Posted October 12, 2010 by
By nearly all accounts, agriculture prices worldwide have entered a new era of volatility. Earlier this year, wheat prices shot up an additional $3 a bushel over two months due in large part to concerns around a wheat export ban in Russia. This week, corn prices have risen dramatically due to a USDA report issued Friday, finding a less-than-predicted corn crop this year.
This era of extreme volatility dating back to the 2007-08 global food crisis has contributed to the nearly one billion people worldwide suffering from hunger. This week in Rome, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is hosting a five-day conference on efforts to address global food security. The meeting comes on the heels of an emergency meeting at the FAO last month focused on increased volatility in grain markets.
Of course, agriculture production has always experienced ups and downs due to a variety of factors—from the weather to pests, economics or war. Traditionally, one of the simplest tools to smooth out agriculture markets is to establish reserves: putting food aside in times of plenty to release in times of scarcity. This week, IATP published a series of short primers on: why we need food reserves, food reserves in practice, what's next on food reserves, and the WTO and food reserves. IATP's Sophia Murphy is attending the FAO meeting in Rome to speak on a panel focusing on volatility, where she'll be making the case for food reserves.
Some kind of food reserve is just common sense, right? Who could be against food reserves and efforts to stabilize agriculture prices? Who profits from volatility in agriculture markets?
Yesterday's press release from Cargill announcing that profits jumped 68 percent this quarter provides a clue. As Cargill CEO Greg Page stated, "Our results were led by the food ingredients and the commodity trading and processing segments, both of which experienced resurgence in volatility across agricultural commodity markets. The change put Cargill's global breadth, trading and risk management skills more acutely into play as we worked with customers to help them manage their price risk and raw material needs."
As agriculture commodity prices remain volatile, agribusiness companies like Cargill and ADM (up $388 million last quarter) with a global reach and diversified holdings throughout the food chain are uniquely positioned to benefit, and so far, they have.
Posted October 11, 2010 by
JoAnne Berkenkamp's new commentary—published last week on OtherWords—addresses the gap between the growing national initiatives to connect schools with healthy local foods, and the agriculture and education policies that have kept it from growing faster. The combination of federal farm programs that disproportionately encourage commodity crops and tight school budgets have kept farmers from the school lunch room.
Berkenkamp remains optimistic though, as the benefits of Farm to School—fighting obesity, raising food literacy, supporting local farmers and economies—speak for themselves, and the model is taking off despite little legislative support.
"Congress can do better," she writes. "No matter how you calculate it, farm-to-school programs are an investment in the education and health of our children, and the economic future of our farmers."
Posted October 8, 2010 by
One of the most contentious issues at the global climate talks taking place this week in Tianjin, China continues to be finance: how to fund efforts to adapt to climate change and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The global financial crisis has made these discussions even more challenging as developed countries like the U.S. struggle with rising deficits. To move the discussion forward, the U.N. established a High-level Advisory Group on Climate Change Finance (AGF) last year, which will present a report at the COP 16 climate talks in Cancún, Mexico in December.
Prior to the Tianjin meeting this week, IATP published a paper outlining our concerns with carbon markets as a reliable source of climate finance. Earlier today, IATP joined over 25 civil society organizations in Tianjin in expressing grave concern that the AGF “is not going to support the type of solutions that will truly benefit developing countries and communities living in poverty.” In a letter to the co-chairs of the AGF, the groups wrote that:
You can read the full letter here.
Posted October 8, 2010 by
The Obama administration continues to push for new investments to end global hunger. As part of that effort, Bloomberg news reports that the U.S. will urge other nations attending the upcoming G-20 Finance Ministers meeting and the World Bank/IMF meeting this week to contribute to the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP). GASFP was set up last year to channel funding requests for agricultural development. So far, the U.S., Canada, South Korea and Spain (along with the Gates Foundation) have contributed $880 million.
On the plus side, the fund is driven by host-country requests through partner agencies. Rather than setting up a cumbersome new set of rules and procedures, developing country governments can work with multilateral agencies like the International Fund for Agricultural Development, World Food Program and others, using their existing procedures. Some of those agencies, especially IFAD, have a long history of working with small-scale farmers and including women farmers. GAFSP’s steering committee includes donor and recipient governments, as well as representatives from Southern and Northern civil society organizations.
On the other hand, there is reason to be skeptical of a food security fund housed at the World Bank. Over the last 20 or so years, the bank’s structural adjustment programs required trade liberalization, privatization and cuts in public credit, technical assistance and other support to agriculture. In 2007, the World Bank’s own Internal Evaluation Group recognized that its under-investment in African agriculture, and its over-reliance on the private sector, had been a dismal failure. Since then, the bank has committed to mend its ways, but whether new programs housed at the bank can really contribute to food sovereignty—each country’s right to democratically determine its own path to achieve food security and the right to food—remains to be seen.
Obama is right that substantial new investment in agriculture is needed. But, as always, the devil is in the details. Over the last few years the FAO’s Committee on Food Security (CFS)—which meets next week in Rome (IATP's Sophia Murphy is attending and will report back)—has undergone a thorough reform process. It now includes active involvement by family farmers, urban poor, women, indigenous peoples and development organizations from the Nouth and Sorth. Can GASFP coordinate with the CFS to learn from experiences and priorities around the world? Will it support agro-ecological methods built on local knowledge and priorities or will it advance GMOs and other technological fixes? More money for sustainable agricultural development is necessary, but definitely not sufficient to end hunger.
Posted October 7, 2010 by
IATP co-hosted a side event at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) climate negotiations in Tianjin, China earlier this week. Below are the remarks of IATP President Jim Harkness. Other speakers at the side event included Nick Berning and Karen Ornstein of Friends of the Earth along with a Bolivian UNFCCC delegate on how carbon markets are being treated in the negotiations.
A reliable and practical source of climate finance?
Remarks of IATP President Jim Harkness at the UNFCCC climate negotiations in Tianjin, China. Presented October 5, 2010.
Thank you for joining us today. My name is Jim Harkness.
I am the President of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. We are a 25-year-old organization that works locally and globally to ensure fair and sustainable
food, farm and trade systems. We are based in the United States, with offices in Geneva, Switzerland. And we have representatives on our board of directors from Brazil, the Philippines, Mexico, Canada and the Netherlands.
We’re here to talk about financing for adapting and mitigating climate change. Most of us believe that we will not have a meaningful climate deal without a clear system of finance in place to invest in a low-carbon economy and adaptation. We are at a critical juncture in this discussion. As you know, a draft decision on a climate finance fund is expected in Tianjin. Also, the Secretary-General’s High-level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing (AGF), which was formed after Copenhagen, will be presenting a draft report on climate finance shortly after Tianjin and a final report before Cancun.
Much of the discussion in Copenhagen, and throughout the climate debate, has focused on carbon markets as a primary source of climate finance. Of the $100 billion a year by 2020 committed to “be mobilized” by developed countries within the Copenhagen
Accord, much of that climate finance is expected to come from carbon markets. Many have argued that carbon markets are necessary because developed countries no longer have the public resources for climate finance. It’s important to note that one reason developed countries are facing such financial constraints is the recent bailout of the financial services industry following a decade of its deregulation and spectacular
near-collapse. We are deeply concerned that the global community is now being asked to trust this failed and unrepentant industry—which has fought regulation following its bailout—to provide adequate climate finance through carbon trading. We believe that carbon markets will not result in reliable and timely financing for the critical projects around the world that are needed to adapt to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And, having studied the role of poorly regulated financial markets in the global food crisis of 2007-08, we are concerned that such markets will not only shift the burden of mitigation
to developing countries, but will also adversely affect food security, and undermine many important efforts to deal with both climate change and rising global hunger.
Carbon and agriculture markets are tied together through futures markets. Big financial firms, many represented here in Tianjin, have positioned themselves to invest in carbon derivatives. These derivatives would be based on the value of carbon emissions permits—given to industry by governments—and of carbon offset credits. And these carbon derivatives could bundle together permits and credits with each other and with other commodities, such as oil or agricultural futures contracts.
Carbon derivatives would be created and traded under regulations that oversee all commodity futures contracts, which include agriculture, metals, energy and oil. And here’s the crux of the problem. These commodity futures markets have experienced a decade of regulatory exemptions, exclusions and waivers that have led to excessive speculation by big Wall Street players. The result has been enormous price volatility and harm to many around the world.
Excessive speculation by big financial firms, like Goldman Sachs, on commodity futures exchanges are now well recognized as major contributors to the global food crisis of 2007-08. The U.N. Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), a recent FAO committee report on agriculture price volatility and the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food have all stressed the need to address excess speculation on these markets by big financial firms.
How do these firms distort futures markets and what exactly are the effects? The big financial firms use two key tools to game the system. One, commodity index funds bundle together up to 24 futures contracts for all types of commodities. So, within one fund you might have derivatives for corn, gold and oil all together. Because financial firms, unlike commodity users, are not limited in the number of contracts they can hold, financial speculator “weight of money” (the sheer size of their holdings) drives the prices of the indexed contracts. As these contracts are sold and new contracts are bought, the “weight of money” induces enormous price volatility, far beyond what can be explained by commodities supply and demand. This price volatility is also replicated in global food prices—this is devastating for poor consumers and for the small farmers who produce most of the world’s food.
Carbon derivatives could also be bundled within a commodity index fund. The price effect of bundling contracts of consumable commodities and those of carbon, a wholly artificial and legislated commodity, can be difficult to predict. Legislation that allows the unlimited “banking” of carbon emissions permits could result in a periodic flooding of the market with permits. The resulting price drop would undermine the environmental objective of raising carbon prices to induce long-term industry investments in clean technologies. The current practice of trading carbon offset derivatives before the offset projects are verified to have reduced greenhouse gases could likewise result in price volatility, if the carbon asset underlying the derivative turns out to be fraudulent.
What would happen to agricultural contracts tied directly or indirectly to the vastly capitalized $2 trillion carbon market of 2017 forecast by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) under a mandatory U.S. carbon market scenario? The mostly likely outcome is that the bigger market drives prices in the much smaller agricultural markets. If agricultural futures prices return to their 2007-08 volatility, net import food–dependent developing countries would be unable again to forward contract food grains at reliable prices, leading to increased food insecurity.
A second way speculators take advantage of exemptions from commodity futures market rules is through over-the-counter (OTC) trading. These are unregulated private trades between firms, rather than trading on public and regulated exchanges. By trading over the counter, these financial firms are able to avoid regulatory scrutiny since OTC trade data are not reported daily to regulators,
as is required of regulated exchanges. By claiming that OTC trades are “customized” and that the data is confidential business information, OTC traders gain an unfair price information advantage over public exchange traders
OTC trading is already common on the European Emissions Trading Scheme—accounting for 44 percent of all carbon trades in 2008, according to Point Carbon. Trading under the ETS has resulted in high volatility and low carbon prices. Low and volatile prices have not has spurred big emitters to invest in greenhouse gas–reducing technologies and practices, as required by the ETS legislation.
UNFCCC Parties will be asked to consider adopting another variant on carbon trading as a major source of climate finance currently pushed by one of the largest carbon trading lobbies. The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) is made up of over 170 financial, law, energy and manufacturing companies. They are leading advocates for carbon derivatives. Their most recent proposal for financing is something called green bonds. We believe green bonds are also extremely vulnerable to excessive speculation.
Under the IETA proposal, financial firms would loan developing countries money—through a green bond—to engage in a carbon-reduction project. The carbon credit that would result from that project would serve as the collateral for the bond. IETA proposes that international financial institutions guarantee project loans in case of a developing country default.
Once again, if a carbon market is highly volatile, the developing country may not be able to cover that loan through the sale of carbon offset credits or other revenues. So, we have a scheme that puts developing countries into debt while guaranteeing the investment of financial firms. All under the guise of addressing climate change.
On the issue of climate finance, we need to start a new conversation and be open to new proposals and ideas. We need to answer such questions as: Who should provide the financing to address climate change? Who oversees that money and decides how it is spent?
We believe that those who are largest polluters historically have a responsibility to be the largest source of climate finance in accordance
with the convention—and not just countries, but polluting industries as well. There are a variety of taxes being discussed including carbon, transportation and financial taxes. Those should all be on the negotiators’ table.
It is absolutely essential that climate finance investments do not undermine food security, e.g., by displacing farmers from their land. Our goals should be exactly the opposite: to support sustainable agriculture that improves our ability to adapt to climate change, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, increases food security and strengthens rural livelihoods.
We strongly oppose the World Bank’s involvement in controlling a climate finance fund. This proposal would divorce climate finance from the normative and technical agreements of the UNFCCC—a grave mistake. The World Bank has an unfortunate history in its involvement with the Clean Development Mechanism and other climate related projects—as well as being a leader in pushing for deregulation in the finance sector.
Instead, we believe the Adaptation Fund, within the UNFCCC’S Kyoto protocol, is the appropriate place for climate finance funds to be held and distributed. We also support the establishment of a new fund under the convention, as proposed by developing countries.
We are interested in working with others to develop new, creative ideas on climate finance. We believe that new approaches to climate finance will only succeed in addressing climate change if they are consistent with the convention and are transparent, inclusive and equitable.
We have materials on the table that go into more depth on the issues I’ve discussed today. You can find all of our materials on our website: www.iatp.org. Thank you!
Posted October 7, 2010 by
In 2008, Monsanto launched a major public relations campaign to double crop yields in the U.S. by 2030. Recently, discussions in farm country have again picked up on this claim. It is worth examining the issues in depth.
Can it be done? Based on past history, it will be difficult. A recent USDA Economic Research Service bulletin (USDA/ERS) shows that agriculture productivity is growing at the yearly average rate of 1.58 percent which is a doubling in 44 years, not the 20 years proposed. And corn yields, which are the focus of the discussion, have a growth rate of 1.76 percent from 2004 to 2010, or a doubling rate of 40 years.
ERS projects about 175 bushels per acre (bu/A) in 2015, so yield would be about 205 bu/A by 2030. If harvested acreage stays constant (not a certainty) at around 80 million, production would be 16.4 billion bushels, a 31 percent increase over 2010. These data show that a yield doubling is highly unlikely, and is more likely a marketing ploy.
It is easy to dismiss such statements on yield as a way to promulgate more inputs, especially GMOs (genetically modified crops). There are major questions out there. Do GMOs really increase yield? Up to now, the answer depends on who you ask. Some—including some ERS reports—indicate no effect, others are counting on GMOs to really raise the yield.
A recent article in Farm Industry News based largely on interviews from Monsanto and Pioneer (DuPont), BASF and Syngenta scientists and development people, gives insight into what the industry is planning. Stacking, that is putting many GMO traits in a single variety, is claimed to be the wave of the future, especially for corn. The 8-trait SmartStax corn, developed by Dow and Monsanto, was available for 2009. Monsanto scientists are predicting that stacking 20 or more traits will be the norm. Massive breakthroughs in gene marking, real-time micro DNA analysis and computer programming are claimed to allow tailoring seeds to a specific climatic zone, bio-region or cropping strategy. Traits that are projected to be available include drought tolerance, nitrogen efficiency, herbicide tolerance (beyond Roundup) and insect resistance.
But recent findings indicate that the industry's gene stacking for yield and profits is going awry. This recent article from The New York Times documents the plummeting fortunes of the biotech giant Monsanto (shares have dropped from a high of $145 in mid-2008 to about $48 currently) largely because of the slow sales of SmartStax and the Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans. This is attributed to decreased yield coupled with overpricing, and a Department of Justice investigation into possible antitrust violations. But Monsanto's fortunes aside, this shows that predicting the success of biotech technology on yield is uncertain at best.
If it works, drought tolerance might be the biggest trait to increase production as it will permit corn to be grown in drier regions such as Kansas, the Dakotas and western Nebraska where now only sorghum and wheat can be grown without irrigation. If corn can be grown profitably, cattle may well leave the range and wheat acreage will drop.
Herbicide tolerance, which arguably has not increased yields but has increased profits, will move to newer chemicals as well as proven products. Several genes for tolerance to herbicides may be stacked in one variety. Will this bring about new herbicide resistant weed issues? Only time will tell.
Several new modes of action for insect resistance are also being studied and refuge-in-a-bag products are now being evaluated by EPA. Will these lead to true yield enhancement? Or just more acres per farm?
Several major issues must be addressed as the corporate world pushes for yield doubling. Some are discussed in recent Iowa Farmer Today. The issues may seem obvious, but it is good to see them discussed in a mainline farm weekly. Gene Lucht, who authored the report, poses the following questions:
I have not emphasized the issues of increased fertilizer use as well as irrigation water that would undoubtedly come with increased yields. Finally, there are the inherent environmental problems such as increased erosion, probably more localized flooding, and loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity. But these are side issues to the industry: The important one is the push by the biotech industry to control the agenda of many universities, local governments, and state and federal governments. As public funding for "public" universities declines, corporate influence is becoming more dominant.
It will be interesting to see if crop (especially corn) yield increases continue at roughly their present pace, especially since climate change appears to be lowering projected yields worldwide. However, the use of so many resources on one crop must be questioned, even if it is currently the dominate grain crop. I question the need for this overemphasis, when so many other agriculture research needs exist. The unintended consequences of our current path must be examined.
Posted October 5, 2010 by
IATP President Jim Harkness and Senior Program Officer Shefali Sharma are in Tianjin, China this week monitoring the ongoing global climate talks that will serve as the final prelude to COP16 in Cancún later this year.
In a side event held today, entitled “Carbon markets: A reliable and practical source of climate finance?” IATP hosted a panel to discuss public finance mechanisms, market and environmental integrity in carbon trading, and consequences for sustainable agriculture. A press conference will be held on Thursday.
IATP's Senior Policy Analyst Steve Suppan has also written a new paper addressing the U.N. Secretary-General's High-Level Advisory Group on Climate Finance (AGF), entitled "Trusting in Dark (Carbon) Markets?" Read the press release below:
Climate finance can’t afford carbon markets
Influence of market speculators too risky for the future of the planet
TIANJIN, CHINA – A high-level advisory group to the United Nations will outline its draft proposals this week for financing efforts to combat global climate change. Carbon emissions markets are expected to be central in their recommendations. But carbon market prices would likely be too volatile to provide a reliable source of finance, and other options should be considered, according to a new analysis released today by the U.S.-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).
The United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Advisory Group on Climate Finance (AGF) will present key elements of a draft report on October 7 at the U.N. global climate talks in Tianjin. The AGF will present a final report in Cancun, Mexico at the next Conference of the Parties (COP 16) meeting in early December.
The IATP paper, “Trusting in Dark (Carbon) Markets” by Steve Suppan, warns that carbon markets are vulnerable to excessive speculation by big financial firms. Those same firms wreaked havoc on agriculture markets in 2007-08, contributing to a sharp rise in global food prices and an increase in global hunger.
“The big financial players are lobbying governments to scale up the trading of carbon,” said Suppan. “But there is no independent evidence to show that carbon market price signals spur industry to make long-term investments in greenhouse gas–reducing technology. These big players are also lobbying for regulatory exemptions that would promote the carbon price volatility that delays or even drives away these investments.”
IATP President Jim Harkness and Senior Program Officer Shefali Sharma are in Tianjin to monitor the U.N. climate negotiations. IATP co-hosted an October 5 side event in Tianjin on climate finance proposals.
“Agriculture, particularly in developing countries, is the sector most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and badly needs transparent and predictable climate finance,” said Harkness. “A transition toward more sustainable practices will make agriculture, and livelihoods dependent on it, more resilient to climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and strengthen global food security. We need to consider alternative climate finance proposals to make this happen.”
IATP has authored a series of papers on climate change, including “Speculating on Carbon,” “The New Climate Debt” and “Climate and Agriculture: A Just Response,” among others. For more, go to IATP’s climate and agriculture website.
Posted October 4, 2010 by
The Obama administration has pledged to double exports by 2015. The administration will have trouble reaching that goal for agriculture if it continues following the lead of the big meat companies and ignore health issues raised by top U.S. trading partners.
The largest U.S. meat companies, and now Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, continue to disappoint by downplaying the now indisputable science linking antibiotic overuse in livestock to worsening epidemics of antibiotic-resistant infections in people.
In case you missed it, Vilsack kicked off the recent debate when he told the National Cattleman's Beef Association that the USDA thought America's livestock producers already use antibiotics "judiciously."
Of course, Vilsack is a lawyer and not a doctor who treats life-threatening infections in people. If you listen to the latter, you get a different picture.
The New York Times notes that Center for Disease Control Director Thomas Frieden—a physician—wrote to Congress last July about “compelling evidence” of a “clear link between antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans.” Much of that evidence shows that antibiotic overuse on farms helps create reservoirs of antibiotic resistant superbugs that can cause food poisoning in people when they eat the meat from those animals.
Minneapolis infectious disease expert Dr. James Johnson, also quoted by the Times, notes "the evidence is unambiguously clear. Most of the E. coli resistance in humans can be traced to food-animal sources.”
The best estimates still available are that over 70 percent of all antimicrobials used in the country are given to healthy animals—not because they're sick, but for growth promotion and other avoidable uses. Many of these antibiotics are also common human drugs, like tetracyclines or erythromycins.
What's this have to do with the success of meat industry exports? Well, many U.S. trade partners have banned—or are threatening to ban—U.S. meat imports because of our overuse of antibiotics, and the food safety risks it helps to create. In 2008-09, for example, Russia refused pork imports from U.S. plants—including those owned by Tyson and Smithfield—due to traces of tetracycline and oxytetracycline in tested pork. Russia previously banned U.S. poultry because of tetracycline residues. This was a blow because in many years Russia has been the largest importer of U.S. chicken—a multi-billion dollar industry.
So, it seems like Secretary Vilsack and the big meat industry players have something of a shared delusion going on. They may want to continue believing that current overuses of antibiotics are "judicious." But if U.S. trade partners listen our nation's physicians, instead of our big meat companies, doubling agriculture exports may be yet another shared delusion.
Posted September 29, 2010 by
While floods from earlier this summer have receded in Iowa, rivers are bursting in Minnesota from last week's downpour of rain. Flooding, heat waves and other extreme weather over the last few months has had a devastating affect on agriculture in the U.S., Russia, Mexico, Pakistan, China and elsewhere. These weather events are consistent with global climate change—and they are not waiting for a new global climate treaty, or a U.S. climate bill.
In a commentary published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune today, IATP President Jim Harkness writes about the need to include farmers—on the front lines of extreme weather—in developing climate policy. Jim and IATP's Shefali Sharma will be in Tianjin, China next week at the UN climate talks, connecting with more farm organizations concerned about climate change. Read the full commentary in the Star Tribune.
Posted September 28, 2010 by
One of the most dramatic effects of deregulated trade has been an increase in agriculture dumping. In agriculture, dumping takes place when an agribusiness firm exports a crop—say, corn—at a price that is below what it costs the farmer to produce it. Dumping gives agribusiness an advantage in the importing country's market—and often puts that country's farmers out of business, making that country more dependent on imports for its food supply. Trade rules at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and regional trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) limit what countries can do to protect their farmers from dumping, including policy tools like tariffs or certain types of subsidies.
A few years ago, IATP published a report looking at dumping by U.S.-based agribusiness on world markets for five major crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton. We found a sharp increase in dumping following the enactment of the WTO's Agreement on Agriculture and the 1996 Farm Bill—which stripped away the last remnants of supply-management programs and encouraged U.S. farmers to over-produce.
Earlier this year, Tim Wise at the Tufts University's Global Development and Environment Institute released a new report looking even deeper into the damaging effects of dumping. In this case, the effects of dumping eight U.S.-produced agricultural products on Mexican agriculture after the passage of NAFTA. The numbers are astounding. Prices paid to Mexican farmers were depressed nearly $1 billion a year from 1997–2005 due to dumping. You can find more details at GDAE's website.
Or, check out the video interview we did with Tim at a major meeting of Mexican farm groups last month.