Posted January 31, 2017 by Juliette Majot   

From the Executive Director

In his first week in office U.S. President Donald Trump has thrown his presidential weight behind executive orders, which if implemented, will have disastrous short- and long-term impacts on farmers, farm and food system workers, and ecosystems. He has signaled that his approach to renegotiating trade agreements will be autocratic and without regard for the rest of the world, further destabilizing an already quaking geopolitical reality. He has made clear his plans to unravel America’s history as a country of immigrants and religious tolerance, threatening to lock U.S. citizens into a future of isolationism as he locks out refugees and heightens racism and xenophobia.

He has issued and partly withdrawn instructions to effectively gag government scientists, thus threatening continuity and public accountability in research, and is preparing to gut regulations across multiple sectors—regulations that were designed in the public interest. He is building a cabinet of powerful millionaires and billionaires, some of whom oppose the very purpose that their agencies are mandated to serve. He is perpetuating the idea that recognition of climate change is subject to a belief system rather than to scientific evidence. He is attempting to reverse the social, economic and environmental achievement and promise of renewable energy. He is systematically discrediting individual journalists (and journalism generally) dismissing the role of a free press in democracy. And he is undermining American’s health care by calling for “prompt repeal” of Obamacare in the absence of clear policies for much needed improvements.

Against this blitzkrieg, the job creation programs he promises may well create jobs, but only in the short term. Job creation programs that ignore climate change have no chance of building sustainable livelihoods. Plans to rebuild American infrastructure, which do not foresee the impacts of climate change on that infrastructure (and the impact of infrastructure choices on GHG emissions), will also go up in smoke. Ditto for the rural development so clearly called for by many rural Americans who were so frustrated by both political parties that they placed their sincere faith in candidate Trump.

For 30 years IATP has understood agriculture and trade to be components of a much larger economic and political system that must be designed and operated for the benefit of all people, globally. And that means that our research, analysis, advocacy, and acts in solidarity have not and will not be confined to national interests only, nor to single-issue causes hovering as though they are disentangled from a web of cultural, economic and political imperatives.

Expect to find in IATP publications, on our web site, on social media and at IATP events, and in our direct engagement with others, research, analysis and advocacy dedicated to environmental integrity and social justice globally, starting right here at home in Minnesota. With partners around the world, we will tenaciously work in the interests of fair trade systems for all, food security, sustainable livelihoods for the people who sustainably grow, process and market our food and biofuel, and the environmental integrity that makes it all possible.

Expect to see more from IATP on a range of issues relevant to and influenced by agriculture and trade, including:

  • Who benefits from selling agricultural commodities at below the cost of production and who pays? What can we do about it?
  • What do new immigration policies mean for farm and food system workers here and elsewhere? How can we influence those policies?
  • When and how could an animal health crisis, such as outbreaks of bird flu in a number of countries, become a public health crisis? Why do we need to know about this?
  • Where in the world will family farms stand a chance if agribusiness continues to consolidate its control of inputs, data, markets, and agricultural policy? How do we turn this around?
  • How are rural communities here in the U.S. and elsewhere finding ways to adapt to climate change, and how are farmers building resilient agriculture? How do we learn from them and support them?
  • And much more.

Your support and critical engagement are key. Be in touch. Stay engaged. Reach out to others.

Posted January 27, 2017 by IATP   

AgricultureGlobalizationNAFTA: North American Free Trade Agreement

Endorsed by

Food & Water Watch
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
National Family Farm Coalition
National Farmers Union
Rural Coalition

Current U.S. trade policy is designed to promote the interests of agribusinesses and other multinational corporations over those of family farmers. The resulting agreements have contributed to the economic and social erosion of rural communities in the U.S. and oftentimes devastation of its trading partners and fail to address very real problems of price volatility and environmental sustainability. These problems will not be solved simply by increasing exports.

We support the demands of many civil society organizations who reject NAFTA and similar free-trade agreements. NAFTA should be replaced with a different agreement with the goal of increasing living standards in all three countries. This should start from a thorough, open and democratic assessment of those agreements that involves both rural and urban communities. The trade negotiation process itself must be made more transparent to include the participation of all affected sectors, including independent farmers. If trade agreements include provisions related to agriculture, the overall goal should be to achieve balanced trade that supports fair and sustainable rural economies and food supplies. We call for the following priorities:

  1. Restore local and national sovereignty over farm and food policy: Trade agreements subjugate national laws and standards to legal rulings of foreign trade tribunals. U.S. farm programs must adhere to the World Trade Organization Agreement on Agriculture (AoA), which restricts farm policies that address price or production — the two most effective policy levers to ensure that farmers are not hurt by the vagaries of weather, disease or market volatility. All nations should have the right to democratically establish domestic policies supported by their citizenry. That includes farm policies that ensure that farmers are paid fairly for their crops and livestock and other farm and food policies that protect farmers and consumers. In the case of NAFTA, this should include:
    • Restore Country-of-Origin Meat Labels (COOL): The 2002 farm bill established country-of-origin meat labels for beef and pork, but Canada and Mexico challenged the commonsense label as an illegal trade barrier in 2009. Canada and Mexico should withdraw their WTO COOL complaint and award in the NAFTA Renegotiated Agreement. The U.S. should clearly address the complexity of the label to clarify points previously raised by Mexico and Canada. All countries should enforce consumers right to know about what is in their foods.
    • Reject new proposals on Regulatory Cooperation that undermine state and local authority to determine the best rules for their communities. Current proposals in TTIP and TPP would establish new international bureaucracies to pass judgment over local and federal rules on pesticides, food labels, and other measures designed to improve local food systems.
    • Together, the NAFTA countries should advocate for revisions in the rules at the WTO AoA to protect the right of each country to establish policies with respect to food and agriculture that allow for inventory management and strategic food reserves and to establish border control and other mechanisms to protect the right of each country to prevent dumping of agricultural commodities at below the cost of production. A first step in this direction would be to agree to a Special Safeguard Mechanism for agricultural commodities key to food security.
  2. Stop corporate giveaways in trade agreements. NAFTA has consolidated corporate control over many aspects of agriculture in ways that are unfair to farmers, farmworkers and consumers. It was the first trade deal signed by the U.S. to include the controversial investor-to-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism, which allows foreign companies to sue for damages over laws, rules or actions that allegedly undermine their profits. ISDS dispute in NAFTA have already been used to challenge rules on softwood lumber, high fructose corn syrup and pesticides. U.S. trade policy should:  
    • Remove ISDS provisions in NAFTA and other trade agreements. Investment disputes should be dealt with under existing national legal systems.
    • Respect and protect regulations or policies intended to reduce anti-trust and anti-competitive practices in agriculture, including laws on price manipulation and limits on mergers of agribusiness firms. Such rules should not be limited by state-to-state or any other form of dispute resolution in trade or investment agreements.
    • Reject intellectual property rights or other provisions in trade agreements that limit farmers’ ability to save and share seeds and strengthen the power of seed companies and agribusinesses over farmers. Mexico is not currently bound by those rules and should not be coerced into signing it under the guise of a trade agreement.
    • Reject new proposals in TPP that speed up rules on approval of agricultural biotechnology products in ways that bypass national efforts to assess their safety, effectiveness and impacts on rural communities.
  3. Ensure economic viability and resilience in rural communities. Major changes in domestic farm policy are needed to ensure that farmers and ranchers receive prices that meet their costs of production. In addition, countries should have the right and ability to protect their farmers from unfair imports that distort the domestic market, undermine prices and ultimately compromise the economic viability of independent farmers.
    • Apply existing laws to prevent dumping.The United States has several tools to prevent unfair imports, including anti-dumping mechanisms (when imports from a company are unfairly priced below the cost of production), countervailing duty mechanisms (for artificially low-priced imports that benefit from government subsidies) and import surge protections on products that flood and distort domestic markets. The U.S. International Trade Commission generally has not effectively applied them to farm products despite numerous investigations. Similar mechanisms should be employed in all three NAFTA countries, starting with investigations of fruit and vegetable imports to the United States and corn imports to Mexico.
    •  Protect the rights of farmworkers to decent wages and working conditions.One of the consequences of the devastation of Mexican farming communities under NAFTA has been an increase in migration to the U.S., where farmworkers often labor under precarious conditions. New rules should be established that generate rural jobs in all three countries and that protect farmworkers’ labor and other human rights

Posted January 25, 2017 by Robert G. Wallace   

Image used under creative commons license via Wikipedia from Naim Alel.

Published with the kind permission of Noticias de Abajo.

Varios brotes mortales de gripe aviar H5 están diezmando las aves de corral de Europa, Asia y Oriente Medio.

La epidemia, que se extiende a través de Eurasia en oleadas sucesivas, es continuación de una erupción de gripe aviar H5N2 en los Estados Unidos, durante 2015. Todas las nuevas cepas, H5N2, H5N3, H5N5, H5N6, H5N8 y H5N9, denominadas en conjunto H5Nx, descienden del subtipo H5N1, que apareció por primera vez en China en 1997 y desde 2003 ha provocado la muerte de 452 personas.

Big Poultry y sus colaboradores del Gobierno están culpando de estos brotes a las aves acuáticas salvajes, que actuarían como reservorios de muchas cepas de virus de la gripe, y que infectarían a las aves de corral.

Por ejemplo, la investigación dirigida por Carol Cardona, profesora de la Universidad de Minnesota, que ocupa la Cátedra Pomeroy financiada por la Industria, afirma que el cambio climático está impulsando cambios en la ecología de las aves acuáticas salvajes y por lo tanto las aves de corral estarían más expuestas a los virus de la gripe, en Minnesota.

Contrariamente a lo que afirma la Industria, un muestreo exhaustivo realizado por ornitólogos del Estado de Minnesota no encontraron el virus de la gripe H5N2 en las aves acuáticas salvajes. Sin embargo, el equipo de Cardona sigue buscando el virus H5N2 en las muestras recogidas en la primavera de 2015 ¿Por qué? Simplemente porque afirma que el virus debe estar allí. La ausencia de pruebas supone un impedimento frente a la conveniencia en favor de la Industria sobre la naturaleza de los brotes de gripe aviar.

Culpar a las aves acuáticas es otra falacia. Incluso si la búsqueda del virus H5N2 en las aves acuáticas tuviese éxito, ¿qué demostraría eso? ¿Cómo podría explicar la presencia del virus H5N2 en las aves acuáticas los daños en la cría del pavo industrial y en los huevos en el Medio Oeste durante 2015 o en toda Eurasia ahora mismo?

La linea de investigación emprendida por la Industria omite abordar por qué varias cepas de la gripe, incluyendo la H5N2 y otras muchas nuevas cepas H5Nx, provocan la mortalidad en las aves de corral y no en la mayoría de las aves acuáticas. De hecho, no se ha registrado ningún caso de gripe patógena entre las aves acuáticas salvajes en ningún lugar durante el año 2015. La gripe mortal en las aves acuáticas sólo ha aparecido como daños colaterales de los brotes aparecidos en las granjas industriales.

A medida que la producción agrícola va convirtiendo los humedales en tierras agrícolas, las aves acuáticas migratorias que tradicionalmente visitaban los humedales a lo largo de sus vías migratorias, han cambiado a la alimentación que obtienen de los cereales de las granjas industriales. Es decir, la ampliación del contacto entre las aves acuáticas y las producción intensiva de aves de corral no se debería exclusivamente a los cambios climáticos, como sugiere el equipo de Cardona, sino por acciones llevadas a cabo por el propio sector agrícola industrial.

Culpar a las aves acuáticas salvajes y al cambio climático modifica las indagaciones que señalan al modelo industrial de producción avícola, que la creciente literatura científica dice que es en sí mismo un modelo potencialmente catastrófico para la salud pública.

Los modelos matemáticos de la evolución de los agentes patógenos, que se examinan aquí y aquí, nos dicen que la ganadería intensiva (la cría de miles de aves de corral como un monocultivo homogéneo) ofrece un buen caldo de cultivo para el virus de la gripe y otros patógenos, estimulando unas altas tasas de mortalidad.

Los modelos deducen que un suministro continuo de clones genéticos en un espacio reducido elimina las barreras, lo que favorece la evolución de virus de la gripe mortales. Con el continuo trasiego de aves cada seis semanas, están siempre disponibles miles de clones con su sistema inmunitario debilitado. Una cepa de gripe aviar puede ser especialmente virulenta, diezmando las poblaciones de aves, de modo que ya no dispone de nuevos huésped que infectar. Pero el virus de la gripe, ahora más dañino, se expande de forma rutinaria entre los pequeños productores locales y las aves acuáticas salvajes. Los científicos de la Industria culpan a los impactos de la gripe como la causa de la gripe misma.

Una nueva investigación muestra que los factores ambientales más amplios sobre los que el equipo de Cardona está trabajando como una explicación probable, no tienen más que un efecto marginal sobre la aparición de las nuevas cepas de virus de la gripe aviar H5.

En un artículo revisado recientemente publicado en eLIFE, un equipo dirigido por el ecologista belga Marius Gilbert introdujo modelos que explicaban la diferencia de las distribuciones espaciales en brotes de la gripe entre el subtipo H5N1 y otros emparentados H5Nx. El equipo de Gilbert mostró que los modelos que incluían variables ecoclimáticas, como la temperatura de la superficie terrestre, las aguas superficiales y la vegetación, tenían poco valor explicativo.

Más bien el estudio demuestra que es la combinación de especies del huésped lo que mejor explica la distribución de los brotes de la gripe aviar.

Como se muestra en la Figura 1, el equipo de Gilbert dedujo las contribuciones relativas de las distintas variables al explicar las distribuciones espaciales globales de los antiguos N5N1 ( en azul) y los nuevos H5Nx (en rojo). Vemos que la densidad de patos (DuDnLg) es un importante contribuyente a ambos tipos de gripe aviar, aunque menos para H5Nx, aunque debemos tener en cuenta que los patos son criados como aves de corral en condiciones intensivas en muchos países europeos y asiáticos.

Figura 1: Contribuciones relativas medias (%) ± desviación estándar de diferentes conjuntos de variables predictoras para modelos de árboles de regresión para la gripe aviar muy patógena H5N1 (en azul) y H5Nx (en rojo). La contribución relativa es una medida de la importancia relativa de cada variable predictora incluida en un modelo de regresión para calcular la predicción del modelo. Se pueden encontrar más detalles en Dhingra et al. (2016) : <a href= Reimpreso bajo Licencia Creative Commons Atribución 4.0 Internacional. " width="610" height="352" srcset=" 610w, 1220w, 150w, 300w, 768w, 1024w" sizes="(max-width: 610px) 100vw, 610px" />

Figura 1: Contribuciones relativas medias (%) ± desviación estándar de diferentes conjuntos de variables predictoras para modelos de árboles de regresión para la gripe aviar muy patógena H5N1 (en azul) y H5Nx (en rojo). La contribución relativa es una medida de la importancia relativa de cada variable predictora incluida en un modelo de regresión para calcular la predicción del modelo. Se pueden encontrar más detalles en Dhingra et al. (2016) : Reimpreso bajo Licencia Creative Commons Atribución 4.0 Internacional.

La información más importante es que el virus H5 se desplazó de la cría extensiva de pollos (ChDnLgExt), característica de la mayoría de los pequeños productores, a la producción intensivo de pollos (ChDNLgInt). Esto significa que las nuevas cepas parecen ahora estar adaptadas a la producción avícola industrial situada cerca de los centros urbanos.

Como se muestra en la Figura 2, el equipo de Gilbert realizó la cartografía global de los cambios resultantes en el nicho ambiental de la gripe aviar (la combinación de factores que favorecen los brotes de gripe aviar), mostrando los puntos calientes ya documentados para H5N1 (arriba) y H5Nx (abajo). Como se informó en la prensa, se muestra la difusión de H5Nx en los Estados Unidos, Europa, China y Corea del Sur, entre otras zonas calientes.

Pero los mapas también muestran áreas de potencial peligro de aparición de los nuevos virus, pero con la limitación de tener datos desde las primeras etapas de un brote en curso. Bangladesh, Indonesia, Australia, partes de América del Sur, y el delta del Nilo, están en peligro de tener brotes en el caso de que H5Nx migrase allí.

Figura 2 : Predicción de la probabilidad de aparición del virus H5N1 altamente patógeno (superior) y el subtipo H5Nx (inferior). La línea negra discontinua representa un conjunto de datos sobre la presencia de predicciones HPAI H5N1 y subtipo H5Nx, correspondientes a un área de la que se seleccionaron pseudoausencias [se refieren a datos generados de manera ad hoc para simular ausencias]. El círculo muestra la predicción obtenido cuando se eliminó el efecto de la variable IsChina, una variable que explica el efecto de la masiva vacunación de aves en China. Se pueden encontrar detalles en Dhingra et al. (2016) : <a href= Reimpreso bajo Licencia Creative Commons Atribución 4.0 Internacional. " width="610" height="560" srcset=" 610w, 150w, 300w, 768w, 818w" sizes="(max-width: 610px) 100vw, 610px" />

Figura 2 : Predicción de la probabilidad de aparición del virus H5N1 altamente patógeno (superior) y el subtipo H5Nx (inferior). La línea negra discontinua representa un conjunto de datos sobre la presencia de predicciones HPAI H5N1 y subtipo H5Nx, correspondientes a un área de la que se seleccionaron pseudoausencias [se refieren a datos generados de manera ad hoc para simular ausencias]. El círculo muestra la predicción obtenido cuando se eliminó el efecto de la variable IsChina, una variable que explica el efecto de la masiva vacunación de aves en China. Se pueden encontrar detalles en Dhingra et al. (2016) : Reimpreso bajo Licencia Creative Commons Atribución 4.0 Internacional.

El aumento de H5Nx no es sólo una cuestión de un cambio debido a la expansión del virus. Las nuevas cepas también se han ajustado molecularmente. Es decir, el virus está evolucionando y adquiriendo nuevos atributos para infectar las aves de corral.

En un nuevo estudio, un equipo de virólogos de la Universidad de Utrecht y el Instituto de Investigación Scripps, muestran la evolución de una molécula particular llamada hemaglutinina, la H de H5, que el virus de la gripe utiliza para entrar en las células huésped.

Una rara sustitución de aminoácidos en la parte de unión al receptor de la molécula permite que el nuevo virus H5Nx se expanda más cuanto más eficazmente se una a las células diana. El virus ha pasado de unirse específicamente a receptores de los intestinos de las aves acuáticas para expandirse a receptores encontrados en las gargantas de las aves de corral. Eso significa que el virus es capaz de infectar una gama más amplia de especies de acogida, incluyendo ahora a la especies de avicultura, que mueve miles de millones.

Los cambios moleculares también pueden explicar por qué se ha producido un rápido aumento en la aparición de nuevas cepas H5Nx, que intercambian segmentos de genes por un proceso denominado de reasentamiento. A medida que el virus comienza a evolucionar hacia una forma más eficiente para infectar a sus huéspedes, las nuevas versiones de la proteína neuraminidasa, la N de Nx, están aparentemente siendo intercambiadas en diversas cepas de H5Nx. La cantidad de virus que se producen durante una infección y la rapidez de progresión de la enfermedad también pueden verse afectada.

Afortunadamente, el equipo de Utrech no encontró ninguna adaptación a los receptores de los mamíferos. Por lo tanto, parece que no es probable una transmisión sostenido del virus entre los seres humanos. Pero los investigadores sólo probaron el subtipo H5N8 en este estudio y los casos de infección humana por el virus H5N6 ya han sido documentados en China. A medida que H5Nx se diversifica y se adapta a las aves de corral, que decenas de miles de manipuladores humanos cuidan y procesan todos los días, aumenta la probabilidad de aparición de una gripe mortal en los humanos.

El resultado neto es que disponemos de análisis ecológicos y evolutivos divergentes que confluyen en señalar que los nuevos virus de la gripe H5Nx están cada vez más adaptados a la cría de aves de corral. Es decir, hay una mayor cantidad de literatura científica escrupulosamente documentada que muestra tendencias alarmantes que están fuera de control de las investigaciones financiadas por el Agronegocio.

<>Estos hallazgos están en franco contraste con la narrativa rosada presentada por investigadores muy bien pagados y respaldados por Big Poultry, lo que la Universidad de Minnesota describe como el “Silicon Valley de los alimentos”. Esos equipos siguen culpando a cualquier cosa menos al modelo económico que está en el corazón de la producción avícola industrial.

Los avicultores de todo el mundo, y las poblaciones a las que alimentan, se merecen algo mejor. Los productores están soportando los costes económicos de un modelo de producción que genera patógenos mortales para las aves de corral y potencialmente peligrosos para los seres humanos. La nueva investigación que muestra adaptaciones en los virus de la gripe aviar debe ser considerada para realizar cambios fundamentales en las políticas públicas. Los modelos más seguros de producción de aves de corral que se están desarrollando aquí, en Minnesota, y en todo el mundo, deben ser apoyados antes de que se produzca una mortal pandemia.

[Nota: la totalidad de los enlaces se pueden encontrar en el artículo original en inglés]

Rob Wallace es biólogo evolutivo y filogeógrafo de salud pública que actualmente visita el Instituto de Estudios Globales de la Universidad de Minnesota. Tiene un blog titulado Patógenos en la agricultura. Otros artículos suyos en este blog: Ébola neoliberal: los orígenes agroeconómicos del brote de ébola.

Posted January 24, 2017 by Robert G. Wallace   

Image used under creative commons license via Wikipedia from Naim Alel.

Multiple outbreaks of deadly H5 bird flu are decimating poultry across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

The epidemic, moving across Eurasia in wave after wave, follows an eruption of H5N2 here in the U.S. in 2015. All the new strains—H5N2, H5N3, H5N5, H5N6, H5N8, and H5N9, together called H5Nx—are descendants of the H5N1 subtype that first emerged in China in 1997 and since 2003 has killed 452 people. 

Big Poultry and its collaborators in government are blaming wild waterfowl, which act as reservoirs for many influenza strains, for the new poultry outbreaks.

For instance, research under the aegis of University of Minnesota Professor Carol Cardona, who holds the industry-funded Pomeroy Chair in Avian Health, claims that climate change is driving shifts in wild waterfowl ecology and therefore in the influenza to which industrial poultry here in Minnesota are now exposed.

Contrary to the industry’s claim, however, exhaustive sampling conducted by state ornithologists found no H5N2 in wild waterfowl in Minnesota. Yet Cardona’s team continues to search for H5N2 in Spring 2015 samples. Why? Simply because it claims the virus must be there. The absence of evidence is treated as no barrier to an expedient assumption in industry’s favor about the nature of the outbreak.

Blaming waterfowl is based on another fallacy. Even if a search for H5N2 in waterfowl proved successful, what would it show? How would the presence of H5N2 in waterfowl here in Minnesota explain the damage the outbreak has caused to industrial turkey and chicken egg layers here in the Midwest in 2015 or across Eurasia today?

The industry’s line of research omits addressing why multiple influenza strains, including H5N2 and many of the other new H5Nx strains, develop a deadliness in its poultry that isn’t found in most waterfowl. Indeed, no cases of highly pathogenic flu in wild waterfowl were recorded anywhere before 2005. Deadly flu in waterfowl has since been discovered only as collateral blowback from outbreaks on farms.

As agricultural production turns wetlands into farmland, migrating waterfowl that have traditionally visited wetlands along their flyways have switched to feeding on grain on industrial farms. That is, the expanding interface between waterfowl and intensive poultry production isn’t caused exclusively by climatic changes, as the Cardona team suggests, as by the actions of the industrial agricultural sector itself.

Focusing on wild waterfowl and climate change shifts scrutiny from an industrial model of poultry production that a growing scientific literature indicates is itself a potentially catastrophic public health danger.

Mathematical models of pathogen evolution—reviewed here and here—show that intensive husbandry (raising barns of thousands of poultry in packed homogeneous monoculture) offers so much food for flu (and other pathogens), spurring the evolution of explosive deadliness.

The models infer that a continual supply of cramped-in genetic clones removes a cap on how deadly influenza can evolve. With one new batch of birds after another every six weeks, thousands of immunologically weak clones are always available. The most virulent bird flu can be selected for, decimating fowl populations without running out of new hosts to infect. The now deadlier flu routinely spills back out among local smallholder flocks and wild waterfowl. But industrial scientists blame the resulting impact as the cause of the outbreak.  

Now new research is showing that the broader environmental factors on which Cardona’s team is banking as an explanation likely had at best only marginal effect on the emergence of the new H5 influenzas.

In a peer-reviewed paper recently published in eLIFE, a team led by Belgian spatial ecologist Marius Gilbert introduced models explaining the difference in spatial distributions in influenza outbreaks between the H5N1 subtype and its daughter H5Nx. Gilbert’s team showed that models including popular eco-climatic variables, such as land surface temperature, open water, and vegetation, added little in explanatory value.

Instead, the study demonstrates, it’s the combination of host species that best explained the distribution of outbreaks.

As shown in Figure 1, Gilbert’s team inferred the relative contributions the various variables made in explaining the global spatial distributions of old school H5N1 (blue) and newbie H5Nx (red). We see that, yes, duck density (DuDnLg) is a major contributor to both kinds of bird flu—although less so for H5Nx—but we should keep in mind that ducks are also raised as poultry in intensive conditions in many European and Asian countries.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Mean relative contributions (%) ± standard deviation of different sets of predictor variables for regression tree models for highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 (in blue) and H5Nx clade (in red). The relative contribution is a measure of the relative importance of each predictor variable included in a regression model to compute the model prediction. Details can be found in Dhingra et al. (2016) DOI: Reprinted under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

The headline news here is that the H5 virus shifted from extensive chicken production (ChDnLgExt) characteristic of mostly smallholder production to intensive chicken production (ChDNLgInt), urbanized human populations (HpDnLg), and managed horticulture (CultVeg). This means that the new strains now appear to be adapted to industrial poultry production near urban centers.

As shown in Figure 2, the Gilbert team globally mapped the resulting shift in influenza’s environmental niche (the combination of factors supporting outbreaks) showing already documented hot spots for H5N1 (top) and H5Nx (bottom). As reported in the press, H5Nx is shown spreading in the U.S., Europe, China, and South Korea, among other hot zones.

But the maps also show areas in potential danger of the new virus, albeit under the constraint of applying data from the early stages of an ongoing outbreak. Bangladesh, Indonesia, Australia, parts of South America, and, prophetically it turns out, the Nile Delta, are in danger of hosting outbreaks, should H5Nx migrate there.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Predicted probability of occurrence of highly pathogenic H5N1 (top) and of H5Nx clade (bottom). The dashed black line represents a buffer around the occurrence data for the HPAI H5N1 and H5Nx clade predictions, corresponding to an area from which pseudo-absences were selected. The circle inset shows the prediction obtained when the effect of the variable IsChina, a variable to account for the effect of mass vaccination of poultry in China, was removed. Details can be found in Dhingra et al. (2016) DOI: Reprinted under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

H5Nx’s rise isn’t just a matter of a shift in where the virus is spreading, however. The new strains have also molecularly adjusted. That is, the virus is evolving new attributes fit for infecting poultry.

In another new paper, a team of virologists from Utrecht University and the Scripps Research Institute show an evolution in a particular molecule called hemagglutinin–the H of H5–that the influenza virus uses to enter host cells.

A rare amino acid substitution in the receptor-binding part of the molecule permits the new H5Nx both broader and more efficient binding to target cells. The virus has switched from binding specifically to receptors in waterfowl intestines to expanding to receptors found in poultry throats. That means the virus is able to infect a broader range of host species, now including the poultry global agribusiness raises in the billions.

The molecular changes may also account for why there is a rapid rise in so many new strains of H5Nx, which swap gene segments by a process called reassortment. As the virus begins to evolve more efficiently to target its hosts, new versions of the neuraminidase protein—the N in Nx—are apparently being swapped in and out of the various strains of H5Nx. How much virus is shed as a result during an infection and the rapidity of disease progression may also be affected.

Fortunately, the Utrecht team found no adaptation to mammalian receptors. So it seems no sustained transmission of the virus among humans is likely. But the researchers only tested H5N8 in this study and human cases of H5N6 have already been documented in China. As H5Nx diversifies and adapts to poultry that tens of thousands of human handlers care for and process every day, the likelihood of a deadly human-specific flu emerging increases.

The immediate take-home is that we have here divergent ecological and evolutionary analyses converging upon the conclusion that the new H5Nx are increasingly influenzas adapted to intensively raised poultry. That is, a growing literature of scrupulously documented science is showing alarming trends that are beyond the control of agribusiness-funded research.

These findings are in stark contrast to the rosy narrative presented by extremely well-paid researchers backed by Big Poultry in what the University of Minnesota describes as the “Silicon Valley of food.” Those teams continue to blame anything and anyone for bird flu other than the economic model at the heart of industrial poultry production.

Farmers around the world, and the populations they feed, deserve better. Growers are bearing the economic costs of a model of production that supports pathogens deadly to poultry and potentially dangerous to humans. The new research showing a newly adapted influenza must be heeded and adopted for a fundamental change in public policy. Safer models of poultry production now being developed here in Minnesota and around the world must be supported before the next deadly pandemic sweeps the globe.

Read the Spanish translation of this blog.

Rob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist presently visiting the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is an advisor for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and has consulted on influenza for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and on ecohealth for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He is author of Big Farms Make Big Flu and Neoliberal Ebola.


Posted January 23, 2017 by Ben Lilliston   

 Tar Sands processing facility

Rural communities in the U.S. and around the world are vulnerable to industries, often with headquarters elsewhere, who view local natural resources simply as an asset to be extracted. No global corporation better exemplifies this approach than the oil giant ExxonMobil. Now, President Donald Trump has nominated the company’s CEO, Rex Tillerson, to run the U.S. State Department. Tillerson’s damaging record at ExxonMobil, often at the expense of the public good and even U.S. security interests, should disqualify him from managing U.S. policy around the world.

Tillerson is deeply infused with ExxonMobil DNA, having spent his entire professional career of 41 years working at the company and serving as CEO since 2008. ExxonMobil operates in more than 100 countries. During Tillerson’s time at ExxonMobil the company has: aggressively advocated for corporate-friendly free trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); used past free trade deals to sue governments who try to regulate it; done deals with dictators and human rights violators; and all the while leading a multi-decade disinformation campaign to oppose action on climate change.

While Trump has promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), ExxonMobil and Tillerson have been strong defenders of the deal as a win-win. Trump has promised to withdraw from the TPP. But Tillerson stated in his testimony before the Senate that he supports the TPP. ExxonMobil has consistently lobbied in favor of trade deals, such as those with Korea, Panama, Columbia and advocated Russia’s entry into the WTO. It’s not hard to see why ExxonMobil likes these deals—they all grant the company expanded powers to challenge the authority and sovereignty of governments.

An investigation of Exxon/Mobil’s lobbying files by International Business Times found that the company has explicitly lobbied the State Department on special corporate rights provisions of free trade deals, known as investor state dispute settlement or ISDS. The ISDS, first included by the U.S. in NAFTA, allows corporations to sue governments if new regulations or other programs are determined to “nullify or impair” their future anticipated profits. Exxon/Mobil used the ISDS provision in NAFTA to sue Canada over a dispute about offshore drilling. The Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador require oil companies drilling offshore to contribute to research and economic development in the area. Exxon/Mobil claimed that type of performance requirement wasn’t required under NAFTA and successfully won that legal challenge, sharing a $17.3 million damage award with Murphy Oil. ExxonMobil was recently awarded a contract from Mexico to develop deep water projects in the Gulf of Mexico—an investment potentially protected under NAFTA’s ISDS.

The ISDS provision in NAFTA is also important for ExxonMobil in another case. TransCanada is suing the U.S. government for $15 billion in damages under NAFTA’s ISDS as a result of the Obama Administration’s rejection of the Keystone Pipeline. They pipeline would move oil extracted from the Alberta tar sands to U.S. refineries. Exxon/Mobil is one of the largest owners of the Canadian tar sands, considered among the most greenhouse gas emitting forms of oil to extract, and enormously damaging to the surrounding ecosystem.

NAFTA also includes another truly remarkable, little known, provision important for ExxonMobil and the U.S. oil industry. Under the energy proportionality clause (article 605 of NAFTA), Canada must indefinitely export energy to the U.S. at the equivalent level of the previous 36 months. While the proportion of exports have varied, it cannot decline, only increase, under NAFTA. This clause only pertains to Canada, to no other country, and is in no other free trade agreement involving the U.S. The clause not only locks in a portion of Canada’s energy production for the U.S., it pressures Canada to keep producing energy in order to meet the rising demand in the U.S.

Under Tillerson, ExxonMobil has also been a fervent supporter of the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe, flexing its lobbying might on both sides of the Atlantic. As the Sierra Club has written, Exxon/Mobil through its trade associations lobbied the U.S. Trade Representative on TTIP to weaken Europe’s policy designed to encourage purchases of lower carbon fuels. The policy would have effectively blocked European imports of high GHG emitting tar sands oil – which ExxonMobil hoped to export into Europe after passing through the Keystone Pipeline into the U.S. The EU quickly buckled under USTR’s pressure and changed the policy. The oil industry also effectively lobbied the European Commission on its negotiating stance on TTIP, pressuring it to require the U.S. Department of Energy to automatically approve the export of liquefied natural gas (LNG). The industry lobbied for the same provision in the TPP, which includes the world’s largest LNG importer, Japan.

As ExxonMobil’s advocacy for free trade agreements helped expand its fossil fuel extraction around the world, the company consistently and forcefully worked to block action on the biggest global challenge of our time - climate change. According to a 2014 study, Exxon/Mobil has contributed more to global climate change than any company other than Chevron. A recent investigation of company documents found that its own internal scientists warned ExxonMobil about the role of fossil fuels in driving climate change in the late 1970s, yet the company funded a decades-long, estimated $33 million effort to debunk climate science and promote climate deniers. ExxonMobil is a major funder of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which has worked with state legislators to pass industry-friendly legislation, and oppose efforts to address climate change.

Exxon/Mobil is currently under investigation by attorneys general (AG) in Massachusetts and New York for climate fraud. The AGs claim the company misled consumers and investors about the risks climate change poses to its business. The company has fought back, attempting to intimidate those involved by suing those AGs and seeking to document their connections with environmental organizations.

Tillerson’s position at the State Department would put him in charge of international climate negotiations and the implementation of the Paris climate agreement. During Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, he stated that he did not believe climate change was the urgent national security threat that many others (including the Defense Department) have stated it is. He believes that climate science was “inconclusive.” He did testify that it’s important that the U.S. retain its seat at the table when it comes to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, apparently indicating that immediate withdrawal wasn’t imminent. While it is unclear whether the Trump Administration will withdraw from the Paris agreement, Tillerson could still do much to undermine implementation of the agreement, by retaining a seat at the table.

At the State Department, Tillerson would also lead the country’s engagement with the G-20. In 2009, G-20 countries committed to reduce fossil fuel subsidies. Tillerson’s statements during the Senate confirmation hearing did not give confidence that he will uphold the G-20 commitment. Tillerson told the Senate committee that the fossil fuel industry does not receive any subsidies, claiming that it only benefits from a favorable tax code. The statement runs counter to reports by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office and the Stockholm Environmental Institute, which recently found that the fossil fuel industry benefits from $2-4 billion a year in federal subsidies.

As the nation’s chief diplomat, Tillerson would play a critical role in defending human rights around the world. But Exxon/Mobil cuts deals with anyone, anywhere, as long as the company can exploit a country’s natural resources on terms favorable to the company. Tillerson won an “Order of Friendship” award from Russian President Vladimir Putin after signing a mega joint venture for offshore gas and oil exploration in the Russian Arctic Sea. In Tillerson’s Senate testimony, he claimed that Exxon/Mobil hadn’t opposed recent economic sanctions against Russia that put a halt to the company’s joint venture deal. But public documents indicate that the company lobbied against a bill that would make it harder for the next Administration to lift sanctions against Russia. ExxonMobil leases more land in Russia than it does in the United States. As Secretary of State, Tillerson would be able to lift the Russian sanctions and allow the multi-billion ExxonMobil deal to move forward.

A recent analysis of Security and Exchange Commission documents found that ExxonMobil did business with Iran, Syria and Sudan during a period when those countries were under U.S. sanctions as state sponsors of terrorism. In Kurdistan, Tillerson defied the State Department and cut an oil deal with the regional government, undermining the national government in Baghdad. During Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, he was reluctant to call out Russia, the Phillippines and Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses, despite overwhelming public evidence of abuses in those countries, according to Human Rights Watch.

The list of questionable ExxonMobil dealings around the world goes on and on. A legal case is moving forward in Indonesia charging that ExxonMobil was complicit in the murder, torture and other atrocities in the province of Aceh. The lawsuit claims ExxonMobil should have known about these atrocities by the Indonesian military that was on its payroll. As reported In These Times, since 2010, Exxon/Mobil has been charged with taking farmland in Iraq, damage associated with a pipeline rupture in Arkansas that resulted in 210,000 gallons of tar sands oil spilling out into the community, and a 2012 oil spill off the coast of Nigeria. 

In many ways, ExxonMobil under Tillerson is a dinosaur in the energy industry. As rural communities are starting new businesses and creating jobs in the clean energy sector, ExxonMobil has refused to invest in renewable energy. A recent Department of Energy report found that solar energy now employs more people in the U.S. than oil, natural gas or coal. Earlier this month, hundreds of companies, many of them rural-based, wrote the President calling on his administration to reduce emissions, invest in clean energy and continue as a party to the Paris climate agreement.

Tillerson’s single-minded focus on fossil fuel extraction at ExxonMobil, regardless of the impact on rural communities and the earth’s climate, should disqualify him from running the State Department, where he must represent the common interests Americans share with the rest of world.   

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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