May 2010

Monday, May 31, 2010

In mid-May, the Des Moines Register published a 7-part series on Africa by reporter Philip Brasher. He traveled to Kenya and South Africa to obtain information for the series. It focuses on corn (maize in Africa) and on the role of biotechnology (its political, as well as its yield aspects) in providing food for sub-Sahara Africa—an area that is short on quality soils, has poor rainfall distribution and is expanding rapidly in population.

The first in the series “High hopes and high stakes” puts the United States government’s pro-biotech bias in perspective. He quotes former Iowa Governor and current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as saying that Gates-sponsored Monsanto and biotech industry projects in Africa will help “knock down some the concerns that are expressed globally and domestically about biotechnology.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed similar views and both echo President Obama’s cheerleading efforts (which probably come more from the medical side of biotech).

Still, it now seems to be the U.S. government against most everyone else when it comes to biotech seeds. Often Brasher characterizes Europe as the main force working against biotech in Africa. But only Southern Africa has approved the maize seed for commercial use. And many countries in Asia are just as opposed to biotech seeds. Are he and others using Europe as a scapegoat?

Truly King Corn is worldwide in its influence. Yet corn (white corn, but Brasher does not differentiate) is a key staple for the poor African; 300 million Africans depend on it, some three times a day and so far Africa’s rate of corn production has lagged behind its rate of population increase. Clearly more corn and other staple production is needed. So the question is: How to go about increasing production?

Perhaps the question is already being answered, at least in the short term. South Africa (Africa's Iowa) had the largest corn harvest in 2010 since 1982. Increased land in cultivation, timely rains and better cultivars have contributed to the increase. In fact, South Africa corn prices have dropped more than 30 percent this year and growers are considering withholding corn from the market to increase prices. Part of the problem is the lack of infrastructure to ship the corn to the parts of Africa, such as Kenya, where it is needed.

At the BIGMAP symposium I attended before reading Brasher’s opus, it was painfully clear that a major barrier for many African countries is more fundamental than seeds: it is the lack of infrastructure. In addition, many do not have adapted seeds (open-pollinated and hybrid) to respond to inputs such as fertilizer, they lack rainfall to maximize yields (sometimes just to germinate the seed) and things are getting more dire with climate change. They lack plant breeders, seed distribution centers, lines of credit, and post-harvest storage. In other words, the challenges are much more than just yield.

The Gates-funded projects with Pioneer and Monsanto that we've previously written about hope to incorporate two major traits in the new corn seeds: drought tolerance (Monsanto) and increased nitrogen efficiency (Pioneer). The corn already contains the genetically engineered Bt trait for insect control. These seeds will need to produce higher yields that override the almost certain increased costs of the seed, the fertilizer and other production costs associated with GE crops. And remember that farmers in Africa don't have the abundance of government programs available to U.S. corn farmers if weather or the market impacts profitability.

Brasher's series emphasizes the problems biotech companies have in finding adequate field plots to conduct breeding and yield trials. Not mentioned is the fact that industry restricts independent scientists and others from studying the seed. Further, a lack of established regulations hinders the establishment of field trials.

Brasher's comparison of the acceptance of biotech in South Africa, the European Union and America was revealing. Essentially Europe still says no, driven by consumer resistance. But Brasher indicated that a report by USDA in Rome argued that consumer resistance in the EU was not as strong as believed and that an “education” (read propaganda) campaign targeted to Italy might be a good place to start turning things around. No doubt there are other stealth campaigns to try to get biotech crops into Europe.

The series continues to beg the question: What is behind all these efforts to foist GE technology on Africa? It can't be direct profit from African sales; that will be vanishingly small. Not Africans feeding Africa, that is impossible until the numerous infrastructure problems are dealt with. One has to wonder whether it really is about the image of Monsanto and Pioneer in the U.S. (and possibly EU in the future), and the vast pro-biotech lobby that resides within the USDA. And it is about market share, not just in Africa but worldwide.

Two agronomists have recently won the World Food Prize for work they have done in Africa. They have somewhat different views on how to improve African agriculture. Gebisa Ejata, who just won the World Food Prize in 2009, feels African farmers need basic knowledge about farming methods. In a recent paper in Science, he stated that Africa needs both strong internal leadership and external assistance, particularly in the areas of human and institutional capacity building. Pedro Sanchez, who won the World Food Prize in 2002, feels that increased access to markets and more fertilizer use could also help and that drought tolerance is essential to combat the threat of climate change.

In the end, no one can predict the correct path. Improved genetics certainly is part of the puzzle, but even more is the need for infrastructure. Infrastructure was an essential part of Norman Borlaug’s green revolution. Even Gates millions cannot create miracles. Only hard work by Africans and attention to African needs and climate will bring about the level of food production needed. And that may not be enough. The struggle against encroaching climate change, overwhelming population pressures and misguided government aid programs will only slow efforts.

The Brasher reports reflect these stark challenges. Unfortunately, they stride the political barbed wire fence by putting more emphasis on biotech than it can possibly deliver—without exploring the role of more needed alternatives.

Friday, May 28, 2010

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Earlier this week, Jim Harkness blogged about a fascinating two-day workshop on consumer cooperatives held in Beijing, China. Below, you can watch video reports about the conference from IATP's Jim Harkness, The Wedge Community Co-op's Lindy Bannister, and IATP's China Program Officer Chang Tianle.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

IATP President Jim Harkness reports from Beijing on a workshop on consumer cooperatives. See the full collection of photos from the workshop in the Facebook photo album.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Currently, the navigation infrastructure on the Mississippi costs the federal government an estimated $100 million a year to maintain—a subsidy that supports the export of Minnesota's agricultural products. Now, the navigation industry is pushing for more: nearly $270 million. In a new commentary, published yesterday in the Star Tribune, IATP's Mark Muller explains why increased investment in export channels like the locks and dams from Minneapolis to southern Illinois is bad for Minnesota agriculture.

“Now that the Farm Bill has encouraged all of this corn and soybean production, federal policymakers apparently feel some responsibility for facilitating the export of these crops,” he writes. “When agriculture production is narrowed down to just a couple of crops [...] economic opportunities that provide a greater return are lost. This hurts the Midwest farmers that have little choice to grow these crops even when prices are lousy, and hurts rural communities that need economic development.”

Read the entire commentary, “Don't give up on Minnesota's agriculture innovation,” here (pdf).

Monday, May 24, 2010

As BP and government agencies struggle to stem the devastating flow of oil now hitting the Louisiana coast, there is growing desperation to find a solution—and fast. Green Earth Technologies, Inc. (GET) is seeking approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to disperse manufactured nanoparticles in the Gulf of Mexico to remedy the oil spill. IATP and more than a dozen other organizations think this is a bad idea.

In a letter organized by Friends of the Earth, IATP and others urged EPA to deny approval of this project. Manufactured nanoscale chemicals measure less than 300 nanometers. A human hair is about 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers. The large surface to volume ratio of nanoparticles is supposed to prevent the oil from coagulating and then being carried by ocean currents to damage coastal areas. The problem is that nanoparticles have been found to be toxic to humans, mammals and aquatic life. Manufactured nanoparticles can travel up the food chain from smaller to larger organisms. In this case, the exact composition of nanoparticles being used by Green Earth Technologies are trade secrets so the extent of toxicity is unknown.

The groups wrote, "We understand the enormous technical and regulatory challenges posed by the oil spill. However, two wrongs do not make a right. Exacerbating this grave situation by allowing GET to add pollutants to contaminated land and water should not be allowed, especially considering that the GET nanoparticles could be impossible to recover once introduced into the environment. We fully oppose this irresponsible, unscientific and dangerous experiment."

IATP has been looking into food and agriculture applications of nanotechnology and the lack of strong regulations to protect the environment and public health.

Read the full letter on nanotech and the oil spill.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Senate vote on historic financial reform critical for agriculture
New rules would help address excessive speculation in agricultural futures contracts

May 21, 2010
Contact: Ben Lilliston, (612) 870-3416,

Minneapolis – The Senate’s approval of an historic financial reform bill last night is a first step toward preventing the excessive financial speculation that has wreaked havoc in agricultural commodity futures contracts over the last several years, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

Most importantly for agriculture, the Senate bill requires that previously unregulated over-the-counter (OTC) trades be traded on public exchanges. Currently, OTC trades are exempt from regulatory oversight by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). IATP is part of the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition working to close regulatory loopholes that allow OTC trading and excessive speculation to continue unabated. The Senate bill must now be reconciled with the House of Representatives’ “Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.” 

“The Senate bill helps make the market function like a market should—in an open and transparent way, instead of like a casino where only five big financial firms know what is going on,” said IATP analyst Steve Suppan. “Excessive speculation has hurt U.S. agriculture by undermining the original purpose of commodity exchanges—to help commodity sellers and buyers manage price risk. We don’t want a repeat of 2008, when prices were so volatile that U.S. grain elevators couldn’t hedge their own risks on commodity exchanges. Some elevators refused to contract to buy farmers’ grain in advance, leading to a cash flow crisis on many farms.”

By requiring that nearly all trades be executed on public and regulated exchanges, the Senate bill enables the CFTC to analyze daily trade data and determine when traders have exceeded the CFTC’s commodity-specific position limits. OTC traders benefit from public exchange price data but hide the price data of their own deals, a huge and unfair trade advantage that has benefitted big financial firms. Position limits refer to the percentage of all commodity contracts open for trade during a specific trading period. Enforcing position limits enables the CFTC to prevent the excessive liquidity that induced price volatility on agriculture commodity markets during 2007–2009.

In 2008, IATP first reported on the role of big financial firms in contributing to steep food price increases in late 2007 to early 2008. Commodity prices later collapsed an aggregate of 60 percent between June and November 2008 as the insolvency of major investors, including commodity index fund dealers, led to U.S. taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street firms.

The extreme price volatility not only affected U.S. agriculture, but ultimately contributed to increased hunger in many of the two-thirds of developing countries that are food-import dependent and that rely on U.S. markets for predictable purchase prices. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) have reached similar conclusions on the role of excessive speculation in creating extreme volatility in agricultural and non-agricultural commodity prices.

“If the Senate and House conference committee eliminates the loopholes that enabled the crisis in both financial and commodity markets, President Obama will be able to sign a bill to make markets work for agriculture and all Americans, and not just for Wall Street and the transnational corporations that hide their deals in OTC trades,” said Suppan.

Friday, May 21, 2010

IATP Crew Syttende Mai (May 17) is Constitution Day in Norway. In Milan, Minnesota, out on the western prairie, hundreds of Norway’s distant sons and daughters gather on Syttende Mai to celebrate their Scandinavian heritage, language, food, music and customs. IATP joined the celebration this year in a parade that wound its way through the village and down Main Street. Our contribution to the festivities included an angel, a devil and one sinner towing the IATP banner in support of community-based energy conservation and the Milan Sustainable Energy Utility project.

Before lining up for the parade we went to the Kviteseid Smorgaas Tea in the Little Norwegian Church basement. We were welcomed by Anne and Chuck Kanten, the presiding Milan Citizens of the Year. Our own little IATP devil, Emily Barker, identified the wonderful food served in the smorgasbord, including two kinds of lefse, flatbreads, krumkaaka, spritz, Norwegian meatballs, blod klub, Gjettost with cloudberry jam, rommegrot and coffee. And then even more coffee.

Chuck Kanten provided an update on the sugar beet crop, with almost all the beets in the ground. The next week or so, when the first cotyledons appear, the sugar crop is vulnerable. Chuck explained that if a frost occurs, the young leaves fly up into the air like helicopters and the field will need to be replanted.

We took a quick side trip to Watson, Minnesota, just down the road from Milan to visit a small, but very intensive community vegetable garden owned by Aziz Ansari. Mr. Ansari and his wife ran into trouble with the town council over the garden and recently settled a law suit  with the garden staying where it is and Aziz receiving $50,000 in compensation.

Mud Boots Crew marching band Back in Milan, the IATP Energy Conservation Angel and High-Priced Energy Devil joined Electric Bill and Phantom Load Phil and lined up in the parade behind the Mud Boots Band, a group of Community Supported Agriculture farmers and farmworkers who played an incredible collection of instruments, including the bass drum, saxophone, accordion, garbage can covers and a trumpet, to name a few. Behind the IATP contingent was a 1967 lime green Mustang convertible with three women playing a variety of popular tunes on their car horn. Erik Thompson, the town banker showered our path with candy insuring applause as we passed by.

Hundreds of people lined the street and were sitting in their front yards watching the fun as we handed out leaflets inviting them to attend a series of trainings on creating a community controlled revolving loan fund to pay for conservation and renewable energy projects using the best possible resources and technology available. The dates for the four workshops are Wednesdays from 6:30–8:30 p.m. on July 21, August 25, September 22 and October 13 at the school. IATP’s Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy has been leading the project and working with the Greater Milan Initiative to raise startup money and get the word out.

Not every Syttende Mai day has an Energy Conservation Angel, but in Milan you can always count on celebrating May 17 with a community that treasures its traditions and is committed  to keep their village strong and hopeful.

View all the photos from our visit to Milan for Syttende Mai here.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What do over 90 percent of 50 cans from 19 states and one Canadian province have in common? BPA. It's not a riddle, but the disturbing results of a new study (No Silver Lining) released Tuesday by the Chemical Safety Workgroup. The Healthy Legacy Coalition (IATP is a steering committee member) is a contributor to the workgroup and has published a new blog post that details some key findings of the report.

Perhaps more important than the alarmingly high 90-percent incidence rate are the implications of where and at what levels BPA was discovered. The samples were made up of "real life" meal options—fruits, vegetables, soda, fish and others—and the levels of BPA were radically inconsistent between identical products: Two different cans of the same brand of peas (with different "lot numbers") contained very different levels of BPA, for instance. Both the broad swath of BPA's presence, and the lack of consistency, make avoiding exposure challenging to say the least.

Read Kim LaBo's blog entry over at the Healthy Legacy blog for more findings of the study and Healthy Legacy's next steps in the fight against toxics in consumer products.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

IATP's Sophia Murphy attended an invite-only meeting outside of Dublin earlier this week organized by the UN High-Level Task Force for the Global Food Security Crisis.

Home today from Dublin. I ducked in and out around the ash cloud—some 30 of the 150 or so expected participants at the Dublin meeting didn't make it when the airport shut down. A pity. It was a good meeting—serious, purposeful, good humored; a good mix of UN and NGOs, with a sprinkling of government officials. We were there to discuss the update to the Common Framework for Action in response to the Global Food Crisis (IATP's comments here). The discussions were all off-the-record, but here are a few thoughts on what happened. 

First, it is encouraging that the framework is being updated. The original wasn't bad—a bit patchy, some jarring assertions (to my eye) and a lot of good ideas. It was done in a rush, and that showed; though actually things done in a rush are not necessarily worse that things lingered over, especially when you involve some 20 or so UN agencies plus the World Bank (which is technically UN) and the WTO (which is explicitly, though controversially, outside the UN system). Anyway, well done to the High-Level Task Force team for pushing through with an update.

Second, the first go round involved no NGOs or civil society voices. This round has. Not that the document is consensus based, or even for NGO ownership. The Dublin meeting was a consultation, not the creation of any formal partnership. The document is intended for sign-off by the heads of all the agencies involved, and thereby to guide agency work related to food security. NGOs can walk away and bash at the CFA take II all they like, but it was a serious consultation, with time and enormous effort put into both acknowledging the written submissions (which came from some 51 NGOs and CSOs) and thinking how best to allow participation from the audience. 

Third, I used to work in NGO relations for the UN, with an office called the Non-Governmental Liaison Service. I have attended many of UN meetings, both on the UN side (helping UN agencies understand how NGOs work, and trying to get them to pay more attention to what NGOs could contribute) and on the NGO side, before and after my stint at the UN. I think things have come a long way since I was really involved in this kind of work in the 1990s. The whole culture has changed. While the UN is run by governments, NGOs represent a very different perspective that is invaluable. NGOs are on the ground, facing different constraints and opportunities. The interaction among the UN officials themselves seemed relaxed and constructive, with few turf lines drawn, and between the UN and NGOs, somehow natural and uncomplicated. It was a very welcome atmosphere. The meeting was co-chaired by Tom Arnold, CEO of the NGO Concern International, and David Nabarro, the UN Secretary General's appointment to head the task force. 

The draft still has to be finalized and is expected soon—possibly as early as mid-June. I think it will reflect this consultation and the ideas that were put forward—and will be the better for it. Moreover, I think the UN knows and appreciates that this is so. It was a good way to spend two days.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

BIGMAP is not an overweight atlas, but rather an acronym for Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products. Their seventh annual symposium, entitled “Food, Feed, and Fuel for the World: Seed and Biotechnology” was held on April 27–28 in southern LA (Lovely Ames, Iowa). This symposium is open to all registrants at no cost. The Gateway Hotel really knows how to put on conferences, with spacious rooms, great snacks and a delicious lunch on the 28th.

BIGMAP is a program of the Iowa State University Seed Science Center. Directed by Manjit Misra, the SSC has seen rapid growth over the past two decades. The stated mission of the Seed Science Center is to “improve production, quality assurance, marketing, utilization, and regulatory environment of seed through research, testing, teaching, outreach, and international programs.” BIGMAP’s mission is to “provide science-based analysis of the risks and benefits of genetically modified plant and animal products. It will provide guidance and education to help safeguard consumers and the environment.”

This will be the third BIGMAP conference I have attended; I can’t resist a free lunch. But seriously, it consistently has good information, even if it's not necessarily what IATP might agree with. I am always treated well, even though the IATP name tag brings some quizzical looks. This year one conference staffer asked what I was doing there, since IATP always works against the use of GMOs. My reply is that GMOs are part of the bigger system and we all need information.

The conference presented several mixed messages. It was polite to the core, no disagreements or negative body language (except for a few nodding off now and then). It had little to say about feed or fuel, but rather concentrated on food and almost exclusively on sub-Saharan Africa (referred to from now on as Africa) and Southeast Asia, with a bit of South America thrown in.

Biotech in food-deficient countries is presenting major issues for science, regulatory agencies, the private seed sector and NGOs. There are regulatory issues such as “low-level presence” (how to regulate presence of minute amounts of GMO genes and how to properly evaluate biosafety). African, Latin American and Indian scientists and bureaucrats talked about the development of seed enterprises in their regions, a big problem regardless of seed sources. There is a huge deficit of infrastructure for building quality commercial seed systems. These will not be solved in the short-term. Lack of access to credit, which would allow the purchase of quality inputs such as adapted seeds and fertilizers, lack of technical expertise in crop production and post harvest processing and handling, problems accessing markets and limited collective action are also issues. NGOs were not on the agenda.

Part of the discussion focused on the regulatory systems for GMOs in various parts of the world. I was appalled at the regulatory climate, especially in India, where the number of approval agencies in each state is huge and disparate. In Africa, many nations have minimum regulatory and testing agencies, and little commonality in regulations. Harmonization is definitely needed.

Joe DeVries of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) gave an outstanding overview of the challenges to a sustainable seed supply in Africa. It should be noted that AGRA has considerable Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funding. While plant breeding was a key to food security in Africa, infrastructure needs such as seed distribution, seed policies, etc., must go along with good genetics. He did not even mention use of biotechnology. Another part of the theme is the lack of trained plant breeders. In the U.S., public plant breeding has been shoved to the bottom of the agronomy heap and industry took over. So training the cadre of needed scientists will not come overnight. The overall goal is to provide quality seed at low costs, preferably higher yielding hybrids, but in some cases open pollinated varieties are sufficient.

An example DeVries gave: a local variety of maize without fertilizer yielded 13 bushels/acre, with fertilizer, 20 bushels/acre, while a hybrid without fertilizer yielded 19 bushels/ acre and a hybrid with fertilizer was 31 bushels/acre.

More than just maize seed is needed, as Africa has a wide variety of climates and ecological regions, each benefiting from different crops such as cassava and rice. To this end, more farmer participation and networking will be required to help breeders and private seed distributors meet farmers' needs. Similar situations exist in India and South America, but not as severe as in Africa. But little, if any, attention was given to saving landraces or seed conservation, except for yield traits. Sometime, maybe even now, Africa will need these seeds.

Finally, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation weighed in. The presentation was impressive, what was behind the veil is unknown. Yilma Kebede talked about the core values of the foundation: “all lives have equal values.” They have a limited set of issues including health, education and policy. Their agriculture development program focuses on Africa and Southeastern Asia. It aims at small farms, women, environmental market opportunities and innovation. The foundation is developing three levels of funding: high-risk, partnerships and sure things. They will spend considerable funding on evaluation of progress. Still, they spoke as a funding agency, not a driver of progress.

It was a conference of mixed messages and hidden agendas. I did not get the feeling of a big cheering squad for biotech from the scientists and technocrats. And there was a feeling that they know who is paying the bills. The needs are great, the time is short, and so far, there has been more talking than doing.