Eric Holt-Giménez, director of the amazing food policy think tank FoodFirst, recently wrote in the Huffington Post that if healthy, organic food is unaffordable, this is a problem of wages and rights, not inherently a problem with healthy, organic foods. Meanwhile, Doug Rauch, the former president of the grocery chain Trader Joe’s is set to open a market “to repurpose the perfectly edible produce slightly past its sell-by date that ends up in the trash . . . [the market] will prepare and repackage the food at deeply discounted prices.” One could take Rauch’s apparently noble kludge to reinforce the old saw that people only care about price when it comes to food.
This, of course, is nonsense.
A Spanish version of this commentary originally appeared in La Jornada.
One of the clearest stories from the NAFTA experience has been the devastation wreaked on the Mexican countryside by dramatic increases in imports of cheap U.S. corn. But while Mexican farmers, especially small-scale farmers, undoubtedly lost from the deal, that doesn’t mean that U.S. farmers have won. Prices for agricultural goods have been on a roller coaster of extreme price volatility caused by unfair agriculture policies, recklessly unregulated speculation on commodity markets, and increasing droughts and other climate chaos. Each time prices took their terrifying ride back down, more small- and medium-scale farmers were forced into bankruptcy while concentration of land ownership, and agricultural production, grew.
It’s hard to separate the impacts of NAFTA from another big change in U.S. farm policy: the 1996 Farm Bill, which set in place a shift from supply management and regulated markets to an accelerated policy of “get big or get out.” Farmers were encouraged to increase production with the promise of expanded export markets—including to Mexico. But almost immediately, the failure of this policy was evident as commodity prices dropped like a stone, and Congress turned to “emergency” payments, later codified as direct payment farm subsidies, to clean up the mess and keep rural economies afloat.
Then, as new demand for biofuels increased the demand for corn, and investors turned from failing mortgage markets to speculate on grains, energy and other commodities, prices soared. It wasn’t only the prices of farm goods that rose, however, but also prices of land, fuel, fertilizers and other petrochemical based agrochemicals. Net farm incomes were much more erratic.
IATP is a member of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD), a U.S.-European network of about 80 nongovernmental organizations, founded in 1999 on the premise that public policy will be improved by a frank discussion of policy documents disclosed to NGOs, just as they are to corporate lobbyists. TACD meets with U.S. and European Union officials yearly, alternating between Washington, D.C. and Brussels, Belgium, to discuss TACD resolutions. This year’s annual meeting focused on regulatory issues in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations between the U.S. and the European Union, formally launched in June.
U.S. and EU TTIP negotiators were to have met last week in Brussels, but the meeting was postponed due to Edward Snowden’s revelations of U.S. electronic surveillance of European officials, including European Heads of State. The U.S. government usually sends just a couple of officials to TACD meetings in Brussels, but this year, faced with the possible derailment of TTIP negotiations due to U.S. spying, they sent a full contingent to repair the public image damage, though not to apologize. TACD was an indirect beneficiary of Snowden’s act of transparency, i.e., making the secret public.
These are the remarks of M. Jahi Chappell, Ph.D., IATP's director of agroecology and agriculture policy to the World Food Prize on October 18, 2013. Videos of Dr. Chappell’s speech can be found at the IATP YouTube channel, in both English and Portuguese.
There has been, with this World Food Prize, a celebration of science. In the lead up to the Prize; in the ceremony last night; and more broadly within the career of the late Norman Borlaug, science is rightly praised as a powerful and important set of tools.
Unfortunately, the power of these tools has been blunted. It has been blunted because science—which at its most basic is the careful and systematic study of the world around us, and the consistent testing of our ideas against reality—this wonderful and powerful process has been narrowed too often in discussions of food to mean technology. Technology is but one way to use science; it is only the tip of one particular tool that can be found in the powerful toolbox that is science.
After being delayed by the U.S. government shutdown, talks for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are quietly gearing up again. Tariff barriers between the U.S. and EU are already low, so these negotiations are focused squarely on achieving “regulatory coherence.” In other words, industry lobby groups and their political allies on both sides of the Atlantic see the trade deal as an opportunity to get rid of rules and regulations that limit their ability to buy and sell goods and services. The outcome of TTIP has implications for the rest of the world. Leaders from both regions have made clear, the terms of this trade agreement will set the standard for future free trade agreements.
TTIP could affect a broad range of issues, from energy to the environment, and intellectual property rights to labor rights. It could also have a significant impact on the evolution of agricultural markets and food systems in the U.S. and EU, as well as solidify the ability of corporations and investors to challenge new regulations that could affect expected profits through international tribunals. Unfortunately, little concrete information is known about the content of the TTIP proposals, since the governments involved have refused to publish draft text.
In both the U.S. and EU, the time to influence the substance of the agreement is before it is completed. That’s a tricky task, since the negotiations are happening behind closed doors, but it means that civil society groups and legislators need to pay close attention to what is on the agenda, even without complete information.
Pete Huff and Dr. M. Jahi Chappell have joined IATP’s staff this fall and together will be leading the organization’s efforts to further a sustainable, diversified and prosperous agriculture and food system.
Pete Huff, IATP’s new director of food systems, will be focusing on advancing healthy and fair food systems in the coming year, including our Beyond the Farm Bill initiative. His background spans the worlds of organic agriculture, market gardening, school food-waste reduction and urban agriculture policy in the nonprofit and local government sectors in both the U.S. and Australia. Learn more about Pete on his staff page.
Dr. M. Jahi Chappell is IATP’s new director of agriculture policy, working on farm policy that supports agroecology and more democratic systems. Most recently, Dr. Chappell served as an assistant professor in the Environmental Science and Justice program of Washington State University Vancouver’s School of the Environment. He is a leading scholar of the food security policies of the city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, which served as a basis for Brazil’s acclaimed national Zero Hunger programs. He’ll be a featured speaker at the upcoming Borlaug Dialogue as part of the World Food Prize. Learn more about Jahi on his staff page.
This piece was produced by IATP intern John Parker for IATP's Beyond the Farm Bill.
When it comes to faith in our democracy, this year has raised some eyebrows. In the case of food and agriculture policy, a disturbing fact emerges: Our democracy is increasingly a façade.
Agribusinesses have been subverting the democratic process from Washington D.C. to state legislatures across the country to ensure that people know less and less about how their food is produced and distributed. Moreover, they have engaged in a determined effort to obstruct opportunities for citizens and legislators to engage in the democratic process. Consider the following to illustrate the point.
I’m sorry, but saying that the Green Revolution saved millions of lives is unscientific.
Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, recently made this widely repeated, but unscientific, claim in responding to columnist Rekha Basu. Basu recently criticized the foundation for awarding this year’s World Food Prize to three scientists who helped invent crop genetic modification. (Two of who are current or former vice presidents at Monsanto and Syngenta.) Quinn notes that the founder of the World Food Prize, famed Green Revolution researcher Norman Borlaug, specifically encouraged the foundation to consider these three scientists before his death. In his piece, Quinn admonishes Basu that “Dr. Borlaug would tell us it is our responsibility to use the power of science” to help solve widespread malnutrition. He does this shortly after lauding Borlaug as “the man who saved millions from famine and death in India and Pakistan.”
Transformative changes are needed in our food, agriculture and trade systems in order to increase diversity on farms, reduce our use of fertilizer and other inputs, support small-scale farmers and create strong local food systems. That’s the conclusion of a remarkable new publication from the U.N. Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
The report, Trade and Environment Review 2013: Wake Up Before it is Too Late, included contributions from more than 60 experts around the world (including a commentary from IATP). The report includes in-depth sections on the shift toward more sustainable, resilient agriculture; livestock production and climate change; the importance of research and extension; the role of land use; and the role of reforming global trade rules.
The report links global security and escalating conflicts with the urgent need to transform agriculture toward what it calls “ecological intensification.” The report concludes, “This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.”
The UNCTAD report identified key indicators for the transformation needed in agriculture:
In the midst of worrisome news about droughts, desertification, unreliable monsoons and growing concerns around water security around the world, the announcement by the UNESCO and Kenyan officials at the recent International Water Security Conference in Nairobi was anything but gloomy. The finding of potentially huge groundwater resources in northwestern Kenya is indeed a blessing, not only for the herding communities of drought-prone Turkana, but also for the region as a whole.
Until very recently the region was best known to the global water community both for the lack of access to water that mark the lives and livelihoods of indigenous communities that live there, and for their efforts to save Turkana Lake, the largest permanent desert lake in the world according to International Rivers.
But a recent survey by RTI, a company hired by U.N., found groundwater systems with a potential of storing about 250 billion cubic meters (or about 66 trillion gallons) in the Kachoda, Gatome, Nkalale and Lockichar areas, with the largest aquifer being located in the Lokitipi Basin—all of them in Turkana county, one of the 47 counties in Kenya. Of these, the three smaller aquifers combined are estimated to store about 30 billion cubic meters of water, once confirmed by drilling.