Over the past year, the Star Tribune, the largest paper in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, has published almost all its articles on the outbreak of highly pathogenic H5N2 in its business section.
The placement is telling and reminds us that the paper views the virus, which has killed 50 million poultry across 21 states, as a matter for food companies and investors. It seems the ecologies and epidemiologies in which we are all embedded are to be treated as mere subsets of commodity economics.
An update last week, published—where else? —in the business section, repeated unsupported declarations about the origins of the outbreak. The newspaper claims the virus originated in Asia; migratory waterfowl brought it here and spread it; and farmer error is to blame for the outbreak. Anything but the poultry sector itself.
A long standing claim by the U.S. government and agribusiness lobby is that U.S. regulations on genetically engineered (GE) crops are science-based while European regulations are not. For example, an April 8 letter from the American Soybean Association to the U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack, states that “approval of these events [three GE soy crops] is now needed for the EU Commission to have any semblance of a working biotech approval system.” A “working biotech approval system” is that of the United States, which invariably “approves” GE crops, i.e. deregulates them, on the basis of an agency review of data and studies, some classified as Confidential Business Information, submitted by the GE crop developer.
This approach has been in place for two decades. For example, a Food and Drug Administration letter to Monsanto in 1996 states, “Based on the safety and nutritional assessment you have conducted, it is our understanding that Monsanto has concluded that corn products derived from this new variety are not materially different in composition, safety, and other relevant parameters from corn currently on the market, and that the genetically modified corn does not raise issues that would require premarket review or approval by FDA.” A 2013 FDA letter to Monsanto regarding a GE soybean “event” deregulates the product, but does not approve it, in almost identical language.
The controversial new trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has been a tough sell for the Obama Administration. The top four Presidential candidates oppose its passage and support in Congress is waning. The road to TPP approval got a little tougher when 161 food, farm, faith and rural organizations sent a letter to Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to reject the deal.
“The main beneficiaries of the TPP are the companies that buy, process and ship raw agricultural commodities, not the farmers who face real risks from rising import competition. TPP imports will compete against U.S. farmers who are facing declining farm prices that are projected to stay low for years,” the organizations wrote.
At a time when the farm economy is struggling, the 12-nation TPP is being sold as a boost to farmers. But many farm groups are not buying it. “Trade deals do not just add new export markets—the flow of trade goes both ways—and the U.S. has committed to allowing significantly greater market access to imports under the TPP,” the groups explained.
An IATP paper earlier this month raised concerns about the impact of increased imports of milk and whey protein concentrates from the largest dairy exporting company in the world, based in the TPP country New Zealand. U.S. dairy farmers are already suffering under a climate of extremely low prices.
“Dairy in Crisis: TPP Dumping on Dairy Farmers,” by IATP intern Erik Katovich, is a sober recitation of facts that raise important questions about the objectives of the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement.
First, as Katovich reports, global dairy prices continue to drop due to worldwide oversupply of raw milk, and U.S. dairy processors are dumping millions of gallons of raw milk into sewers. The dumped milk contradicts the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) objectives to reduce food waste and conserve the natural resources used to grow dairy cattle feed. During the negotiations, the USDA projected a 20 percent increase in U.S. dairy imports by 2025 due to TPP rules. Given the vast U.S. oversupply of raw milk, why did the USTR lower the tariff rates on dairy products, including on milk protein concentrate (MPC), a powder that contains 30 to 40 percent of the protein of raw milk and casein, a starch used in processed cheese? In other words, why did the USTR favor MPC and casein importers to the detriment of U.S. dairy farmers?
Every day of the school year, more than 80,000 meals are served in the cafeterias of the Minneapolis and St. Paul Public School Districts—that’s over 1.3 million meals a year. While these school districts are two of the largest in Minnesota, they share the daily rhythm of providing meals and snacks with the other school districts in the state—over 540 districts in total, which spent close to $450 million in the 2014-15 school year on food service.
These school meals, as well as those served by other public and private institutions—such as hospitals, universities and colleges, child care centers, government offices, prisons and beyond—are critical sources of nutrition for the 5.45 million Minnesota residents who rely on their services, either directly or indirectly. Beyond nutrition, the scale and consistency of institutional meals means that food purchasing—also called food procurement—by Minnesota institutions has a significant impact on the economy and environment of the state and the Upper Midwest region as a whole.
This blog first appeared as a contribution to #Livestockdebate hosted by the European coalition ARC2020 (Agriculture and Rural Convention 2020). You can read contributions to the #Livestockdebate from other experts at the ARC2020 website.
Last month, workers entered ten massive, confined turkey and chicken operations in Indiana and sprayed foam designed to suffocate the birds. When the cold temperatures froze the hoses, local prisoners were brought in to help kill the birds manually. Other operations shut down the ventilation systems killing the birds as heat temperatures rose. More than 400,000 birds have been euthanized so far in an effort to contain a new strain of avian flu in the U.S. Last year, approximately 45 million birds were killed to contain the spread of a different avian flu strain in the U.S. These epidemics are not limited to poultry: two years ago, a massive piglet virus outbreak killed millions of pigs (an estimated 10 percent of the U.S. hog population).
With the recent conclusion of climate talks in Paris (see Ben Lilliston’s coverage here, here, here, and here), which included strong pushes for “Climate-Smart Agriculture” (CSA) by a variety of government, NGO and corporate actors, it’s worth returning to the recent conversations about agriculture at the FAO’s second Regional Agroecology Meeting. This meeting, which I attended in Dakar, Senegal from November 4-6 of this year, once again united scientists, civil society and members of government to discuss agroecology and its potential to improve small-scale food producers’ lives, support their extensive existing knowledge and improve environmental impacts from the agrifood system, from climate change to biodiversity.
When the text of a new global climate agreement reached by 195 governments was released this weekend, one word was conspicuously absent: agriculture. That doesn’t mean issues around how farmers produce food were entirely ignored; in fact, you can see agriculture’s shadow in nearly all parts of the Paris agreement—from national-level climate plans to climate finance to new initiatives on soil. But a clear path forward on how to limit agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and support more climate resilient agricultural systems is still too politically hot for governments to take on.
The decision to sidestep agriculture, at least temporarily, within the climate agreement was not surprising. Finding common ground on agriculture and food security is notoriously difficult in international settings (see long-stalled World Trade Organization negotiations). Much of the intransigence around agriculture lies in the enormous political and economic power held by an increasing small number of global agribusiness corporations, who have little interest in new rules that don’t fit with their current business model. There is strong resistance to new regulations for agribusiness sectors that are high greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters (particularly the big fertilizer and meat companies). After the Paris agreement was reached, the meat industry immediately put out a call to start aggressively lobbying governments to protect their interests.
On the eve of their Nairobi ministerial, WTO members should remember it is not food procurement policies in developing countries like India but unfair US agricultural subsidies which threaten free trade and farmer livelihoods across the world
On December 15, the world’s trade ministers will gather in Nairobi, Kenya, for the tenth attempt to craft a new set of trade rules under the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The so-called Doha Development Round (DDR), launched in Doha, Qatar, in 2001, promised to right the imbalance in previous trade negotiations that had favoured the United States, European countries, and other developed nations. Reforming unfair agricultural practices were at the centre of the Doha agenda.
On the eve of the Nairobi ministerial, that agenda itself is under threat. The US, EU, and Japan have proposed jettisoning the Doha agenda and the progress made before negotiations broke down in 2008. They have dismissed commitments made two years ago in Bali, Indonesia, to resolve objections to India’s ambitious National Food Security Act as an unfair subsidy to farmers. Agriculture, it seems, is barely on the Nairobi agenda.
Going along with the West would be a costly mistake for developing countries. They may well be facing a new era of low crop prices in which highly subsidised crop production in the US and other rich countries creates overproduction and dumping of cheap goods on global markets. If ever there were a need for new agricultural trade rules, now would be the time.
Changing economic landscape
Paris – Yesterday at the global climate talks, France and about 30 other country leaders, research institutions and a handful of NGOs launched a much anticipated new initiative focused on researching and advancing efforts to sequester carbon in soil. The voluntary initiative, called 4 pour 1000, is not part of the official climate negotiations, which has largely ignored agriculture. And while the launch answered some questions about priorities – it left other important issues, like how the initiative will be financed and by whom, as well as the all-important questions of governance (particularly the role of farmers and civil society), for another time.
France has been talking up the 4 pour 1000 initiative for much of 2015, meeting with NGOs (including IATP) and country representatives, and holding sessions at the Committee on World Food Security in and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. The initiative has attracted growing interest because of the well-recognized need to focus on soil health in order to cope with climate-related impacts on agriculture. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) just completed a year’s worth of events around the International Year of Soils.