Posted February 2, 2009 by Alexandra Strickner   

IATP's Alexandra Strickner is reporting from the 9th World Social Forum in Belém, Brazil.

The 9th World Social Forum (WSF) started with an Amazonian rainfall and it ended February 1 with another. As with the opening demonstration, activists from social movements, trade unions and non-governmental organizations did not allow the rain to stop them from gathering for the closing event of the Forum. With all its complications--among them the hot and wet weather and the sometimes tricky logistics---this Forum has shown that the movement for another world is present, growing and solidifying concrete alternatives.

The final conclusions from the different networks and social movements had a clear message: the current global crises we face, which have plunged millions more people into poverty, are the evidence of a failed economic model. This failed model does not secure the satisfaction of basic needs of all people on this earth. It destroys the natural basis of survival, and only benefits a small minority that accumulates unimaginable sums of monetary wealth.

The movements proposed to build an equitable, alternative economic system that satisfies basic human needs and restores and preserves the natural basis of life on this planet. This new economic system needs to be rooted in socially and ecologically viable local economies (providing people with jobs with dignity), and should promote solidarity among people regionally, as well as globally. Additionally, it must  prioritize healthy food, clean water, and qualitative public services that are accessible to all. This new economic system also includes a publicly controlled finance system--one that supports the implementation of the new economic model, as well as the democratic control of people over their economies. This means the way we produce and consume needs to radically change.

Besides the promotion of global days of action, WSF ended with two key proposals aimed at enhancing  the building of broad alliances and collaboration among movements and social organizations within the respective countries, as well as at the global level. The first proposal supports the concept of territory to define struggles. The Global Water Movement and the Farmers Movement gave an idea of this new approach: recognizing that the struggle for land and food sovereignty is intrinsically linked with struggles over water, these two movements will start to work together at the territorial level. On the global level, a broad range of global and regional networks have agreed to continue to build the collaboration they started for this Forum, organizing two cross-networking spaces.

Posted February 1, 2009 by Alexandra Strickner   

IATP's Alexandra Strickner is reporting from the 9th World Social Forum in Belém, Brazil.

This is now my fourth World Social Forum and I continue to be fascinated by how the many discussions occuring at the same time help us to move forward in the building of a better world. What perhaps was new to this forum is that several groups targeted key themes, such as the financial crisis, climate change, labor and globalization or water, to name a few.

In these hot and wet days, I followed the climate change discussions and helped to organize some 20 global and regional networks on the afternoon of the 30th. Here is a flavor of the major outcomes.

The main aim of this cross-networking space was to share ideas on alternatives and strategies and to discuss how to collaborate across networks. We heard the proposals of groups working on food sovereignty, on water struggles, on the financial crisis, on labor struggles, on building a social solidarity economy, on climate change and many more. What was amazing in all these reports was that all of these groups refered to the need to build a different kind of economy, based on different values and scales, as the only possibility to address the global crises. There was strong support coming from all these groups towards the relocalization of the economy - whether it is to help build low carbon economies, to address the food challenges or to reclaim democratic control over water and resources. Participants also clearly voiced the need to redefine key economic parameters such as growth and competition and to build economies that have as their first and main objective the satisfaction of peoples' basic needs. All groups strongly supported the need to reclaim the commons and to democratize the economy to put control back into the hands of communities and citizens. The organizations concluded with a commitment to develop a joint document that outlines the key elements and principles of this new vision that was broadly shared in this space.

The convergence space on the issue of climate change took place in the afternoon of the 31st. Some 100 people filled the room, shared the results of their discussions during the past days and then started to discuss where to go from here. Also in this debate there was a large consensus across a broad range of groups - from farmers, workers, environmentalists - that the solutions proposed by governments to mitigate climate change (particularly for emissions trading and most of the technological fixes) are non-solutions. During this debate it also became clear that it was essential to formulate a joint vision of what a low carbon economy could look like and how such an economy would provide jobs for people while at the same time substantially reduce CO2 emissions. This vision must also include the concept of energy sovereignty, which is that communities and regions produce the energy they consume. This clearly implies that industrialized countries, which to date use far more energy than they themselves can produce, will have to reorganize their economies, their production and consumption in order to become more self-sustaining and sustainable.

Today is the last day of the Forum and people will share and debate in thematic assemblies the final results and outcomes.

Posted January 29, 2009 by Alexandra Strickner   

IATP's Alexandra Strickner is reporting from the 9th World Social Forum in Belém, Brazil.

WSF globe During the afternoon on January 27, the 9th World Social Forum opened with a colorful march with more than 60,000 people representing social movements, trade unions and civil society organizations from all over the world. (See a few photos from the march) The march started amidst a heavy tropical rain that lasted for more than an hour, with most people celebrating this big collective shower. Even those equipped with umbrellas did not escape getting wet.

Marchers expressed their opposition and resistance to the current model of development and to governments' responses to global crises. They also advocated for alternatives--from food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture to reclaiming of the commons and democracy.

WSF 1 Before this Forum even started, one big success can already be noted: the enormous presence of Indigenous movements. The decision to hold the World Social Forum in the Amazonian region is certainly an important factor, as well as the strengthening of Indigenous movements in recent years. The first day of the Forum has been particularly dedicated to the Amazon region. In the first discussion on food sovereignty, representatives from Indigenous movements throughout Latin America made it clear that they not only want to be fully part of this process and participate as actors, but that they also have a long history of living with nature, without harming the earth´s natural resources, while producing healthy food for their people.

WSF 3 In their deliberations, they called upon all social movements and civil society organizations to participate in a worldwide day of mobilization on October 12 for the “Mama Pacha”--the mother earth. The mobilization would support a socially and ecologically sustainable way of living and the rejection of the agri-industrial model that destroys the earth's and people's health.

One novelty of this World Social Forum is also a program that aims to articulate the politics with art. Articulation Latinoamericana cultura y politica (Latin American Articulation of Culture and Politics) (ALCAP) creates a space of interaction between social movements and popular artists in the search for new ways to reach out to people and communicate about struggles and alternatives. IATP has been invited to participate in one of the panel debates of this project.

Posted January 28, 2009 by

Food security

A press release from the University of Leeds last week announced a new study projecting that if current trends continue, China’s industrial growth and changing land use - combined with climate change - could threaten global food supplies.

"At the moment the Chinese government claims that China is 95% self sufficient in terms of grain supply," read the press release. "If China were to start importing just 5% of its grain (to make up a shortfall produced by low yields or change of land use to more profitable crops) the demand would hoover up the entire world's grain export. . .The pressure on grain availability for international grain markets could, in turn, have a huge knock-on effect. Poorer countries are particularly vulnerable, as demonstrated by the 2007-2008 food crisis.”

So why might China start importing more grain? The study points to decreasing harvests, increasing vulnerability to drought, low grain prices and the loss of high-quality farmland to urbanization. In fact, this is a message we’ve heard before. In 1995, Lester Brown published Who Will Feed China?, an entire book dedicated to the very topic of China’s demand for grain starving the rest of us. Here’s a good summary by the Worldwatch Institute.

Brown focused on the country’s growing population, loss of productive land to development, diminishing water supplies, rising demand for feedgrains as China’s diet became more meat-oriented, and the fact that---according to his calculations---China’s farmland productivity had peaked. He claimed that China would inevitably increase imports of grain, and that “China's rising food prices will become the world's rising food prices.”

Remembering the rather panicked response when Brown’s prediction was made (I was in China at the time, and some observers credited his book with an increase in government investment in agriculture the following year) and seeing the same basic hypothesis again being put forward ---15 years later---as a possible future scenario, the interesting question, it seems to me, is: “Why haven’t the Chinese starved us yet?”

Back in the 1990s, researchers from the scientific community did not take long to pounce on Brown’s methodology and assumptions, focusing on his serious underestimation of China’s arable land area. Not long after Who Will Feed China came out, remote sensing surveys revealed that China’s cultivated land area was 30-40 percent larger than Brown’s estimate. This underestimation led him to conclude incorrectly that there was little possibility for increasing productivity, (calculated as yield X area) and to over-estimate the relative severity of land losses from urbanization.

But from the perspective of agriculture and trade policy, there was another assumption in Who Will Feed China? that was just as dubious: the idea that China would fully integrate itself into the global food trade system, and buy large quantities of grain on world markets. The mainstream economics of the 1980s and 1990s told us that food was like any other tradable commodity, and therefore countries that had a comparative advantage in something other than food production should simply import food rather than growing it themselves. According to this logic, it is irrational and disruptive of the smooth operation of markets for governments to try to achieve food security through tariffs, subsidies or other policy measures. It was precisely in the name of eliminating “market distortions” that governments of developing countries were urged or forced by multilateral finance institutions and Western donors in the 1980s and 1990s to abandon subsidies for domestic food producers, open their markets to imports (even when those imports were being sold at below market prices), and sell off state-controlled grain reserves.

So, for example, among the 50 poorest countries on earth, between 1990 and 2005 net imports of rice increased by 124 percent, and those of wheat by 130 percent. (Over two-thirds of developing countries are now net food importers.) These countries, the ones who listened to the World Bank and IMF, are precisely the places where the food crisis has had the most devastating impacts. By contrast, China has experienced relatively small price increases, and no real food shortages. One important reason for this is the fact that China did not integrate itself into the global food system in the ways that many assumed they would. China’s history of famine---and famine-induced political turmoil---made a deep impression on the long memories of the country’s leaders. Despite having what is generally considered one of the more “open” economies on the planet in the manufacturing sector, China has maintained strong food security policies. These are not the loony, commune-level demands for self-sufficiency in grain that Mao decreed, but a sensible package of policy carrots and sticks: limits on the percentage of annual grain demand that can be imported, government grain storage, public support for ag research, subsidies for key farming inputs, preferential pricing for staple grains, and restrictions on the cultivation of biofuel feedstocks on arable land.

So although some of Lester Brown’s predictions did come true---China’s economy did grow rapidly, as people got wealthier their diets did change to include much more meat, more and more arable land continues to be swallowed up by urbanization----the massive imports of basic grains have not materialized, and China’s food security policies seem thusfar to have largely insulated it from the volatility of global grain markets. (Dr. Darryll Ray of the Agriculture Policy Analysis Center has written an interesting series of columns on this.)

But just because disaster hasn’t struck yet doesn’t mean it never will. The fact that Lester Brown had a few assumptions wrong doesn't change the validity of the basic argument that we live in a finite world and that the US is exporting a development model that is disastrously unsustainable. The vulnerabilities pointed out in the University of Leeds study are real as well, and their focus on climate change as a source of growing instability adds urgency to their findings. Meanwhile, there are economists in China who want to abandon the notion of domestic food security altogether, and the country's leadership seems confused on this issue. China’s demand for soya has skyrocketed in the past year, and there are large imports of many other non-staple products. The government seems to have burned through most of its grain stores. The gap between the incomes of farmers and city dwellers continues to grow, and the government’s chief response in 2008 was to promote land consolidation and pledge further support for unsustainable chemical and bioengineered agriculture. The government has assumed that the labor-intensive export manufacturing sector would absorb people fleeing the difficult lot of the farmer.  But the global economic slowdown means tens of millions of laid off workers who returned to their rural hometowns for Chinese New Year this week have little to celebrate.

Posted January 27, 2009 by Alexandra Strickner   

IATP's Alexandra Strickner is reporting from the 9th World Social Forum in Belém, Brazil.

From January 27-February 1, the 9th World Social Forum will take place in Belém, in Pará state, Brazil. The city is one of Brazil's busiest ports, about 60 miles upriver from the Atlantic Ocean. Belém is built on a number of small islands intersected by channels and other rivers.

In 1616, Belém was the first European colony on the Amazon, but didn't become part of the Brazilian nation until 1775. As the gateway to the Amazon, the port and city grew tremendously in size and importance during the 19th century rubber boom, and is now a large city with millions of inhabitants.

More than 100.000 participants are expected to gather in the Amazonian region and participate in the World Social Forum. More than 1,900 registered debates, seminars, workshops and cultural activities will be held at the Federal Rural University of the Amazon (UFRA). With a series of global crises unfolding, this World Social Forum takes place at an important moment in time. 

IATP has been actively co-organizing two discussions: one on alternative solutions to global crises, and the other on joint strategies with key global and regional networks such as the Our World is Not For Sale Network, the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas, Via Campesina, the Climate Justice Network and Friends of the Earth International. The aim of these two discussions is to allow for networks to share key proposals for alternatives and strategies for change, and to discuss possible next steps that will strengthen movements and networks advancing alternatives. On January 28, the “Pan Amazon Day” will be held under the motto of “500 years of Afro-Indigenous and popular resistance, achievements and prospects.” This day will be fully dedicated to the peoples and movements of the Pan-Amazonian region. 

Posted January 26, 2009 by

There's been ongoing debate about the healthfulness of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), but no one talked about mercury contamination. Until now, that is. 

Two new reports issued today show that commercial HFCS is routinely contaminated with mercury, as are many foods and beverages where HFCS is a major ingredient. Read more about it at:

0109_mercuryreport One chemical critical for making HFCS is caustic soda. It used to be that nearly all caustic soda came from chlorine plants using something called mercury cell technology. Caustic soda from those plants, many of which are still operating, can be contaminated with mercury. Mercury-grade caustic soda can then contaminate the HFCS and other products made from it with mercury. Newer, mercury-free processes for making chlorine and caustic soda are available, and more efficient as well.

An environmental health officer with the Food and Drug Administration discovered the problem several years ago. She tested 20 samples of commercial HFCS and found mercury in about half of them (9/20). But then the FDA did nothing about it, apparently for years. Now retired from the FDA, she and co-authors published their findings today in the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Health.

Learning of the issue, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy went out and bought 55 kinds of soda pop and beverages, salad dressings, chocolate milk, barbecue sauce, yogurt and other items where HFCS was #1 or #2 on the label.


We found total mercury detectable in about a third of them. They include some of the most widely recognized brands in America, many of them marketed to children. Table A of our larger report gives the full list of what we found.


The good news is that in 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama introduced a bill that would phase out mercury cell technology in chlorine plants. Let's hope he carries on that effort in the White House.


We also suggest that food companies stop buying their HFCS from plants still using outdated mercury cell technology, and that consumers stop buying their food products until they’ve done so.


This is a source of mercury we shouldn’t have to put up with.

Posted January 23, 2009 by

Many people in Minneapolis, including entire neighborhoods, lack access to healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate foods. Last year, IATP organized a series of roundtable discussions with Minneapolis community members to talk about the food they buy. Participants represented a diversity of ages and backgrounds, and discussed their personal experiences and perceptions regarding food access in their communities.

Several key themes emerged from the discussions:

  • Improving access is critical to increasing consumption of healthy foods. Simply knowing what
    to eat is not enough; people need sources of affordable, accessible food to make those healthy
    food choices.
  • “Access” means more than physical access to food. Other factors, including affordability, time to
    prepare food and cultural traditions, are often important in determining whether people will buy
    and consume healthier food.
  • Farmers markets and other community-based initiatives are important and successful ways to
    increase access to healthy foods. However, they must be coupled with efforts to influence public
    policy and address the larger societal and environmental issues that hinder access to and
    consumption of healthier options.

LF_O_4 You can read more about the roundtables here. The discussions drew the connection between food produced locally and health. This year, IATP will be working with the city on a new initiative called Homegrown Minneapolis, designed to increase the number of farmers markets, expand community gardening and urban agriculture, and boost the use of locally grown foods in restaurants and grocery stores.

Minnesota has the potential to be a national leader in local food use and production. An October study published in the Journal of Extension found that Minnesota had the potential to meet 90 percent of its food needs through local production—the highest percentage in the country.

We'll be following policies and market developments that affect local food systems at our new Local Foods Web page.

Posted January 20, 2009 by

As he was sworn in today, President Barack Obama made the case for big ideas. Small, incremental changes aren't going to cut it. In a new book, Thinking Big, IATP and the Progressive Ideas Network combine bold ideas with specific policy proposals for the Obama administration.

IATP's Jim Harkness and Alexandra Spieldoch write about how the United States can re-engage with the world through a new era of multilateralism grounded in human rights. Such an approach would involve: greater engagement with the United Nations and the international treaty system; leading on climate change and other global environmental challenges; support for a new set of trade rules that reflect the public interest (not just private corporations); and using food sovereignty as a lens to assess global food and agriculture policies.

You can view a short video, read the table of contents or connect with the progressive organizations who contributed at the Thinking Big Web site.

Posted January 13, 2009 by

Food security

Last night, 60 Minutes ran an excellent piece on the role of Wall Street speculators in driving the price of oil up and then down. The piece, produced by Leslie Cockburn, concluded that over the last several years, speculation dictated oil prices more than the traditional fundamentals of supply and demand. The show chronicled the influence of large financial investors, including Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, on oil prices. And it explained the role of congressional legislation, passed in 2000 and pushed by Enron, to deregulate the commodity futures market and open the door for speculators.

The role of speculation in driving volatility in oil prices mirrors the conclusions of our paper last year on the role of speculation in driving agriculture price volatility and contributing to the global food crisis. Many big commodity index funds bundle oil and agriculture commodities together. So, when the price of oil shot up, so did the price of agriculture commodities.

As the New York Times editorial board pointed out last week, President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is Gary Gensler, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who actually oversaw the drafting of the key 2000 bill that deregulated the commodity futures market and contributed to increased speculation. As part of his confirmation hearing, Gensler should explain his support of the disastrous 2000 bill, what he'll do to fix it, and outline what steps he will take to limit excessive speculation in food and energy.

Posted January 9, 2009 by    

Tar Sands

Ian Austen of the New York Times had an excellent article Wednesday on oil extraction from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Canada is now the largest oil supplier to the U.S. The article outlines the various environmental concerns of this extremely energy intensive operation, including impacts on greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and migratory birds.

One important driver the article doesn't get into is the role of NAFTA in tar sands development, or more specifically the role of NAFTA's Proportionality Clause (see analysis by the Parkland Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives). This clause is so crazy it's hard to believe. It actually requires Canada to make two-thirds of its domestic oil production and 60 percent of its current natural gas production available for export to the U.S. These requirements stay in effect, even if Canada needs these supplies for domestic purposes. There is little question that Canada's NAFTA-burden is contributing to further tar sands development.

Oil extraction from the tar sands illustrates the complicated tangle between free trade agreements and local, national or international efforts to protect the environment and lower carbon use. The global climate talks scheduled for completion in Copenhagen in December could effect future tar sands production. After the November elections, Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper proposed a U.S.-Canada climate deal that would exempt the tar sands - perhaps to pre-empt U.S. climate legislation and/or a COP15 agreement. And at the local level, recent efforts to establish a low carbon fuel standard in California,  11 Northeast states and Minnesota could also have repercussions for the tar sands.

IATP has a free news bulletin, Tar Sands Oil Review, if you're interested in following this issue.

While the future of the tar sands has big implications for the environment and trade, it also symbolizes the extreme lengths we continue to take to feed our energy appetite and avoid reducing our energy use.

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