September 2008

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Last week, IATP convened a high-level panel at the WTO Public Forum titled: “The Food Price Explosion: What Can the WTO Do?” The idea was to further a debate on the WTO's role in the food crisis, with some world leaders identifying the completion of the Doha Round to further liberalize global trade as part of the solution, while others, starting with civil society representatives, arguing that the model promoted by the Doha Round is partially responsible for the food crisis.

We put together a panel that represented these different perspectives, trying to base the discussion on facts and figures so as to identify possible bridges between various approaches. Hoping to reconcile such "schizophrenic" (in the words of one of the speakers) approaches in two hours would have been overly ambitious. What came clearly out of the discussion were two main points:

  • The Doha mandate is far too limited to address the food price crisis comprehensively. Some call it inadequate, while some call it insufficient, depending on their perspective; and
  • Despite the very serious crisis we are facing--75 million more food insecure people in the world in 2007, according to the FAO--the dichotomy between free-trade advocates and those who think the market needs to be regulated still exists. The panel put forward the need for the two camps to engage in a dialogue based on facts rather than on ideology, and to use this crisis as an "opportunity" to build a healthy and sustainable food system.

Below are some quotes from the panel. You can listen to the entire session (a little less than 2 hours) by clicking here.

Arze Glipo, convener of the Asia Pacific Network for Food Sovereignty, said:

“Long before food prices actually exploded, a long running agrarian crisis fueled by the development strategy of trade liberalization had already deprived millions of poor people access to their food entitlements (…). And on the other hand, the power of global corporations expanded enormously under globalization. Transnational agribusiness corporations such as Cargill or ADM have even made a killing out of the food crisis.”

“Agriculture needs to return to its function as provider of life rather than a source of huge profits for transnational corporations.”

Brad McDonald, representative for the International Monetary Fund in Geneva, stressed:

“Speculation can in principle increase or reduce futures prices and spot prices from the levels justified by fundamentals. Whether that possibility has been a reality is an empirical question that must be examined carefully using actual data of course. Speculative positions and commodity prices have indeed moved together; they are positively correlated. The interesting question then becomes whether there is a causal link between the two and, if so, in which direction. . .Statistical analysis, at least so far, finds little evidence that speculation has been behind the increase in food prices”

Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, highlighted:

“The problem is not so much high prices per se. Rather, the problem is the unpreparedness of States who have been addicted to cheap food and who have under-invested in agriculture as a result.”

“I will be preparing a report on the impact of the WTO on the right to food and I will very much put forward the need to anticipate the risk that because of their trade commitments, States might be obliged to sacrifice their obligations towards the right to food and this may not be allowed to happen; they must have the policy space necessary for them to protect the rights of their populations.”

Ambassador Ujal Singh Bhatia, Permanent Representative for India to the WTO, added:

“As things stand, the [Doha] Round cannot be expected to deliver a major outcome for expanding food production in developing countries or for addressing the food crisis in any substantial manner. Conversely, those who expect the Doha Round to worsen the global food situation perhaps give it too much credit.”

“The challenge of food security requires distributional interventions as much as production incentives. In developing countries, governments have to retain the power to maintain price stability in the interest of producers as well as consumers.”

Wally Smith, vice president, Dairy Farmers of Canada, said:

“I can assure you that Canadian supply managed farmers stand behind India and the developing countries in their effort to protect through SSM their farmers and their production vehicle.”

“Regulated systems like supply management provide better solutions and help prevent significant price instability. Our unique Canadian supply management experience is one example of how a country can effectively keep the lid on inflation for consumers, because according to official estimates, Canadian consumers paid 3 percent more this year for dairy products in a context of rising prices. However in contrast, consumers in France, Europe and the U.S. saw double digit increases for both eggs and dairy products in their countries.” 

Monday, September 29, 2008

Backbone_2As election season hits high gear, what should candidates be talking about regarding the future of our food and farm system? The Backbone Campaign is trying to elevate the political discourse by asking various experts to pose questions to all candidates.

You can go here to listen to IATP President Jim Harkness  on the challenges facing our food and farming system heading into 2009.

Jim's commentary is drawn from an article IATP contributed to an essay collection from leading progressive think tanks, led by the Institute for Policy Studies, on important first steps for the next administration, to be released following the election. Last week, IATP contributed ideas on how the U.S. could rejoin the global community in the collaborative report, New Progressive Voices.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I’ve probably heard and read dozens of times over the past two weeks that this is the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. Our stock market and confidence in the banking system are allegedly on the brink of a 1929-style collapse.

But what is fascinating and somewhat alarming is how our collective perception of the economy has shifted in the past 75 years. In the early 20th century, agriculture was the backbone of the country. When commodity prices went south, people suffered. And the effects went well beyond the farm gate because farm income provided the capital for businesses in rural communities all over the country. The lack of jobs and farm income resulted in poverty and hunger.

Now, instead of an economy built on the labor of farmers and manufacturing, the backbone is perceived to be Wall Street. Debt and financial instruments are the new wheat and corn. The rising costs of housing, food and gasoline have been a concern for a few years, but it took the collapse of financial institutions to create a national panic. The proposed solutions to this crisis by Congress and the Bush administration are much different than the response in the 1930s.

Seventy-five years ago, the New Deal focused on getting people back to work and getting farmers a fair price for their commodities. Nowadays, the solutions largely revolve around assuring adequate assets in financial markets, and bolstering domestic and global confidence in our financial institutions. I’m glad that a poor farm economy, like the downturn in the late 1990s and early 2000s, no longer devastates the country, but perhaps we’ve drifted too far from a Main Street focus to a Wall Street focus.

I have no idea if using $700 billion to provide Wall Street this assurance is the best way of avoiding a financial crisis. But it is striking how much the current focus is on a top-down approach of fixing global markets rather than the previous grassroots approach of getting adequate income back into workers’ pockets. With such an emphasis on financial indicators such as stock prices, currency valuations and interest rates rather than focusing on the well-being of workers and families, the 21st century New Deal may be missing the forest for the trees.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

New research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the health risks from the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), found in many plastic and children's products, highlights the challenge for consumers to find safer plastics.

To help consumers navigate the myriad of choices they face in the marketplace, IATP yesterday released two new consumer guides:

1-- Smart Plastics Guide: Healthier Food Uses of Plastics. This is an updated version of our most popular consumer guide, also known as the publication that crashed our server when it appeared on the Today Show and the entire viewing audience decided to download it at once. The new Smart Plastics Guide includes the latest science and marketplace developments to help consumers make wise choices about the types of plastics they purchase. The guide includes information on all seven labels for plastic products, health and environmental risks of chemicals used in plastics, the latest on green chemistry and 10 tips for safer use of plastics in storing food. And because there are so few resources out there for consumers on plastics, we also have produced a Common Questions and Answers to accompany the Smart Plastics Guide

Baby_toy 2-- Guide to Safe Children's Products. Co-produced with the Minnesota-based public health coalition Healthy Legacy, this guide helps parents learn about synthetic chemicals commonly used in children's products (and how to avoid them). It includes a full-page insert on safer children's products ranging from baby bottles, utensils, pacifiers, teethers and more.

As IATP's Kathleen Schuler said in our press release, "Ultimately, consumers shouldn't need these safe product resources. But as we are eagerly anticipating government regulation of these toxic chemicals, we wanted to provide consumers with a way to make smart and safe choices for their families."

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

IATP’s contribution to a new report from the Progressives Ideas Network, New Progressive Voices: Values and Policies for the 21st Century, addresses the need for the U.S. to re-engage with the world. The report is intended to be a guide for the next administration as it tackles the big problems facing the nation. Recent events, including the collapse of the credit system and continued speculation in the commodity markets, drive home the pressing need for new voices to save us from the failed arguments of market fundamentals—or as George Soros puts it, “the belief that markets assure the best allocation of resources.” The “market” has yet again given ordinary citizens and the world’s poor a massive $700 billion bill for its greed and avarice.

To be honest, IATP’s contribution to the New Progressive Voices is not so much new ideas as it is common sense thinking based on historical experience. One would think that being an active player in global issues would be an obvious goal for the U.S. in a period of serious challenges that can only be solved through global cooperation. The Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive war along with a “go-it-alone” approach to international problems has left the nation isolated and distrusted in the world.

A recent New York Times article by Adam Liptak—The Supreme Court, Long a Beacon, Guides Fewer Nations—indicates how far-removed we have become. The article paints a disturbing picture of the decline of U.S. Constitutional law as a model for the world. Citing a number of studies by researchers in the U.S. and abroad, Liptak reveals a worldwide shift away from respect for U.S. constitutional law. A New York Times survey of the Canadian Supreme Court found the U.S. Supreme Court cited 12 times a year between 1990 and 2002. In the last six years, the annual citation rate has fallen to six.  In the field of human rights law, where the U.S. had been a leader for decades, “foreign courts in developed democracies often cite the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in cases concerning equality, liberty and prohibitions against cruel treatment,” according to Harold Koh, dean of the Yale Law School.

In New Voices, IATP calls for the next administration to take on a broad range of common sense alternatives to the notion that the “the market knows best,” including a proposal to create a new global food convention to address issues of food security, hunger and market stability. If any proof is needed for why this proposal is long overdue, the announcement by the UN on September 19 that 17 million people in the Horn of Africa urgently need food should help focus our attention. This represents an increase of nine million in the number of people at risk of starvation since May of this year. Is the world callously waiting to see the gruesome sight of millions of hungry people suffering and dying? That there is more than enough food in the world to prevent this sort of crisis is universally recognized.

In the New Progressive Voices report, IATP’s proposal for a global food convention includes the establishment of worldwide grain reserves to prevent price instability and starvation. The idea of grain reserves is as old as time. The U.S. had adequate reserves until Nixon came along. By the time Reagan came in preaching the blessings of the market, it was just a matter of sweeping out the bins to put an end to our reserves.  In 1990, Republican Kent Conrad of North Dakota drafted one of the last bills calling for the re-establishment of our grain reserves, but it never saw the light of day.

IATP’s contribution to New Progressive Voices proposes solutions to global problems created by unregulated global markets. The next administration must work with the world community to put an end to market volatility in food and agriculture. When market fundamentals fail the credit system, there is little hesitation by government to act to save large financial institutions. When whole regions of the world are threatened with hunger and starvation, it is only common sense that we act together to find sustainable long-term solutions. Let’s hope somebody is listening to the New Voices.


Listen to a New Voice: Jim Harkness, President, IATP

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

IATP's Alexandra Strickner is blogging from the fifth European Social Forum taking place in Malmö, Sweden, from September 17-21.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

IATP's Alexandra Strickner is blogging from the fifth European Social Forum taking place in Malmö, Sweden, from September 17-21.

Given the current social and ecological crisis facing the food system in Europe and elsewhere, the Assembly on Food Sovereignty held during the 5th European Social Forum in Malmö decided to work together to build a European movement for food sovereignty. Participants to the assembly included the European Coordination Via Campesina, Friends of the Earth Europe, Attac groups from different European countries, civil society groups working on genetically modified organisms and for a moratorium on agrofuels, Red FAL (a network of local communities working toward sustainable local food economies) and consumer groups. The participants of the assembly concluded that in order to move toward food sovereignty in Europe, the development and construction of a socially and ecologically sustainable food system is needed. In addition, key European policies regulating the food system and agricultural production must be strengthened and reformed.


Monday, September 22, 2008

The current Wall Street financial crisis has me thinking about potential parallels to food. Not long ago, the vast majority of Americans had little choice but to consume a diet dominated by industrially produced food. We were becoming the culture of Wonder Bread. But then some alternative ideas started to break through. Environmental groups raised concerns about the chemicals used in agriculture and the impact those chemicals had on soil, water and health. “Foodies” sought heirloom varieties of vegetables, heritage breeds of livestock, pasture-raised animals, locally produced foods and other culinary treasures. Community leaders recognized the quality of life benefits of agricultural open space, farmers markets and localized food systems. We still have a food system dominated by the centralized, industrial production model, but we also have local food, organic food, slow food, and many other labels and initiatives. People now have more choice in the food marketplace.

This exciting new food system is developing and booming because of the growing recognition that food is more than the body’s delivery system of protein, fats and carbohydrates. Appropriately produced food can provide many other benefits to communities, ecosystems and economies. Perhaps this is the reason that so many cultures and religions consider food to be sacred and perform rituals around food
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—the benefits of good food are too numerous and far reaching to be quantified.

Money, on the other hand, is rarely thought of in such lofty terms. It is perceived to be simply a vehicle for facilitating commerce. And just like industrial farm equipment continues to get larger and more complicated, it has become even more difficult to comprehend exotic mortgages, derivatives and other schemes of finance.

Perhaps the looming financial collapse will create new relationships with money and more opportunities for people who want to avoid supporting the bizarre money-making schemes of Wall Street. Just as consumers now have a better opportunity to buy into local food systems, the time is ripe for a more localized money system that re-circulates money within the community. Will I soon be able to purchase a mortgage, insurance policies, and car loans with assurance that my loans and investments are being used to help others locally? Given what is happening on the international financial scene, I would pay a little more for that alternative.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

IATP's Alexandra Strickner is blogging from the fifth European Social Forum taking place in Malmö, Sweden, from September 17-21.

Friday, September 19, 2008

IATP's Alexandra Strickner is blogging from the fifth European Social Forum taking place in Malmö, Sweden, from September 17-21.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Dow Jones story last week, titled “FDA To Face Public Upbraiding Over Ingredient In Plastic,” points to a longstanding contradiction between what federal regulators consider good science and what scientists consider to be good science.

This latest example revolves around Bisphenol A (BPA), the synthetic estrogen put into the polycarbonate plastic found in baby bottles, water bottles and the liners of some food and infant formula cans. BPA isn’t bound within the plastic, so with heating or normal wear it leaches out into the food, breast milk, formula or water in these containers.

The disagreement between the FDA and the scientific community seems to be about whether or not this is okay. The FDA claims there is no science indicating that BPA poses a risk to humans. That’s because the FDA only considers the science (i.e. toxicity studies) submitted to it by pharmaceutical companies or plastics manufacturers using something called Good Laboratory Practice (GLP). GLP criteria are those ensuring cleanliness and good hygiene in the industry-operated labs or the labs they have paid to conduct the studies.

GLP does not address at all whether the work actually done by the labs is well-designed, has answered the "right" questions from a public health standpoint, or even whether the study sent to the FDA accurately reports what happened in the lab - i.e. the experimental outcomes.

On the other hand, academic laboratories don’t go to the trouble or great expense of getting themselves certified as using GLP. The quality of their work is ensured by the fact that it’s peer-reviewed, submitted for publication and the results are made publicly available.

The not-so-funny result is that the FDA ignored hundreds of published scientific studies suggesting that BPA does pose a risk to humans, and relied instead on two industry-funded studies that were negative, but which did use Good Laboratory Practice.

What the industry studies didn’t use were the most up-to-date, sensitive techniques for measuring potential effects from exposure to BPA. This isn’t uncommon. In fact, it’s typical that the requirements codified into law that dictate which tests of chemical or product safety federal regulators require of manufacturers are scientifically out-of-date. The science of testing is ever-evolving; chemical regulations often aren’t revised for decades. In fact, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the chief law regulating industrial chemicals, hasn’t been revised since 1976.

Similarly, the EPA acknowledges there are some 140 approved pesticides that it now considers toxic to the brain and nervous system. Under the code of federal regulations, however, the EPA still doesn’t require that new pesticides be tested for neurotoxicity before being put on the market. The EPA doesn’t require that any chemical--industrial or pesticide--be tested for its potential to damage the young, developing brain before being put on the market.   

So, the next time you read a warning from scientists that some common chemical or pesticide may not be safe, followed by assurances from the industry that the FDA or EPA has called it “safe,” know this: both are right, depending on their view of what constitutes “safety” or good science.

Independent scientists are saying that the latest published science raises new concerns (or strengthens longstanding suspicions) about a chemical product already on the market. Industry, meanwhile, is saying that the chemical has been tested and passed the weak and often outdated testing standards that the FDA or EPA has set for them.

That’s why a regulator’s notion of “safe” may not pass a parent’s laugh test.

David Wallinga, M.D. is a physician and Director of the Food and Health Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis.