Posted March 22, 2017 by Ben Lilliston   

Used under creative commons license from Jeremy Vohwinkle.

The assessments of the new healthcare proposal to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) from House Republicans and the Trump Administration are rolling in. And they are not good, particularly for farmers and rural Americans. After a firestorm of criticism, Republican lawmakers have made some minor revisions to the initial proposal, but none address the plans’ core weaknesses. The bill is slated to be voted on by the House of Representatives on Thursday.

Health care has long been a major challenge for farm families, with many spouses forced to get off-farm jobs largely to gain access to health care. In an article on the Daily Yonder, Missouri farmer Darvin Bentlage described a common situation for farm families after he suffered a series of health problems without health insurance. “I had to go back and refinance the farm,” he said. “By the time the two years was up, I had run up between $70,000 and $100,000 in hospital bills.”

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that 14 million Americans will lose their health insurance immediately, and another 10 million will lose their insurance over the next 10 years under the new health plan. The plan would substantially cut Medicaid, which had been expanded under the ACA, and reduce the value of tax credits that had allowed more people to buy health insurance. The CBO projects that premiums will rise in the short term, but ultimately become lower by 2026. But there is a downside to those lower premiums. The New York Times reports, “One of the biggest reasons premiums will go down is because insurance will become expensive for older people, causing them to leave the market, improving the risk pool.” In other words, by pushing older people off insurance, premiums become cheaper for everyone else.

Several other assessments point out that older, rural people will get hit with rising costs. The Republican plan offers tax credits primarily based on income with some credits phasing out for those who make over $75,000. But according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the plan doesn’t account for people living in high premium areas. Rural communities tend to have fewer insurers, less competition and ultimately higher premiums. People living in low income, high premium areas will see a sharp rise in premiums. Older people already have the highest premiums, and the plan will give insurers more flexibility to raise premiums on older Americans even further, one of several reasons that AARP opposes the bill.

The Kaiser analysis found, “Generally, people who are older, lower-income, or live in high-premium areas (like Alaska and Arizona) receive larger tax credits under the ACA than they would under the American Health Care Act replacement. Conversely, some people who are younger, higher-income, or live in low-premium areas (like Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Washington) may receive larger assistance under the replacement plan.” This approach would ultimately expand, not reduce, the wealth gap in the U.S.

While some of the outcomes of the Republican plan are murky, one is crystal clear: it will provide significant tax cuts for the wealthy. The plan includes an estimated $883 billion in tax cuts, mostly to the very wealthy. According to the Tax Policy Center, 40% of the tax cuts would go to the highest income 1%. The plan also reduces taxes on health insurers, drug companies and medical device companies.

The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), who have many members in rural communities around the country, strongly oppose the Republican plan. They are concerned the plan reduces or eliminates funding for immunization programs, childhood lead poisoning prevention, heart disease and stroke prevention and diabetes prevention. “Congress continues to invest the nation’s health resources in a sick care system, while severely scaling back investment in programs that prevent people from getting sick in the first place,” said NACCHO’s Chief of Government Affairs Laura Hanen, MPP. Many of the cuts in the Republican plan, particularly in Medicaid, will likely have to be made up by the states, counties and local governments, says NACCHO.

The National Rural Health Association also has concerns with the Republican plan. NRHA points out that while the ACA had problems, those problems could have been addressed. Under the ACA, a higher percentage of uninsured live in rural areas, rural hospital closures are rising, and rural citizens have a shorter life expectancy and more chronic diseases. The Republican plan does nothing to address these concerns and “is simply not the right prescription for rural Americans.”

Aside from premiums, the Republican plan could reduce access for rural communities to mental health and addiction services. Currently, Medicaid is required under the ACA to cover basic mental health and addiction services. But under the Republican plan, that requirement would be phased out in 2020. A new Center for Disease Control report found that suicide rates continue to be higher in rural areas, at least partially because people have less access to mental health services. As rural America struggles with an epidemic of opioid addiction, the loss of addiction services could put many of these critical programs out of reach. “This would hit rural parts of the United States the hardest, since the ACA allowed treatment providers to expand services in those areas.” says Michael Botticelli, former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The Republican plan also de-funds Planned Parenthood. The CBO estimates that by cutting access to birth control for women on Medicaid for even a year would increase the number of births by thousands and increase spending by $21 million in the first year and $77 million by 2026. The Daily Yonder reports that is one of several reasons why rural women are particularly vulnerable to service cuts and rising costs under the plan.

Beyond the national health care debate, the challenge of affordable and adequate care for farmers is becoming a priority for farm organizations. In Minnesota, the Land Stewardship Project is actively campaigning for a proposal from Governor Mark Dayton to expand a state health program called MinnesotaCare, designed primarily for low income residents, to allow anyone in the state to buy into the public program. Expanding the program would be particularly helpful to the state’s farmers as farm income has dropped for three straight years, Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson points out. Frederickson writes, “As farm profitability has gone down, individual health insurance market premiums in rural areas and across our state have skyrocketed.”

During the election, President Trump promised “insurance for everybody.” If the bill passes, it will add healthcare to the growing list of broken promises and contradictions that are defining his administration. States are already taking initial steps to offer a better healthcare solution to their people, and they will likely have to do more if the Republican plan goes forward. 



Used under creative commons license from croise.

President Trump’s proposed budget, released last week, includes massive cuts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a series of other programs important to rural communities. The budget sets benchmarks for major cuts across the board, while increasing defense spending and allocating $1.5 billion to start work on a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. It is ultimately Congress’ responsibility to write and appropriate money for the nation’s budget, but President Trump’s budget proposal reflects a troubling development of not prioritizing or even understanding farmers and rural communities.

The proposed cuts to the USDA concern discretionary spending and are among the highest of any agency – a 21 percent proposed cut ($4.7 billion). The proposed cuts do not impact mandatory spending programs like farm commodity programs or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); details on mandatory programs will come in May. But the budget does hit programs with discretionary funding like rural development, research and international food aid. The agency heads will have some discretion to determine how the cuts will take place, but because Trump has been so slow to select a USDA Secretary (the last of his cabinet picks), and to get the required information to the Senate Agriculture Committee needed for confirmation hearings to proceed, there was no voice representing farmers or rural communities, many of whom supported Trump, in the writing of his budget.

One of the budget’s targets within the USDA is the Rural Business-Cooperative Service, which supports business development and job opportunities in rural areas (the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture has a good breakdown of those programs). It also eliminates an important rural water and wastewater grant and loan system, and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education program, which distributes food aid to children living in poverty around the world. The budget cuts USDA’s “statistical capabilities,” which likely refers to the Economic Research Service – an indispensable resource for understanding the agriculture economy. And it proposes to reduce staffing and services in county offices around the country.

The proposed budget received strong criticism from both Republicans and Democrats. Agriculture Committee member Collin Peterson (D-MN) slammed the budget: “it demonstrates a lack of understanding of farm programs and their impact on rural America….Cuts to the water and wastewater loan grant program are wrongly portrayed as duplicative when they are the only ways for small rural communities to update their water systems. County offices are already under-staffed.”

Aside from the USDA, many other programs that effect rural areas are targeted to be slashed or eliminated by President Trump. Rural communities would lose the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, the Weatherization Assistance Program, and support that helps keep rural airports open. The budget would completely eliminate the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Delta Regional Authority – both designed to spur economic developed in some of the most economically depressed parts of the country. The Daily Yonder has a good breakdown of cuts to a number of programs important for rural communities.

Some of the sharpest cuts would be in the Environmental Protection Agency (a 31% cut), which protects the nation’s air, water and public health. The proposed budget eliminates all funding for the Clean Power Plan, an important opportunity for rural communities to lead in the transition toward clean energy. It would also cut resources for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance. The budget would also slash programs focusing on cleaning up the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay.

Finally, in keeping with the Trump Administration’s denial of global climate change, funding would be eliminated for international climate change programs, including funding for the Green Climate Fund which supports climate projects around the world). On climate change, Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney said, “We’re not spending money on that any more. We consider that to be a waste of your money.” The budget also includes cuts to the United Nations and foreign aid, including the US Agency for International Development (USAID) – which coordinates international food aid programs, most of which is purchased in the U.S.

There are a number of good analyses of the entire budget and related cuts, including by the New York Times and the Washington Post.

President Trump’s first budget was troubling and telling about his priorities. But as Collin Peterson saidin his statement,“The good news is this budget will be ignored, as it should be. I urge the Administration to spend more time in rural America to gain an understanding of how things work.” 

Posted March 16, 2017 by Josh Wise    Karen Hansen-Kuhn

Fair TradeTradeGlobalization

Used under creative commons license from Hector Garcia.

 Vina Del Mar, Chile

As representatives from the Pacific Rim gathered in Vina Del Mar, Chile, this week, the United States was on the sidelines. The death of the US-driven Trans-Pacific Partnership should be a wakeup call that we are paying attention to globalization and demanding a trade regime that works for all people, not just multi-national corporations. Over two hundred of our organizations in 15 countries sent a letter to the negotiators in Chile, telling them that a way forward on trade must reject the principles on which TPP was based. Countries should look to Fair Trade for guidance, and even further to their own domestic policies, for a sustainable way to build the global economy.

The stakes could not be higher. The backlash to corporate led globalization has been sharply felt around the world as Nationalist leaders from Donald Trump to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Narendra Modi in India have risen to power, while others in the EU and around the world are gaining prominence. In this era of growing nationalism, it is time for government trade officials to get back to basics. Instead of first asking how trade agreements can increase trade volumes, lower non-tariff barriers, or harmonize regulations, they should start with the question, “Will a trade agreement improve the quality of life for the people in my country?”

Civil Society has been prolific about what Fair Trade should look like. Fair prices for farmers. Fair treatment of workers. Harmonizing regulations upwards to protect consumers and the environment in all countries. Fair access for all concerns to be heard in negotiations. But even if all the principles of Fair Trade were adhered to, a market based system is always going to create winners and losers. This is a fundamental principle of capitalist economic theory going back to Adam Smith. This is generally accepted because of the assumption that the overall benefit that comes in the form of economic growth and products that should  more efficiently meet consumer demands. But the flip side of the idea that international trade enhances efficiency by increasing overall economic activity, is the fact that it often accelerates the creation of the gap between the winners and the losers.

Smith was explicit in the acknowledgement that markets create inequality. He conceded that society needed to cover “whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without.” That means taking the profits the winners earn from being the most efficient actor in the market place, and redistributing a portion of it to those in need. Indeed, even the cabal of businessmen who conspired to kick farmers off their land and into “more productive industries,” as exposed in one of IATP’s precursor reports, advocated for a form of Universal Basic Income as a safety net for the farmers and workers they were seeking to displace.

Society is much more than economic interactions. We care for one another, using the market as a tool to deliver benefits to all people. The inconvenient truth, however, is that the benefits from trade have not nearly been enough to compensate for concentrated loss through globalization, nor the pace at which new losers from trade are being created. In the US, advocates of Fair Trade have been saying that the Trade Adjustment Assistance program is more like a kind of burial insurance than any kind of real transitional assistance. Retrained workers end up making sometimes only a third of what they made before, if they find work at all. That means greater reliance on social programs, which are being eroded right before our eyes. The GOP bill to replace the Affordable Care Act would result in the loss of health insurance for an estimated 24 million people, and President Trump’s draconian new budget proposal is a far, far cry from caring about those in need.

Winners and losers, of course, aren’t static labels. Many successful entrepreneurs were dependent on the safety net after losing out in previous career bids. At the circus, the safety net is what allows the trapeze artists to take incredible risks and achieve amazing feats. It is an apt metaphor.

To bring it back to the talks in Chile, it appears that countries are eager to at least act like they are moving forward, despite the US’s lack of involvement. The same broad-based civil society movements that opposed TPP are demanding that their governments shake up their thinking and approach trade agreements from an entirely different perspective. None of those groups have ever opposed trade per se, but they have vigorously opposed the rules included in the current set of “free” trade agreements.

As negotiators eye the APEC Summit in May for the next round of talks, we caution simply this: Do not fall into the trap of previous agreements. Put the well-being of all your people above the well-being of a few multinational corporations. If you do expand trade, make sure your domestic policies are adequate to deal with the consequences. Use trade as a tool to improve the quality of life in your country. Your success will hinge on your country’s ability to make trade work for everyone. Your people are paying attention. 

Posted March 9, 2017 by Shefali Sharma   

AgricultureChinaIndustrialized MeatIndustrialized Meat and TradeGlobalization

A few years ago, IATP published four reports on the Global Meat Complex: The China Series. Today, we are pleased to launch the Chinese translation of these reports to contribute to the ongoing debate within China about meat consumption. These reports illustrate China’s path to becoming one of the biggest producers of pork, poultry and dairy and the biggest importer of soy, which is critical for the mass production of food animals. These reports provide an overview of China’s production and trade of meat and feed grains and what these trends mean for China’s food security, its environmental quality and its agriculture. They address the emergence of transnational corporations and how this has dramatically changed the fundamental nature of meat production and trade. The series highlights the consequences of these changes on China’s environment and rural makeup as well as impacts on other parts of the world. 

In introducing the series, we write:

Aside from operating in the U.S., the global meat industry is increasingly interlinked with emerging economies. China and Brazil are now not only big agricultural producers and consumers but they have spawned a new set of agribusinesses that is shaping the global meat complex.

In The Need for Feed: China’s Demand for Industrialized Meat and Its Impacts (Chinese translation/中译版, English version), we examine China’s strategy of “going out” to secure and procure feed grains from Brazil, Eastern Europe and elsewhere—not only soy, but also maize, sorghum and other crops to meet China’s growing appetite for animal feed. In addition to exports, this also entails investing in agriculture infrastructure in other countries. For instance, in 2016, China signed a deal with Brazil for US$1 billion to create an agricultural development investment fund—this will help China gain a stronger foothold in Brazil to facilitate storage, logistics, ports and transfer of feed grains and meat.

In China’s Pork Miracle?: Agribusiness and Development in China’s Pork Industry (Chinese translation/中译版, English version), we analyze China’s emergence as the largest producer and consumer of pork in the world. We examine the government’s policy to support “Dragon Head Enterprises”—large vertically and horizontally integrated agricultural firms—that have since changed the make-up of the global trade of pork. When the Chinese company Shineway acquired Smithfield,the largest pork company in the world, to form WH Group, we predicted that pork imports were soon to come. In 2017, China has become the biggest pork importer in the world, while maintaining its position as the number one producer.

As IATP documents in its forthcoming report on Brazil’s meat and feed grain industry, these changes have in turn led to dramatic shifts in Brazil as well.

In Fair or Fowl? Industrialization of Poultry Production in China (Chinese translation/中译版, English version), we discuss China’s appetite for poultry, the food safety scandals linked to it and the role of transnational corporations that help drive both production and consumption. Central to this analysis is the understanding that growing demand for meat is not inevitable but that the industry and its financiers have also helped market and generate demand among the wealthier middle class in China.

Finally, in China’s Dairy Dilemma: The Evolution and Future Trends of China’s Dairy Industry (Chinese translation/中译版, English version), we track China’s evolution from a largely lactose intolerant society with little domestic dairy production to becoming a dairy giant. Chinese companies today produce vast quantities of raw milk for an urban population thirsty for milk. Yet, since the 2008 melamine chemical poisoning scandal, Chinese companies have also acquired ranches and facilities in New Zealand and Australia to cater to a population that now prefers imported dairy products.  With the sharp drop of milk prices in Europe last year, China is now importing nearly 80 percent of its liquid milk from Europe  leading once more to many smaller dairies closing shop in China.

Together, these reports present a vivid picture of the tradeoffs Chinese policymakers have to make between meat and maize production at home and imports and investments abroad to ensure that China’s demand for meat is met. They also raise critical questions about the impacts of these policy choices, which is particularly relevant today as we see the trends highlighted in the 2014 reports come to fruition.

With the Chinese language launch of the four reports Global Meat Complex: China Series and the forthcoming report on Brazil’s meat industry, join IATP with Brazilian and Chinese experts in two upcoming webinars in May and June that address the impacts of the Global Meat Complex and the role of Brazilian and Chinese transnational corporations. Sign up to get updates on the webinars and the release of the Brazil paper

Posted March 6, 2017 by Josh Wise   

Fair TradeGlobalization

Used under creative commons license from Bernard McManus.

Last week we highlighted the contradictions in the Trump administration’s stance on trade in our blog on Robert Lighthizer. The contradictions have only increased this week with the announcement that Andrew Quinn will be joining the National Economic Council. Quinn is a former Deputy US Trade Representative, and was a lead negotiator for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) since 2012. Trump bashed the TPP throughout the campaign and withdrew from the trade deal in his first week. 

Quinn is a career civil servant, having worked primarily in Southeast Asia, and was also instrumental in the passage and implementation of the Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS). How this appointment will gel with other members of the President’s administration, such as open China and free trade critic, Peter Navarro, remains to be seen, but the lack of a coherent trade ideology within the administration only makes the future more unpredictable for anyone looking for answers on trade, including the base who voted Trump in. Re-negotiating NAFTA within his first hundred days appears to be the first campaign promise Trump has broken – he has yet to notify Congress to  trigger the 90-day period prior to re-negotiation. 

Indeed, the addition of Quinn to the NEC appears to break the administration’s views on trade into three camps. Quinn’s public statements are very much in line with his position in the Obama administration prior to the election. He argued that the TPP actually does, despite the evidence, protect workers and the environment, and that it will increase access to markets for small businesses and farmers. Contrast this with Trump, himself, and Navarro, open critics of TPP in particular and free trade in general. Finally, there’s the CEO wing of the administration, including Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and Quinn’s new boss at the NEC and former Goldman Sachs banker, Gary Cohn, who supported TPP until the election, due to the increase in corporate profits it would generate, but have seemingly got in line with Trump, post-election. 

Of course, the missing element here is anyone who supports an authentic vision of Fair Trade. Though Trump pays lip service to Fair Trade, the only specific policy he’s come out with that points to his interpretation of what fair trade means is that other countries should pay more for American drugs, which he announced following a meeting with PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry trade group. Trump has been an open critic of fair wages for American workers, arguing the minimum wage is too high. His companies have consistently arranged licensing deals with countries who are flagrant violators of human rights. And his highest profile foray into keeping manufacturing jobs, the Carrier plant in Indiana, involved massive tax breaks for only a portion of the jobs protected, while leaving similar companies in the dust.

Nothing has been said about trade policy that fights climate change. Nothing about workers’ rights. Nothing about fair prices for farmers and ranchers. And, above all, nothing about improving transparency in the negotiating process to allow citizens and citizen organizations real, meaningful, binding input into what the agreements end up looking like. 

Quinn’s hire reflects a clear disorder within the Trump administration on trade. In contrast, IATP and others have worked diligently to present the vision for what fair trade actually would look like. Fair Trade, contrary to Trump’s rhetoric does not just mean that one side wins. It means we all do better because we all have the opportunity to make our voices heard. With the defeat of TPP, civil society said loud and clear that our voices will be heard for fair trade. The administration should take this to heart. 




Posted February 28, 2017 by Shiney Varghese   

clean power planEnvironmentWater

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia used under the Creative Commons license.

Earlier last week it was reported that President Donald Trump is about to issue the next set of executive orders, this time targeting environmental safeguards for water and climate put in place in 2015. The water rule — formally titled the Clean Water Rule, but commonly known as Waters of the United States (WOTUS)—and the Clean Power Plan are two of the most comprehensive environmental rules issued by the Obama administration. The Clean Water Rule stipulates which water bodies are automatically covered under the Clean Water Act. Similarly, the Clean Power Plan was developed under the authorization of the Clean Air Act, which requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take steps to reduce air pollution that harms the public's health. The Plan, for the very first time, provides carbon emission guidelines to existing power plants.

On the campaign-trail, Mr. Trump had promised to undo these rules, if elected. His first step towards this was to nominate Scott Pruitt—someone with a clear record of hostility for environmental and public health protection at both state and federal levels—to head the EPA efforts. Emails released last week shows close coordination between his office and fossil fuel interests in Oklahoma when he was the attorney general of the state.

Last week, Mr. Pruitt told Wall Street Journal that “he expects to quickly withdraw both the Clean Power Plan (President Obama’s premier climate regulation) and the 2015 Waters of the United States Rule.” This withdrawal carries out the 2017 plans of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which opposes rules such as the Clean Power Plan and Clean Water Rule that are seen as regulatory over-reach by the EPA. This anti-regulatory agenda is shared by a many corporations engaged in manufacturing, mining, energy sector, agribusiness or construction.

In the meantime, Congress is using a formerly seldom used law, the Congressional Review Act (CRA), to attempt to nullify dozens of environmental and other regulations put in place by Obama administration in its last months in office.

CRA: A stealth weapon to facilitate deregulatory efforts

The CRA is a little known legislative procedure—used only once successfully since its passing in 1996—as a way to make it easier to overturn regulations, which are issued by executive branch agencies, pursuant to statutes passed by Congress in the first place. The CRA created  a period of 60 "session days" (days in which Congress is in session) during which Congress could use expedited procedures to nullify a regulation without going through the normal process to change or terminate the legislative authority for a rule.

Under that mechanism, Congress does not go through the politically hazardous process of killing the Clean Water Act itself, but instead kills a rule to implement that Act. CRA resolutions are not subject to the procedural requirements in the Senate, such as a filibuster and the 60 vote requirement to end a filibuster. Technically, the President could still veto a CRA resolution, but that seems unlikely now with this administration. The CRA process also stipulates that no rules that are “substantially similar” to the nullified rule can be developed in future, unless authorized by a new law, even if an existing law demands the development of the rule.

The CRA mechanism is being utilized now to overturn rules that are the results of years of public consultations. For example, on January 30, Reps. Bill Johnson (R-OH), Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and David McKinley (R-WV) introduced HJ RES. 38-115 “Disapproving the rule submitted by the Department of the Interior known as the Stream Protection Rule.” With President Trump’s signature, this resolution became apublic law on February 16, and nullifies the Stream Protection Rule finalized by the Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement on December 20, 2016.

The Stream Protection Rule, developed by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), had sought to address the impacts of surface coal mining operations on surface water, groundwater, fish, wildlife and the productivity of mining operation sites. It included reforms to revise 33 year old regulations for coal mining and was formulated after an extensive and transparent public process that spanned several years.

According to an  Associated Press report, “The Interior Department said the new [Stream Protection] Rule will protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests, preventing debris from coal mining from being dumped into nearby waters.” According to the Stream Protection Rule Regulatory Impact Analysis by OSMRE, the “Proposed Rule is estimated to yield downstream improvements in 292 miles of stream annually” benefitting those communities living in the vicinity of polluting industries and mines, especially if they were accessing their drinking water from polluted sources. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) points out that “the Stream Protection Rule limited the amount of mining waste that could be deposited into streams and required mining companies to monitor the water for coal contaminants and report the findings to the public. [...] But now this protection has been stripped from these communities through use of the Congressional Review Act to repeal the rule.”

Even if the forthcoming executive orders targeting Clean Water Rule or Clean Power Plan are deemed illegal—as some Attorney Generals have suggested in late 2016—these Congressional initiatives have the effect of undoing important regulations that would have improved water quality, public health and environmental health. Moreover, since the rule was reversed through the CRA mechanism, the EPA will be unable issue any new rules to ensure source water protections under the Clean Water Act—compromising the drinking water quality in these mining communities—for a very long time. 

This is not an isolated example either: the 115th Congress has introduced more resolutions using CRA in its first ten days than any previous Congress has attempted in its entire term, as shown below in the Washington Post graph.


Community interest vs. corporate interests?

The need for better regulation to ensure safe waters and clean air for American people has been evident for decades. Then the question is: who is interested in the repeal of laws that protect our environment? Who wants corporations to continue their pollution?  Certainly not local communities who use the local waters.

Sen. Todd Young, of Indiana, said that "eliminating this provision”, would bring his constituency one step closer to the goal of better jobs that pay better." In an opinion piece he wrote: “this regulation does nothing to protect waterways. Instead it’s an attempt to end coal mining operations that employ so many Hoosiers and sustain our communities.” The coal industry has been saying the same thing too. The National Mining Association (NMA) has claimed that the Stream Protection rule would result in up to 281,000 job disappearing. However, they all seem to have ignored reports on analysis by the Congressional Research Service: According to their assessment, on an average, while the rule would result in reduction of 260 coal related jobs in a year, it would also generate an average of 250 new jobs every year. 

This local reaction to Stream Protection Rule rollback from a retired tristate coal miner, Bil Musgrave is telling. Unlike Sen. Young, he was clearly in support of the regulation, and said: “I think that the coal companies and other industries have been abusive of the environment in the past." He’s right: the lack of clean water and presence of sooty air is likely to be much more acute in the coal mining communities than among communities farther away. The Stream Protection Rule would have helped reduce the water related health problems faced by coal mining communities such as his.

However, to the industry executives, corporate lobbyists, and the Congress men and women who voted on their behalf to roll back the Stream Protection Rule, corporate profits are a priority over the health of the community—let alone the environmental impacts and the health impacts farther away. They and the President will use the language of job creation to justify this kind of assault on regulations. Who wins? Definitely not the coal mining communities.

Posted February 24, 2017 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   Juliette Majot   

TradePOTUS AppointeeNAFTA: North American Free Trade Agreement

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia used under the Creative Commons license.

Trump’s trade policy is a series of contradictions wrapped in a mystery. While advancing a boldfaced pro-business agenda, promising to gut regulations and reduce public spending on healthcare and other social programs, he has also claimed to care about American workers and jobs losses caused by trade agreements like NAFTA that were specifically designed to reduce regulations. While his own businesses have included licensing deals for goods produced in developing countries known for poor labor standards, publicly he attacked U.S. companies that offshored jobs to lower costs and promised to rewrite the rules to somehow bring those vanished jobs back. He promises to negotiate better trade deals but is poisoning the political atmosphere for negotiations with xenophobic proposals such as building a wall and ordering to ban migrants. Exactly how his administration will reconcile all of those contradictions is a mystery, and there are real reasons for alarm over his lack of commitment to international human rights standards.

Exactly who is really in charge of his trade policy is another mystery. While he has nominated Robert Lighthizer as United States Trade Representative (USTR), he has also established a National Trade Council within his administration, led by Peter Navarro, and has indicated that Wilbur Ross, his pick for Commerce Secretary, would lead the negotiations to revamp NAFTA. U.S. trade negotiations have always involved representatives from various government agencies (as well as the corporations  represented on the Trade Advisory Committees), but those collaborations were always led by the USTR. This time, it’s not so clear.

This obfuscation, while important in itself, is also a signal that the Trump administration and his party will continue to ignore a key popular demand on trade: a transparent and democratic negotiating process where ultimately, accountability resides with Congress. Opponents of NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), including labor, have consistently opposed existing processes that essentially limit Congressional oversight and approval to a thumbs-up or thumbs down vote. Rather than opening up the negotiations to input, the Trump administration appears to be creating an even more byzantine path to trade policy that will prevent members of congress from weighing in, much less allowing for any real public participation by those sectors most affected by trade.

Robert Lighthizer’s nomination as head of USTR is not so much an issue of his qualifications rather it is his intentions and his authority to make any real changes in our failed trade policy. Lighthizer is a lawyer who once served as deputy trade representative and brings significant experience in Congress and the office of the USTR.  He has valuable experience from the other side of the table too, having represented Brazil and China in previous trade talks. (Because of this experience, provisions in the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act that would disqualify him from serving as USTR will actually have to be waived by Congress). His firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom LLP, has focused on traditional trade litigation representing corporate interests. 

How he will bring his relevant experience to the role (as confused as that role is) is important to know, and the Senators reviewing his nomination should ask tough questions. First and foremost, he should be asked how he will reconcile the contradictions evident in the current administration’s trade approach, and how he would develop a cohesive trade agenda.

These questions could include:

  1. Farmers in the U.S., and round the world, are suffering from unpredictable and mostly low commodity prices. Agribusiness-export dumping under NAFTA resulted in millions of Mexican farmers being driven from their land. U.S. farmers are also facing the dire consequences of low prices coupled with rising input costs. As part of a commitment to supporting rural America, would you set the sustainable livelihoods of U.S. farmers as an explicit objective in a renegotiated NAFTA?  How could trade rules better protect local foods and farms in all countries?
  2. Prior to renegotiating NAFTA or entering into other trade talks, would you support reforming the U.S. internal trade negotiation process to encourage congressional responsibility for establishing trade objectives as well as supporting the democratic process of legislative debate prior to trade agreement approval?
  3. How do you propose information be gathered on Americans’ priorities on trade? Would you conduct field hearings in rural and urban areas to determine the impact of trade and investment agreements on job creation and wages? Would you support greater transparency in NAFTA and other trade negotiation processes, such as publishing draft negotiating texts before and after each round of talks?
  4. What would be the consequences for binational cooperation with Mexico on issues such as drug enforcement, military cooperation, and immigration, if the NAFTA renegotiation talks were to fail and the U.S. were to withdraw from the agreement?
  5. As a result of Mexico and Canada’s challenge of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for meat at the World Trade Organization (WTO), the U.S. has eliminated this popular program. Would you support efforts to reinstate COOL or other changes in trade rules to support consumers’ rights to know about their food? How would you address the issue in the NAFTA talks and other trade forums?
  6. President Trump has indicated a strong preference for bilateral over multilateral trade agreements. How do you propose to balance the need for consistency among international standards on such issues as food safety with the administration’s imperative for one-off deals?
  7. Investor-State Dispute Settlement, which empowers foreign companies to sue governments in private tribunals over public interest laws, is one of the most controversial provisions in international trade agreements. Would you support removing that mechanism from NAFTA and other U.S. trade and investment agreements?
  8. Past agreements have expanded trade in sectors that are major greenhouse gas emitters and could restrict policies on climate change in the future. How will you address climate change in the development of future trade agreements?
  9. The WTO is a flawed, but important institution in setting common trade rules around the world. The U.S. is currently involved in multiple WTO disputes over agriculture and energy. What reforms do you think are necessary at the WTO to improve global cooperation and ensure that trade rules don’t override other international concerns like human rights and environmental sustainability?

Of course, the big underlying problem is that U.S. trade policy is held hostage both by the corporate advisors who actively participate in trade talks, and by the undemocratic Fast Track rules that prevent meaningful public participation or real accountability to Congress.

It is imperative to revamp trade policy so that it supports sustainable economies and livelihoods rather than corporate profits. Civil society groups around the world have been pushing for a radically different framework for trade regulation for decades. Their vision of trade is one that supports sustainable economies and livelihoods, not just simplifying profit-making for a few economically powerful corporations and their financiers. Trump and his advisors are critical of the trade strategy that has been in place in the U.S. since the Reagan years. Yet, with no clear agenda or interest in diplomacy, the idea of tweaking NAFTA or entering into new bilateral deals with better outcomes for working people, farmers and the environment is simply not credible.

It’s hard to see how all of the contradictions in the new trade policy can be reconciled or how to make progress in the face of unprecedented conflicts of interest within this administration, but it won’t be for lack of pressure by farmers, unions, environmentalists and others committed to a very different vision for trade and global governance. 

Posted February 23, 2017 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

Food safetyNanotechnology

Used under creative commons license from brookhavenlab.

In theory at least, federal nanotechnology programs during the first three years of the Trump administration will be guided by the “National Nanotechnology Initiative Strategic Plan,” (NNI) released on October 31, 2016. The 26 agencies coordinated under the NNI have spent at least $25 billion since 2001 in basic and applied research, in diagnostic and testing infrastructure and in prototype manufacturing to enable start-up firms—often originating in university research—to find investors for their products. The current applications of the atomic to molecular scale nanomaterials are expanding beyond cell phones, semi-conductors and other electronic equipment to nano-encapsulation and more targeted release of medicines and agricultural chemicals, to name just two classes of applications.

In the preface to the NNI Strategic Plan, Dr. John Holdren, President Obama’s chief science advisor wrote, “During this administration, nanotechnology research and development has evolved from a focus on foundational discoveries aimed at understanding and exploiting nanoscale phenomena, to an enabling technology. Revenue from the sale of nanotechnology-enabled products in the United States has grown more than six-fold from 2009 through 2016 and is projected to exceed $500 billion in 2016.” Such sales projections are likely to bedazzle the Trump administration. Regulation of these products on the basis of validated exposure data in humans and the environment was not accomplished during the Obama administration, notwithstanding the recognition of at least one NNI workshop that such data was necessary to ensure the safety of and sustainable markets for nanotechnology enabled products.

Given the knee-jerk reaction that regulation “kills jobs,” and imposes costs to industry without benefits—called the “The $1.75 Trillion Lie” by economist Frank Ackerman and regulatory lawyer Lisa Heinzerling—and the intention of the Trump administration to eviscerate the mandate, staff and budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, will it be possible to realize the NNI’s fourth strategic goal to “Support responsible development of nanotechnology?” This is not a rhetorical question. In a post-fact administration and Congressional majority, it is very, very tempting to believe that more than $500 billion in sales of nanotechnology-enabled products can be achieved only if there are no nanomaterial risk assessments to serve as a basis for regulation.

In the “NNI Supplement to the President [Obama]’s 2017 Budget,” federal investment in agriculture and food applications of nanotechnology is dwarfed by the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy nanotechnology budgets. Nevertheless, in the interdisciplinary world of nanotechnology, fundamental research of nano-biosensors or nanotechnology-enabled coatings may later be applied to food and agriculture products.

IATP’s comment to the draft NNI Strategic Plan noted, “NNI agencies have failed to secure the cooperation of product developers to enable exposure scientists to provide regulators with validated data for Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) based risk assessments of products incorporating ENMs [Engineered Nanoscale Materials].” Without such validated data, regulators cannot determine which applications of nanotechnology require risk assessments and according to which risk metrics.” Past voluntary industry programs, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Nanomaterial Stewardship Program, have failed to secure industry cooperation to enable the EPA to know: which nanomaterials, and in which applications, are already in commerce; which are releasing nanomaterials to the environment; and whether it is in the manufacture or product use phase.

The IATP comment also noted the failure of infant manufacture formula makers to consult with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before adding ENMs to baby formula, despite the FDA’s voluntary Guidance to Industry on use of nanomaterials in food and beverage products. This is just the most notorious case of the industry’s failure to cooperate with a NNI agency. (For more background on this industry failure to cooperate with FDA’s Guidance document, see “Nanomaterials in baby formula: why?”)

Notwithstanding the failure of many users of nanotechnology and nanomaterials to cooperate with the federal government to enable the “responsible development of nanotechnology,” the U.S. government continues to provide technical support services, seminars, start-up project seed money, and nanomaterial fabrication, detection and characterization infrastructure. At what point does industry’s failure to cooperate endanger the future of public investment and policy for nanotechnology?

In December, Tomo, a Brazilian academic journal, published IATP’s “Rationales for Food and Agriculture Applications of Nanotechnology and Exposure Science Required for Its Regulation.” The article is based on a presentation, given originally in Spanish in October 2015, to a Brazilian Research Network on Nanotechnology Society and Environment (Renanosoma) seminar at the University of Seragipe. The first part of the title is probably self-explanatory. Scientist entrepreneurs explain the relevance of their research to developing food and agriculture products to “feed the world” while doing so without further damaging the natural resource base of agriculture. However, the second part of the title is perhaps less self-explanatory.

Scientists at research alliances such as the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnologies have developed experiments and mathematical models to track the release and impact of an array of engineered nanoscale materials in water, soil, air and plant life. Life Cycle Analysis quantifies and evaluates ENM release impacts from nanomaterial fabrication to nano—enabled product use to the release of nanomaterials in landfills or in the treated water residues that are applied as a cheap fertilizer on agricultural lands. Other research centers have worked to determine the release of and human exposure to nanomaterials by ingestion, inhalation and via the skin. (A Spanish scientist, who researches how nanomaterials cross biological membranes (lipids), compared the current understanding of nanomaterial risks to the early understanding of radioactive material risk.) In order for the data from such life cycle nanomaterial exposure experiments to have regulatory validity, the data must be gathered as part of a regulatory process.

To that end, on January 12, the Environmental Protection Agency released a long awaited rule on industry reporting and record keeping of nanomaterial manufacture and product use. Jennifer Sass, a toxicologist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, welcomed the rule noting, “This shouldn’t be a big deal for companies.  It’s just one-time reporting for existing nanoscale materials, and one-time reporting for new discrete nanoscale materials before they are manufactured or processed. Companies are only required to disclose what they know!  Consumers deserve to know, too.”

The rule, sought for in a 2008 legal petition joined by IATP, is just a first basic step towards making public what the nanotechnology product developers know about the nanomaterials they are using.  A forward thinking nanotechnology industry will not complain to the incoming EPA administrator that nanomaterial recordkeeping and reporting is “burdensome” or an impediment to “innovation,” or “job-killing.” Rather, the industry will cooperate with this very modest beginning to develop a validated data base and metrics for risk assessment of nanotechnology-enabled products. Only such cooperation will enable scientists to determine which products pose few, if any, risks, and enable product developers to make their products safer and the markets for those products more sustainable.  

Posted February 22, 2017 by Tara Ritter   

Rural Climate DialoguesClimate ChangeRural Development

Rural communities vary greatly in their geographies, economies, and politics, but one similarity is that they will all be impacted by climate change, and the people that live there have an important story to tell. The Rural Climate Dialogues (RCDs), co-hosted by IATP and the Jefferson Center, sought to explore how climate change is manifesting in rural communities across Minnesota. A newly-released set of 8 video interviews with RCD participants tells the stories of how climate change has impacted them and their communities.

Many of the stories convey a stark contrast between rural life as a child and present day conditions. Troy Goodnough from Morris said, “I love my state, I love Minnesota, I love being Minnesotan, and I love winter. But I’m not really sure that I’m going to get cross country skis for my son, because the winter’s not really there… The way that my son will experience Minnesota isn’t going to be the same way I experienced it as a kid.”

Similarly, Katherine Sublett from Winona shared, “I was raised on the river. My mother’s hobby was fishing and that’s how we got introduced to Minnesota, because we’d always come from Chicago up here fishing. Back then we could swim in the Mississippi, we could eat as much fish as we wanted. Now I wouldn’t go into the Mississippi without shoes on, I wouldn’t eat any fish out of the Winona Lake. I mean, it’s just not up to par.” Still, she sees hope for change: “I think we the people are the solution. If we can get together and implement, educate, learn about what we can do to explore different energy options, how we can do things differently on the farm and protect our trout streams – I just know we are part of the solution.”

Each interview expresses some call for individual or community action on climate change, with a strong belief that rural communities can and should act. Caleb Tomilla from Glyndon said, “There are things we can do… It is a global issue, but there are community and individual issues too that can be dealt with.” Melissa Weidendorf from Grand Rapids said, “I’m not really sure why climate change has to be a political issue. It doesn’t seem like it needs to be.” She added, “I think when you’re talking about rural communities there’s a really big opportunity there.”

The video interviews capture a wide range of expertise—a mental health professional, a railroad worker, a motivational speaker, a paper mill worker, a sustainability coordinator, and an organic farmer all share their perspectives. These personal stories complement the Rural Climate Dialogues State Convening final report, which outlines the climate change priorities of rural Minnesotans and how state agency program offerings can best resource these priorities.

In many rural communities, there are limited opportunities to talk about climate change and develop climate action priorities. However, rural residents and communities can develop innovative solutions to local and regional challenges, ensuring rural Minnesota remains vibrant and prosperous. The experiences and stories shared in the video interviews provide a glimpse into how climate change is affecting rural communities, and illustrate that rural residents are ready to tackle the climate challenge.

The video interviews were compiled with help from the Center for Rural Strategies.

Posted February 16, 2017 by     Ben Lilliston, Juliette Majot

Used under creative commons license from gageskidmore.

President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a record of hostility for environmental and public health protection at both state and federal levels. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt may be best known for suing the agency he hopes to lead 14 different times in an attempt to block EPA rules protecting the air and water. In his own state, Pruitt disbanded the Attorney General’s environmental protection unit and repeatedly sided with agribusiness and energy interests over protecting the environment.

In the 2016 election Pruitt supported and, according the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, inserted important language into a resolution that would have changed the state’s Constitution to prevent the state legislature and local governments from protecting their land and water from agriculture-related pollution “without a compelling state interest.” This so-called Right to Farm resolution was soundly rejected by Oklahomans at the ballot box.

A coalition including many family farmers raised objections to the resolution, arguing that its broad language went too far toward making it difficult to regulate out-state and foreign-owned corporations like the Chinese-owned hog giant Smithfield and Brazilian-owned beef company JBS. Both operate in Oklahoma. Objections also centered on how the resolution would restrict the state’s ability to protect its water, particularly related to a series of discharges from large hog, cattle and dairy waste lagoons in the state. According to theTulsa World Herald, the resolution would “give enormous legal protections to big-time corporate agriculture.”

The proposed Right-to-Farm law is largely drawn from similar versions as part of a national strategy led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC develops model state legislation designed to benefit corporate interests, such as laws to limit citizens’ ability to sue when injured by dangerous products from chemical companies; laws to curb workers’ rights; and laws restricting regulation of hydraulic fracking. ALEC praised Trump’s selection of Pruitt for the EPA calling him “just the right person to bring fresh leadership and much-needed reform to an agency currently out of control.”

The Right to Farm resolution wasn’t the only time Pruitt has carried water for agribusiness. In another case reported on by the New York Times, Pruitt chose to refrain from aggressively seeking damages from poultry companies polluting Oklahoma waters. That decision was reached after Pruitt received major contributions from representatives of the poultry industry, according to the Times.  

In 2014, Pruitt stepped in again on behalf of agribusiness, veering well beyond the borders of Oklahoma to join other state Attorneys General in an attempt to block an EPA deal to clean up the Chesapeake Bay from farm-related runoff from fertilizers and animal waste.

Pruitt’s well-documented disregard for environmental protection appears to be precisely what the new administration is looking for in a new head of the EPA. Pruitt’s close ties to the oil and gas industry are evident in his partnerships with energy industry donors. During his confirmation hearing before a Senate committee he refused to recuse himself, should he head the agency, from future legal action pertaining to the 14 lawsuits has already brought against the EPA. The Center for Media and Democracy sued Pruitt on February 7, after waiting two years for him to turn over at least 3,000 emails and other correspondence with oil and gas companies.

Pruitt’s record on climate change also demonstrates his lack of suitability to head the EPA. In line with his well-funded allegiance to the fossil fuel industry, Pruitt has denied the scientific consensus on human contributions to climate change. Not a passive denier, he led efforts by the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) to challenge the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce air pollution and promote renewable energy production. The flexible state-specific plan has the potential to benefit rural communities in the country’s transition to renewable energy. RAGA has raised over $4 million from the fossil fuel industry since 2014 – much of it linked to opposing the Clear Power Plan and stalling investigations into ExxonMobil’s efforts to promote climate change denial.

In an embarrassing incident that revealed Pruitt’s intimate relationship with polluters, a 2014 letter he wrote to the EPA and Department of Interior on his Oklahoma Attorney General letterhead opposing efforts to regulate mercury air pollution was found to have been written by the oil company Devon Energy. Pruitt had simply cut and paste.

President Trump’s selection of Pruitt to run the EPA is a major blow to efforts to address water and air pollution, climate change, and will hinder transition from polluting fossil fuels toward cleaner renewable energy. The nomination will further entrench corporate agribusiness interests at the expense of protections for rural water and land. His nomination should be swiftly rejected.


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