August 2012

Thursday, August 30, 2012

In mid-June, beginning farmer and former IATP staff member Dayna Burtness was delivering her farm’s vegetables to clients in Minneapolis when she got the call: the rain that had started at mid-day had not let up for hours.  Things were looking bad back at Laughing Loon Farm.

Dayna rushed back to Northfield to find a river of floodwater rushing through her fields. “It was terrible,” she remembered.

The downpour dumped more than eight inches of rain in several hours, and the water in a ditch bordering Dayna’s fields overflowed, following the path of a creek that had been diverted off of the property many years ago.  A 40-foot-wide rushing river of floodwater wiped out a third of Dayna’s crops, in addition to transplant seedlings, equipment and materials.

The destructive weather didn’t stop there. Just as she was assessing which crops had escaped this first onslaught, severe storms struck again a few nights later.

“Golf ball– to Roma tomato–sized hail severely damaged the rest of the crops that hadn’t been washed away. It completely wiped out the rest of our sugar snap pea production, which was just starting to hit its stride. It snapped most of our tomato plants in half. It bashed up our fields of cucumbers, squash and winter squash, and it also snapped off many of the tops of the peppers and eggplants.” Neighbors of Laughing Loon were shocked at the devastation on Dayna’s farm, and even long-time residents can’t remember seeing such destructive flooding.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

You’ve surely heard about the worst drought in a generation that is devastating farmers throughout the Midwest and Great Plains. Many of us may have brown lawns and suffering gardens, but besides these inconveniences, how does the drought impact the rest of us who are not farming? Here’s a brief rundown.

  1. You are not likely to go thirsty. Despite the numerous long-term challenges the U.S. faces with water use and water quality, this is a time to appreciate the infrastructural investments that we have made in water and wastewater treatment. It’s remarkable how rare it is for drought to impact our ability to draw clean water from the tap and to safely treat wastewater.

  2. You are not suffering in dust storms. Decades of improvements in farming practices and crop genetics have mitigated the impacts on crop production. Photographs of the Great Plains in the 1930s are full of amazing dust storms that are unimaginable for most of us today. The widespread recognition of that time, that farmers had to make major transitions in tillage practices, and that policy had to support that transition, is a tribute to the foresight of previous generations.

  3. In many ways our food system is less resilient to shock than it used to be. Yes, our impressive food handling, trade and transportation systems have made it far easier to get food to places that need it, but in other ways our system is increasingly vulnerable. The lack of crop diversity on tens of millions of acres of Midwest corn and soybean fields leave agriculture susceptible to severe impacts from new pests and disease, and this agricultural system is highly dependent on plentiful chemical inputs and fossil fuels.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

One of the most exciting things about the upcoming Food + Justice = Democracy conference will be the incorporation of a Peoples Movement Assembly. These are designed to help gatherings develop collective political agreements and positions, and this particular assembly will have the conferees coalesce around the barriers to the creation of a just and healthy food system and the opportunity to address those barriers.

Over the next several weeks we are going to feature statements from some of the food justice leaders that will be attending the conference. So many of the conferees provide an awe-inspiring level of wisdom and experience to the food justice movement, and the movement will be all the stronger the more it is democratically built on that wisdom and experience.

Today we are featuring the words of Malik Yakini, founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and D-Town Farms, an IATP Food and Community Fellow, and recently recognized as a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award Honoree.

Justice requires a conscious, vigilant and active populace. Building towards food justice requires that we conduct public education campaigns to make communities aware of the impact of the current food system on our planet, our health and the economies of our communities. It requires that we provide local food–related models of what sustainability and justice might look like. These models must provide real ways that people can participate in growing, processing, distributing and selling healthy foods and realizing economic benefit from their efforts. They must provide communities with the opportunity to shape their food system and the policies driving it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

We are in the midst of the worst U.S. drought since the 1950s, and some regions are to the point of the Dust Bowl-era 1930s. As expected, prices of corn, soybeans and wheat have increased significantly, causing a rise in food prices and putting a difficult squeeze on many livestock farmers.

Fortunately the Obama administration and Congress have stepped up and decided to ... purchase meat from livestock farmers to donate through food assistance programs? Open up sensitive environmental lands for haying and grazing? And if Congress gets its act together, possibly pass a livestock disaster aid bill?

Addressing the economic challenges of the drought will of course be welcomed by farmers throughout the Midwest. Yet, comparing the policy actions of today to other times of agricultural crisis, these initiatives appear woefully unimaginative and small. Policymakers are clearly missing the forest for the trees, and prefer to make a lot of noise about small policies rather than address structural issues.

It would be one thing if the food and agricultural economy tended to hum along fine and economic calamities were rare, but that is clearly not the case. If it isn't a drought, it's been a flood, or exploding energy costs, or food safety concerns, or Wall Street speculators, or skyrocketing land values. Our food system—the most important of production systems—is disturbingly vulnerable to events well beyond the control of farmers. And perhaps the most chronic of problems occurs when farmers produce an abundance of crops, when everything goes well, and commodity prices are driven down below the farmers' cost of production.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Food + Justice = Democracy is less than a month away! IATP is bringing together food justice leaders from across the country, from the grassroots to the grasstops, to raise up the food system narratives of communities of color and tribal nations. Come join us September 24–26 and add your voice to the co-creation of a national food justice platform.

In the coming weeks, we will be introducing our presenters, facilitators and some of the issues we’ll be addressing at Food + Justice = Democracy. Today, we would like to introduce our keynote speaker: Mr. Douglas Blackmon.

Douglas A. Blackmon is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, and co-executive producer of the acclaimed PBS documentary based of the same name. Mr. Blackmon's keynote address and film will be a centerpiece of Food + Justice = Democracy.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Farmers throughout the country are experiencing one of the worst droughts in 50 years. It’s times like these that federal farm policy is most appreciated. After all, regardless of crop yields we all still need to eat, and having a thriving agricultural economy that sustains our natural resources and provides farmers with an adequate income is the best way to protect our food supply now and into the future.

Two of the primary titles of the Farm Bill, the commodity and crop insurance titles, are specifically intended to support a profitable and stable farming economy. The political process, however, tends to create policies that often deviate from the stated intentions. Crop insurance and many commodity programs have been designed to support large-scale commodity production, and thereby have created disincentives for smaller-scale and diversified cropping systems, as well as ineffective support systems for organic and direct-marketing farmers. The end result is that the crops grown in the U.S. have little correlation to the foods needed for a healthy diet.

U.S. agriculture is continuing a longstanding trend toward bigger, more industrial farms with less crop diversity, and federal farm policy often contributes to this trajectory. While this trajectory’s footprint on the agricultural landscape is clear, the impact on the U.S. diet is not well studied. After all, health advocates have plenty of other policies in USDA’s purview to keep an eye on, from food stamps to school lunch to food safety. Why should public health advocates spend time advocating for particular farm commodity programs when the path from farm (to grain buyer to food processor to retail store) to consumer is so convoluted?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

This Saturday, August 18, marks IATP’s second annual Bike and Bite celebration, a day to eat, drink, bike and appreciate the dedication to local food that exists in our own Minneapolis community.

This year, Bike and Bite also celebrates the United Nation’s International Year of the Cooperative. Many of us love the notion of the cooperative. You may imagine a few people, probably college students, living together, sharing their food and responsibilities. Housing cooperatives are certainly prevalent, but cooperatives span the full spectrum of business. Most Minnesotans may not realize that our state has the highest number of cooperative businesses in the United States. According to the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Cooperatives’ research, over one thousand cooperatives from 16 different business sectors employ over 42,000 Minnesotans!

Why are there so many cooperatives in Minnesota? Scandinavian, German and Dutch immigrants brought the business model over from Northern Europe in the early 1800s where many cooperative businesses, particularly agricultural cooperatives, were thriving. Since, the popularity of cooperatives has grown immensely in part due to their high rate of success. An international study estimates that 64 percent of cooperatives around the world survive their first five years compared to only 32 percent of other business model types. Further, they estimate the survival rate of cooperative businesses is even higher in the American Midwest.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

In the first blog in this series, I discussed how drought has affected me. As I walked through a Central Iowa corn field near Ames this summer, I surveyed another corn crop destroyed by the heat and dry conditions, (see photo) I wondered if this farm could survive.

I thought back to the farm I grew up on and how in the long run it did not survive. That is, it did not have “resilience” to withstand weather onslaughts, unfavorable markets and aggressive bankers.

So what the heck is resilience? An old term, but coming back into its own, at least in academic circles. And it is a good one for the times, perhaps for the rest of our rocky future.

And rocky it will be. Climate change, population pressures, decline of resources, both physical and financial, the list goes on. But first resilience.

Dr. William Reese at the University of British Columbia, in his challenging paper “Thinking Resilience” defines resilience as “the capacity of a system to withstand disturbances while still retaining its fundamental structure, function and internal feedbacks” (see also Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Walker, B., and Salt, D. Island Press, N.Y. NY. 2006.)

Fancy words, but what does it mean? Reese uses a good analogy, the brittleness of a system. Can the system spring back like the ability of a car’s shock absorbers to smooth out a pothole (those of you who to drive the streets of Minneapolis can appreciate that ability).

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

July was an important month for saving antibiotics, and a busy month for IATP’s Healthy Food Action. Here’s what’s happened.

FDA data show 90 percent of the more than 29 million pounds of antibiotics given to food animals each year are put into animal feed or water. Mostly, this is to promote growth or to compensate for the crowded, factory-style conditions in which they’re raised, inducing an unnecessary disease risk. There’s consensus that the huge farm overuse is helping create and transmit resistant infections to humans, where they lead to more illness, more death and rising health costs.

FDA’s never taken one of these approved feed antibiotics—including penicillins, tetracyclines, erythromycins and other important human drugs—off the market. Earlier this year, federal courts decided against the FDA on the first of two legal claims. In effect, the decision said that FDA was unreasonable in putting a 35-year-old decision on the backburner and continuing to allow the addition of penicillins and tetracyclines to animal feedan—an unnecessary risk to public health. FDA appealed that ruling, and asked for a stay in implementing the decision.

Monday, August 13, 2012

In many arenas, agriculture and trade policy have as much to do with human rights and democracy as they do with crop yields and commodity prices. In November, Minnesotans will be faced with a choice to protect human rights and democracy by voting against two constitutional amendments on the ballot—one would ban people of the same sex from marrying and the other would prevent citizens without a government-issued ID from voting.

We are convinced all Minnesotans should oppose these amendments. Respect for human rights includes fairness for all people in marriage laws, and requiring voter ID will deprive many rural citizens, immigrants and military personnel the opportunity to vote.

Even beyond the amendments’ calls to restrict rights and limit participation in the democratic process, IATP takes issue with governing by constitutional amendment—it’s reckless and risks putting the interests of corporations over those of individuals.

Read the full letter, and sign up to stay connected to IATP's future work on these issues.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

You’ve probably heard about the hormone-disrupting chemical, BPA, put into food can liners. Eden Foods, a maker of canned beans, tomatoes and other products, gave BPA the boot long ago.

Campbell’s Soup, among other companies, has announced it will phase BPA out of cans, but without disclosing when, or what alternative(s) will replace it.

In fact, food is a major route of exposure to all sorts of chemicals like BPA. Just not the only route. It turns out BPA also is part of that that filmy coating on ATM and other receipts. Known as thermal receipt paper, it’s widely used in cash registers, for airline tickets, even in adhesive labels on grocery deli foods.

An estrogen-coated receipt in your purse? Big yuck. Even worse, new science suggests BPA can be absorbed through the skin. As usual, we know there are alternatives. The EPA’s Design for the Environment Program just released a draft report on 19 chemical alternatives to BPA for use in developing thermal paper.

EPA is welcoming comments through October 12, 2012. For more on BPA, visit our sister project, Healthy Legacy