Posted September 29, 2016 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

Agriculturecorporate controlEnvironment

 Farmer in Angola drying coffee beans

This piece was originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus on September 27, 2016.

The consolidation of corporate power in agriculture has been in the news a lot lately, first with the proposed ChemChina-Syngenta and Dow-DuPont mergers, and now with Bayer’s proposal to purchase seed giant Monsanto. National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson testified in Congress last week that the proposed mergers would enable just three corporations to control 80 percent of the U.S. seed supply (and 70 percent of the global pesticide market). The result is that farmers have fewer and fewer choices about the kinds of seeds they want to plant. The concentration of processing and distribution also limits options and further squeezes farmers at a time when prices are tumbling around the globe.

This expansion of corporate control is also happening in three international treaties that establish the global rights of various stakeholders to seeds, germplasm, and plant varieties. Each of these treaties strikes a certain balance among those interests. And recently, like the agribusiness mergers, the balance has been tilting away from the interests of smaller-scale farmers and diversified agriculture. Unsurprisingly, corporations interested in accessing seeds and other genetic resources are pushing hard on all fronts.

This is most evident in the push to compel countries to adhere to the most corporate-friendly of the three: the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). Although earlier versions of the treaty included some flexibility for family farmers to save and share seeds, the 1991 version eliminated those rights. According to analysis by Public Citizen and Third World Network (TWN), UPOV91 requires protection to be provided for all plant varieties for 20 to 25 years, and it stops farmers and breeders from exchanging protected seeds—a traditional practice common among farmers in many countries around the world.

The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) includes provisions requiring countries in the trade deal to ratify UPOV91. Of the TPP countries, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico and New Zealand are not yet members of the UPOV91. Those countries would be pushed to make major changes to domestic laws and rules that protect farmers’ rights when it comes to plant breeding and seed saving. Any other countries that join the TPP would also be compelled to become members of UPOV91. Countries currently considering joining the TPP include South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan—none of which is a member of UPOV91. That process is already generating considerable controversy in TPP countries, as well as countries involved in prior trade agreements like the U.S. Central America Free Trade Agreement [see this blog by Ben Lilliston for more on UPOV91 and the TPP].

The United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) struck a different balance in its Nagoya Protocol, which was completed in 2010 and entered into force in October 2014. It has been ratified by 86 countries (but not the United States). It establishes a consultation process for prior and informed consent over decisions to share seeds and other genetic resources, as well as a process for benefit sharing. It’s a step forward in terms of ensuring developing country interests, but still generates controversy.

Adelita San Vicente—from the Mexican NGO Semillas de Vida (Seeds of Life) and the Without Corn No Country campaign (which has so far successfully sued to block planting of GMO corn in Mexico)—explains that the Nagoya Protocol, while an improvement over UPOV91, fails to consider the context of the seeds, reducing them to commodities rather than essential elements of people’s cultural heritage. In June, a provisional Constitutional Court ruling suspended the Protocol’s implementation in Guatemala, in large part as a result of campaigns by indigenous and farm organizations led by the Red Nacional para la Defensa de la Soberania Alimentaria en Guatemala (National Network for the Defense of Food Sovereignty in Guatemala). They argued that the goal should be to protect biodiversity, not to commercialize it.

Companies eager to access genetic resources in other countries are finding the Nagoya Protocol too difficult to navigate, so some are turning to a third body, one actually seen as a model for protecting farmers’ rights. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA, also known as FAO Seed Treaty) was completed in 2001. The Seed Treaty governs access to seeds and germplasm included in its seedbank and establishes rules on fair and equitable sharing of the benefits.

When the treaty was completed, many organizations including IATP praised the FAO Seed Treaty as “a major step forward for farmers around the world by improving their access to seeds.” The most contentious provision states that farmers, researchers and others using the system “shall not claim any intellectual property or other rights that limit the facilitated access to the plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, or their genetic parts or components, in the form received from the Multilateral System.” Ratified by 139 countries, the treaty also includes a provision on farmers’ rights to save, use, exchange, and sell farm-saved seed. The U.S. refused to endorse the treaty in 2001 but eventually signed (but did not ratify) in 2002. This May, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the treaty, and in June it urged the full Senate to consider ratification of the bill.

The timing of the new hearing seems to coincide with renewed efforts by multinational seed companies to influence its implementation. A report published by Third World Network on a July meeting of parties to the ITPGRFA described strong positions by African governments for a mandatory “subscription system,” with payments based on a percentage of seed sales and license income. According to the report, while the U.S. is not a party, a U.S. delegate participated as part of the Canadian delegation, arguing for limits on the new proposals. A Monsanto representative participating as a stakeholder criticized the postponement of a proposal for a termination clause, which would eliminate any requirement for benefit-sharing payments after a fixed number of years. Developing countries argued against a termination clause, since companies could simply hold onto germplasm until they wouldn’t need to make payments. Negotiations are also underway over genetic sequence data (“dematerialization”), an issue that is also being debated more broadly (beyond plants and seeds) at the CBD and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

At the Senate hearing, John Schoeneker, testifying on behalf of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA, whose leadership includes representatives of Bayer, Dupont and Syngenta) and the State Department urged ratification of the Seed Treaty, which would require no changes to U.S. laws but would enable access to the seedbank. An ASTA letter to the Foreign Relations Committee signed by 80 farm and seed business groups urged ratification, saying, “Currently, public and private sector breeders are vulnerable to the Nagoya Protocol, which was established under the auspices of the Convention on Biological Diversity and goes beyond the agriculture sector. The Nagoya Protocol is a far less favorable option [than the ITPGRFA] for germplasm exchange for U.S. agriculture researchers and the entire U.S. seed sector.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, the South Centre, Berne Declaration, and Third World Network, among others, have pointed out the contradictions among the rules established in these various treaties. The point now is not so much whether or not the Senate should ratify this treaty, but who decides on the rules about sharing these resources, and how those decisions are implemented. The ITPGRFA broke new ground on farmers’ rights over seeds and genetic resources, an advance that is effectively eroding under the TPP language and the proposed mergers. The balance needs to tilt back the other way, starting with enforceable new policy to establish that the right to food, biodiversity, and farmers’ rights take precedence over agribusiness profits, whether in these treaties or in trade deals. Ensuring that farmers around the world have access to seeds and seed breeding will be critical to climate change adaptation. Leaving agribusiness firms to set the rules on access to seeds and other genetic materials is a recipe for further corporate concentration and fewer good options for family farmers, local communities, and biodiversity.

Posted September 23, 2016 by IATP   

AgricultureTradeFree trade agreements

Used under creative commons license from gageskidmore.

The 2016 election is bizarre, to say the least. While the vast majority of reporting has focused on the horserace and he said she said aspects of the campaigns, the policy proposals put forward by the candidates will have profound and lasting impacts on the citizens they seek to govern. As a recent article in The Atlantic notes, “Once in office, presidents almost always try to carry out their pre-election agendas. When they’re unable to keep those promises, it’s usually because of congressional opposition—not because they’ve discarded campaign rhetoric to pursue other goals.”

With an increasingly globalized food system, trade and agricultural policies have become integral to combating climate change, providing economic security, and ensuring public health. These policies affect our jobs, the food we eat, and the land we live on. The trade and agricultural agenda set by the United States will affect billions of people around the globe. As the presidential debate season begins on Monday, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy will be watching closely to see if and how the candidates address the following questions:


  • Both of you have stated your opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which IATP also opposes. The U.S. approach to trade negotiations is broken for both for U.S. residents and those we trade with around the world. As long as access to the negotiations is reserved for the rich and powerful, there will never be a trade agreement that works for the majority of the people in the countries at the table. How will your administration democratize the negotiating process—allowing direct negotiating input from civil society—to develop a framework for creating trade agreements that empower communities around the world to improve their quality of life?
  • A recent report by IATP found that past and pending trade agreements directly undermine the U.S.’s efforts to mitigate climate change through the Paris Climate Agreement. In the 5,000 pages of the Trans-Pacific Partnership text, climate change is not mentioned once. What will your administration do to ensure that trade policy does not conflict with other global priorities? Specifically, how would you rethink trade policy to address climate change?
  • Agricultural export dumping  is one way corporate interests have gained through trade policy, at the expense of the public interest. This means selling products abroad at prices below the cost of production, transportation and logistical handling which drives out local producers. Dumping has led to the internal displacement or migration of tens of millions of workers and farmers around the world, e.g. ex-farmers migrating to the United States from Mexico and Central America. What would your administration do to stop dumping by U.S. and foreign corporations?
  • A second specific way corporate interests gain circumventing the public good is through private trade tribunals that can overturn democratically enacted laws. If a corporation believes that  a regulation reduces the value of a vaguely defined “investment,” they can bring a suit either through their country at the World Trade Organization (WTO) or directly through the Investor State Dispute Settlement provisions in individual trade agreements. This corporate privilege has led to the erosion of consumer safety, environmental protection and jobs programs in the United States and abroad. What would your administration do to protect local governments’ ability to regulate, free from global corporate interference?
  • Another recent IATP report found that the pending Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) would deregulate the meat industry, potentially enabling a public health crisis from consuming unsafe meat. Additionally, the WTO recently ruled that labeling the country of origin on meat packaging was a barrier to trade, essentially banning knowledge of where the meat we eat is produced. How will your administration use trade policy to protect public health, not just from unsafe meat, but from the myriad of other products that have been and will be deregulated under the current approach to trade policy?


  • Farmers are being forced into non-farm jobs and off their land because commodity prices are currently below the cost of production. In the dairy industry alone, prices have decreased by 55 percentin the last two years and half of all dairy farms have been lost since 2000. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, low prices are likely to continue for the next 10 years without significant policy change. While low prices are good for agribusiness profits, they are devastating for family farmers and rural communities. What would your administration do to boost commodity prices for American farmers and to help reduce their production costs?
  • The response of U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a Bloomberg interview last week, to a recent agribusiness mergers was “This is the world we live in” and that small seed companies will spur the mega-big ag companies to innovate and provide farmers with more input choices.  Monsanto predicted that its merger plans would succeed because “there’s no history of conglomerate merger enforcement in the U.S. in the last 40 years.” (The “White Paper” source has since been withdrawn from Monsanto’s website.) Farmers, including the National Farmers Union, have lobbied Congress to oppose the mergers because of past and anticipated increases in their seed and agricultural chemical costs from mergers. How would your administration begin to enforce the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the Packer and Stockyards Act and other laws to prevent the anti-competitive business practices, such as price-fixing in the dairy and fertilizer industries, which have resulted from agribusiness mergers and acquisitions?  
  • Farmers could take an active role in not only mitigating climate change, but making their operations more resilient in the face of extreme weather events by adopting sustainable and agro-ecological practices, such as farm wide use of cover crops. Yet, the current system of crop insurance incentivizes large-scale, mono-cropping, resource intensive farming practices. What would your administration do to change the federal crop insurance subsidy incentives towards sustainable agricultural practices?
  • America’s farm population is aging.  We need a new generation of farmers, not more farmers being displaced by policies to favor capital and technology intensive farming. Surveys show that more and more young people are interested in farming. However, despite efforts to improve funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development program and alleviate the student debt of would be farmers and ranchers, the biggest barriers to entry into farming and ranching are the costs of renting land and farm machinery. What will your administration do to enable young farmers access to the land and equipment they need to begin their farming careers?
  • Farm to institution programs give children, the elderly and many other populations access to healthy, nutritionally balanced foods that are grown locally. These programs strengthen local economies while promoting environmental sustainability. The federal government has broad powers to incentivize other government units to participate in procuring local foods for government, schools, hospitals, the military and other public cafeteria settings, as well as within private institutions that receive government funding. What would your administration do to promote farm to institution programs and local food procurement agreements at the sub-federal level?
  • The Obama Administration announced this week that it would leave nearly intact the 1992 White Policy on agricultural biotechnology, finalized by the Competitiveness Council. An interagency strategy for the regulation of 21st century biotechnology would clarify the roles of the USDA, FDA and EPA in reviewing voluntarily submitted product developer applications to deregulate their products, according to information and studies submitted by the developer, many of them classified as Confidential Business Information and therefore unavailable for peer scientific review. What would your administration do to increase the scientific integrity and transparency of pre-market safety assessment of the products of 21st century techniques of genetic engineering? President Obama recently signed a law that would enable consumers to find out whether what they are buying contains Genetically Modified Organisms, provided that they had a smartphone to scan a “labeling” code. What would your administration do to enable consumers to find out what is in the food they are buying as they are buying it, particularly if they don’t have a smartphone?
  • Global agribusiness and their hedge fund partners are distorting the price of agricultural commodities on U.S. and foreignmarkets by manipulating commodity futures contracts, e.g. the Kraft Foods/Mondelez manipulation of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange wheat contract. Since the enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act to reform and regulate financial institutions—instruments and practices that triggered the Great Recession—Wall Street, big ag and their congressional allies have worked tirelessly to reduce the budget and authority of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to implement and enforce these reforms. According to the World Federation of Exchanges, in 2015 commodity contracts became the most frequently traded contract class in the world. What would your administration do to enforce Dodd-Frank to prevent commodity market manipulation and excessive speculation, including that resulting from High Frequency Trading?
  • Rural communities will be disproportionately impacted by climate change. Their economies are often tied to natural resources (agriculture, forestry, mining), leaving them directly affected by solutions and policies that increase energy or transportation costs. At the same time, rural areas are integral in creating a climate-friendly economy through energy and food production and natural resource management. This means that rural communities will bear the brunt of climate impacts, but will also be responsible for much of the nation’s adaptation and mitigation efforts. How would your administration ensure that climate change is addressed in a way that’s inclusive of rural concerns?

Posted September 22, 2016 by Shiney Varghese   


 Photo: North Market

This piece originally published by Farming Matters on September 20, 2016 and republished under the Creative Commons license.

Agro-chemical and fossil fuel intensive agricultural food systems not only destroy the environment but also ignore both the health implications (of the crops/food produced), and the socio-economic implications (for the people engaged in producing that food). Agroecological approaches, in contrast, see food production as one, albeit crucial, component in the larger web of life. They draw on science, but are built on the firm foundations of traditional knowledge; and they seek to enhance ecological integrity while attempting to address food sovereignty concerns. While industrial farming operations are dependent on outside (and often fossil fuel-based) inputs like herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics and genetically modified crops, local food and farming systems minimise off-farm inputs by rotating crops, integrating livestock production, and following agroecological practices. For those who see ecological approaches as necessary for achieving the food, water, health, poverty and environmental targets of the post 2015 agenda, agroecology with its emphasis on local, shared knowledge is not only central to maintaining ecosystem integrity, and revitalising rural economies but also to realising the food sovereignty of those involved in food production and consumption.

Meeting global challenges Many readers are likely well familiar with the three fundamental aspects of agroecology—a scientific discipline, a practice, and a movement. While it has long been known as a scientific discipline, agroecology as a practice and a movement has come of age at a time when there is growing support around the world for changing agricultural practices in response to natural resource depletion and climate change. Agroecological approaches are developed in the context of an increasing support for less chemical-intensive, more resource use efficient, ecological approaches to agriculture – especially systems that produce healthy food for local markets while also ensuring fair wages and safe working conditions to agricultural workers. This approach is supported not only by farmers and workers engaged in farming, but also by parents interested in healthy food choices for their children, by food workers and chefs interested in supplying healthy food alternatives to consumers, and by local governments interested in rebuilding local economies. Such agricultural-food systems have the potential to provide a whole host of benefits – from environmental to social to health to local economy.

Agroecological transition However, in most agricultural research and policy circles, these benefits are not assessed or valued adequately in a holistic manner. Most agricultural research supports the industrial farming systems, with an almost exclusive focus on crop productivity and cash income. But there are two problems with this primary focus on industrial agriculture.

First, it puts any other methods of farming at a distinct disadvantage, since there is relatively little data to show how agroecological farming systems positively impact the environment, farm economics, public health and the food sovereignty of the community at large. As a result, whole systems of food and farming get excluded from research and policy support. Second, policy recommendations stemming from current mainstream research often propose single vector solutions (which in fact may exacerbate the crisis on another vector) to the complex set of ills resulting from industrial food and farming systems. For example, faced with the problem of low productivity associated with resource depletion, researchers working on industrial farming systems may propose modifying seeds with in-built traits such as improved water resource use efficiency or drought resistance. However, there is little examination as to whether such seeds are in conflict with either ecological, or socioeconomic interests of the communities that grow, harvest and/or consume the crops, or whether adoption of these seeds will support the food sovereignty of communities concerned.

To truly measure the value and sustainability of agroecological approaches to local food and farming systems, we need indicators that are multidimensional and cross-disciplinary, and that fully capture the range of outcomes contributing to the success — economic, environmental, socio-political — of the system. This recognition led us at the IATP to develop a set of indicators that would help identify the markers of agroecological practices. In developing those indicators, the report, Scaling up Agroecology (2013), not only looked at the interconnections between agroecology and food sovereignty, but also at policies and practices needed to make agroecological approaches central to food and farming systems.

From principles to policy We wanted to situate the scaling up of agroecology very firmly in the context of food sovereignty. Thus we drew up seven principles—five principles informed by an ecosystem-based approach shared by all strands of agroecologists; and two principles recognising the pivotal role of small scale producers and workers in ensuring their food sovereignty both in terms of their tremendous agroecosystem knowledge base and also in terms of the democratic control of local institutions. We started with the principles of agroecology and food sovereignty, and for each of those principles we listed a set of practices. Corresponding to each particular practice, we developed some indicators of success—ecological as well as socioeconomic—to help policy makers understand what makes a particular practice agroecological: it is not simply about ecological benefit, but also about addressing the questions raised by political ecologists and their critique of modern agricultural systems. Against each of the principles and corresponding practices, we went on to identify policy support needed to promote wider adoption of those practices. In developing these indicators, feedback from our partner organisations and from many individuals was crucial. A matrix of principles, practices, assessable indicators and policy support is found in Appendix 1 of the report.

Not only farmers faced with environmental challenges, but also national and international agricultural research and policy establishments concerned with food security, have been concerned with natural resources (soil, water, biodiversity) related challenges. Initiatives such as Sustainable Intensification and Climate Smart Agriculture proposed by technocrats, and supported by international actors including philanthropy capitalists and state and international agencies, are top-down responses to climate related challenges to food security. Climate Smart Agriculture is advanced by UN agencies such as FAO in intergovernmental spaces such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Moreover, for example, the Global Alliance on Climate Smart Agriculture includes stakeholders such as Yara and Haifa Chemicals Ltd – agribusiness corporations selling fertilizers. While initiatives such as Sustainable Intensification and Climate Smart Agriculture may at times also include sustainable practices, these are fundamentally different from agroecological approaches. This is because the latter’s roots lie in a political and economic critique of modern agricultural systems, a holistic ecosystem analysis as well as being founded on a sound local knowledge base.

Indicators of success For example, let us take one of the five agroecological principles: ‘Agroecological practices enhance beneficial biological interactions and synergisms among agrobiodiversity components thus resulting in the promotion of key ecological processes and functions.’ We identified two practices (from amongst many) that could help contribute to promoting key ecological processes and functions: having democratically controlled, local renewable energy programs and water resource development that respects ecological limits; and having crop diversification programmes that integrate crops, vegetables, livestock, trees and fish in the ecosystem.

Next we identified how such practices can contribute, on the one hand, to ecosystems, and on the other hand, to socioeconomic benefits to the community. In this case these practices could help global efforts in: biodiversity conservation; water conservation; climate mitigation and adaptation. In this instance the increased ecological functions could be measured in terms of water quality improvement of runoff; increased plant biodiversity; increased soil microbial diversity. At the same time, the synergies among economic, ecological and climate adaptation benefits (especially stability in terms of assured farm outputs from unit of land by integrating trees, crops, vegetables, livestock and fish in the agroecosystem) could help contribute to enhancing socioeconomic conditions of the community.

The next step was to identify the supportive policy environment to promote these practices. For these practices to be adopted widely by communities, it is necessary that agricultural, water and energy policies prioritise the use of natural resources (such as land and water) for food production, local energy security and local water security.

Rooted in food sovereignty

Similarly, corresponding to the two principles recognising the pivotal role of small scale producers, we listed sets of practices, a set of ecological indicators and socio economic indicators, and finally the policy support needed for scaling up those practices around the world.

To take another example, we start with the principle that ‘agroecological movements enhance abilities of small scale producers and workers to self-organise, retain, reproduce and redefine cultural practices to pursue sustainable and gender-sensitive livelihood strategies; and effectively influence social and policy processes as well as governmental decisions’.

A corresponding practice would be mutual support among farmers and their communities to establish locally controlled democratic institutions, including cooperatives that have a mission and vision to promote key ecological processes and functions.

Here too, we identified indicators to assess how such efforts by agroecological movements can contribute to on the one hand to ecosystem sustainability and on the other hand to socioeconomic benefits to the community. Practices such as developing local democratic institutions with clear commitment to ecological sustainability can ensure not only that livelihood strategies at community level are ecologically sustainable, but also contribute to the empowerment of local communities, increased economic viability of traditional livelihood practices, revitalised rural and agrarian economies. Once again for such practices to spread widely, it is necessary, though not sufficient, to have pro-democratisation policies that recognise women’s central roles in agricultural and food systems, revitalise rural economies, minority cultures as well as marginalised livelihood practices.

Together, these agroecology policy options can achieve a number of interlinked goals that are part of any sustainable development agenda, including, but not limited to: climate adaptation for agriculture, stability of farm outputs, community access to micronutrient rich food and local food security while ensuring long term ecosystem sustainability. The important role of the corresponding indicators is that they can be used to track change and show whether we are heading towards the vision of agroecology firmly rooted in food sovereignty.

Posted September 8, 2016 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

AgricultureTradeTPPDairyFree trade agreements

Used under creative commons license from ugacommunications.

Regardless of their operation, do all farmers benefit when they sell their production to traders and processors who export crop- and livestock-derived products? According to a recent interview with Ambassador Darci Vetter, the chief U.S. agricultural trade negotiator, the answer is unequivocally yes. Even now, when prices paid to farmers and ranchers by those traders and processors are well below the cost of producing those crops and livestock, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)? Consider the case of dairy farmers.

IATP contends that the dairy import provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) will do nothing to stem the global raw milk price collapse that is driving U.S. dairy farmers out of business.  Those low prices provide very cheap raw materials to such mega-dairy processors as Kraft Foods, Dean Foods and Land O’Lakes, which is owned by the mega-cooperative, the Dairy Farmers of America, but the benefits to farmers are vanishingly small.

How can farmers remain in business if prices paid for their raw materials in most years are below the cost of production? They often don’t, as the loss of half of all dairy farms since 2000 attest. With raw milk prices decreasing by 55 percent since 2014 and U.S. dairy processors pouring tens of millions of gallons of raw milk down hi-tech sewers, increased imports under the TPP of ultra-heat treated milk, low-protein milk protein concentrate and casein (a starch used in multiple dairy products) would accelerate dairy farm loss. Current U.S. dairy policy combined with TPP import measures would further favor global dairy processors, at the expense of most U.S. dairy farmers.

The 2014 Farm Bill introduced the most radical dairy policy changes in 70 years, according to a North Dakota State University economist, on the basis of counter-factual econometric projections of high dairy prices through 2018. Chief among these changes was the introduction of a one size fits all dairy operations “margin insurance” program to which dairy farmers would pay into voluntarily. The “margin” in the Dairy Margin Protection Program (DMPP) is the difference between the price of milk and the average cost of dairy cattle feed components, corn, soy and alfalfa (hay). Regionally affected dairy herd size, feeding practices and raw milk transportation costs no longer matter under the DMPP, to say nothing of other costs of raw milk production.

Farmers would be “insured” against losses under this peculiar definition of “margin” (conventionally, the difference between revenue and all costs of production), according to how much they paid into the program. Confined Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs) would be on the proverbial level playing field with small-herd dairy operators because everybody would receive as much in margin insurance payments as they could afford to buy.

According to the trade journal Farmshine, USDA had collected $73 million in margin insurance payments but distributed only $700,000 in indemnities until August 4, when it distributed $11.2 million to 4,258 dairy operations, about 10 percent of those remaining. According to an August blog by Food and Power, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to protest the USDA’s failure to make DMPP payments. However, given the USDA’s DMPP formula and the collapse of raw milk prices and of the corn and soy prices that comprise the lion’s share of feed prices for non-grass fed dairy cattle, there is little margin loss for the USDA to compensate.

By excluding the cost of the dairy farmworker labor from the definition of dairy “margin,” on which CAFOs depend, the DMPP tips the playing field further in favor of the CAFOs. They have the economies of scale to weather low raw milk prices, provided that corn and soy for dairy feed remain below the cost of production.  Not surprisingly, the Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) and other dairy organizations with CAFO members supported the DMPP, as well TPP dairy provisions. If the DMPP payouts continue to be meager and raw milk prices remain low, what will change the grim outlook for farmers?

The Farm Bill alternative to the failure of the DMPP to protect the surviving dairy farmer margins is an ad hoc, short-term supply management solution one ironically consistent with Canada’s successful supply management schemes, which is under siege in the TPP. Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota, a top recipient of DFA electoral contributions and praise, announced his thanks on August 23 to the USDA for purchasing surplus cheese stocks for distribution to food banks to relieve the supply pressure that is assumed to be the sole cause of rock bottom raw milk prices. Representative Peterson also thanked the USDA for extending the deadline three months for farmers to enroll in the DMPP, in response to his request and that of other congressional agriculture leaders. But the leaders propose no change to the DMPP margin calculation nor a proposal for congressional hearings for long-term solutions to the dairy price crisis.

The Dairy Export Council anticipates a raw milk price rebound in 2017, if only Russian and Chinese raw milk import demand increases. However, according to IATP’s 2014 report, “China’s Dairy Dilemma,” the price rebound, if it happens, is unlikely to be rapid because the industrialization of Chinese dairy production is even more ruthless than its U.S. counterpart in driving down raw milk prices and driving small-scale dairy farmers out of business. Russia is investing in its dairy industry as well. Its embargo of Western agricultural products is unlikely to end until and unless there is a geo-political détente that recognizes Russia’s sphere of influence in controlling natural resources and military superiority in the Ukraine and the Black Sea.

Let’s consider other possible causes for below total cost of production U.S. raw milk prices. DFA paid a $156.8 million fine in 2013 for dairy price fixing over several years in 14 U.S. Southwestern states, while “admitting to no wrong-doing.” As part of the settlement with the court, DFA agreed to take steps to allow the price of raw milk to increase. Notwithstanding DFA’s claim of innocence, in 2014, an anti-trust lawsuit was reinstated against DFA and Dean Foods for “conspiracy not to compete” in buying raw milk in Southeastern states. In 2014, DFA agreed to pay a $46 million fine for manipulating the price of cheese on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) with “no admission of wrong-doing.” Price movements in the CME Cheese market help determine the price offered for raw milk. In 2014, DFA agreed to pay a $50 million fine for driving down the price of raw milk for Northeastern dairy farmers, all the while protesting its innocence. Dean Foods agreed to pay a $30 million fine in a related case.

For DFA—a corporation legally organized as a cooperative which reported $13.8 billion sales in 2015—these fines, which have resulted from class action lawsuits and not USDA or Department of Justice action, are just the cost of doing business. The Department of Justice published a 24-page report in 2012 on its 2010 agribusiness anti-trust hearings, which resulted in 18,000 public comments. However, the report had little to say about specific anti-trust or anticompetitive merger or business practice cases.

Current U.S. agriculture, trade and anti-trust policy harms, or at best is indifferent, to the needs of small herd dairy farmers. Nevertheless, with both polling results and the U.S. presidential candidates against the TPP, President Obama is not relying on the post-electoral economic self-interest of lame ducks (members of Congress who will be defeated in the November elections or who are not seeking re-election) to lock in approval of the TPP. A New York Times photoshows the President meeting with former and present State Department and Defense Department officials, who will argue passing the TPP is a national security bulwark against Chinese military aggression and global economic control. Clyde Prestowitz, a former Reagan and Clinton administration official has outlined in an August 23 opinion piece the futility of using TPP rules to try to contain Chinese economic and geo-political influence. According to Prestowitz, China has a $4 trillion fund it is investing, while U.S. headquartered corporations have parked $2.2 trillion in offshore tax evasion havens awaiting the next tax evasion amnesty before they consider investing.

U.S. farmers doubt that the $43 billion acquisition of the biotech seed and pesticide giant Syngenta by the China state owned pesticide colossus ChemChina will benefit farmers. Instead they worry that further market share consolidation will mean higher seed and agricultural chemical prices and less choice about what inputs to buy.  The inter-agency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States had no national (food) security qualms about greenlighting the Chinese purchase of Syngenta in mid-August, nor the Chinese acquisition of Smithfield, the largest U.S. pork producer, for a mere $7.1 billion. As Alan Guebert noted in a prescient column, the U.S. agribusiness claim that U.S. farmers ‘feed the world’ with their exports rings hollow as the Chinese and other foreign corporations buy up the U.S. means of agricultural production.

Congressional approval of the TPP will not strengthen U.S. national security nor will it help U.S. dairy farmers. U.S. agribusiness executives, Wall Street investment banks that advise the Chinese, biotech seed companies and their patents lawyers will become yet wealthier as the Chinese state buys up U.S. agricultural assets. The Communist Party’s 13th Five Year Plan has promised active promotion of pesticide dependent GMOs, which the ChemChina acquisition of Syngenta will enable. But U.S. farmers, rural communities and natural resources will continue to be ravaged by an agricultural investment and weak regulation model that the TPP would codify. 

Posted September 8, 2016 by Tara Ritter   

Rural Climate DialoguesClimate ChangeRural Development

 Image courtesy of the Center for Rural Strategies. 

The two-day Minnesota Rural Climate Dialogue State Convening got underway today bringing together citizens from rural communities in the state. Over the past two years, Rural Climate Dialogues held throughout Minnesota in Stevens, Itasca and Winona Counties brought together groups of rural citizens to learn and deliberate about the effects of climate change and extreme weather in their communities, and create plans for how their communities should act to sustain and improve resilience. Over the course of two days, rural citizens from each of the three communities are convening to recall and share their community plans, form statewide rural climate priorities and present them to state agency staff to connect them with existing financial and technical assistance programs.

The day kicked off with introductions. People shared what they do for work—the group included sustainability and healthcare professionals, timber mill and railroad employees, and farmers—but everyone focused primarily on the pride they have for their communities. People talked about the beauty of rivers, bluffs and forests and their towns’ engaged residents. Everyone agreed that their communities had countless assets worth preserving, and that many of those assets are at risk from extreme weather and climate change impacts.

To prepare the rural citizens for presenting their priorities on the second, the Center for Rural Strategies—a co-host of the event—provided a public narrative training that allowed people to share what makes them care about these topics and why these critical areas for investment. Participants volunteered their stories of growing up and living in rural communities. One person from Itasca County spent his childhood in the forests surrounding his community, and noticed over the years that the trees were being harvested younger and younger, and not growing back as fast. He shared how much he questioned these seemingly unsustainable practices. Another person from Stevens County shared a story of a local swimming area that was a community-gathering place, but through the years, the water quality declined to the point of the swimming area being filled in. Several people lost friends and loved ones in floods. Stories like these demonstrate how wide-ranging climate impacts truly are; no matter the community, no matter your background, climate change is happening in rural Minnesota and must be addressed.

The afternoon was spent reviewing and sharing the three community plans to work create a set of statewide climate priorities. These priorities include promoting more sustainable agricultural practices to increase food security, improve water quality, strengthen local economies, and promote healthy soils; working closely with schools to educate students and include them in conversations on weather, climate, resilience, and renewables; and investing and testing new technologies for road infrastructure to focus on longevity and reduce maintenance needs. The full list of priorities will be included in the final report following the event.

The stories and priorities created today will be presented the second day to connect existing financial and technical assistance with the rural communities that are too often left out of climate policy and conversations. The first day’s connections and conversations reinforced the fact that rural communities have an important role to play in addressing climate change and plenty of ideas on how to address the challenges in a way that boosts community resilience.  

Posted September 6, 2016 by Ben Lilliston   

TradeTPPClimateClimate ChangeFree trade agreements

Image used under Creative Commons license via Flickr users AgriLife Today and G A R N E T. 

Free trade deals, and in particular the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), have taken a beating this election season. Most of the noise on trade from Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has focused on the loss of jobs linked to the offshoring. Much less attention has been paid to the serious impact the TPP and past trade agreements will have on our ability to respond to climate change.

In a new report on the TPP and climate commitments made by countries as part of the Paris climate agreement, we found that trade rules consistently benefit multinational corporations in high greenhouse gas emitting sectors like agriculture and energy, while creating barriers for governments in setting climate-related policies.

Our analysis found that the Trans Pacific Partnership expands the scope of past trade agreements to harm the climate in three important ways:

Countries and corporations can challenge climate-related policies: A series of rulings at the World Trade Organization (WTO), most recently in February against India, have ruled against renewable energy programs that incentivize local production and green jobs. Many countries, and several U.S. states, have similar green jobs programs. The TPP goes further than WTO rules by also including special corporate rights provisions called the Investor State Dispute Settlement system. Under investor state, foreign corporations can sue governments when they feel government action impinges on their future profits. In June, TransCanada formally filed an ISDS suit seeking $15 billion in damages from the U.S. government under NAFTA, charging that the Obama administration had unfairly rejected the Keystone pipeline. Other corporate rights cases have challenged bans on offshore drilling to protect wildlife, and a ban on fracking to protect waterways. (For more, see Buzzfeed’s excellent investigation of ISDS in action)

A structure to challenge new regulations that could benefit the climate: The TPP, like other free trade agreements, reinforces an industrial model of agricultural production favored by agribusiness companies like Monsanto, Smithfield and Cargill that is significant contributor to climate change. The global food system, including agricultural production and associated land use, is responsible for one-third of global GHGs. The TPP tips the scales in favor of these agribusiness giants by ensuring food safety standards prioritize trade over public health or environmental sustainability, for example. Biotech companies benefit from the TPP’s intellectual property rights provisions related to seeds and new rules to handle cases of genetic contamination (when a genetically engineered food approved in one country is traded to another country that has not approved it). Restrictions on protecting local markets enable agricultural dumping (exporting at below cost) into TPP countries. And corporations from many sectors will benefit from a committee on regulatory coherence, which provides an early warning system on new regulations in any TPP country.

New climate policies will likely conflict with trade rules: As we enter into this new era of post-Paris climate policy, approaches like a carbon tax or carbon markets will undoubtedly be affected by trade rules. The practice of moving GHG emissions from one country to another (ie moving manufacturing from the U.S. to China), without actually reducing the total level of global emissions, (aka carbon leakage) remains a serious challenge for carbon taxes and markets. One leading proposal to address carbon leakage is through border taxes or tariffs, though doing so would run counter to the trade liberalization goal of tariff reduction or elimination found in the TPP and other trade regimes.

The success of TPP countries in meeting their climate goals is critical in the global race to slow climate change. TPP countries like the U.S., Australia and Japan are major global producers, buyers and users of oil, natural gas and coal. Other TPP countries like Malaysia, Peru and Chile are dealing with expanded mining and agriculture operations that are leading to massive deforestation. TPP countries like the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and Chile are already developing various types of carbon pricing policy.

As countries take action on climate, conflicts between trade rules and climate goals will escalate. Unfortunately, in most cases trade concerns will win out. While trade deals like the TPP include strong enforcement tools to settle disputes, the Paris climate agreement relies on voluntary pledges.

The good news is that the TPP is in trouble. With its surprisingly high profile in the Presidential campaign, and plummeting public support, there’s a real opportunity to stop the TPP in its tracks, and to take bold steps toward reforming existing trade deals.

It is impossible to separate the outcomes of current trade regimes from the ways in which they were negotiated – often in secret, with heavy corporate influence and very little public scrutiny or input. Further, trade agreements should no longer be considered in isolation, or given legal priority over other global agreements. Trade policy is too influential, and provides too many obstacles for successful governing on issues like climate change, health, food security and natural resource management.

The official signing of the Paris climate treaty is an important first step toward a global response to climate change. But no climate deal will work if it is not supported by other policies. The TPP and the WTO are outdated trade regimes modeled on 19th century ideas. The 21st century demands something very different—trade rules that move countries together towards sustainability, starting with the urgent need to curb greenhouse gas emissions and support adaptations to climate change.

You can read the full report: The Climate Cost of Free Trade: How the TPP and trade deals undermine the Paris climate agreement.

       Sign up for our free newsletter!