Posted December 20, 2012 by
How could the landscape of food and farming policy change if health sector workers and consumers understood what it takes for farmers to grow and produce enough healthy food?
Earlier this year, IATP and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota created a historic statewide convening to foster dialogue and understanding between the health and agriculture sectors—State of the Plate: Minnesota Healthy Food Futures. Now, that meeting has served as proof of concept for cross-sector meetings in eight additional states: Texas, Illinois, Montana, Oregon, New York, Kansas, Mississippi and Iowa. While the purpose of all the meetings was to begin building bridges between the health and agriculture sectors, many of the meetings also included representatives from the anti-hunger, culinary and philanthropic sectors, among others.
IATP provided technical assistance to each of the states as part of its involvement on the steering team of the national Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition, which held the first national cross-sector convening in Washington, D.C. in 2011. That historic national meeting included representatives from diverse organizations such as The Farm Bureau, The American Public Health Association and United Fresh. The coalition also provided financial support for seven of the nine state meetings via a competitive application process that produced 61 proposals. The Minnesota and Illinois meetings received support from local funders and we hope other states will follow suit in 2013.
Participants across all the meetings were energized by the opportunity to learn about key issues from new perspectives and the prospect of new partnerships between the health and agriculture communities. The hope is that working across sectors will foster more innovative food system policy to support public health goals for healthier eating, but also support our farmers’ ability to make a living producing healthier foods like fruits, vegetables and food animals that serve those goals.
Minnesota kicked off the year with its meeting in early January and the year ended with meetings in Iowa and Kansas in mid-November, with most of the other meetings occurring in early fall. The meetings ranged in size from 42 participants in the less populated state of Montana to more than 335 participants in Minnesota, with most of the remaining meetings engaging approximately 75–100 health and agriculture stakeholders.
More than one of the meetings opened with a diverse panel of speakers from different sectors sharing their perspectives on key food system issues. Others opened with a keynote speakers, including Dr. Kelly Brownell of Yale’s Rudd Center who spoke to the Minnesota audience about the need to make healthy food the “optimal default” through policy and environment changes; Bob Martin, senior policy advisor at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health made the case to the Kansas audience for a public health perspective on agriculture, particularly the linkages between the growing number of human antibiotic-resistant infections and the widespread use of antibiotics in animal agriculture; and Ken Meter of Crossroads Resource Center described the political economy of the food system in central Illinois and outlined an opportunity to reverse the trend of food and farm dollars flowing out of the region to distant corporations rather than supporting local producers and businesses.
Discussion of local and regional food system issues were prominent at all the meetings, from the Mississippi and Montana meetings which focused on building farm to institution programs in the states, to New York where food business owners participated in discussions about ways to expand consumer access to state products. In Oregon, participants discussed a state law prohibiting undocumented workers from having driver’s licenses threatens to hurt local farms and food businesses across the state, as well as worsen poverty among that population of workers and their families.
Other key issues discussed included the need for better public incentives and crop insurance for producers of fruits and vegetables, the need for scale-appropriate food safety laws that support development of local food systems, the need to reform state procurement laws to allow for more local sourcing and increasing access to federal nutrition programs at farmers markets.
It is our hope that work will continue on these and other key policy issues within the states and through creation of a national community of practice made up of leaders from each of the nine states, as well as others. With all this remarkable work bubbling up at the state level, shared learning about key issues and innovative policy development could spur similar discussions in additional states, as well as drive creation of healthier national food and farming systems policy.
Posted December 19, 2012 by Michael Pursell
It’s ironic that agriculture, an activity that is fundamental to sustaining large societies, has come to present so many risks to public and environmental health. As farms have grown larger, more productive, fewer in number, and more specialized over the last century, they’ve come to produce some less than desirable byproducts, just like any other major industry. But farming isn’t just another industry; it’s based on ecological principles and natural systems, which, if managed carefully, can be used to promote rather than harm health. A recently published study out of Iowa State University suggests that smart diversification and re-integration of plant and animal systems on the farm can pave the way to a healthier, more balanced agriculture.
Farmers have always had to manage soil fertility carefully or lose the foundation of their livelihood. For much of history, animal manure was our primary means of renewing that fertility. With the advent of cheap, effective synthetic fertilizers and herbicides in the early 20th century, long-term productivity became wholly divorced from its animal origins for the first time in history. Animals became unnecessary for large-scale plant production and economies of scale became possible; soon, fossil fuel–based fertilizers were being applied liberally to single-crop fields across the world. In parallel, animal operations also became more concentrated and monocultural, relying on less and less space and more commodity-derived feed. In this new scenario, animal manure was transformed from an essential link in the nutrient cycle into a potentially dangerous waste product.
In a nutshell, that’s why most American farmland today is densely populated by large monocultures of commodity crops and livestock, but productivity has come at a cost. Though this highly specialized mode of agriculture boasts historically unprecedented yields, it also generates a slough of harmful externalities for human and environmental health that aren’t reflected in the publicly supported price of its products. In order to remain productive and profitable, conventional commodity production requires ever-higher levels of inputs in the form of fossil fuel–based fertilizers and herbicides, while animal agriculture produces a toxic surplus of fertility in the form of concentrated manure. It is well documented that both of these excesses pose significant risk to human and environmental health, as they regularly enter into surface- and groundwater and ultimately play a central role in the eutrophication of downstream waters, like that currently underway in the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, closely confined livestock production has produced a high reliance on the large-scale use of antibiotics, which can also enter groundwater and pose a risk for human populations.
Researchers from Iowa State University, USDA and the University of Minnesota have recently offered new evidence that carefully integrating animal and plant systems can dramatically decrease these health risks of industrial-scale agriculture. The controlled field trial took place over eight years at the Marsden Farm in Boone County Iowa—the heart of the Corn Belt—and was more important for its fusion of methodologies than for any particular innovation. Researchers simply took well-established integrated grazing and rotational practices and applied them to a conventional Midwestern commodity growing scenario, then compared costs and productivity over time.
In short, they de-specialized the farm by treating cattle—and their manure—as an essential part of the nutrient needs of corn and soybean production. In conjunction with a simple, extended crop rotation of alfalfa and small grains, the Marsden Farm study showed that integrating livestock into corn and soybean production protected or exceeded yields as well as profits over time compared to a conventional corn-soybean rotation. Critically, though, the improved rotation significantly reduced the amount of fertilizer inputs and loweredtheneed for herbicides by 88 percent. With these reductions came a huge reduction in factors that can impact human and environmental health down the road, and all without any loss of productivity. The study showed how much we have to benefit from closing the nutrient cycle: manure only poses a substantial risk to health when it’s concentrated and stored, but in such a diffuse application, even at a large scale, it can be a valuable asset.
Though farm profits remained stable between the conventional and modified rotations, the nature and proportion of production costs changed dramatically. Because successional grazing and rotation is much more labor-intensive than the two-step corn-soybean rotation used across much of the Midwest, labor costs rose as fertilizer costs dropped. Incidentally, this means that diversified practices end up providing an economic boost for American farm workers, who end up with a share of farm expenses that would otherwise go into the pockets of large fertilizer manufacturers.
The Marsden Farm study is particularly valuable because it offers an achievable vision for a healthy, productive 21st-century American agriculture that bridges the often polarizing divide between “conventional” and “sustainable” mentalities. It shows that it’s possible to balance health and long-term viability with a large-scale, highly productive commodity operation, a balance that could potentially be fostered and further explored by a number of existing Farm Bill programs. Such a “middle path” approach will likely prove to be a relatively politically attractive avenue for systemic movement toward a healthier agriculture.
Indeed, there are existing Farm Bill programs that can support further development of integrated systems. The Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP) is a conservation program that offers incentives to farmers to better manage their nutrient inputs and outputs, among other things. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program also offers research grants annually to farmers across the country who are willing to conduct on-farm research for more sustainable practices. In general, the Research Title can be a powerful tool for change, as it provides ample opportunity to incentivize and explore alternative modes of production—though research funding in the Farm Bill tends to support conventional systems.
Obstacles certainly remain for those looking to adopt the vision proffered by the Marsden Farm study: fertilizer producers and other major agribusiness groups are sure to leverage their powerful lobbies against such a change, and commodity farmers themselves have invested so many resources (capital and otherwise) into the current mode of production that downstream externalities don’t necessarily provide a compelling enough argument to fundamentally change the way they operate.
Other recent research is also making a strong case for agricultural diversity and public health. A new paper in BioScience is among the chorus of voices arguing that agricultural diversity and integrated systems have a major, multifunctional role to play in securing the long-term health and stability of the food system, specifically as the effects of climate change threaten to destabilize agriculture across the globe; past United Nations research echoes this assertion.
In all, the emerging picture of integrated farming systems gives public health advocates another reason to hope that agriculture can become a sustaining force in our society, one that combines large-scale agricultural productivity with clean waterways, long-term resilience, healthy animals and healthy people.
Michael Pursell is a researcher on health and agricultural policy currently on contract with IATP.
Posted December 12, 2012 by Shefali Sharma
The 18th annual climate negotiations of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) just ended Saturday night. These government officials had a historic and an urgently critical task at hand: how to effectively address the increasing climate chaos characterized by extreme storms like Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Bhopa (which recently just devastated several islands in the Philippines), droughts, floods and eerily erratic weather before it’s too late.
The “Doha Climate Gateway,” as the outcome is being called, resulted in a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol (the KP) and built the “gateway” for a new climate treaty that is supposed to come into force by 2020. In three year’s time, governments will have to finalize this new treaty that will now be negotiated in a track they call the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP).
Because the KP’s first commitment period was set to expire this month, the Protocol’s future was uncertain. The U.S. continued to express disdain for the KP, Canada, Japan and Russia pulled out of it and New Zealand’s rejected it. Despite all this, somehow, governments agreed to a second commitment period (minus Japan, Canada, Russia and New Zealand)—but a very weak, almost farcical one. Thirty-five industrialized countries making up about 15 percent of global emissions will be party to the second commitment period, with no enforced total aggregate target for reducing emissions and a “maybe” option for increasing their ambitions for further emissions reductions by 2015. The cruel irony is that all governments in this latest UNFCCC outcome took note “with grave concern the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with having a likely chance of holding the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C or 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.”
In other words: “yes, we governments know that we have a massive gap between what we have said we would do to prevent catastrophic climate change and what is actually needed to prevent it, but hey! Let’s take another three years to figure that out and another eight to bring something binding into force. What’s the rush? We only began this process in 1992.”
The farce becomes apparent when you read the technical fine print of how these governments will meet some of these commitments. According to Carbon Market Daily1 governments did little in Doha to curb the biggest failure of the carbon market: the oversupply of carbon credits that are already at “rock-bottom” prices. However, governments continued to endorse emissions trading and the Clean Development Mechanism as ways to account for their emissions reductions in the second commitment period. These approaches are heavily criticized by many civil society organizations as not only ineffective in dealing with climate change (since emissions continue to rise), but also because the markets themselves are speculative and deeply flawed. In the last few years, the prices of the credits certified as legitimate by the UNFCCC have crashed from 22 euros to 50 cents.2 Countries like New Zealand, Japan, Canada and Russia will rightly be excluded from claiming “certified emissions reduction” credits from the UNFCCC given that they have not committed to the KP the second time around. Instead, Thomson Reuters reports, Japan will “develop a new market mechanism to help meet a voluntary 2020 emissions pledge” while New Zealand may reduce its own reduction ambitions given that both countries rely heavily on buying credits to compensate or “offset” their own domestic emissions.3
Carbon market proponents want to not only keep these flawed mechanisms in place in the new treaty and but also develop “new market mechanisms” in the interim that will allow for further loopholes for major polluters albeit at a much larger scale (i.e., sectoral trading—estimating emissions reductions across an entire manufacturing sector or landscape that includes agriculture and forestry). These proposals are highly controversial and raise serious questions about environmental integrity. And governments failed to reach agreement over them in Doha. Countries like the U.S., New Zealand and Japan want to put in a framework in place that allows for them to use these market mechanisms to account for their emissions reductions and pay for them without actually having to commit to any legally binding targets. But actual investors think it’s pointless to have yet newer market mechanisms when there are no ambitious binding emissions reductions targets in the first place.
In spite of these issues, the “new market mechanisms” now have a placeholder in the development of the new treaty because parties have directed the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA) to develop a work program that may or may not be agreed at the next Conference of Parties (COP 19). Elements of this work programme include “means to stimulate mitigation across broad segments of the economy, which are defined by the participating Parties and may be on a sectoral and/or project-specific basis”; hence, the option for sectoral trading, but also carbon accounting (monitoring, reporting and verification) of carbon sinks. These mechanisms can have voluntary participation, but somehow must lead to “standards that deliver real, permanent, additional, and verified mitigation outcomes, avoid double counting of effort and achieve a net decrease and/or avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions.”
What this essentially means is that the fight on environmental integrity and the prospects of the carbon market will continue into the next year and in the formation of the new agreement. The decision invites countries and observers to submit comments on how that might work by March 25, 2013.
The challenging questions about oversupply of credits and the environmental integrity associated with these offset credits, particularly in the clean development mechanism, have been postponed to a review that will take place next year on the CDM. Thomson Reuters reports that investment in the CDM has virtually stopped given that its value has plunged by 95% in the last four years, crushing hopes for investor profits.4
The big fight on the broader issues related to agriculture continued in the SBSTA—one of the four bodies of the UNFCCC charged with scientific and technical advice. The decision reached was the following:
After several interventions by Parties, the SBSTA Chair ruled that there was no consensus amongst Parties to refer this matter to the COP for further consideration…SBSTA would continue its consideration of this agenda item at its thirty-eighth session.
In other words, this will be another fight at the next UNFCCC meeting in April 2013. The fight, as reported in our last blog, is about agriculture emitters looking for ways to account for agriculture emissions through offsetting and trading credits, in particular through flawed approaches such soil carbon sequestration accounting. New proposals from the EU that include “full landscape accounting” would broaden this approach to include forestry and agriculture and create even more room for creative accounting. Developing countries have continued to insist that their agriculture priority is adaptation given climate change’s devastating impacts on food production and food security.
However, there is now a placeholder for this debate to continue under an agenda item in the ADP negotiating track for the new treaty. The ADP track has two workstreams: the first to discuss what the post-2020 agreement will look like; and the second relating to “pre-2020 ambition.” One of the Doha decisions for workstream 2 is to hold a series of workshops and roundtables based on submissions by March 1, 2013 from governments and observers to the UNFCCC on several issues including:
(a) Mitigation and adaptation benefits, including resilience to the impacts of climate change;
(b) Barriers and ways to overcome them, and incentives for actions;
(c) Finance, technology, and capacity-building to support implementation.
Though seemingly in code, this is a good placeholder for the fight on agriculture mitigation and adaptation—by whom, for whom. The World Bank, along with New Zealand, the United States and other industrial agriculture countries are eager proponents of soil carbon markets and the expansion of land use and land use change accounting to include agriculture. Both New Zealand and Australia are building their own national and sub-national markets that hope to expand coverage to agriculture. Developing countries, particularly African countries, are being “sold” the idea that they would make money off of this by developing their own credits. Carbon markets are dramatically proving otherwise for all credits let alone these types of risky credits. The World Bank hopes to broker these types of credits.
The discussions in SBSTA on the expansion of agriculture credits in LULUCF in the KP track will continue. See IATP’s blog, "What’s at stake for agriculture in COP 18" for more on these discussions.
The one big achievement of the talks was the agreement to address “loss and damage” from the impacts of climate change on developing countries and to develop a mechanism for it. But the U.S. remained adamant that any promises for “aid” for loss and damage need not be additional to what is already being provided under current donor schemes.
The stage is therefore set for more of the same in the coming years in the climate negotiations—a blueprint for a dramatic shift out of our global crisis was nowhere visible in the Doha outcome.
In the closing plenary of the Kyoto Protocol track, a representative from the government of Philippines made a moving plea:
Have we managed to give justice to what the world demands of us?…as we sit here, every single hour, even as we vacillate and procrastinate here, the death toll is rising. There is massive and widespread devastation. Hundreds of thousands of people have been rendered without homes. And the ordeal is far from over, as Typhoon Bopha has regained some strength as it approaches another populated area in the western part of the Philippines…And I am making an urgent appeal, not as a negotiator, not as a leader of my delegation, but as a Filipino. I appeal to the whole world, I appeal to leaders from all over the world, to open our eyes to the stark reality that we face. I appeal to ministers. The outcome of our work is not about what our political masters want. It is about what is demanded of us by 7 billion people.
In the lifetime of the climate treaty, rather than responding to the dire, evolving and new challenges that climate change is bringing to our civilization, government ministries charged with the responsibility have done nothing but cater to the corporations most likely to lose from the concerted and determined actions required to effectively deal with one of the most critical crises of our times. It seems unfathomable—given what has come out of Doha—that these governments will do anything differently next year or in three years unless every citizen (very soon) considers this, quite literally, the very matter of survival of our species on this planet.
1.Thomspson Reuters 2012. U.N. envoys extend Kyoto, agree path to global deal. Carbon Market Daily, Point Carbon News Publication, Vol. 11, Issue 21: December 9.
Posted December 12, 2012 by JoAnne Berkenkamp
As I look at the snow outside my window, I have to admit it: The summer’s bounty of sweet corn and tomatoes is long gone, but the demand for local food keeps chugging along—particularly among K-12 schools that are eager to keep their Farm to School program going even after the snow flies.
How can we provide new opportunities for our farmers and make local foods available year-round? One strategy worth a look is preserving the local bounty through freezing fruits and vegetables.
Today, IATP is releasing new research on innovative strategies for freezing locally and regionally grown produce for the K-12 marketplace. We looked at several small and mid-scale approaches including schools freezing on-site in their own kitchens, multi-use kitchen facilities, small freezing enterprises, and “co-pack” relationships where a processing company freezes produce on behalf of a third party, like a group of farmers.
Our research draws insight from the first-hand experience of ventures around the country that are now freezing fruits and vegetables grown in their region. While there has been considerable zeal of late around the concept of “food hubs,” we found a mixed picture, and reasons for both optimism and caution. Here are a few highlights:
One way that schools can tap into frozen, local foods is to buy fresh produce and do the freezing themselves, in their own kitchens. A variety of schools around the country are now doing so and their experience shows that:
A range of small freezing businesses, business incubators and commercial or multi-use kitchens are now exploring various approaches to freezing locally grown fruits and vegetables. Their experience illustrates the importance of focusing very strategically on suitable crops, finished products that are tailored effectively to the marketplace and efficient processing methods. Business models that rely solely on processing smaller quantities of seasonal product may struggle to cash-flow, but ventures that complement freezing with other types of processing activity are showing promise.
For farmers, selling to entities that will freeze their product is worth exploring. Benefits from such relationships that were identified in these case studies include limited marketing time for farmers, the potential for sales contracts in advance of the growing season, repeat business, and a market for surplus produce and “seconds” that may otherwise be hard for farmers to sell.
Lastly, co-pack relationships with existing freezing companies can connect schools with a source of high quality, regionally grown frozen produce.
Depending on the size and practices of the co-packer, farmers selling into co-packers can face some significant hurdles. Co-packers’ sourcing protocols may include significant minimum delivery amounts from farmers (e.g., by the semi-load), on-farm food safety audits and deliveries to the processing facility within very narrow windows of time.
This, in turn, may require growers to carefully coordinate planting, harvesting and delivery schedules. Crop varieties suited to the fresh market may not be optimal for freezing on a commercial scale.
The availability of potential co-pack partners also depends greatly on location. In Minnesota, intense consolidation in the produce freezing industry in recent decades has sharply reduced the number of independent freezing companies. Other regions of the U.S. that have more moderately scaled freezing operations in place may offer a broader range of co-pack opportunities.
So, all in all, it’s a mixed picture and one that reflects the intertwined challenges and opportunities of food entrepreneurship. Please check out the report to learn more about the experiences of schools and food entrepreneurs working to keep the bounty coming, even after the snow flies.
Posted December 10, 2012 by
Autism is a developmental disorder that impairs communication and social interaction. It is a whole body disorder, with immune system difficulties and often includes physical health problems such as gut disturbance, allergies, and seizures. One in 88 children is now diagnosed with autism in the U.S., compared with 1 in 150 in 2000.
While we don’t know exactly what causes autism or why it has increased, we know that genetics plays a role. Growing evidence suggests that it’s not genetics alone; environmental and dietary factors may play a significant role in increasing the risk for autism. Dr. Martha Herbert of Harvard University, a leading thinker on this issue presented at IATP’s event, "Autism: What do diet and environment have to do with it?" last Friday. Dr. Herbert is the author with Karen Weintraub of The Autism Revolution: Whole-Body Strategies for Making Life All It Can Be.
Dr. Herbert walked the audience of 150 scientists, educators, health practitioners, parents and advocates through the complex science on factors contributing to increased autism risk. She explained that the brain may not be hardwired for autism as previously thought, but may be instead overloaded in people with autism because the signals aren’t working like they should. When the brain gets overloaded then some functions shut down resulting in autistic symptoms like lack of social interaction, inability to communicate and other problems.
How does the brain get overloaded? Dr. Herbert explained that it’s “too much bad and not enough good,” “bad” things are environmental toxins, viruses, infections and stress. Studies have documented increased risk of autism and/or autistic behaviors from exposure to pollution, pesticides, heavy metals and phthalates. Examples of “good” things are nutrients and rest. A diet of processed food lacks the nutrients our brains need to function.
Furhtermore, we can learn from the way diet and environment interact, explained Dr. Herbert. For example, exposure to pesticides and heavy metals is associated with increased oxidative stress in the brain, which contributes to metabolic abnormalities linked to brain dysfunction. Diet is an important factor in immune health and helping the body fight off toxic exposures, so when toxic chemicals build up, and nutrients are not available to help the body get rid of them, you get brain overload. Many children with autism experience relief in their physical and social symptoms through dietary interventions, such as avoiding foods with gluten and casein and increased consumption of nutrient rich foods.
Dr. Herbert summarizes what is happening as “… the outcome of a combination of complex genetic individuality interacting with immense variation in what combinations of toxic exposures, nutritional shortfalls and stressors people experience.”
Viewing autism through the lens of environment and diet provides a more hopeful view of this puzzling condition. Exploring additional research approaches to identify key environmental factors and documenting successful dietary interventions are both needed to help the public health system put some of the pieces together and solve the puzzle of autism.
For more information see IATP's Q&A Factsheet “Autism, Environment and Diet: Questions and Answers."
Posted December 10, 2012 by Sophia Murphy
Hard on the heels of Oxfam’s Food and Gender Discussion Blog, in which ten experts provided ten views over ten days intended to reframe food security from the perspective of women’s rights and women’s agency comes another Oxfam online forum for debate on agriculture called "The Future of Agriculture."
The series will explore four issues:
As with the series on food and gender, the discussion aims to generate bold proposals, in this case to meet increasing world demand for food in a way that eradicates hunger and preserves the environment.
I had the privilege to contribute to the debate, and my essay (one of twenty or so to be featured over the next two weeks) has been posted as one of two to kick off the discussion. Below are some excerpts from my contribution—I do hope you will find time to read and respond as the debate unfolds.
Agriculture is a risky business. At the mercy of inclement weather and pests, a frequent casualty of war, and subject to its own particular demand constraints and market failures, agriculture merits a branch of economics all to itself. The risks are not just economic: they also link to biological diversity and natural resource management, to culture and social relationships.
The risks are political, too; most farmers are subject to relatively strong government involvement in their sector—which is not surprising because everyone has a stake in agriculture. Beyond the essential fact that agriculture is fundamental to our survival, agriculture matters because it is a powerful motor for the eradication of poverty.
Two particular kinds of risk pose very modern versions of age-old challenges. The first is climate change—humankind has always been at the mercy of the weather, but today we are also directly responsible for making the weather less predictable.
The second is price volatility. In an era of globalized markets, deregulated capital flows and free trade, economic forces are linking farmers from disparate parts of the world as they have never been linked before.
Risk-management systems should not encourage a farmer to take unwarranted risk. Farmers should be responsible for making good business decisions about their operations, not encouraged to take unnecessary risks as the shallow loss insurance programs proposed in the 2012 U.S. Farm Bill would. But the systems should be strong enough to protect farmers and their households from destitution, especially where the risks involved are outside farmers’ control, as is the case with climate change and international price volatility.
Posted December 10, 2012 by Michael Pursell
It’s no secret that many economists believe the nation’s toxic mix of soon-to-expire tax cuts and automatically triggered, across-the-board federal spending cuts could send the economy off a precipice at the beginning of January and into another recession. If that happens, every American taxpayer and industry will be profoundly affected, and agriculture is no exception.
But if we fall off the fiscal cliff without Congressional action, indiscriminate cuts could have an impact on the health of our food system. Some of the major impacts could include:
Less food safety enforcement
A series of high-profile cases of food contamination in recent years has underscored concerns about food safety enforcement; CNN reports that universal cuts to federal programs would decrease the funding available for plant and animal health inspections by $71 million and the budget of the Food Safety and Inspection Service Agency by about $1 billion. In very simple terms, this would reduce the number of inspectors on the ground working to keep our food supply safe for consumption.
Reduction in research dollars directed to fighting obesity
Much of the most important research on food, health and nutrition is coming out of publicly funded organizations like the National Institute for Health (NIH), the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration; these organizations, among others, receive and administer grants and conduct research across the country that together make up the cutting edge in the fight against obesity; their work, too, would be cut by 8.2 percent without Congressional intervention.
In a country awash in obesity-related illness, a growing body of research is finding that fruits and vegetables are some of best preventative medicines out there. Fruit and vegetable production was supported in the most recent Farm Bill in the form of special research grants, but inaction on the Farm Bill and fiscal cliff legislation this year would allow these and many other such health-focused grant programs to fall by the wayside.
Less nutritional assistance for low-income americans and schoolchildren
It is inevitable that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) will face budget cuts in the months ahead, even if Congress finds a compromise in fiscal cliff negotiations. Though they provide food access to millions of low-income Americans, these large, costly entitlement programs are generally seen as low-hanging fruit by their budget-cutting opponents.
Without action, though, the case would probably be worse for SNAP, WIC, and other food assistance programs; WIC alone would lose $543 million in nutritional assistance for mothers and children.
Of course, if Congress cannot cut a deal to avert the fiscal crisis, it wouldn’t be the first time in recent months that failed compromise in Washington has led to inaction of historical proportions: in September, faced with a deadline for expiring Farm Bill legislation, that all-important package of food, trade and health policies was allowed to expire without renewal or extension for the first time since 1949. Though the dust hasn’t quite settled on the expired Farm Bill, the implications of its expiration are far-reaching and potentially very serious for farmers, consumers, public health and the broader economy.
As some key legislators have already identified, the 2012 Farm Bill could be one of the keys to averting a tumble off the fiscal cliff. At best, the looming crisis could spur passage of an overdue Farm Bill, one that would make relatively modest cuts to SNAP and other nutrition assistance programs. The Senate version of this year’s Farm Bill, passed in July, includes over $23 billion in total spending cuts—not an insignificant portion of the $1.2 trillion in spending reductions President Obama has called for. Unfortunately, much of that savings comes directly from programs that safeguard human and environmental health, like SNAP (cut by $4.9 billion) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), but much of it also comes from cutting wasteful direct payments.
Though the Senate’s would-be Farm Bill cuts billions in spending, nutrition programs don’t shoulder nearly so large a proportion of the burden as they would in the case of the proposed House Farm Bill. The House would cut $35 billion from Farm Bill programs, roughly half of which would come from SNAP alone: a loss that would eliminate benefits for between 1.8 and 3 million individuals, plus healthy school lunches for more than a quarter million low-income kids.
There is every indication that in a worst-case scenario, the absence of a Farm Bill could magnify the impact of an already precipitous fall off the fiscal cliff, and vice versa. Rising commodity prices, coupled with large tax hikes and a diminished safety net for farmers and low-income families alike could prove devastating for many already-struggling Americans.
There are a lot of moving parts at play as the deadline for action approaches, but the bottom line is that, in almost any feasible scenario, food and health programs will face significant cuts in the coming months. The choice ahead seems to be between across-the-board cuts that will dramatically and indiscriminately cut key food- and health-focused programs and controlled cuts that seek to better balance nutritional assistance with a fair and functional farm safety net. In order to achieve the latter, we need action on a Farm Bill in 2012 to make it part of the broader solution.
Michael Pursell is a researcher on health and agricultural policy currently on contract with IATP.
Posted December 7, 2012 by Dr. David Wallinga
A week ago, with most of us still digesting election results—and our turkey—a critical deadline passed in the struggle to convince the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to pull back the veil of ignorance around how antibiotics are being fed or given to pigs, chickens, turkeys and cattle animal agriculture.
The good news is nearly 25,000 Americans last week wrote FDA Commissioner Hamburg, a physician, urging her to do a better job in helping to keep our precious antibiotics effective by asking for this critical information from Big Pharma, and making it public. They included:
Here's why public data on antibiotic sales for animals is critical. Microbiology 101 says that the more you use antibiotics, the quicker antibiotic resistance develops. With the U.S. producing more than 9 billion such animals a year, the huge and routine use of antibiotics in these operations creates a perfect storm for the creation and spread of superbugs to humans. On farms, resistance spreads via farmers and workers directly, via manure in waterways and indirectly via contaminated meat.
Since 2009, the FDA has collected some information. We now know nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics are sold for use in U.S. food animals each year—four times the amount prescribed for treating human infections. Ninety percent of them are allegedly not injected into sick animals but rather put into animal feed or drinking water. But that's virtually all we know.
More worrisome is the fact that FDA has refused to collect and make public information from Big Pharma about exactly which drugs they sell for use in particular kinds of animals (turkey flocks, for example), and for what purpose. In fact, just last week the Government Accountability Project, working with the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins Univeristy School of Public Health, announced it had filed suit against the FDA, charging it with wrongfully withholding from the public some of the data on sales of animal antibiotics that it did collect.
Without this information, it's hard to envision progress happening in the fight to curb the needless use of penicillins, tetracyclines and other human antibiotics for purely economic reasons, like making pigs or chickens grow faster on less feed. Every indication is that most animal antibiotics now sold are avoidable.
Who're the losers of FDA turning a blind eye? You. Me. Virtually anyone who stands to suffer from an ineffective antibiotic when they really need one. The winners of ignorance until now have, of course, been Big Pharma. So long as no one questions how and where antibiotics get used in food production, they keep profiting from selling more of these precious drugs than they ought to.
Posted December 6, 2012 by Jim Harkness
The theme of the day, "Solving for Pattern," comes from the Wendell Berry essay of the same name. Berry talks about apparent solutions that in fact either make the problem they are intended to solve worse, or solve one problem but in the process create a whole set of other problems; “as when the problem of soil compaction is solved by a bigger tractor, which further compacts the soil, which makes a need for a still bigger tractor, and so on.”
Berry tells the story of Earl Spencer’s dairy farm, which was on the conventional path of increasing scale, commercialization, debt, specialization and disconnection with the land; until he decided that he needed to operate in balance with nature. Spencer said his farm, “had been going at a dead run, and now he would slow it to a walk.”
Berry is a farmer talking about farming in his essay, but as usual, he also has bigger fish to fry. He tells us what study after study has since confirmed that we need to move away from agriculture modeled on industrial production. And importantly, he recognizes that this is not just because of its dependence on unsustainable technologies and inputs, but because of its business model, because the profitability of industrial farming depends on ignoring many of the very things that we care about most, such as human health, animal welfare, community and the environment.
This is the pattern I think we all need to see and solve for.
Whether the goal is sustainable agriculture, a just food system, public health or fighting climate change, it is becoming increasingly clear that our common denominator and primary obstacle is the concentrated wealth and political power of multinational financial firms and corporations. This power feeds off of and exacerbates other problems, like scarcity and racism and state tyranny. It is manifested not only through grossly unequal legal and economic structures, but through an ideological privileging of markets and private profit over democracy, justice and environmental well-being.
I want to talk about two massive, existential threats—climate change and the enclosure of the global commons—that are endangering global food security and the very existence of the world’s peasants, and are driven by the turbo-charged version of capitalism that has been put in place over the last several decades.
Both of these things have been happening for some time, but have gotten exponentially worse—GHG in the past half century, global land grabbing just in the past five years. Bill McKibben pointed out that in the case of climate chaos this is in part an accident of scientific history. We didn’t realize that carbon was a deadly pollutant until very recently, so we’ve given the fossil fuel industry a colossal free ride. His insight makes me wonder. What if we had discovered the truth about greenhouse gases in the 1960s? What if, in 1962, Rachel Carson had written The Truth About Carbon, instead of Silent Spring? If that had happened, I believe we would be much, much farther along in addressing climate change, not just because we’d have more time, but because in that decade we were still, as a society, able to make bold choices that were not wholly predicated on the enhancement of profit and privilege.
But by the time we had scientific consensus about the threat of GHG, about 20 yearrs ago, the relationship between capital and the rest of us had changed. The notion of the Public Good had been replaced by the ideology of efficient markets and the profit-maximizing individual; the idea of using democratic institutions to solve big problems had been replaced by the idea that Big Government IS the problem. Can you imagine someone in 1969 developing a species extinction abatement cost curve instead of the National Endangered Species Protection Act? Or starting an industry roundtable to try to gradually reduce the rate of extinctions through voluntary codes of conduct? In hindsight, the speed with which a bipartisan “Market First” mentality took hold in our society, and globally, is startling.
So what does this shift have to do with climate change and land grabs?
Farmers and peasants everywhere have to gamble on two things every season: weather and markets. Neither one is completely predictable, but a good farmer knows enough about both and about her farm to make prudent choices that will help her get through a bad harvest, a drop in prices or an increase in costs. The problem today is that the weather has gone crazy and so have the markets.
You know the basic facts of climate change. Much more noticeable than the gradual rise in mean temperatures has been the large increase in the number and severity of extreme weather events worldwide since the 1970s.
And although farmers have always adapted to the exigencies of weather, this new weather chaos means they have bigger losses or less time to recover, and it’s getting progressively harder to repay their debts,rebuild the soil, or produce surplus grain to store before the next drought or flood hits. This is what farmers all over the world are up against. And it’s going to require an enormous investment in adaptation from the farm level all the way up through the food system.
Even more volatile than the weather are global markets, and this, like climate change, is a human-created problem.
The past several decades have seen the passage of trade and investment agreements giving unprecedented rights to international investors, and freedom for capital to roam the planet in search of the highest returns. But until very recently, commodity prices were low, so money flowed not into things like mining or agriculture but into other sectors.
At the same time, though, governments also weakened regulation of the banking and finance industries. More and more types of actors started playing the market: banks, hedge funds, pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, even university and foundation endowments. Massive, unregulated derivatives markets were built on top of the primary markets, aided by “innovative financial instruments” such as the now-famous credit default swaps. This initially brought big profits for investors, but it also led to a series of speculative bubbles as trillions of dollars rushed from one booming and crashing industry to another. As the real estate bubble burst in late 2007, there was a huge flow of capital into energy and commodities, and this infusion of purely speculative cash drove global food prices to a record high. We had created a single global market, in which the poor are bidding against hedge fund managers, wealthy consumers and our automobiles for food, so not surprisingly the ranks of the world’s hungry shot up by over 100 million.
In this new world, agriculture and farmland all of a sudden looked more valuable, as sources of food, biofuel feedstocks or financial investments, so banks and corporations and even the governments of food importing countries started scrambling to buy up as much farmland as they could in Africa, Asia and Latin America. As of 2011, over 560 million acres of farmland had been snapped up.
The World Bank and Bill Gates have called this a good thing: wealth from the finance industry flowing to the cash-starved farming sectors of the Third World, and generating profits for Wall Street while feeding the world. It’s a win-win! But people on the ground all over the Global South tell a very different story: of farmers and pastoralists forced from their lands, and huge plantations growing cash crops for export on land that used to feed locals. Much of the land is growing biofuel feedstocks, and some of the land is not being developed at all: it was bought with the assumption that the price will rise, so that it can be flipped like a condo in Miami Beach in 2005.
And it’s not just farmland. The volatility of commodity markets more generally—created not by fundamental shortages of supply, but by predatory speculation—is driving other land and resource grabs that threaten much more than farmland: minerals, oil, and water are the target of numerous land acquisitions. Forty percent of Colombia’s national territory is either owned, leased or under consideration for licensing to multinational ag and mining companies.
And here in the U.S. we have our own speculation-fuelled resource grab, called fracking.
For me the bottom line is that the issues we’re working on—whether its fracking or human rights or sustainable food systems or environmental health or protecting natural areas—aren’t some inevitable result of a planet with X number of people and Y amount of resources. They result from a historically unique set of economic rules and structures, and the worldview that supports them.
The good news is that the mists of individualist, consumerist, free market ideology are starting to clear, and people are recognizing the gross injustices of the economy and politics. People are starting to understand that fighting climate change and creating a just and sustainable food system can’t be achieved by simply changing the consumption choices of individuals, or tiptoeing around the question of who profits from an unacceptable status quo. To paraphrase Bill McKibben, we need to fight the Bad Guys, something that many of the people in this room have known all along. We also need to build entirely new models of production, consumption, savings and investment, like the Food Commons and the Common Market in Philadelphia and Finance for Food. And we need to develop and fight for strong and fair and democratic policies and governance systems that put human and environmental values over corporate profit, to allow those new local economies to thrive but also to ensure social resilience in the face of global threats like climate change.
Two final thoughts.
The bad news is I fear things are going to get worse before they get better, because there are fundamental features of politics and the economy that will have to change if we’re going to truly prioritize humanity over turbo-charged capitalism: things like getting money completely out of politics, rewriting or revoking corporate charters, putting the finance genie back in the box and establishing enforceable rights of nature. Those will be long, hard battles, and the outcome is far from certain. But even though we aren’t all going to focus all of our energies on those fights, we need to realize that they’re our fights too. The changes we want to see on any of our issues can’t happen as long as the bigger game is rigged.
So as we each work in our own area of the social movement ecosystem, I hope we can keep in mind that we are all in this together, and each ask ourselves questions like, “How is this work building power for communities and farmers and workers? Is it undermining privilege and inequality? Is it treating a symptom, or helping us move toward the bigger, structural changes that all our dreams for the future depend on?”
Posted December 6, 2012 by Trudi Zundel
To its most dedicated proponents at the U.N. climate talks in Doha, “climate-smart agriculture" (CSA) is the fairy tale success story on agriculture and climate change. To the World Bank, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and several agriculture-focused NGOs, it provides a win-win on mitigation and adaptation: Carbon is supposed to be sequestered in soil based on a set of practices that a project manager puts in place and farmers implement, and that sequestration is measured and recorded as carbon credits. The carbon credits are then supposed to be traded on an international market. The practices used to store carbon are also supposed to build resilience, so farms can adapt to the changing weather they are starting to face.
At COP 17 in Durban, South Africa, parties agreed to have an “exchange of views” on agriculture under the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA); “mitigation adaptation synergies,” (read: climate-smart agriculture) were one of the main, and most contentious, issues on the table during those and previous talks. At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where entire sentences can be composed of acronyms and agricultural discussions are mostly limited to 45-minute sessions that are closed to observers, it is easy to forget that the decisions countries make have significant and nuanced impacts on real people living in very different local contexts. As a student and activist following the climate negotiations at the international political level, it is always both painful and refreshing to see non-governmental organizations working to infuse the talks with the effects they may have on the ground.
We got an illuminating glimpse of this “reality” on Wednesday night at our side event “Agriculture in the Climate Talks and the Food Security Imperative: Which way to a Just Solution.” This panel discussion was moderated by Doreen Stabinsky, a senior advisor at IATP, and there were presentations from Dr. Haridas Varikottil, scientific advisor on agriculture and a farmer from Caritas India; Anika Schroeder, policy officer on climate change and development from MISEREOR, and Harjeet Singh, an international coordinator of disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation for ActionAid.
Dr. Varikottil, a farmer and researcher from southern India, began the presentations by sharing his experience working with small-holder farmers in southern India on agroecology programs. He discussed how small-holder farmers are suffering not only from the effects of climate change but also from several compounded social factors which have led to a dependence on external inputs such as GMO seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. He presented his agroecology project in India, which implements community-based agroecology initiatives by building trust and capacity with a small group of farmers, and showed how these community-led projects improved the yield and income of those they worked with.
Using his project as a successful example of a community-led project that promotes food sovereignty, the other presenters laid out multiple layers in which CSA is fraught with social, environmental and political problems. Schroeder pointed out the first important distinction: Climate-smart agriculture is not agroecology and is not the same thing as adaptation. While there are significant overlaps, CSA does not exclude any practices—which means that GMOs, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, so long as they contributed to soil carbon sequestration, would be permissible and perhaps even be encouraged by CSA programs. The CSA approach also undermines one of the most important social benefits of agroecology: reducing farmers’ dependence on external inputs. This is precisely why many agrochemical companies such as Syngenta and Yara are interested in CSA. The top-down approach in which sequestration is prioritized over the most context-specific adaptation approaches, is another critically significant problem with CSA. This is currently the approach the World Bank is promoting and trying to expand through its Carbon Finance Unit’s support for one-size-fits-all “soil carbon methodology,” according to Schroeder.
Schroeder used no-till agriculture, in certain circumstances, as an example of a misguided technique that sounds good on paper but has grave social and environmental consequences. No-till agriculture, in certain climates, can help preserve soil structure and nutrients, and is great for carbon sequestration because the soil is not disrupted. However, when poorly implemented and in warmer climates, no-till means an extensive weed problem. If they don’t have the experience or capacity to deal with the weeds, farmers turn to pesticides which are environmentally and physically harmful—and costly, according to Shroeder. In terms of actually mitigating climate change, capturing carbon in the soil is at best an emerging science in assessing its true mitigation potential and certainly not anywhere near as effective as stopping emissions at the source. Schroeder outlined the serious scientific doubt about whether or not carbon captured in soil actually stays in the soil, and underlined the weakness in economic fundamentals of the approach: for soil carbon to have any economic worth for emissions trading, its uncertainty and lack of permanence in soils and the problems associated with measurement have to be addressed.
Finally, climate-smart agriculture is politically unjust, according to Singh. The developing world should not be responsible for mitigating developed-country emissions, especially not at the cost of their farmers’ sovereignty, health and resilience. I am as baffled as Harjeet Singh from ActionAid about the justification for focusing on mitigation in agriculture, particularly in developing countries, and ignoring agriculture completely under the UNFCCC’s recommendations to country’s National Adaptation Plans, Adaptation Committee or Nairobi Work Program.
The dubious mitigation “wins” that CSA proponents advertise in no way justify the social, political and environmental costs associated with this approach. The presenters did a good job of explaining these costs and tradeoffs.
What truly set the side event apart, though, was the 45-minute question and answer period, in which EU negotiators on agriculture, a representative of the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project, and a senior policy advisor on CSA from the FAO, took the floor. The EU negotiators and the policy advisor from the FAO raised familiar concerns in response to CSA critiques, saying that it doesn’t have to be the way that you’ve laid it out. We’re working to address those concerns and to fix the problems with it.
The responses from both Singh and Schroeder hit at a key concern regarding CSA in the UNFCCC and perhaps the root of climate negotiations in general: The lack of trust and agreed definitions and meanings of terminologies. Language about agriculture has gotten more and more vague in UNFCCC texts, but the disagreements between opponents and proponents of CSA remain divergent.
Schroeder put it simply: Given how CSA has been handled in pilot projects, and under the World Bank, the panelists do not trust that a UNFCCC agriculture work program will be implemented in a way that addresses these concerns. There is no internationally agreed definition of agroecology, and an abject refusal to even recommend agroecological practices under the FAO’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS). That would have to be the first step to create a sound UNFCCC work program on agriculture, in addition to a prohibition of soil carbon markets and a clear priority on adaptation. Such a favorable outcome is politically unlikely. As the presenters cogently pointed out, there is no need for climate-smart agriculture, but there is a need for support for adaptation for adaptation’s sake. Soil is for food, not carbon.
Trudi Zundel is part of a student delegation from the College of the Atlantic to COP18, where she is tracking the negotiations on agriculture and working with Earth in Brackets, a climate-justice focused organization of international youth from College of the Atlantic.