This piece is an introduction to a new collection of commentaries by the IATP Food and Community Fellows, originally published on www.foodandcommunityfellows.org. Follow the links below for each piece.
The Norman Rockwell painting “Freedom from Want” is a tribute to one of the four freedoms that President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared people ought to enjoy in his 1941 State of the Union speech. For Roosevelt, this freedom meant having “economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world." His words later influenced the inclusion of the right to an adequate standard of living—which includes a right to food—in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Reading these words 70 years later, we need to recognize that our country of over 300 million people has close to an equal number of images of what "freedom from want" really means. An extended family enjoying an enormous turkey dinner for Thanksgiving is just one idealized perspective from the dominant culture.
With these diverse perspectives come very different ideas for what government’s role should be in achieving a truly just and healthy food system. The past 70 years have brought different actors to our dinner table, most notably agribusiness and food marketers. Given these new dinner companions, how many spaces should be saved for Congress and local government officials?
Last week in Rome, the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security (CFS) agreed on key principles on how governments must address the massive food security challenge that climate change brings. The big news: Governments at the CFS recognized that policies addressing climate change must also support the Right to Food—an important step forward that if taken seriously by governments could result in a major shift in the way agriculture and land use are considered at the global climate talks.
IATP has long recognized that many of the drivers of the destructive industrial food system are not based on a sound rationale, but instead on a series of corporate marketing myths. IATP Food and Community Fellow Raj Patel, for example, has recently been taking on the false assumptions that contributed to the Green Revolution and the revitalized interest in a new Green Revolution.
Another common assumption is that we have a moral obligation to “feed the world,” and that we should not only embrace chemically intensive, industrial food production and distribution systems for profit, but also to fulfill a moral obligation to feed hungry people in other parts of the world. It’s an extremely effective frame. Surely you’re not willing to ignore the plight of the hungry in order to selfishly provide local wildlife habitat or eat local and organic foods?
IATP has researched the relationship between U.S. grain exports and hunger, an important component of this myth. A recent report by IATP Senior Associate Julia Olmstead reveals that dramatic increases in U.S. grain production and export has not alleviated global hunger.
This confirms the conclusions of the exhaustive review conducted for the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), which found that inadequate income and the inability of countries facing hunger to develop their own sustainable food systems are important drivers to hunger that are often ignored in the drive for increased industrial food production.
Guest blogger Sarah Leavitt is the digital outreach manager of the Lambi Fund of Haiti.
It’s a common scene in Haiti: Marceline, a small farmer, walks into a bustling market to sell her harvest and the marketplace is riddled with imported goods. Fruits and vegetables are from the Dominican Republic, packaged goods from the U.S. line the rows and large bags of rice stamped with USAID lay on the ground. To an unknowing eye, this wouldn’t mean much, but to Marceline these imported goods are undercutting her and other Haitian farmers’ ability to make an honest living.
In Haiti, the idea of food sovereignty means so much more than growing food that is healthy, culturally appropriate and produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods (as defined by the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty). For the more than half of Haitian society that depends on agriculture for its livelihood, an agriculture system that that supports locally grown foods is imperative.
The struggle to protect and strengthen local agriculture is nothing new to Haiti. Severe environmental degradation and years of deforestation have eroded the soil and left much of the land devoid of the nutrients essential to producing high yielding crops. This, coupled with Haiti’s propensity for natural disasters, like hurricanes, leaves small farmers especially vulnerable to fluctuations in the environment.
World Food Day is an event perhaps best known to those already advocating to end hunger in their own countries and around the globe. That seems like such an obvious goal, and yet how to achieve it is subject to vigorous debate. This year we’re in the middle of the third global food price crisis since 2008. It seems likely that those crises will become the upward swings of ever more unstable prices unless we make some serious shifts in policy and practice.
To begin with, it’s about time we abandon the idea that the problem of global hunger is simply about producing enough food. Increasing the volume of food production is important, but who has access to that food, and who controls how it is grown is even more vital. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) reports that 70 percent of rural people live in poverty. Many of those people are themselves farmers who are also facing new threats to their ability to feed their families and their communities.
Mammals fed a diet of genetically engineered (GE) Roundup Ready corn for two years died earlier and developed more tumors and liver and kidney damage, according to a new study published this week in the peer-reviewed journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology.
The findings reinforce recent calls by the American Medical Association that GE crops be safety tested for possible health impacts before they enter the marketplace. No such premarket testing is currently required in the United States.
Corn genetically engineered to be pesticide-tolerant or insect-resistant makes up 88 percent of the U.S. corn crop. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready varieties make up the vast majority—an estimated 70 percent of the U.S. corn crop; it is widely planted in Brazil as well.
This GE corn, which allows farmers to spray the herbicide, Roundup, on fields without damaging the corn, largely ends up in ethanol plants, animal feed and processed human foods. But just last fall, Monsanto introduced for the first time a Roundup Ready sweetcorn, bringing GE technology directly to consumers’ mouths.
It has always been an amusing pastime for agricultural policy wonks to envision what would happen if a Farm Bill was allowed to expire. Nobody actually thought that it could come to fruition; after all, the uncertainty that it would impose on farmers and agricultural markets would be too great for Congress not to act on passing a new Farm Bill. Yet, remarkably, it now looks like that scenario is inevitable.
The current Farm Bill, passed in 2008, will expire on September 30. The Senate passed a bill over the summer, and the House has yet to have a floor vote on the bill that emerged from the House Agriculture committee, and will not have a vote prior to September 30. There is a lot of guessing about the overall impacts of an expired Farm Bill, and the media is already full of stories of the stalemate and frustrating lack of Congressional action.
So for those of us not farming or trading agricultural commodities, what impact would this legislative breakdown have on our lives? It’s a complicated question, because some programs would most likely continue unchanged, some programs would disappear and some programs would revert to “permanent law” of Farm Bills past. Overall, it appears that an incorporation of policies from the 1930s and 1940s, coupled with the elimination of many of the more recent programs, would create some major problems. Here are some rough generalizations that can be made, thanks in large part to the Congressional Research Service’s review of this question back in March.
Overusing antibiotics has spurred a crisis in antibiotic resistance.
Since their advent in the 1940s, it’s been no secret that the more you use antibiotics, the quicker bacteria get resistant to them.
What’s newer is the realization of the scale of antibiotic overuse, at least in agriculture. Since 2010, the FDA has collected data from pharmaceutical companies definitively showing that more than 80 percent of all U.S. antibiotics – some 29 million lbs per year– are sold for use in livestock or poultry. Ninety percent of these are put at low doses into livestock feed or water for flocks or herds, often to spur growth or economic gain and not to treat a diagnosed disease.
What’s also new is that bacteria generally now have the capability to become resistant to most if not all antibiotics quite quickly. More and more now, people are getting sick and dying from infections that no longer respond easily to antibiotics. Some, like MRSA, have become household names. Others are less known, though often no less deadly.
But most resistant infections still take place in hospitals. Inside those walls, the impact is huge: Patients with resistant infections get sicker, stay in the hospital longer, and die more frequently than do patients with non-resistant bugs. The economics are scary, too. Resistant hospital infections cost $18,000 to $29,000 per case to treat, causing a cumulative $20 billion price tag for the nation.
The current drought facing the U.S. should send down jitters among net food importers worldwide as the price of major grain crops is set to rise dramatically. The drought can be seen as a result of climate change that has led to unpredictable weather patterns the world over.
Farmers in Kenya continue to face the challenges of unpredictable weather patterns that either bring too much or insufficient rain and extreme weather conditions. The situation has been worsened by the loss of local and traditional seed varieties that are more resilient to dry weather.
Women, have since time immemorial been the custodians of seeds in Africa. They bred, selected, sorted and stored seeds for different seasons and ceremonies. They understood their environment to the extent that they could read nature signs and predict what the next season would bring. That is how communities would always be prepared for droughts and would save sufficient food to take them through hard times.
Even with women as custodians of seed, men too had their role in ensuring food security for their families. Some crops like yams were crops tended to by men. I remember going to the village as a young child and grandma would ask grandpa to dig up some yams for us to carry back to the city. One time I asked grandma why she could not dig up the yams herself and she responded that that was the work of men and a crop tended to by grandpa. This remains vivid in my memory, almost twenty years after grandma passed on from throat cancer.
Agricultural prices, both national and international, are affected by commodity and financial market rules. Export revenues and import costs depend on the value of the dollar, the dominant international currency for commodity trading, relative to the value of other currencies. Interest rate rules affect the interest rates for all kinds of agricultural borrowing, from loans for planting to those for shipping products. However, financial market rules that affect agriculture, and thus food security, are written for all economic sectors, not just agriculture, so agriculture is usually not mentioned explicitly in the rulemaking.
U.S. regulators writing new rules to regulate financial and commodity markets have focused on how these rules will be applied in U.S. markets. However, if the foreign branches of U.S. and European firms are allowed to continue to act with reckless abandon outside of U.S. jurisdiction, legislation to reform Wall Street will be in vain. This summer, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) proposed guidance that grapples with the tough question of how to regulate financial instruments called “swaps,” which are traded by foreign affiliates of U.S. banks. Getting this “cross-border” rulemaking right will be critical for farmers and global food security.