The Power of Food Reserves: Volume 1

Posted October 21, 2009

Make no mistake, the food reserve—a tool as old as food production itself—is a powerful idea. Most people think it's just common sense. The idea is simple: put some food aside in times of plenty to ensure there is enough in lean times. But a meeting we co-organized with ActionAid in Washington, D.C., last week, revealed how strongly this common sense idea challenges the free market ideology that permeates our global food system.

IATP's Sophia Murphy succinctly explained how reserves help address market failures that have plagued both farmers and consumers: "Reserves are really about how to make the market do its job better. They can put a floor or ceiling on prices in the face of monopolistic or oligopolistic markets."

We decided to organize the food reserve meeting for two main reasons: 1) the failure of agriculture markets is just too glaring to ignore. The FAO announced last week that the world's hungry has now reached 1.06 billion people; 2) countries, regions and international institutions are re-examining agriculture policy, particularly the role reserves might play to stabilize food systems.

Our first session gave an overview of the global issues around food reserves. Sophia pulled from an IATP report released last week outlining four main reasons food reserves are being considered: 1) to correct market failures; 2) to smooth volatile prices; 3) to complement and regulate the private sector; 4) for emergencies. Sophia also discussed the limitations of food reserves when it comes to addressing global hunger: reserves will not solve poor agriculture production which plagues many countries, or address chronic (as opposed to short-term) hunger that is often tied to people simply not having money to buy enough food.

The failure of global food markets has created a ripe political moment to assess reserves. "There is a new awareness among governments that food really matters—and a sense among governments that they've lost a lot of the tools that they've had when food is not available," Sophia told participants.

Chris Moore, at the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), reported that both donor and recipient countries are seeking advice from the agency on best practices for running food reserves. The WFP, the world's largest food assistance agency, is already using a variety of food reserves. Moore described reserves in Haiti and other Central American countries, community cereal banks in Cameroon and the Sahel region of West Africa, and a multi-partner national grain reserve system in Mali. The WFP is working with West African countries to assess a regional system to help multiple countries coordinate national stocks.

For countries assessing whether a reserve is the right tool to use, Moore outlined a series of key questions: What do we want reserves for? What other options have been tried? Can you ensure the reserve is well-managed? What transparency rules are in place? Can a regional group integrate reserves and food security needs across borders? And finally: How can reserves fit within a path toward food security?

Hui Jang, of the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), had a starkly different view on reserves. The FAS's mission is to expand U.S. agriculture exports. She argued that reserves distort relationships between supply and demand. And that the existence of a reserve does not guarantee stability. She cited the recent price spike in rice, even though many Asian countries had been building up their reserves for several years. Despite the reserves, countries stopped exporting and prices shot through the roof. Countries will undermine an international or regional reserve system because they will act in their own interest in times of crisis, Jang reported.

Instead, she proposed a financial reserve where countries struggling with hunger could purchase grains and inputs (seeds, fertilizer, machinery, chemicals and the hiring of consultants to boost production). In addition, she proposed a series of other tools to help poor countries like adding futures markets, catastrophic bonds, improved infrastructure and  crop insurance.

Jang's presentation follows the strong support for technological fixes (particularly biotechnology) to address global hunger pushed by her boss, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, at the newly minted National Institute for Food and Agriculture, and Bill Gates at the World Food Prize meeting last week.

But the growing consideration of food reserves around the world indicates that most aren't holding their breath for the next technological quick fix. Many see the market failures we are experiencing in agriculture as structural and ultimately requiring government intervention to ensure that everyone has enough healthy food to eat and farmers are paid a fair price.

You can view powerpoint presentations and video interviews with participants at our food security page. In our next blog, we'll report on how other countries and regions are using food reserves as a tool. 

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Grain Reserves vs. World Hunger and Market Volatility

Posted October 14, 2009

With world hunger surpassing one billion people, in a time of extreme market volatility, IATP's Sophia Murphy has authored a new report exploring the option of strategic food reserves. The report, "Strategic Grain Reserves In an Era of Volatility," was released today—a day before a public briefing on food reserves in Washington, D.C. tomorrow. That meeting will include
representatives from Brazil, West Africa, Mexico, Canada and the U.S. to
discuss their experiences with food reserves and how a new system of reserves
might work.

Though food reserves have been used for thousands of years (China has run an ever-normal granary since 498 A.D.! More info in the report, pg 5.) they have fallen out of discussion in recent decades. Sophia Murphy's research examines the risks and potential benefits of grain reserves in our current socioeconomic atmosphere:

“Given the extreme volatility we’ve seen in agriculture in recent years, grain reserves deserve another look,” said Sophia Murphy in our press release announcing the new report. “There are no magic bullets. Reserves alone will not end chronic hunger, and many reserves have been poorly run. But with sufficient resources, clarity of purpose, and effective governance, reserves can play a key part in a food system designed to eradicate hunger.”

Check back for updates from the "Food Reserves: Facing the Hunger Challenge," briefing soon!

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The Cost of Palm Oil

Posted October 14, 2009

Matilda "The day the (palm) seeds arrived in our country on the plane, I wondered, `what are these seeds?'" Matilda Pilacapio told us at a meeting in late September. Pilacapio is a human rights advocate from Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea and she stopped by our Minneapolis office on the way to a meeting with Cargill—the largest palm oil importer in the U.S.

Papau New Guinea, a former British colony, contains some of the last remaining intact rainforests and 5 percent of global biodiversity. Palm oil first came to the island in 1994, when Pilacapio was the country's Minister of Agriculture. Palm quickly replaced coconut that had been grown on plantations owned by British companies and the British government's Commonwealth Development Corporation.

"Life has dramatically changed," Pilacapio told us. "We have a traditional life of sharing and giving. What we have, we share with our village. Now, our people live in a monetary world. Our people are at a crossroads."

In the mid-1990s, the World Bank required a number of structual adjustment programs in Papua New Guinea as conditions for a loan to the country's government, according to Pilacapio. Among the changes, were the user pay system—where people pay for things like education and health care—but also land registration (which opened up land that had previously been controlled by Indigenous peoples). Part of the World Bank loan to the country was to develop palm oil plantations, says Pilacapio.

Cargill owns three palm oil mills in Papua New Guinea. The company took over the mill in Milne Bay, where Pilacapio lives three years ago. She currently works with the Milne Bay Women in Agriculture to strengthen traditional agriculture systems in response to Cargill's expanding oil palm plantation in the region.

Pilacapio said young people in Papau New Guinea who want to farm no longer have access to land because so much is going toward palm oil plantations. Previously able to provide food for its own population, the growth in palm oil plantations has led Papua New Guinea to become heavily dependent on food imports.

Pilacapio came to visit Cargill as part of an effort by Rainforest Action Network to get the company to improve its practices at palm oil plantations, starting with simple things like creating buffer zones to protect water systems. Thus far, the company has not budged. Pilacapio is asking Cargill to: 1) stop the expansion of palm oil plantations, particularly from traditional landowners and onto virgin lands; 2) share its profits with local governments and landowners; 3) provide workers with better wages and working conditions; and 4) clean up water that is downstream from their milling plant.

So, what is the cost of palm oil? In the marketplace, the palm oil produced in Pilacapio's community certainly doesn't reflect all its costs, including damage to a traditional culture, diminished food security in the region, the loss of biodiversity and effects on global climate change. The "monetary world" Pilacapio describes is not working.

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Next stop: Barcelona

Posted October 9, 2009

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin is blogging from Bangkok at the global climate talks.

Although the two week climate talks session in Bangkok formally ends today, specific discussions on how to reduce emissions from agriculture were essentially over yesterday. The outcomes of this week's agriculture discussions are now reflected in "non paper #17." The whole text is bracketed, as Uruguay and New Zealand (the two countries chairing the drafting group this week) were unable to produce a consensus among members.

As the process of drafting accelerated, many developing countries felt like they did not have enough capacity to follow the discussions, and not enough understanding of what the possible implications of this new part of the climate agreement would be. It seemed hard to reconcile the widespread feeling that agriculture should feature in the final agreement with the little time available until Copenhagen. UNFCCC members will resume consideration of the agriculture sectoral approach at the next negotiations session in Barcelona (Nov. 2–6).

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IATP reports on Bangkok climate meeting

Posted October 8, 2009

IATP President Jim Harkness just returned from Bangkok at the global climate talks. In this video, he reports on the state of the talks and what they could mean for agriculture.

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Walking a tightrope: Secretary Vilsack on U.S. agricultural policy

Posted October 8, 2009

On October 5, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack came to Minneapolis to deliver the fifth and last Freeman Lecture at the University of Minnesota. The lecture’s namesake, Orville Freeman, was governor of Minnesota and then Secretary of Agriculture during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (1960–68). About a thousand people came on a rainy night to hear Secretary Vilsack speak and then engage in a “Great Conversation” program with University Deans Brian Atwood and Allen Levine. The audience included former Vice President Walter Mondale, former Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, Jane Freeman (Governor Freeman’s widow and political partner), and Senator Amy Klobuchar, who introduced Secretary Vilsack. IATP board member, Rod Leonard, Governor and Secretary Freeman’s aide, helped to organize the lecture.

However, before Secretary Vilsack arrived at the Ted Mann Concert Hall, he had to run a media gauntlet instigated by a New York Times story published the day before that recounted how a 22-year-old Minnesota woman had been paralyzed by consuming contaminated hamburger produced by Cargill, the Minnesota-headquartered, global agribusiness giant. As is usual with stories of alleged corporate malfeasance, the lawyers and public relations experts had told Cargill executives not to talk to the media, leaving Secretary Vilsack with the unhappy task of explaining why the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) is unable to require slaughterhouses to test for meat pathogens on carcasses before they are shipped to meat processors, such as Cargill. On the way from the airport, he was interviewed by Minnesota Public Radio, and parried questions about how both Cargill and FSIS had failed to detect the contamination and withdraw the hamburger from commerce before it could sicken Minnesotans and other consumers.

Secretary Vilsack had to walk an explanatory tight rope between USDA’s mandate, under different laws, both to protect public health and to advance agribusiness interests. Dr. Kenneth Peterson, FSIS’s assistant administrator, did not make the Secretary’s task any easier by telling the Times that FSIS “could mandate testing, but that it needed to consider the impact on companies as well as on consumers. ‘I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health.’” Dr. Peterson interprets FSIS’s statutory responsibility under the Meat and Poultry Inspection Acts as protecting the industry’s reputation and bottom line. So if mandatory testing would harm either, FSIS would not insist on testing. At the Freeman lecture, Secretary Vilsack didn’t clean up Peterson’s statutory confusion, but asserted correctly in a press release the following day, "Protecting public health is the sole mission of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.” And yet the damage had been done—again, not only to consumer health, but to USDA’s reputation for continuing to allow the meat industry to self-regulate in fact, if not in law.

The Secretary walked other USDA tightropes more artfully and eloquently, aided by the recently published "Agricultural Census 2007." First, he noted that he would deliver a eulogy today for Dr. Norman Borlaug, a former University of Minnesota plant breeder and Nobel prize winner for his work to “feed the world.” Then the Secretary followed with a series of paradoxes shaped by facts and the programs that he is required to oversee.

Recalling the loss of millions of U.S. farmers since President Woodrow Wilson exhorted the nation to plant victory gardens to aid the World War I effort, Secretary Vilsack sang the praises of how the remaining 200,000 farms of more than a thousand acres, aided by biotechnological research, had doubled and tripled crop yields to feed the U.S.—and the world. But the loss of 80,000 mid-size farms in the last five years is something that the Obama administration would seek to prevent from re-occurring.

More than a billion people still don’t have enough to eat, so the Obama administration will help private companies to export not only U.S. crops but U.S. technology—especially genetically modified seeds—to enable the world to feed itself, said Vilsack. The President’s new global food security initiative would start in Afghanistan by deploying 64 former and current USDA staffers to help Afghan agriculture. Vilsack emphasized support for the 5 percent of U.S. farmers who produce 70 percent of U.S. agricultural production. He promised to cut subsidies to U.S. farmers, if U.S. trading partners open market access to U.S. exports under World Trade Organization rules.

Although two-thirds of USDA’s budget goes to feed an increasing number of hungry Americans, 35 percent of U.S. children are obese, so USDA would work to improve nutrition, remove the stigma of free school lunches and breakfasts, and work with the National Football League on an exercise program for school children, said Vilsack.

The average age of farmers is 57-years-old, and getting older. More than 50 percent of all farmers work off-farm jobs more than 200 days a year (with 90 percent working off farm jobs at some point in the year) to enable them to stay on their farms. USDA’s new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program would support the small-scale farmers—108,000 new farmers from 2003–2008 alone—who would satisfy the demand (13 percent increase in local farmers markets in 2008) for local, largely organic food. USDA’s support for rural internet service would help them market that food and help rural people develop new businesses.

While the Secretary's presentation has been rearranged above, my overwhelming impression of him is that of a compassionate and politically adroit man trying to manage conflicting duties. The Secretary spoke about his visit to a Kenyan orphanage (he too was an orphan) and how his question “What do you like most about school?” to a child was met with the response, “Our meal.” He recalled how Secretary Freeman had initiated the first pilot project in federal food assistance and how it had grown to feed 38 million (climbing to 40 million due to growing unemployment or under-employment) Americans today. He clearly aspires to do something similarly great.

Jane Freeman closed the evening by thanking Secretary Vilsack, the University of Minnesota and the advisory group to the Freeman Lecture. Ever the politician to issue a challenge, she remarked that in Secretary Vilsack, the USDA has leadership to regain what had been lost during the previous administration.

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Can food reserves address global hunger?

Posted October 7, 2009

Almost since the beginning of time, people have put food away in times of plenty to ensure they have food in times of need. Many countries, including the United States, have utilized food reserves over the years for a number of reasons like addressing hunger, stabilizing food prices and ensuring a fair return to farmers.

Now, as global hunger has surpassed one billion people, and the global cereal stocks/to use ratio has tightened, there is talk at the international level of food reserves. At the G-8 meeting in July, leaders agreed to explore: "The feasibility, effectiveness and administrative modalities of a system of stockholding in dealing with humanitarian food emergencies or as a means to limit price volatility need to be further explored." These sentiments were further supported at the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh last month.

In light of this interest, IATP and Action Aid are co-sponsoring an open briefing, "Food Reserves: Facing the Hunger Challenge" in Washington, D.C., on October 15. Representatives from Brazil, Canada, West Africa, Mexico and the United Kingdom will meet with U.S. agriculture experts to discuss:

  • past experiences with food reserves at the country and regional level;
  • what role international institutions might play within a food reserve system;
  • the opportunities and pitfalls of a strategic grain reserve in the U.S.

We hope you can join us. Watch the below video with IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch to learn more about the food reserve meeting.

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Building bridges between climate and agriculture in Bangkok

Posted October 6, 2009

IATP's Jim Harkness and Anne Laure Constantin are in Bangkok at the global climate talks. Below, Anne Laure blogs on what is at stake for agriculture.

Bangkok is humid (as it should be at this time), and much of South Asia is under heavy rain, with disastrous floods in South India and The Philippines hitting international headlines. Advocates for climate action are rushing around the UN Conference Center in Bangkok pointing to the floods as yet another example of the perils of climate change. The talks have been on for about 10 days and will end this week.

Further away from the conference center (a painful 40-minute ride in Bangkok’s busy traffic), the Asian Farmers Association is holding a series of meetings on agriculture and climate change, with some looking particularly at the role of women farmers. AFA also took an active part in the meeting we organized on Sunday with farmers' groups and climate activists.

And so, slowly, the new and growing call around international circles for the need to include agriculture in a new climate treaty is trickling down to those who really matter: farmers who grow most of the world’s food! As things move forward swiftly inside the climate negotiations, it is urgent that the voices of small farmers and Indigenous peoples be heard by negotiators working on agriculture. This is what we argue in our Benchmarks for Copenhagen and we will keep working to make it happen!

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The risks for agriculture in global climate talks

Posted October 5, 2009

IATP's Jim Harkness and Anne Laure Constantin are in Bangkok at the global climate talks. Below, Jim blogs on what is at stake for agriculture.

“Fifty years: no Bangkok!

In the sea!

Hot, hot! Very hot!”

This was the very surprising, almost haiku-like declaration of my taxi driver earlier tonight. He then said, “Ice: TOOM!,” illustrating the second word by chopping downward with one hand, in a motion that to me looked a lot like a huge chunk of the Ross Ice Shelf splitting off and falling into the sea.

Bkk_09_02_2_348 I am in Thailand’s capital with Anne-Laure Constantin for the penultimate preparatory talks before the Copenhagen climate summit in December. Earlier today, we had a workshop that brought representatives of grassroots farmers’ organizations from Asia, Africa and Latin America together with climate lobbyists from development and environment groups. One important conclusion, confirming what we had observed at earlier prep meetings from Poznan to Bonn, was that this kind of exchange is sorely needed, both to inform the national-level advocacy of farm groups and to deepen the international lobbyists’ understanding of what’s at stake for farmers in the developing world. For more background, see our new fact sheet, "Integrating agriculture in a global climate deal: Benchmarks for Copenhagen."

Now the connections among these groups are finally taking shape, and participants from our workshop met this evening with Climate Action Network, the largest and most influential non-governmental alliance pushing for a strong climate deal. The hope is that we can get wider backing for language about agriculture in the climate treaty that is informed by both strong science and the climate justice demands of developing country farmers. The drafts that we have seen to date have neither.

If the clearing of forests and grasslands to expand cultivation is included, then agriculture is far and away the biggest contributor to climate change worldwide. (Its climate footprint is considerably smaller in the U.S., not because our farming is climate-friendly, but because we wiped out all of the original vegetative cover by the end of the last century.)  It’s also incredibly complex, and the science is so far behind the rest of what we know about climate change that basic questions—like how much carbon soils can sequester and for how long—remain unanswered. As a result, wild and speculative (in more ways than one) schemes are being promoted—including techno-fixes like industrial biochar that would take enormous areas of land in poor countries out of food production and put them into the hands of rich-country investors. Some of these schemes actually have a chance of getting into the official text.

Not long ago, we were concerned that the important role of agriculture might be ignored in a climate deal. Now it appears the danger is that agriculture will be included with such broad or vague language that the door will be open to schemes that could gobble up vast areas of land and displace food production without actually helping to solve the climate crisis.

Jim Harkness

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Biomass program rolls out, raises eyebrows

Posted October 2, 2009

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), launched in the last Farm Bill, was hailed as an opportunity to spur the wider adoption of new, more sustainable crops to feed a growing bioeconomy. Now, we are reminded once again that the intent of legislation and real-world implemention are two different things. In a new IATP commentary ("Questionable start for biomass program"), policy analyst Loni Kemp sheds light on why BCAP is raising eyebrows. Kemp writes:

The way the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has rolled out the first part of BCAP is raising eyebrows, as initial funding seems to be going to pay for already-existing biomass supplies used for renewable energy, instead of focusing on helping to jump-start the new cellulosic energy future.

In September, IATP submitted comments as part of BCAP's Environmental Impact Statement. We've also written a BCAP factsheet with a number of recommendations for implementation, including:

  • Perennial and multiple-species biomass feedstocks should be the focus of BCAP, with preference for native species. No invasive, noxious or genetically modified feedstocks should be included. If funds allow, then annual crops in a resource-conserving crop rotation would be acceptable.

  • Preference should be given to projects that provide local ownership opportunities; will
    have local economic benefits; and will involve new and socially disadvantaged farmers.

  • Annual payments are intended to be an incentive to establish new energy crops, and thus should not be drastically lowered if the crop is sold or if it is used for another purpose.

As Kemp writes:

Unfortunately, at least so far, USDA seems to be getting BCAP wrong. They should reconsider the true intent of the program and focus on helping farmers plant and deliver new crops for renewable energy.

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