Think Forward blog

A Perennial Bioeconomy?

Posted July 19, 2007

This month, the USDA announced that the amount of U.S. land planted to corn had increased an incredible 18.5 percent, up to 92.9 million acres. The corn boom is directly tied to the ethanol boom, which in the U.S. is almost exclusively dependent on corn. Most believe that an ethanol system built entirely on corn is unsustainable in the long run. And we're already seeing some environmental fall-out with government officials predicting the so-called dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico will be the biggest ever this year, due to increased runoff from nitrogen fertilizer used to grow corn entering the Mississippi River.

An article in the June 15 issue of the journal Science points toward a solution. Researchers, led by the University of Minnesota's Nick Jordan, conclude that an expansion of perennial energy crops to feed the bioeconomy will diversify Midwest farms and bring a series of economic and environmental benefits. They found that many of the environmental problems in agriculture are associated with commodity program crops (particularly corn and soybeans), including the degradation of water quality with sediment, nutrients and pesticides, disruption of wildlife habitat, emission of greenhouse gases and degradation of air quality.

Perennial cropping systems on the other hand are more resilient because they actually reduce soil and nitrogen loss, and have greater capacity to sequester greenhouse gases, while improving wildlife.The authors propose a $20 million annual federal investment in the 2007 Farm Bill to look at policy approaches to compensate farmers for the production of environmental benefits in growing perennial energy grasses.

When considering the size of the Farm Bill, $20 million isn't much to ask to help push the bioeconomy toward long-term sustainability.

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When Farm Bills Attack

Posted June 19, 2007

The writing of a new U.S. Farm Bill can be messy and complicated. It can also be dangerous. Last month, the House Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry quietly tossed in a provision that would essentially prevent states from setting tougher consumer and environmental regulations on food than what has been established at the national level.

Over 40 organizations, including IATP, have written the House Agriculture Committee leadership explaining why this is a terrible idea.

In a separate analysis, the Center for Food Safety writes that the provision "appears to be aimed at several recently enacted state laws that restrict the planting of genetically engineered (GE) crops, but could also prohibit states from taking action when food contamination cases occur." Recently, California and Washington have passed bans on GE rice, Washington state placed restrictions on GE canola, and four counties in California banned GE crops all together.

But the provision would apply to much more than just GE crops. It would place a straightjacket on state agencies trying to get a handle on food safety outbreaks, such as e.coli contamination, or issue a warning on mercury levels in fish.

The language is based on legislation the food industry has been trying to pass in Congress for years called the National Uniformity for Food Act. That bill has been championed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Cargill, General Mills, Target, Hormel and other big food companies. And it's been shot down every time.

Now, they're trying to sneak it into the Farm Bill. In researching our Farm Bill series, it's clear there is a lot of support for healthier, more local food systems in the new Farm Bill. Increasing access to healthier food and supporting farmers who want to grow it is an appropriate role for the Farm Bill. An attack on states' rights to ensure their food is safe is not.

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Got organic milk?

Posted June 18, 2007

The power of organic food is that it forces consumers to think about how their food is grown. Organic food presents consumers with a choice about whether they care about the use of pesticides, genetically engineered crops, or antibiotics in food production. And consumers are welcoming that choice. Over the past 10 years, the organic industry has grown around 20 percent a year and over 60 percent of U.S. consumers say they buy organic at least occasionally, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Organic milk has been one of the main drivers of the organic market and has faced recent supply shortages. So it is not surprising that milk is at the forefront of a battleground over the future of organic standards. Recently, the USDA announced that a California dairy operation had lost its organic certification for not complying with organic standards. The dairy had been one of many targeted by the Cornicopia Institute, an organic food watchdog, for confining their animals to pens and sheds rather than open grazing. The rebuild-from-depression blog has numerous photos and video of the California dairy.

Efforts to water down standards for organic dairy operations have been at the forefront recently as larger companies and operations try to take advantage of the fast-growing market. Organic certification expert Jim Riddle outlined the key issues facing organic milk production on the August 21 issue of Radio Sustain listed here.

To retain it's power, organic standards need to stay strong. Recent action to protect the integrity of organic milk was an important first step.

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Docs Prescribe a Better Farm Bill

Posted June 18, 2007

Traditionally, the U.S. Farm Bill has been written largely behind closed doors by powerful members of Congressional agriculture committees and agribusiness interests. But that's changing. The latest evidence is a letter sent to Congressional leaders by over 300 doctors and other public health professionals calling for greater access to healthy food in the next Farm Bill.

The letter is signed by some of the nation's top public health professionals including: Georges Benjamin, M.D., FACP, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association, Robert S. Lawrence, M.D., Director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future, and Andrew Weil, M.D., best-selling writer on health and wellness.

As the links between diet and health become better understood, it's not surprising that public health experts are looking into what types of foods our farm policies support and don't support. We pointed out in our paper A Fair Farm Policy for Public Health that past Farm Bills have encouraged the massive overproduction of only a few raw commodities - pushing prices down below even what it costs farmers to produce them. Food companies have seized on these low priced commodities to produce a number of unhealthy ingredients, particularly high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from corn and hydrogenated transfats from soybeans. As costs for highly processed foods like soda have declined, prices for healthier fruits and vegetables have increased by 40 percent over the last 20 years.

In the New York Times, writer Michael Pollan lays out how food prices encourage unhealthy purchases, particularly in low income communities, and links it all back to the Farm Bill in "You Are What You Grow."

The good news is that many of the policies that would support public health would also support family farmers, including: fair (not low) prices for commodity crops, strengthening local food systems, and setting market incentives for farmers to grow healthier foods. And there have been several bills introduced designed to bring public health issues into farm policy  - the Community Food Security Coalition has summaries here.

The public health community is bringing an important new voice to the Farm Bill - and that's a good thing. The Farm Bill is too important to leave to agribusiness and their Congressional servants.

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The Fair Price Controversy

Posted June 9, 2007

You wouldn't think that getting paid a fair price for what you produce would be controversial. But in the world of agriculture - this concept is a lightening rod. And we're seeing a storm swirl materialize again around corn prices, as they rise in relation to ethanol demand in the U.S.

Recently, the president of the usually agribusiness-friendly National Corn Growers Association wrote a scathing attack against Tyson Foods, for the company's protests about ethanol - and the rising price of corn. In his commentary, Shed No Tears for Poor Tyson, NCGA CEO Rick Tollman called Tyson "irresponsible, misleading and self serving."

What was Tollman refferring to? Tyson has been warning in front of investors and Congress that corn prices, spurred by ethanol, are going to devastate the livestock industry. But hasn't Tyson Foods benefited from under-priced corn - corn priced so low it is often below the cost of farmers to produce it - over the last decade?

Turns out they did. Researchers at Tuft's Global Environment and Development Institute found that between 1997 and 2005, Tyson saved $2.59 billion from under-priced corn, which the company uses for animal feed.

As IATP President Jim Harkness wrote recently, there are many potential benefits to a fair price for corn, including fairer prices for all agriculture crops, less government subsidies, a reduction in agricultural export dumping, fewer industrial animal factories, and more competitive pricing for healthier food. These benefits become even greater if the ethanol economy can shift from corn-based to more perrennial grasses.

There is no question the agriculture economy is undergoing major changes due to demands from ethanol. And as IATP's Jim Kleinschmit has written, how the ethanol economy grows will have a lot to do with how sustainable it ultimately becomes. A good start as we move forward would be to take the controversy out of one of the most important benchmarks for sustainability - a fair price for farmers.

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USTR: GMO Pushers

Posted June 3, 2007

In a remarkable e-mail exchange made public recently by Friends of the Earth Europe, a U.S. Trade Representative official chastized a European Union official for using the term, "GMO" for genetically modified organisms. The official goes on to write, "We should discuss this mislabeling which misleads consumers not to mention those not trained in the appropriate sciences."

The e-mail exchange was precurser to a meeting where USTR officials pressured the EU to overturn national GMO bans in some member countries, speed up the approval process of new GMOs, and lower contamination standards. FOE Europe obtained the minutes of the meeting through a Freedom of Information request.

The meeting and e-mail exchange demonstrate in graphic detail the extent to which the USTR will work on behalf of the biotech industry, including the world's largest biotech seed company, St. Louis-based Monsanto.

Since the introduction of GMO crops in the mid-90s the biotech industry has faced a major stumbling block: consumers don't want them. In the U.S., the industry got around this minor problem by working with the Food and Drug Administration to not require labelling, despite a number of polls finding overwhelming public support for such labeling. But even without labelling, the industry has had trouble gaining the approval of new foods that people actually eat - such as wheat, rice or potatoes. Most GMOs in the U.S. are corn, soybeans and cotton - with corn and soybeans going primarily into animal feed, biofuels, or highly processed oils and sweeteners.

Other countries, particularly the EU, have been much tougher on GMOs, wanting to see more science on health and environmental risks, and requiring consumer labeling. So the USTR has picked up the ball for the biotech industry. First it heavily pressured the EU to weaken its regulations, then filed a major case at the World Trade Organization (WTO) successfully challenging the EU's tougher regulations as barriers to trade. IATP's Steve Suppan followed the case closely and wrote this paper analyzing the WTO ruling and its implications for GMO safety regulations.

The debate over GMOs worldwide cuts deeper than simply labeling or safety regulations. In many countries, GMOs exemplify a damaging corporate model of agriculture (often seen as a U.S.-model), greater agribusiness control over how farmers grow food and a denial of the rights of consumers to know what they are eating. GMOs are predicated on proprietary technology. In the biotech industry's view, farmers do not own the seeds they buy - they are leasing the technology and not allowed to save the seeds as is tradition in most countries around the world. In the U.S., Monsanto has sued nearly 100 farmers to protect their technology.

Private corporations, like Monsanto, are not allowed to file dispute resolution cases to challenge national regulations under WTO rules. Only governments can bring WTO challenges. In this case, the USTR conveniently stepped in and challenged the EU's biotech seed regulations at the WTO. Now, it appears USTR is trying to finish the job.

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Globalization and Food Safety

Posted May 30, 2007

The recent discovery of a toxic chemical in animal feed imported from China into the U.S. has produced a slew of criticism of U.S. food safety agencies and Chinese regulators. But IATP President Jim Harkness points out that widespread contamination of imported food is an inherent weakness in a global food system. Harkness writes, "Our food system’s increasing dependence on imports is no accident. Import dependency is a defining characteristic of an industrial food model driven by U.S. farm and trade policies over the last half century on behalf of agribusiness. U.S. farm policy has encouraged the mass production of only a few cheap crops largely used as food ingredients, animal feed and exports. U.S. trade policy has aggressively pushed for the removal of trade barriers paving the way for the global food trade."

Recently, two of our top political columnists have caught on to the role of globalization in food contamination cases. Harold Meyerson writes in the Washington Post on May 23 about how we've missed "in all those impassioned defenses of globalization, the part about uninspected and unregulated food from distant lands showing up, unannounced, for dinner." Paul Krugman admits in the New York Times (sub required) on May 21 that "those who blame globalization do have a point." He points out that the FDA only has the resources to inspect a small percentage of imports, "this leaves American consumers effectively dependent on the quality of foreign food-safety enforcement."

As Congress writes a new Farm Bill this summer, it has an opportunity to re-think this global export/import model for our food system. It's clear consumers are thinking about it. We've seen an explosion in the number of farmers' markets around the country and supermarkets are including increasingly more information about where their food is produced. A recent poll by Consumer Reports found that 92 percent of Americans want Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for all food. In 2002, Congress passed COOL for meat, poultry, fish and fruits and vegetables. But agribusiness has successfully delayed implementation of COOL for all but fish.

Harkness writes that the Farm Bill is, "an opportunity to accelerate the transition toward a more local-based food system by funding greater crop diversification, incentives for local food purchasing in schools and other government institutions, and full implementation of country of origin labeling in 2008. It’s time to put the public’s interest ahead of agribusiness in setting our nation’s food policy."

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What Smells in Secret Trade Deal

Posted May 29, 2007

In May, House Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Charles Rangel announced at a rushed news conference a secret trade deal with the Bush Administration that purportedly would include international labor and environmental standards in pending trade agreements. One big problem, the final language of the deal hadn't been written - and still hasn't been made public. Second big problem, addressing the enormous damage caused by unregulated agricultural trade - one of the major stumbling blocks in trade agreements and at the WTO - was completely ignored.

IATP's Dennis Olson and Alexandra Spieldoch wrote in response to the deal, "Nowhere addressed in the trade deal is how to address the false promise consis­tent in free trade agreements that all farmers will find prosperity by increasing their export market shares. Of course farmers don’t export, multinational corpo­rations do. Instead of leading toward prosperity for farmers, free trade has driven an export-led corporate model of agriculture that has substantially increased the dumping of agricultural commodities onto world markets at below the cost of production. Small-scale farmers, who make up as high as 70 percent of the population in some of the poorest countries in the world, cannot compete with these below-cost imports."

The Citizens Trade Campaign points out, among other problems, not a single labor, environmental, consumer, family farm, faith or small business group has endorsed the deal, while it has received gushing support from business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce. What's not right with this picture?

Writer David Sirota has been all over other problems with this trade deal, particularly related to its alarming secrecy.

Olson and Spieldoch write, "The closed-door, backroom nature of the deal shows once again, like at the WTO and negotiations for other free trade agreements, how deeply flawed outcomes inevitably result from closed and non-transparent processes."

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Rachel Carson's Legacy

Posted May 29, 2007

One hundred years ago on May 27, Rachel Carson was born. Considered by many to be the mother of the environmental movement in the U.S., Carson's seminal book Silent Spring was published in 1962 and changed the way we think about toxic chemicals in the environment. Carson died two years later of breast cancer. As IATP's Kathleen Schuler and Carin Skoog write in a commentary that appeared in the Duluth News Tribune, "Her writing warned of the risks of DDT and other pesticides to the environment, to wildlife and to human health. Though many have tried to discredit Carson, her courageous work has stood the test of time and offers continued inspiration for reducing our exposure to toxic chemicals."

And boy have they tried to discredit her. Opposite Schuler and Skoog's commentary is a rebuttal by a representative of the industry-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute, charging that Carson used "junkscience to advance an anti-chemical agenda." CEI began as a front group funded largely by the tobacco industry, and most recently has fought efforts to address global warming with big money from Exxon/Mobil.

Fourty-five years after her death, the toxic chemical industry is still scared of Rachel Carson.

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