Posted October 27, 2011 by Ben Lilliston   

Food JusticeEnvironmentFarm BillFood securityNatural resourcesSustainable Agriculture

Used under creative commons license from Wyoming_Jackrabbit.

The Farm Bill has a direct effect on the more than 900 million acres in farmland in the United States, the country's 2 million farmers and the 43 million Americans on food assistance. 

If you want to see what political dysfunction looks like, take a look at how Congress is bungling the nation’s most important food and farm policy—the Farm Bill. The sprawling Farm Bill sets policy for the next five years and is directly relevant to our 2 million farmers, the 43 million people on food assistance and the more than 900 million acres in farmland. It’s also tied less directly to things like rising rates of diet-related disease, rural depopulation and economic struggles, and the water quality and quantity of our nation’s rivers and streams. In other words, it’s a big deal.
 
The writing of the Farm Bill begs for a deliberative, open discussion of ideas and perspectives on how to best meet the nation’s goals. Instead, there is a strong chance the chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees will submit detailed Farm Bill proposals to the so-called Super Committee by the end of October. The 12-member Super Committee will consider these recommendations in secret. Then, the Super Committee’s proposal on the Farm Bill will be presented after November 23 and put to a simple up or down vote in December.
 
No hearings, no amendments, no debate. Under this scenario, we may have very little idea about what is in the Farm Bill until after it has passed.
 
It’s hard to overstate how messed up this is. We now have an environment where highly paid lobbyists thrive and citizen’s voices, along with real reforms, evaporate. One important proposal lost in this toxic political environment is for a new system of farmer-owned reserves put forth by the National Farmers Union earlier this year. Such a system would have saved the government nearly $100 billion dollars from 1998–2008, and helped to stabilize agriculture prices. Another innovative new proposal from Representative Shelly Pingree to help expand local food systems could also fall victim to this backroom process. And there are a whole host of other important initiatives for things like beginning and disadvantaged farmers and organic research that could get lost in the shuffle.
 
You would think the Agriculture Committee chairs would be up in arms as the Super Committee steals their traditional role of writing the Farm Bill. Well, actually not so much. As Chris Clayton reports, “The Super Committee process will effectively nullify farm-bill opponents in both the House and Senate from affecting the bill, or supplanting it altogether, in a floor debate.” So, Congressional agriculture chairs see the Super Committee process as an opportunity to lock in money for their favorite programs, while preventing amendments from other members of Congress.
 
This backroom Farm Bill reminds us of the failures of the World Trade Organization—which repeatedly used a similar process (known as the Green Room) to try to negotiate deals among a handful of its most powerful member countries, while ignoring proposals from less powerful countries. Like the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the mass protests at the Seattle WTO Ministerial in 1999 focused on corporate control of what was viewed as an undemocratic decision-making body. Congress might want to review the WTO’s cautionary tale: an intractable stalemate of more than a decade, followed by a major loss of confidence in the institution itself.

How far Congress will go down this take-it-or-leave-it Farm Bill path is unclear. A new poll finds that 84 percent of Americans now disapprove of Congress. It’s hard to see how force-feeding a new Farm Bill will help those numbers.

Posted October 25, 2011 by Shiney Varghese   

ClimateClimate ChangeDevelopmentEnvironmentSustainable Agriculture

IATP board members prepare for the first Earth Summit in 1992. 20 years later, Rio+20 is still addressing many of the same issues—hopefully with a more meaningful outcome this time around.

Earlier this month, not far from the site of Occupy Wall Street at Liberty Plaza in New York, a small group of people gathered; they too were engaged in a conversation about systemic change in the face of some of the challenges faced by the world today, specifically global food and water insecurity, financial crisis and climate change. IATP was invited to be a part of the “Global Transition 2012, New York Dialogue,” an effort to provide input to Rio+20 (read "Rio plus 20), an international conference scheduled to take place in Brazil next summer. Co-organized by Stakeholder Forum, New Economic Institute and New Economic Foundation, the ‘Global Transition 2012’ Initiative will use the results of this dialogue as input for its policy proposals and advocacy in the lead up to Rio+20, so that these recommendations are included in the negotiating text and final outcome document.

The Rio conference will mark the twentieth anniversary of the first Earth Summit, where heads of states came together to address what was seen as the priority issue at the time: environmental limits to development. They sought to develop a global framework to chart a path for “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (IATP participated in the first Earth Summit with a focus on environment and trade.) Sustainable Development became the buzzword in development efforts in the following decade, with the three pillars: economic, social and environmental development.

By its 10th anniversary, however, it was abundantly clear that we were not on a path to sustainability, and growth was achieved at tremendous costs to environment, equity and justice. According to the U.N.’s annual human development reports, inequality has increased since the 1990s, when the U.N. began monitoring it. By 2010, it is reported, that "the richest 1 percent control 43 percent of the world’s assets; the wealthiest 10 percent have 83 percent. The bottom 50 percent has only 2 percent."

The environment has fared no better: "Global emissions of carbon dioxide CO2—the main cause of global warming—increased by 45 percent between 1990 and 2010, and reached an all-time high of 33 billion tonnes in 2010." This is further affecting food security for billions, and thus raising concerns over equity. The water crisis, too, is no longer a looming threat in the horizon; it is here, affecting billions of people to various extents.

As the date for making submissions to feed into the zero draft of the outcome document comes closer (November 1, 2011) civil society organizations have been ramping up their efforts toward Rio+20.

The dialogue in New York was one such attempt to look at these interrelated issues afresh. Six challenges that the organizers of the dialogue identified as necessary global leaders to address in order to create systemic change are:

  1. Develop a national transition plan that puts countries on paths to operate within planetary boundaries, and on timescales sufficiently quick to preserve key, ecological life support functions.
  2. Don’t start from a growth perspective.
  3. Agree to develop and implement new measures of economic success.
  4. Commit to reduce income and wealth inequalities between and within nations.
  5. Put fiscal policy and public expenditure center stage in managing economic transition.
  6. Recapture the financial sector for the public good.

I participated in the discussions around food security, biodiversity and natural capital, all key issues for IATP.

It is often presumed that feeding the growing population calls for the expansion of chemical intensive agriculture, despite its negative impact on environmental and ecological integrity. Some of us working on these issues shared our position that intensification of agricultural production is possible without harming the environment, provided we revamp current policies that are tilted in favor of industrial agriculture. Of course this would require reorganizing agricultural policy to make changes, such as policy support to increase viability of small farms, agro-ecological initiatives and decentralized food systems around the world.

This would also require that the currently prevalent agronomic practices are modified through selective adoption of both traditional knowledge and modern agricultural knowledge. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) as practiced by members of the Tamil Nadu Women’s collective is a very good example of such production intensification that simultaneously improves agricultural output and economic returns from agriculture while helping to conserve water and enhance biodiversity. Another similar example from East Asia is that of Cambodian farmers who have adopted SRI over the last decade.

Many participants in the dialogue see the answer to these challenges, and systemic change, coming through the development of a green economy and green growth. According to Green Economy Coalition (network of 25 organizations, which includes WWF, IUCN, IIED and WBSD among others) a green economy (to list a few) is:

  • one that invests, protects and restores our ecosystems and biodiversity in order to secure their services for people today and for future generations
  • one that allocates environmental benefits and costs fairly to achieve a more just and equitable society
  • one that is driven by green economic services and industries that provide decent work and green jobs
  • one that will drive investment and financial flows toward restoring our environment and generating a better quality of life for all

Many of these goals were articulated almost 25 years ago by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. This time around, hopefully these will not remain words alone, but will be reflected in deeds as well.

But as we know, the devil is in the detail. Civil society will have to play an active role to ensure that not only the ends, but also the means we adopt, and the paths we take in order to contribute to equitable economic development, are socially just, and are such that they uphold precautionary principles toward the protection of biodiversity and environmental sustainability.

Rio+20 has the potential to define coherent agricultural policies around healthy food systems and resilient rural livelihoods. The time is right to work toward a meaningful outcome this time around.

Posted October 21, 2011 by Jim Harkness   

Anti-GMO activists in Haidian Park, Beijing. Photo from Utopia.

 

Recently, I wrote about China’s announcement to ban commercialization of some GMO crops for “five to ten years.” This week I went to China to speak at a conference on agricultural policy, and although GMOs were not on the conference agenda, I was able to learn a bit more about the current state of GMO politics in China. Among others, I had a chance to speak with two organizers for Greenpeace China who work on this issue.

Greenpeace has actively campaigned against GE rice research and commercialization in China for years. On several occasions in the past five years, they tested rice and processed foods available on the market in Mainland China and Hong Kong (and even some Chinese-made food products in Europe) and discovered that a not-yet-approved strain of GE rice was entering the food supply. They also found that some breeds of GE rice being developed in China contained genetic material already patented by foreign firms, undermining the argument that by developing their own varieties, China was avoiding dependence on foreign-owned seeds.

For their efforts, Greenpeace have been subjected to a media blackout on more than one occasion (The Information Ministry simply tells all news outlets not to report on their work.)—a sign that they’re doing something right. But they have almost certainly had an impact, if not by directly influencing policy, then by providing ammunition to a passionate homegrown movement of Chinese opposition to GMOs.

China’s anti-GMO activists are an interesting bunch. There are some prominent intellectual voices, such as IATP ally Jiang Gaoming at the Academy of Sciences. Here is one of his English-language pieces on the issue, but he has been sharper in his criticism (and attracted more attention) with his Chinese blog. (For you Chinese readers, see his critique of the answer to Question #31 in 100 Questions About Agricultural GMOs, published by the Ministry of Agriculture Press. The question is, “If insects don’t eat insect resistant GE rice, can people eat it?” and the answer is, “Sure!”)

But vocal opposition is much more widespread than just a few scientists, and tends to be associated with nationalist, often neo-Leftist politics. Utopia, the biggest website for Chinese “netizens” of this political bent, has a special section devoted to attacking GMOs and publicizing anti-GMO protests. These protests are generally not large, but they are very frequent and widespread. There was an “educational activity” about GMOs at a public park in Beijing just before I arrived.  During an international conference on sustainable agriculture that IATP co-organized with People’s University in Beijing in 2010, one session was temporarily interrupted by activists who chanted anti-GMO slogans and unfurled a banner. (This seemed like an odd choice, since GMOs were universally criticized by conference speakers as a false solution to global food security!) Along with concerns one might see anywhere in the world—loss of farmer control of seeds, food safety concerns, lack of genuine yield increases, association with increased pesticide use, etc. etc.—Chinese opponents are especially strident in their criticism of genetic engineering as a “foreign” technology, and genetic engineering of rice especially as an existential threat to Chinese civilization.

China’s anti-GMO activists are not always accurate in their claims (some Chinese friends were rather dismissive of their more conspiratorial charges) but this opposition is big and loud and does not seem to be harassed as much as some of the other dissident movements. I think it’s protected in part by its mantle of cultural nationalism, and in part by the fact that in China food security (and especially rice) is an issue on which there is little room for error, so skepticism about new and unproven technologies is not just tolerated but perhaps shared at high levels.

And why shouldn’t they be skeptical? There is growing evidence that the social, environmental and even agronomic costs of GMOs outweigh thir benefits, most recently articulated in the Global Citizens Report on the State of GMOs. And in the case of rice, China are the world’s champions at raising yields through conventional plant breeding. Just this fall, Professor Yuan Longping, the Father of Hybrid Rice in China, introduced a new, non-GE variety that broke the world yield record,  producing 13.9 tons per hectare! (A friend tells me it also tastes great.) If China’s own scientists can do that without genetic engineering, then why relax the Precautionary Principle for GMOs?

Looking at the bigger picture, I wonder what other shake-ups may be in the offing for China’s agricultural policy and bureaucracy in the next year. Despite the “Three Rural Issues” policies of the current Chinese leadership, which have been decidedly more farmer-friendly than those of Jiang Zemin, China’s farm and food system continues to be plagued by widespread rural unrest over land grabbing, rampant food safety scandals and environmental collapse in rural areas. We can hope that the good news on GMOs (qualified though it may be) is just the beginning.

Posted October 20, 2011 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

 In the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), plants are carefully planted well-spaced from their neighbors, and minimal water is used.

Rising food prices, climate change and food riots have put agriculture high on the international agenda. Spending on agricultural development has increased, but what kind of agriculture is best suited to respond to those challenges? Too much of the current food security debate focuses narrowly on increasing the volume of food, and assumes that industrial agriculture and biotechnology are the only options for feeding a growing global population. IATP President Jim Harkness spoke at the National Food Policy Conference in D.C., where he challenged that idea. He concluded that, “feeding 9 billion people by 2050 is primarily a policy challenge, rather than just a technological challenge. What we’re doing now isn’t working, so simply doing more of the same isn’t going to get us there. People around the world are demanding their right to food, and they want the right food.” Read more of his remarks.
 
This means we need to look at how food is produced, and by whom. Agroecological systems, which start from the interplay between the natural environment and agriculture, and build on local priorities and knowledge about site-specific conditions, are at the center of proposals advanced by farmers’, environment and human rights movements and advocates around the world. IATP co-sponsored a congressional briefing on this issue in June, and since then we have been working with experts and allies on agroecology to think through new ways to raise that debate and influence food security and agriculture policies.
 
As part of that effort, we partnered the Asian Farmers Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA) to document successful approaches in Cambodia, the Philippines and Indonesia. IATP and AFA have just issued a new report, Agroecology and Advocacy: Innovations in Asia, which AFA Secretary General (and IATP board member) Esther Penunia is distributing at the Committee on Food Security meeting this week in Rome.
 
The report highlights some really interesting production methods, such as the System of Rice Intensification in Cambodia. Farmers using that system increased yields by an average of 61 percent, while reducing the use of chemical fertilizers by 72 percent. But changing the production technique is just part of the story. In each case, farmer innovators led the process and worked with environmentalists and consumers to advocate for public policies to support their efforts to provide healthy food at fair prices. It’s time to learn from their experiences, rather than insisting that biotechnology will feed the world.

Posted October 18, 2011 by Andrew Ranallo   

MarketsCommoditiesMarket speculation

Used under creative commons license from Craig S.

Charging Bull, a bronze sculpture by Arturo Di Modica that stands in Bowling Green Park near Wall Street.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission voted 3-2 yesterday in favor of a position-limit rule that, according to a new IATP press release, is too weak to protect consumers and producers from the wild price swings that make traders rich while increasing hunger and decreasing food access the world over.

In essence, a position limit is a cap on how much of a particular commodity a trader, or financial entiry, can control for a given trading period. Without strong and well-enforced limits, a few big Wall Street players can drive prices to their benefit at the expense of producers and consumers. The limits set today—too high and lacking provisions to revise the limits during commodity price emergencies—will further allow food prices to be distorted through speculation, having international consequences. Developing countries, for instance, often use U.S. commodity contract prices as benchmarks for import prices, where high and volatile prices often lead to increased hunger when countries cannot pay the increased import bills. 

Thinking back to the 2008 price crisis and near collapse of the financial system, yesterday's decision to allow financial speculators to control commodity markets is startling. Wall Street's behemoth lobbying power and its support of congressional allies opposed to regulation have paid off again.

Read the press release, Weak CFTC position-limit rule ineffective, unsound says IATP, for the full story or see more of IATP's work on market speculation

Posted October 17, 2011 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

FinanceCommoditiesMarket speculation

Used under creative commons license from Mathew Knott.

This entry originally appeared on the Triple Crisis blog.

The occupation of Wall Street by protestors against financial “innovations,” such as mortgage derivatives, which have devastated the real economy and its people, is beginning its fourth week; the Wall Street occupation of U.S. regulatory agencies, which are supposed to ensure fair and transparent markets, is into its ninth decade.  A vote tomorrow by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) on a weakened rule to reduce bank and hedge fund control of agriculture and energy markets will likely confirm the continued occupation by Wall Street.

Market deregulation, lubricated by a $5 billion lobbying budget from 1998 to 2008, according to Wall Street Watch, is a major cause of the economic crisis from which we are trying to recover. As CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler noted in an October 3 speech, the unregulated market now is seven times the size of the regulated market.

U.S. taxpayers have paid dearly for this unregulated market. A General Accountability Office report in July revealed that the Federal Reserve Bank system provided $1.2 trillion in emergency loans to the Wall Street elite by the end of 2008 to keep them in business. This relief was in addition to the $770 billion bailout authorized by the Troubled Asset Relief Program. How has Wall Street repaid the full faith and credit of the United States?

Since the 2008 crash, Wall Street, aided by its Congressional allies, has fought the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation and now is fighting the rules proposed to implement the law. On October 11, Reuters reported that the CFTC now has the three votes of the five-person commission needed to pass a rule limiting ownership concentration in agriculture, energy and metals contracts regulated by the CFTC. The CFTC will vote on the final rule on October 18. It is very likely that CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler had to further weaken the rule to get a third vote. On September 1, the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition (of which IATP is a member) wrote the CFTC to warn it that the draft rule would increase commodity price volatility, particularly for agricultural commodities.
There has been abundant documentation and dozens of academic studies about how highly concentrated ownership of commodity contracts, legalized during the Bush administration, has contributed to increased energy and food costs. IATP anthologized excerpts from some of these studies in Excessive Speculation in Agricultural Commodities: Selected Writings 2008 – 2011.
 
The CFTC vote scheduled for October 18 concerns one of the main tools against excessive speculation in commodity markets. A position-limit rule puts a ceiling on the percentage of contracts that any entity and its subsidiaries can control over a given trading period for a referenced commodity contract, e.g., Chicago Board of Trade corn. CFTC surveillance of trade reporting data can determine whether or not a trader has exceeded a position limit within a specific exchange and an aggregate position limit across all trading venues. With a high position limit or non-enforcement of position limits, a few big players can drive commodity derivatives prices.
The Dodd-Frank legislation allows an exemption on position limits for commercial hedgers, i.e., commodity users, such as grain or energy companies, and only for the commodities whose price risks they hedge. A leaked version of the draft CFTC rule reportedly would expand the exemption to allow major financial players to qualify for this exemption upon making a “good faith” claim that they were trading on the other side of a commercial hedge. Expansion of the very limited Dodd-Frank exemption would undermine both the legislation and commercial hedgers.
 
How has Wall Street apparently managed to dilute the position limit rule to the point where it will facilitate, rather than prevent, excessive speculation? Despite the support of both Chairman Gensler and Commissioner Bart Chilton for tough position limits that would serve the risk-management needs of commercial hedgers, the rulemaking process favors the big Wall Street firms with the resources to schedule more meetings and submit more regulatory comments, no matter how dubious their data and arguments.
 
Chairman Gensler said in his October 3 speech that commission staff have had a thousand meetings on Dodd-Frank rulemaking, conducted under an exemplary process for transparency in rulemaking. The CFTC’s register of these meetings shows the participants to be, overwhelmingly, lobbyists for Wall Street and their largest corporate clients. While the CFTC is legally obliged to take into account the cost of regulations to industry, they are not required to calculate the cost to the public of continued weak regulation. Wall Street’s occupation of the regulatory agencies is apparently paying off.

Posted October 14, 2011 by Doreen Stabinsky   

Used under creative commons license from unfccc.

The AWG-KP resumes its work at the United Nations Climate Change Conference meeting in Panama

In the global climate talks agriculture is a peripheral issue, despite the serious impacts rising temperatures will have on crop production worldwide and significant emissions that come from the agriculture sector. Negotiations on agriculture within the UNFCCC arena are currently taking place under the heading “Cooperative sectoral approaches and sector-specific actions in order to enhance the implementation of Article 4, paragraph 1(c), of the Convention,” along with the topic of bunker fuels – fuels used in aviation and shipping.

The meeting in Panama completed over the weekend was the last before the next Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting in Durban, South Africa in December. Panama saw little progress on the issue of agriculture, as most of the meeting was devoted to procedural maneuvering. A group of countries (India, Brazil, China, South Africa, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay, Egypt, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador and Nicaragua) started the week’s negotiations by proposing text for the general framework provisions of the document – general framework text that would be applicable to any of the sectors that could be considered under this particular heading: transport, waste management, energy, agriculture, forest, and industry.

The proposal was met with some consternation on the part of several developed countries, the U.S., Canada and New Zealand in particular, who are keen to establish a work program on agriculture under the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA). Their enthusiasm for an agriculture work program is not shared by most developing countries, reflected by the emphasis they placed during the week on negotiating the general framework text, rather than the agriculture-related portion of the document.

It is somewhat counter-intuitive that these particular developed countries, with huge industrial agricultural sectors and thus significant emissions from the sector, would be more interested in a work program on agriculture than the developing countries that will likely suffer more serious impacts in their agriculture sectors. One possible explanation is that these developed countries would like to actually shift attention away from their emissions towards the mitigation potential that exists in developing country agriculture. They could also be seeking to exempt agriculture from emission reduction requirements, possibly by giving the sector a special status due to its importance for global food security.

Regardless of the motivation, the relegation of agriculture to the SBSTA will limit the ways in which the UNFCCC considers the sector, one of the reasons for developing country resistance to the proposal on the table. SBSTA deals with scientific and technical issues – such as methodologies to measure carbon stored in the soil. Addressing the significant adaptation challenges to agriculture from a changing climate will go well beyond scientific and technological questions, and circumspection about how to address the sector within the UNFCCC institutional framework is a reasonable response by negotiators.

Another reason for developing country reluctance about a SBSTA work program is its emphasis on mitigation, rather than adaptation. The original framing of sectoral approaches under Article 4.1(c) of the convention includes a paragraph specifically dealing with the development, application and diffusion of mitigation technologies, practices and processes – not immediately relevant to countries for which adaptation is a much more pressing concern.

The week ended with two countries tabling two additional options for the agriculture section of the document: an option by Bolivia to have no text at all on agriculture; and an option from New Zealand for text that included all their favorite paragraphs to quickly advance the work program on agriculture and omitted all the paragraphs that they had been contesting. The text reflecting all three options will be forwarded to Durban as a facilitator’s note. The direction of those talks could set the agenda for agriculture in the climate talks for years to come, or perhaps launch a deeper discussion on the kinds of agriculture and climate finance needed to achieve food security and rural livelihoods in a warming world.

Posted October 11, 2011 by Ben Lilliston   

DevelopmentFree trade agreementsNAFTA: North American Free Trade Agreement

Used under creative commons license from JonPack.

As the Occupy Wall Street protests approach a fourth consecutive week, the House of Representatives will be considering three pending free trade deals that will further deregulate trade to the advantage of U.S. corporations.

This week, the House of Representatives will consider three pending U.S. free trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. The push to further deregulate trade seems to be one of the few things that President Obama and Congressional Republicans can agree on. And it represents, in stark detail, why so many around the country are protesting excess corporate power in Washington.
 
There is no clarion call from the public for more free trade agreements. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last year found that 69 percent of Americans believe free trade deals cost Americans jobs, only 18 percent believe they create jobs (see Public Citizen’s trade polling memo for more).
 
Yet, despite public opposition, these three trade agreements may very well gain Congressional approval. Why? Multinational corporations, so powerful now in Washington, urgently want to further deregulate trade and investment rules. If the promises of job creation and economic growth sound familiar, they should. We heard the same rhetoric before the U.S. signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the launching of the World Trade Organization.
 
Thirty years of the free trade model has been particularly damaging to farmers. Last month, IATP and over 50 farmer, fisher and rancher organizations sent a letter to Congress opposing the new trade deals. “We believe these agreements serve to concentrate the benefits to large-scale traders, processors, and exporters of certain food products while failing to ensure fair prices for farmers, equity for workers, human rights, food security and environmental protection,” the letter read.
 
Earlier this year, IATP’s Karen Hansen-Kuhn outlined our concerns with the Colombia trade deal: “The U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement will leave farmers and consumers at the mercy of volatile prices and markets rather than learning from the very real experiences of very recent history to build a new approach that ensures fair, healthy and resilient food systems for all. We’re still waiting for a 21st-century trade policy.”
 
The National Farmers Union (NFU) has also come out against this latest round of free trade agreements. NFU President Roger Johnson says the trade deals repeat a deregulatory model that hasn’t paid off for U.S. farmers: “Agriculture has been one of the few sectors of the U.S. trade economy that consistently has a trade surplus. Since 1990, agriculture has had a positive trade balance every year. With countries that the U.S. has a trade agreement with, U.S. agriculture has a net trade deficit in seven of the past eight years.”
 

The Citizens Trade Campaign has set up an action alert to members of Congress. Let them hear from the 99 percent. 

Posted October 10, 2011 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

Used under creative commons license from ~MVI~ (recharging in LA).

Climate change negotiators run through a downpour in Panama City.

 IATP’s Karen Hansen-Kuhn was in Panama City last week for negotiations on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Climate change delegates and advocates from around the world were in Panama last week to make progress on the UN climate talks before the Durban Conference of Parties in December. They debated a lot of tough issues, especially how to pay for climate change adaptation and mitigation in an era of tight budgets. Carbon markets have been held out as a way to “leverage” private sector funds for deforestation, energy and other much needed projects. Last year, the World Bank’s BioCarbon Fund launched the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project, as a pilot project on soil carbon sequestration and to bring agriculture into carbon markets. IATP, ActionAid and the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) held a packed side event at the Panama talks to challenge that idea and refocus the debate on the urgency of finding realistic solutions to climate chaos and food production.

Doreen Stabinsky, from the College of the Atlantic (and an IATP Senior Advisor) led off the panel with a bold assertion: there is no market for soil carbon. While the Kenya project assumes that offset credits generated by sequestering carbon in the soil can eventually be sold to generate funds, in fact, no compliance markets will accept them. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme doesn’t (and isn’t open for changes until at least 2020); the Clean Development Mechanism doesn’t (and in any case, 97 percent of its credits go through the EU ETS). There are legitimate concerns about how to measure the carbon sequestered in the soil and how to be sure the carbon would stay in the soil, both of which make it unlikely that the carbon markets would embrace it anytime soon. Even if the voluntary markets were to open up, Doreen pointed out that they are orders of magnitude smaller than the compliance markets. The compliance market is $142 billion a year; the voluntary markets are just $338 million, of which some 40 percent are already dedicated to reforestation efforts.

In any case, it’s unlikely that soil carbon markets could actually generate much money. A recent study by IFPRI asserted that soil carbon markets could generate $4.8 billion in funding. If we take a peek behind the curtain of the assumptions, however, it turns out that they assume soil carbon would sell at $18 a ton, when even the World Bank only assumes $4 a ton for the Kenya project. Going beyond the hypothetical to the real, at least in the few voluntary markets that do accept such credits (3 percent of the total), the current price is $1.30 a ton. Soil also just can’t hold a lot of carbon. Most scientific studies say that it can range from zero tons in dry and warm regions to one ton in humid and cool zones, making it an even less enticing option for smallholder farmers. The World Bank estimates that the transaction costs involved in verifying and marketing soil carbon credits would absorb some 40 percent of any resources that could be generated. One audience member from Zambia commented that if African farmers can’t even sell the crops they can see, why would they believe they could sell carbon, which they can’t?

Harjeet Singh from ActionAid International commented, "The soil carbon capture idea is both a distraction and a diversion. The environmental integrity and measurement of soil carbon is uncertain and investing scarce resources on setting up soil carbon markets is a distraction. The urgent need is to find public financing through budgetary allocations from rich countries and innovative sources towards climate resilient agriculture. Promoting soil carbon markets–led agriculture in developing countries diverts attention from the fact that it is developed countries that have generated most greenhouse gas emissions and they need to take action domestically."

Mithika Mwenda from the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance concluded the panel with the need to find fair and realistic solutions to help African farmers adapt to climate change. Rather than pushing African governments to line up in support of soil carbon markets, climate delegates should insist that developed countries honor their commitments to provide adequate, new and reliable climate finance—above all public finance—rather than pinning their hopes on an elusive new market. Proposals for “bunker fuels” taxes on international shipping and transportation, a Financial Transactions Tax and other ideas are on the table in Panama and leading up to Durban.

Posted October 7, 2011 by Jim Harkness   

AgricultureBusiness and industryHealth

Smallholder farmers clean corn, paddy rice and millet. Photo by Mindi Schneider, author of Feeding China's Pigs.

It has been a frustrating week for me, trying to track down Chinese friends during the long National Day holiday to learn more about two recent media reports about new government restrictions on industrial agriculture there.

First, from WATTAgnet.com:

China's Ministry of Agriculture has announced a forthcoming ban on antibiotics as growth promoters in animal feed. The ban is supported by the academic community, which believes that without antibiotics in animal feed, the health of animals will be better promoted, microbes' resistance to antibiotics will be lowered and food will become safer to eat.

This brief, tantalizing piece (essentially a partial translation of an only slightly longer piece in Chinese) raises as many questions as it answers. For me, the big ones are:

  • Will all non-therapeutic uses be banned or just growth promotion?
  • And will the ban apply only to domestic production, or also to imported meat?
  • And although this should be a good thing for animal and human health, what impact will it have on the structure of animal farming in China?

Traditionally, most pig production in China was done on small, diversified farms. Much of the feed was homegrown, and the manure was composted and returned to fields as a highly prized fertilizer. A report by Mindi Schneider that we released earlier this year entitled Feeding China's Pigs documented government support for the trend toward industrialization of pork, in large facilities where feed (loaded with antibiotics) is purchased from outside and manure is a costly waste product. As in many other countries, the price of pork has gone down, but in addition to all its environmental and health impacts, the cheap factory-farmed meat has undercut small producers, who now raise less than a third of China’s pigs.

Will the ban on antibiotics help or hurt these household producers? It is possible that animals in smaller facilities don’t need antibiotics as much as those in large confinement operations, and will therefore fare better than their factory-farmed kin. But in the area of economic policy, China and the U.S. are alike in at least one way: When times get tough, political leaders look out for the interests of the biggest players first. If the government’s commitment to industrial production continues, the pork factories will likely get a bailout. So the actual effect of this ban on China’s farmers is a question mark.

The second Big China ag story this week concerns GMOs. The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture will soon announce a temporary ban on commercialization of genetically engineered rice and wheat, according to a story in the Chinese-language Economic Observer. Translated by Third World Network (TWN).

…there are two reasons for this delay in commercialization of genetically modified (GM) staple food crops: one is that there has been a lot of questioning about the safety of genetic modification from various sides; the other is based on the judgement (sic) that currently in China, GM staple food crop-related research, promotion, regulations, even later-stage business operation, etc. are not yet mature.

This is not a categorical ban on GMOs. Xinhua New Agency reported earlier this summer that four GE crops have been approved for import (cotton, corn, coy and rapeseed) and seven domestically developed plant varieties have been declared safe, but not yet approved for full-scale commercial production. (Yoke Ling Chee of TWN does a good job of explaining the distinctions, and giving the recent history of this issue.)

All the signals are that GE varieties are still widely accepted in Chinese official and academic circles as the silver bullet for increasing yields, and the development of these varieties continues. As meat consumption increases and conventional breeds reach their limits, China’s leaders see themselves between a rock and a hard place, forced to increase imports or raise domestic production any way they can. Taking the former path would mean violating a long-standing food self-sufficiency policy that requires 95 percent of domestic demand for staple grains to be met by domestic production, and would play havoc with global grain markets. (Corn imports are already increasing, which explains why a GE corn variety is exempted from the ban.) And their Old School Green Revolution farming—dependent on massive applications of water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers—is reaching a breaking point, while destroying environmental and human health. Overuse of heavily subsidized chemical fertilizers is so rampant that a recent study suggested corn yields would actually increase if fertilizer applications were cut in half.

At least for now, the few people and groups inside China advocating a more fundamental shift toward agroecological farming are not getting much of a hearing. But virtually everyone recognizes major problems with the status quo: unsafe food, low farmer incomes, environmental damage. And GMOs are as unpopular with consumers in China as anywhere else, and there are some prominent and vocal opponents in the scientific community as well. This issue has generated a lot of internet and media buzz, which tends to serve as a sort of flashy stand-in for giving people any actual political voice. (Hey, sounds familiar!) So this announcement is part genuine precaution, part attempt to calm consumer fears.

But while it’s not an unequivocal victory, it IS a victory! In much of the developing world, after all, Monsanto is drafting national biosafety laws. This decision, along with recent lawsuit inolving the Indian government against Monsanto, and South Korea’s decision to ban antibiotics as animal feed additives, indicate that emerging economies are increasingly willing to stand up to multinational agribusiness (and the U.S.) in order to defend their national food sovereignty.

I will be in China next week talking about price volatility, and following up on the antibiotic and GMO stories: Stay tuned!




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