Posted April 13, 2010 by

AgricultureFood security

A new commentary published today in MinnPost (by IATP President Jim Harkness and Population Action International board member Thomas Lovejoy) asks Congress and the Obama administration to increase funding to improve global health and food security while keeping the issues of women in focus. Malnutrition, and lack of access to health services—especially in regards to maternity and family planning—disproportionately place the weight of neglect on the shoulders of women and families around the world..

"The fates of women and poor communities are inextricably tied to the environment," the authors write. "For example, after decades of neglecting agricultural development in poor countries, over one billion worldwide go to bed hungry each day." The commentary goes on to illustrate why, indeed, women truly need to be at the center of real, sustainable solutions. "Women produce up to 80 percent of the food in sub-Saharan Africa, but have access to less than five percent of land, credit and extension services."

While recognizing and praising the efforts of Minnesota's Betty McCollum (D-4th) and Keith Ellison (D-5th), the commentary asks the Obama administration to work with Congress in advocating for increased funding and better policy solutions that, for the time being, are not enough.

Read the entire commentary here.

Posted April 12, 2010 by

This past weekend Dr. David Wallinga, director of IATP's Food and Health program, was featured on Huffington Post. His blog entry, “Challenging the Obesity System,” looks at the obesity epidemic as a symptom of the larger issue of an unhealthy food system.

“As a cheap calorie policy, U.S. farm policy has been a success. Foods high in fats, sugars and calories, such as cooking oils, snacks, fast foods and sugared sodas, are some of the cheapest foods in the American diet,” he writes. “But for public health, U.S. farm policy's focus on a few commodities is outdated.”

What about solutions? Dr. Wallinga offers three suggestions:

  1. Establishing an independent Healthy Foods Commission of non-governmental public health, agriculture and food system experts.
  2. Partnering with America's farmers to grow healthier food by offering support equal to that offered in the current commodity-focused system.
  3. Raising the standards of the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.

Read the full post here and join the conversation. How can public health and food policy come together?

Posted April 8, 2010 by

In the latest Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) Campaign for Fair Food initiative, Publix—a large supermarket chain based in Lakeland, Florida—has come under fire.
While other food industry giants—including McDonald's, Subway and, most
recently, Aramark—have signed agreements, Publix has failed to work
with CIW to improve the wages and working conditions of farmworkers in

In response, the CIW has initiated an Email Action Alert
asking supporters to email Publix CEO Ed Crenshaw and ask that the
supermarket chain work with CIW to establish an agreement to provide
improved wages and working conditions to those that harvest the
tomatoes Publix sells in its produce department. There is also a planned march (April 16–18) that will incorporate pickets and prayer vigils at both a Publix supermarket and the Publix headquarters.

CIW represents tomato workers that have been exploited for decades.
The low wages and poor working conditions, combined with instances of
abuse, have often raised comparisons to modern day slavery—a comparison
that is more than apt. In fact, CIW has aided the Department of Justice
in prosecuting multiple slavery operations which took advantage of
hundreds of farmworkers. IATP Food and Society Fellow Sean Sellers has worked closely with CIW since 2003 and recently went on tour around Florida showcasing these injustices as part of a Modern-Day Slavery Museum.

As an official endorser of the Alliance for Fair Food, IATP encourages you to join the Email Action Alert and learn more about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' fight for farmworker justice.

Posted April 7, 2010 by

For those who think that headlines and newspapers still matter, this front page news appeared in the March 30 issue of the Financial Times: "Steel prices set to soar." The end of 40 years of forward contracting iron ore annually will be replaced by three-month contracts in the cash markets from which multi-billion dollar financial derivatives contracts in steel will emerge. Steel prices are predicted to rise a third and be passed along to consumers. Price volatility in iron ore and steel will increase. The highly concentrated iron ore mining industry will prosper, as will traders in steel derivatives.

What does this headline event have to do with the ongoing U.S. congressional fight over how to regulate over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives contracts currently traded in unregulated "dark markets?" Furthermore, what does the OTC legislation have to do with agriculture and agribusiness?

Next week the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee will begin to negotiate its version of the OTC derivatives provisions that will form part of the overall financial reform legislation. The Agriculture Committee oversees the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) which regulates the trade in commodity derivatives, such as iron ore futures. The banking committee oversees the regulation of financial derivatives, such as stock and interest rate futures. The Senate will take elements from both committees to incorporate in the final financial reform bill that Senate leadership hopes to move to a vote by June.

On March 25, IATP wrote to the agriculture committee as a member of the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition and to the entire Senate in a sign-on letter led by faith-based and nongovernmental organizations. Both letters asked Senators to authorize the CFTC to set and enforce limits on the number of futures contracts that any one entity can own in all trading venues during a specific trading period. The lack of these contract trading limits, called "aggregate position limits" in the draft legislation, enabled excessive speculation by financial institutions in commodity markets. In 2008, we reported on how more than $300 billion in speculative money drove extreme price volatility in both agricultural and non-agricultural commodities in 2007–2008.

Most of the excessive speculation took place in unregulated OTC trades, which led to a near meltdown of the global financial system in the last half of 2008, avoided only by a multi-trillion dollar taxpaper bailout. In dark markets, nobody knows which traders have enough reserves to pay up when their "bets" go bad. Wall Street lobbyists have written exemptions in the House of Representatives "Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009," passed on December 11, 2009. These exemptions to restrictions on OTC trading would leave up 60 percent of the $300 trillion U.S. OTC market still unregulated, according to a March 24 speech by CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler.

Many of the corporations represented by the Wall Street lobbyists are agribusiness firms, such as Cargill, Bunge and John Deere, that belong to the Coalition for Derivatives End Users. Like their industrial brethren, they use dark market instruments to hide debt, manage currency and interest rate fluctuations, and, yes, to manage price risks in physical commodities such as steel, which Cargill trades and John Deere uses. Traders on regulated public exchanges give price information to the whole market. Dark market traders give no information to discover prices, as is required by the U.S. Commodity Exchange Act: they only use public information to create unfair competitive advantage. 

On March 4, IATP submitted a comment to the CFTC that rebuts the Wall Street arguments to the Senate banking committee as to why trade in dark markets should continue. The comment is in response to a proposed CFTC rule on aggregate position limits for energy futures trades. The proposed rule, to close what is colloquially known as the Enron Loophole, is open for comment until April 26.

The CMOC and faith-based organization sign-on letters to the Senate argue for very strict limits to any exemptions from trading on public markets. Only bona fide users of commodities would be allowed to hedge risks off-exchange, and then only for commodity derivatives trades and for no other financial purpose. Those specifically exempted trades would require higher capital reserve requirements to prevent failure to pay and would be subject to strict daily reporting requirements, unlike the current six month lag of government reports of disaggregated OTC trade data to the Bank of International Settlements. (Six months is an eternity in the world of derivatives trading and cannot aid regulators to monitor trade flows and types.)

If the Senate allows transnational corporations to continue to trade in dark markets, all consumers of commodities and financial products will be exposed to the systemic risk of the "too politically connected banks" through whom the Coalition of Derivatives End Users members trade. Higher prices for consumer products using steel will seem like the good old days compared to the havoc that another global dark market failure could unleash. According to Simone Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, in the absence of tough regulation of the financial and commodity markets, another global financial crisis could hit within a year.

Posted April 5, 2010 by

It's not even mid-April but the weather in Minneapolis is warming up fast. In a matter of months IATP's mini farmers markets will be back in operation. Our friends at Catalyst have created a video explaining what our Mini Farmers Market project is and how you can get one started in your neighborhood. For more information on the dates and times of the mini markets visit our local foods page!

Posted April 2, 2010 by

If music is the international language, food—and where it comes from—is the international conversation piece. In the newest Radio Sustain, the conversation takes us through four distinct perspectives on the international issues of farming, food, sustainability and land management.

First, IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch discusses her experience attending the first USDA/Department of Justice workshop on concentration in corporate agriculture. What are the workshops' goals? What, if any, changes to policy may result and how will the debate domestically impact the international one over competition, monopoly and overall agribusiness domination?

Then, we sit down with IATP President Jim Harkness to talk sustainability in China. In March, IATP hosted the first International Workshop on Sustainable Food and Agriculture at China's Renmin University. What happened there and how will China feed itself?

Dr. William Moseley, a Geography professor from St. Paul's Macalester College, visited IATP in March and joined us to discuss his recent research on the effects of neoliberal trade policies on livelihoods and food production in the three African countries of Gambia, Cote d'Ivoire and Mali.

Finally, IATP Senior Fellow Dr. Dennis Keeney revisits the 2008 Iowa flooding and discusses how commodity crop production has altered the Midwest landscape. How are crops like soybeans and corn impacting the land's ability to absorb floods and what changes could be made?

Listen to the latest episode here!

It turns out that foods that are better for you may also be better for farmers and local job creation. A new study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University found that expanding fruit and vegetable production in the upper Midwest could bring significantly more economic benefits than conventional corn and soybean production on the same acreage.

The study, by Iowa State Research Scientist Dave Swenson, looked at the potential for fruit and vegetable production in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. It identified 28 kinds of fruits and vegetables that farmers are able to grow in the region. Currently, much of the fruits and vegetables in the region come from other parts of the country or even outside the country.

Some key findings on the economic impacts on the region as a whole:

  • Increased fruit and vegetable production in the six states could mean $882 million in sales at the farm level, and more than 9,300 jobs. Corn and soybean production on that same acreage would support only 2,578 jobs.
  • If half of the increased production was sold in farmer-owned stores, it would require 1,405 such stores staffed by 9,652 people.
  • Only 270,025 acres—roughly equivalent to the average cropland in one of Iowa's counties—would be needed to grow enough fruits and vegetables for the six-state region.

Previous research found that smaller sized farms (50 acres and smaller) are more likely to produce fruits and vegetables than standard-sized farms so it is likely that more, smaller farms would be needed. Researchers assumed that 50 percent of fruit and vegetable production would be directly marketed in-state by farmer-owned stores. Local and regional ownership of the food chain will be essential for maximum job creation.  

The study breaks down the numbers by state and metropolitan region so it's easy to get a sense of what your neck of the woods could be doing to create new local food jobs.

The barriers to transitioning toward more fruit and vegetable production in the Midwest are enormous. Farmland is hard to come by as values are seen as a better investment than the stock market. U.S. farm policy greatly incentivizes corn and soybean production in a number of ways, including helping farmers to manage risks and supporting research for those crops. And then there's the lack of infrastructure needed to help local food systems serve a booming market. Despite these barriers, this study gives us a guidepost for the potential economic benefits of a new model for agriculture that produces healthier and more locally grown food.


Posted March 31, 2010 by

As global food trade expands, food companies want uniform food safety standards. For the multinational food company, an ideal world would have a set of global standards. If a food production export facility met those standards, the company could freely export anywhere around the world. But what if the global standards weren't strong enough to ensure safety? What if the cost of food-borne illnesses continued to rise? And what if governments didn't invest enough in regulatory agencies to ensure the standards were actually met?

These issues and more are covered in the latest issue of the Global Food Safety Monitor, edited by IATP's Steve Suppan. The issue looks into the underfunding of U.S. food safety agencies, failures in implementing the USDA's food safety programs and attempts to certify the safety of poultry imported from China. 

"If Cargill is investing an average of $100 million a year and cannot control E.coli in its U.S. plants, what is the likelihood that the Obama administration's proposed budget for federal food safety programs [...] will reduce the incidence of E.coli and other pathogens?" writes Suppan. Find out more in the latest Global Food Safety Monitor.

Posted March 25, 2010 by

Despite growing concerns about the potential adverse effects of most currently approved food dyes, the Food and Drug Administration continues to sit on the sidelines. Meanwhile, many food companies have stopped using these food dyes of concern in European markets but continue to use them for the same foods sold in the U.S. market. (See this article from the Examiner about Kraft's Macaroni and Cheese.)

This week, IATP and seven other non-governmental organizations wrote to the FDA, calling on the agency to act on a formal petition filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in 2008 to ban currently approved dyes, including Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6.

Last year, IATP put out two consumer tools to help inform parents about food dyes. IATP's Brain Food Selector is a database that helps parents easily find which foods contain synthetic dyes. Parents can search by brand, product type or whichever dye they're concerned with. IATP's Smart Guide to Food Dyes describes why synthetic food dyes are used, associated children's health concerns and what parents can do.

Increasingly, these dyes have been found to increase hyperactivity and other disturbed behavior in children. Synthetic food dyes are unnecessary and provide no health benefits. The European Union will require companies to use warning labels on most food dyed foods beginning in July 2010.

"The latest science indicates that even modest amounts of synthetic food dyes can affect learning in children," says IATP's David Wallinga, M.D. "We need the food industry and U.S. government agencies to catch up with the latest science and start protecting our children. Until then, parents need to be armed with information when they go shopping."

Posted March 22, 2010 by Ben Lilliston   

IATP President Jim Harkness reflects on World Water Day and his recent visit to Beijing.

On this World Water Day, I can’t help but think of my departure from China a couple of days ago. I flew out of Beijing in the middle of a massive dust storm. Howling winds in parched Inner Mongolia picked up countless tons of fine red soil and deposited them over a large swath of Northeast Asia, Japan and Korea. As our plane bucked and lurched up into the dirty-orange gale, I tried to distract myself by reading the complimentary China Daily the flight attendant had handed me before takeoff, and found that the perennially water-short North China plain is not the only area of the country that is suffering. Southwest China is in the throes of its worst drought in over a half century, affecting over 20 million people in Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces. Harvests will likely be only 50 percent of their 2009 levels. The poorest farmers, who live in mountainous areas and depend on rains for their crops of maize or potatoes, will be hit hardest. This year reservoirs and rivers are also drying up. That means irrigated rice, the staple of urban populations, will also suffer.

The general thrust of China’s approach to water shortages has been to increase supply. Whether the underlying ideology was socialism or capitalism, more inputs (water, pesticides and fertilizer) and greater productivity have long been seen as the solutions to China’s food security challenge. As surface water disappeared from the North China plain, subsidized tube wells sucked groundwater from deeper and deeper, draining aquifers much faster than they could possibly re-charge. And in the past decade, with the wells running dry, work began on a massive project to transfer water from the South to the North via a network of reservoirs, pipes and canals that would divert trillions of gallons of the Yangtze’s flow northward. A recent decision to halt the most disastrous part of this project was a major victory for China’s scientifically and politically savvy water activists, but a more fundamental shift toward reducing waste and increasing efficiency of water use is still a long way off.

One of the more interesting sessions at the International Conference on Sustainable Agriculture and Food we co-hosted in Beijing last week was about efforts to drastically reduce water use in paddy rice farming through adoption of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). More a set of principles than a specific farming technique, SRI includes a focus on reduced use of inputs, wider spacing of seedlings and careful treatment of roots during transplanting. Instead of keeping the paddy flooded, SRI calls for the soil to be kept moist but aerated, in order to promote beneficial soil microorganisms. SRI has a growing host of proponents among grassroots development workers and farmers’ groups, but critics in major rice research institutions have questioned its scientific basis, and major field trials are currently underway.

One aspect of SRI that has made it difficult to assess is that it is intentionally flexible, so it can be adapted to local conditions, and the variation in local adaptations was evident in the contrasting approaches to SRI presented at our conference. Mr. Uwe Hoering, a German agronomist, described the widespread adoption of SRI in Cambodia, where it is essentially a very low-input, labor-intensive, organic farming system. Mr. Lu Shihua of the Sichuan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, one of the principal proponents of SRI in China, described a rather different system, using chemical fertilizer and substituting plastic sheeting for mulch as a weed control and moisture retention measure. This seemed much less environmentally friendly than the Cambodian version, but they shared the key element of water savings. In Sichuan, where over 100,000 hectares are now planted using SRI, two-thirds less water is used. The yields from SRI are marginally higher on average, but much higher in drought years, which are becoming increasingly common.

We will be posting Mr. Lu’s presentation, along with all of the others as well as video of the plenary sessions, in the next week or so. Stay tuned.

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