Action Alert


Fair trade or free trade? Let your voice be heard on Minnesota’s future!


The Obama Administration is negotiating two new mega trade deals (one with Pacific Rim countries, another with Europe) entirely in secret, with the goal of further expanding the NAFTA-model of free trade. These trade agreements could have major impacts on Minnesota's farmers, workers, small business owners and rural communities. They could limit Minnesota’s ability to support local food and energy systems and grow local businesses. In order to stay up to speed, Minnesota has set up a new Trade Policy Advisory Council (TPAC) to advise the state legislature and Governor.


TPAC wants to hear from Minnesotans: What concerns do you have about free trade? What role could TPAC play in the future? Now is your opportunity to have a say in our future trade policy. Complete the survey and let them know future trade negotiations should be public, not secret. Help ensure the voices of all Minnesotans are heard in the development of trade agreements and that they protect local control and our quality of life. The free trade model has failed for Minnesota and we need a new approach to trade. Help ensure the voices of all Minnesotans are heard before trade agreements are completed, and that they protect local control, our natural resources and our quality of life.


Please take five minutes and complete the survey. To find out more about these trade agreements, go to iatp.org/tradesecrets.

Posted May 31, 2011 by Ben Lilliston   

Produce2 Farmers, ranchers and other food producers are interested in 
providing more of their fresh, locally grown food to Minnesota K-12 schools, according to a new survey released today by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

The survey, completed by 67 small- and medium-scale producers and multi-farm collaboratives, showed strong interest in selling more locally grown foods to Minnesota K-12 schools and broad support for educating students about local food and farming issues. Ninety-five percent of respondents indicated that they are either “very” (60 percent) or “somewhat” (35 percent) interested in selling to K-12 schools. When asked about the reasons for their interest, respondents’ top three reasons were to “educate children about the food system,” to “increase access to healthy, locally grown food” and to “[generate] new revenue for my farm.”

“Farmers’ enthusiasm, not only for supplying locally grown food to schools, but for helping our young people understand where and how their food is grown, is very encouraging,” said IATP’s JoAnne Berkenkamp. “The number of Minnesota school districts engaged in Farm to School has risen from just ten in 2006 to 123 districts in 2010. This represents a terrific new opportunity for farmers and schools to partner more closely in making fresh, local foods available to K-12 students around the state.”

“The benefits of building connections between Minnesota farms and schools are clear,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Frederickson. “Our students, our farmers and our local economy all win when local farm products reach school cafeterias.”

Among the respondents who have sold to K-12 schools in the past, 50 percent described their experiences as “very successful,” with 37 percent calling the experience “somewhat successful.” Key challenges include meeting schools’ particular product specifications and volume needs, and building closer relationships and purchasing mechanisms between farmers and school food buyers.

As one farmer put it, “Tremendous opportunity exists, and it's exciting to see it beginning to come together! As some of the hurdles are addressed, the growth could be terrific.”

The survey is part of IATP’s ongoing Farm to School initiative and compliments a similar survey of Minnesota K-12 foodservice directors released in March 2011. The full survey results and more information about IATP’s Farm to School initiative are available at www.iatp.org and www.farm2schoolmn.org.

Download this press release as a PDF or see the full survey results.

 

Posted May 26, 2011 by    

Food and HealthBioeconomyHealth

Image used under Creative Commons license from Fickr user Argonne National Laboratory Here's an issue you don't hear very much about: antibiotic use in ethanol production.

You heard me right. Some ethanol producers use antibiotics to keep bacteria under control in their fermentation tanks (yields can go down if bacteria get out of control). Unfortunately, the residues from these antibiotics are turning up in what are called distiller's grains, a byproduct of ethanol production that's fed to livestock—yet another source of unnecessary antibiotics in our food system.

We've been tracking this issue for a while. We've found that there are very good alternatives to antibiotics on the market, and many ethanol producers are not using antibiotics at all. Unfortunately, this fact hasn't stopped the ethanol supply industry from continuing to push antibiotics.

Antibiotic use in ethanol production occupies a regulatory gray area. The drugs aren't added directly to the feed, so the Food and Drug Administration hasn't yet begun regulating their use—but they might. To fend off any potential objections to human-grade antibiotics winding up in livestock feed, the ethanol supply industry is trying to get the antibiotics they market approved as food additives.

This is a dangerous business. Time and again, research has shown that that antibiotic overuse in agriculture contributes to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and has caused severe threats to human health. The fact that effective, affordable alternatives to antibiotics are readily available to ethanol producers means there is absolutely no reason for continued antibiotics use in ethanol.

On Wednesday, IATP submitted comments to the FDA in response to a petition by Ferm Solutions, Inc. (a company that sells antibiotics to ethanol plants) to make erythromycin an approved food additive. You can read our comments, written jointly with our partners in the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition. For more information on the issue of antibiotic use in ethanol production, please read our report, "Fueling Resistance."

Image above used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user argonne.

Posted May 24, 2011 by    

Food and HealthHealthy Food ActionAgricultureFarm Bill

Deputy Sec. of Ag. Kathleen A. Merrigan at HFHP The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy joined with Public Health Insititute, Public Health Law & Policy, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, California Food & Justice Coalition, and American Farmland Trust to convene the CDC-funded Healthy Farms, Healthy People Summit last week in Washington, D.C. The blog post below from our partners at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition provides an overview of the topics and discussions that took place over the course of two-day summit.

Healthy Farms, Healthy People Summit
May 19th, 2011

A diverse group of over 100 farm, food and health stakeholders came together in Washington, D.C., Tuesday and Wednesday for Healthy Farms, Healthy People: A Farm & Food Policy Summit for a Strong America. The summit was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and convened by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Public Health Institute, California Food & Justice Coalition, Public Health Law & Policy, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and American Farmland Trust.

A.G. Kawamura, former California Secretary of Agriculture and co-chair of Solutions From the Land, opened the summit with a discussion about the current state of agriculture and public health, both domestically and abroad.  He said that he would add to USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative a “Know Your Century” element, reminding attendees that we are no longer in the twentieth century – we must unite both the best practices in agriculture and public health to develop solutions that match today’s challenges.

Dr. William Dietz, Director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity in the Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at CDC, then offered a slew of facts about challenges and opportunities for agriculture and public health:

  • one-third of Americans have high blood pressure;
  • two-thirds of water and half of pesticides used in the U.S. are for agriculture;
  • 70 percent of water pollution stems from agriculture;
  • 44 percent of fruits and 16 percent of vegetables consumed in the U.S. are imported;
  • 4 percent of Americans live in a “food desert" yet 40 percent lack access to fresh food because they are more than one mile from a supermarket;
  • grass-fed beef contains less saturated fat and more omega-3 fatty acids than its conventional counterpart;
  • sugar-sweetened beverages now account for 250 calories in the average child’s daily caloric intake; and
  • feeding programs now touch 1 in 4 Americans.

Dietz encouraged participant consideration of how these facts in agriculture and public health are intricately linked.

When asked about the Administration’s priorities in the next farm bill, keynote speaker USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan (pictured above) mentioned the need for an expanded farm safety net, a strengthened rural development focus, and a beginning farmer intiaitve aimed at securing 100,000 new farmers and ranchers. She also suggested that the gains for specialty crops from the 2008 Farm Bill “are not going anywhere” with leadership efforts by Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Dr. Kimberlydawn Wisdom, former Surgeon General for Michigan, kicked off the second day of the summit. She noted the need for more physicians to be a part of the conversation on food and farm policy. Dr. Wisdom mentioned farm to school and farm to institution programs as examples of ways to improve health outcomes.

Dr. Mike Hamm, C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State, gave the second day’s keynote. He offered three tasks for the next farm bill: (1) preserve the gains of the last two farm bills (e.g., Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) rule and conservation programs); (2) fund important programs for food access (e.g., Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative; and (3) build for the future.

Dr. Hamm then spelled out the reasons for needing local and regional food systems instead of the current reliance on a few states for a majority of our nation’s food supply. He noted that populations and energy costs are rising and thus there will be less land, water, and energy with which to produce more food for more people and added that with projected temperature increases in California, the state will no longer be able to supply for the U.S. the 50 percent of fruits and vegetables that it currently does.

Furthermore, Dr. Hamm noted, these considerations are all in the context of a nation that currently eats only half of the daily recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables; if consumption increases, so too will the need to produce more. As he put it, we will need two to three more Californias and thus there are plentiful opportunities in agriculture and economic development. Dr. Hamm proposes “locally-integrated food systems,” defined as “a dynamic blend of local direct, local indirect, regional, national, and global” food systems, with the first step being to buying local when possible.

Dr. Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, concluded the summit by highlighting the similarities between the agriculture and health worlds: both have traditionally focused on fixing problems rather than on preventing them. From soil loss and pests in agriculture to obesity and diabetes in health, the model has been on correcting what has already happened. He envisions a shift in which both fields can align around forward-thinking prevention.

With a wide range of stakeholders in attendance, there were many and varied conversations.  Some of the themes that emerged included:

  • Despite historical tensions between agriculture, nutrition, and anti-hunger groups, there are real opportunities to partner with one another for the upcoming farm bill cycle. Public health is a key part of this dialogue.
  • A significant point of general agreement is the need increase access to and consumption of fruits and vegetables.
  • Nonetheless, public health goes beyond obesity and food access—it includes environmental health, farmworker health and safety, and production methods, among others.
  • Social justice must be an important part of the conversation—socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, farmworkers, food service employees, and other low-income Americans are part of our food system and have an important voice.
  • Farm credit and access to capital, land, and training are important needs for beginning farmers and ranchers.
  • Great strides were made in the last two farm bills and a campaign is needed to maintain and build upon the progressive accomplishments; otherwise the “last hired” will be the “first fired.”

The conveners of the summit will be surveying participants on next steps including the possibility of forming a farm bill public health coalition of some kind. They will host a series of discussion webinars over the summer to explore the feasibility of and interest in various policy options and will organize a meeting for advocates.

-- by Helen Dombalis, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

Posted May 20, 2011 by Jim Harkness   

A new spate of food safety scares has hit China this spring, from tales of exploding watermelons (caused by application of a dodgy growth accelerator) to cadmium in rice to pork tainted by a dangerous feed additive

This sudden rush of bad news is not happening because food has become less safe (it has been unsafe for a while now!) but because of a change in government policy toward press reporting on this sensitive issue, according to the Associated Press

Zhang Yong, the director of the executive office of the new Cabinet-level Food Safety Commission, recently praised the media's "important watchdog role" after being asked why journalists have frequently able to find food safety problems before inspectors. 

Used under Creative Commons license from flickr user Bert van Dijk. Until recently, reporting on tainted or fake food was a risky move for the media, so Director Zhang is playing a new tune here, but if the government’s hope is that bad press alone will shame food companies into more responsible behavior, as is being reported, it’s a terrible miscalculation and an unfortunate abdication of regulatory responsibility. 

It's unlikely that media scrutiny and public opinion will compensate for the deficiencies of state regulatory power in China, where libel laws are notoriously pro-plaintiff, and companies frequently bring suit and win on the grounds that their profits have suffered due to statements made in the press or on the internet. They don’t even need to file suit themselves. Instead, they can go to sympathetic local officials, who often use criminal libel laws to silence anyone critical of either government behavior or of companies deemed vital for local employment or tax revenue.

It is certainly true that a century ago, muckraking played an important role in improving food safety in the U.S., but public shaming alone seldom changes corporate behavior. In most countries, press exposés of corporate abuses have brought reforms by fuelling public outrage, which was converted into political action by social movements that pressured government to reign in corporations. (Can you spot the missing link in that causal chain in China?) 

What’s needed is not a change of heart by embarrassed “bad actors,” but a transformation of the food system, which is currently built around making money above all else. Food is treated as just one more manufactured good, and in the search for market share and profits, companies will do virtually anything to lower costs and move product; a weak press and a weaker civil society can't fix that. If China’s leaders decide that they want a food system based instead on ensuring a supply of safe, healthy food for the Chinese people, the quest for profit will need to take a back seat to the rights of more empowered consumers, press and regulators, and a well-regulated market will work better for all but the most unscrupulous players, since consumers with a higher level of trust in the system will be less skeptical of all products. 

If regulation of the food system in China operates like policing other parts of the economy and society, we can expect that the current spate of food safety horror stories will lead to a “strike hard” campaign. There will be video footage of courageous police and perp walks, and then, within a few months, the status quo ante will return.

Posted May 18, 2011 by    

Food and HealthHealthy Food ActionAgricultureFarm Bill

Transforming U.S. agriculture to make it healthier and more sustainable is suddenly a hot topic. Last week, Science published an essay in its policy forum, Transforming U.S. Agriculture, concluding that we already have the technology to grow healthier food more sustainably. Standing in the way is the domination of agricultural markets by monopolies and oligopolies, the lack of means for getting up-to-date information to farmers, and, maybe most importantly, the lack of appropriate policies that incent farmers to adopt healthier, more sustainable practices.

This week’s Healthy Farms, Healthy People Summit in Washington, D.C., zeroes in on those policies. The CDC-funded meeting aims to find the common policy ground for helping Americans get access to healthier food while enabling farmers to make a living producing that food. The meeting agenda is viewable at HealthyFoodAction.org.

Finally, on Thursday, May 19, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) is convening a day-long conference entitled "Farm and Food Policy: The Relationship to Obesity" as part of a series of IOM reports on accelerating progress in preventing obesity, which is already epidemic and costing the nation hundreds of billions of dollars yearly.

by David Wallinga, M.D.

Posted May 17, 2011 by Andrew Ranallo   

Chianapig Minneapolis – China’s decision to shift toward industrial pig operations, and away from smaller-scale production, has important implications for the future of China’s farmers, the environment and global agricultural markets, finds a new report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

 The report, Feeding China’s Pigs: Implications for the Environment, China’s Smallholder Farmers and Food Security, by Mindi Schneider, traces the history of China’s pig industry as it has evolved over the last several decades from backyard production to highly industrial operations. The paper examines the global implications of China’s decision to rely on imported soybeans to feed the country’s pig industry.

 “China’s pig industry has become more and more dependent on multinational agribusiness investment and imports for feed,” said IATP President and China expert Jim Harkness. “This development has changed the dynamic of agriculture in China and pushed smaller-scale pig producers out of business. It has also played a role in increasing demand for agricultural land internationally.”

 China is the biggest pork producer in the world—almost all of its 50 million metric tons of production in 2010 (half of all the pork in the world) was consumed domestically. While domestic companies dominate the Chinese pork industry, transnational agribusiness firms like Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge and Cargill dominate the country’s soybean crushing industry. The growth of the country’s pork industry is a direct result of polices that have liberalized trade for some products, like soybeans, and retained protections and other policy tools like a pork reserve, in others.

 The policies are a response to growing demand for meat in China, but they will not close the dietary and income inequalities that persist, and serious environmental and public health costs are escalating, according to the report. The increased liberalization of agriculture is taking a toll in rural China, where smallholder farmers struggle to access markets and make a living. Industrial livestock production generates more than 4 billion tons of manure annually, which has grown into one of the largest sources of pollution in China’s waterways. Globally, as more land is converted to soybeans to feed China’s pigs, there is an increase in pesticide and fertilizer use, as well as a loss of biodiversity. The heavy use of feed additives, such as hormones and antibiotics, in China’s livestock production has been linked to a variety of health concerns.

 “The crises of industrial agriculture are emerging in China as it is elsewhere in the world,” said Schneider. “This signals an opportunity for policymakers to consider supporting more sustainable ways forward.”

 The paper recommends that China reassess the impacts of its strong adoption of industrial pork production and pig feeding on China’s population and environment. Redirecting research and subsidies from industrial systems to locally embedded systems, while maintaining food reserves, are steps in the right direction that could help meet national food security, development and environmental needs.

Read the full report.

Posted May 17, 2011 by Sophia Murphy   

MarketsFoodFood security

Last week, a background paper for the G-20 Summit of Agricultural Ministers on price volatility from eight international organizations appeared [1]. The paper, dated May 2, was presented last week to the sherpas who are preparing for the summit, to be held in Paris on June 23.  

The analysis treats the failures of international markets seriously. It provides a clear and useful explanation for why price volatility, so useful at low levels in the movement of goods, becomes a serious problem when price swings are too large. Yet the paper is fundamentally dissatisfying.

The start and end points of the recommendations (more so than the analysis) is how to ensure open market liberalization works. And even at that, ends up compromised by the politics of free trade, in which poorer countries can be held to a much higher standard than the richer countries that fund the international agencies providing the advice. So on the one hand, developing countries should further increase their dependence on international markets, while relying on finance (including loans) from the international system—finance that has a poor track record to date, both for timeliness and adequacy. On the other hand, the G-20 countries themselves can continue to disrupt those same international markets, asked only to moderate their public subsidies and mandates for biofuels.

The authors of the report do not question whether the emergence of high levels of volatility in international markets, at a time when international markets are more important to more countries’ food security than ever before, warrants a more fundamental rethink from the governments that are so central to agricultural trade (most of the them G-20 members). Given the mix of agencies involved in drafting the paper, and the critiques some of those organizations have provided of globalization, especially since the food price and financial crises in 2008, this is a pity.

New elements—fundamentally important elements—have been introduced into this final version of the paper, which is the third version to have circulated. For instance, the paper now discusses how to tackle very high levels of food waste, which plagues rich and poor countries alike, though for quite different reasons. Some of the more questionable claims (such as the need to increase food production by 100 percent by 2050) have been toned down, though they remain problematic (the final version suggests a 70-percent increase is needed).

Yet the recommendations are anything but bold. Volatility in international agricultural commodity markets is a problem that is both hurting G-20 interests and that G-20 member states could largely remedy. Instead of promising money to other countries, and thinking of new ways to manage risk, the G-20 need to look to their own policies to consider how to mitigate the causes of uncertainty that are feeding current levels of volatility.

The G-20 includes most of the major exporters of food. Most of the members continue to push for market access for their products—even those, such as China and India, that carefully control their domestic agricultural markets. The G-20 (and the companies they host) have a lot at stake in ensuring international markets function in ways that meet importers’ interests. G-20 members, such as Argentina and India, exacerbated the 2008 food crisis by taxing or banning certain food exports. Others, such as the United States, Canada and European Union persisted in biofuel subsidies that created pressure on demand, and raised prices, at a time when a number of countries were facing food riots. The implications of what the food exporting countries did were not lost on poor net food importing countries (known by the acronym NFIDCs), which are now looking with significantly renewed interest at the possibility of increased food self-sufficiency.

With hindsight, the failure of net food exporters to accept the legitimacy of NFIDC demands for safeguards to protect their access to food, while at the same time insisting on their right to distort international markets with domestic preoccupations was probably the last straw for the Doha negotiations. There is no sign, unfortunately, that the international organizations who authored the report have been given (nor yet taken) the leeway to comment on this crisis in the consensus that has shaped international trade policy since the early 1990s.

Members of the G-20 house the world’s largest agribusinesses, the commodity exchanges that set commodity futures prices, produce most of the grain-fed livestock and provide the subsidies and mandates that prop up the industrial biofuel industry. While the NFIDCs turn to diversifying their food security strategies to encompass more than increasingly unreliable international markets, the G-20 has it within its power to lessen the likelihood and the degree of volatility itself. They have a significant interest in using that power. Unfortunately, there is far too little in the IO contribution to the G-20 Agricultural Ministers’ Summit to help them achieve this realization.

[1] FAO, IFAD, UN HLTF, UNCTAD, and WFP, together with the World Bank, IMF, WTO and the OECD.

Posted May 11, 2011 by Katie Rojas-Jahn   

Food and HealthHealthy Food ActionAgricultureHealthToxics

The Minnesota-based public health coalition Healthy Legacy, cofounded by IATP in 2006, has some good news for parents today.

ToddlerWithBottle250 In a new market survey, Message in a Bottle: A Market Survey on Bisphenol A (BPA) in Baby Bottles and Sippy Cups (PDF), Healthy Legacy found that state legislation was a key driver in actions of key states, parents in states with BPA bans can be pretty sure that baby bottles, sippy cups and breast-milk storage products on the market are free of bisphenol A (always look for a BPA-free label, though). Unfortunately, states without BPA laws, like Oregon, still have BPA-containing children’s products lurking on some store shelves.

The market survey checked the inventory of baby bottles and sippy cups in 89 stores from 35 communities in five different states. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Chicago and New York all have laws on the books that ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups. The survey findings confirm that in these locations, nearly all bottles and sippy cups are BPA-free and labeled as such. However, in Oregon where legislation to ban BPA is still pending, parents need to be alert for BPA containing products still on store shelves. Based on our samples, parents should be particularly alert on shelves of dollar stores, value stores and drug stores.

Both state and federal action are needed to ensure that parents in every state, no matter where they live or where they shop, need not worry about BPA in baby products such as bottles and sippy cups. While the U.S. lags behind the European Union, China and Canada in federal action to restrict BPA, states are still moving to phase out BPA in baby products and food can linings. Beyond baby products, families should have information that makes it easy to make BPA-free purchasing choices when it comes to canned food and other consumer products.

We also need to fix the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the broken and out of date law that is failing to protect public health from exposure to toxic chemicals. Current legislation introduced by New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg seeks to fix many of the problems with TSCA through the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011. In Minnesota, Senators Franken and Klobuchar are both co-sponsors of the bill. Take a moment to thank them for their support.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is a cofounding member of Healthy Legacy, a diverse public health coalition with 34 member organizations, representing over one million Minnesotans. Healthy Legacy promotes healthy lives by supporting the production and use of everyday products without toxic chemicals by advocating for consumer education, business leadership and protective policies to advance safe alternatives in Minnesota.

By Katie Rojas-Jahn, Healthy Legacy Coalition Coordinator

Posted May 6, 2011 by    

Ethanol’s main subsidy—the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC)—is on the chopping block. Given the current fiscal climate, even ethanol proponents have resigned themselves to the fact that VEETC—an annual $6 billion tax credit, set to expire at the end of this year—is probably on its last legs.

This week, those that would kill the 45-cent blenders’ credit subsidy quickly, and those that would prefer a long farewell, drew their lines in the sand. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced a bill Tuesday that would fully end VEETC and the import tariff on foreign ethanol by July 1, 2011.

A day later, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Kent Conrad (R-N.D.) released a bill that would gradually make the tax credit counter-cyclical over the next five years. Under their bill, VEETC would drop to 20 cents next year and 15 cents in 2013. After that, the credit would be pegged to oil prices, ranging from 30 cents a gallon when oil is at $50 per barrel or less, to zero when oil reaches about $90 per barrel. It would also keep the import tariff, but lower it to 20 and then 15 cents in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Co-sponsors of the Grassley-Conrad bill include Minnesota DFL Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.

Essentially, this week’s legislative action is the culmination of efforts on two sides of a heated debate around VEETC (and corn ethanol generally, but I’ll stick to VEETC in this blog). Team A: a strange-bedfellows coalition of environmental and hunger organizations (including Friends of the Earth, Environmental Working Group, NRDC, Oxfam and others) and livestock and processed food producers (groups like the American Meat Institute and Grocery Manufacturers of America). Team B: the ethanol industry (Renewable Fuels Association, Growth Energy, etc.) and the National Corn Growers Association. Bet you can guess which team likes which bill.

Regardless of how it happens, there’s no denying it’s well past time to make a shift in our biofuels policy. The question is, will federal policy drive better, or just more, biofuels? (Even if VEETC dies, we still have a federal manadate for biofuel production). The sooner we can get to an approach that rewards performance (see our colleague Loni Kemp’s “Greener Biofuels Tax Credit” for an idea of one such approach), rather than gallons, the closer we will be to better biofuel policy.

Posted May 3, 2011 by Jim Harkness   

Nick Kristof opined a few days ago in the New York Times that while there’s every reason to be critical of China’s human rights record, we should also recognize the country’s achievements, especially in the field of health. The average life expectancy of children born in Shanghai, he points out, is now higher than the average life expectancy for American children. I admire Kristof’s work, both his writing from China a couple of decades ago and he and his wife’s wonderful work on behalf of women’s rights. And I think that in general, we need more analysis that reveals the complexities of China to U.S. readers, who are fed too many sensational and even xenophobic Yellow Peril stories in the mainstream press. But while the stats in his story seem to contrast the two countries, a closer look shows that his snapshot of the present ignores trends toward China and the U.S. becoming more and more alike, and not in a good way.

The apparent difference between Chinese and U.S. children’s health is, in part, an artifact of the two statistics he chooses to compare. Instead of the average Chinese child and average American child, it is the average Shanghainese child versus the average American child. In the U.S., average life expectancy is affected by the tens of millions of poor, uninsured people whose lives have gotten worse since 1980. And in China, a range of policies during this same period have sucked wealth out of rural areas and into cities, widening the wealth gap so that today, even relatively poor urbanites are still far better off than their country cousins. (And as one of China’s wealthiest cities, Shanghai is an increasingly unrepresentative subpopulation.) So yes, China has made admirable strides in children’s health programs, but because—like the U.S.—societal inequality is increasing, not everyone the same chance to benefit.

The other concern I felt while reading Kristof’s piece had to do with an article I had read a few days prior. It was an announcement from McDonald’s Corporation that they would be opening 700 new stores in China over the next two years. In all but the poorest countries, neither starvation nor communicable disease are the real threats to a long and happy life. Instead, people’s lives are shortened (and made more miserable) by non-communicable diseases brought on by the overconsumption of alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy foods. In the U.S., rates of obesity and associated illnesses shot up back in the 1980s, (and along with increasing inequality, have pushed down our life expectancy). But until just a decade ago, China’s diet was hailed as one of the healthiest in the world. Recently, though, China has seen a rapid increase in the consumption of meat, sweets and edible oils—much of it in the form of processed and fast foods—bringing on an obesity epidemic and skyrocketing rates of diabetes. (Alcohol and tobacco abuse are also on the rise.) The McDonald’s expansion in China, part of a fierce war for market share with other international fast food chains, shows that this trend is not slowing. So while there may be many things we can learn from China about children's health, it also appears that China may be following a dietary (and social) trajectory dangerously similar to ours.




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