The multi-million dollar initiative known as AGree released their mission and strategies for transforming food and agriculture policy by 2030 last week. Despite a litany of plans and players involved, it’s still hard to know what to make of AGree.
AGree is the brainchild of nine foundations (with the Gates Foundation far and away the largest) that already fund a variety of initiatives of food and agriculture in the U.S. and around the world. They announced a year ago that they would combine forces and launch “an initiative designed to inform and address food and agriculture policy issues through the direct engagement of diverse groups” to “drive transformational change.”
AGree is led by four co-chairs including former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, and a diverse Advisory Committee that includes farmers of all sizes and types as well corporate giants like Cargill and DuPont. AGree has identified four interrelated challenges: meeting future demand for food; conserving and enhancing water, soil and habitat; improving nutrition and public health; and strengthening farms, workers and communities. And last week, AGree announced their five strategic priorities to take on these challenges:
Earlier this month as the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development was hosting one of the last meetings to bring out a final draft for the negotiations in Rio de Janeiro, I came across a flurry of reports issued by various entities, including the one by UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), entitled Sustainable Development in the 21st century (SD21) Report for Rio+20, which will serve as a roadmap during the Rio+20 conference this June. (In all fairness, I should mention that IATP contributed to the component of this report entitled, “Food and Agriculture: The future of sustainability.”) While all of these reports focus on sustainability, the call for sustainability in the agricultural sector is worth our attention for the simple reason that it is where one of the most crucial fights for world’s resources is taking place.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.