreported. So while Mr. Yang came out with a nice settlement, it is important to focus on the broader policy and legal changes that are needed to protect others in similar situations. Wang Xixin, a law professor at Peking University, is quoted is the China Daily article: “Yang's success was only accidental and may not be repeated. Offering property owners more channels and rights to appeal is the correct way to resolve the problem.”

I would also say that continuing to report on these incidents is another move in the right direction, so long as those that get reported don't serve to mask or silence those that remain ignored. In the past few days, The Guardian, the BBC, the Telegraph, the Huffington Post, and several local papers and blogs have picked up the story of the “rocket farmer” from the Chinese press. Forced relocations, and protests against them, will continue to be important issues to watch.

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

Mindi Schneider

June 07, 2010

Chinese piggybusiness

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

Thirty years ago, there were no agribusinesses in China. Today, private domestic agricultural firms are growing in number, in market share for agricultural goods and services, and in political and economic power. Foreign agribusiness firms and transnational corporations also operate in China, through joint ventures with domestic companies and as wholly-owned operations. In the pig industry in particular, the degree of commercialization varies considerably across different regions and localities, but this form of industrial production and processing is on the rise throughout the country.

I visited a midsized commercial swine breeding and production operation in Sichuan Province last week, and from all indications, these mid- to large-scale firms are planning for even further expansion, both in terms of the number of animals they raise (whether in their own facilities or through contracts with specialized pig farmers), and in terms of market share. In Sichuan Province, the historic heart and current leading pork producing province, commercial firms produce 10 percent of the province’s pigs, and specialized household farms that contract with commercial growers raise another 30–35 percent of the total. This means that small-scale or “backyard” farmers produce 55–60 percent of Sichuan’s pigs. An industry expert shared these unofficial numbers with me, adding that compared to the figures in 2007, things are changing quite quickly. Just three years ago, commercial farms produced 5 percent of pigs, specialized farms 25 percent, and backyard farms 70 percent. In some provinces, commercial and specialized farms already control the vast majority of the market.  

In an effort to better understand how this transformation is taking place, I’m working on a series of “Chinese Agribusiness Profiles” that outline basic information about the organization and operation of some of the leading pig industry–related firms. I started with New Hope Group, IMG_5525China’s largest feed grain producer, which is headquartered in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. This, and all subsequent profiles, will be posted at my blog at www.pigpenning.wordpress.com. I hope that by starting to sketch the contours of the industry we can get a better handle on this massive transformation, and what it means for China’s farmers and environment—and for farmers and food systems in other places. Like IATP's Jim Harkness says in his last post, it’s a start!

Mindi Schneider

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

March 22, 2010

China's water challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Lilliston

March 19, 2010

The role of agriculture in rural China

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

Part 1:

Part 2:

Ben Lilliston

March 18, 2010

Genetically engineered foods a hot topic in China

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from Beijing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Lilliston

March 17, 2010

How should China feed itself?

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from Beijing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the various presentations and discussion to come.

Ben Lilliston

March 05, 2010

Chinese peasant farmers: making an impact globally, struggling locally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mindi Schneider

March 04, 2010

Peasant farms and ecological sustainability in China

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

In my last post, I proposed a contradiction between ecological farming and low-carbon lifestyles, and the difficulties encountered by the people living them. We can see some of these contradictions in the Ge family's farming system located in the small village in Hebei Province.

The hallmarks of sustainable farming systems from an ecological perspective can be summarized as complexity, locality and resilience—a diverse mix of locally adapted crops and cropping patterns, mixed crop-and-livestock systems, and closed input and waste cycles. From fruit trees, vegetables, legumes and grains; to sheep, goats, chickens, cows and pigs; to manure, night soil and compost—the Ge family’s farming system, and that of virtually every other household in the village, has it all. System components relate to one another in complex ways, such that nutrients and materials are cycled throughout the system. A couple of early-spring farming practices that I observed illustrate these concepts.

During my visit, I spent a lot of time with Mrs. Ge, who like many women in the village, does most of the farm work. Every afternoon, she sets out after lunch with her 16 sheep to graze. First, she leads the sheep through the persimmon orchards at the base of the mountains where they eat anything left on the ground and deposit nutrient rich manure. Everyone in the village has persimmon trees, and goats graze freely in all of the villagers’ plots. After spending some time in the lowlands, Mrs. Ge steadily moves the sheep up the mountain to feed on scrub grasses on the hillsides and to visit terraced fruit tree plots on the way. After two to three hours, or until the sheep’s bellies are sufficiently swollen, she guides them back down to the village, again stopping in the orchards to drop off a bit more manure. In this way, the sheep act as mobile fertilizer factories, moving nutrients down from the grassy mountain slopes to the lowland orchard soils where they can be taken up by the fruit trees. The sheep also move nuDBM_9783trients in another way. While at home in the family’s courtyard, Mrs. Ge supplements grazing by feeding the sheep corn stalks saved from the previous year’s crop and scraps from the kitchen. These “wastes” are turned into resources, as they cycle through the sheep and back to the orchard and crop soils. 

Nutrients are managed in other ways as well. Most of the farmers I spoke to had just slaughtered their pigs prior to Chinese New Year, and were preparing to buy another one or two to raise in the coming year. Most would be consumed in the village during Spring Festival, and a few would be sold at local markets. Instead of factory-farm-ready pig breeds that are becoming increasing popular in China, these are locally adapted pigs that farmers raise for about 11 months. Pigs eat crop residues, kitchen scraps, weeds and all manner of vegetation, in addition to a bit of corn saved from the previous season. Pigs too are housed in the family’s courtyard with the sheep, chickens and any other livestock, and bed down on a mix of corn stalks and crop residues. Courtyards have an “escape hatch” of sorts where livestock bedding, along with the nutrient-rich manure that has been deposited with it, is periodically scooped out. This creates piles (more like mountains) of compost that farmers load onto carts or into three-wheeler truck beds to tote to the orchards and crop fields. This, together with manure deposited by grazing sheep and night soil made from human waste, provides enough nutrients for the farming system—very few farmers in the village use purchased fertilizers. 

Early spring is also the time when farmers prune their fruit trees to ensure maximum fruit load. They collect, stack and store the prunings, and use them throughout the year as fuel for cooking and heating their homes.

The final picture below shows a stockpile of feed, fuel and fertilizer—or corn stalks, fruit tree prunings and composted manure.  

This is, of course, an incomplete "agroecosystem analysis," and I'm not arguing that these are perfect systems. The practices that I've highlighted, however, exemplify practices and models that are often proposed as keys to ecological sustainability, and achieving low-carbon futures. In my next blog, I'll look at some of the challenges of day to day living within this ecologically sustainable system.

Brent Martin provided the photos that appear in this post.


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Mindi Schneider

March 03, 2010

Ecologically sustainable lifestyles in China...and the struggles of people living them

This is my first blog post, so let me briefly introduce myself. My name is Mindi Schneider. I’m a native Midwesterner, and studied horticulture, agroecology, and local food systems at the University of Nebraska starting in the late 90s. I’m currently living in China and working on research for my dissertation in Development Sociology at Cornell. I’m particularly keen to understand how the industrialization of agriculture, especially hog production, is re-organizing rural economies and peasant practices here.

But enough about me. Let’s talk Chinese peasants and sustainable agriculture…

I just returned to Beijing this morning after spending six days in an 80-household mountain village in central Hebei Province. I was there to learn about farmer cooperatives, agricultural practices and peasant livelihoods. Through a friend who works as a village cooperative coordinator at the Liang Shuming Center for Rural Reconstruction (also Renmin University’s New Rural Reconstruction Research Center and the Ground Green Union), I was able to stay with the Ge family, and follow them around through their daily activities. While it’s difficult to narrow the insights I gained during my trip into a short blog post, I want to share some thoughts on a contradiction that I think is particularly worth noting, namely, the contradiction between ecologically sustainable lifestyles and the struggles of the people living them.

Let me explain. On the one hand, when I looked at farmers' practices in the village through an agroecologist’s eyes, I was continually struck by how these were the complex, low-carbon systems that we hold as models of sustainability in theory and in practice. If I were to analyze these farming systems solely in terms of material flows and nutrient cycling, I would say bravo. Sustainable. But on the other hand, whenever I asked anyone in the village about their life, the response was always that peasant life is full of kunnan, the Mandarin word for difficulties and problems. The question then becomes not so much about sustainability per se, but about inequalities, injustices, relationships between rural and urban areas, farming and non-farming populations, and policies. As a sociologist and activist, I want to understand these struggles and relationships in their proper context, and look for solutions.

The contradiction I’m proposing is related to themes that others have written about and pursued as a course of action (see for example Miguel Altieri’s “Small farms as a planetary ecological asset: Five key reasons why we should support the revitalization of small farms in the Global South” at Food First, and La Via Campesina “Climate crisis—Small scale sustainable farmers are cooling down the earth"). In my next post, I want to pick up this thread, and relate it to the farmers I met in Hebei.

Mindi Schneider

January 29, 2010

China's nitrogen problem

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China.

Earlier this week I wrote about dinner with Cheng Cunwang, a sustainable food activist who IATP hosted last fall. Once Cheng returned, he began researching pollution from nitrogen fertilizers in China. His findings were  released by Greenpeace China last week.

They haven’t put it on their web site yet, but among their report’s findings:

  • The cost of nitrogen fertilizer that runs off fields and is therefore wasted is 30 billion Chinese yuan ($4.5 billion) per year
  • This runoff constitutes a massive source of freshwater pollution, and as “non-point source” pollution, it is nearly impossible to control
  • Coal is the energy source for 70 percent of China’s nitrogen fertilizer production. Approximately 100 million tons of coal are used for this purpose each year—an amount that's increasing by about 10 percent each year

Following the release, I was interviewed by Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo), an influential paper published out of Guangdong. The reporter wanted to know whether China’s experience was unique, whether nitrogen fertilizer overuse is a problem in the United States, and what might be done to control it.

In a nutshell, the U.S. government has actually taken some important steps to reduce fertilizer overuse and pollution. Fertilizer management programs, use of cover crops (although still rarely used on the Midwest's larger sized farms) and letting land along watercourses lay fallow have all helped. (A great short paper on the perils of poor soil nutrition management appeared in Science last summer.) However, nutrient runoff from U.S. agriculture still poses a serious threat to U.S. waterways, a clear sign of which is the enormous dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

In both China and the U.S., the root problem is “cheap food” policies that subsidize over-production (of commodity crops in the U.S., and of fertilizer itself in China). The drive to increase yields at all costs—understandable in situations of extreme food insecurity—quickly builds economic constituencies for subsidies that prove difficult to dislodge once food security has been achieved. And cheap food has come to be seen as an entitlement by urban populations around the world whose other rights have been denied or eroded in recent decades. The problem is that a whole slew of externalities result from such policies, from the environmental and economic costs outlined in Cheng’s report to epidemic childhood obesity in the U.S. and the undermining of food security in poor countries—the destination of “surplus” commodities from the United States.

The result is that China basically has nitrogen coming out of its ears. For literally thousands of years, China’s farmers were able to maintain soil fertility through careful management of organic matter. They may not have known it was nitrogen they were managing, but farmers here went to tremendous lengths to retain, renew and recycle organic matter of all kinds. The advent of chemical fertilizers freed up lots of labor for China’s industrialization in the 1980s and 90s, but it turned animal and human wastes—once a prized resource—into a burden. Today manure is the largest source of freshwater pollution. The irony is that it is closely followed by the very nitrogen fertilizers that replaced it!

Jim Harkness

Ben Lilliston

January 26, 2010

Growing China's local food movement

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China this week.

Tonight I had dinner with two rising stars of the Chinese sustainable agriculture movement, Cheng Cunwang and Shi Yan. Cheng was in the U.S. last fall as a guest of IATP, and he and Shi Yan have just finished translating Elizabeth Henderson’s classic Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Support Agriculture, into Chinese. While in the U.S., Cheng made a pilgrimage to upstate New York to visit Ms. Henderson, and we talked about cooperating on an event to celebrate the launch of the Chinese edition later this spring.

Shi Yan is a graduate student at Renmin (People’s) University who we invited to spend a season working on a CSA farm in Minnesota in 2008. Her blogging about the experience caused a sensation in China, partly due to her infectious enthusiasm about farming and life in rural America, and partly because of the novelty of an intellectual traveling all the way to the U.S. to become a peasant. On her return, Shi Yan promptly started her own CSA, called Little Donkey Farm, on a patch of land in suburban Beijing.

Over dinner, she told me about the challenges of the farm’s first year and plans for this coming summer. Overall, last year was a success, and Shi Yan’s farm has proved as popular with the media as her blog from America was. (You can read out translation of a Chinese feature story on the farm here.) But there were problems, ranging from bugs and more bugs (Shi Yan and her fellow student farmers have limited training in organic pest control) to a local government that would rather sell the land to developers than have it occupied by a scruffy-looking farm. She got some help from the well-connected Dean of her school on the land-use issues, but it sounded like she was still worried about the bugs. Even her newfound celebrity has its downside. A passionate spokesperson for both organic farming and fair prices for “peasants,” Shi Yan has been taken aside more than once by owners of organic food companies who tell her Little Donkey’s low prices make them look bad and she talks too much about the rights of farmers.

As Little Donkey’s fame grew, all sorts of other CSAs, pseudo-CSAs and businesses who thought they had spotted a branding opportunity started to come out of the woodwork. Many wanted to use the Little Donkey name, and one company wanted to list Little Donkey on the Shanghai stock exchange. (This is more a reflection of the current go-go economy here than anything else, but still!) They decided to turn down most of the offers, but as soon as all three hundred of their own CSA shares for 2010 are sold, they will be referring people to two other farms that they think really do share Little Donkey’s CSA and sustainable farming principles. Meanwhile, she told me, she is providing advice to others all over China who want to replicate Little Donkey’s model.

The speed with which this idea is catching on in China is astounding, exhilarating and a little frightening, given the many ways that a good idea can get twisted into its opposite. It is in part a reflection of the anxiety of Chinese consumers about food safety and their wish to have more control over their food supply. But it’s also just one of a number of farmer responses to an agricultural economy in which more and more control is in the hands of agribusiness and farmers’ rights to organize into cooperatives to defend their economic rights are severely constrained. IATP’s China coordinator, Chang Tianle, and I are doing research on CSA and other related forms of direct marketing that should be out later this spring.

Jim Harkness

Ben Lilliston

June 19, 2009

China's new animal welfare law: Factory farms not on the menu….

A recent article in the Guardian newspaper reports that China will enact its first animal welfare law soon. The law appears to be a backlash against the widespread practice of local governments slaughtering dogs en masse in response to outbreaks of rabies, which is widespread in China.

“In the past month alone, authorities in Hanzhong, Shaanxi province, rounded up and killed 22,000 dogs after eight people died of rabies. Pet lovers were also up in arms after authorities in Heihe, Heilongjiang province, announced a cull of every dog in the town after an outbreak.”

The law is being drafted by legal experts in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in consultation with groups such as Britain’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

I find the new law noteworthy for two reasons.

First, for what is left out of the law, which draws a bright line between pets and other animals. The vast majority of domesticated animals in China pull carts and plows, provide wool or get eaten, and there is still no official consideration of how they should be treated. That last category is of special interest, since its numbers have exploded in recent years. Per capita annual meat consumption in China went from 25 kilograms in 1995 to 53 kg in 2008 (This is still only about half of what Americans eat). As demand has grown, the structure of meat production in China has also changed. The happy barnyard pigs and chickens feeding on table scraps are increasingly being replaced by factory-farmed animals, as documented in this report from Brighter Green. Drawing on Chinese and Western sources, the report describes a rapid increase in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in China and the attendant problems, which range from systematic mistreatment of animals to massive increases in pollution from releases of untreated manure into waterways. Is respect for basic farm animal welfare too much to ask of a developing country? Perhaps. Yet, looking at the wide range of social and environmental costs associated with CAFOs documented in the report, I can’t help but think that both animals and people would be better off with a different system.

Despite the fact that farm animal welfare is not yet on the menu, the development of this law certainly shows how far China has come from totalitarian dictatorship, where in 1958 Mao was able to mobilize the entire country to kill sparrows because he thought they competed with humans for food. The kooky man vs. nature ethos is gone, for starters. (The sparrow-killing campaign backfired, of course. Sparrows eat insects, and with bird numbers successfully reduced the locust population exploded, wiping out harvests in the early 1960s.)

Furthermore, the ad hoc and localized nature of the current rabies campaigns is an outcome of the decentralization of governing authority in China during the 1990s, which has hobbled efforts to get coordinated public health responses in the country to any threat short of avian flu. (Local governments hid their SARS data for weeks as that epidemic spread.) And finally, we see in this new legislation the political clout of the new urban middle class. Dogs have been tolerated rather than doted on for most of Chinese history. When I spent time in Chinese villages in the 1980s and 1990s, dogs were regarded by most folks as kickable, garbage-eating burglar alarms. The return of widespread pet dog ownership didn’t really hit its stride until the late 90s, when dogs of all shapes and sizes became a must-own for wealthy city dwellers.

This law--which has no conceivable link to the economic or political agenda of the Chinese Communist Party--is evidence that the economic power of China’s yuppies is increasingly translating into political power. 

Jim Harkness

A Summer in Rural China

Caroline Merrifield is blogging from China about her experiences working on a traditional farm in rural China.

My name is Caroline Merrifield. I'm a rising senior at Harvard concentrating in Social Studies. I'm writing from a small organic CSA on the outskirts of Beijing called "Little Donkey Farm." It was set up on experimental land owned by Renmin University in Beijing. I've spent the past couple of days weeding cabbage and staking cucumbers, preparing, eating, and cleaning up after meals with all the farm interns and managers, and trying de-jet-lag my Chinese vocabulary.

I'm here as part of an exchange of sorts. Last summer, the graduate student who is overseeing Little Donkey Farm, a woman named Shi Yan, came to Minnesota under the auspices of IATP to work on Earthrise Farm, a small organic CSA. I was an IATP intern at the time, and I helped to translate some of her blog entries for the IATP Web site. Now it's my turn to learn about Chinese sustainable and traditional agriculture by working and living on Chinese farms. 

I'll be spending a week here at Little Donkey and then I'm off to Hebei Province. I'll be staying with a traditional farm family in a village where students from Renmin University have started an experimental organic farm. I'll add pictures when the internet here is a bit faster. So far, life at Little Donkey has been incredibly interesting - but as it's my turn to clean up, I should sign off for now.

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