Toward Rio+20: Will it create more than words?

Posted October 25, 2011 by Shiney Varghese   

IATP board members prepare for the first Earth Summit in 1992. 20 years later, Rio+20 is still addressing many of the same issues—hopefully with a more meaningful outcome this time around.

Earlier this month, not far from the site of Occupy Wall Street at Liberty Plaza in New York, a small group of people gathered; they too were engaged in a conversation about systemic change in the face of some of the challenges faced by the world today, specifically global food and water insecurity, financial crisis and climate change. IATP was invited to be a part of the “Global Transition 2012, New York Dialogue,” an effort to provide input to Rio+20 (read "Rio plus 20), an international conference scheduled to take place in Brazil next summer. Co-organized by Stakeholder Forum, New Economic Institute and New Economic Foundation, the ‘Global Transition 2012’ Initiative will use the results of this dialogue as input for its policy proposals and advocacy in the lead up to Rio+20, so that these recommendations are included in the negotiating text and final outcome document.

The Rio conference will mark the twentieth anniversary of the first Earth Summit, where heads of states came together to address what was seen as the priority issue at the time: environmental limits to development. They sought to develop a global framework to chart a path for “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (IATP participated in the first Earth Summit with a focus on environment and trade.) Sustainable Development became the buzzword in development efforts in the following decade, with the three pillars: economic, social and environmental development.

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Video: Rethinking land use for biofuels

Posted September 21, 2011 by Andrew Ranallo   

IATP's visiting delegation from Brazil tours an ethanol production facility.

IATP hosted a conference last week at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment that addressed the contentious issue of indirect land use change (ILUC)—put simply, if we take an acre of corn used in food production and begin using it for fuel instead, how will the global agriculture system make up for that missing corn for food? Will more land be cleared somewhere else? What are the environmental implications?

With the rising demand for alternative energy sources, more and more farmers are entering this transition. In March 2011, IATP led a group of U.S. researchers, farmers and biofuel producers down to Brazil to explore ILUC on the ground. IATP’s conference was part of a follow-up to that trip and brought a group from Brazil up to Minnesota to learn more about U.S. biofuel production. 

The conference was designed to look ahead, and find ways to sustain the delicate global system of farmers, land and the environment as the demand for alternative energy sources rises and more farmers enter transition from food to fuel.

Minnesota 2020 has put together a short video about the conference and its participants. Watch the video below, read more about IATP’s recent work on ILUC or listen to audio interviews (scroll to bottom of page) with the delegation that visited Brazil in March.


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Big changes for school food

Posted September 6, 2011 by Ben Lilliston   

Schools across Minnesota are bringing fresh, local produce into their lunchrooms during Farm to School month. (Photo: Dover-Eyota Schools)

Like most parents in Minnesota, last week I received an information packet from my daughter’s school. It was the annual get-ready-for-school packet, full of various forms and fall activities for her school in St. Louis Park. Deep in the pile was a bright orange flyer from the school lunch room. This year, they will be offering grass-fed, high–omega 3, all-beef hot dogs from Thousand Hills—a small, Minnesota company. That’s right. Grass-fed beef from a company previously most likely to be found in your local food co-op or natural food store—now in my daughters lunchroom. Also, this September, during Farm to School Month in Minnesota, the school is offering apples, squash, tomatoes and potatoes all grown by local farmers. And hormone-free milk, whole grain brown rice and fresh fruit at every lunch.
These are huge changes in the lunch program since my daughter began school five years ago, and what’s happening in St. Louis Park is not unusual. IATP’s JoAnne Berkenkamp and Lynn Mader have been working with the state’s school nutrition association (a.k.a., the lunch ladies), to greatly expand Farm to School programs all over the state. Participation has skyrocketed from 10 school districts in 2006 to over 123 last year. Find out what’s happening this year at

Healthy food that supports local farmers. What could be better for our next generation of eaters? 

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Sounding off on ethanol sustainability

Posted July 28, 2011 by    

Group discussing biofuels in BrazilIf you read our blog regularly, you know that IATP took a group of farmers, ethanol producers, and environmental advocates to Brazil in March to get an on-the-ground look at the environmental impacts of ethanol production.

This week, Ethanol Producer magazine published "Seeking Common Ground", a series of short interviews with three participants on the trip -- Nathanael Greene, from the Natural Resources Defense Council; Bill Lee, CEO of Frontline Bioenergy; and Joe Ludowese, a farmer and ethanol cooperative board member from Windom, MN.

As was the case in Brazil, these guys aren't afraid to call it like they see it. The discussion is provocative, even surprising at times. But don't take our word for it, read it here.

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Biofuels and land use: It's all how you look at it

Posted July 21, 2011 by    

What happens when you take a group of thoughtful people with quite radically different perspectives on agriculture and land use to Brazil? Really interesting conversations, for one.

In March, IATP took a group of farmers, researchers and environmental advocates to Mato Grosso, Brazil—the heart of that country's agricultural explosion. We were there to learn about Brazilian agriculture, and specifically, to investigate the effects of U.S. biofuel production on Brazil's land use—something known as "indirect land use change" (ILUC). Over about the last three years, ILUC has become a point of extreme contention between biofuel proponents and environmental advocates. This trip was an attempt to begin to bridge some of that contention. (Read our blog reports from the trip.)

During the course of the trip, we sat down with each participant to ask them about their perspectives on agriculture, Brazil and ILUC. You can listen to the interviews on There's something to learn from each interview, and we hope you enjoy them. You can also find preliminary information about our upcoming ILUC conference in Minnesota. We'll be posting more details, and a link to registration, very soon. January2011 169

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Cobell settlement: too little, too late?

Posted July 15, 2011 by Ben Lilliston   

Used under creative commons license from Travel Aficionado.

America has a long, tragic and violent history of removing American Indians from the land. Remarkably, a host of maddening barriers remain for many Indians seeking access to their land. In December, the Obama Administration announced the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement in an attempt to address “fractionation,” or the division of hundreds of millions acres of communally-owned tribal land across the country, but is the settlement too little too late?

In the July issue of In These Times, IATP intern Alleen Brown reports on the remarkable legal and political obstacles American Indians continue to face in accessing their own land. IATP also has a version of the article on our site.

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An invitation to return

Posted June 13, 2011 by Anna Claussen   

Graduation1 Rural leaders from across the country gather later this month to discuss the future of rural communities.   Paramount to the discussions at this joint gathering of the National/Midwest Rural Assembly will be the establishment of environments that attracts young adults to work, live and engage in rural communities. So it’s natural, with graduation season on our doorstep and the National Rural Assembly right around the corner, that I am weighted down with thoughts about our future education system,  the vibrancy of our rural communities and how we fit youth into the picture. 

At the heart of it

Most rural communities operate under the principle that the school is the heart of the community. It causes me to wonder, then, how we will have successful communities with dwindling school enrollment. While many of the 2011 graduating classes in rural Minnesota are large and prosperous, the future looks bleaker for class sizes coming down the pipe. As school districts foresee these smaller class sizes and simultaneously face increasingly tight budgets, action is necessary to change and adapt the system in order to remain resilient.    

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Antibiotics in ethanol? Just say no.

Posted May 26, 2011 by    

Image used under Creative Commons license from Fickr user Argonne National Laboratory Here's an issue you don't hear very much about: antibiotic use in ethanol production.

You heard me right. Some ethanol producers use antibiotics to keep bacteria under control in their fermentation tanks (yields can go down if bacteria get out of control). Unfortunately, the residues from these antibiotics are turning up in what are called distiller's grains, a byproduct of ethanol production that's fed to livestock—yet another source of unnecessary antibiotics in our food system.

We've been tracking this issue for a while. We've found that there are very good alternatives to antibiotics on the market, and many ethanol producers are not using antibiotics at all. Unfortunately, this fact hasn't stopped the ethanol supply industry from continuing to push antibiotics.

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Ethanol subsidies: better to burn out than to fade away?

Posted May 6, 2011 by    

Ethanol’s main subsidy—the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC)—is on the chopping block. Given the current fiscal climate, even ethanol proponents have resigned themselves to the fact that VEETC—an annual $6 billion tax credit, set to expire at the end of this year—is probably on its last legs.

This week, those that would kill the 45-cent blenders’ credit subsidy quickly, and those that would prefer a long farewell, drew their lines in the sand. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced a bill Tuesday that would fully end VEETC and the import tariff on foreign ethanol by July 1, 2011.

A day later, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Kent Conrad (R-N.D.) released a bill that would gradually make the tax credit counter-cyclical over the next five years. Under their bill, VEETC would drop to 20 cents next year and 15 cents in 2013. After that, the credit would be pegged to oil prices, ranging from 30 cents a gallon when oil is at $50 per barrel or less, to zero when oil reaches about $90 per barrel. It would also keep the import tariff, but lower it to 20 and then 15 cents in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Co-sponsors of the Grassley-Conrad bill include Minnesota DFL Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.

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The sweet sell on Brazilian ethanol

Posted March 31, 2011 by Ben Lilliston   

Used under creative commons license from energyclimatechange.

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

On our last day in Brazil, we got the hard pitch on sugar ethanol from UNICA: an association of 110 companies producing 60 percent of the country's ethanol and sugar production. UNICA has done a masterful job marketing sugarcane ethanol as the cleanest, lowest carbon fuel in the world—garnering a 2009 Bulldog Public Relations Award for their efforts. But our discussion was more than just a flashy powerpoint, there was a lot to be impressed by as well.

Brazil is the largest sugarcane producer in the world—and the world's second largest ethanol producer (next to the U.S.). According to UNICA, sugarcane production uses less fertilizer than corn (the primary U.S. feedstock), needs only to be replanted every six years or so, and uses a variety of integrated pest management tools to help lower pesticide use. All sugarcane mills are energy self-sufficient because they burn both the leftover stalk from the sugarcane as well as bagasse (waste leftover after the sugarcane has been processed). About two-thirds of sugarcane processing plants can switch between ethanol or sugar, depending on what that market demands.

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