Think Forward blog

“Conversations” on technological utopias vs. tackling structural injustice in the global food system

Posted November 20, 2014

Used under creative commons license from theworldfoodprize.

This year’s World Food Prize and Borlaug Dialogue, held from October 17–19, 2014 in Des Moines, Iowa once again brought together the big gun stakeholders in industrial agriculture, and provided many insights to the current framing on the global food security challenge.

Given the parallel celebration of the Borlaug Centennial marking 100 years since the birth of Norman Borlaug, it should come as no surprise that Sanjaya Rajaram was named this year’s World Food Prize Laureate. As Borlaug’s protege in terms of sustaining his legacy of wheat breeding, this award for Rajaram appears to reinforce the importance of remembering what Borlaug was said to have achieved, while also ensuring that current research efforts at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, where Rajaram is based, continue to be perceived to play an important role in meeting global agricultural research needs. It is also noteworthy to acknowledge that Rajaram was born in India but has become a naturalized Mexican citizen given that Borlaug pioneered many Green Revolution ideas and technologies in Mexico in the mid 20th century before subsequently institutionalizing them in India’s post-independence agricultural sector. Indian agriculture continues to be geared towards a commitment to use “modern” and “improved” crop varieties and inputs even as many small farmers face a variety of severe social, environmental and economic challenges that fundamentally threaten production levels and livelihood security of a significant proportion of its population.     

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What you need to know about the India-US agreement at the WTO

Posted November 20, 2014 by Sophia Murphy   

Used under creative commons license from glennharper.

Just ahead of the G-20 Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane, Australia (November 15-16, 2014), India and the United States announced a breakthrough in their trade negotiations impasse over agriculture. That fight had brought trade negotiations to a crashing standstill in July after the few months of tentative optimism among negotiators that followed the eleventh-hour agreement in at the Bali Ministerial Conference in December 2013. Confidence in the multilateral rules-based trading system had reached an all-time low, and while the response was muted (an agreement between two WTO members is not the same as an agreement among all), the media coverage made it clear the news of the U.S.-India agreement was very welcome in trade circles.

Should the rest of the world share this excitement? The discussion underlying the fight between India and the United States has important implications for countries’ ability to set policy to promote food security and control their food systems—and the role the WTO and the multilateral system should play in that effort.

The India-US agreement means the 2013 Bali WTO Ministerial Conference will likely have an outcome after all: the Trade Facilitation Agreement1 is now widely expected to go ahead. India had been refusing to sign the agreement unless there was “substantive movement” on the Bali decision to revise the rules governing food security stocks within the WTO Agreement on Agriculture. In the agreement, the U.S. has agreed it will not challenge India’s spending on food stocks until the negotiations at the WTO on stocks are concluded, granting India what is called an indefinite peace clause for its programs.

How did we get here?

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Don't let Big Meat eat our bumper crop

Posted November 17, 2014 by Jim Kleinschmit   

Used under creative commons license from usdagov.

The last few years have not been good for the factory farm industry.  High prices for corn and other crops (in part driven by the growth of ethanol) made feed costs incredibly high, while at the same time, environmental and animal welfare advocates have been winning ballot and marketplace battles to shift more meat production out of intensive confinement and industrial systems.  Hog and cattle producers have been hit by disease, drought and weather related disasters, resulting in losses in both sectors. 

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Trade vs. local economies: Procurement on the table

Posted November 13, 2014 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

Communities across the United States and Europe are working to transform local economic systems so that they are more sustainable and equitable. Many states and communities are utilizing public procurement programs to support those efforts, especially bidding preferences for healthy, locally grown foods, energy or transportation programs that create local jobs and fair markets. Especially in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Buy American programs have helped ensure that taxpayer-funded programs create local jobs and serve social goals. Farm to School programs that incentivize purchases from local farmers have grown in all 50 U.S. states and many European countries. Innovative efforts are also underway to expand this approach to other institutions such as hospitals, universities and early childcare programs like Head Start.

In a move that could undermine those important initiatives, the European Union has made the opening of U.S. procurement programs to bids by European firms one of its priority goals for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). IATP published a new report today, Local Economies on the Table, which takes a look at what those proposals could mean.

The EU has been insistent on the inclusion of procurement commitments at all levels of government, for all goods, and in all sectors. At a speech in San Francisco, French trade minister Nicole Bricq declared, “Let’s dream a little with respect to public procurement. Why not replace ‘Buy American’ which penalizes our companies with ‘Buy Transatlantic’ which reflects the depth of our mutual commitment?”

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Big Meat flexes its muscles

Posted November 6, 2014 by Ben Lilliston   

Used under creative commons license from Mark Roy.

It wasn’t the subject of a barrage of campaign ads this past month, nor has it been widely reported in the media or even debated much in the halls of Congress but new rules are being written right now as part of an arcane, secret process that will expand global agribusiness’ choke-hold over our food system, and you are not invited. A new report, Big Meat Swallows the Trans-Pacific Partnership, released today from IATP takes an in-depth look at what’s at stake for global agribusiness—and particularly the big meat corporations—in potentially the largest regional free trade agreement ever negotiated, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

This weekend, President Obama will meet with leaders of 11 other Pacific Rim countries at the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit about TPP. The negotiations and the proposed treaty text itself are secret, behind-closed-doors affairs—and the corporations that will benefit like it that way.

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Canadian farmers don't own Wheat Board they built, grew and loved says top court

Posted October 21, 2014 by Steven Shrybman   

Used under creative commons license from TJMartins.

With some help from my friends (lawyers Anders Bruun and Ben Piper) I argued a case before the Federal Court of Appeal yesterday. The Court ruled from the bench; the result was mixed but more of a defeat than a victory.

Among other things, the case was about money.  An awful lot of it -- over $17 billion.  That is actually a realistic estimate of the value of the Canadian Wheat Board that has been destroyed by the Harper's government's decision to get rid of the Board's marketing monopoly for wheat and barley and to fire all of the directors elected by the farmers to sit on the Board.

With the benefit of the market power the monopoly afforded, a smart farmer-controlled Board had built an international brand for Canadian wheat that allowed it to claim a very nice premium in the market -- somewhere between $600-800 million a year. It also allowed the Board the leverage to negotiate favorable supply chain arrangements with the rail companies and international grain conglomerates so that grain could be moved efficiently to markets.

While the Wheat Board still exists, it has been run by Harper appointees since Dec. 2011 and has no marketing power. Last summer, the failure of supply chain logistics to move a bumper wheat crop to market cost farmers an estimated $4 billion.

The court was dealing with motions to strike a proposed class action brought on behalf of grain producers seeking compensation for the value of the Wheat Board the Government had taken and will now either sell or wind down.

At the center of the case was this question -- can the Government simply take the assets, which include the enormously valuable goodwill the Board built, from the farmers who paid for and built those assets, and do so without paying the farmers for them?  The Court said yes. Why? Because according to the Court the farmers weren't "shareholders" and had no proprietary interest in those assets.

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Farmers, Ranchers and Consumers Lose on WTO COOL Ruling

Posted October 20, 2014 by Ben Lilliston   

Used under creative commons license from ed_needs_a_bicycle.

A U.S. law requiring the simple labeling of meat and poultry products for the country of origin (COOL) was determined to violate trade rules by a dispute panel at the World Trade Organization (WTO) today.

The ruling demonstrates again how trade rules have been rigged to benefit multinational corporations and run counter to the interests of consumers who want more information about the food they purchase and farmer and ranchers who target local markets.

Knowing where your food comes from is an important right for consumers all over the world. This ruling is also a loss for farmers and ranchers who are selling to domestic, local markets and who want to build stronger connections with consumers. Trade rules should never get in the way of greater transparency in the marketplace. The USDA should not give in to the WTO on COOL in the short term, and should appeal the ruling. In the long term, we need to reform or throw out trade rules that undermine consumers and farmers.

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Time to take action on TTIP!

Posted October 10, 2014 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

Thousands of farmers, environmentalists and fair trade activists will gather on October 11 in over 300 events across Europe to protest the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and promote positive alternatives to the current rhetoric of free trade agreements.

Europeans have the right, enshrined in the Treaty of Lisbon, to demand action by the European Commission if they gather at least a million signatures. This spring citizens launched a European Citizens Initiative (ECI) calling on the Commission to repeal the negotiating mandate for TTIP and to abandon the talks for the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).  Following the European Commission’s rejection of the ECI on TTIP earlier this month, activists launched a self- organized European Citizens initiative. In less than 3 days over 350.000 European citizens have signed up in their support of the initiative.

Yesterday, the European Council published the negotiating mandate for TTIP. This is an important first step towards transparency that goes further than any action taken so far by the U.S. government, although it’s worth noting that the document had been leaked more than a year ago. The Council’s decision illustrates just how important public pressure is in ensuring a democratic and transparent process, but much more must be done to increase the transparency and accountability of negotiations.

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Unconditional surrender: The U.S.-Brazil deal to end WTO-authorized retaliation

Posted October 9, 2014 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

Used under creative commons license from clisenberg.

Brazillian cotton on a farm near Aral Moreira, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil

If the World Trade Organization trade dispute, U.S. Upland Cotton Subsidies (WT/DS267), were a war, the October 1 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to settle the dispute contains Brazil’s unconditional surrender to U.S. demands.

The signing ceremony in Washington was timed to ensure minimal Brazilian press coverage, as Brazil focused on the October 5 presidential and sub-federal elections. Brazil won the cotton dispute in 2004. However, the United States tried various tactics to avoid complying with the WTO rule of law, including claiming that a dispute under the existing WTO rules could only be resolved under the terms of new rules in the yet to be concluded Doha Round of WTO negotiations. Following an unsuccessful U.S. appeal, Brazil was authorized by the WTO in November 2009 to levy up to $800 million in annual retaliation, including retaliation outside the agricultural sector.

It useful to memorialize the MoU’s terms of surrender and the shock and awe precedent it sets for any WTO member who is contemplating litigation against the 2014 Farm Bill. Then we can speculate about why Brazil agreed to a settle for a relatively paltry sum and to abandon its rights as a WTO member to dispute the cotton subsidy terms of the 2014 Farm Bill.  

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"Climate Smart Agriculture" isn’t. Agroecology is.

Posted October 8, 2014 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell   Juliette Majot   

Used under creative commons license from northwestcollegeag.

As the science and practice of agroecology provides a way forward to address food insecurity, rural poverty, climate change, drought and water scarcity it is encountering an intentionally misleading campaign called "Climate Smart Agriculture," being promoted by the World Bank, FAO, and newly launched corporate-dominated Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture. Do not be fooled by the title. Climate Smart Agriculture incentivizes destructive industrial agricultural practices by tying it to carbon market offsets based on unreliable and non-permanent emissions reduction protocols.

While Climate Smart Agriculture is designed to expand carbon markets and serve the interests of agribusiness and the financial industry, the practice of agroecology boasts a scientifically valid response to climate change and is designed for the purpose of rebuilding decentralized, just, and sustainable agricultural systems. This differentiation is extremely important as we anticipate further erroneous claims that Climate Smart Agriculture and agroecology are interchangeable concepts. They are not.

Below are a few significant new developments and emerging opportunities:

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