March 2010

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

As global food trade expands, food companies want uniform food safety standards. For the multinational food company, an ideal world would have a set of global standards. If a food production export facility met those standards, the company could freely export anywhere around the world. But what if the global standards weren't strong enough to ensure safety? What if the cost of food-borne illnesses continued to rise? And what if governments didn't invest enough in regulatory agencies to ensure the standards were actually met?

These issues and more are covered in the latest issue of the Global Food Safety Monitor, edited by IATP's Steve Suppan. The issue looks into the underfunding of U.S. food safety agencies, failures in implementing the USDA's food safety programs and attempts to certify the safety of poultry imported from China. 

"If Cargill is investing an average of $100 million a year and cannot control E.coli in its U.S. plants, what is the likelihood that the Obama administration's proposed budget for federal food safety programs [...] will reduce the incidence of E.coli and other pathogens?" writes Suppan. Find out more in the latest Global Food Safety Monitor.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Despite growing concerns about the potential adverse effects of most currently approved food dyes, the Food and Drug Administration continues to sit on the sidelines. Meanwhile, many food companies have stopped using these food dyes of concern in European markets but continue to use them for the same foods sold in the U.S. market. (See this article from the Examiner about Kraft's Macaroni and Cheese.)

This week, IATP and seven other non-governmental organizations wrote to the FDA, calling on the agency to act on a formal petition filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in 2008 to ban currently approved dyes, including Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6.

Last year, IATP put out two consumer tools to help inform parents about food dyes. IATP's Brain Food Selector is a database that helps parents easily find which foods contain synthetic dyes. Parents can search by brand, product type or whichever dye they're concerned with. IATP's Smart Guide to Food Dyes describes why synthetic food dyes are used, associated children's health concerns and what parents can do.

Increasingly, these dyes have been found to increase hyperactivity and other disturbed behavior in children. Synthetic food dyes are unnecessary and provide no health benefits. The European Union will require companies to use warning labels on most food dyed foods beginning in July 2010.

"The latest science indicates that even modest amounts of synthetic food dyes can affect learning in children," says IATP's David Wallinga, M.D. "We need the food industry and U.S. government agencies to catch up with the latest science and start protecting our children. Until then, parents need to be armed with information when they go shopping."

Monday, March 22, 2010

IATP President Jim Harkness reflects on World Water Day and his recent visit to Beijing.

Monday, March 22, 2010

IATP's Shiney Varghese gives us five things we can do as individuals and in our communities to reduce bottled water use.

1. If you are concerned about the quality of your local water:

2. If you have continued concern or if your building is old with the possibility of contamination:

3. Stop buying bottled water:

4. Write a letter to the local businesses and other places you visit, urging them to stop selling and/or serving bottled water:

  • Sample letters for restaurant, café, co-op and stores are available here.
  • Please consider writing similar letters to other venues you visit (e.g., gyms, offices and events).

5. Join a campaign to help spread the idea! Examples include:

Monday, March 22, 2010

The release of the new video, ‘The story of bottled water,” on this World Water Day (2010) got me thinking. It has now been more than 10 years since I came across what was perhaps the first landmark study on the bottled water industry. It concluded that bottled water is not necessarily safer than tap water, pointing out that bottled water regulations are inadequate to assure consumers of either purity or safety. The Natural Resources Defence Council, authors of the 1999 study, petitioned FDA to "Establish [..] rules as stringent as those applicable to city tap water.” Despite the threat to consumer health that this report highlighted, bottled water sales skyrocketed in the intervening decade.

Since 2000, IATP has been promoting the human right to water through multiple venues, including a focus on the United Nations. Right to water, as we define it, is the right of people and ecosystems to have access to safe water to remain healthy. Effectively, we insist that every person has a right to access water in quantity and quality necessary to meet their basic needs—water for cooking, drinking, washing, sanitation and for meeting basic livelihood needs.

In practical terms, what does the right to water mean?

• Ensuring that water supply systems are democratically governed; it means that not only those living in legal residential areas but also those in informal settlements are entitled to water services.

• Ensuring that rural residents, and those who are not covered by piped water-supply systems, do not find their water sources are being diverted, polluted, contaminated or depleted without being considered a stakeholder.

In order to address the water needs of the poor around the world, a right to water campaign needs to address not only the domestic water needs, but also the water needs of the ecosystems that sustain a large majority of the water poor. Thus, we define the  right to water rather broadly as pertaining not only to current populations, but future generations as well.

The connection between this work and the proliferation of bottled water use around the world was made starkly clear to me in mid-2002, while on a visit to my home state Kerala, in India. A little over 10 years ago, Coca-Cola arrived in the Plachimada village, promising employment and local economic growth while building a 40-acre bottling plant: Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages, the bottling arm of Coca-Cola, began operations in March 2000. The factory was located between two housing colonies of poor landless laborers belonging to lower castes and indigenous groups. Their water woes began soon after the opening of the facility: water from the plant was dumped outside without any treatment, affecting their water quality. It was not long before farmers in the surrounding areas were affected by water depletion and other environmental problems including land and water pollution.

At the time, the Statesman reported on the situation of Shahidul Hameed, a small farmer in the region. Before the factory started operations, his “little patch of land in the green, picturesque rolling hills of Palakkad yielded 50 sacks of rice and 1,500 coconuts a year. It provided work for dozens of labourers.” By the summer of 2003, Hameed “could manage only five sacks of rice and just 200 coconuts. His irrigation wells have run dry, thanks to Coke drawing up to 1.5 million litres of water daily through its deep wells to bottle Coke, Fanta, Sprite and the drink the locals call without irony, “Thumbs Up.” But the cruelest twist is that while the plant bottles mineral water, local people—who can never afford it—are now being forced to walk up to 10 kilometres twice a day for a pot of drinking water. […] The disruption in life because of depletion of groundwater and contamination by pollutants has forced villagers to picket the factory for the past 470 odd days,” the Statesman reported. The vigil started on earth day in 2002!

Plachimada is about 120 miles from my home. On my second visit to Plachimada, I decided to take an overnight journey by train and to spend a couple of days in the village, where local people had been sitting on a dharna (vigil) for over two years: demanding that Coca-Cola shut down the plant, compensate them and leave the region. Several organizations from and around the region had come together under the name Plachimada Struggle Solidarity Committee in support of the Coca-Cola Virudha Janakeeya Samara Samithy (Anti Coca-Cola Peoples Struggle Committee)—the backbone of the struggle.

Mailamma, one of the Adivasi leaders of the campaign whom I had met during my previous visit, took me to the well in her courtyard. Monsoons were already here; unlike the previous time when the water was no longer at the bottom of her well. In fact, we could draw some water using a make-shift bucket in less than a few minutes. It was crystal clear, but it still had a horrible bitter taste. I had to spit it out.

Mylamma with plastic pitchers in the foreground According to tests conducted by various groups, the water contained too much dissolved salts to drink, cook with or even wash in. Fortunately their fight against Coke over the previous two years had yielded some minimal results: The government had ordered the company to stop drawing water, and subsequently the company had suspended its operations. Moreover, villagers were being supplied with water twice a day. To the right, you can see a picture of “waiting pots” with Mailamma in the background pointing to the pots. Another photo below shows a water supply tanker parked in front of the bottling plant.

Water tanker But they have not been as lucky when it comes to water for other livelihood needs. The villages around the Coca-Cola factory have many large farmers with relatively big land holdings (varying between 10 to 35 acres). These have been the primary source of employment for the majority of landless advasis and low-caste people, who account for close to 40 percent of the population. In addition, most people keep goats, chicken and other small animals as a source of livelihood. The bottling plant’s operations have affected the livelihoods of the farmers, of the laborers who work in these farms, and those who keep small animals.

In a landmark decision on August 9, 2006, the state government of Kerala imposed a ban on the production and sale of colas (both Coca-Cola and Pepsi) in the southern Indian state. Ten days later the Adivasi Samrakshna Sanghom leaders Velur Swaminathan and Mailamma called off the vigil that had lasted 52 months and had brought national and international attention to the small village.

Less than a year later Mailamma passed away. The bottling plant has been shut down for good but the campaign for justice continues. Plachimada Struggle Solidarity Committee and Adivasi Samrakshna Sanghom have been continuing their demand for compensation for the losses suffered as well as for the damages the bottling plant has caused in the area as a result of its reckless operations.

In June 2009, the government constituted an expert committee to study the nature and extent of losses suffered by the people of Plachimada as a result of the operation of the Coca-Cola plant there. It’s as if the call issued by the community earlier this year, on the third anniversary of Mailamma’s death (“A Call to struggle.. for water.. for life”), is beginning to get some response.

On March 18, 2010, the Petitions Committee of the Kerala Assembly, which looked into the environmental pollution and water shortage caused by the plant, wanted the government to take steps to get compensation from the multi-national giant for the losses suffered by villagers. Today, in a setback to Coca-Cola, the High Level Committee set up by Kerala Government suggested legal steps to realize Rs216.26 crore (approximately $47.5 million USD) as compensation from it for the “multi-sectoral” loss caused by its bottling operations in Plachimada.

It is fitting, even if coincidental, that such a recommendation by the State should be issued on World Water Day!

For more information, see Shiney Varghese's “Five actions steps on bottled water

Monday, March 22, 2010

A version of this commentary by IATP's Dennis Keeney and Sophia Murphy appeared in the March 20, 2010 issue of the Des Moines Register. A PDF version is available for download here.

Bill Gates and the biotech juggernauts are doing their best to keep Africa dependent on imported technology, just like in the bad old days of colonialism.

In the latest iteration of “the rich world knows best,” it is Bill Gates in the company of the few, huge private biotech firms that have joined the long (sorry) list of those that think they know best how Africa should grow its food. If the history of colonialism and subsequent development practice has taught us anything, it is that all interventions
must strengthen resilience, encourage diversity and be locally appropriate. The biotech seed proposal for Africa fails on all three counts.

A February 17 Des Moines Register article implies that the U.S. model of crop production
will be exported to African nations by giving biotech seed to African farmers. Exporting a model developed specifically for the U.S. to the 47 countries of sub-Saharan Africa is bad enough; worse, this model is focused largely on high inputs for monoculture corn and has caused enormous problems in the United States. Why would we want to export it?

Biotech corn is designed for monoculture production on large acreages like we have in the United States: African agriculture is overwhelmingly small-scale (on farms of less than one acre) and diverse, allowing for a more diverse diet as well as greater overall output given the dependence on rain-fed agriculture and very limited access to external expensive inputs such as fertilizer. It’s often claimed that biotech seeds will yield larger crops: In fact, there is no evidence that crops from biotechnology seeds produce higher yields than do crops from conventionally bred seeds.

Both Pioneer and Monsanto claim they will make the seeds available royalty-free but nothing is said about providing seeds at cost. Nor is anything said about the biotech industry’s stringent rules prohibiting saved seed. Biotech becomes a vehicle to introduce a need for a slew of expensive, and commonly fossil fuel–based, inputs. African farmers have historically, and for centuries, provided necessary inputs for themselves on-farm.

If Bill Gates is going to be responsible for spending hundreds of millions on agriculture
in Africa, we need his foundation to do better. So, what are the alternatives to high-input agriculture in Africa?

The Nigerian National Variety Release Committee is set to release improved corn varieties that address drought, low soil fertility, pests, diseases and parasitic weeds. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) developed these varieties in partnership
with other African plant breeding programs in Nigeria. These include 13 open-pollinated varieties with varying maturities and four hybrids with drought tolerance. They do not have the costs or legal hassles associated with genetic engineered varieties and will be suited for small farmers.

Another example is the work of Dr. Pedro Sanchez who spent his career working to develop low-cost and comprehensive soil rejuvenation programs for Eastern and Southern Africa and other food-deficit nations. Dr. Sanchez, the 2002 winner of the World Food Prize, has shown how biodiverse small farms can not only produce more local food but also build soil fertility and rural economies.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development—now endorsed by over 50 countries—reached similar conclusions.

In the United States, the biotech industry has dictated the terms of the technology, trampling over the interests and concerns of farmers and the public alike. Biotech crops have resulted in fewer farmers growing more agricultural raw materials and less food, exactly the opposite of what is needed in Africa.

We suggest the Gates Foundation support ongoing African research rather than import capital-intensive technology developed to address problems that are far from most Africans’ concerns. The privately patented and tightly controlled model epitomized by biotechnology is all wrong for the estimated 33 million small farms that make up 80 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s agriculture.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Large financial institutions play a big role in our food system. From providing credit to farmers, to influencing commodity futures markets that ultimately play a role in setting food prices, big financial players deeply influence the food chain. The latest issue of Food Ethics magazine, published out of the United Kingdom, examines how the breakdown of our financial system has affected food security.

The issue includes articles on whether our finance system is set up to value the environment and hunger; the role of big financial speculators in creating volatility in food prices; food companies and tax avoidance; and how finance could best support a sustainable food system.

IATP's Steve Suppan contributes an article on the role of commodity market deregulation in the U.S. and global food prices. Suppan writes about how speculators like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley dominated agricultural futures markets to drive prices up in 2007 and early 2008, and then down as they disinvested from the market.

Food Ethics editor Tom MacMillan writes in his introduction: "The bottom line is that governments need to make the link between food security and financial regulation, to support long-term investment everywhere from the biggest companies to the smallest farmers around the world. Better rules and practices could speed us towards a sustainable food system. Right now, though, our financial institutions have their feet on the brakes."

Friday, March 19, 2010

The conference we co-organized on sustainable agriculture in China exposed a variety of viewpoints and perspectives about the role of agriculture in China—and particularly in rural China. Leading up to the Beijing conference, IATP President Jim Harkness and Professor Wen Tiejun from Renmin University appeared on China's English language TV to discuss the role of agriculture in rural China.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from Beijing.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from Beijing.

“How Should China Feed Itself?” (rather than “Who Will Feed China?”) might have been a good title for the international conference on sustainable agriculture and food that IATP co-hosted in Beijing from March 12 to 15.

Monday, March 15, 2010

It made sense that the first USDA/Department of Justice workshop on competition in agriculture reserved a panel to focus on the beginning of the food chain: the seed industry. 

The panel at the March 12 workshop in Ankeny, Iowa zeroed in on Monsanto's control of the seed industry, primarily for corn and soybeans. The Justice Department has begun a preliminary investigation of Monsanto's practices in the soybean market. Seven state attorneys general are also investigating Monsanto's soybean pricing practices - where the company holds an estimated 93 percent market share, reports Bloomberg. Monsanto's practices were a common target at a Thursday night townhall forum in Ankeny that we blogged about last week.

For farmers at the workshop, rising seed prices and the lack of choices in the marketplace were the issue. Seed prices have risen some 146 percent since 1999, and 64 percent in just the last three years, according to a report by the Farmer to Farmer campaign. (For more on rising seed prices, see Dr. Charles Benbrook's comparison of organic and biotech seed premiums.)

Iowa grain farmer Eric Nelson told the 800 plus attendees that rising technology fees for biotech crops ate away any potential profits he might gain from increased yield. Nelson said he can get the same yield gains with conventional crops, and get a premium price. One of the main problems, according to Nelson, lies with current land grant research, which is funded by the big seed companies and not serving the greater public.

"We need to require that all germplasm be available to the public," said Nelson. "We need to look at the safety and wisdom of granting long-term patents on living things."

Not surprisingly, Monsanto VP Jim Tobin had a different view. Tobin argued that patents has attracted a great deal of innovation that wouldn't have occured otherwise. He said that innovation continues today - with a pipeline full of new products coming on the market. "There's a lot of choice today, they'll be a more choice in the future and tremendous competition for the farmer's needs," said Tobin.

The American Antitrust Institute's Diana Moss, who has written extensively on Monsanto's domination of the seed industry, was blunt in her analysis. She described the seed platform as essentially two markets, one for traits and another for traded seed.

"We've seen an increasing degree of vertical integration among these two markets," said Moss. "In the traits market, there is in effect a monopolist in Monsanto. In the downstream market, they give the illusion of choice."

Moss compared the seed industry to Microsoft's Windows operating system. You may buy a Dell or a HP or any number of computers - but they all have the same operating system. The result has been rising prices and less innovation.

The control of seeds goes to the heart of agriculture - both at the international and local level. While the USDA co-organized this workshop on Monsanto's control of the seed industry, earlier this month USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack touted efforts to gain greater acceptance of biotech seeds in other countries as part of the Administration's efforts to increase agricultural exports. And for those working to expand vegetable production targeting local markets in the U.S., keep in mind that Monsanto also owns Seminis, the world's largest vegetable seed company.

Scrutiny of the seed industry deserves much more than one panel at one workshop. The USDA and Department of Justice should add another workshop to their plans this year to focus exclusively on the seed industry.