Posted September 30, 2011 by Ben Lilliston   

FinanceMoney and PoliticsFood securityMarket speculation

Used under creative commons license from marniejoyce.

The occupation of Wall Street protests originated from a July call to action by Adbusters to oppose growing corporate control over democracy and government.

Now two weeks in, the occupation of Wall Street originated from a July call to action by Adbusters to draw a line in the sand on the growing corporate control of our democracy and government—and in particular, Wall Street’s influence.
Agriculture markets have been especially hard hit by Wall Street’s political prowess. Wall Street deregulation has not only made the stock market extremely volatile, it has increased prices and price volatility in agricultural markets. The cost of protecting against price volatility are considerable for the future of agriculture not only in the U.S., but around the world.  
In 2008, we reported on the role a new wave of financial speculators, operating through commodity index funds controlled by Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs, played in creating extreme volatility in agriculture commodity markets—and ultimately contributing to rising global rates of hunger. Wall Street speculators were able to enter commodity futures markets after a successful and systematic decade-long lobbying effort to dismantle strong market safeguards. According to Wall Street Watch, from 1998–2008, Wall Street invested over $5 billion in lobbying and campaign contributions in support of their deregulatory agenda.
In the last two years, IATP and many others have worked to overcome a huge lobbying surge by Wall Street (President Obama had to actually beg Wall Street to call off the dogs) opposing efforts to effectively regulate commodity futures exchanges within the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Bill. That fight continues as Wall Street is expending enormous amounts of money to influence the rule-making process at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the Security Exchange Commission (Goldman Sachs alone spent $1.08 million in lobbying agencies last quarter). And unfortunately, according to Reuters, Wall Street is making headway by watering down proposals for new position limits set by the CFTC, which regulate the amount of futures contracts any one entity can hold at any one time.

Wall Street aside, it’s nearly impossible to find a legislative or regulatory issue related to food and agriculture that hasn’t been deeply shaped (if not outright written) by corporate lobbyists. Adbusters called for a Presidential Commission to end the influence of corporate money in Washington. That would be step in the right direction for those who care about agriculture and our food system. If Washington won’t step up to the plate, the stakes will only get higher. 

Posted September 26, 2011 by Sophia Murphy   

Food securityGender

Used under creative commons license from IRRI Images.

In mid-September, I had the pleasure to attend a two-day consultation run by the Center for Women's Global Leadership (CWGL), housed at Rutgers University (which, by the way, I was told boasts a freshman year this year that includes no less than 46 percent first generation university students. Kudos!). The consultation was the third that the CWGL has held with U.N. Special Rapporteurs—last week's was with Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. Dr. de Schutter is in the first stages of preparing a report on women's rights and the right to food, which he will present to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in March 2012. CWGL assembled a group of some 30 people to discuss the report, focusing on the right to food, gender equality and macro-economics. It was a great two-day brainstorm with a lot of smart and experienced (mostly) women. Fun and stimulating and useful.

The highlights? It's been too long since I had two-days with explicitly feminist thinkers. It was refreshing and demanding, too. There was the perhaps perrenial struggle in feminist analysis with how to manage the micro-macro links. In the end, for me, women's issues are centred on power issues: decision-making power, whether in cultural, social, economic or political matters. The struggle is often first and foremost in the home. A patriarchy, after all, is about the father. Yet we know that patriarchy is perpetuated right through to the highest levels of decision-making. As IATP Food and Community fellow Raj Patel said in one session, questions like which debts count and which get forgiven; which sectors of the economy suffer inflation, or increased unemployment; whose credit is increased or tightened; which services get cut during a recession—these questions all have gender implications that are almost always unacknowledged by those in power. For women, the big fights are not new, but they are not yet won—the fight for equality as inheritors; equality as automous members of a household; equality in access to productive resources; equality in wages. 

For the Special Rapporteur's mandate, the decision to focus on women is important. First, women are over-represented in most of the groups of people whose rights are not respected. Women's lack of equality translates into their being more likely than men to be hungry, uneducated, denied access to land or credit, and more likely to be silenced in decision-making. They increasingly have access to paid employment, but hardly ever—whether in rich or in poor countries—on equal terms. This in itself is reason to act.

Focusing on women also forces attention to the question of political agency: Who makes decisions, in whose name and in whose interests? The Special Rapporteur has written a series of studies and reports that look at macro-economics, from trade to investment to agro-ecological production systems to agribusiness. A report about women and the right to food will add an edge to that work by highlighting important reasons why macro-economics is also about rights. A feminist, just as a human rights activist, must ask not just "What is the policy?" but "Who does it affect, and how?" Invoking a Rawlsian notion of justice (any policy should benefit most the least advantaged), outcomes matter, and a deliberate discrimination in favor of the disadvantaged becomes central.    

I'll blog again on some of the main areas of debate from the meeting. Let me finish here with a note of warning that many around the room sounded over the two days: it is all too common to hear arguments for women's rights on purely instrumentalist grounds, as if some reason beyond women's too-often denied humanity was needed as a justification to fight for women's rights. One popular argument is that educated women are better mothers, for example, or that women are better managers of household affairs than men and so should get micro-credit loans. But of course, women have a right to food whether or not they are wives, daughters or mothers. It is a pity that slightly more than half of humanity needs a special report at all. But since we do, many thanks to the Special Rapporteur for taking the time to document the issues, and to CWGL for providing a space and the expertise to ensure it will be a rich report.

Posted September 23, 2011 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

Tar SandsClimateClimate Change

On September 24th, millions of people all around the world are joining together for Moving Planet—a worldwide rally to demand solutions to the climate crisis.

Tomorrow, IATP will join millions of people in 176 countries in Moving Planet, a coordinated a day of activities to advocate for a sharp reduction of greenhouse gases and other sustainable solutions to climate change. The activities will range from bike marches, prayer services, workshops, lectures, presentations of petitions, press releases and concerts. IATP will be at a Moving Planet event on the grounds of Minnesota’s state capitol building in St. Paul.

One of the issues we’ll be talking about there will be finance: how do we pay for a global shift toward a low carbon economy? Over the past three years, IATP has focused on problems with using carbon emissions markets to address climate change, particularly as these markets relate to agriculture. Earlier this month, we published our analysis of the World Bank’s model project in Kenya for reducing greenhouse gases. The project would pay farmers an average of one dollar per year for 20 years to practice Sustainable Agricultural Land Management to sequester carbon emissions in soil. The World Bank would buy the results of the farmers’ work at $4 per metric ton of carbon emissions, converted into carbon emission offset credits to be sold to major polluters to help them comply with greenhouse gas caps without having to actually reduce their own pollution. Because the science of measuring soil carbon is fraught with uncertainties, the World Bank discounts 60 percent of the result of the farmers’ work, although the carbon accountants doing the monitoring and verification of that work will be paid well and in full.

IATP will participate in the October 1–7 U.N. climate change negotiations in Panama City. We anticipate a major effort by the U.S and European governments, supported by the South African presidency of the Conference of Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to make a major push to legitimate “new market mechanisms” in general and agricultural soil carbon markets in particular within the UNFCCC work program. 

Given our many criticisms of carbon markets as the proposed chief means to finance climate change adaptation and GHG-reduction projects, we are delighted to hear of two agreements announced this week to invest a total of $1.6 billion in U.S. energy conservation projects. On September 21, two California pension funds announced at the Clinton Global Initiative that they would invest $1 billion in U.S. energy conservation and efficiency technologies. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton said of the announcement, “This is a big deal.” On September 19, a consortium of major companies announced that they would invest $650 million to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency in Miami, Florida and Sacramento, California.

These announcements are indeed “big deals,” not so much for the amount of money invested, since the global need for such investments is so much greater, as for the fact that these are direct investments to reduce greenhouse gasses. Rather than wait for investors in carbon emissions markets to discover a high enough price to induce major emitter investment in new energy production and conservation technologies, the pension funds and the business consortium deal, brokered by the nonprofit Carbon War Room, have decided to act now.

Governments and carbon market proponents, such as the World Bank, have labored in vain for more than 15 years to design and subsidize carbon markets to make them serve the purpose of reducing greenhouse gases. The results of these labors have been plagued with the scientific and methodological uncertainties noted in the World Bank’s Kenya project, to say nothing of the market and environmental integrity failures and fraud in carbon markets under the European Union’s Emission’s Trading Scheme.

The announcements of these new major investments in GHG reduction come as a breath of fresh air following the decision by the U.S. State Department to give a positive environmental impact assessment to the Keystone XL pipeline project. The pipeline would run from the shale oil fields of Canada, often called the Tar Sands, to a refining and shipping installation in Texas on the Gulf of Mexico.

In late August, major environmental organizations wrote to President Barack Obama to implore him to stop the Keystone project, which is expected to emit 150 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, more than the emissions of most countries.  President Obama, under heavy pressure from the oil industry and the Canadian government to approve the project, is expected to announce a decision by the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (CoP), November 28–December 9 in Durban, South Africa. The Keystone project decision will be among the concerns of Moving Planet participants, particularly in the United States and Canada, on September 24. Opposition to the Keystone project among environmental justice advocates likely will grow as the start of the CoP and President Obama’s decision on Keystone approaches.

If you live in Minnesota, join us tomorrow at the state capitol to show your support and learn more. If you're elsewhere, there are lots of Moving Planet events going on around the world—find one near you.

Posted September 23, 2011 by Sophia Murphy   

MarketsFood ReservesFood security

Used under creative commons license from CGIAR Climate.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has accepted an invitation to host the World Food Program's pilot emergency food reserves project. Farmers, like these in Kaffrine, Senegal, are some of the hardest it by food price volatility.

This post was originally featured on the Triple Crisis blog.

G-20 development ministers meet on Friday in Washington, D.C. One of the items on their agenda is a proposal developed in June for the G-20 agriculture ministers to allow the World Food Program to develop a pilot proposal for an emergency food reserve. The decision was possibly the most important outcome in an otherwise thin summit communiqué: however circumscribed, we know that food price volatility correlates with low stocks, and that providing stocks is a proven way to curb excessive volatility. We also know that in emergencies, in most of the poorest countries, it takes an average of 90 days to bring food into food-deficit areas. 90 days is too long. The costs of working in emergency conditions are also too high, in both resources and human life. There are cheaper, better ways to ensure food is available when it’s needed: a reserve in the food-vulnerable regions is one of them.

The pilot is to be part of the G-20 Action Plan on Food Price Volatility. Preparation of the proposal included extensive consultation with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which accepted an invitation to host the pilot project.

Between the last days of June and just last week, an astonishingly short period of time, the WFP coordinated a process among a number of intergovernmental and national agencies; coordinated the drafting of a report, which is both a feasibility study and pilot project proposal; found a willing partner region (ECOWAS); worked with an ad hoc group of interested G-20 governments who provided oversight; and managed some outreach to NGOs with experience in humanitarian emergencies and stocks policies. It is an impressive achievement. Bravo.

The resulting WFP proposal covers all aspects of the creation, operation and governance of the reserve as well as a comparative analysis including other measures to respond to humanitarian needs under conditions of high and volatile food prices. Yet the G-20 governments placed a number of constraints on the design of the pilot, including the requirement that releases from the reserve only be distributed through safety net programs so as to not affect local food prices (required for WTO compliance), that the size of the physical reserve be kept to a bare minimum (no more than a 30-day supply), that any physical reserve be complemented by some form of “virtual reserve” (something of a catch-all category for alternatives to holding physical stocks directly), and that releases would only be triggered when certain criteria were satisfied, related to global market shocks and local or regional food insecurity indicators. The constraints reflect the preoccupation of many governments (not least the U.S. government) that nothing interfere with commerce—only the poorest should be helped (as they are too poor to voice any demand anyway), and with only limited supplies (in case known supplies should dampen prices and thereby discourage production in the long run).

These constraints could jeopardize the whole exercise, but they could still be changed before the summit of G-20 heads of state in November.

Three concerns top the list:

  1. The proposed indicator that would be used to decide whether to release stocks from the emergency reserve, a measure of international price volatility proposed by IFPRI, is called the NEXQ (Non-parametric Extreme Quantile). While providing the required objective measure, and respecting the G-20 insistence that this stock is only for responding to international market shocks, not domestic shortfalls, the NEXQ requires analysis of the previous 60 days of international prices, resulting in a serious time lag before any food can be released.

    Furthermore, it is possible that problematic high prices could occur without significant price volatility (e.g., sustained high maize prices related to mandated biofuel demand) preventing effective use of the reserve. As the High-level Panel report on price volatility makes clear, it is high and volatile prices that are the issue for many countries, not volatility alone. An alternative indicator, such as global stock-to-use ratio, may offer a more responsive yet still objective indicator of whether an international market shock has occurred.

  2. The proposed reserve is in danger of being too small to be effective. In an attempt to keep the physical reserve modest, the 30-day maximum size requirement stipulated for the reserve is calculated on the basis of historical consumption that includes periods of reduced consumption during the recent food crises. If strictly non-crisis periods were used to determine the nominal requirements, the minimum physical reserve size would be substantially largely than the proposed 67,000 metric tons. Furthermore, the difficulties of targeting people made newly vulnerable by a sudden price rise will likely require additional quantities of grain to account for inclusion errors.
  3. The preferred “virtual reserve” options rely on drawing from either national food stocks or stocks held by local or regional grain traders. The difficulty of relying on these reserves is that during a period of high and volatile food prices, both of these types of stocks will be under intense pressure to satisfy national needs, or RESOGEST, a regional network of national food stocks that coordinates emergency contributions to countries in the network that face food shortfalls. Moreover, commercial traders will be keen to realize the profits that higher market prices offer and perhaps less willing to be drawn into supplying the reserve. The proponents acknowledge this risk but do not provide a satisfactory alternative.

If the G-20 really wants an emergency reserve to work, it will be important for development ministers to push for a pilot project that dares a little more than the current proposal. It is only a pilot after all: a relatively low-risk opportunity for learning. Nothing ventured, nothing gained; the commercial market has already proved itself inadequate. Whatever the explanation for the failings, it is clear that much of the demand for food in poorer countries has a hard time making itself heard in the international marketplace. If the G-20 wants markets to dominate the exchange of food, safety nets are essential, as G-20 ministers know. Here is a chance to work with something more effective and less expensive that the existing system of humanitarian assistance. Let’s hope development ministers are willing not just to adopt the proposal coming their way (that would be a start), but to strengthen it, too. It is an opportunity to send a strong signal to the G-20 heads of state, who will meet in early November, that reserves are a practical tool to counter market failures that jeopardize people’s lives and livelihoods. It is great to have a proposal on the table, but reserves deserve a better hearing than the G-20 agriculture ministers’ mandate allows. Let’s hope other ministries can take the idea to a higher level.

Posted September 21, 2011 by Andrew Ranallo   

BioeconomyLand Use & Sprawl

IATP's visiting delegation from Brazil tours an ethanol production facility.

IATP hosted a conference last week at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment that addressed the contentious issue of indirect land use change (ILUC)—put simply, if we take an acre of corn used in food production and begin using it for fuel instead, how will the global agriculture system make up for that missing corn for food? Will more land be cleared somewhere else? What are the environmental implications?

With the rising demand for alternative energy sources, more and more farmers are entering this transition. In March 2011, IATP led a group of U.S. researchers, farmers and biofuel producers down to Brazil to explore ILUC on the ground. IATP’s conference was part of a follow-up to that trip and brought a group from Brazil up to Minnesota to learn more about U.S. biofuel production. 

The conference was designed to look ahead, and find ways to sustain the delicate global system of farmers, land and the environment as the demand for alternative energy sources rises and more farmers enter transition from food to fuel.

Minnesota 2020 has put together a short video about the conference and its participants. Watch the video below, read more about IATP’s recent work on ILUC or listen to audio interviews (scroll to bottom of page) with the delegation that visited Brazil in March.


Posted September 16, 2011 by Ben Lilliston   

Farm BillFoodFood ReservesMarket speculation

Used under creative commons license from US Army Africa.

IATP, among others, has been pushing for the inclusion of a food reserve system in farm policy as a way to decrease volatility in food prices.

If we had a better U.S. farm policy from 1998 through 2010, we could have saved close to $100 billion in government payments for crops, provided essentially the same farm income and helped stabilize increasingly volatile agriculture prices. These are the conclusions of a new study commissioned by the National Farmers Union (NFU) and authored by the University of Tennessee Agricultural Policy Analysis Center.
The study couldn’t come at a better time, as a budget cutting–obsessed Congress is considering new approaches for the 2012 Farm Bill. The study looks backwards to determine what would have happened if a different farm policy designed to ensure fair prices from the marketplace, rather than relying on government payments when prices drop, had been in place during the 12-year period. The alternative policy includes a combination of farmer-owned reserves, increased loan rates, set-asides, the elimination of direct payments and reduced reliance on other government payments.
Among many findings, the study found that: government payments for crops would have dropped from $152.2 billion to $56.4 billion during the period; the value of exports would have been $4.9 billion higher; and farmers and consumers would have benefited from more stable and predictable price signals than when excess speculation created enormous volatility in commodity futures markets.
NFU, IATP and others have been pushing for the inclusion of a reserve system in farm policy for several decades. If it works for taxpayers, farmers and consumers, who’s against it? You guessed it, the powerful grain companies. Current farm policy places the supply of agriculture commodities in the hands of these companies—and they’ve profited handsomely. But what’s good for agribusiness isn’t necessarily good for the rest of us.

You can follow further 2012 Farm Bill developments at IATP's Farm Bill page and on the Understanding the Farm Bill page on Facebook. 

Posted September 14, 2011 by    

Food and HealthAntibiotics

Used under creative commons license from Microbe World.

Microscopic image of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (MRSA)—and emerging superbug as antibiotic resistance increases in the United States.

Antibiotics are waning in effectiveness, and as a result more and more Americans are getting sick and dying of hard-to-treat—and hugely expensive—infections. The names of these superbugs, like MRSA, are becoming known to all.
Driving resistance is the use of antibiotics. And last year, the FDA revealed that 80 percent of all U.S. antibiotics are used in agriculture, the vast majority as additives to animal feed for healthy animals. No feed antibiotics have ever been taken off the market, despite proposals to do so appearing as early as 1977.
Today, a new report by the non-partisan U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) raises alarms about the inadequate government response. Its title says it all: Antibiotic Resistance: Agencies Have Made Limited Progress Addressing Antibiotic Use in Animals.
As the report makes clear, the problem is not simply one of the feed antibiotics continuing to be sold. It is also that federal agencies, like the FDA and USDA, have failed to put forth a clear plan to improve their collection of farm data about how antibiotics in agriculture are being used, or to research alternatives to the squandering of precious antibiotics in animal feed.
The GAO report comes on the heels of a national outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella in ground turkey which killed one and injured dozens. Cargill, owner of the ground turkey plant, subsequently recalled more than 36 million pounds of ground turkey meat
In contrast, federal legislation has been introduced, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, that would phase out the use of select human antibiotics in animal feed, preventing much of the current misuse.


Posted September 6, 2011 by Ben Lilliston   

Local FoodEducationSustainable Agriculture

Schools across Minnesota are bringing fresh, local produce into their lunchrooms during Farm to School month. (Photo: Dover-Eyota Schools)

Like most parents in Minnesota, last week I received an information packet from my daughter’s school. It was the annual get-ready-for-school packet, full of various forms and fall activities for her school in St. Louis Park. Deep in the pile was a bright orange flyer from the school lunch room. This year, they will be offering grass-fed, high–omega 3, all-beef hot dogs from Thousand Hills—a small, Minnesota company. That’s right. Grass-fed beef from a company previously most likely to be found in your local food co-op or natural food store—now in my daughters lunchroom. Also, this September, during Farm to School Month in Minnesota, the school is offering apples, squash, tomatoes and potatoes all grown by local farmers. And hormone-free milk, whole grain brown rice and fresh fruit at every lunch.
These are huge changes in the lunch program since my daughter began school five years ago, and what’s happening in St. Louis Park is not unusual. IATP’s JoAnne Berkenkamp and Lynn Mader have been working with the state’s school nutrition association (a.k.a., the lunch ladies), to greatly expand Farm to School programs all over the state. Participation has skyrocketed from 10 school districts in 2006 to over 123 last year. Find out what’s happening this year at

Healthy food that supports local farmers. What could be better for our next generation of eaters? 

Posted September 6, 2011 by Mark Muller   

Used under creative commons license from National Farm Worker Ministry.

This post originally appeared September 4, 2011 on The Huffington Post.

In many cultures, it's common before a holiday meal to give a prayer of thanks for the food and the people that prepared it. At these times, we may think of our family members in the kitchen, or possibly the hard-working farmers we met at the farmers market.

But this doesn't even begin to capture the 20 million people working to bring us food 365 days a year. This Labor Day, let's remember the people that have provided for our gastronomic benefit.
First, let's thank the farmers and farmworkers who work in one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. Heavy machinery creates a lot of that danger, but less obvious hazards do as well. An estimated 300,000 farmworkers annually suffer from pesticide poisonings, and several studies indicate that farmworkers have an increased risk of other diseases including nervous system cancers. Workers in confined animal feedlots face additional dangers such as air emissions from manure lagoons or the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as the notorious MRSA.
The mental stress of farming and farm work also takes a toll. Mental health documentation is lacking, but farmworkers often have to navigate a different language, difficult physical labor and resulting injuries, long hours and wide variances in income, and poverty. Farmer owners have the stress of operating a business with many variables outside of their control, and we often see an increase in farmer suicides when commodity prices drop.
Second, let's thank the families and neighbors that face challenges due to industrial food production. An increasing amount of evidence links children's exposure to pesticides with elevated pediatric cancers. Neighbors of large animal feeding operations are sometimes exposed to air emissions from manure lagoons such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. These exposures have been associated with a number of issues such as asthma, headaches and shortness of breath. The constant exposure to bad odors can have psychological effects as well, as a study found more tension, depression, anger and fatigue in residents living near these animal operations.
And third, let's thank and recognize the health challenges of the millions of people that get the food from a farm to our plate. Workers in a poultry processing plant, for example, have been found to experience elevated schizophrenic disorders, thyroid diseases and some types of leukemia. The chemicals and flavoring agents that are used in processed food production can also create unknown hazards, such as "popcorn lung" for workers using butter-flavoring ingredients. And an additional shout out to all of the restaurant and food service workers that endure cuts, burns, sprains and repetitive stress injuries for the sake of our food.
And who are these people that we are thanking? More often than in the general population they are people of color and new immigrants. Over two-thirds of New York City restaurant workers have immigrated to the U.S., while rural poultry processing plants are often predominantly Latino immigrants. You can be sure that those positions aren't where most of your food dollar is going.
For an issue as important to national food security as labor in the food system, it seems that we often ignore the elephant in the room. Farmworkers are excluded from many federal labor laws. The Farm Bill, a huge piece of legislation that covers just about all things food and agriculture, doesn't mention labor issues. Few of us have any intimate knowledge of the production systems that produce the majority of our food.
Too many food chain workers are subjected to a lifetime of health ailments, often without health care, and the subsequent financial burdens. It's a painful irony that food chain workers often lack access to healthy foods or the resources to buy them. Top that off with their dangerous occupations and we have the recipe for physical and financial ruin.
So eat well this Labor Day. Thank our food chain colleagues for their sacrifices. But with that thanks, let's also make a shared commitment for a food system based on justice and health and not one that can verge on exploitation. 

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