June 2008

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A new survey by Rasmusson Reports found that 56 percent of Americans want the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiated - only 16 percent supported the agreement. The survey seems to indicate an even sharper rejection of the free trade deregulation model than an earlier suvey from October. Rising oil and food prices are likely a factor.

Support for the renegotiation of NAFTA was also a consensus heard at a conference IATP co-organized earlier this year with legislators and NGO leaders from the U.S., Mexico and Canada. For a guide on what renegotiation might look like, we should consider an informal agreement between U.S. and Mexican sugar farmers - where the deal is actually designed to work for farmers in both countries, rather than pitting them against each other. Just as NAFTA served as a blueprint for other free trade agreements around the world, a thoughtful, transparent and democratic renegotiation could serve as a blueprint for rethinking future trade agreements.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The "chicken or the egg" challenge of expanding renewable energy based on biomass has to do with finding a reliable source of biomass itself. We can't make the transition to using more biomass without a reliable supply. But it's difficult to find the supply, without the facilities to send it to?

One way out of this conundrum is to look where biomass is already being harvested and discarded as waste. A new IATP study released today reports on a series of test forest biomass harvests that target the removal of understory vegetation and dead material. An excess of this material can increase fire risks and hinder the health of the forest. Traditionally, that material (known ominously as the fuel load) has been removed and just disposed of or burned near the site.

The study found that at six of the nine test harvests, removing the biomass to reduce fire risks and using it for renewable energy production reduced overall costs. Researchers also found that by following sustainable harvest guidelines established by the Minnesota Forest Resource Council, adverse environmental effects on the soil, wildlife and other natural resources can be avoided.

IATP worked with the University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and the U.S. Forest Service on the project. You can read the Executive Summary, press release, and an interview with lead author, IATP's Don Arnosti.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Rising oil and food prices are raising questions, even among free trade supporters, about the benefits of the NAFTA/WTO model of globalization. In a remarkable article on Friday, Bloomberg reports that the free-trade era may be nearing an end. The story quotes Fred Bergsten of the pro-free trade Peterson Institute for International Economics as saying, "It'll take years to rebuild the foundations of free trade policy."

If the free trade era is ending, then it must be time for the fair trade era to begin. What would a "fair trade" policy from the U.S. look like? After extensive consultations with labor, environmental, consumer, faith and family farm organizations, Senator Sherrod Brown and Representative Mike Michaud introduced the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment (TRADE) Act earlier this month. The bill is a sharp contrast to the full speed, no-holds-barred effort to liberalize trade characterized initially by NAFTA.

The bill requires an honest full-cost assessment of how successful our existing trade agreements have been, using a series of economic, environmental and social indicators. This seems like common sense, but the idea of an actual on-the-ground assessment is a surprisingly radical idea when it comes to trade policy. It hasn't been done in comprehensive way for NAFTA or the WTO, despite over a decade of experience to draw from.

The bill goes on to include a detailed description of essential provisions in future trade pacts, covering rules for labor, the environment, affordable medicines, farm policy, foreign investment, government producurement and food safety.

From IATP's perspective, the bill includes some important flexibility for countries to protect their farmers and food security. It allows each country "to establish policies with respect to food and agriculture that require farmers to receive fair remuneration for management and labor that occurs on farms and that allow for inventory management and strategic food and renewable energy reserves, to the extent that such policies do not contribute to or allow the dumping of agricultural commodities in world markets at prices lower than the cost of production." IATP has long documented the damaging effects of export dumping by U.S.-based agribusiness corporations. This legislation explicitly protects the right of each country to prevent dumping through border regulations or other mechanisms.

IATP's Dennis Olson commented in a Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition press release, "For too long, trade agreements have deregulated agricultural markets to promote exports at any cost. This bill outlines a new approach that establishes the right of all countries to increase food self-sufficiency based on independent family farm agriculture and sound conservation practices."

You can read what a whole host of other organizations are saying about the TRADE Act at the Citizens Trade Campaign web site.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

IATP's Carin Smaller just returned from the UN Food and Agriculture High Level Conference on Food Security in Rome last week.

The UN food summit ended with a political declaration, some pledges for increased aid, and a draft set of recommendations by the UN Taskforce on the Food Crisis. So what next? There are a few things to look out for if you are concerned about the food crisis.

The first is getting governments to put their words into action. The political declaration is not free from controversy (Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela objected), nor from contradictions (continuing to push free trade while at the same time pushing for further government intervention and regulation of markets to ensure food security). Despite this, the declaration opens the door for radically different policies for trade and investment in agriculture. Now is the chance for groups who have criticized the free trade approach and who have an alternative vision for food and agriculture, to push their governments to take bold steps to change policy.

Second, the UN Taskforce will continue to meet, finalize their work program and implement their recommendations. For now, only UN agencies and the Bretton Woods Institutions are involved. The Taskforce would benefit from participation by representatives of farmers, farm workers, pastoralists, fishers and urban settlers. The FAO should be given the lead role in shaping policies, IFAD should be the main source for financing, and the IAASTD should continue to provide research on science and technology.

Finally, governments will meet again this year to discuss the food crisis. It is important to keep paying attention. The next opportunity will be at the G8 Meeting in Hokkaido, Japan, July 7-9.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The excellent magazine out of the UK, Food Ethics, tackles the global food crisis in its Summer 2008 issue. The central question in the issue's title is an important one: Scarcity or Injustice? As editor Tom MacMillan writes, "While productivity is relevant, food security is more fundamentally about social justice. . . .We need policies that do the things that markets won't do and that tackle the reasons scarcity is a problem."

The issue includes writings from a number of important thinkers on the food crisis, including Bill Vorley of the International Institute for the Environment and Development (IIED) and Daryll Ray of the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center.

IATP's own Sophia Murphy also contributes an article titled, "Will free trade solve the food crisis?" Sophia writes that the further opening up of agricultural markets would likely increase volatility of agricultural prices and strengthen the market position of big agribusiness companies. Sophia writes, "Trade liberalisation and the neglect of domestic agriculture have increased the dependence of net food importing developing countries on food imports. . the global food crisis is a clear example of how the (WTO) rules have failed."

Sophia outlines strategies for governments to address the food crisis by re-shaping trade, increasing productivity, establishing public food stocks, disciplining speculative trading and redesigning bioenergy policies.

The need to increase production in countries struggling with high prices, as well as for establishing food stocks, were both included within the political declaration at the recent UN FAO Summit on Food Security. Unfortunately, the declaration also included a call for the successful conclusion of the Doha Round, which will not help address the food crisis. Two steps forward, one step back.

Monday, June 9, 2008

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China through June 14. (Due to internet access problems, Jim sent this blog via e-mail. I am posting it for him - Ben)

Of course, most of Shanghai’s (and China’s) water pollution is not as dramatic as a waste dump at the edge of a water source protection area. But runoff from agriculture is a major form of “non-point source” pollution. The highly intensive vegetable farming practiced here (often in plastic greenhouses, see below) exhausts the soil quickly, so huge amounts of fertilizer are used. And because appearance is so important for these crops, pesticide use is also high.

HoophousesThese are also thirsty crops, so irrigation is nearly universal. The state has traditionally organized irrigation. Much of the land around Shanghai was coastal marsh before being reclaimed for farming and urban development. Now it’s crisscrossed with canals. (See the Shanghai Co-op Watergate below)

Aquaculture requires even more water than vegetable production. With seafood-loving Shanghai nearby, this is a popular activity here. It's also highly polluting. Shanghai_coop_watergate

In my field visit with WWF Shanghai staff, we met a local entrepreneur who claims he will change all that. Allen Qian (in the red shirt below) has a background in fisheries and engineering. He claims to have developed a “green” production system for shrimp and other seafood, using no artificial growth stimulants and returning clean water to the canals that drain the site of his proposed development.

Mr_qian_and_canalThere was an aquaculture expert along with us, so I confess I couldn’t follow all the details of their technical discussion of waste disposal and stocking rates and water treatment, but construction was clearly moving right along. Mr. Qian pointed out several areas that will be artificial wetlands designed to filter organic waste from water as it flows through them. His enthusiasm about developing environmentally-sound production systems (there will also be “ecological” rice production at an adjacent site) was encouraging, given the rest of what we saw that day (see a more typical Shanghai Aquaculture site below).

Aquaculture_shanghaiWhat surprised me the most, however, was the degree to which his costs were being covered by the government. The infrastructure had all been built and maintained by local government, including roads and of course the canal system. His financing will be with a concessionary government loan, which is technically going to a co-operative that Mr. Qian is forming with locals. The land will be rented at a very generous rate from the local village government. And as we were going down the list of costs, I eventually got to the most important factor in his production operation, the priceless substance without which agriculture and aquaculture are unimaginable.

“Water? Oh, that’s free.”

Saturday, June 7, 2008

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China through June 14. (Due to internet access problems, Jim sent this blog via e-mail. I am posting it for him - Ben)

My last job before joining IATP was at WWF China, (no, not the wrestling federation!) so while I was in Shanghai for the organic conference I gave WWF’s Shanghai office a call. After the obligatory evening of gossip and reminiscence, they offered to take me to the field with them for a day. The Shanghai office of WWF is very focused on water issues. I was interested to learn that they are looking at land use in the areas surrounding Shanghai’s drinking water source in the upper reaches of the Huangpu River. It had not occurred to me that the water source might be nearby, but they assured me that there are intake stations within an hour drive of the city center.

Sure enough, I found myself in front of the map shown below, which shows the borders and main features of the Upper Huangpu River Drinking Water Source Protected Area. This is where 80 percent of the water for Shanghai’s 20 million inhabitants comes from.

Map_2 The sign is on the edge of the Protected Area, next to a bridge over a stream that flows into the Huangpu. The view downstream shows floating garbage and green scum that indicates high levels of organic pollutants.

2 Turning around after taking the last picture, I was entranced by this large, cheerful image of a green and prosperous Shanghai. The slogan is “Together Building a Civilized Home, Together Creating a Beautiful Future.” Note the clear water gushing from the fountain!

3_2

Behind the billboard, though, the scene was somewhat different.

I wanted some more pictures of the dump, but the potent blend of chemical and biological odors made it impossible to stand nearby for more than a minute.

4

Yesterday, China’s Environment Ministry released their estimates of pollution discharges nationwide. Some indicators actually declined for the first time, but the overall picture continues to worsen. Some digging into the Chinese reports shows that rural pollution in particular shows no sign of lessening, as more pesticides and chemical fertilizers run off of fields and massive volumes of animal waste are discharged from factory farms directly into waterways. 

Which brings us back to the challenge China faces in feeding its people. In their attempt to keep farm production ahead of population growth, China’s leaders borrowed the chemical-intensive agricultural approach of American industrial agriculture, instead of seeking to upgrade an indigenous farming system that had persisted for thousands of years. If they had known then the impact this approach would have on their land, water and farmers, I wonder whether they would have still made the same choice.

Friday, June 6, 2008

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China through June 14. (Due to internet access problems, Jim sent this blog via e-mail. I am posting it for him - Ben)

Last fall when I was in China, I saw an item in the paper announcing the opening of the country’s biggest “organic food store” in Tianjin, with over 800 square meters of space. Well, that’s not exactly huge, but I figured that if it’s the biggest in a country of 1.4 billion, then it might be a better place than an organic exhibition to learn about how ordinary people feel about this sector. More specifically, I wanted to see for myself the price difference between organic and conventional foods in China.

With a population of around 15 million, Tianjin is another one of those gigantic Chinese cities that no one outside of the country has ever heard of. (In fact, there are over 180 cities here with over 1 million residents.) I was surprised to learn that the Yi Nong Da Supermarket was not located downtown, but in a “Development Zone” called Binhai, about 50 kilometers from the city center. This industrial suburb turned out to be huge though, with a million or so inhabitants, and the store seemed right in place in a commercial street adjacent to some high-density housing.

StoreDespite the name on the sign, however, it took a while to find any organic food in the store. About four-fifths of the floor space was dedicated to instant noodles, Snickers, toothpaste and Chinese convenience store fare like shredded squid (regular, BBQ or Cool Ranch). Along the back wall, the produce section had a sign proclaiming, “Fresh Organic Vegetables,” but for 20 minutes or so none of the few customers ventured anywhere nearby. Finally, a construction worker came in and made a bee line for the bananas. I asked if they were organic bananas and he said they were.

Me:  Why are you buying them?

Him: They taste good.

Me: Aren’t they expensive?

Him: No.

Customer_3Now we’re getting somewhere! If ordinary workers are willing to pay extra for organic food, then maybe there is hope for the domestic market. I followed up with questions about how often he shops here, whether his co-workers buy these products, etc, carefully recording his answers until a clerk came over and said, “The bananas aren’t organic.” In fact, when I started actually checking the labels I found that none of the produce was organic! The fruit was conventional and the vegetables were “Pollution Free” (wugonghai), a uniquely Chinese designation that seems to mean that no more than the recommended amounts of pesticides have been applied.

Since I didn’t have any organic products for my price comparison, I jotted down the prices of some pollution-free veggies. They seemed fairly reasonable, certainly not three times the cost of ordinary vegetables, but in my hour at the store I didn’t see anyone purchase even these less expensive products. The store manager said that usually there are more customers, and that about 20 percent of their customers buy pollution-free food regularly. To assure quality, Yi Ning grows its own vegetables on “bases” in several different provinces, but she said that it’s tough for them to compete because being in the suburbs, they have many vegetable farmers right nearby who claim that their goods are also pollution-free. I asked why she thinks more people don’t grow 100 percent organic, and she said: “If you don’t use fertilizers, they (vegetables) grow very slowly. Since people want to earn money quickly, they feel like they have to use some pesticides and fertilizers.”

VegetablesFrom Yinong, I went to a nearby Tesco, one of the several big box stores competing in China’s retail market. The results of my survey are shown below. (The unit is Chinese yuan per kilogram, and there currently about 7 yuan in a U.S. dollar.)

YiNong pollution free

Tesco Conventional

Tesco pollution Free

eggplant

8.60

5.60

16.00

cucumber

12.00

1.36

16.00

tomato

9.60

3.80

13.00

potato

6.40

2.50

12.00

ginger

8.0

4.16

No one seemed to be buying pollution-free veggies in Tesco either, but given their huge mark-up compared to both conventional and Yi Nong pollution free, it wasn’t too surprising. Despite not being a cost comparison with certified organics, this survey showed that the price differentials for “healthier” food are indeed much greater than the 20-30 percent found in U.S. or European markets. And the studious avoidance of these products by shoppers in both stores made it clear that the price difference is indeed a huge barrier to the development of a domestic organic market in China.

SkippyOn my way out of Tesco, I passed people lined up to taste little spoonfuls of Skippy peanut butter being dispensed by a young woman in a mini-skirt, and was reminded of another big challenge for organics in China: marketing. At the BioFach exhibition, more than one vendor had complained that most people have no idea what organic means, so of course they aren’t willing to pay more for it.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

For those interested, the statements referenced in Carin's last blog by Henry Saragih of La Via Campesina and Ben Powless of the Indigenous Environmental Network before participants at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization summit can be read here and here.

You can read or listen to all the various statements from this morning in Rome at the FAO's web site.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

IATP's Carin Smaller is blogging from Rome this week at the UN Food and Agriculture High Level Conference on Food Security.

Today, some of the affected communities, including smallholder farmers, indigenous peoples and fishers spoke out. The speakers included Benjamin Victor Powless, from the Mohawk Nation, Herman Kumara from the World Forum of Fisher People, and Henry Saragih from the peasant movement La Via Campesina. They had been participating in a parallel event, the Terra Preta Forum, alongside the FAO summit. And they were not impressed with the outcome. They have been largely excluded from the formal conference, their voices not heard by world leaders. And they have not had a role in the newly formed UN Taskforce on the Food Crisis.

They said the conference promoted the interests of agricultural corporations, including seed, fertilizer and chemical companies, as well as plans for a new Green Revolution in Africa, launched by Kofi Annan's AGRA Foundation. They are furious that the World Bank and IMF are even present, given the central role the two institutions played in undermining local and national capacity for food self-sufficiency, and therefore contibuting to the current food crisis.

In a statement to the UN conference, the social movements and civil society organizations accused conference participants of entrenching the control of corporations and elites over agriculture and the ecological commons. They called some of the actions at the conference an assault on small-scale food providers.

They have three principal demands:

1. That governments pursue justice for the victims of the food emergency by bringing to account, through criminal proceedings, corporations and institutions (including governments) whose actions, such as profiteering from agricultural inputs and products, have denied communities their right-to-food.

2. Set up a Commission on Food Sovereignty under the auspices of the UN.

3. Expand our ability to build collective knowledge, analysis and capacity to make change, and organize ourselves to monitor the outcomes of this FAO Summit.

The strong rejection of the FAO Summit by these social movements and civil society organizations should send a warning signal to governments. While there are some interesting recommendations (I would dare say impressive), they will amount to nil unless there is radical change from past practices. The first step is to integrate representatives of farmers and fishers into the UN Taskforce on the Food Crisis, as well as other governmental initiatives dealing with the food crisis. Second, governments must prioritize work with agencies that have the credibility to work with farmers, like the FAO, IFAD and IAASTD, and to weaken the role of the World Bank, WTO and IMF.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

IATP's Carin Smaller is blogging from Rome this week at the UN Food and Agriculture High Level Conference on Food Security.

A draft declaration by world leaders on how to resolve the food crisis is circulating. The final declaration will be released tomorrow, on June 5, at the close of the UN's High-Level Conference on Food Security. The draft declaration is impressive. It calls for immediate action to assist countries affected by the food crisis, immediate support to small-scale producers, and the development of food stocks and other risk management mechanisms. The declaration also calls for medium- and long-term measures, including for governments to fully embrace a people-centred policy framework for agriculture, to increase the resilience of food systems to meet the challenges of climate change, and to conduct further studies to ensure that production and use of biofuels is sustainable and takes into account the need to achieve global food security. Obviously, this is no small feat.

Unfortunately, the draft declaration still calls for a rapid and successful conclusion of the WTO Doha Round and for the international community to continue its efforts to liberalize international trade. But I won't go into that again.

In parallel, and possibly even more impressive, are the draft recommendations of the newly established UN Taskforce on the Food Crisis. Once again, the emphasis is on boosting smallholder farmers' food production, increasing social safety nets and strengthening risk management.

So it looks like we will be leaving Rome with some fine-sounding proposals. But what next? There is still a danger that very little will change when it comes time to implementing the recommendations. The proposals on the table will require a radical break from the past and a completely different approach to building food and agriculture systems and supporting rural communities and the urban poor. There are institutions with more credibility to take on the challenge, like the FAO, IFAD, and IAASTD. And others, like the World Bank and the IMF, who are partially responsible for the mess we are in today and who should stay out for now. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen. Both institutions have carefully positioned themselves to play a key role in resolving the crisis and to being a channel for funds.

The next step for world leaders is to go home and talk to the affected communities: smallholder farmers, farm workers, fishers, and the urban poor. If they can listen to these communities, they might have a chance of turning their promises into meaningful solutions.