Action Alert

Fair trade or free trade? Let your voice be heard on Minnesota’s future!

The Obama Administration is negotiating two new mega trade deals (one with Pacific Rim countries, another with Europe) entirely in secret, with the goal of further expanding the NAFTA-model of free trade. These trade agreements could have major impacts on Minnesota's farmers, workers, small business owners and rural communities. They could limit Minnesota’s ability to support local food and energy systems and grow local businesses. In order to stay up to speed, Minnesota has set up a new Trade Policy Advisory Council (TPAC) to advise the state legislature and Governor.

TPAC wants to hear from Minnesotans: What concerns do you have about free trade? What role could TPAC play in the future? Now is your opportunity to have a say in our future trade policy. Complete the survey and let them know future trade negotiations should be public, not secret. Help ensure the voices of all Minnesotans are heard in the development of trade agreements and that they protect local control and our quality of life. The free trade model has failed for Minnesota and we need a new approach to trade. Help ensure the voices of all Minnesotans are heard before trade agreements are completed, and that they protect local control, our natural resources and our quality of life.

Please take five minutes and complete the survey. To find out more about these trade agreements, go to

Who owns the Philippines?

Posted April 25, 2012 by Jim Harkness   

Used under creative commons license from mathieu.fortin.

Three conflicts going on right now in the Philippines illustrate just how high the stakes are in struggles over rights and resources around the world.

I got an email this morning from Esther Penunia, secretary general of the Manila-based Asia Farmers Association and IATP board member, informing me that the Supreme Court of the Philippines has ordered that the country’s second-largest family-owned plantation should be divided up among 6000 farm families. (See the New York Times story on this decision.) Although the amount of land and number of beneficiaries is limited, the decision has a much larger significance. The distribution of land and wealth in the Philippines have remained staggeringly unequal since colonial times, and one of the most prominent popular demands following the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 was for land reform, but until now, the country’s plutocrats had skillfully used their influence over the government and courts to prevent any meaningful redistribution. After 25 years, the Philippines is taking a huge step toward realizing the People Power Revolution’s vision of equality and democracy. “We feel that this is social justice,” Esther said of the decision.

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A critical moment for Farm Bill energy programs

Posted April 24, 2012 by    

Used under creative commons license from esagor.

Woody biomass harvest site, Cass County, Minnesota.

There is a lot to talk about following last Friday’s release of Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow’s draft Farm Bill, but hardly any time to talk about it. The bill is scheduled for mark-up tomorrow. Yes, that’s April 25th. After the full mark-up, the Committee bill will move to the Senate floor for debate, probably sometime in May. We’ll have time, then, to do some thorough analysis. Today, however, we’ll try to give you a couple of bites to chew on, with accompanying actions to take. Here’s the scoop on important energy title programs.

What’s at stake?

The Senate Ag Committee draft of the 2012 Farm Bill includes zero mandatory funding for the Farm Bill Energy Title, which includes important programs that promote on-farm energy efficiency and perennial-based renewable energy. Over the last month, we’ve been working with many other agriculture, energy, and environmental groups to let Congress know how important these programs are. But without mandatory funding, these programs will be left virtually dead.

How much do we need these programs? Take the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), for example. In 2011 alone, REAP saved or created almost 7,000 jobs; reduced greenhouse gases by almost 2 million metric tons; saved the equivalent of over 2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity; and generated $465 million of investments in our communities.

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Farm Bill draft puts fragile lands at risk

Posted April 24, 2012 by    

Used under creative commons license from dsearls.

There is a lot to talk about following last Friday’s release of Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow’s draft Farm Bill, but hardly any time to talk about it. The bill is scheduled for mark-up tomorrow. Yes, that’s April 25. After the full mark-up, the Committee bill will move to the Senate floor for debate, probably sometime in May. We’ll have time, then, to do some thorough analysis. Today, however, we’ll try to give you a couple of bites to chew on, with accompanying actions to take. First up, conservation compliance.

What’s at stake?

In 1985, American taxpayers and farmers entered into a contract to provide a safety net for the country’s food producers in return for protection of critical natural resources.  Known as “conservation compliance,” this policy requires farmers to follow conservation plans that limit soil erosion on highly erodible land as well as preventing destruction of wetlands and native grasslands. Farmers who willfully violate their conservation plans risk losing taxpayer funded benefits.

Today, this important connection is at risk. Taxpayer-funded subsidies for crop insurance are not currently linked to conservation compliance as they once were. In the current Farm Bill debate, Congress is considering eliminating Direct Payments, the major subsidy program that is linked to conservation compliance, and move some of those funds to support increased subsidies for crop insurance, which currently lacks compliance requirements. Unless Congress reconnects crop insurance subsidies to conservation compliance, a significant part of farmers’ incentive to follow conservation plans will disappear this year.

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Draft report on food security and climate change falls short

Posted April 24, 2012 by Doreen Stabinsky   

Used under creative commons license from farmingmatters.

Agroecological methods pay attention to soil health, through practices that increase soil fertility as well as soil’s water-holding and infiltration capacities.

Climate change will have significant impacts on world food security in our lifetimes. Indeed, we have already begun to feel the impacts from extreme events—droughts, heat waves, torrential rains leading to floods, with consequent impacts on crop production in Russia, Texas and the U.S. Midwest, Pakistan, Thailand, to name a few recent high-profile locations. Scientists predict that in the changing climate, extreme events such as these will increase in frequency and magnitude.

More insidious and potentially more threatening are slow onset events that over time will incrementally diminish or eliminate crop production in some parts of the world. These slow onset events—temperature rise, salt-water intrusion, loss of soil moisture and water supplies, loss of productive coastal areas due to sea level rise—will reduce crop yields and eliminate agriculture as a livelihood strategy for many.

So the decision by the newly reformed Committee on World Food Security to request its High-level Panel of Experts (HLPE) to conduct a study on climate change and food security was welcomed enthusiastically, especially by many of the civil society organizations working on food and climate change. At the end of 2011, the HLPE established a project team of experts from around the world to write the report. The mandate given to the team was to “review existing assessments and initiatives on the effects of climate change on the most affected and vulnerable regions and populations and the interface between climate change and agricultural productivity, including the challenges and opportunities of adaptation and mitigation policies and actions for food security and nutrition.”

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Defending UNCTAD’s role in agriculture and food security

Posted April 23, 2012 by Sophia Murphy   


UNCTAD—the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development—is holding its 13th quadrennial conference in Doha, Qatar this week (April 21–26). As South Centre Director, Martin Khor, underscored in his Triple Crisis blog last Friday, the meeting has generated considerably controversy, the first time UNCTAD has created such waves in more than a decade. Created in the 1960s as a forum for developing countries to explore global and regional macro-economic issues independently of the Western country-dominated Bretton Woods institutions, UNCTAD has never had an easy ride from the U.S., UK and other major powers. But for the first 20 or so years of its existence, UNCTAD received the resources and respect it needed to make a big contribution to supporting initiatives that supported development, from preferential trading schemes, to commodity agreements, to what were called “rules to control restrictive business practices” (today more commonly referred to as competition policy).



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Economic governance: A rich-country-only privilege?

Posted April 19, 2012 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

Professor Michael Greenberger strongly rebutted Professor Sachs’ contention that financial speculation was not a major factor in commodity price volatility and levels.

You might think that the devastating impacts of commodity price volatility on global hunger would require policy debates in multiple international organizations. Last week, the United Nations’ General Assembly (UNGA) held a high-level debate on how to address this very issue. The opposing views of panelists concerning the extent to which financial speculation is driving commodities prices comprised a vigorous debate. More troubling is an attempt to squelch U.N. agency policy analysis of this issue and other economic governance topics.

U.N. member countries with globally influential financial and commodity markets are attempting to remove economic policy analysis from the mandate of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). This attack elicited an April 11 letter of protest from former UNCTAD staff, well as protests from developing countries that welcome UNCTAD’s analysis of the impact of financial speculation on commodity prices. According to the U.S. and EU, the U.N. should concern itself with capacity building to enable implementation of or adjustment to policies decided among the Group of 20 countries and at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

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Financing food with integrity

Posted April 9, 2012 by    Bill Wenzel   

Used under creative commons license from Carol Moshier.

What is the “glue” that connects the farm and the fork? With “direct-market” channels like farmers markets and CSAs, we have the privilege of literally shaking the hand that feeds us. In other cases, we need allied businesses in “the middle of the chain” to help make that connection possible—the meat processors, the creameries, the businesses that slice and dice locally grown fruits and vegetables for sale to colleges, hospitals and schools, and the entrepreneurs who turn local veggies into salsa and local grains into tortillas.

These businesses in the middle of the food chain add value to farmers’ products and connect them with markets that many couldn’t reach on their own. These businesses can also help take our local food system to scale, while creating jobs and revitalizing local economies along the way.

But whether you’re talking about a brand new business concept or a small business looking to grow, all local food enterprises need capital—often a combination of equity and borrowing—to get going and to thrive over time.

Unfortunately, the mainstream financial system isn’t always in sync with the financial needs of these innovators. For instance, while banks may have deep knowledge of corn and soy producers’ financing needs, few are equally familiar with small-scale meat processing or the aggregation of organic vegetables. Although venture capitalists and other financiers may be willing to bet on start-ups, the high rates of return and operating control they ask for can make any entrepreneur think twice.

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Review: Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works

Posted April 6, 2012 by Dale Wiehoff   

Many of us can remember that moment while eating fresh broccoli, sweet corn or kale and we were struck by how incredibly delicious vegetables taste. It is as if we were eating vegetables for the first time in our lives. In Atina Diffley’s new book, Turn Here Sweet Corn, we learn what it takes to produce that sort of vegetable—the hard work, the love of the land, the capacity for taking risk, and the joys and pains of a farm family.

Read from one perspective, the book is a chronicle of Atina Diffley’s life so far. She paints a portrait of a farm girl with a fierce independent streak, longing to get away, but also longing to farm. As an adventurous young woman, she leaves home, pursues music, marries unhappily, has a child, is introduced to the world of food co-ops, falls in love, and begins a very interesting and challenging life raising organic food with her husband Martin Diffley. Throughout, she draws on the strength of her roots, and nurturing those roots becomes a metaphor that sustains her story.

From another perspective, this is the story of Atina’s relationship with her husband Martin. From her descriptions of falling in love to their conversations decades later, Diffley gives the reader a picture of a true partnership. The Diffleys are fifth generation farmers whose lives and farms are an important piece of our region’s history, of its development from a frontier settlement to a metropolis. Everyone on the family farm had a job, of course; growing up, Martin was the “gardener,” the one who grew vegetables. To Martin, gardening means loving the land more than loving farming.

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Public agricultural research needs to benefit the public

Posted April 2, 2012 by    

Used under creative commons license from UGA College of Ag.

The importance of the Farm Bill’s Research Title is hard to overstate. It may not have a direct impact on people’s lives as the food assistance programs and farm programs do, but it is a crucial driver in the long-term direction of U.S. agriculture. Its impact goes far beyond the USDA research institutions and also drives research at land grant universities and many other entities.

Through the enactment and implementation of the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress and this current Administration have made some positive changes to how the U.S. Department of Agriculture approaches research, and has provided more opportunities for exploring more holistic, systems-level research questions. One of the positive developments has been the development of USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). AFRI funds research, education, and extension grants that address key problems in sustaining all of agriculture, from production to human nutrition.

USDA recently provided an opportunity for the public to comment on how it conducts the granting of funds through AFRI. We at IATP see opportunities for improvement, and focused on these issues in our comments:

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Urging support for energy programs in the 2012 Farm Bill

Posted March 30, 2012 by    

Used under creative commons license from Phil Roeder.

Yesterday our Minnesota Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken introduced a bill in the Senate to protect energy programs in the Farm Bill that are critically important for rural communities. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa led the bill’s introduction, and Sen. Kent Conrad from North Dakota was also a co-sponsor.

This bill sets the stage for the 2012 Farm Bill Energy Title and draws a line in the sand to make sure that programs like the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP)and the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) don’t lose their funding. These programs have helped farmers plant more perennial crops and increase energy efficiency on the farm. Without them, farmers would have a harder time getting over some of the financial hurdles they encounter when getting started making environmental and energy improvements on the farm.

We would like to see the entire Minnesota congressional delegation show similar support and leadership in the House, and we are working together with several otherMinnesota groups to encourage them to do so. See a sample of the letter we sent to all of our federal legislators.

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