Colonialism is not dead

Posted 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.

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Seeding monopoly

Posted 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.

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Notes from the agbiz concentration workshop: it's a national security issue

Posted March 12, 2010

Does competition matter in agriculture? The Department of Justice, the Department of Agriculture and 800 plus others felt it was important enough to gather in Ankeny, Iowa today for the first ever workshop on competition in agriculture.

Coming into the meeting, it was an open question about whether the series of workshops planned this year would be more theater than a basis for action. Attorney General Eric Holder's appearance, along with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, tried to answer some of those questions. Vilsack talked about his deep concern for the future of rural America, and whether the benefits of efficiency that we supposedly gain from fewer, big companies dominating agriculture has come at the expense of farmers and rural communities. Holder emphasized that economic competition is a national security issue.

 "If this country doesn't have a functioning agriculture sector, that is a national security issue," said Holder "We've learned the hard way in the past few years how the effects of deregulation can result in harm.".

Christine Varney, Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, got everyone's attention when she talked about the agency's criminal authority. In her remarks she highlighted common themes that would be repeated throughout the day: a need for greater market/price transparency and the use of patents to create excess market power. As an example of Justice's newfound commitment toward agriculture competition, she pointed to recent DOJ efforts to blog mergers - one that included Dean Foods, another involving JBS and National Beef.

"Big is not bad, but with being big comes an awful lot of responsbility," said Varney.

In the next blog, we'll look more at what was said about competition in the U.S. seed industry.

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<a name="agbiz"></a>Call to "Bust Up Big Ag"

Posted March 12, 2010

"It is a lie that we have a free market. It's a lie that we have an open market. It's a market controlled by corporations." This remark from an Iowa farmer last night captured the fiery sentiment at a townhall meeting of over 250 people, packed into a room at the Best Western in Ankeny, Iowa.

The townhall was held on the eve of the first ever U.S. government workshop on competition in agriculture, that will start in a few minutes. The joint USDA/Department of Justice workshop is the start of a series of similar events to be held around the country this year. The room last night was full of farmers from the region, local Iowans and the bright yellow shirts of United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) members from surrounding meatpacking areas.

Barb Kalbach, a fourth-generation farmer from Dexter, Iowa and part of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI), kicked off the meeting: "We’re here today to make sure the voices of everyday people are heard loud and clear. And that message is: 'bust up big ag.' A handful of multinationals have run roughshod for too long. Antitrust laws have not been enforced. We want action now and we expect the government to represent the people and the common good.”

The concentration of the seed industry and excessive use of patents took center stage with many of the comments - with Monsanto a common target.  "The only thing they haven’t done is put a patent on air and charge us for breathing it," said one farmer from Iowa.

"This monopolistic system is rigged against family farmers," George Naylor, a corn and soybean farmer from Churdan, Iowa and also part of ICCI, told the crowd. "This casino economy is rigged so farmers don’t have much of a choice of the seeds that they buy. Monsanto has intentionally bought up seed companies to eliminate competition."

Todd Leake, a wheat and soybean farmer from North Dakota told the crowd, "If anything belongs in the public domain, it’s the crops we grow for food."

Many also focused on the livestock and poultry industry. Rhonda Perry, a livestock farmer from Armstrong, Missouri and part of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, said, "A handful of meatpackers and poultry companies completely dominate the entire livestock industry.The big corporations say that they are more efficient. The reality is that they don’t have to be more efficient – they just have to control the market. It’s not good for farmers or consumers."

UFCW's Mark Lauritsen talked about growing up in a meatpacking family in Iowa during the farm crisis in the 1980s. " I saw the pain in the face of farmers – and I saw the meatpacking plants closed, and wages lowered for those that stayed open. Fewer and fewer corporations are controlling the food industry. The Justice Department needs to be pushed to include the impact of concentration on workers, family farmers and the communities we live in."

IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch talked about how farmers in the U.S., Mexico and Canada all were facing a simlar squeeze from a few big companies that now dominate the North American market. You can read our fact sheet we prepared for the meeting, as well as watch a short video of Alexandra summarizing IATP's comment to the USDA and DOJ.

Patty Lovera of Food and Water Watch, summarized the sense of people in the room as they await Friday's workshop: "Games have rules, they have referees. The government is our referee – it’s time for the referee to get back in the game."

» Read the full post

NAFTA and agribusiness concentration

Posted March 11, 2010

Tomorrow, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice will host the first ever workshops on competition issues in agriculture in Ankeny, Iowa. A new IATP fact sheet looks at the role of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in accelerating agribusiness concentration. It includes short testimonies from farm groups in Mexico, Canada and the U.S.

“NAFTA opened the door to create one large, and increasingly concentrated, North American market for big agribusiness companies,” said IATP’s Alexandra Spieldoch. “Farmers in all three countries have been squeezed by a handful of companies. As the Justice Department and the USDA assess competition in agriculture, it is imperative that they consider the international impacts of corporate concentration and reforms needed to create fair markets. Competition reform cannot be viewed exclusively as a domestic issue.”

You can read the full fact sheet here.

You can read IATP’s comment to the USDA and Justice Department on the need to address corporate competition in agriculture here:

IATP will be blogging from Iowa later today and tomorrow on the outcomes of the workshop.

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Gearing up for agribusiness concentration workshops

Posted March 10, 2010

For those who feel that the excessive market power of agribusiness companies is a big part of what's wrong with our food system: it's on. And it's historic. For the first time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice will hold a series of public workshops on market competition in agriculture. The series kicks off on Friday in Ankeny, Iowa. IATP will be there blogging away on all the highlights.

Earlier today, the final agenda and speakers were announced including USDA head Tom Vilsack, Attorney General Eric Holder, some state attorneys general, academics and company representatives like Monsanto. A first round of the agenda included only a few farmers, and fortunately, they've added an extra session to include more farmer voices.

The official goal of the workshop is to "promote dialogue among interested parties and foster learning with respect to the appropriate legal and economic analyses of these issues, as well as to listen to and learn from parties with experience in the agriculture sector."

But many farmers and consumers concerned about the effects of market concentration on our agriculture economy, our health and the environment believe much more is needed than "dialogue." Along those lines, IATP and many others will be at a Thursday night event hosted by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement titled Unleash Food Democracy: Taking on Corporate Power in our Food Supply. We'll be in Iowa tomorrow, reporting more on the first agribusiness competition workshop.

 

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Farm to school numbers up—and rising

Posted March 9, 2010

A new survey, released today by the Minnesota School Nutrition Association (MSNA) and IATP, can serve as both encouragement for farm to school advocates and as a road map for schools, administrators or farmers looking to get involved in the growing movement. According to the survey, the number of Minnesota school districts purchasing fresh food from local farms has more than doubled in the last 15 months. Even more encouraging is the fact that 77 percent of the districts currently involved in farm to school indicated that they expect to expand their farm to school activities in the upcoming school year.

“Parents, students and educators know that good nutrition is essential if our kids are to be healthy and ready to learn. Small and mid-size farmers, whose products have largely been absent from America’s lunch trays, can offer our children fresh, less-processed choices and a chance to learn how and where their food is grown,” said IATP’s JoAnne Berkenkamp. “The momentum is rapidly building for farm to school programs and it’s great to see schools and farmers embracing this opportunity.”

Some other highlights of the survey include:

  • Nearly 43 percent of school districts purchasing Minnesota-grown food in 2009 did so by purchasing directly from a farmer or farmer co-op.
  • The biggest barriers to expanding farm to school purchases were the need for extra labor and preparation time in the cafeteria, pricing and tight food budgets, and difficulty finding nearby farmers to purchase from directly.
  • In the future, schools are most interested in purchasing local vegetables and fruit, with growing interest in bread/grains, dairy and meat.
  • The survey also showed strong interest in expanding student education about farm to school and growing food in school gardens.

See the entire survey or take a look at our press release for further information. Also, listen to our newest episode of Radio Sustain for an interview with JoAnne Berkenkamp.

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Follow-up on cheap food policy

Posted March 8, 2010

Last week, we wrote about the lastest issue of Health Affairs, which zeroes in strategies for addressing childhood obesity. The issue includes a chapter by IATP's Dr. David Wallinga on the connection between agriculture policy and childhood obesity. Health Affairs recorded the lengthy press conference at the National Press Club with authors of the special childhood obesity issue. You can watch short video presentations from some of the authors, including Dr. Wallinga, here.

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Farms in the balance: Countering attacks against EPA on climate

Posted March 3, 2010

Attacks on the EPA have been coming fast and furious in the past few months. In contrast to Congress’s limp attempts to pass comprehensive climate legislation, the EPA has begun taking steps to address climate change. Most significantly, the agency declared greenhouse gases (GHGs) an “endangerment” to public health last year—a finding that enables the EPA to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act. That hasn’t sat well with those opposed to climate action.

In January, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced a “resolution of disapproval” in the Senate that would kill the EPA’s ability to regulate GHGs. Although the resolution’s viability is unlikely, if passed it would require Obama’s signature, setting a disturbing precedent. The EPA decision was based on science. Murkowski’s resolution is pure politics. Congress shouldn’t have the authority to usurp science just because it doesn’t like the outcome.

Murkowski’s resolution has created something of a snowball effect. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), chair of the House Agriculture Committee, introduced a copycat resolution in the House earlier this week, no doubt pleasing mightily his supporters in the Farm Bureau, National Corn Growers’ Association and other conventional agriculture groups who have come out strongly in favor of Murkowski’s resolution.

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Childhood obesity and our cheap food policy

Posted March 2, 2010

Cover The latest issue of the influential Health Affairs journal comes out blazing with editor-in-chief Susan Dentzer writing that “America is guilty of child abuse.” The March issue focuses on childhood obesity and includes a series of articles related to kid's snacks, school lunches, food marketing and strategies for prevention.

IATP's David Wallinga contributes the article “Agricultural Policy and Childhood Obesity.” The article traces the role of U.S. agricultural policy in promoting the overproduction of certain farm commodities like corn and soybeans. These cheap commodities have been converted into calorie-rich but nutrient-poor snacks, sweets and sweetened beverages that have led to an excess of daily calories for all Americans, children and adults alike.

"As a nation, we must understand that farm policy is public health policy," said Dr. Wallinga in our press release. "We need to transition from a cheap calorie farm policy to one that nourishes our children's health. It's going to take steps across the food system and at every level of government to not only bend the curve on the obesity epidemic, but to reverse it."

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