Posted October 5, 2009 by

AgricultureClimateFood security

IATP's Jim Harkness and Anne Laure Constantin are in Bangkok at the global climate talks. Below, Jim blogs on what is at stake for agriculture.

“Fifty years: no Bangkok!

In the sea!

Hot, hot! Very hot!”

This was the very surprising, almost haiku-like declaration of my taxi driver earlier tonight. He then said, “Ice: TOOM!,” illustrating the second word by chopping downward with one hand, in a motion that to me looked a lot like a huge chunk of the Ross Ice Shelf splitting off and falling into the sea.

Bkk_09_02_2_348 I am in Thailand’s capital with Anne-Laure Constantin for the penultimate preparatory talks before the Copenhagen climate summit in December. Earlier today, we had a workshop that brought representatives of grassroots farmers’ organizations from Asia, Africa and Latin America together with climate lobbyists from development and environment groups. One important conclusion, confirming what we had observed at earlier prep meetings from Poznan to Bonn, was that this kind of exchange is sorely needed, both to inform the national-level advocacy of farm groups and to deepen the international lobbyists’ understanding of what’s at stake for farmers in the developing world. For more background, see our new fact sheet, "Integrating agriculture in a global climate deal: Benchmarks for Copenhagen."

Now the connections among these groups are finally taking shape, and participants from our workshop met this evening with Climate Action Network, the largest and most influential non-governmental alliance pushing for a strong climate deal. The hope is that we can get wider backing for language about agriculture in the climate treaty that is informed by both strong science and the climate justice demands of developing country farmers. The drafts that we have seen to date have neither.

If the clearing of forests and grasslands to expand cultivation is included, then agriculture is far and away the biggest contributor to climate change worldwide. (Its climate footprint is considerably smaller in the U.S., not because our farming is climate-friendly, but because we wiped out all of the original vegetative cover by the end of the last century.)  It’s also incredibly complex, and the science is so far behind the rest of what we know about climate change that basic questions—like how much carbon soils can sequester and for how long—remain unanswered. As a result, wild and speculative (in more ways than one) schemes are being promoted—including techno-fixes like industrial biochar that would take enormous areas of land in poor countries out of food production and put them into the hands of rich-country investors. Some of these schemes actually have a chance of getting into the official text.

Not long ago, we were concerned that the important role of agriculture might be ignored in a climate deal. Now it appears the danger is that agriculture will be included with such broad or vague language that the door will be open to schemes that could gobble up vast areas of land and displace food production without actually helping to solve the climate crisis.

Jim Harkness

Posted October 2, 2009 by

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), launched in the last Farm Bill, was hailed as an opportunity to spur the wider adoption of new, more sustainable crops to feed a growing bioeconomy. Now, we are reminded once again that the intent of legislation and real-world implemention are two different things. In a new IATP commentary ("Questionable start for biomass program"), policy analyst Loni Kemp sheds light on why BCAP is raising eyebrows. Kemp writes:

The way the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has rolled out the first part of BCAP is raising eyebrows, as initial funding seems to be going to pay for already-existing biomass supplies used for renewable energy, instead of focusing on helping to jump-start the new cellulosic energy future.

In September, IATP submitted comments as part of BCAP's Environmental Impact Statement. We've also written a BCAP factsheet with a number of recommendations for implementation, including:

  • Perennial and multiple-species biomass feedstocks should be the focus of BCAP, with preference for native species. No invasive, noxious or genetically modified feedstocks should be included. If funds allow, then annual crops in a resource-conserving crop rotation would be acceptable.

  • Preference should be given to projects that provide local ownership opportunities; will
    have local economic benefits; and will involve new and socially disadvantaged farmers.

  • Annual payments are intended to be an incentive to establish new energy crops, and thus should not be drastically lowered if the crop is sold or if it is used for another purpose.

As Kemp writes:

Unfortunately, at least so far, USDA seems to be getting BCAP wrong. They should reconsider the true intent of the program and focus on helping farmers plant and deliver new crops for renewable energy.

Posted September 30, 2009 by

At the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient task force meeting, Sept 24, 2009, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the release of $320 million to fund a new Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI). The initiative will “fund efforts in 12 states along the 2,350-mile long Mississippi River.” The states are Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin. The funds will be available over the next four years.

According to the USDA news release, the initiative will be managed by the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) at USDA. Partner organizations will include state and local agencies and agricultural producers. Partners mentioned in an interview of NRCS chief David White by Frank Holdmeyer, include the Farm Bureau, commodity organizations and the Environmental Defense Fund, among others. These partners will “coordinate their resources in areas requiring the most immediate attention and offer the best returns on the funds invested.” It will be a voluntary program.

Conservation methods that avoid, control and trap nutrient runoff will be implemented by agricultural producers. The initiative will be performance oriented. This means that ”measurable conservation results are required in order to participate.” It will concentrate on 8-digit or smaller watersheds, those that are known to contribute high loads of nutrients into the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Watersheds will be identified by an in-house evaluation process. According to White, each state will select one to three large watersheds of 250,000 to 1.2 million acres and then select a sub-watershed of 10,000 to 40,000 acres for application of the conservation measures. White said that the agency wants proposals by the end of October and plans to select eligible watersheds by late January or early February.

Reading through the releases and statements, it is obvious that this is not new money, but a re-direction of funds from other programs such as the Cooperative Conservation Initiative, Conservation Innovative Grants, and the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program. It would appear that other funds will be shaved from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, and the Conservation Stewardship Program.

My take on the MRBI is that it is a shuffling of the chairs exercise. Since no new funds are allotted, and established programs that have had the benefit of outside comment before establishment are being short-sheeted, the program may well end up as another of those ghost acronyms that float across the political landscape. Consider these issues:

Targeting is not likely: In spite of indications that the projects will be targeted, all 12 states will have participating watersheds. While $320 million is not a small amount of money, when spread over 12 states and four years, only about $6.6 million per state, before administrative costs, will be available each year. Unfortunately, peanut buttering is the typical outcome of watershed programs and ensures they will be limited in scope. Consider that about 160 to 165 million acres of corn and soybeans are grown each year (these crops are often planted alternate years and both cause nitrate leaching and erosion). Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois have about 60 million of these acres, or about 38 percent of the total annual row crops, and contribute close to 40 to 50 percent of the nitrate runoff, yet may receive only about 25 percent of the funds.

Measuring Performance: The initiative appears to call for measurable conservation efforts in order to participate; yet we know that measured outcomes require background monitoring, usually for a decade or more, to account for weather variation and then another decade or more of measurements after the practices have been implemented. In the MRBI, we have a 4-year program and no apparent requirement for monitoring before or after the project. Thus watershed selection will be based on less than perfect criteria and likely performance will not be evaluated. White admitted there are some complicating issues that will have to be worked out such as how to establish good baseline and the lag time between when the conservation practices are applied and measurable results. "It can take from several months to 15 years to see results he noted. But I think we can work through this.”

It's Voluntary: All conservation programs have been voluntary as far as I can recall. The agricultural community lives in fear of regulations that might be binding, and refuses to cooperate unless the program is voluntary. But we know over the years that voluntary has not worked. Again, this assures that little will be gained.

Who will be around to ensure that the expensive conservation practices will be maintained over time, as crop land changes ownership or management? Who will continue the monitoring on a voluntary basis? In the end, the MRBI promises to be another initiative that solves little, creates more work for bureaucrats, and could actually lessen the effectiveness of the excellent programs already underway in NRCS. But it sounds good.

Secretary Vilsack can be thanked for trying something, especially in years of extremely tight budgeting. But I would remind him and others that a lot of money is flowing from Washington to keep the current corn and soybean system intact and expanding. From various crop supports to large biofuel (primarily ethanol) subsidies, many billions are spent each year. Moving $320 million from existing programs to the MRBI seems to me to be a pitifully small token payment toward addressing a key national environmental problem, namely Gulf of Mexico hypoxia.

We will have to do better.

Posted September 28, 2009 by

If you could make one major change in our food system, what would it be? This is the question IATP's Food and Society Fellows program put to some of the leading food system thinkers in the country. The results are in the first FAS digest, chock full of great ideas to transform our food system to become more healthy, fair and sustainable. You'll find ideas on improving school lunches, combining food and faith, helping women farmers, ensuring fair working conditions for farmworkers and fair prices for farmers, and the launching of school gardens.

As IATP's Mark Muller writes in the digest's intro, "These remarkable ideas give us a greater appreciation for what is possible. The diversity of the fresh ideas also demonstrates the breadth of issues affected by food systems."

Check out Fresh Ideas on food.

Posted September 25, 2009 by

It seems everyone is in a tizzy over agriculture and the climate change bill. Environmentalists are mad about concessions given to farm-state legislators to get the bill—known as "Waxman-Markey," after its two principal sponsors—through the House last July. The industrial farm lobby is mad about the climate bill generally, worried it will raise energy costs. And farmers are unsure how, if at all, they will benefit from the offset credits they could receive, and what they would need to do to get them.

It is high time we took steps as a nation to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Tackling climate change is perhaps one of the most important and difficult challenges we have faced as a society; but including agriculture in the Waxman-Markey bill is bad for farmers, eaters and the planet.

For the bulk of human history, we’ve grown food, fiber and energy without reconfiguring the atmosphere, but the industrial revolution made the bulk of agriculture highly dependent on fossil fuels. Today in the U.S., agriculture accounts for about 13 percent of our nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and it also contributes heavily to soil erosion, water contamination and the loss of biodiversity—but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Waxman-Markey has recognized agriculture’s enormous potential to not only mitigate the ills it has caused, but to also act as a carbon sink. This is the basis for the bill’s carbon offsets program for agriculture, where farmers would receive government credits for doing things like tilling their soil less and planting trees on cropland. Polluting industries and investors could buy these credits, in theory helping fund these on-farm carbon-sequestering activities.

This program is troubling for several reasons. Technically, carbon offset projects are notoriously difficult to measure and verify—making the incentive for change subject to the whims of a speculative market dominated by Wall Street banks. And making it awfully difficult to ensure that offsets will be a long-term, reliable solution to climate change. Falling carbon offset prices would be poor incentives for farmers to switch to climate-friendly agriculture practices. It is hard to envision this having much of a positive impact—for farmers or the planet.

Agriculture is among our greatest achievements and one of our most precious resources. It gives us season after season of food and fiber. Done right, it builds healthy soils, helps purify our drinking water, provides wildlife habitat, and yes, even helps mitigate climate change. With support, agriculture creates livelihoods for farmers, helps preserve the culture and knowledge of food production, and promotes an ethic of land stewardship and preservation. And let’s be clear, good farming has been the basis for a sustainable planet for centuries. Agriculture should in no way be given a free pass when it comes to climate change mitigation, but it is not the source of the climate change problem.

Making Waxman-Markey a primary vehicle for debating agricultural sustainability schemes distracts from making real progress toward more climate-friendly, sustainable agriculture, and takes away much needed resources.

We should not aim to define agriculture’s role in our society through a climate bill. Instead, we should begin a separate, equally urgent process to decide how best to promote agricultural systems that provide us with the kind of farms, rivers, livelihoods, and climate we value as a society. The USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays farmers for sustainable practices on working, productive lands, provides one good place to start such conversations. Expanding such programs should be a clear priority for policymakers and the public, but ultimately, agriculture policy will have to reach much further, to a vision and scale that match the historic challenges we face.

Let’s push forward with strong climate policies, but let’s not use agriculture to circumvent the source of the problem. Our food system is too precious. We already know that agriculture can benefit us all; let’s find a way to make certain that it does.

Posted September 24, 2009 by

At the top of the agenda for the upcoming G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh on the global economic crisis should be a commitment toward greater investment in social programs, according to Social Watch—a global network of civil society organizations.

Every year, Social Watch publishes a report evaluating the progress of over 60 countries in areas of poverty, inequality and human rights. IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch co-authored the U.S. chapter of the 2009 Social Watch report. The U.S. chapter looked at the crisis in housing, job losses, escalating domestic hunger and international engagement. It concluded that in the U.S., “blind loyalty to the `free’ market as the best arbiter of social, environmental and economic matters has created a `perfect storm’ of failing institutions, weak democratic infrastructure, and a safety net woefully inadequate to the scope of human suffering and displacement.”
The country reports found that developing countries are experiencing the brunt of the effects of the financial crisis, which further threatens their fragile economies and cuts off vital sources of foreign aid. The exclusion of these countries from forums such as the G-20 creates a further obstacle to implementing socially just policies. 

“The U.S. needs to lead not only in committing to global aid, but also in reforming how that aid is given," said Spieldoch in a press release on the report. "Aid must empower countries to produce their own food and better deal with the global economic crisis themselves. U.S. support for international human rights and the participation of all countries in developing a coordinated response to the economic crisis is essential.”
You can read the full report at

Posted September 22, 2009 by

It seems like everyday when I turn on the news there’s a story about another product recall or unsafe chemical in consumer products. When I hear these stories, I can’t help but wonder how widespread the problem of toxic chemicals really is.

Last week, I got a partial answer to that question as Healthy Legacy, a public health coalition in Minnesota of which IATP is a founding member, co-released a new consumer product database,, with a Michigan-based group, the Ecology Center.

The new database contains testing results for over 5,000 products from many different categories, including: pet products, women’s handbags, back-to-school supplies, children’s toys and the latest on cars and children’s car seats. We use so many different products in our day-to-day lives and the testing results from show just how pervasive toxic chemicals are in those products. Healthy Legacy’s Co-Director, Kathleen Schuler, was on KSTC (channel 45 in Minneapolis) to discuss the testing results. Take a look!

Alarming numbers:

Nearly 700 new and used vehicles were tested—the database shows the best and worst picks in every vehicle class. The average American spends more than 1.5 hours in their car every day, so it is disconcerting to know that the levels of some chemicals found in vehicles are 5–10 times higher than in the home or office.

Pet products:
Pets are also members of our families and so the researchers at decided to test the products meant for them as well. They tested over 400 products like beds, toys, collars and leashes and found that 45 percent of the pet products contained at least one (or more) chemical of concern. Nearly half of the pet collars tested contained detectable levels of lead, and 27 percent contained levels so high they exceeded the limit set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission for children’s products (300 parts per million).

Back-to-school supplies:
Over two-thirds of the 60 common school supplies that were tested contained one or more chemical of concern, including 56 percent being made from PVC, the poison plastic.

Researchers tested more than 100 plastic women's handbags and found lead in 75 percent of the bags analyzed. Sixty-four percent of the bags contained levels of lead over 300 ppm, and over half contained more than 1,000 ppm of lead.

What’s the solution?

Healthy Legacy is pushing for comprehensive chemical policy reform and is part of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign. The campaign is working to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), our country's outdated legislation meant to regulate chemicals.

The reform platform would place the burden on chemical manufacturers (not product manufacturers or retailers) to test chemicals for their effects and develop hazard information. The platform would phase out chemicals we know are toxic and it would promote the development and use of safer alternatives.

The database will help us find safer alternatives to the chemical-laden products that populate our lives, but most of us aren’t able to do an exhaustive research project before heading out to the store. That’s why we need a comprehensive reform of laws that regulate chemicals in this country. We should all do what we can to make our lives safer on a daily basis, but we should also expect our government to use its resources to prevent harm before it happens!

To find out more about the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign, go visit

Posted September 21, 2009 by

A war of words has erupted between the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and some leading advocates for reducing unnecessary antibiotics in animal feed, like Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Production.

The best public estimates currently say that 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to healthy animals, to help them grow faster on less animal feed, and to compensate for the fact that animals  are typically raised under stressful, closely confined conditions that tend to increase their likelihood of getting sick. 

So it's particularly timely to read a new report from the chief government veterinarians in Denmark, where more than 10 years ago—and at the behest of that country's meat producers—they stopped feeding human antibiotics to animals to make them grow faster.

Why is Denmark so important when it comes to antibiotics and animals? Well, it's a leading meat producer and the largest exporter of pork in the world.

So, what happened? More than a decade ago, Danish meat producers looked hard at their own use of antibiotics and realized that not only could it undermine public health, but that their markets for exporting meat products were at risk as well. Specifically, Danish veterinary experts had been warning that continuing the use of these antibiotics could compromise their future effectiveness for treating serious infections in both humans and animals, since they seemed to be helping to create more antibiotic resistant bacteria.

From 1998 to 1999, Danish producers stopped using antibiotics to promote animal growth, first in chickens, then in hogs. Eventually, their entire agricultural use of antibiotics dropped by over half. Among several different kinds of bacteria found in farm animals and on food, drug resistance declined in a major way. This represents a huge improvement to public health.

Other benefits outlined by the report:

  • No worsening in the health of animals. Sick animals get treated with antibiotics, same as always. Healthy animals just don’t get antibiotics in their feed.
  • Productivity of Danish agriculture continues to improve—just with a lot fewer antibiotics.
  • No change in the price of meat for consumers.

Getting rid of routine antibiotics added to animal feed in the U.S. would seem to be the kind of public health win-win that everyone could get behind. Not the AVMA, for some reason. Could it be that the largest producers of animal antibiotics, like Bayer and Pfizer, are major supporters?

Posted September 17, 2009 by

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.

In the last posting on Late Blight in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast this season, I failed to mention its potential effects on this year's potato crop. In monitoring our potato fields we found that Late Blight had arrived on our potatoes. In late July I decided to mow all of our potatoes in order to kill any living tissue matter that the late blight fungus could attack and cause a potential crop failure. Since then we've started digging our potatoes. The results have been mixed with more success in the last few diggings than the earlier attempts.

In the spirit of fall and the tremendous varieties of potatoes I beg to ask: Do you recall the original Mr. Potato Head?

My grandfather tells me that back when it was introduced in 1952, the head wasn’t plastic. The toy consisted of plastic features that children stuck into a real potato which their parents provided. Different potato sizes and shapes increased the fun!

No other crop produces more energy per acre. Hardy and adaptable, potatoes grow from sea level to 14,000 ft in the chilly Andes, and produce food in a wider range of soil and climatic conditions than any other staple crop. The average American eats 120 pounds of potatoes a year. That is almost 365 potatoes per person—a spud a day! There are only 100 calories in an 8-ounce baked potato. Potatoes are only 20 percent solids and 80 percent water! Potatoes are fat free, contain vitamin C, are rich in potassium and are an excellent source of fiber. Potatoes shouldn’t be stored in a refrigerator, but kept dark and dry with good ventilation: ideally between 45 and 50 degrees.

Although last year was the United Nations International Year of the Potato it isn’t too late to go out and celebrate—vodka anyone?

Fact for the future: China and India harvest one third of all potatoes in the world, and developing countries are climbing in potato production while developed countries are on the decline. See the World Potato Production Chart for more information.  

For the time being I think we’ll just worry about our single acre of production. Even after a battle with the infamous Colorado Potato Beetle and the newly arrived Late Blight fungus, we are finding an above average potato year. And with 650 pounds of seed potatoes in the ground we hope to get over 5,000 pounds in return!

To the potato!

Posted September 15, 2009 by

In one of two new videos released last week, a boy named Dreyfus builds a mash potato mountain at the school lunch table. This spoof of Close Encounters of the Third Kind has Dreyfus telling his classmates, "What we eat. It means something." Suddenly, his mountain of unappetizing mashed potatoes transforms into healthy food and the kids celebrate.

8-logo_onetray The second video is a Mastercard spoof focusing on the "priceless" value of healthy school lunches. The videos, by IATP Food and Society Fellows Shalini Kantayya, Nicole Betancourt and Debra Eschmeyer, are helping to launch the One Tray, One Nation campaign, pushing for a new school food system that supports healthy children, local farms and smart schools.

The Child Nutrition Act, which expires on September 30, determines what more than 30 million children eat at school. The One Tray, One Nation campaign is advocating for  $250 million over 5 years, with $50 million mandatory, to support local foods, farm to school and school garden grants to schools; the establishment of a farm to institution initiative within the Secretary of Agriculture’s Office; and increased funding for improving and evaluating school food procurement. The Farm to School Network gives you the details.

Check out the great videos, and take action with One Tray, One Nation to support healthier school lunches for all.

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