"Big River" Nets Big Donation for Mississippi River Gorge Stewards Program

Posted December 15, 2009

IATP staffers (from left) Abby Rogosheske, Julia Olmstead, and Mark Muller proudly handed over $2000 in proceedsBig River check to FMR 12309 (2) from the "Big River" movie premiere to the Friends of the Mississippi River's Gorge Stewards Program. FMR and IATP partnered with the Birchwood Cafe and Land Stewardship Project to bring Curt Ellis (of movie "King Corn" fame) and his new documentary "Big River" to the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis last month. Ticket sales from the near-capacity crowd generated a big donation to the Mississippi River Gorge Stewards Program. This program brings neighbors
and committed citizens from throughout the metro area together to protect and restore the Mississippi River Gorge, the very unique river ecosystem that stretches from downtown Minneapolis to Crosby Farm Nature Area in Saint Paul. We are all grateful to everyone who supported both the movie premiere and this important river program. Thank you!

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Climate vs the speculators

Posted December 9, 2009

In both U.S. climate legislation and within the global climate talks there are serious proposals to create a new carbon emissions derivatives market with big Wall Street speculators looking to cash in.

A new issue brief by IATP's Steve Suppan finds that the same regulatory loopholes that led to excessive speculation on commodity futures markets in 2007 and 2008—leading to big spikes in food and energy prices and riots in over 30 countries around the world—are also in place within proposals for a new carbon market. A poorly regulated carbon derivatives market could induce huge volatility within agriculture futures prices—ultimately affecting farmers and food security. Additionally, volatile carbon prices driven by speculators could delay investments in greenhouse gas–reducing technologies.

Watch the short video interview with Steve below to see how he breaks down the risks of proposed carbon derivatives markets.

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Climate inequity

Posted December 9, 2009

When negotiators arrive in Copenhagen this week, they will quickly become immersed in jargon and highly technical drafts of text. But they shouldn't lose sight of an important fact: climate change occurs in a world of extreme social and economic inequality.

That is the message of a new briefing paper by IATP's Shalini Gupta and Dr. Cecilia Martinez. The paper looks at the disproportionate role wealthy nations have had in contributing to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, contrasted with the role of poorer nations and people. It also looks at who has benefited the most from GHG-intensive development patterns and who is most affected by climate change. The paper links the eradication of the Indigenous commons in the U.S. and the capture of agriculture by agribusiness to the same market-based philosophy underlying the industrial world's approach to climate change.

You can watch a short video with author Shalini Gupta below.

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Agriculture change

Posted December 8, 2009

At the climate negotiations in Copenhagen there will be a lot of talk about supporting more "climate-friendly" agriculture systems and there will be a lot of debate about exactly what type of agriculture is better for the environment. Some agribusiness companies like Monsanto are aggressively pushing genetically engineered crops as part of the climate solution. IATP's Jim Kleinschmit, however, makes the case in a new issue brief that we need to shift research and investment away from genetically engineered crops and input intensive agriculture practices toward low-input, resilient agriculture systems that increase carbon sequestration in the soil and lessen our output of greenhouse gases. Agriculture systems that are both adaptive and mitigative should be given the highest priority. Such a transition would redirect government investment from proprietary genetically engineered seed and crop technologies towards enhancing traditional plant breeding and perennial systems; and shift away from large-scale confined animal feeding operations toward greater integration of livestock production with low-input cropping systems.

You can read the full issue brief and watch a short interview with Jim below.

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How U.S. climate policy treats agriculture

Posted December 8, 2009

We can expect that the U.S. government's position on agriculture at the global climate talks in Copenhagen will reflect how agriculture has been treated in climate bills being written by Congress. Thus far, Congress has seized upon agriculture and forestry-related sequestration as a key tool to reduce the country's overall greenhouse gas emissions. Thus far, legislative proposals have set no caps for agriculture emissions.

IATP's Julia Olmstead writes in a new issue brief that instead of considering agriculture in its entirety—such as what practices might be good not only for the climate, but also for farmers, consumers, the soil, air and water—U.S. climate policy reduces agriculture to a carbon storage coffer, enabling other sectors to avoid real emission reductions. The paper critiques U.S. policy proposals regarding agriculture offsets and argues for a different approach that recognizes the multifunctionality of agriculture. Such an approach would provide predictable and sufficient payments to farmers for climate-friendly practices; ensure flexibility for farmers as climate science evolves; hold agriculture accountable while accounting for scale and types of operation; and strengthen rural resilience.

You watch a video interview below with author Julia Olmstead. Julia will be in Copenhagen to report on the global climate talks.

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Looking for integrated solutions to climate at UN talks

Posted November 11, 2009

From November 2–6 last week, negotiators met in Barcelona as a lead up to UN climate talks in Copenhagen in December. However, hardly any progress was made on the two issues that continue to be central to the deadlock: firm emission reduction targets for developed countries and financing that would allow developing countries to limit their emissions growth and adapt to the climate change impacts that are already inevitable.

Sometimes I wonder whether this is a blessing in disguise. Why? Because negotiators seem unable to grapple with how climate change intersects with other critical challenges related to agriculture and water.

In the case of agriculture, its contribution to climate change is significant but its potential for mitigation is high. It is not only a source of livelihood for close to half the world's population but provides food for all of us. Despite these characteristics, agriculture has only recently entered climate negotiations.

Water is another missing element of the negotiations. The climate impact on agricultural production will primarily be mediated through water (and humidity related changes in the presence of pests and pathogens). In Barcelona, UN-Water (composed of 26 UN organizations) released a statement urging climate negotiators to recognize the pivotal role of water in adapting to climate change in order to increase resilience and achieve sustainable development, stating: “Water is the primary medium through which climate change influences the Earth's ecosystems and therefore people’s livelihoods and well-being. [...] The sense of urgency for climate change adaptation and the recognition of the centrality of water therein, have not yet permeated the political world [...]." It added: "Innovative technologies and integrated solutions are needed at the appropriate scales, for adaptation as well as mitigation."

Three days later, in New York, a special event was held as part of the 64th Session of the UN General Assembly’s Second Committee (Economic and Financial), titled “Enhancing Governance on Water" during which experts discussed some of the key issues on the global water agenda, including strengthening the response to climate change through smart water management and reducing the impacts of water-related disasters. The UNGA event emphasized that water issues must be addressed in a holistic manner to address the climate crisis.

Earlier this year, IATP issued a report prior to the World Water Forum titled, Integrated Solutions to Water, Agriculture and Climate Crises. I hope UNFCCC negotiators heed these growing calls for integrated solutions to these global challenges.

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Bt refuge rules being ignored at our peril

Posted November 10, 2009

The adoption of transgenic, or more commonly termed genetically modified (GM) crops, has greatly transformed the crop industry. Crops resistant to the general purpose herbicide, glyphosate or Roundup, are widely available. More controversy, however, has been generated by the use of Bt-corn hybrids. These genetically engineered hybrids produce a protein derived from a soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that is toxic to some pests but not to humans or animals.

While the biotech industry promoted Bt crops to control Lepidoptera—the order of insects that includes moths and butterflies—and thus dramatically reduce the use of synthetic insecticides, Miguel Altieri in 1999 brought attention to the issue of insect resistance. He pointed out that Lepidoptera have species that have developed resistance to the Bt toxin and that ultimately the use of Bt crops will fail. The continuous expression of the toxin in the crop will create such a strong selection pressure that resistance will be certain to develop.

To overcome the concerns for resistance development, the refuge strategy was developed. The concept is simple in design, but difficult in execution. It was first presented by US EPA in 2000 for corn borer control. It involves planting at least 20 percent of land in non-Bt corn. In cotton areas, at least 50 percent of the cotton must be non-Bt (there is also a Bt cotton). The situation is more complicated for corn rootworm Bt (a stacked trait, containing both rootworm and borer Bt, that is becoming more common).

The thinking behind the refuge is that the resistance genes will be diluted by supplying susceptible moths that can mate with the rare resistant moth. Offspring of these pairings will likely be susceptible to Bt corn. If the Bt corn rootworm is planted, the refuge should be in an adjacent field. Whereas for the corn borer, the refuge can be up to a half mile away. This is because the rootworm mating is local whereas the corn borer moth has a fairly wide range of exploration, although most recommendations prefer that the refuge for both be in the same field.

Monsanto now has a new corn seed that is a triple stacked variety for broad control of corn earworm, European corn borer, fall armyworm, southeastern corn borer, southern cornstalk borer, corn stalk borer and sugarcane borer, as well as corn rootworm. This technology has an EPA approval for a 20 percent refuge in both corn and cotton-growing areas.

The refuge compliance is voluntary, but must be monitored yearly by the major biotechnology seed producing industries. Data for 2008, reported by Gregory Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and covered in The New York Times indicate a significant slippage in adherence to the refuge requirement, from a rather consistent 90 percent or above compliance in earlier years. They found:

  • Only 78 percent of growers planting corn-borer-protected crops met the size requirement, and only 88 percent met the distance requirement.
  • Only 74 percent of growers planting rootworm-protected crops met the size requirement, and 63 percent met the distance requirement.
  • Only 72 percent of farmers growing stacked varieties of GE corn—corn protected against both corn borer and rootworm—met the size requirement and 66 percent met the distance requirement.

These are serious breaches of a contract that is made with EPA and the biotechnology companies—and with the public, who counts on the agricultural industry to live up to its stewardship obligations.

CSPI has some strong and common sense recommendations, including the removal of registration of Bt corn varieties until the companies can demonstrate a higher level of compliance; large fines or seed sales restrictions if noncompliance remains high; requiring biotech companies to pay for independent third-party assessments of compliance; and requiring bag labeling to specify refuge requirements.

Why is compliance slipping? One can only speculate. But is it a coincidence that compliance dropped when the price of corn skyrocketed in 2007-2008? At the same time, prices of inputs also increased, squeezing the farmer’s bottom line even more. The refuge requirement is expensive; seed must be segregated, pesticides that might also cause resistance cannot be used and yields on the refuge areas might suffer because of the high pest pressure. 

Even more serious is the potential that organic farmers will lose the one best biological control of pests available to them; they commonly spray a mixture of Bt on crops to biologically control the Lepidoptera.

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Do agriculture offsets make good climate policy?

Posted November 5, 2009

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich) introduced an amendment to the Kerry-Boxer climate bill yesterday. In it, Stabenow, along with six co-sponsors (heavy on the farm states), outlined an agriculture and forestry offset program for the cap-and-trade legislation (the Kerry-Boxer bill contained only placeholder language on ag offsets).

Stabenow’s bill, dubbed the Clean Energy Partnerships Act (CEPA), offers few surprises. As in the Waxman-Markey climate bill that passed the House last June, CEPA sets up a system in which farmers and ranchers would be eligible to earn carbon credits for certain climate-beneficial practices like no-till, methane capture, and cover crops. Capped industries (like steel plants, coal-powered energy plants, etc.) could then buy these credits, thereby reducing (at least on paper) their greenhouse gas emissions.

So is this good policy? In a word—no. As we’ve written before, offsets themselves are notoriously problematic. They’re hard to measure and hard to verify, and in many cases, it’s tough to say whether the carbon reducing activity would’ve happened regardless of the offset. Example: a cattle farmer who practices good grazing. Should we reward her? Absolutely—let’s make sure she has the support to keep doing it. Should it mean a coal plant can get out of some real emission reductions? I don’t think so.

Agriculture and the climate would be much better served by comprehensive farm policies that recognize that farming can do more than just sequester carbon—it can also benefit the soil, water, and of course, eaters. It’s a point we keep making, but one I think bears repeating. I will credit both Waxman-Markey and Stabenow’s bill for including non-offset programs to incentive climate-friendly ag practices. We need to talk more about policies like those, and less about offsets. Learn more about climate and agriculture here and here.

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Farm to school programs growing despite challenges

Posted November 5, 2009

IATP's JoAnne Berkenkamp and USDA Deputy Secretary Merrigan When USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan toured the St. Paul School Commissary earlier this week, the first thing she talked about was how complicated the logistics are when trying to provide healthier school lunches—particularly for larger urban districts. Heads in the meeting room immediately nodded. (see photo: IATP's JoAnne Berkenkamp and USDA Deputy Secretary Merrigan)

Yet, despite these challenges, the urgency of improving school lunch programs is rising. The Centers for Disease Control reported last month that most kids aren't getting enough fruits and vegetables. And the Institute for Medicine also published a paper last month citing school lunch and breakfast programs as critical to ensuring the health of our children.

Healthy school lunch items! Farm to school programs are seen as one tool toward providing healthier food to kids—and communities around the country are recognizing this. There are now over 2,000 farm to school programs around the country.

In Minnesota, we have been working with the Minnesota School Food Service Association to expand farm to school programs. “It’s exciting to see Farm to School participation growing all over the state—in the cities, in the suburbs and throughout greater Minnesota. This movement is growing by leaps and bounds,” IATP’s JoAnne Berkenkamp said in a press release we sent out today.

This fall and early next year, Congress will renew the Child Nutrition Act—an important opportunity to expand resources for farm to school programs.

As Deputy Secretary Merrigan said, "The need is great, the challenges are great, but just because they're great doesn't mean we're not ready to tackle them."

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Monsanto and Pioneer duke it out over biotech corn, farmers take the hit

Posted October 28, 2009

There is an old African saying “Whether elephants make love or war, the grass suffers.” The two elephants in the agricultural seed business are now making real war, although they have been wary of each other for years. Monsanto, a relatively recent entry into the business, has become the “dominant male” in the battle after moving to acquire a large number of formerly independent seed companies. Pioneer, content for years to be the premiere corn breeder in the world, has found itself suddenly defending its turf and trying to find ways to move into the new biotech ball game. The Des Moines Register recently covered this ongoing saga.

Monsanto has long been targeted as a corporate villain. From dioxin-laced Agent Orange for Vietnam to the industrial chemical, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), Monsanto was known as producer of persistent, deadly chemicals.  Lassotm, the alachlor-based pre-emergent grass herbicide with a long list of toxicity issues, was their first foray into agricultural chemicals.

Monsanto’s bottom line was being hurt by lawsuits and clean-up costs associated with dioxin and PCB pollution. Enter Roundup™ (glyphosate), launched in 1976. This is the chemical that made Monsanto the powerhouse it is today. Glyphosate is a broad spectrum nonspecific herbicide that has low acute toxicity and does not persist in the environment. It should be noted however that many questions remain regarding the long-term toxicity of glyphosate.

By 1982 they had the first genetically modified plant cells. Depending on definitions, humans have been genetically modifying crops for thousands of years. More correctly, these are termed transgenic crops, which involves inserting a gene that is not acquired by pollination. I have used genetically modified (GM) because it has become the standard term. Now plant life is patented, permitting GM companies to control technology, and prohibit use of seed from the GM crop.

In 1926, Henry A. Wallace and others founded the Hi-Bred Corn Company in Des Moines to develop and market the expanding hybrid seed corn business. Pioneer was added to the name in 1936. They moved into soybean seed operation in 1973, and soon became the leading corn and soybean seed producers. Pioneer gained the number the one corn seed sales spot in 1982 from its longtime rival, Garst. Pioneer, when I first came to the Leopold Center in 1988, was a family company: friendly, environmentally aware and benevolent. Its advances were based on classic plant genetics, not biotechnology. It was not to last.

Monsanto bought its way into the seed business by acquiring established companies including the number two seed corn producer, Garst. This predatory approach (Monsanto often paid more than market value for the seed companies) combined with its big breakthrough—developing genetically modified corn and soybeans resistant to glyphosate—gave them a huge market advantage. This initiated the trend to GM crops that is now dominant in the seed industry.

The predator habits of Monsanto long made Pioneer nervous. Patented Roundup Ready soybeans were first introduced by Monsanto in 1996. One year later, Pioneer had biotech corn and soybeans on the market, buying the technology from Monsanto. Pioneer Hi-Bred was purchased by DuPont (20 percent in 1997 and the remainder in 1999). Lawsuits began soon after.

By 2000, corn borer protection had been added by Monsanto (called YieldGardtm) and Pioneer had to enter into agreements to use the Monsanto technology in its corn. Pioneer paid big bucks to use the Roundup Ready and YieldGard traits. Now Monsanto is suing Pioneer over infringement of these patent rights and Pioneer is moving ahead with a new set of seed traits called Optimum GAT. Monsanto saw red, and has countersued. Monsanto also became very unhappy when Pioneer recently co-sponsored an anti-Monsanto seminar in St. Louis, the home of Monsanto. The issues are complex, and involve “stacking” of seed traits. This means that genetic characteristics for two or more traits are included in a single seed. Often these stacked seeds have not had full evaluation regarding their safety and efficacy. In the meantime, Pioneer slipped to No. 2 in seed sales.

Monsanto now licenses these traits to about 200 seed companies. Their powerful monopoly has blocked competition. They will not even allow experimenters to evaluate the seed corn for efficacy in other environments.

During this time, the price of seed corn and Rounduptm escalated rapidly. But now Monsanto is starting to lose money on its Roundup herbicide, mainly because it is off patent and others are now undercutting Monsanto on price. Furthermore, the pent up demand for glyphosate in South America had raised prices earlier, but this market now is being met.

So what does all this mean? I first encountered Monsanto in the early 1970s when at a regional research meeting in St Louis they invited the committee to tour their operations. At that time they were just getting into biotech and no one really saw its potential to make money.Then, about the time I was getting the Leopold Center programs underway, Roundup Ready soy field trials were under way on a site east of Ames. I had a tough decision to make on funding for field work that might involve GM materials, and decided we would not fund such work, but it soon became hard to delineate the lines between GM and non-GM. When Pioneer went over to Roundup Ready, and then both companies began stacking genes, I knew the game was lost. 

Genetically modified corn and soybeans dominate, especially in countries with high input agriculture. Claims that GM crops will “Feed the World” abound, especially around the time of the World Food Price presentations earlier this month. Other claims include the lowering of pesticide use and lessening of soil erosion. 

Monsanto now bills itself as a Sustainable Agriculture company! 

These are issues deserving of future blogs. I worry about how the world’s farmers are being shortchanged in the quest for improved and adapted seed varieties at reasonable costs. Now they cannot save seed for fear of the Monsanto cops taking them to court and ruining their lives. The seed industry is no longer competitive because about 90 percent of it is in the hands of two companies and the cost of seed is out of reach of small farmers. I worry about how the food system is now dependent on genetically engineered corn, soybean, cottonseed, canola and sugar beets (recently taken back off of the market). GM wheat, rice and other staple crops could follow as pressure continues to adopt these crops. The industry essentially says "We build it, you will use it."

We need to be smarter about these crops, question each claim and insist the government enforce antitrust laws. We should  resist the claims that they will solve the food shortage in countries where their use will do more harm than good. Specifically, this means the next food frontier, Africa, must not become a new “Green Revolution” based on the failed western world high technology model, rooted in GM crops.

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