Action Alert

Fair trade or free trade? Let your voice be heard on Minnesota’s future!

The Obama Administration is negotiating two new mega trade deals (one with Pacific Rim countries, another with Europe) entirely in secret, with the goal of further expanding the NAFTA-model of free trade. These trade agreements could have major impacts on Minnesota's farmers, workers, small business owners and rural communities. They could limit Minnesota’s ability to support local food and energy systems and grow local businesses. In order to stay up to speed, Minnesota has set up a new Trade Policy Advisory Council (TPAC) to advise the state legislature and Governor.

TPAC wants to hear from Minnesotans: What concerns do you have about free trade? What role could TPAC play in the future? Now is your opportunity to have a say in our future trade policy. Complete the survey and let them know future trade negotiations should be public, not secret. Help ensure the voices of all Minnesotans are heard in the development of trade agreements and that they protect local control and our quality of life. The free trade model has failed for Minnesota and we need a new approach to trade. Help ensure the voices of all Minnesotans are heard before trade agreements are completed, and that they protect local control, our natural resources and our quality of life.

Please take five minutes and complete the survey. To find out more about these trade agreements, go to

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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Vilsack robs Peter to pay Paul to address the hypoxic zone

Posted September 30, 2009

At the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient task force meeting, Sept 24, 2009, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the release of $320 million to fund a new Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI). The initiative will “fund efforts in 12 states along the 2,350-mile long Mississippi River.” The states are Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin. The funds will be available over the next four years.

According to the USDA news release, the initiative will be managed by the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) at USDA. Partner organizations will include state and local agencies and agricultural producers. Partners mentioned in an interview of NRCS chief David White by Frank Holdmeyer, include the Farm Bureau, commodity organizations and the Environmental Defense Fund, among others. These partners will “coordinate their resources in areas requiring the most immediate attention and offer the best returns on the funds invested.” It will be a voluntary program.

Conservation methods that avoid, control and trap nutrient runoff will be implemented by agricultural producers. The initiative will be performance oriented. This means that ”measurable conservation results are required in order to participate.” It will concentrate on 8-digit or smaller watersheds, those that are known to contribute high loads of nutrients into the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Watersheds will be identified by an in-house evaluation process. According to White, each state will select one to three large watersheds of 250,000 to 1.2 million acres and then select a sub-watershed of 10,000 to 40,000 acres for application of the conservation measures. White said that the agency wants proposals by the end of October and plans to select eligible watersheds by late January or early February.

Reading through the releases and statements, it is obvious that this is not new money, but a re-direction of funds from other programs such as the Cooperative Conservation Initiative, Conservation Innovative Grants, and the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program. It would appear that other funds will be shaved from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, and the Conservation Stewardship Program.

My take on the MRBI is that it is a shuffling of the chairs exercise. Since no new funds are allotted, and established programs that have had the benefit of outside comment before establishment are being short-sheeted, the program may well end up as another of those ghost acronyms that float across the political landscape. Consider these issues:

Targeting is not likely: In spite of indications that the projects will be targeted, all 12 states will have participating watersheds. While $320 million is not a small amount of money, when spread over 12 states and four years, only about $6.6 million per state, before administrative costs, will be available each year. Unfortunately, peanut buttering is the typical outcome of watershed programs and ensures they will be limited in scope. Consider that about 160 to 165 million acres of corn and soybeans are grown each year (these crops are often planted alternate years and both cause nitrate leaching and erosion). Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois have about 60 million of these acres, or about 38 percent of the total annual row crops, and contribute close to 40 to 50 percent of the nitrate runoff, yet may receive only about 25 percent of the funds.

Measuring Performance: The initiative appears to call for measurable conservation efforts in order to participate; yet we know that measured outcomes require background monitoring, usually for a decade or more, to account for weather variation and then another decade or more of measurements after the practices have been implemented. In the MRBI, we have a 4-year program and no apparent requirement for monitoring before or after the project. Thus watershed selection will be based on less than perfect criteria and likely performance will not be evaluated. White admitted there are some complicating issues that will have to be worked out such as how to establish good baseline and the lag time between when the conservation practices are applied and measurable results. "It can take from several months to 15 years to see results he noted. But I think we can work through this.”

It's Voluntary: All conservation programs have been voluntary as far as I can recall. The agricultural community lives in fear of regulations that might be binding, and refuses to cooperate unless the program is voluntary. But we know over the years that voluntary has not worked. Again, this assures that little will be gained.

Who will be around to ensure that the expensive conservation practices will be maintained over time, as crop land changes ownership or management? Who will continue the monitoring on a voluntary basis? In the end, the MRBI promises to be another initiative that solves little, creates more work for bureaucrats, and could actually lessen the effectiveness of the excellent programs already underway in NRCS. But it sounds good.

Secretary Vilsack can be thanked for trying something, especially in years of extremely tight budgeting. But I would remind him and others that a lot of money is flowing from Washington to keep the current corn and soybean system intact and expanding. From various crop supports to large biofuel (primarily ethanol) subsidies, many billions are spent each year. Moving $320 million from existing programs to the MRBI seems to me to be a pitifully small token payment toward addressing a key national environmental problem, namely Gulf of Mexico hypoxia.

We will have to do better.

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Fresh ideas on food

Posted September 28, 2009

If you could make one major change in our food system, what would it be? This is the question IATP's Food and Society Fellows program put to some of the leading food system thinkers in the country. The results are in the first FAS digest, chock full of great ideas to transform our food system to become more healthy, fair and sustainable. You'll find ideas on improving school lunches, combining food and faith, helping women farmers, ensuring fair working conditions for farmworkers and fair prices for farmers, and the launching of school gardens.

As IATP's Mark Muller writes in the digest's intro, "These remarkable ideas give us a greater appreciation for what is possible. The diversity of the fresh ideas also demonstrates the breadth of issues affected by food systems."

Check out Fresh Ideas on food.

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Why Agriculture and the Climate Bill don't Mix

Posted September 25, 2009

It seems everyone is in a tizzy over agriculture and the climate change bill. Environmentalists are mad about concessions given to farm-state legislators to get the bill—known as "Waxman-Markey," after its two principal sponsors—through the House last July. The industrial farm lobby is mad about the climate bill generally, worried it will raise energy costs. And farmers are unsure how, if at all, they will benefit from the offset credits they could receive, and what they would need to do to get them.

It is high time we took steps as a nation to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Tackling climate change is perhaps one of the most important and difficult challenges we have faced as a society; but including agriculture in the Waxman-Markey bill is bad for farmers, eaters and the planet.

For the bulk of human history, we’ve grown food, fiber and energy without reconfiguring the atmosphere, but the industrial revolution made the bulk of agriculture highly dependent on fossil fuels. Today in the U.S., agriculture accounts for about 13 percent of our nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and it also contributes heavily to soil erosion, water contamination and the loss of biodiversity—but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Waxman-Markey has recognized agriculture’s enormous potential to not only mitigate the ills it has caused, but to also act as a carbon sink. This is the basis for the bill’s carbon offsets program for agriculture, where farmers would receive government credits for doing things like tilling their soil less and planting trees on cropland. Polluting industries and investors could buy these credits, in theory helping fund these on-farm carbon-sequestering activities.

This program is troubling for several reasons. Technically, carbon offset projects are notoriously difficult to measure and verify—making the incentive for change subject to the whims of a speculative market dominated by Wall Street banks. And making it awfully difficult to ensure that offsets will be a long-term, reliable solution to climate change. Falling carbon offset prices would be poor incentives for farmers to switch to climate-friendly agriculture practices. It is hard to envision this having much of a positive impact—for farmers or the planet.

Agriculture is among our greatest achievements and one of our most precious resources. It gives us season after season of food and fiber. Done right, it builds healthy soils, helps purify our drinking water, provides wildlife habitat, and yes, even helps mitigate climate change. With support, agriculture creates livelihoods for farmers, helps preserve the culture and knowledge of food production, and promotes an ethic of land stewardship and preservation. And let’s be clear, good farming has been the basis for a sustainable planet for centuries. Agriculture should in no way be given a free pass when it comes to climate change mitigation, but it is not the source of the climate change problem.

Making Waxman-Markey a primary vehicle for debating agricultural sustainability schemes distracts from making real progress toward more climate-friendly, sustainable agriculture, and takes away much needed resources.

We should not aim to define agriculture’s role in our society through a climate bill. Instead, we should begin a separate, equally urgent process to decide how best to promote agricultural systems that provide us with the kind of farms, rivers, livelihoods, and climate we value as a society. The USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays farmers for sustainable practices on working, productive lands, provides one good place to start such conversations. Expanding such programs should be a clear priority for policymakers and the public, but ultimately, agriculture policy will have to reach much further, to a vision and scale that match the historic challenges we face.

Let’s push forward with strong climate policies, but let’s not use agriculture to circumvent the source of the problem. Our food system is too precious. We already know that agriculture can benefit us all; let’s find a way to make certain that it does.

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Spuds anyone?

Posted September 17, 2009

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

In the last posting on Late Blight in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast this season, I failed to mention its potential effects on this year's potato crop. In monitoring our potato fields we found that Late Blight had arrived on our potatoes. In late July I decided to mow all of our potatoes in order to kill any living tissue matter that the late blight fungus could attack and cause a potential crop failure. Since then we've started digging our potatoes. The results have been mixed with more success in the last few diggings than the earlier attempts.

In the spirit of fall and the tremendous varieties of potatoes I beg to ask: Do you recall the original Mr. Potato Head?

My grandfather tells me that back when it was introduced in 1952, the head wasn’t plastic. The toy consisted of plastic features that children stuck into a real potato which their parents provided. Different potato sizes and shapes increased the fun!

No other crop produces more energy per acre. Hardy and adaptable, potatoes grow from sea level to 14,000 ft in the chilly Andes, and produce food in a wider range of soil and climatic conditions than any other staple crop. The average American eats 120 pounds of potatoes a year. That is almost 365 potatoes per person—a spud a day! There are only 100 calories in an 8-ounce baked potato. Potatoes are only 20 percent solids and 80 percent water! Potatoes are fat free, contain vitamin C, are rich in potassium and are an excellent source of fiber. Potatoes shouldn’t be stored in a refrigerator, but kept dark and dry with good ventilation: ideally between 45 and 50 degrees.

Although last year was the United Nations International Year of the Potato it isn’t too late to go out and celebrate—vodka anyone?

Fact for the future: China and India harvest one third of all potatoes in the world, and developing countries are climbing in potato production while developed countries are on the decline. See the World Potato Production Chart for more information.  

For the time being I think we’ll just worry about our single acre of production. Even after a battle with the infamous Colorado Potato Beetle and the newly arrived Late Blight fungus, we are finding an above average potato year. And with 650 pounds of seed potatoes in the ground we hope to get over 5,000 pounds in return!

To the potato!

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Close Encounters of the Mashed Potato Kind

Posted September 15, 2009

In one of two new videos released last week, a boy named Dreyfus builds a mash potato mountain at the school lunch table. This spoof of Close Encounters of the Third Kind has Dreyfus telling his classmates, "What we eat. It means something." Suddenly, his mountain of unappetizing mashed potatoes transforms into healthy food and the kids celebrate.

8-logo_onetray The second video is a Mastercard spoof focusing on the "priceless" value of healthy school lunches. The videos, by IATP Food and Society Fellows Shalini Kantayya, Nicole Betancourt and Debra Eschmeyer, are helping to launch the One Tray, One Nation campaign, pushing for a new school food system that supports healthy children, local farms and smart schools.

The Child Nutrition Act, which expires on September 30, determines what more than 30 million children eat at school. The One Tray, One Nation campaign is advocating for  $250 million over 5 years, with $50 million mandatory, to support local foods, farm to school and school garden grants to schools; the establishment of a farm to institution initiative within the Secretary of Agriculture’s Office; and increased funding for improving and evaluating school food procurement. The Farm to School Network gives you the details.

Check out the great videos, and take action with One Tray, One Nation to support healthier school lunches for all.

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Industry standards vs. public welfare in produce food safety policy

Posted September 10, 2009

A new report, issued today by IATP and Food & Water Watch titled “Bridging the GAPs: Strategies to Improve Produce Safety, Preserve Farm Diversity and Strengthen Local Food Systems,” explains why the current (non) food safety system for produce growers needs to change, and offers several ideas on how to improve safety and balance the playing field for small, diversified and organic farms.

Currently, a patchwork of public and private protocols are being used ostensibly to ensure food safety on produce farms, including the federal Good Agriculture Practices (GAPs), the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), private industry “super metrics,” and international food safety protocols. In the absence of federal regulations governing on-farm food safety, private industry third party auditors are quickly becoming the standard—not only for companies, but also for larger institutional buyers like hospitals or schools.

But these private industry protocols are geared almost exclusively towards large-scale, single crop operations. For small and diversified farms, the industry requirements effectively close them out of the market. Audit requirements differ greatly among buyers, most require extensive documentation, testing and other added costs; and many requirements conflict with those of environmental programs supported by state and federal agencies.

“Most produce-related food-borne illnesses have been traced to processors, not to the farm,” said IATP's Marie Kulick in today's press release. “For farmers, it’s important to have transparent, inclusive standards that reflect the diversity of U.S. farm operations. A nationally supported produce safety program can benefit everyone—more farms participating, safer food for consumers.”

View the full report here and get more information at and

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Family farm, ag groups push to restrict overuse of antibiotics for animals

Posted September 9, 2009

Numerous agriculure and family farm organizations have issued a letter to President Barack Obama and Senate leaders urging support for the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) S. 619, in an effort to reduce the widespread overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture.

More than 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are added to animal feed to promote growth and manage stresses of animals in confinement housing. While PAMTA would still allow farmers to treat sick animals with antibiotics, it would withdraw the approval of seven specific classes of medically important antibiotics for nontherapeutic feed additive use. Under the bill, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would review each antibiotic to determine if there is a reasonable certainty of no harm to public health.

According to the letter: "In supporting a restriction on nontherapeutic use of antibiotics, the FDA is joining a broad consensus of physicians, scientists and other governments that have taken the same position. The American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science have all called for restrictions on the use of antibiotics for nontherapeutic purposes in food animals. And in 2006, on recommendation from the WHO, the European Union banned nontherapeutic antibiotic use in food animals."

IATP President Jim Harkness said in our press release, "The FDA believes we should act. We have thousands of farmers around the country who are already raising livestock without antibiotics. Now, it’s time for Congress to act.”

For more on how the overuse of antibiotics in raising food animals effects public health, check out the Keep Antibiotics Working Web site.

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Farm to Fork Dilemmas for Food Safety

Posted September 4, 2009

Farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSAs) are the ultimate in food traceability. But they make up only a tiny portion of the food system. The rest is more difficult. There's been a decade-old global push for an integrated food safety system from farm to fork. In the latest issue of Global Food Safety Monitor, IATP's Steve Suppan reports on why building a "farm to farm" food safety system is so difficult.

Steve reviews the political compromises that watered down the food safety bill passed by the House of Representatives in July, Nestle cookie dough contamination and private company testing, and the latest from the World Health Organization and Codex Alimentarius Commission on food safety.

You can read the full Global Food Safety Monitor here.

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A life in the (commodity futures) pits

Posted August 31, 2009

My Aunt Kathryn is the only person that I know who successfully and consistently invested in the commodities futures markets. During a visit to her and Uncle Claude's farm, as a 15-year-old, I tried to understand why she needed all those newspapers, a calculator and notebooks spread out on the kitchen table. She tried to explain to me, with increasing frustration, what she was doing; using the analogy of investing in the stock market, which we were studying in high school. She explained how traders made verbal deals on the trading floors (the "pits") of Chicago, New York, Minneapolis and Kansas City, and how commodity futures markets helped to set the cash prices for what Uncle Claude produced. Then she looked an uncomprehending me straight in the eye and said, "Stevie, the next stop after commodity futures is Las Vegas." Even a callow youth could understand that explanation. 

Aunt Kathryn turned 90 a few days ago and soon my parents and I will go down to Iowa for a big birthday bash paid for by a trust fund filled with her killings in pork belly and corn futures. She wouldn’t recognize the markets now. The traders and "pits" are gone, replaced by Bloomberg "Market Masters" and other marvels of 24/7 round-the-clock and round-the-world electronic trading. In February, the last open outcry called out in the pits of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, which I had first visited as an employee of IATP fourteen years earlier. I ran across my earnest notes from that visit: e.g., “speculators add enough liquidity to the market so that other speculators (farmers included) can get in and out of trades.”

Today liquidity is far in excess of what is required to clear trades. Huge financial institutions, such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, dominate the market, after having successfully lobbied for a decade to deregulate and de-supervise their industry. Among their achievements was the removal of the speculative position limits to which traditional speculators (such as Aunt Kathryn) had been subject. IATP joined other members of the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition (CMOC) in an August 5 letter to the Congressional leadership, calling for the same aggregate position limits for all market participants and other measures.  

We also sent an August 12 comment to the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in support of aggregate position limits. IATP noted that since the CFTC would be in charge of regulating the carbon emissions permit trading envisioned in the House of Representatives “American Clean Energy and Security Act,” (ACES) that the CFTC should hold hearings on how to write rules to prevent excessive speculation in carbon markets. If the CFTC fails to prevent excessive speculation in the carbon markets, the result could be more than the extreme price volatility affecting the market since 2007 (with a concomitant rise in food and energy insecurity). Speculators could jump in as short sellers to drive down the price of carbon emission futures, thus discouraging investment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change. Excessive carbon speculation could fuel an increase in GHG emissions and the economic damage forecast to result, after a two-degree centigrade increase in the global average temperature.

There are at least some signs that the CFTC recognizes the need to address position limits. On August 19, the CFTC withdrew letters permitting Deutsche Bank’s commodity service and Gresham Investment Management to exceed position limits in wheat, soybean and corn futures. These limits apply to traders who use the futures markets to protect themselves against price volatility in commodities they trade or use for manufacture (commercial traders). For a decade these limits had not applied to “non-commercial” traders, such as investment banks. During a CMOC conference call discussing this CFTC action and others, one CMOC member said, “two down and 700 to go.” 

Even if Congress acts to prevent excessive speculation in the commodity and financial markets and the CFTC continues to withdraw the hundreds of “No Action” letters that enabled excessive speculation, the process of restoring fairness to the market will likely be slow. Deutsche Bank and Gresham had already reduced their positions in advance of the CFTC ruling. According to The Wall Street Journal, the two financial institutions will have until October 31 to comply with the rulings, but both were confident that they could already meet their clients’ trading needs within the new limits. 

The late Al Krebs, in his indispensable The Corporate Reapers:The Book of Agribusiness (Essential Books, 1992) wrote, “No one enduring myth in American agriculture has taken deeper root than that which says that the law of supply and demand is the determining factor in establishing fair prices for agricultural commodities.” He documented how speculators in the1970s and 1980s determined prices by providing far more liquidity than what was needed to clear futures contract trades, 41 times as much liquidity in the case of soybean speculators. Al would not be the least bit surprised by the dominance of energy futures over agricultural futures in today’s commodity index funds—nor by the current spike in oil prices at a time when oil reserves are full to overflowing. 

I like to think that if Al had met my Aunt Kathryn (in the 1980s they lived fewer than 200 miles apart in Iowa), he would have advised her to get out the market until the CFTC started to provide a level trading field for commercial traders, such as Aunt Kathryn, with the financial speculators. And I like to think that she, despite the thrill of trading, which Al documents so eloquently, would have taken his advice.

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