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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What's so radical about family farming?

Posted March 1, 2010

In mid-February, the third Farmers' Forum was held just prior to the 33rd Governing Council meeting of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Rome. IFAD is a specialized agency of the UN that funds agriculture production projects in developing countries. The forum brought together 70 representatives of farmer organizations from around the world, representing tens of millions of farmers. IATP was unable to participate due to the tight meeting quota, but the forum's statement and the IFAD president's statement merit comment, if only because they seem at odds with trends in U.S. agriculture, at least at first glance.

The forum's “synthesis of deliberations” noted first how the economic crisis had increased global rural poverty and hunger. Furthermore, “We are witnessing all over the world an increasing competition for land and water, with rising land concentration and large-scale land acquisition by transnational corporations and local elites. These practices result in exclusion of people from land and water resources, the fundamental resources on which we rely as food producers.” In response, the forum called for a return of control over agriculture to family farmers and for a United Nations International Year of the Family Farming. This call may seem out of touch with the statistical reality of U.S. farming and with an increasing concentration of market share of agricultural input production, agri-processing and food retailing that has prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice to initiate hearings in anti-competitive agribusiness practices.

In the United States, the February updating of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest (2007) census shows an unremitting concentration of agricultural resources into an ever-smaller number of ever-larger industrialized raw materials production facilities, which the USDA describes as “very large family farms.” Nine percent of the estimated 2.2 million U.S. farms produce about 63 percent of the total value of all U.S. agricultural production. However, USDA reports that the growth in new farms and new farmers since 2003 is occurring on farms averaging about 200 acres in size and $71,000 in annual sales. Such sales are not enough to support full time employment in farming, so two-thirds of these farmers do not report farming as their primary occupation. For these U.S. farmers and for the declining number of mid-size family farms reported in the census, the Farmers' Forum statement on farmer control of agricultural production may be something they would like to see implemented by USDA.

For those agribusinesses and their government supporters who often state that they “feed the world,” the forum statement might sound downright revolutionary. And yet, as noted by IFAD's president Kanayo Nwanze, about 500 million small land holders provide 80 percent of food consumed in the developing world. IFAD's budget for assisting farmers in developing countries is very modest compared to that of USDA. The forum's demands are correspondingly modest, but very much directed towards establishing farmer control over agriculture through advocating participation in the design and implementation of IFAD projects. The marginalization of farmers from agricultural planning in favor of corporate and central government official control is not the kind of partnership that the forum wants farmers to be involved with in IFAD. Rather than appending the Farmers' Forum to IFAD annual meetings in Rome, the Forum statement proposes to integrate forum participation in all IFAD regional meetings.

Furthermore, nearly half of the forum statement is dedicated to the disparity between the many responsibilities of women in farming as providers of household food security and the paucity of technical and financial resources for them to carry out those responsibilities. President Nwanze gave a special welcome to the 40 percent of the 2010 forum participants who are women and remarked that only nine percent of 2006 Forum participants were women. As women continue to be denied the resources afforded to exporting farms, the forum statement notes “our sons and daughters do not wish to be farmers and continue to migrate to urban areas. This raises a critical question: How can the profitability and sustainability of farming be secured so as to ensure a future for the next generation of women and men farmers?” This question, though formulated in the context of IFAD's developing country members, is surely not foreign to U.S. family farm households.

If IFAD's members agree to a 67 percent budget increase over the next three years, President Nwanze said that the resulting annual $1 billion budget would be able to improve the livelihoods of about 60 million rural people. Programs would be targeted to involve rural youth in farming and to support the women farmers who globally produce about 60 percent of all food crops in developing countries. The role of small land holding farmers in climate change mitigation and adaptation would be another program focus.

Despite the differences between the size and sales of U.S. and developing country farms, and the differences between U.S. government and IFAD budgets, few, if any, of the concerns in the forum and IFAD presidential statements should be foreign to U.S. farmers.

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Finding the intersection of hope and action in Cuba

Posted March 1, 2010

Mark Muller is the director of IATP's Food and Society Fellows program. See the full set of photos from the fellows' trip on their Facebook page.

Following a Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance meeting in Tulum, Mexico titled “Finding the Intersection of Hope and Action” we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour food, health and agriculture systems in Cuba. Several Food and Society Fellows participated in the forum in Tulum, and ten fellows, with IATP’s Abby Rogosheske and myself, continued on for the Cuba trip. The themes of the forum were hope and action, and we found plenty of both in

 It will take a long time before we can appropriately digest everything we saw and heard during the trip. Cuban society functions so much differently than other Latin American countries, let alone the United States. Some observations of interest:

  • A University of Havana professor told us that 78 percent of Cuban food is imported.
  • The Cuban government is creating incentives for people to cultivate the more than three million hectares of land that is idle, and has closed several sugar mills because of the low price of sugar and to encourage more food production for domestic use, like milk and vegetables.
  • At the successful vegetable farms we visited, farm workers would often earn a better salary than a doctor.
  • We saw very few grocery stores in Cuba, and those that we did had an extremely limited number of products. It was the first grocery store that I have ever been to that didn’t have Coca Cola or PepsiCo products!

The trip provided a fascinating glimpse into an economic and political structure foreign to most in the United States. We have already had some interesting discussions about the pluses and minuses of the Cuban approach. And perhaps most usefully, Cuba has created an 11-million-person experiment on how to manage food and health systems. As we prepare for a world with a changing climate, reduced fossil fuels and complex international relations, Cuba provides some examples of both what to do and what not to do.

—Mark Muller

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Three experts on child nutrition

Posted February 25, 2010

The new episode of IATP's Radio Sustain looks at child nutrition through three very distinct lenses. First, Rod Leonard, former USDA official and IATP board member, shares his experience of helping launch the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program in the late 1960s. “The brain is growing at a much different rate up to age five than it does after that period, so […] the WIC program fulfills a social responsibility that can’t be met by any of the other food programs.”

We also talk with Rosemary Dederichs, Director of Nutrition for Minneapolis Public Schools, about a new set of USDA nutrition guidelines for the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. She was part of a panel of experts charged with bringing nutritious foods to the lunch table while staying within budget, a complex task when you consider that the National School Lunch program feeds more than 30 million kids every day.

Farm to school programs offer one emerging option for districts looking to bring fresh produce to their menus. JoAnne Berkenkamp, director of IATP’s Local Foods program, describes her goal as “emphasiz[ing] farm to school strategies that work within schools’ budgets. […] That’s critical, because when it works within the existing budget environment, that’s when you get change that becomes woven into how they do business. That’s a form of change that’s sustainable.”

Listen to the episode here (mp3).

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Agriculture and floods

Posted February 25, 2010

As the spring thaw begins in many parts the country, flood season in the Midwest will soon be upon us. Communities in the Red River Valley and even St. Paul are already bracing for the worst. Are we experiencing more floods in this age of climate change? What role is agriculture playing? And what could be done to better adapt or reduce their effects? These are some of the issues looked at in the new book "A Watershed year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008."

In June 2008, the rivers of Eastern Iowa rose rapidly, flooding farmland and displacing thousands of residents and hundreds of businesses in east-central Iowa and southeast Minnesota. While the book, edited by Cornelia Mutel, focuses on Iowa, it offers lessons for the whole Midwest Corn Belt, which stretches from Nebraska through Ohio.

Several of the chapters zero in on the role of the corn/soybean agricultural landscape (two-thirds of Iowa) in decreasing the region's ability to absorb water."It would be difficult to find two crops that do a worse job of handling Iowa's rainfall," write Laura Jackson and IATP Senior Fellow Dennis Keeney in a chapter on how perennial farming systems could better resist flooding. Perennial plant roots add to the organic matter of the soil, and that soil can absorb tremendous quantities of water without producing runoff into rivers and streams.

"Scientists studying the problems of surface and groundwater contamination, the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and flooding have arrived at the same conclusion: we need to re-perennialize the landscape," write Jackson and Keeney.They argue for more cover crops, longer crop rotations and more grass-based farming integrated with livestock. They suggest policy reforms that would reward farmers for the proportion of precipitation landing on their field that stays on the farm for a significant time period, and other farmer incentives to replace row crops with perennials.

"As flood damages increase, the need for hydrological resilience grows more urgent," write Jackson and Keeney. "A re-perennialized agricultural landscape will still produce food but also will restore community values and ecosystem services that have been lost."

You can order the book here.

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Proposed locks for Miss River: Big price, little benefit

Posted February 23, 2010

Imagine the federal government chucking $2 billion down the Mississippi River. Wouldn’t happen, right? Unfortunately, it could, if the Army Corps of Engineers gets the go-ahead to build seven new navigational locks it wants on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.

As part of the Nicollet Island Coalition (NIC), IATP co-released a report today, Big Price, Little Benefit, criticizing the Army Corps’ plan to build the new locks, concluding that the project would be not only a waste of taxpayer dollars, but would also do nothing to repair devastated fish and wildlife habitats that river navigation systems have heavily damaged.

For years, the Army Corps has argued that the volume of traffic running down the Mississippi merits new lock construction. For just as long, IATP and the NIC have argued that the data just don’t bear that argument out. Since the 1970s, barge traffic has fluctuated, remaining relatively flat. Even the increase in corn production generated by the ethanol boom didn’t create increased barge traffic—most of that grain stayed local.

IATP wants Midwestern farms to thrive. It’s clear, however, that lock expansion on the Upper Mississippi will do nothing to help grow farmers’ incomes and would likely contribute to environmental degradation. Two billion dollars could go a long way toward investments in making Midwestern agriculture more diverse, more ecologically sustainable and more profitable.

Find the report and executive summary here: Big Price, Little Benefit.

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