Posted August 10, 2009 by

At the Midwest Rural Assembly this morning, USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager got everyone's immediate attention by emphasizing that the agency has twice as much money as it had last year—and it needs to get that money out the door and into the countryside. But perhaps most impressive was his emphasis on government as a partner with rural communities and a clear belief that government can play an important role in improving peoples' lives.

Tonsager outlined his top priorities for USDA's Rural Development office as:

1) Improving collaboration between communities within the same region to better leverage resources.

2) Capitalizing on the economic benefits of local food systems.

3) Improving the effectiveness of community development programs already at USDA.

4) Expanding economic opportunity from bioenergy; including biofuel, biomass and cellulose.

5) Increasing broadband access to rural communities (See Julia's blog on this topic).

6) Identifying and working with strategic partners on the ground in rural communities.

7) Improving the flow of capital into rural communities to make important investments.

We sat down with Under Secretary Tonsager for a short interview to find out more:

Posted August 10, 2009 by

"If urban America has the technology and we don't, what does it say about democracy in this country?" — Loris Taylor, Native Public Media

Many of us who live in urban areas take for granted the digital access we have in our homes and workplaces. We use our lightning-fast connections for everything from reading the news, looking for jobs, doing our work and keeping in touch with friends. That's not the case for much of rural America, something I'm learning more about in a breakout session here at the Midwest Rural Assembly.

It's a great panel of four speakers: Beth McConnell from the Media and Democracy Coalition; Joshua Breitbart from the People's Production House; Loris Taylor from Native Public Media; and Edyael Casaperalta from the Center for Rural Strategies, who've all been discussing the digital divide—lack of access in rural areas to broadband technology, and particularly the lack of access that minority and lower-income populations have to high-speed internet service.

According to the speakers, this is an issue that goes beyond email and Facebook to actually strike at the heart of civic engagement. If rural Americans cannot get online, they cannot get the same access to news (something that's becoming ever-more important as print media collapses), to political tools and information, to healthcare information (as well as telehealth—something that's becoming an important part of rural healthcare strategies), and as important, to conversations that help build more vibrant rural communities.

Posted August 10, 2009 by

Today and tomorrow, we'll be with government and community leaders in Souix Falls, South Dakota at the Midwest Rural Assembly to talk about the challenges and opportunities facing rural communities. We will hear from government officials like Dallas Tonsager, the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development at USDA, U.S. Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, among others. In turn, they will hear from community leaders focused on retaining young adults, expanding health care access and building working landscapes that promote environmental stewardship and healthy food.

Throughout the next few days, we'll be blogging from the Assembly, reporting on the presentations as well as interviewing participants. Look for more here soon.

Posted August 5, 2009 by    

AgricultureFungicide Resistance

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

Between 1845 and 1852 the population of Ireland was reduced by 25 percent. Over a million people perished in one of Western Europe's great famines. The oomycete Phytophthora infestans was responsible for the—as it is more commonly known—Irish Potato Famine. Just three weeks ago P. infestans made its quiet arrival into our fields, and as rain continued to fall (near record levels this year) the spores began their tumultuous spread. Since its arrival we have pulled a quarter of our tomato plants. It has since spread to our potato plants, which we will soon mow to prevent the fungus from going tuber. Acting quickly, we have begun a spraying program on our crops with an organically approved fungicide.

Photo 1 Phytophthora infestans, or late blight, is a highly contagious fungus that destroys tomato and potato plants and has quickly spread to nearly every state in the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic. The spores of the fungus are often present in the soil, and small outbreaks are not uncommon in August and September; but the cool, wet weather in June and the aggressively infectious nature of the pathogen have combined to produce what Martin A. Draper, a senior plant pathologist at the United States Department of Agriculture, describes as an “explosive” rate of infection. There are two strains of late blight—tomato and potato—but the illness can jump between the species. A single open lesion on a plant can produce hundreds of thousands of infectious spores.

Fungicides can protect unaffected plants from disease, but there is no cure for late blight. Organic farmers, who are not permitted to use powerful synthetic fungicides, like chlorothalonil, have very few weapons against this aggressive pathogen.

Similar to the hand-me-down costs of our industrial food system, we now see residual effects by an  irresponsible industrial bedding plant nursery. The current outbreak is believed to have spread from plants in garden stores to backyard gardens and commercial fields. Geneticists at Cornell are tracking the blight, and have said the outbreak spread in part from the hundreds of thousands of tomato plants bought by home gardeners at Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot and Kmart stores starting in April. The wholesale gardening company Bonnie Plants, based in Alabama, had supplied most of the seedlings and recalled all remaining plants starting on June 26.

If the blight continues, there could be widespread destruction of tomato crops—especially organic ones— and higher prices at the market. “Locally grown tomatoes normally get $15 to $20 a box” at wholesale, cites John Mishanec, a pest management specialist at Cornell who visited our farm pre-blight. “Some growers are talking about $40 boxes already.” Almost every farm here in Dutchess County has been affected. It's the quiet gossip at our farmers markets—"How are your tomatoes?" we often ask one another.

Authorities recommend that home gardeners inspect their tomato plants for late blight signs, which include white, powdery spores; large olive green or brown spots on leaves; and brown or open lesions on the stems. Gardeners who find an affected plant should pull it, seal it in a plastic bag and throw it away—not compost it. Many unaffected plants in commercial fields are being sprayed with heavy doses of fungicides to prevent the spread of the disease. (More information can be found at this Cornell Web site,)

The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., where I visited this past spring, has lost this year’s tomato crop. Because long-term management of the disease is of greatest importance, we might soon be pulling our entire first crop of tomatoes. In regards to consumers and our CSA members, we will be providing a hand-written letter on how we are actively managing this year's tomato and potato crops. 


Posted August 4, 2009 by

Believe it or not, August is already here and the first day of school is just around the corner! Parents are gearing up for the school year and literally “gearing up” their kids with all the implements their class lists require.

Remember those days? With your knees all scraped up from summer activities like bike riding, baseball and climbing trees—your parents would drag you through the department store for a new backpack, notebook or some ugly lunch box just because it was 40 percent off?

Well, it turns out that a lot of those school supplies—including lunchboxes, backpacks and three-ring binders—are made with polyvinyl chloride (also called PVC or vinyl)—a toxic plastic that is dangerous to our health and the environment; not only during its production but during use and disposal as well.

School supplies made with PVC can contain dangerous chemical additives, like phthalates and lead, which can leach out of the products over time and pose unnecessary health risks to our children.

You may already know that due to the risks posed by exposure to phthalates, the federal government banned them from children’s toys last year, but they can still be used in other types of products like school supplies. So Healthy Legacy, in partnership with the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ), is releasing the Back-to-School Guide to PVC-Free School Supplies. The guide is a tool parents can use to identify which products are made from PVC and provides tips and tricks to finding a product that’s just as useful, but made from a safer alternative.

(Products made from vinyl can often be identified by a number “3” inside, or the letters “V” or “PVC” underneath the recycling symbol. If a product isn’t labeled, contact the manufacturer to ask—you have a right to know.)

There’s also another reason to avoid products made from PVC. As previously mentioned, PVC—also known as “the poison plastic”—is toxic through its entire life cycle (that is, from its creation, through its useful life and to its disposal). That means that the communities where this plastic is manufactured are often at a higher risk for health-related problems.

That’s exactly the case in the historic African-American community of Mossville, Louisiana, which is home to more PVC plants than anywhere else in the U.S. Studies have shown that residents there are more likely to suffer from health problems like ear, nose and throat illnesses; central nervous system disturbances; and increased skin, digestive, immune and endocrine disorders. Would you want that in your neighborhood?

As you write up that list of “must-haves” and head out to the stores to prepare for the coming school year, make sure to go toxic-free and avoid products made from PVC!

Posted August 4, 2009 by

AgricultureFood security

MR090701cvr_140 The July–August issue of the Monthly Review features IATP's Sophia Murphy and her essay "Free Trade in Agriculture: A Bad Idea Whose Time is Done;"  an examination of the original promises of free trade in agriculture and what actually happened—particularly to developing countries.

The essay also outlines alternative agriculture trade strategies that could help address hunger, build sustainable local foods systems and improve a trading system full of widening disparities.

The full issue of the Monthly Review is also worth checking out. Titled "The Crisis in Agriculture & Food: Conflict, Resistance, & Renewal," it includes articles by Walden Bellow, Miguel Altieri and Peter Rosset among many others. 

Posted July 31, 2009 by

Mra75 No part of the U.S. has been spared from the current financial crisis, but rural communities—already among the nations poorest—have been hit particularly hard. Rural unemployment exceeds urban and exurban unemployment, according to a report by the Daily Yonder.

On Monday, August 3, the Daily Yonder's Bill Bishop will conduct a webinar focusing on rural demographics and political shifts in rural districts. The webinar will be from 10 a.m.–11 a.m. CST. Reserve your webinar seat now and learn more about the past and future of rural politics.

Bill's webinar is a lead-in to the Midwest Rural Assembly, scheduled for August 10–11 in Souix Falls, South Dakota. The assembly, sponsored by over 25 Midwest groups, will bring together national, state and local-level policy makers and rural residents to discuss the challenges facing rural communities—and opportunities for change. It will feature USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager; USDA Deputy Under Secretary of Rural Development Victor Vasquez; state rural development directors from Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota; U.S. Representative Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin; and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

The assembly will focus on rural health care, education, sustainable working landscapes, rural technology access and leadership development.

The registration deadline is Monday, August 3—so register and join us in Souix Falls!

Facebook users: Become a fan of the Midwest Rural Assembly.

Posted July 29, 2009 by

The Women, Infants and Children Nutrition program (WIC) is one of the most important government programs for low-income families. WIC's food package provides vouchers for milk, eggs, cheese, cereal and other food items. Now, for the first time in it's 35-year existence, it's getting an overhaul—and that requires retail food vendors who accept WIC vouchers to make fresh fruits and vegetables available.  

States have until September 30, 2009, to update their food package and there is some latitude among states in how they will implement the new requirements. Minnesota will implement its new rules on August 1. Those rules take the fruits and vegetables requirement a step further by setting a minimum stocking requirement. Many low-income communities, in both rural and urban parts of the country, do not have easy access to grocery stores. WIC participants are often forced to rely on corner stores without much of a selection of healthy food—particularly perishable items like fruits and vegetables.

IATP is working with the Minnesota Department of Health to publicize the new rules in corner stores around the state. And we are working with food distributors in Minnesota that supply corner stores to make it easier for those stores to stock fresh, high-quality produce. Our press release has the details.

Posted July 28, 2009 by


Earlier this month, IATP reported on the widespread and unnecessary use of antibiotics by the ethanol industry. IATP's Julia Olmstead visited a Wisconsin ethanol plant last week that is using a hops-based alternative to antibiotics to manage bacteria growth in the fermentation process. Watch her video below to learn more.

Posted July 24, 2009 by


Steve Suppan, Senior Policy Analyst with IATP, has responded to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman regarding his recent blog post "Is the threat of speculation a reason to shun cap and trade?" (July 21, 2009) about the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009.

The entire commentary is reproduced below or available to view or download as a PDF here.

Krugman on Carbon Derivatives: A Rebuttal
By Steve Suppan

In his eagerness to support climate and energy legislation, Paul Krugman oversimplifies and thereby distorts the opposition to the carbon derivatives provisions in the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES) as “[…] basically ‘Eek! Markets! Wall Street! Speculation! Bad!’” (“Is the threat of speculation a reason to shun cap and trade?” July 21, 2009). Granted it is only a blog post, and not yet a topic of his very influential and widely syndicated New York Times column; yet given his influence, even his blog merits a rebuttal.

Krugman would have us believe that trading carbon emissions permit derivatives is just like trading a wheat futures contract. Not so. Wheat futures contracts allow market participants to manage short-term (usually 90 days) price volatility, including “bets” that hope to drive down the price of wheat. How will a statutory purpose of ACES—“to reduce green house gas pollution”—be fulfilled if speculators are allowed to drive down the price of carbon below even the price of the emission permits Congress gives away to industry in ACES? The data reporting requirements for ACES indicate that “short only” bets to decrease carbon prices will be allowed. 

Following what European traders have done, Wall Street will slice, dice and package the claimed dollar per ton value of carbon-reducing claims made in projects to offset increases in carbon emissions elsewhere. Offset-based carbon derivatives contracts could proliferate on nothing more than the expectation of regulatory approval of projects claiming to offset carbon emissions. As Friends of the Earth’s Michelle Chan testified to the House Ways and Means Committee in March, profits could be taken on offset-based derivatives far in advance of any proof that an offset project has resulted in verifiable greenhouse gas reductions. 

Wall Street forecasts at least a $2 trillion market in carbon derivatives within five years. The current estimated value of all agricultural and non-agricultural commodity derivatives traded under Commodity Futures Trading Commission authority is $4–5 trillion. If the forecast is accurate, carbon derivatives could become a major component of commodity index fund formulas. The ACES trader data reporting requirements anticipate that carbon derivatives will be bundled into commodity index funds. Depending on how traders formulate the mix of commodities in the fund formula, it is likely that carbon emissions could become the dominant “commodity” in some fund formulas, displacing oil. Agricultural commodity prices, and to a lesser extent global food security, could be vulnerable to a swing in carbon derivatives prices, as carbon dominant index funds roll over to take profits.

Krugman still believes that speculation was not a major driver of commodity price volatility in 2008; and hence believes that excessive speculation can be easily regulated for carbon derivatives. He bases the former belief on a blog by Scott Irwin at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who dismisses a just-published U.S. Senate report on wheat speculation because it incorporates the views of market participants—and benefits too little from Irwin’s own work and that of other U.S. agricultural economists. However, as Christopher Gilbert at the University of Trieste has shown on the basis of CFTC data, index funds controlled about a third of all corn futures contracts from 2006–2008. (The disparity in 2008 futures contracts held by index funds vs. commodity traders subject to CFTC contract holding limits is even more severe; e.g., 1.5 billion bushels in Chicago Board of Trade March 2008 corn contracts held by the Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley managed funds vs. 11 million bushels held by users and traders of that commodity.) After demonstrating how the funds could swing the price of corn, Gilbert concludes that the “fund formula is the fundamental.” 

In February, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, convinced that excessive speculation was a major factor in commodity price volatility in 2008, passed a bill to prevent the trading practices that lead to excessive speculation. However, Wall Street has set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to finance a sotto voce lobbying campaign against this and similar bills in the Senate. As a result of this campaign, a future House and Senate compromise to reform the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA) may result  in some of the financial service industry practices that have triggered the destruction of much of the global economy. 

As Satyajit Das wrote in the Financial Times (“How to design derivatives that dazzle and obfuscate,” July 8), “Financial products must be opaque and priced inefficiently to produce excessive profits.” Although Das writes about financial derivatives, he could just as well be writing about commodity derivatives, which provided the original model for financial derivatives. If the CEA, an underlying legislative authority for ACES, allows the opacity for over-the-counter derivatives that have contributed so much to the present depredations, we could soon live in the worst of all possible carbon-derived worlds. Huge institutional investors, such as pension funds, could be plowing money into carbon derivative offsets, while ACES enriches Wall Street but fails to reduce carbon emissions.

Traditional speculators provide liquidity needed to clear trades in commodity futures markets; but their role must be tightly regulated in order that excessive liquidity not result in the extreme price volatility that has disrupted agricultural and non-agricultural commodity markets.  This need for tight regulation is all the greater when it concerns the reduction of green houses gasses. The purpose of ACES should not be to “get carbon prices right” but to achieve the long-term reduction of carbon emissions of which the legion of benefits is ultimately beyond pricing. The carbon derivatives subtitles of ACES do not provide the statutory basis to achieve that purpose. We would suggest that instead of caricaturing the  opposition to carbon derivatives in ACES, Krugman dedicate more time to analyzing the bill itself.

Steve Suppan is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

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