Posted July 31, 2012 by Zoe Benston
Steve Ells is doing a great thing. It’s not just the Chipotle founder and CEO’s decision to buy organic, or local, or avoid antibiotics in animal products. It’s not even his focus on ethically raised meat. No, his greatest contribution is one of omission. While nationwide protests urge Mr. Ells to sign a labor agreement with farm workers, the mainstream press (most recently Time magazine) has chosen to focus on the eco-friendly practices of the Chipotle fast food chain. They call this “sustainability,” but it’s not; and this is what Mr. Ells has given us—an opportunity to redefine sustainability.
Most people think of sustainability as environmentalism for the business owner, but this is a narrow redefinition of a broad, inclusive term. To sustain is to keep something going, to endure. A sustainable system is one in which the elements are used only to the point where they can regenerate, where resources are not simply used up and disposed of. In this more comprehensive and accurate sense, a food system that exploits workers is not sustainable.
On Wednesday, July 25, supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers held protests at Chipotle locations around the country. Representatives from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (Center of Workers United in Struggle) and the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) convened at an Uptown Chipotle location to present the manager with 500 names gathered to date on a petition urging Steve Ells to partner with the CIW. The CIW represents 33,000 tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida. For more than a decade they have earned international recognition for exposing slavery rings in Florida’s tomato fields, including the 2007 Anti-Slavery Award from Anti-Slavery International of London. National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has also recognized the essential participation of food workers in the concept of food sustainability, with a “food justice” award presented to the CIW earlier this year.
McDonald’s (which formerly had a controlling stake in Chipotle), Taco Bell, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and other companies have signed onto the CIW’s Fair Food Agreement. The Coalition has partnered with some of the most successful food retailers in the world, and their endorsements are irreproachable. So why has Steve Ells been a holdout? If we take him at his word (and why not?), he does not object to the penny-per-pound increase in the workers’ wages, nor basic sanitation, breaks and freedom from abuse in the fields. What he objects to is being held accountable to these standards by the workers themselves. Chipotle previously agreed to grower-controlled monitoring by Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE), which was discredited after SAFE-certified employees were found to be practicing slavery. The Fair Food Agreement guarantees the CIW‘s participation in monitoring and reporting abuse. Mr. Ells has said that this “does not actually change those conditions for farmworkers,” but so far it’s the only thing that has. As he wrote in response to a customer’s concerns, “We feel we do not need to sign a contract to do the right thing. We do the right thing because that is the kind of company we are.”
Chipotle’s soul may be spotless, but this is not the way we do business in the US; we require some level of oversight. Just as Americans rightfully demand that government monitor the safety of our food (and Steve Ells has been outspoken about antibiotic use in factory farms), we also insist on fair treatment and pay for (most) workers. In fact, worker oversight is more crucial on farms than elsewhere, because field workers are not protected by New Deal labor laws. The “agricultural exemption” is defended as a protection for family farmers, who would otherwise be held to unreasonable wage and overtime legislation. It was actually the result of Southern Congressmen in the 1930s refusing to support the bills unless fair wage restrictions and the right to organize were excluded for their constituents’ (predominantly black) farmworkers.
The exception stands today and is one reason why farm work is predominantly performed by desperate immigrants. Until federal laws are expanded to protect all workers, the workers are forced to protect themselves, and they can only do so with the voluntary cooperation of the multi-million dollar corporations that keep their employers in business. In most cases this has required shaming the buyer into recognizing that consumers care more about human rights than they do about slightly cheaper winter tomatoes. No one is accusing Steve Ells of causing or endorsing slavery or the abuse which has been standard practice in Florida, but his slogan, “food with integrity,” creates a higher ethical standard. Chipotle does not practice sustainability, and an increasing number of diverse groups are calling attention to their “Chipocrisy.” A sustainable food system must sustain the land, the consumers and the workers who bring them together.
Six years ago, an IATP intern with a bright idea and a lot of determination launched what has become known fondly as the Minneapolis “Mini Market” project. With technical assistance and support from IATP, a wide variety of public housing facilities, churches, hospitals and neighborhood-based organizations have launched small farmers markets in Minneapolis, providing market opportunities for small and start-up farmers and bringing locally grown foods to under-served areas across the city.
Today, IATP is pleased to announce that we are passing leadership of the Mini Farmers Market Network to four terrific community-based partners: the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition, Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches' Minnesota FoodShare program, Northeast Minneapolis Farmers Market and Kingfield Farmers Market.
These organizations are proven leaders in community building, food access and/or farmers market management. We are thrilled to pass the baton to them, to guide them through this first year of transition, and to see the network unfold under their leadership in the years ahead. Each organization will provide support and guidance to a cluster of markets in the area of Minneapolis in which they are based. The markets themselves are each managed by a community organization that hosts the market on their grounds.
Since the beginning of the project in 2006, more than 20 organizations have hosted Mini Markets. Most of the markets accept WIC (Women, Infants and Children) benefits and several have begun accepting food support (SNAP/EBT) benefits.
In their role as Mini Farmers Market Network leaders, the four organizations will provide technical and troubleshooting assistance to market managers, support effective coordination with the City of Minneapolis and the State of Minnesota, and foster collaboration among the markets.
Congratulations to West Broadway, GMCC, and the Northeast and Kingfield markets for taking on this expanded leadership in our local food system! Join in celebrating the bounty of summer by supporting the farmers market in your neighborhood!
Read the IATP press releases about the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition and the Minnesota FoodShare program of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches.
This project is sponsored in part by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.
Posted July 30, 2012 by Dr. Steve Suppan
One of the many ironies of the U.S. Farm Bill debate over crop insurance and revenue “assurance” programs was a tacit bipartisan agreement not to say in public four words that summarized major drivers in creating the proposed programs. The U.S. drought, covering 80 percent of arable land and the worst since 1956, has pressured Congress to expand taxpayer subsidized crop insurance while refraining from uttering its cause: climate change. In 2011, crops insurers paid out a record $11 billion, according to the American Association of Crop Insurers’ manager David Graves.
Promoters of “revenue assurance” to counter price drops, which decimate farm income, were loath to mention “financial speculation.” (Earlier this year, Farm Bill writers took into account the possibility of planting binges and subsequent low prices, on the assumption that there would be a robust harvest to sell. They did not acknowledge the role excess financial speculation plays in price-setting).
Notwithstanding the commodity and financial market crimes and debacles of the past five years, market regulation, including enforcement of current law and the implementation of the “Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act,” still faces well-financed opposition in Congress and on Wall Street.
Indeed, the Republican Party majority in the House of Representatives has proposed to freeze all regulation, i.e., to forbid any “significant regulatory action,” until unemployment drops to six percent (HR 4078). President Barack Obama has threatened to veto such “freezing” legislation. The Dead on Arrival bill is part of the Republican’s electoral campaign messaging about purportedly “job-killing regulations,” including those to implement Dodd-Frank.
But what should we say about the longer-term factors that will structure agricultural commodity prices long after the November 6 elections and the present U.S. drought have ended? In mid-June, IATP submitted a comment to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) about the reauthorization of the CFTC’s Agricultural Advisory Committee. The committee normally meets about short-term events that undermine confidence in the commodity markets, such as the MF Global or Peregrine Financial scandals.
IATP contends that the committee needed to discuss how longer-term events, such as those of climate change, would affect the ability of commodity users to manage price risks. According to Mark Hertsgaard’s Hot: Living through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists expect the scorching summer of 1988, perhaps more severe than the current drought, to “become the norm over the next few decades.” Under such conditions and other longer-term climate trends, predicting the estimated physically deliverable supply of a commodity, which is a basis for setting position limits to prevent excessive speculation, will become very difficult.
In some ways, the current U.S. drought is a source of comfort to those who believe that commodity prices are set by market participants whose price bids and offers respond only to supply demand fundamentals. The “weather,” is an uncontrollable and somewhat unpredictable factor that affects agricultural supply and demand. Invocation of the “weather” and related factors, such as plant disease, has become the all-purpose explanation for current price levels and price volatility.
The CFTC should reauthorize the Agricultural Advisory Committee with terms to allow it to meet with other CFTC advisory committees. Under such terms, for example, the Technology Advisory Committee and the Agricultural Advisory Committee could meet to discuss the effect of high frequency trading (HFT) on agricultural prices. HFT, enabled by super-computers and trading algorithms that turn over trading positions in seconds or minutes, is currently the purview only of the Technology Advisory Committee, which discuss such issues as ensuring equal access to HFT terminals.
A recent study by two economists of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is an example of a topic for joint advisory committee discussion. They analyzed the huge increase in HFT trading of agricultural contracts, particularly since 2009. The authors analyzed a new HFT database to show how one-hour, five-minute, ten-second and one-second trading intervals moved prices in different commodities and equities uncorrelated by market fundamentals. The study reviews oil, corn, soybean, wheat, sugar and live cattle price data, as well as equity price trends, from 1997 to 2011. (The inclusion of commodity contracts with equities, bonds, and other financial instruments is justified as a diversification of investment portfolios to avoid risks associated with investment in any one asset class.)
Joint advisory committee meetings would enable the CFTC to better understand structural changes to commodity price movements, particularly as they were enabled by trading practices and technologies that acted too quickly to respond to market fundamentals. If the advisory committees continue to limit their discussions to the short-term events of this summer’s drought or market crimes, the CFTC will not be advised about longer-term market malfunctions.
The CFTC should be advised of how financial “innovations” and climate change are affecting agricultural price discovery, price-risk management and the physically deliverable supply of commodities. Absent such advice, the CFTC could become the regulatory analogue of an endangered species, unable to adapt to the relentless churning and regulatory evasion of financial “innovations.”
Neither greater tax-payer subsidized crop insurance, nor tax-payer supplied “revenue assurance,” nor improved CFTC regulation of price risk–management can substitute for legislation and a financial commitment that responds adequately, and by 2020, to what Bill McKibben calls the “Terrifying New Math” of climate change. An even harsher climate likely will makes agriculture and other businesses commercially uninsurable, forcing a massive effort to drastically reduce greenhouse gases and adapt to climate change. In the meantime, a more comprehensively advised CFTC can prepare to manage the price risks of sustainable agriculture and renewable forms of energy that will be required in the not-to-distant future.
Posted July 19, 2012 by Andrew Ranallo
It’s moving fast: The promised benefits of nanotechnology in food applications are astounding, almost unbelievable. For example, applying certain nanomaterials (simply put: materials manipulated at an atomic level) to conveyer belts in food production plants could prevent pathogen growth by keeping the belts clean and lowering the chance of contamination. Nanotech applications like these are finding their way into our food system at breakneck speeds. The bad news is that there are no FDA regulations for nanotechnology to ensure public health and the environment are protected.
In fact, very little research has been done on possible health effects from nanotechnology. The research that has been done associates significant health risks with both inhalation of nanomaterials and exposure to skin. Meanwhile, a 2012 National Research Council study reported “little progress” on research about health effects associated with oral consumption.
The FDA has drafted new guidance to industry on the use of nanotechnology in food, and is accepting public comment until July 24. IATP is collecting letters as part of an action campaign to tell the FDA to put consumer health first and impose mandatory regulation that protects public health.
Take part in our action alert, or for more information on nanotechnology in agriculture, read IATP’s 2011 report, Racing Ahead: U.S. Agri-Nanotechnology in the Absence of Regulation.
Posted July 18, 2012 by Ben Lilliston
There has been a lot of noise on the Farm Bill lately. Last month, the Senate approved its Farm Bill, and last week the House Agriculture Committee approved its own version. Despite major differences, both Houses of Congress have one thing in common: they are virtually silent on corporate market power and competition in agriculture.
Nearly every sector of agriculture is now dominated by four or fewer companies. In the 2008 Farm Bill, fair markets and competition were at least acknowledged as an issue to be addressed. The Livestock Title included provisions that required the updating of rules to the Packers and Stockyards Act, and helped spur a national series of workshops co-hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Justice (DoJ) on competition and agriculture in 2010.
Not so in the 2012 Farm Bill. It’s almost as if excess corporate power in agriculture has magically disappeared. In fact, the House Agriculture Committee Farm Bill actually prevents the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) from implementing new rules on fair contracts for poultry growers.
Members of Congress would do well to read the testimony from a series of workshops organized by the Department of Justice and USDA in 2010. In late in May, the DoJ quietly released a report summarizing findings from those remarkable 2010 workshops. Held in Iowa, Alabama, Wisconsin, Colorado and Washington, the workshops covered a variety of competition issues such as anticompetitive mergers, high market concentration, monopsony (a concentrated number of buyers), contracts and market transparency.
The workshops’ recurring theme: farmers and ranchers have increasingly less power in the marketplace. Whether it was crop farmers testifying on the lack of options for buying seeds, hog and cattle producers reporting on the concentration of the meatpackers, poultry growers dealing with unfair contracts, or dairy farmers worried about the lack of lack of available processors, every part of the country, and each agriculture sector, is facing similar problems.
Markets don’t work well without competition and transparency. In some ways, how to deal with market failure is at the heart of the 2012 Farm Bill. Programs try to ensure farmers don’t go out of business when prices drop or costs rise, incentivize the protection of natural resources which the market doesn’t reward, and try to make sure those without jobs or aren’t paid enough can still eat.
The conclusion of the Justice Department report on agriculture and competition says “vigorous antitrust enforcement is imperative, and the Division [antitrust] has redoubled its already active enforcement activities.” We hope this is true—it’s badly needed, and they don’t need a new Farm Bill to act.
Posted July 17, 2012 by Sophia Murphy
With the U.S. government announcement last week that this year’s corn crop is expected to be much smaller due to an extended drought, agricultural commodity markets are yet again headed for high and unstable prices this summer. Is the world better prepared for the shortfall then it was in 2007? Certainly, the United States is not. To cite agricultural journalist Alan Guebert:
Indeed, according to CCC (Commodity Credit Corporation), there is not one teaspoon of sugar, one pound of peanuts, one slice of butter, one wheel of cheese, one bushel of wheat or even one chickpea in USDA’s pantry. CCC has nothing—nada, zip, goose egg—to release into the marketplace to slow or moderate what’s certain to be fast-climbing food prices in the coming months.
The G-20 as a whole has failed to rise to the challenge, too. Unwilling and seemingly unable to come to agreement on any of the structural issues that plague agriculture in international markets, they have failed to take responsibility for their part in creating dependence on what have proved to be increasingly fragile international markets. Many low-income countries depend on food imports for some measure of their food security. They depend on these markets as the deliberate outcome of policy changes encouraged by international institutions and aid donors. And international markets should be playing a helpful role in distributing food. But the refusal of exporters to accept the disciplines they impose on importers (transparent and predictable use of export taxes, for example), or to create transparent and multilaterally governed stock-holding programs, or even to address biofuels production (and eliminate mandates and subsidies to the sector), has created a situation in which some of the world’s poorest people are tied into markets in which they have no effective voice and over which their governments have very little control.
In 2007, when the food price crisis started, many commentators noted that price spikes in international markets were periodic and, implicitly, predictable. The crises were short-lived, if dramatic. In 2012, we are five years into what is becoming increasingly clear as a new state of agricultural production, in which climate change is disrupting production, freshwater scarcity is an ever greater threat and a world wide land grab has been triggered as those dependent on food commodities, whether for food or feed or fuel, panic because their supplies seem too uncertain, while investors see an opportunity to make money. The communities whose land and water is in question, meanwhile, have few if any protections against the power of global capital.
IATP thinks one important piece of the answer to this challenge is the simple yet powerful idea of saving food in times of plenty for use in times of scarcity. For that reason, we are pleased to announce the release of Grain Reserves and the Food Price Crisis: Selected Writings from 2008–2012, a compendium of current writing on food reserves.
Governments around the world, from Guatemala to Mali to the Philippines, are interested in stockholding programs. Donors and international institutions have failed to respond, pointing governments to more “market-based solutions.” Governments of net food-importing countries are not persuaded. They want to lessen their dependence on imports and stabilize international markets, concerned their reliance on those markets has never been so high. The idea also has resonance in developed countries looking for tools to stabilize agricultural markets for farmers and consumers.
IATP hopes this reader will open the doors wider and allow an exploration of how reserves could better advance food security and stabilize price volatility. This collection provides an overview of recent writing on reserves, points to work in progress and encourages a more open and rigorous debate about how reserves fit into local, regional, national and international food security strategies.
Posted July 12, 2012 by Kandace Vallejo
While the food movement gains steam and several hundred good food advocates across the country gear up after the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s annual Food and Community Gathering, it may be worth our while to stop for a moment and reflect. Perhaps taking a cue from the Occupy Movement’s General Assembly, this year’s gathering was titled Assembly Required,calling on those of us who identify with the struggle for a more humane and just world created through food to come to the table together.
Coincidentally, this is just what food worker justice struggles have been seeking for years. Although focused on what might have traditionally been identified as “labor struggles,” organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, (CIW) the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), and Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en La Lucha (CTUL, Center for Workers United in Struggle, in English) all lend texture to the fabric of sustainable food struggles. And in doing so, they confront some of the biggest entities in the food world today.
Some of the companies being targeted for food worker injustice may not be a big surprise—such as the FCWA campaign against Darden (owner of Olive Garden and Red Lobster) to stop discrimination and wage theft at some of its NYC chains, or the recent CTUL campaign to win better wages and protections for workers who clean retail and grocery stores in the Twin Cities area.
But as much as we might like to make clear distinctions between who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are, some of these struggles are being waged within the very landscape of what many would consider to be the “good food” movement. This includes the CIW’s six-year-long effort to get Chipotle to agree to sign the organization’s Fair Food agreement, which would guarantee basic rights (such as an end to physical abuse on the job and a dignified wage) to the farm workers who supply the corporation with tomatoes. So far, the would-be leader in sustainable food has yet to budge, instead responding with slick PR responses that carefully (or carelessly, depending on your point of view) twist the truth and expose the hypocrisy behind “Food With Integrity.”
Its true: the big tent we’ve begun to assemble for the food movement will be required to win the world we envision. But in doing so, let’s not forget to ask ourselves if we’re willing to let the pursuit of profit quietly divide our struggles. We might instead envision a movement that won’t let its potential leaders forget about the smudges on their records. By holding corporations like Chipotle accountable to the working conditions in the fields, the food movement can better hold them up as an example of sustainability. By allowing Chipotle to brush off the issue, we turn a blind eye.
Since 2001, ten other major corporations have reached Fair Food Standards agreements with grassroots organizations like the CIW, and we cannot allow these historic gains to be set back by a reticent few. If these agreements are possible, then it is certain that corporations like Chipotle, Darden, and others can also step up and ensure that the workers who make their profits possible are treated with dignity. And we, as consumers, allies, and fellow foodie advocates, can help make this happen.
This entry originally posted on the IATP Food and Community Fellows blog.