Posted January 19, 2017 by Shiney Varghese   

Agriculturecorporate controlWorld Bank

Ahead World Bank’s release of the 2017 “Enabling the Business of Agriculture” (EBA) project report this month, 156 organizations (including IATP) and academics from around the world, denounced the Bank’s scheme to undermine farmers’ rights to seeds and destroy their food sovereignty and the environment. In letters to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and EBA’s five Western donors, the group has demanded the immediate end of the project, as a key step to stop the corporatization of global agricultural development.

The Obama administration played a lead role in launching the highly controversial New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition at the 2012 G8 Camp David Summit. From the White House fact sheet, G-8 Action on Food Security and Nutrition, it appears that the New Alliance was instrumental in urging the World Bank to develop options for generating a “Doing Business in Agriculture Index.” The index involved a ranking of the ease of doing business in a country, to help investors with agricultural investment decisions. This G8/New Alliance initiative appears to have given rise to Enabling the Business of Agriculture project, formerly called Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture. EBA focuses on identifying and monitoring regulations” which the Bank considers to “negatively affect agriculture and agribusiness markets”. 

When taken together with other initiatives that seek to lower the barriers to investment, EBA becomes a problematic initiative. This is especially so in the context of small-holder food production systems, since such approaches often exclude a long-term view about the future of smallholder farming communities, and the interests of those engaged in such food systems. For example, the EBA awards the best scores to countries that ease private companies’ – but not farmers’ – access to public gene banks. 

In Down On the Seed, the World Bank Enables Corporate Takeover of Seeds, the Oakland Institute’s Alice Martin-Prevel argues that while the World Bank claims to promote “smart and balanced policies,” its EBA index blatantly ignores farmer-managed seed systems. Instead, it reinforces the stranglehold of agrochemical companies and western nations by pushing for intellectual property rights in seeds, g seeds, germplasm, and plant varieties, so that private breeders profit from the use of their seeds by farmers.

Farmer-managed seed systems currently provide 80 to 90 percent of the seed supply in developing countries through on-farm seed saving and farmer-to-farmer seed exchange. On the other hand, only six multinationals currently control over two-thirds of the industrial seed sales, and pending agroindustry mergers stand to further consolidate this oligopoly. Further protections and bias toward those companies will undermine the vital farmer managed seed systems.

The consolidation of corporate power in agriculture is opposed by family farmers in the United States as well. National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson testified in Congress in September 2016 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). In addition to pro-corporate initiatives such as New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, as IATP’s Karen Hansen-Kuhn has argued, that ‘the 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.” While each of these treaties strikes a certain balance among those interests, she adds that recently, as with the agribusiness mergers, the balance has been tilting away from the interests of smaller-scale farmers and diversified agriculture. 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. 

In its 2016 EBA report, the World Bank upheld Tanzania as a model country for enacting intellectual property laws in agriculture, and becoming the one of the first least-developed nations bound by the 1991 UPOV Convention. UPOV-1991 is a pro-industry treaty that dramatically restricts farmers’ rights to save, exchange, and sell seeds. As Michael Farrelly (of the Tanzania Organic Agriculture Movement) pointed out in an email exchange, the current Tanzanian legislation criminalizes farmers who share, exchange or sell seed. Under the amended seed act (Special Bill Supplement of 12 May 2014), farmers now risk fines and imprisonment for practicing ancestral seed saving and trading!  Tanzanian civil society groups (and pan-African civil society networks such as the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa) have called on their governments to recognize the use and exchange of farm-saved seed by any person.

Against such a backdrop, the signatories to these letters have come together to demand the end of the corporate-led EBA project as key step to uphold farmers’ rights to seeds, their food sovereignty and to enable their full participation in food and agricultural policy making.

Posted January 11, 2017 by Ben Lilliston   

Money and Politicselection 2016Climate ChangeEnergy

Used under creative commons license from william-munoz.

 Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump's pick to be Secretary of State, is one in a group of the president-elect's Cabinet nomiees with corporate ties and possible conflicts of interest.

This week, Congress begins the first round of confirmation hearings for President-elect Trump’s Cabinet. After a bombastic Presidential campaign that was often short on policy specifics, the Cabinet selections provide an initial glimpse into how first-time public officeholder Trump will actually govern. While the role of rural America in electing Trump has been well documented, the first impression from the proposed Cabinet is troubling and is raising red flags for how the Trump Administration will respond to key rural issues. It is notable that a position very important to rural America, the Secretary of Agriculture, remains vacant and appears at the bottom of the list of priority positions.

In too many rural communities, natural resources and profits are extracted for the gain of outside—often multinational—investors at the expense of the people that live there. The Rural Compact, an effort we contributed to in 2008 as part of the National Rural Assembly, outlines a set of values and priorities for rural America and continues to be relevant today in assessing Trump’s appointees. The Compact states:
Rural America is more than the land…When rural communities succeed, the nation does better, and cities and suburbs have more resources on which to build. Conversely, when rural communities falter, it drains the nation’s prosperity and limits what we can accomplish together.

As Trump’s appointees make their way through the confirmation process, we’ll be looking at how the proposed Cabinet addresses four key challenges particularly relevant to rural communities:

  1. The democracy deficit: many Americans feel that their government doesn’t effectively represent them. There are concerns about the growing influence of money in elections, the enormous corporate and financial industry lobbying power in Washington, and the sense that too many important policy decisions—like the negotiation of trade agreements—are closed to most citizens.
  2. Economic fairness: growing income inequality, stagnating wages, the off-shoring of jobs, and the three-year decline in the farm economy all are signs of a precarious economy tied closely to corporate-led globalization.
  3. Environmental sustainability: the preservation of the land, water and our climate for future generations should be a core goal of policy. Rural citizens are essential to stewarding the land and mitigating climate change. Climate change poses a systemic risk to every natural-resource based business in the rural economy, yet many powerful interests have blocked or slowed efforts to proactively respond to climate change.
  4. Preserving rights and equity: Recent efforts to undermine voting rights, the rights of new immigrants and certain religions, should concern all Americans. A more inclusive nation should be recognized as a strength, not a weakness.

Trump’s proposed appointees are just beginning the confirmation process, but first impressions are troubling. It is essential on a multitude of important challenges the country faces, rural and urban communities alike, that government officials represent the public good and not just narrow corporate interests. The increasing influence of corporations and financial firms in government and elections is a growing threat to our democracy, and not exclusive to any political party. Yet, Trump’s proposed cabinet takes this corporate influence to another level. The scope of corporate connections, combined with the enormous financial holdings of many of the appointees, poses the potential for conflicts of interest that must be settled before they take office. Many of the appointees will direct departments with jurisdiction over their former business or investments. Examples include:

  • Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Exxon/Mobil);
  • Defense General James Mattis (defense contractor General Dynamic);
  • Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin (Goldman Sachs);
  • Labor Department Andy Puzder (Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s);
  • Transportation Secretary Elaine Chow (Wells Fargo);
  • Energy Secretary Rick Perry (Energy Transfer Partners/Dakota Access Pipeline);
  • National Economic Council chair Gary Cohn (Goldman Sachs); and finally
  • Securities and Exchange Commission Jay Clayton (a Wall Street lawyer and defender of the Big Banks from Goldman Sachs to Barclays).

Trump has particularly aligned himself with Goldman Sachs, the financial giant he assailed during the Presidential campaign. Now Trump has filled his staff with four former Goldman employees and the company’s lawyer. Aside from its role in the financial collapse of 2007-2008, Goldman has a very checkered record as a corporate actor. Goldman Sachs commodity index funds contributed to excess speculation in 2007-2008 that disrupted agricultural markets.

In all, Trump’s selections represent the wealthiest set of cabinet members ever. Of the first 17 people Trump has appointed, they are worth an astounding $9.5 billion in combined wealth, more than the combined wealth of 43 million of the entire country’s least wealthy households (about one-third of national households, according to Quartz magazine). Many of the appointees were major campaign contributors. The Washington Post reports that six of Trump’s appointees gave almost $12 million, along with their families, to Trump and his party.

With the appointees’ enormous wealth comes a complex set of financial interests and investments across multiple sectors, including extensive foreign investments. This doesn’t include the financial entanglements of Trump himself, who will enter office with unprecedented conflicts of interest compared to past Presidents.

Government officials that personally profit from their positions would violate criminal conflict of interest laws. It’s critical that each nominee submit thorough details on their financial holdings and how they will address potential conflicts with the Office of Government Ethics. As of today, many of the nominees have not submitted complete information on their financial holdings. The Republican leadership in the Senate is pushing for committee confirmation hearings for appointees before background checks and ethics clearances have been given. This is a troubling precedent and hopefully not a sign of future secrecy in government under the Trump Administration.

Another sign of excess corporate influence within the Trump Administration is his move to establish a series of influential councils that appear thus far to be mostly composed of his friends in business. Trump’s formation of a White House National Trade Council will shift trade policy closer to the Presidency, but no information has been given on how the council will be run, who all its members will be, and whether or how it will hear from citizens. He has also set up a Strategic and Policy Forum—made up entirely of corporate CEOs to advise him on policy. The head of Dow Chemical will chair his American Manufacturing Council. A major merger between seed giants Dow and DuPont remains pending under Justice Department review and has been highly criticized by many in agriculture, including some Trump supporters, for reducing farmers’ seed choices.

There is an underlying assumption in Trump’s selections that people who are very successful in business, or who have a lot of money, are the most qualified to lead the government. But it’s not government’s job to advocate only for the narrow interests of big corporations and financial firms. It must represent the interest of all Americans, all communities and the natural resources we all are connected to.

There has been a lot of post-election analysis about what rural America thinks and why they voted the way they did. We’ve written about how Democrats have not effectively responded to key rural challenges related to globalization, agriculture policy, rural poverty and development. And about the strong need to move away from the deepening rural-urban divide and toward a more inclusive nation and discourse built on listening and dialogue.

As the confirmation process continues, we’ll continue to examine in more depth Trump’s nominees to assess whether their experience and views reflect the perspective that “rural America is more than the land.”

Posted January 10, 2017 by Anna Claussen   

election 2016Rural Development

The past few months have been as much about looking ahead as they have been about coping with life in post-election America, a space that feels post-apocalyptic for many. Americans and people across the globe have been processing their emotions, trying to understand a vote that came as a surprise to many, and in some cases pausing to reflect on rural realities seemingly ignored by the Democratic Party. Voting patterns in the election brought to the surface just how little understanding there is between rural and urban Americans. What can we learn from this? If we stop oversimplifying the Presidential vote—and the voters themselves—we may recognize that people are complex, emotional beings. Many are recognizing the need for Americans to increase our understanding of others and pondering just how to do that. Here are a few good starting points.

Expand Your Identity to Become More Inclusive

Today, politics have become more about identity than policy. This was evidenced in Trump’s campaign, which rarely detailed his stance on policies, but never failed to send a loud, clear, and indeed, successful message of inclusion to rural Americans who felt misunderstood and ignored. The sorting and categorization of communities by race, gender, education levels and shared ideologies is a practice further entrenched by this election, one in which many voters used their vote as one of protest. 

If we want the world to be more inclusive, rather than exclusive, we must step back and look at our own identities. I strongly believe that being inclusive is a mindset first, a mindset of how to embody more complex versions of ourselves. The challenge is that it’s human nature (in our increasingly overwhelming society) to simplify the complexities. Once you lean one way more than another, you have a home base, a family, community, a safe zone, refuge and shoulders to stand on. Yet, this innate tendency to gravitate towards those who are like us only intensifies the poles, leaving a larger gap and great divide between the “us” and “them.” We become comfortable and unaware. We lose our complexities. Our systems lose important players in the middle. Our discussions become challenging because we don’t see how we are similar.

As we seek to build a more inclusive nation in the U.S., we must always be reminded that it starts with ourselves, and often what we think is coming at us is also coming from us. Rather than trying to create a stronger sense of who we are by simplifying our identity, how can we embrace broader versions of ourselves?  It’s not just the most effective place to start; it’s the most important.

Listen to Understand.

Do not listen for the purpose of building a strategy to change someone’s ideology. Do not listen to validate how your worldview is nobler than theirs. Listen to understand. We do not have to agree, but we must broaden our understanding to move forward as a truly civil society. Our values are based on our life situations and experiences. They cannot be separated from place and time, just as today’s marginalization of people of color comes from a long-standing history and continued oppression that plays out as structural racism, so too must we recognize the history of class in America and its enduring role in our social and geographic hierarchy.

We must engage in real, authentic dialogue—the type of conversation that is comprised of representative groups of community members in terms of the ideologies, political viewpoints and class divisions. We must refrain from narrowing our communities to a scale that comforts us, like to those who live in our gentrified and segregated neighborhood. As a Minnesotan, I ask myself, what happened to our community of Minnesotans or our shared identity as Americans? At what point did we perceive that we share no values common enough to consider our identity a shared identity? It is now that we must embrace the uneasiness of rebuilding our shared identity and value as an interdependent country of urban and rural citizens, one that is truly better together.  

Critique Ideas, Not People.

Where we disagree, we must be clear what we disagree about. We must stomp out the bigotry, racism, sexism and all forms of injustice that Trump attempts to legitimize and condone – calling it out in all instances that it is present, overt and subversive. At the same time, we must recognize that Trump’s use of this discrimination in his candidacy does not reveal an inherent malice in the majority of Americans, and perpetuating this assumption only hinders our collective advancement of human rights. More appropriately, we need to set generalizations aside so that we can create space for the needed conversation about the hidden injuries of structural racism and class privilege. This is not the moment to get swept up in our own political identities. Rather, it is a critical time to be clear about the proposals put forth by the new administration and to offer concrete alternatives or changes that are representative of all of our needs. We must use caution when turning those battles into an opposition of two opposing forces, of seeing those points of misalignment as a duality – it’s a dangerous oversimplification.

Let’s stop hiding behind social media.

It is a mistake to think that our social media enclave is broadening our perspective and worldview. Get to know someone different than you every chance you can and stop contributing to the echo chamber. In a time when we are outraged, we must practice ever more diligence to be mindful of how we speak and relate to one another, and what we post on social media. Restricting our tone to anger runs the risk of further narrowing our already narrow identities.

Gain first-hand experience in the rural reality.

Reading a book or participating in a social forum discussion doesn’t come close to what we can learn from firsthand experience. I know many urban-based, liberal counterparts who understand this intellectually, yet rarely drive out of their metro area to understand and experience the rural culture in their state or region. Their lack of exploration can often, rightly or wrongly, be perceived as deriving from fear of or lack of interest in rural communities. Worse, it fans the flames of disregard by perpetuating media and second-hand messaging offering caricatures of rural Americans as backwards, outdated and uninteresting.

Despite much recent talk of fake news, there is little talk of what I would call the failing media. Major news outlets in the U.S. and abroad rarely offer rural place-based perspectives that truly document the life, celebrate the culture and voice the concerns of rural people; despite assertions of rural communities around the world that they have long been unheard, unsupported and afraid of democracy failing them. Yet, their plights have remained largely ignored by mainstream media. Which brings us back to the importance of first-hand experience and authentic engagement.  When humans are in crisis, they respond emotionally, not rationally. People need to know that you care, before they can care what you know. It is a mistake to focus more attention on intellectual and ideological battles rather than validating how people actually feel.

Be personally challenged.

We have to be brave and curious. We have to stop ignoring people’s inner pains and seek to understand them by reaching out with empathy to create space for an authentic exchange of all our fears and concerns for the years ahead. At the end of the day, this is an opportunity to learn and grow and consider another world view. This is the time to become even more vocal of what is unjust and what is inexcusable, and to also abandon the shaming of Trump voters in order to rebuild a community base that is broader, more inclusive and a place for all of us, urban and rural, to stand-up for one another.

Posted January 9, 2017 by Tara Ritter   

Rural Climate DialoguesClimate ChangeRural Development

As evidenced in the 2016 election, the long-standing urban-rural voting gap is widening. At least part of this gap comes from the fact that rural communities often have different cultural, economic, and community concerns than urban communities. Climate change specifically will impact rural and urban communities differently, yet many climate solutions and policies focus on urban and suburban perspectives. To address this, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Jefferson Center organized a State Convening of rural Minnesotans, state agency representatives, and nonprofit organizations last September in St. Paul. Participants strategized together to improve the effectiveness of state agency program offerings and make them relevant to rural needs and priorities.

The State Convening was the culmination of three Rural Climate Dialogues that took place from 2014-2016 in Morris, Grand Rapids, and Winona, MN. The Rural Climate Dialogues were created to provide a space for rural residents to think critically and plan strategically to address local challenges related to extreme weather and climate change. All three dialogues identified the need to strengthen connections between local efforts and state agencies and programs.

At the State Convening, rural participants identified and presented their shared climate action priorities, which included energy, infrastructure, and land use concerns. State agency staff also presented on a number of key climate issues for rural Minnesota, including available programs and technical support. Topics included clean energy and energy efficiency, climate-friendly agriculture, resilient transportation infrastructure, and health impacts of climate change on rural citizens who work mostly outdoors.

Rural citizens and state agency staff then strategized together on key priority next step actions within existing programs in the areas of land use (e.g. soil health, water quality, ecotourism), infrastructure (e.g. stormwater, transportation planning), and energy (e.g. clean energy, energy efficiency). The State Convening also identified areas where change is needed, including building a state program navigator for local government officials, encouraging more rural-focused research on climate resilience, sharing best practices between rural communities, and creating an ongoing space for state agency staff to engage constructively with rural citizens.

The meeting provided a useful space for state agencies and rural residents to learn from one another. John Geleneau, a participant from Stevens County, said, “even if you thought you knew a lot about climate change, the information that we were all given, the experts that were provided, really gave you a chance to gain so much more knowledge and be able to have a dialogue with other people with all the information that you learned.”

In addition, state agency staff were able to learn from one another. Marcie Weinandt from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture said, “I found it very useful knowing what other agencies are doing—there are few good forums for that.”

To read more, you can access the full report of proceedings, findings, and next steps, now available online. 

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