The announcement last week of a bid by China’s Shuanghui International to acquire Smithfield Foods Incorporated came midway through my research trip to Beijing for IATP’s initiative on the globalization of industrial meat production. The responses to the news from back home have been all over the map, albeit fairly predictable. But what are they saying in China? Below I share some initial views from the press, blogosphere, academia and government. I’ll have more later this week.
The government seems positive about the deal. The first thing I noticed was the use of the word “merger” in the official Xinhua News Service’s initial piece on the acquisition. (The U.S. press prefers “sale” or “takeover.”) Xinhua’s second article actually uses “Win-Win” in the title, and describes how the merger will relieve the U.S. of the burden of our excess pork while easing trade deficits and improving Shuanghui’s food safety standards. “We can learn a lot from the industry leader,” Shuanghui CEO Wan Long is quoted as saying. Clearly he has never Googled “Smithfield recall.”
The spring campaign season against frac sand mining has started to take off. It’s not that we’ve been sitting quietly all winter biding our time. As many town boards and county supervisors can tell you, opposition to frac sand mining in the Driftless region of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa has been churning away for months, but something happened when the ice finally melted and the first Spring Beauties bloomed in the woods. In Minnesota, Representative Matt Schmit from Redwing introduced legislation to limit sand mining near trout streams. On April 29th, 35 Catholic Workers were arrested in Winona protesting with over 100 supporters and friends at two frac sand operations. On May 15th, IATP, Wisconsin Farmers Union and the Wisconsin Towns Association released a report raising concerns about the economic impact of frac sand mining in West Central Wisconsin. And coming up on June 1 in Black River Falls, a regional conference called Standing Against the Sand Storm will bring together community leaders and activists from across region to address the growing threat from industrial sand mining and find ways that we can work together.
“You can have food in the stores, but will people in the community be able to buy it?” This was the question posed by Buba Khan, of ActionAid in Africa, to attendees at a Congressional briefing IATP co-hosted last week with ActionAid, Oxfam America and the Heinrich Boll Foundation.
Khan was referring to the effects of “land grabs,” a growing global phenomenon spurred by rising demand for natural resources like agricultural land and mining. These land grabs often displace people and communities who rely on the land for their livelihoods, food and water, as well as deep historical and cultural connections.
At the Congressional briefing last week, speakers from Cambodia, Ghana and Guatemala spoke about how land grabs have occurred in their countries, and what role U.N. Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Land Tenure agreed to last year might play in developing new rules to protect local communities from powerful foreign investors.
Yune Mane, of the Cambodian Indigenous Youth Association, told attendees about how the Cambodian government had granted land to outside investors (often Chinese, French or Vietnamese) for giant rubber plantations or mining. As a result, Indigenous people in the country have lost their right to land and access to spiritual areas, affecting their access to food and increasing poverty. In Cambodia, there are actually strong laws protecting Indigenous rights, including the 2001 Land Law and 2002 Forest Law, Mane said, but enforcement of these laws has been poor.
Efforts to solve the problem of hunger and poverty by turning to the same corporations that helped create the problem have gone viral. Michelle Obama and the President of Mexico have hit on the same scheme (and the same companies) for solutions to hunger and the growing crisis of diet-related illnesses. Both will likely make matters worse.
In a recent commentary, Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance asks the question, “Why is Michelle Obama’s food initiative promoting Wal-Mart?” Wal-Mart and other giant food retailers are part of Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America, a national campaign that includes in its goals eliminating “food deserts,” economically depressed communities with limited access to food. Wal-Mart, a scandal-riven corporation, has wreaked havoc on regional and local food retailers with its profits-at-any-cost business strategy that leads to thoroughly uncompetitive business environments. Local grocery stores, both chains and Mom and Pop operations, have succumbed to the market dominance of Wal-Mart, leaving many communities without a place to buy food. The Partnership’s promotion of opening new Wal-Marts in poor neighborhoods is like inviting the fox to live in the chicken coop after he’s eaten all the little chickens.
IATP joins many NGOs, academics and policy experts today in celebrating a move that could make U.S. food aid more efficient and responsive to the world’s hungry. Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2014 proposes to shift close to half the food aid budget to procuring food aid from local and regional markets rather than the shipping U.S. grains on U.S. ships halfway around the world. With local and regional purchasing, food aid can get to those who need it faster and cheaper while also building local capacity to deal with an increasingly unstable international food supply. It’s a big move, especially when you consider U.S. food aid makes up more than half of all food aid worldwide.
So why are some upset about a move that saves money and gets more food, faster, to those who need it? Enter the “iron triangle”— U.S. shippers, grain companies and a handful of humanitarian NGOs. Scared for their jobs, jealous of their profits, or concerned that Congress will not support more effective forms of aid—the members of the triangle had different reasons for supporting widely discredited programs. (See Kevin Drum’s aptly titled article “Obama Proposes Making Food Aid Less Insane” published by Mother Jones earlier this week.) None of those reasons was persuasive, though. And now the White House has joined the chorus for change.
The Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia has the largest collection of ancient mosaics in the world. Most of the mosaics, depicting Roman, Greek Phoenician and Nubian life, gods and royalty, are incomplete. Some have had to be radically reconstructed, with the help of archeology and very skilled and imaginative art conservationists. The Bardo mosaics have something in common with the World Social Forum (WSF): it is impossible to see more than a handful of the WSF’s nearly one thousand events, but it is possible to reconstruct a sense of the whole from some of its pieces.
The slogan of this WSF is The Revolution for Dignity. For a U.S. audience, this may seem like a strange slogan, but the Revolution in Tunisia, which deposed a dictator, began in January 2011 when a vegetable vendor harassed by police for operating without a license burned himself to death, literally crying to be treated with dignity. In a country with an unemployment rate of 60 percent and a large part of its wealth parked in European banks, rather than invested to create jobs, to be treated with dignity does not seem to be asking very much.
For well over a decade, IATP has advocated for alternatives to the current water governance regime that privileges profit over people, communities and ecosystems. In advocating against neoliberal approaches to solving water crises, we have argued for the promotion of the right to water and the right to food, for the precautionary principle and for the need to respect our common but differentiated responsibility to protect our commons.
This month, as the United Nations celebrates World Water Day, and as many organizations at the World Social Forum celebrate Water Justice Day, we offer Water Governance in the 21st Century: Lessons from Water Trading in the U.S. and Australia, a new paper that looks at the possibilities for water governance based on on cooperation rather than competition. We look at the experiences of water trading in Australia and North America for relevant lessons to help chart a path for just and sustainable water governance in 21st century.
IATP's Dr. Steve Suppan is blogging from Tunis, Tunisia, the site of the World Social Forum.
In Tunisia, important events begin with a poem. The interpretation technology was not working yet, but poetry is difficult to translate in any event. The opening session of the World Forum on Science and Democracy was no less significant because of a momentary technology glitch.
The very notion of science and democracy may seem antiquated or self evident. The Union of Concerned Scientists has a Center for Science and Democracy, which is petitioning the U.S. Food and Drug Agency (FDA) to allow FDA scientists to speak with the public about their work without vetting from their managers. But here, the birthplace of the democratic revolutions of 2011—called the “Arab Spring” by Western journalists—nothing is taken for granted. As a representative of IATP, the only U.S. NGO at a conference of about 200 academics and NGOs from around the world, I am surprised to discover what is taken for granted.
The newly elected Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of the University of Tunisia, our host, begins his welcoming remarks with a quote from the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus, writing in the midst of the Algerian revolution of the 1950s against French occupation of Algeria: democracy is to be able to choose and to allow one to choose without imposition. If this seems an odd way to open a quasi-academic conference, the quote from Camus prefaced an eloquent discussion of how scientists, such as the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and the U.S. anthropologist Gregory Bateson, show how human interdependence, beginning with mother and child, is the basis of all democracy.
The 16th round of negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) began this week in Singapore. That trade deal has the potential to become the biggest regional free-trade agreement in history, both because of the size of the economies participating in the negotiations and because it holds open the possibility for other countries to quietly “dock in” to the existing agreement at some point in the future. What started as an agreement among Brunei Darussalam, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore in 2005 has expanded to include trade talks with Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, the United States and Vietnam. Japan and Thailand are considering entering into the negotiations, and others are waiting in the wings.
And yet, despite the potential of this agreement to shape (and in very real ways override) a vast range of public policies, there has been very little public debate on the TPP to date. Governments have refused to release negotiating texts. Media attention on agriculture and the TPP has focused on New Zealand’s insistence on access to U.S. dairy markets and Japan’s concerns over rice imports.
While important, that debate is much too narrow. The TPP is not only about lowering tariffs. It has the potential to greatly expand protections for investors over those for consumers and farmers, and severely restrict governments’ ability to use public policy to reshape food systems. The fundamental causes of recent protests across the globe over food prices, the rising market power of a handful of global food and agriculture corporations, as well as the dual specters of rising hunger and obesity around the world, point to the need to transform the world’s food systems, not to lock the current dysfunction situation in place.
IATP has always argued that trade agreements need to respect and promote human rights, not drive a process of globalization that privileges commercial interests and tramples on public interests. In a new paper on land grabs, we reaffirm that position.
“Land grabs” are large-scale purchases or leases of agricultural or forested land on terms that violate the rights of the people who live on or near that land. The problem has commanded enormous public policy and media attention for the last few years. In our paper, IATP sets some context for the land grabs phenomenon. We focus on two forces that have contributed significantly to the problem:
The situation is compounded by climate change and the resulting destabilization of weather patterns, which in turn has made agricultural production less predictable. Climate change has made domestic food supplies less certain and exports, too. The United States, still a huge source of grains for international markets, lost 40 percent of a record large number of acres planted with corn to drought in 2012.
The sense of food insecurity has driven some of the richer net-food importers—countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—to invest in growing food abroad for import to their domestic markets. That is one driver of land grabs.