Posted May 31, 2010 by

AgricultureFood securityGMO

In mid-May, the Des Moines Register published a 7-part series on Africa by reporter Philip Brasher. He traveled to Kenya and South Africa to obtain information for the series. It focuses on corn (maize in Africa) and on the role of biotechnology (its political, as well as its yield aspects) in providing food for sub-Sahara Africa—an area that is short on quality soils, has poor rainfall distribution and is expanding rapidly in population.

The first in the series “High hopes and high stakes” puts the United States government’s pro-biotech bias in perspective. He quotes former Iowa Governor and current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as saying that Gates-sponsored Monsanto and biotech industry projects in Africa will help “knock down some the concerns that are expressed globally and domestically about biotechnology.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed similar views and both echo President Obama’s cheerleading efforts (which probably come more from the medical side of biotech).

Still, it now seems to be the U.S. government against most everyone else when it comes to biotech seeds. Often Brasher characterizes Europe as the main force working against biotech in Africa. But only Southern Africa has approved the maize seed for commercial use. And many countries in Asia are just as opposed to biotech seeds. Are he and others using Europe as a scapegoat?

Truly King Corn is worldwide in its influence. Yet corn (white corn, but Brasher does not differentiate) is a key staple for the poor African; 300 million Africans depend on it, some three times a day and so far Africa’s rate of corn production has lagged behind its rate of population increase. Clearly more corn and other staple production is needed. So the question is: How to go about increasing production?

Perhaps the question is already being answered, at least in the short term. South Africa (Africa's Iowa) had the largest corn harvest in 2010 since 1982. Increased land in cultivation, timely rains and better cultivars have contributed to the increase. In fact, South Africa corn prices have dropped more than 30 percent this year and growers are considering withholding corn from the market to increase prices. Part of the problem is the lack of infrastructure to ship the corn to the parts of Africa, such as Kenya, where it is needed.

At the BIGMAP symposium I attended before reading Brasher’s opus, it was painfully clear that a major barrier for many African countries is more fundamental than seeds: it is the lack of infrastructure. In addition, many do not have adapted seeds (open-pollinated and hybrid) to respond to inputs such as fertilizer, they lack rainfall to maximize yields (sometimes just to germinate the seed) and things are getting more dire with climate change. They lack plant breeders, seed distribution centers, lines of credit, and post-harvest storage. In other words, the challenges are much more than just yield.

The Gates-funded projects with Pioneer and Monsanto that we've previously written about hope to incorporate two major traits in the new corn seeds: drought tolerance (Monsanto) and increased nitrogen efficiency (Pioneer). The corn already contains the genetically engineered Bt trait for insect control. These seeds will need to produce higher yields that override the almost certain increased costs of the seed, the fertilizer and other production costs associated with GE crops. And remember that farmers in Africa don't have the abundance of government programs available to U.S. corn farmers if weather or the market impacts profitability.

Brasher's series emphasizes the problems biotech companies have in finding adequate field plots to conduct breeding and yield trials. Not mentioned is the fact that industry restricts independent scientists and others from studying the seed. Further, a lack of established regulations hinders the establishment of field trials.

Brasher's comparison of the acceptance of biotech in South Africa, the European Union and America was revealing. Essentially Europe still says no, driven by consumer resistance. But Brasher indicated that a report by USDA in Rome argued that consumer resistance in the EU was not as strong as believed and that an “education” (read propaganda) campaign targeted to Italy might be a good place to start turning things around. No doubt there are other stealth campaigns to try to get biotech crops into Europe.

The series continues to beg the question: What is behind all these efforts to foist GE technology on Africa? It can't be direct profit from African sales; that will be vanishingly small. Not Africans feeding Africa, that is impossible until the numerous infrastructure problems are dealt with. One has to wonder whether it really is about the image of Monsanto and Pioneer in the U.S. (and possibly EU in the future), and the vast pro-biotech lobby that resides within the USDA. And it is about market share, not just in Africa but worldwide.

Two agronomists have recently won the World Food Prize for work they have done in Africa. They have somewhat different views on how to improve African agriculture. Gebisa Ejata, who just won the World Food Prize in 2009, feels African farmers need basic knowledge about farming methods. In a recent paper in Science, he stated that Africa needs both strong internal leadership and external assistance, particularly in the areas of human and institutional capacity building. Pedro Sanchez, who won the World Food Prize in 2002, feels that increased access to markets and more fertilizer use could also help and that drought tolerance is essential to combat the threat of climate change.

In the end, no one can predict the correct path. Improved genetics certainly is part of the puzzle, but even more is the need for infrastructure. Infrastructure was an essential part of Norman Borlaug’s green revolution. Even Gates millions cannot create miracles. Only hard work by Africans and attention to African needs and climate will bring about the level of food production needed. And that may not be enough. The struggle against encroaching climate change, overwhelming population pressures and misguided government aid programs will only slow efforts.

The Brasher reports reflect these stark challenges. Unfortunately, they stride the political barbed wire fence by putting more emphasis on biotech than it can possibly deliver—without exploring the role of more needed alternatives.

Posted May 28, 2010 by Jim Harkness   

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China.

China’s organic trade show opened in Shanghai yesterday. While visiting the exhibition hall, Agriculture Vice-Minister Chen Xiaohua gave his ministry’s stamp of approval to the organic industry. China uses chemical fertilizers and pesticides even more heavily than the United States, and last fall the government gave approval for field trials of genetically-modified food crops, so an expression of support for organics from such a high-ranking official is certainly significant. But...   

BioFach China, now in its fourth year, is organized by the German conference firm NürmbergMesse, which runs similar conferences in a number of other countries and regions. Last year there were about 240 exhibitors and over 10,000 visitors, and those numbers will probably be even larger this year. I blogged from BioFach China in 2008, but am missing it this time. The focus is very much on Big Organic and international trade (For American organic readers: this ain’t no MOSES!), Organic principles, local foods and the interests of small farmers are crowded out by talk of certification and phytosanitary codes for exporters. While the press release says “China’s middle class acquires a taste for organic,” this is seen as good thing primarily because it will provide a growing market for imports. At the same time, the release cites certification agencies as estimating that organics could make up 5 percent or more of China’s food exports by 2020.

Chemical agriculture is a huge problem in China (it was recently identified in a government report as a bigger pollution source than industry) so I cannot say that export-oriented organic agriculture is an unambiguously bad thing—even despite all the energy and climate issues associated with global food trade and the threat that such trade poses to local food producers in other countries. But neither can I overestimate the yawning gap between the "organic industry" that is being promoted at BioFach and the kind of food system we just talked about for two days with Chinese farmers and community groups: one that reconnects producer and consumer based on principles of trust, community and respect for nature.

The vice-minister, likewise, is in favor of organic agriculture, but not all organic agriculture. In wonderful ministry-speak, he says organic products should be promoted, but that it should be done, “positively and deliberately, guided by market demand, based on national characteristics and the principle of adapting to local circumstances, in a portion of regions that have environmental advantages, appropriate resources and special local products.”

Well, it’s a start.

Posted May 28, 2010 by Ben Lilliston   

Earlier this week, Jim Harkness blogged about a fascinating two-day workshop on consumer cooperatives held in Beijing, China. Below, you can watch video reports about the conference from IATP's Jim Harkness, The Wedge Community Co-op's Lindy Bannister, and IATP's China Program Officer Chang Tianle.



Posted May 26, 2010 by Ben Lilliston   

IATP President Jim Harkness reports from Beijing on a workshop on consumer cooperatives. See the full collection of photos from the workshop in the Facebook photo album.

Zhang Yuqing a food activist from Nanjing Zhang Yinghui Beijing's First Organic Farmer's Market organizer and Chen Hsiu Chih Board Chair of Taiwan I couldn’t help but feel strange today, watching activists in Communist China listen with rapt attention as American and German speakers explained the theory and practices of cooperatives. After all, virtually all of China was organized into cooperatives in the 1950s, in one step on the very fast route (between 1949–58) from feudalism to Mao’s version of socialism. Of course, those coops did NOT sell Marie’s Gluten Free Organic Flax Crackers. And whatever ideological stigma may have been attached to that earlier form of social organization, the people in today’s workshop see “consumer cooperatives” not as a slippery slope to totalitarianism, but as one of the few tools they have to secure access to safe, healthy food in a society where common people live at the whims of an arbitrary state and poorly-regulated market. (In above photo: Zhang Yuqing, a food activist from Nanjing; Zhang Yinghui, Beijing's First Organic Farmer's Market organizer; and Chen Hsiu Chih, Board Chair of Taiwan Homemaker's Union Consumer Coop)

This meeting is a follow-up to the international conference on sustainable agriculture and food systems that we co-hosted with several Chinese and foreign partners in March. Most of that conference focused on food production, but it also became clear that farmers aren’t the only ones losing out in China’s food system. Many of the questions and comments were from consumers worried about food safety and skeptical of government “green food” and organic certification schemes. For them, Community Supported Agriculture and coops show promise as ways to regain control over their food supply. In her travels around China, IATP's Chang Tianle met a variety of groups and individuals at various stages of considering these ideas. And the China office of the Social Science Research Council expressed interest in organizing a small workshop to bring different groups together for a focused discussion on food coops.

Food activists are developing their plan for a coop in a park There are participants from all over China, here for a variety of reasons: rural organizers who see coops as a new way to connect farmers and consumers: a buying club associated with Waldorf Schools in Guangzhou wondering how they can organize themselves more effectively; an Urban-Rural Fair Trade Store that can’t figure out how to set prices or manage stock; an NGO in Henan province that’s worried about food safety; and a community-run handicrafts shop from Beijing that’s wondering about expanding into food sales.

What they all share is not simply an interest in safe food, (although that is a universal worry in China) but a concern for rebuilding community; for relationships that go beyond the cash nexus. China is a society that is undergoing incredibly rapid changes, and the autonomy and mobility that have replaced the smothering embrace of village and commune life are experienced as both freedom and alienation. The disruption of traditional sources of cultural meaning under Mao, followed by the abandonment of Maoism itself and its replacement with “To Get Rich Is Glorious” has left a spiritual void that some people feel very acutely. Maybe this is why so many of China’s organic farmers and fair traders are also devout Buddhists or Christians.

Jim and Lindy But I digress! Although the workshop was organized on short notice, we were able to invite speakers from the U.S., Germany and Taiwan to participate. We also got an eye-opening introduction to Japanese grocery coops—which have 22 million members!—from professor Li Zhonghua of Qingdao Agricultural University.

As a proud Minnesotan, I was delighted that we were able to get Lindy Bannister as a speaker. Lindy is the general manager of The Wedge, based in Minneapolis and America’s largest single-store coop. (It’s just a few blocks from IATP’s offices, so staff get a lot of lunches and snacks there.) (In photo: Here I am with Lindy)

Coop plans After hearing the international case studies and nine short reports from nascent coops or related efforts in China, participants split into groups and developed draft “business plans” for coops in four different cities. These discussions revealed that for all of China’s uniqueness, people here are grappling with the same issues as those who organize or join coops anywhere. How do we balance environmental or social concerns with the need for competitive prices? What are the obligations of members? What should we sell, where can we get it and how do we negotiate prices with our suppliers? How big should we be, and how much like a conventional supermarket in our organization or product mix?

In the end, many of the draft plans were similar, and similarly modest. Several people had begun by speculating about the need to reach a certain scale in order to cover costs, and there was talk of rather ambitious financing plans. Most final reports seemed focused on starting small and keeping it simple, aiming for a few hundred to a thousand members in the first few years. Legal status is a particular concern here, of course. As one person said, “We’re too small to be bothered now, but at some point, local tax and commercial authorities will come around.” Many of the financial and legal aspects of cooperatives and coop financing seem to be in a gray area. Overall, people seemed encouraged by the knowledge that all coops start small, and that there are many different possible models out there.

The group ended not with a bold declaration, but with strong interest in continuing the learning process and supporting each other as the growing variety of experiments with consumer coops in China moves ahead.

Posted May 26, 2010 by

Currently, the navigation infrastructure on the Mississippi costs the federal government an estimated $100 million a year to maintain—a subsidy that supports the export of Minnesota's agricultural products. Now, the navigation industry is pushing for more: nearly $270 million. In a new commentary, published yesterday in the Star Tribune, IATP's Mark Muller explains why increased investment in export channels like the locks and dams from Minneapolis to southern Illinois is bad for Minnesota agriculture.

“Now that the Farm Bill has encouraged all of this corn and soybean production, federal policymakers apparently feel some responsibility for facilitating the export of these crops,” he writes. “When agriculture production is narrowed down to just a couple of crops [...] economic opportunities that provide a greater return are lost. This hurts the Midwest farmers that have little choice to grow these crops even when prices are lousy, and hurts rural communities that need economic development.”

Read the entire commentary, “Don't give up on Minnesota's agriculture innovation,” here (pdf).

Posted May 24, 2010 by


As BP and government agencies struggle to stem the devastating flow of oil now hitting the Louisiana coast, there is growing desperation to find a solution—and fast. Green Earth Technologies, Inc. (GET) is seeking approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to disperse manufactured nanoparticles in the Gulf of Mexico to remedy the oil spill. IATP and more than a dozen other organizations think this is a bad idea.

In a letter organized by Friends of the Earth, IATP and others urged EPA to deny approval of this project. Manufactured nanoscale chemicals measure less than 300 nanometers. A human hair is about 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers. The large surface to volume ratio of nanoparticles is supposed to prevent the oil from coagulating and then being carried by ocean currents to damage coastal areas. The problem is that nanoparticles have been found to be toxic to humans, mammals and aquatic life. Manufactured nanoparticles can travel up the food chain from smaller to larger organisms. In this case, the exact composition of nanoparticles being used by Green Earth Technologies are trade secrets so the extent of toxicity is unknown.

The groups wrote, "We understand the enormous technical and regulatory challenges posed by the oil spill. However, two wrongs do not make a right. Exacerbating this grave situation by allowing GET to add pollutants to contaminated land and water should not be allowed, especially considering that the GET nanoparticles could be impossible to recover once introduced into the environment. We fully oppose this irresponsible, unscientific and dangerous experiment."

IATP has been looking into food and agriculture applications of nanotechnology and the lack of strong regulations to protect the environment and public health.

Read the full letter on nanotech and the oil spill.

Posted May 21, 2010 by

Market speculation

Senate vote on historic financial reform critical for agriculture
New rules would help address excessive speculation in agricultural futures contracts

May 21, 2010
Contact: Ben Lilliston, (612) 870-3416,

Minneapolis – The Senate’s approval of an historic financial reform bill last night is a first step toward preventing the excessive financial speculation that has wreaked havoc in agricultural commodity futures contracts over the last several years, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

Most importantly for agriculture, the Senate bill requires that previously unregulated over-the-counter (OTC) trades be traded on public exchanges. Currently, OTC trades are exempt from regulatory oversight by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). IATP is part of the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition working to close regulatory loopholes that allow OTC trading and excessive speculation to continue unabated. The Senate bill must now be reconciled with the House of Representatives’ “Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.” 

“The Senate bill helps make the market function like a market should—in an open and transparent way, instead of like a casino where only five big financial firms know what is going on,” said IATP analyst Steve Suppan. “Excessive speculation has hurt U.S. agriculture by undermining the original purpose of commodity exchanges—to help commodity sellers and buyers manage price risk. We don’t want a repeat of 2008, when prices were so volatile that U.S. grain elevators couldn’t hedge their own risks on commodity exchanges. Some elevators refused to contract to buy farmers’ grain in advance, leading to a cash flow crisis on many farms.”

By requiring that nearly all trades be executed on public and regulated exchanges, the Senate bill enables the CFTC to analyze daily trade data and determine when traders have exceeded the CFTC’s commodity-specific position limits. OTC traders benefit from public exchange price data but hide the price data of their own deals, a huge and unfair trade advantage that has benefitted big financial firms. Position limits refer to the percentage of all commodity contracts open for trade during a specific trading period. Enforcing position limits enables the CFTC to prevent the excessive liquidity that induced price volatility on agriculture commodity markets during 2007–2009.

In 2008, IATP first reported on the role of big financial firms in contributing to steep food price increases in late 2007 to early 2008. Commodity prices later collapsed an aggregate of 60 percent between June and November 2008 as the insolvency of major investors, including commodity index fund dealers, led to U.S. taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street firms.

The extreme price volatility not only affected U.S. agriculture, but ultimately contributed to increased hunger in many of the two-thirds of developing countries that are food-import dependent and that rely on U.S. markets for predictable purchase prices. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) have reached similar conclusions on the role of excessive speculation in creating extreme volatility in agricultural and non-agricultural commodity prices.

“If the Senate and House conference committee eliminates the loopholes that enabled the crisis in both financial and commodity markets, President Obama will be able to sign a bill to make markets work for agriculture and all Americans, and not just for Wall Street and the transnational corporations that hide their deals in OTC trades,” said Suppan.

Posted May 21, 2010 by

IATP Crew Syttende Mai (May 17) is Constitution Day in Norway. In Milan, Minnesota, out on the western prairie, hundreds of Norway’s distant sons and daughters gather on Syttende Mai to celebrate their Scandinavian heritage, language, food, music and customs. IATP joined the celebration this year in a parade that wound its way through the village and down Main Street. Our contribution to the festivities included an angel, a devil and one sinner towing the IATP banner in support of community-based energy conservation and the Milan Sustainable Energy Utility project.

Before lining up for the parade we went to the Kviteseid Smorgaas Tea in the Little Norwegian Church basement. We were welcomed by Anne and Chuck Kanten, the presiding Milan Citizens of the Year. Our own little IATP devil, Emily Barker, identified the wonderful food served in the smorgasbord, including two kinds of lefse, flatbreads, krumkaaka, spritz, Norwegian meatballs, blod klub, Gjettost with cloudberry jam, rommegrot and coffee. And then even more coffee.

Chuck Kanten provided an update on the sugar beet crop, with almost all the beets in the ground. The next week or so, when the first cotyledons appear, the sugar crop is vulnerable. Chuck explained that if a frost occurs, the young leaves fly up into the air like helicopters and the field will need to be replanted.

We took a quick side trip to Watson, Minnesota, just down the road from Milan to visit a small, but very intensive community vegetable garden owned by Aziz Ansari. Mr. Ansari and his wife ran into trouble with the town council over the garden and recently settled a law suit  with the garden staying where it is and Aziz receiving $50,000 in compensation.

Mud Boots Crew marching band Back in Milan, the IATP Energy Conservation Angel and High-Priced Energy Devil joined Electric Bill and Phantom Load Phil and lined up in the parade behind the Mud Boots Band, a group of Community Supported Agriculture farmers and farmworkers who played an incredible collection of instruments, including the bass drum, saxophone, accordion, garbage can covers and a trumpet, to name a few. Behind the IATP contingent was a 1967 lime green Mustang convertible with three women playing a variety of popular tunes on their car horn. Erik Thompson, the town banker showered our path with candy insuring applause as we passed by.

Hundreds of people lined the street and were sitting in their front yards watching the fun as we handed out leaflets inviting them to attend a series of trainings on creating a community controlled revolving loan fund to pay for conservation and renewable energy projects using the best possible resources and technology available. The dates for the four workshops are Wednesdays from 6:30–8:30 p.m. on July 21, August 25, September 22 and October 13 at the school. IATP’s Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy has been leading the project and working with the Greater Milan Initiative to raise startup money and get the word out.

Not every Syttende Mai day has an Energy Conservation Angel, but in Milan you can always count on celebrating May 17 with a community that treasures its traditions and is committed  to keep their village strong and hopeful.

View all the photos from our visit to Milan for Syttende Mai here.

Posted May 20, 2010 by

What do over 90 percent of 50 cans from 19 states and one Canadian province have in common? BPA. It's not a riddle, but the disturbing results of a new study (No Silver Lining) released Tuesday by the Chemical Safety Workgroup. The Healthy Legacy Coalition (IATP is a steering committee member) is a contributor to the workgroup and has published a new blog post that details some key findings of the report.

Perhaps more important than the alarmingly high 90-percent incidence rate are the implications of where and at what levels BPA was discovered. The samples were made up of "real life" meal options—fruits, vegetables, soda, fish and others—and the levels of BPA were radically inconsistent between identical products: Two different cans of the same brand of peas (with different "lot numbers") contained very different levels of BPA, for instance. Both the broad swath of BPA's presence, and the lack of consistency, make avoiding exposure challenging to say the least.

Read Kim LaBo's blog entry over at the Healthy Legacy blog for more findings of the study and Healthy Legacy's next steps in the fight against toxics in consumer products.

Posted May 20, 2010 by

Food security

IATP's Sophia Murphy attended an invite-only meeting outside of Dublin earlier this week organized by the UN High-Level Task Force for the Global Food Security Crisis.

Home today from Dublin. I ducked in and out around the ash cloud—some 30 of the 150 or so expected participants at the Dublin meeting didn't make it when the airport shut down. A pity. It was a good meeting—serious, purposeful, good humored; a good mix of UN and NGOs, with a sprinkling of government officials. We were there to discuss the update to the Common Framework for Action in response to the Global Food Crisis (IATP's comments here). The discussions were all off-the-record, but here are a few thoughts on what happened. 

First, it is encouraging that the framework is being updated. The original wasn't bad—a bit patchy, some jarring assertions (to my eye) and a lot of good ideas. It was done in a rush, and that showed; though actually things done in a rush are not necessarily worse that things lingered over, especially when you involve some 20 or so UN agencies plus the World Bank (which is technically UN) and the WTO (which is explicitly, though controversially, outside the UN system). Anyway, well done to the High-Level Task Force team for pushing through with an update.

Second, the first go round involved no NGOs or civil society voices. This round has. Not that the document is consensus based, or even for NGO ownership. The Dublin meeting was a consultation, not the creation of any formal partnership. The document is intended for sign-off by the heads of all the agencies involved, and thereby to guide agency work related to food security. NGOs can walk away and bash at the CFA take II all they like, but it was a serious consultation, with time and enormous effort put into both acknowledging the written submissions (which came from some 51 NGOs and CSOs) and thinking how best to allow participation from the audience. 

Third, I used to work in NGO relations for the UN, with an office called the Non-Governmental Liaison Service. I have attended many of UN meetings, both on the UN side (helping UN agencies understand how NGOs work, and trying to get them to pay more attention to what NGOs could contribute) and on the NGO side, before and after my stint at the UN. I think things have come a long way since I was really involved in this kind of work in the 1990s. The whole culture has changed. While the UN is run by governments, NGOs represent a very different perspective that is invaluable. NGOs are on the ground, facing different constraints and opportunities. The interaction among the UN officials themselves seemed relaxed and constructive, with few turf lines drawn, and between the UN and NGOs, somehow natural and uncomplicated. It was a very welcome atmosphere. The meeting was co-chaired by Tom Arnold, CEO of the NGO Concern International, and David Nabarro, the UN Secretary General's appointment to head the task force. 

The draft still has to be finalized and is expected soon—possibly as early as mid-June. I think it will reflect this consultation and the ideas that were put forward—and will be the better for it. Moreover, I think the UN knows and appreciates that this is so. It was a good way to spend two days.

       Sign up for our free newsletter!