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.
Washington D.C. is a gloomy place these days, with grey skies and a weirdly warm winter, the sour prospect of failure around the sequestration debate, and more cuts on the horizon. It’s possible, however, that on international food aid there just might be a silver lining to all that gloom. Reuters reports that President Obama might propose new rules in his March budget proposal that would make food aid reach more people, more quickly and more efficiently.
Since the 1950s, nearly all U.S. food aid has been shipped in-kind. There was a certain (though even then, not entirely positive) logic to that practice when this country had vast grain reserves, but that hasn’t been the case for years. Most donor countries now provide more flexible resources for local and regional purchases of food aid, and there has been pressure for years from development and faith organizations for the U.S. government to get with the times and make that shift.
There was a small breakthrough in the 2008 Farm Bill, which created a pilot program to test local and regional purchases of food aid. The evaluation of that experiment found that food aid purchased locally arrived, on average, in about 56 days, compared to 130 days for food purchased and shipped from the U.S.—and at lower cost. Early drafts of the 2012 Farm Bill would have expanded that program and made it permanent, but the Farm Bill, like so many others initiatives these days, is in limbo.
After the disastrous financial collapse in 2008, the commodity and financial market regulatory reform process on both sides of the Atlantic has been a series of promising but halting steps, all too often two steps forward and one step back. This week the EU Parliament decided not to take that one step back, when it withdrew a resolution to object to standards for the centralized clearing of over-the-counter (OTC) financial and commodity derivatives contracts. Such a centralized system is essential for effective market regulation. Joost Mulder, of the Brussels-based NGO Finance Watch, said, “the decision to withdraw the resolution is a victory for the real economy.”
The new standards will make transparent pricing and other information previously hidden in the privately negotiated, but market-dominant, OTC contracts and will prevent a repeat of the 2008-09 cascades of counterparty defaults. According to the standards, Centralized Clearing Platforms (CCP) authorized by the European Market Infrastructure Regulation (EMIR), would ensure that the counterparties to an OTC contract are credit worthy and able to cover their losses. Lack of centralized clearing of OTC trades (called swaps) was a major factor in the financial industry crisis of 2008-09, which triggered taxpayer bailouts of the industry and a real economy crisis on both sides of the Atlantic, wreaking price havoc in agriculture and energy markets.
Last year international food markets suffered their third price spike in five years. The trigger was a terrible drought in the United States—a major agricultural producer and exporter. An unstable climate met low levels of international grain reserves, while U.S. ethanol gobbled up maize supplies. The resulting high and volatile prices struck yet another blow at the world’s already fragile food systems.
This is exactly the scenario we warned of a year ago when we published Resolving the Food Crisis, a comprehensive assessment of the international community’s response to the global food price crisis.
High and volatile food prices in international markets will continue until structural reforms to trade, finance and agriculture are put in place to address the real drivers of the food crisis. It’s time for meaningful limits on financial speculation, reformed mandates for biofuels made from food crops, a system of internationally coordinated public food reserves and strong regulation on land investments. Donors should continue to invest in developing country agriculture, respecting their commitment to recipient country leadership. If the private sector engages, it, too, must respect the rights of the people it engages with.
Here is our review of progress on these issues in 2012:
Funding for agricultural development: Instead of renewing their 2009 L’Aquila commitment to invest significant aid money in agriculture, the G-8 group of powerful nations rolled out the “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.” Most of the funding comes from private sector partners like Monsanto and Yara, a global fertilizer company. The aid comes with strings: To qualify, governments must “refine policies in order to improve investment opportunities.”