Farm groups talk climate in Cochabamba

Posted April 20, 2010

IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn is blogging from Cochamamba, Bolivia at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

Bolivia Thousands of people from around the world streamed into the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (CMPCC) on Monday to continue discussions that started online on a range of issues related to climate justice. The location of the conference itself makes a political statement. This is the ten-year anniversary of the Cochabamba “Water War,” when thousands of local people rose up against the privatization of their water system. Walking into the conference site, the dramatic backdrop of the Andean mountains makes its own statement.

The online discussions were organized into 17 working groups on topics ranging from emissions reductions and finance to issues not on the official agenda, like migration and climate debt. Talks also centered on strategies, including the possible launch of a global peoples’ referendum on climate change. The final documents will help to shape the Bolivian government's positions on climate change and hopefully influence other government delegations arriving later in the week. 

Cochabamba More than 900 people registered for the working group on agriculture and food sovereignty (our contribution is summarized here) and, of those, 130 submitted comments electronically. Those talks continued in Cochabamba with presentations by Via Campesina, who asserted that as much as 57 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with industrial agriculture. This includes emissions all along the production chain, including processing, packaging and transport (especially for export). On the other hand, converting to agroecological, locally oriented, smaller-scale production could lower emissions as much as 50 to 75 percent, while advancing food sovereignty, according to Via Campesina.

The working group discussions continued throughout the day, focusing on the need to address the role of agribusiness in climate change, the obstacles created by free trade and the climate challenges facing women, among other issues. Organizers worked late into the night to incorporate comments into new drafts of the position papers to be finalized in the coming days. Whatever the outcome of the papers, these talks have deeply involved farm organizations, raised the profile of agriculture and climate, and led to new ideas moving forward.

This post is one of a three part series of blog entries from Karen Hansen Kuhn's visit to Cochabamba:
Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

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People's Conference on Climate Change next week

Posted April 16, 2010

After official UN global climate talks stumbled again in Bonn last week, another global gathering will take a shot at reaching agreement on a plan to address climate change. Next week, the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth will run from April 19–22 in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The gathering is expected to attract civil society groups around the world, along with developing country–government representatives, to develop alternative proposals to address global climate change.

Bolivian President Evo Morales is leading the call for the meeting after many developing-country governments were frustrated with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change talks in December, which produced the Copenhagen Accord. Last week's Bonn meeting, the first since Copenhagen, revealed the growing rift between countries who want to continue negotiations based on the Kyoto Protocol and others, led by the U.S., who want to use the Copenhagen Accord as the basis for negotiations. IATP has been critical of the accord and the negotiating process in Copenhagen.

Organizers for the World People's Conference have set up 18 working groups to develop proposals on various aspects of a global climate treaty. IATP's Karen Hansen-Kuhn will report from Cochabamba next week. She is part of the "Agriculture and Food Sovereignty" and "Dangers of Carbon Markets" working groups. You can read Karen's submission on agriculture and climate change. A summary of IATP's concerns about the susceptibility of carbon markets to Wall Street speculators can be read here in English and in Spanish.

More from Cochabamba next week....

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Press release: Biomass Crop Assistance Program needs clarification, improvement, says IATP

Posted April 15, 2010

Minneapolis – The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) must undergo
significant revision before the program’s next phase is launched, said the
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) in comments submitted on
April 8
to the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA).

BCAP, a 2008 Farm Bill program, was created to help farmers
grow and sell new biomass crops for renewable energy. But the FSA’s
implementation of the program has come under widespread criticism for straying
far the program’s original intent. The FSA began the initial phase of the
program before setting clear rules for qualifying grants, and before it had
completed a full environmental impact statement as required under the National
Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). As a result, nearly all of the more than $164
million in funding that has been awarded so far has gone to the forest paper
and products industries to burn lower-value wood for their own energy needs.
But as most of these users were already buying or using biomass for
pre-existing energy purposes, BCAP support does not seem to be contributing in
any substantial way to new renewable energy production or new supplies of
biomass.

“Done right, BCAP could go a long way toward helping farmers
transition to growing perennial biomass crops and increasing renewable energy
production,” said Jim Kleinschmit, IATP Rural Communities Program Director.
“But so far, it appears neither farmers nor energy consumers have seen much
benefit from the millions of dollars already spent on this program.”

The FSA is expected to finalize rules for BCAP
implementation later this year. IATP’s recommendations for improving BCAP
include:

  • Modifying the current collection, harvest, storage and
    transportation phase of the program to stop matching payments for woody,
    agricultural and herbaceous resources and waste materials unless they were
    sourced within a BCAP project area and used for new energy production.
  • Establishing a competitive ranking process for the selection
    of BCAP funded projects, giving priority to soil, water, climate and wildlife
    protection as well as to local ownership opportunities and beginning and
    socially disadvantaged farmers.
  • Prioritizing perennial and dedicated energy crops by making
    residues of annual crops or forests, and food and animal wastes, ineligible for
    BCAP payments.
  • Prohibiting genetically modified biomass crops or irrigation
    in BCAP contract acres.
  • Clearly ruling out conversion of forests, wetlands, prairies
    or any natural ecosystems to biomass crops.

“There’s still time to right the ship on BCAP,” said IATP
Senior Associate Julia Olmstead. “The best place to start is to revisit the
original intent of the program, and take seriously the numerous constructive
comments submitted on how to improve the program.”

IATP’s full comment to the FSA can be viewed here. The BCAP
comment period closed April 9. The USDA will announce a final rule later this
year.

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What we don't know about GE crops

Posted April 13, 2010

After 15 years on the market, and constituting 80 percent of soybeans, corn and cotton grown in the U.S., we still know remarkably little about genetically engineered (GE) crops; and some of what we do know is cause for alarm. This is one of the main conclusions of a report released today by the National Research Council.

First, the headline picked up by the New York Times and others: there has been a rapid rise in weeds resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (also known as Roundup) that could rapidly undercut any environmental or economic benefits of GE crops. Glyphosate-resistant crops allow farmers to kill weeds with the herbicide without destroying their crop. To date, at least nine species of weeds in the U.S. have developed resistance to glyphosate since GE crops were introduced. The other primary type of GE crop is designed to produce Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt), a bacteria deadly to insect pests. Thus far, two types of insects have developed resistance to Bt. The loss of effectiveness of glyphosate and Bt crops could lead to increased use of more potent herbicides.

"This problem is growing, it's real, and it's going to get worse," said chair of the NRS committee David Ervin, of Portland State University, at a press conference today.

But just as alarming as growing weed and pest resistance is the dearth of research data on so many fundamental issues surrounding GE crops. The NRC report focused on how GE crops are affecting U.S. farmers. The assessment looked at GE crops through the three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental and social. In the end, the researchers didn't have enough data. 

"As more GE traits are developed and incorporated into a larger variety of crops, it's increasingly essential that we gain a better understanding of how genetic engineering technology will affect U.S. agriculture and the environment now and in the future," said Ervin. "Such gaps in our knowledge are preventing a full assessment of the environmental, economic and other impacts of GE crops on farm sustainability."

More specifically, what we don't yet know about GE crops:

  • The full extent of weed resistance problems, or what those problems will mean in the future to the environment and farmers' bottom line.
  • Little understanding of how the use of GE crops affects water systems—positively or negatively.
  • The effects of GE crops on farmers not growing GE crops, including both conventional and organic farmers. The committee reported on anecdotal information that farmers have had trouble finding conventional non-GE seeds. And as Bob Scowcroft of the Organic Farm Research Foundation noted at the press conference, there is little peer-reviewed research on the enormous costs borne by organic farmers for testing to prove their crop is GE-free, let alone farmers who have lost organic certification from GE contamination.
  • The impact of consolidation in the seed industry—accelerated by the transition to proprietary GE seeds—on prices and seed choices.
  • Other social issues that have been overlooked include the impact of GE crops on labor dynamics, farm structure, farmer and community conflict and property rights.

The White House and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack should take a good look at this report. After 15 years, we still can't fully assess whether GE crops are good for U.S. farmers—let alone consumers. Yet, the White House and Vilsack continue to aggressively push for other countries to use GE crops. As IATP's Dennis Keeney and Sophia Murphy wrote last month in the Des Moines Register, GE crops that are widely used in the U.S. don't make sense for the challenges facing Africa, for example.

Given the NRC report's findings, it's hard to justify the enormous amounts of money spent on the development of new GE crops, and harder still to justify pushing the technology on other countries, until we fill in the enormous research gaps that remain.

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Obama administration, Congress should put women at the center

Posted April 13, 2010

A new commentary published today in MinnPost (by IATP President Jim Harkness and Population Action International board member Thomas Lovejoy) asks Congress and the Obama administration to increase funding to improve global health and food security while keeping the issues of women in focus. Malnutrition, and lack of access to health services—especially in regards to maternity and family planning—disproportionately place the weight of neglect on the shoulders of women and families around the world..

"The fates of women and poor communities are inextricably tied to the environment," the authors write. "For example, after decades of neglecting agricultural development in poor countries, over one billion worldwide go to bed hungry each day." The commentary goes on to illustrate why, indeed, women truly need to be at the center of real, sustainable solutions. "Women produce up to 80 percent of the food in sub-Saharan Africa, but have access to less than five percent of land, credit and extension services."

While recognizing and praising the efforts of Minnesota's Betty McCollum (D-4th) and Keith Ellison (D-5th), the commentary asks the Obama administration to work with Congress in advocating for increased funding and better policy solutions that, for the time being, are not enough.

Read the entire commentary here.

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Challenging the obesity system

Posted April 12, 2010

This past weekend Dr. David Wallinga, director of IATP's Food and Health program, was featured on Huffington Post. His blog entry, “Challenging the Obesity System,” looks at the obesity epidemic as a symptom of the larger issue of an unhealthy food system.

“As a cheap calorie policy, U.S. farm policy has been a success. Foods high in fats, sugars and calories, such as cooking oils, snacks, fast foods and sugared sodas, are some of the cheapest foods in the American diet,” he writes. “But for public health, U.S. farm policy's focus on a few commodities is outdated.”

What about solutions? Dr. Wallinga offers three suggestions:

  1. Establishing an independent Healthy Foods Commission of non-governmental public health, agriculture and food system experts.
  2. Partnering with America's farmers to grow healthier food by offering support equal to that offered in the current commodity-focused system.
  3. Raising the standards of the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.

Read the full post here and join the conversation. How can public health and food policy come together?

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Fight for farmworker justice in the Sunshine State

Posted April 8, 2010

In the latest Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) Campaign for Fair Food initiative, Publix—a large supermarket chain based in Lakeland, Florida—has come under fire.
While other food industry giants—including McDonald's, Subway and, most
recently, Aramark—have signed agreements, Publix has failed to work
with CIW to improve the wages and working conditions of farmworkers in
Florida.

In response, the CIW has initiated an Email Action Alert
asking supporters to email Publix CEO Ed Crenshaw and ask that the
supermarket chain work with CIW to establish an agreement to provide
improved wages and working conditions to those that harvest the
tomatoes Publix sells in its produce department. There is also a planned march (April 16–18) that will incorporate pickets and prayer vigils at both a Publix supermarket and the Publix headquarters.

CIW represents tomato workers that have been exploited for decades.
The low wages and poor working conditions, combined with instances of
abuse, have often raised comparisons to modern day slavery—a comparison
that is more than apt. In fact, CIW has aided the Department of Justice
in prosecuting multiple slavery operations which took advantage of
hundreds of farmworkers. IATP Food and Society Fellow Sean Sellers has worked closely with CIW since 2003 and recently went on tour around Florida showcasing these injustices as part of a Modern-Day Slavery Museum.

As an official endorser of the Alliance for Fair Food, IATP encourages you to join the Email Action Alert and learn more about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' fight for farmworker justice.

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Radio Sustain: Agriculture, food and perspective

Posted April 2, 2010

If music is the international language, food—and where it comes from—is the international conversation piece. In the newest Radio Sustain, the conversation takes us through four distinct perspectives on the international issues of farming, food, sustainability and land management.

First, IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch discusses her experience attending the first USDA/Department of Justice workshop on concentration in corporate agriculture. What are the workshops' goals? What, if any, changes to policy may result and how will the debate domestically impact the international one over competition, monopoly and overall agribusiness domination?

Then, we sit down with IATP President Jim Harkness to talk sustainability in China. In March, IATP hosted the first International Workshop on Sustainable Food and Agriculture at China's Renmin University. What happened there and how will China feed itself?

Dr. William Moseley, a Geography professor from St. Paul's Macalester College, visited IATP in March and joined us to discuss his recent research on the effects of neoliberal trade policies on livelihoods and food production in the three African countries of Gambia, Cote d'Ivoire and Mali.

Finally, IATP Senior Fellow Dr. Dennis Keeney revisits the 2008 Iowa flooding and discusses how commodity crop production has altered the Midwest landscape. How are crops like soybeans and corn impacting the land's ability to absorb floods and what changes could be made?

Listen to the latest episode here!

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On job creation—local fruits and vegetables vs. corn and soybeans

Posted April 2, 2010

It turns out that foods that are better for you may also be better for farmers and local job creation. A new study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University found that expanding fruit and vegetable production in the upper Midwest could bring significantly more economic benefits than conventional corn and soybean production on the same acreage.

The study, by Iowa State Research Scientist Dave Swenson, looked at the potential for fruit and vegetable production in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. It identified 28 kinds of fruits and vegetables that farmers are able to grow in the region. Currently, much of the fruits and vegetables in the region come from other parts of the country or even outside the country.

Some key findings on the economic impacts on the region as a whole:

  • Increased fruit and vegetable production in the six states could mean $882 million in sales at the farm level, and more than 9,300 jobs. Corn and soybean production on that same acreage would support only 2,578 jobs.
  • If half of the increased production was sold in farmer-owned stores, it would require 1,405 such stores staffed by 9,652 people.
  • Only 270,025 acres—roughly equivalent to the average cropland in one of Iowa's counties—would be needed to grow enough fruits and vegetables for the six-state region.

Previous research found that smaller sized farms (50 acres and smaller) are more likely to produce fruits and vegetables than standard-sized farms so it is likely that more, smaller farms would be needed. Researchers assumed that 50 percent of fruit and vegetable production would be directly marketed in-state by farmer-owned stores. Local and regional ownership of the food chain will be essential for maximum job creation.  

The study breaks down the numbers by state and metropolitan region so it's easy to get a sense of what your neck of the woods could be doing to create new local food jobs.

The barriers to transitioning toward more fruit and vegetable production in the Midwest are enormous. Farmland is hard to come by as values are seen as a better investment than the stock market. U.S. farm policy greatly incentivizes corn and soybean production in a number of ways, including helping farmers to manage risks and supporting research for those crops. And then there's the lack of infrastructure needed to help local food systems serve a booming market. Despite these barriers, this study gives us a guidepost for the potential economic benefits of a new model for agriculture that produces healthier and more locally grown food.

.

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Untold costs of the food import boom

Posted March 31, 2010

As global food trade expands, food companies want uniform food safety standards. For the multinational food company, an ideal world would have a set of global standards. If a food production export facility met those standards, the company could freely export anywhere around the world. But what if the global standards weren't strong enough to ensure safety? What if the cost of food-borne illnesses continued to rise? And what if governments didn't invest enough in regulatory agencies to ensure the standards were actually met?

These issues and more are covered in the latest issue of the Global Food Safety Monitor, edited by IATP's Steve Suppan. The issue looks into the underfunding of U.S. food safety agencies, failures in implementing the USDA's food safety programs and attempts to certify the safety of poultry imported from China. 

"If Cargill is investing an average of $100 million a year and cannot control E.coli in its U.S. plants, what is the likelihood that the Obama administration's proposed budget for federal food safety programs [...] will reduce the incidence of E.coli and other pathogens?" writes Suppan. Find out more in the latest Global Food Safety Monitor.

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