Posted April 24, 2014 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

AgricultureFinanceCommodities

Used under creative commons license from futureatlas.com.

The Federal Reserve

The Board of the Federal Reserve asked this question, in essence, and 25 questions related to it in an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. IATP responded, because while banks generally do not own and trade agricultural commodities, the energy commodities they trade, including fertilizer (occasionally), oil, gas and electricity are agricultural inputs and, hence, affect agricultural prices. (The Fed has posted all comments here.) (On April 22, Barclay’s, which traded agricultural commodities, announced that it would be selling most of its commodity trading division. Greater regulatory scrutiny and declining profits were cited as reasons for the sale.)

Provisions of the Bank Holding Company Act (BHCA) of 1956 and the Glass-Steagall Act prohibited banks from engaging directly in commercial activities because banks enjoy Federal Reserve policy support and loans at interest rates not available to non-bank enterprises. For example, as a result of the bank-triggered economic crisis, from 2007 to 2010, the Federal Reserve loaned $19 trillion ($19,000,000,000,000) at near zero interest rates to bail out the largest U.S. banks. The Fed loaned another $10 trillion to foreign central banks so they could bail out their banks, including the hundreds of foreign subsidiaries of U.S. banks. By comparison, the Obama administration $51 billion bailout of General Motors (a mere $10.5 billion cost to the taxpayer) was a pittance.

The Gramm-Leach Bliley Act of 1999, supported by Fed Chairman Allan Greenspan and Clinton Administration Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin (a former Citigroup CEO), repealed those BHCA and Glass-Steagall provisions. The repeal allowed banks, securities firms and insurance companies to become Financial Holding Companies (FHCs) that could engage in non-banking “complementary activities,” including the trading, storage and delivery of physical commodities. The massively advantaged FHCs have bought and sold physical commodities in direct “competition” with commercial users e.g., of jet fuel, diesel fuel and aluminum, such as airlines, agricultural cooperatives, and beverage companies respectively.

The FHCs contend that they must trade and own physical commodities in order to support their commodities derivatives trading on behalf of their clients and themselves. To judge by lawsuits charging Goldman Sachs with price and supply manipulation in the aluminum market, and JP Morgan with price fixing in the electricity market, FHC derivatives trading strategy requires that the physical markets underlying the derivatives trading be rigged.

Notwithstanding FHC legal problems related to their “complimentary commodities activities” (CCAs), The Board of the Federal Reserve is considering whether to allow about 20 U.S. FHCs and the U.S. subsidiaries of foreign FHCs, such as Barclays and Deutsche Bank, to continue their CCAs. Under the BHCA, the board must consider whether CCAs imperil the “safety and soundness” of the FHCs.

The Fed requires that the FHCs report quarterly only the “gross aggregate market value of physical commodity in their trading inventory”. This reporting is not even commodity specific, so no analysis of the relation of a FHC’s physical trading to its derivatives trading in that commodity can be done. In sum, the board has precious little data upon which to base a “complementarity determination” for any FHC.

The Fed just increased the percentage of capital that banks must reserve against possible losses from three percent to five percent of assets, but this new reserve requirement does not apply until 2018. Citigroup, bailed out with nearly $3 trillion in Fed loans from 2007 to 2010, recently failed a Fed stress test for the second time in three years, despite apparently having enough capital set aside to cover losses. At question is not only money laundering by a Mexican subsidiary of Citigroup, but whether a bank with so many “complementary activities” can be prudently managed. In our comment, we recommended that any FHC that failed a Fed stress test be barred from trading physical commodities.

It is unlikely that losses from physical commodities trading alone could tip a FHC into insolvency. However, the Fed’s request for comments wisely asked whether FHC liabilities from “environmental catastrophes”, such as the Deepwater Horizon/British Petroleum et al contamination of the Gulf of Mexico and its bordering states, threatened safety and soundness. FHCs should be required to report all liabilities, risks and losses from their CCAs, including environmental, public health, economic (e.g. lost income resulting from a CCA related catastrophe), legal, reputational risk etc. They should be required to buy insurance to cover the immediate costs and the longer-term costs of CCA related catastrophes. For example, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker accident contamination in 1989 of Prudhoe Bay in Alaska resulted in billions of dollars of public health and economic losses to the residents of the Bay long after Exxon stopped its cleanup work in 1992.

The Fed’s board should require FHCs to buy short term and long term catastrophic insurance coverage for each of its CCAs. FHCs should have to submit the insurance policies to the board to determine their adequacy relative to the CCA posed risks. If the board determined the FHC’s insurance policies to be inadequate or if the FHCs could not obtain insurance for certain of its CCAs, the board could vote to terminate orders that allow the FHCs to continue their CCAs.

Although FHCs are required to report their climate change risk liabilities to the Securities and Exchange Commission, compliance with the requirement has been both vague and weak. The board should review FHC climate change risk exposure filings to the SEC, and if it finds them inadequate to protect the FHC’s “safety and soundness”, the board should develop its own climate change reporting criteria. The board should require FHC compliance with climate change risk reporting as part of the board’s obligation to evaluate all risks and liabilities that pose a threat to the “safety and soundness” of the reporting FHC and to the financial system in general.

The board staff will evaluate the 176 comments received on the ANPR, and review the laws and the rule that governs FHC CCAs before the staff make a recommendation to the board. Possible courses of action include not modifying the rule but allowing current orders to permit FHC CCAs to expire; modifying the rule to require higher insurance premiums, higher capital reserves, more disclosure of physical trading data, etc.; or repealing the rule with a phase-in time to allow the FHCs to sell or terminate leases on their physical trading infra-structure, and to sell their stocks of physical commodities.

The most radical, if unlikely, board action would be to terminate current orders allowing CCAs and ban future CCAs altogether.  No matter which course of action the board takes, it will affect the price and supply of physical commodities and commodity derivatives contracts, and no matter, the board’s decisions on CCAs will be controversial.  

Posted April 22, 2014 by Andrew Ranallo   

We’ve all made recipes and forgot that one key ingredient, only to forgive ourselves because, after all, food is more than just its physical ingredients: Too salty or not, we made that soup and we’ll be damned if we’re not proud of ourselves.

So what about the food we buy? Other than the items listed on the nutrition facts, food companies know we want to feel good: “The Breakfast of Champions” or something that’s “Mmm Mmm Good.” These famous slogans say nothing of ingredients, and everything about emotional appeal. Of course, advertising doesn’t include the whole story: The U.S. food system, controlled by a handful of corporations, is missing some key ingredients. We know there’s plenty of salt, sugar and fat, replacing the ingredients we might use at home, the freshness or family recipes we might cherish, and greater nutrition and variety provided by whole and home-cooked foods. In the same way, fair wages and prices for workers and farmers in the food system have been replaced with huge volumes of cheap food (and accompanying waste), low prices and inadequate wages.

From the soil and water that feeds our crops, to the waiters and waitresses that serve us our lunch, to the seeming myriad choices we have at the grocery store about what we eat, justice and health for ourselves, our farmers, workers and the environment is in drastically short supply.

With this in mind, IATP is excited to announce Justice and Health: Missing Ingredients in the U.S. Food System, an interactive tour of the U.S. food system. Check it out and join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook: What #missingingredients are most important to you? Environmental justice? Farmworker’s rights? Access to healthy food? Democratic decision-making? They’re all important, and they all need major work if, like our homemade soup, we want a food system we can be proud of.

Head over to www.iatp.org/missing-ingredients for more.

Posted April 16, 2014 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell   

AgroecologyAgribusinessJusticeSustainable Agriculture

Tomorrow, Thursday, April 17, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) will release over 29 seed varieties into the global commons and humanity's “moral economy.” This new initiative hopes to provide a counterweight to private patenting of seeds, which has undermined farmers’ rights around the world.

OSSI is composed of faculty, breeders, students and supporters from Washington State University, Oregon State University, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Lupine Knoll Farm, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wild Garden Seeds, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, among other members and allies. The group has sought a way to support the innovative efforts, traditions, and rights of those who breed seeds, by pioneering a system whereby plant varieties could be released into a “protected commons”: a commons populated by those who agree to share but effectively inaccessible to those who do not—a necessary tool in light of private corporate interests' persistent and too-often successful attempts to lock away elements of humanity's common agricultural heritage behind patents and other forms of kleptocratic intellectual property.

Seeds and plant varieties represent the work of millions of years of evolution, and in many cases, thousands of years of work by farmers, communities and cultures to develop useful, pleasing, nourishing and diverse sources of food and fodder. Gene Giants (e.g., Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont) have too often come in to expropriate and restrict the ability of anyone else to use and build on whatever supposed innovations these companies have made. While many dedicated and talented breeders work for these and other private concerns, making new varieties that may generate profit for such outsized and largely amoral corporations, their work ends up locking up elements of communities and humanity's common heritage, removing germplasm from the commons and charging the rest of humanity for the privilege. Further, public breeding programs in the United States have become increasingly marginalized and poorly supported, with funding increasingly abandoning the kinds of programs that build the commons and the common good, in order that a handful of companies can fence off the commons and charge us for that “benefit.” This is all the more richly ironic given that patent regimes have not increased innovation towards diversity in plant breeding, according to the most thorough survey to date. In fact, while 11 of 42 common crops saw dramatic increases in diversity, the diversity of the other 31 crops decreased by 60 percent between 1903 and 2004!

Many cultures traditionally saved and shared seeds and germplasm, allowing people to constantly innovate on each other's discoveries, while also maintaining a diversity of varieties that could be adapted to regional or cultural needs, and to current needs such as resistance to drought and climate variations due to global climate change. Corporate agricultural interests profit from conformity, scale and claiming ownership in the commons, increasing the risks of devastating pest and crop disease outbreaks as genetically uniform commercial crops all exhibit the same vulnerabilities (echoing the Irish Potato Famine precipitated by potato blight), rather than the resistance found in diverse populations.

In honor of the International Day of Farmers' Struggles in Defense of Peasants' and Farmers' Seeds (see La Via Campesina’s information page), OSSI is releasing 29 varieties of germplasm under the Open Source Seed Pledge:

This Open Source Seed Pledge is intended to ensure your freedom to use the seed contained herein in any way you choose, and to make sure those freedoms are enjoyed by all subsequent users. By opening this packet, you pledge that you will not restrict others' use of these seeds and their derivatives by patents, licenses, or any other means. You pledge that if you transfer these seeds or their derivatives YOU WILL ACKNOWLEDGE THE SOURCE OF THESE SEEDS AND ACCOMPANY YOUR TRANSFER WITH THIS PLEDGE.

These first varieties have been produced by professional plant breeders from independent businesses and university extension, with the intent of releasing and keeping these varieties into the commons for all people to use in perpetuity. Current legal protections (e.g., Patent law) is targeted at protecting only private rights to exclude people from using certain things; there are no legal provisions for protecting the inclusionof all people as potential users of our common heritage of seed varieties and knowledge. Despite this lacking legal structure, OSSI seeks to promote a moral economy in solidarity with peasants, farmers, gardeners and eaters all over the world, where farmers and breeders may share or sell seeds they have developed, but the biological essence (the underlying genetic material and potential, and seeds reproduced from the original seeds) may be used in perpetuity by all, for their own planting or for further breeding, refinement or alteration as serves the needs of any given individual, community or peoples.

OSSI seeks to support and stand in solidarity with farmers and farmer-breeders everywhere, as well as other citizens—eaters all—by protecting our common heritage from those who would lock it away. Agroecology recognizes diversity and sovereignty as key elements of a sustainable agricultural system. Diversity is the very building block of evolution and adaptation, and keeping germplasm in the commons allows all communities the maximum ability to respond the climate change; variability over time, over regions, and even over localities; and to varying tastes, preferences and needs.

We have yet to see if large corporations will seek to challenge or appropriate the materials placed under this moral commitment of OSSI and its allies to open source seeds, but if they do, we hope we can count on you to side with family farmers, independent seed companies, and the protection of a common biological heritage that should belong to all rather than generate a profit for a very few, and to stand up to those who view sharing this heritage as theft, rather than viewing their enclosure of that heritage as the real and more heinous act of thievery.

IATP particularly thanks Jack Kloppenburg, Irwin Goldman and Claire Luby for their dedication and efforts toward this first release. Our thanks and congratulations also go to OSSI comrades releasing varieties under the Open Source Pledge this April 17: Kevin Murphy and Stephen Jones (Washington State University), Irwin Goldman (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Tom Stearns (High Mowing Organic Seeds), Pat Hayes (Oregon State University), Jonathan Spero (Lupine Knoll Farm) and Frank Morton (Wild Garden Seed). You can find a list of the varieties being released, information on the launch event and more at opensourceseedinitiative.org. Like Open Source Seed Initiative on Facebook to keep up to date with the latest developments. Go there, learn more, and contact OSSI to talk about releasing your own variety under the OSSI pledge! 

Posted April 15, 2014 by Tara Ritter   

Beyond the Farm BillClimateClimate ChangeFarm Bill

This blog was originally published on RuralClimateNetwork.org.

The U.S. federal budget proposal for fiscal year 2015 was released on March 4 with climate change playing a more substantial role than it has in the past. Much of the funding for climate resilience comes from a new Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative that allocates $56 billion dollars overall, including $1 billion for a Climate Resilience Fund that will support research to understand the impacts of climate change and help communities plan for those impacts. While $1 billion is only a fraction of the total money in the budget, the acknowledgment of climate change as a real entity with tangible consequences is a definite step forward.

The specific dollars for climate resilience are peppered throughout the budget and spread across many federal departments. Some examples include funding to the Department of Agriculture for regional climate hubs, researching resilient crop production techniques and investing in renewable energy; funding to the Department of Commerce for improving coastal resilience to severe weather events; funding to the Department of Energy for developing clean energy and analyzing infrastructure vulnerabilities; funding to the Department of the Interior for expanding the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor, research, and analyze climate resilience; and funding to the Environmental Protection Agency for supporting the President’s Climate Action Plan to reduce carbon pollution. Although this list is not exhaustive, it displays the pervasiveness of climate change throughout the entire budget.

While the money in the 2015 budget indicates progress towards climate change adaptation and mitigation, funds in the federal budget are discretionary and can easily change from year to year. The Farm Bill, on the other hand, provides mandatory funding that is recurrent each year and is more difficult to change. Although the Farm Bill does not mention climate change directly, it contains numerous initiatives that focus on reparations and risk management as a result of the erratic weather indicative of climate change. The Livestock Forage Disaster Program, which became a permanent program in the newest Farm Bill, insures producers against climate-caused damages by compensating livestock producers who experience grazing losses due to drought or fire, both of which are increasing in frequency. There are also more climate related practices included in the conservation programs. However, the most notable and far away the most expensive programmatic response to climate change in agriculture is the crop insurance program.

The USDA crop insurance programs provide risk mitigation to farmers for crop losses and for times when they are unable to plant due to weather and climate issues. The USDA provide generous subsidies for farmers to pay private company crop insurance premiums (up to 60 percent), and these policies are backed up by the U.S. government. IATP, like many other groups, have real concerns about how the crop insurance program as implemented to date encourages production on less productive and often more environmentally sensitive land.

Recognition of a problem is the first step towards solving that problem, but in the case of agriculture and climate change, not taking immediate action is extremely costly from economic and environmental perspectives. Even though current Farm Bill initiatives recognize the impacts of climate change, they have failed to encourage adaptation as a less costly and longer term safety net. Even with the changes that have been introduced to the crop insurance program—including conservation compliance requirements and broadening of the program to include more organic and other non-commodity crops—it is still more reactive than proactive policy. Relying on programs that compensate for losses without requiring the adoption of more stringent conservation practices to prevent the same disaster happening again costs billions of dollars each year.

These programs aren’t helping farmers in the long run, either. Crop insurance compensates at market prices, so in times of high commodity prices, farmers receive high insurance payments when crops don’t grow. However, as commodity prices drop, crop insurance will not pay enough for farmers to live on. Instead, it will give them enough income to try again next year. The problem is that trying again the next year with the same practices will only yield the same results—decreased production due to a cocktail of droughts, floods, pests, and extreme temperature. Crop insurance without mandatory conservation requirements perpetuates a cycle of low income for farmers, unproductive land, and high costs for taxpayers. The only entities benefitting are the insurance agencies and the agribusinesses that produce the seeds and chemicals that today’s predominant farming system are so reliant upon.

Many of these problems are a result of the Farm Bill’s genesis as a damage control tool. The Farm Bill was never intended to fix the root causes of crop damage; it was intended to patch up problems as they occurred. If we are not willing to adapt the entire philosophy behind the Farm Bill to one that recognizes more than monetary risk, we will continue to waste taxpayer dollars and support a farming system that lacks resilience and security for farmers. We need to swiftly move towards a system that not only acknowledges climate change, but encourages on-farm practices that build soil health and water holding capacity so that farms can survive—or even thrive—in the face of extreme weather events.

There are some pieces of a more holistic approach in the Farm Bill, but they are not nearly robust enough. For example, the conservation compliance provisions in the Farm Bill “require farmers to meet a minimum standard of environmental protection on environmentally sensitive land as a condition of eligibility for many Federal farm program benefits, including commodity and conservation program benefits or a Farm Service Agency loan,” according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. These provisions are the bare minimum we need to stop the increased erosion and destruction of native grasslands and wetlands, but not nearly enough to deal with the impacts of a changing climate. Reducing climate-related risk could also be achieved by expanding the working-lands conservation programs already in the Farm Bill, namely CSP and EQIP. Instead, the newest Farm Bill cut CSP to limit enrollment to 10 million new acres per year—a cut of 22 percent. CSP and EQIP are both currently voluntary programs, but if participation in these programs or adoption of farming systems that address more whole farm conservation were mandatory requirements for farmers to receive insurance payments, there would likely be less reliance on insurance payments overall.

Thankfully, we’ve moved past the question of whether climate change is happening. However, we are now using the federal budget and the Farm Bill to pay for billions of dollars of damage control that could be avoided if we instead focused on farm resilience and adaptation. As we look to our future farm policy and what we know we are facing from climate change, we need to go Beyond the Farm Bill to holistic policies that can help us become more resilient and prepared.

Posted April 7, 2014 by Tara Ritter   

Used under creative commons license from Dawn Endico.

Of Minnesota’s 55.6 million acres, 27 million acres are taken up by farmland. Currently, crop production is dominated by summer annuals like corn and soybeans, which need to be replanted each year and grow only in the summer. The consequence of this type of cropping is that for most of the year, no active roots exist in the soil to filter water, reduce runoff, or prevent erosion. Covering the ground with crops for a larger portion of the year by adding winter annuals and perennials to the landscape provides multiple benefits, including diversifying agricultural operations, protecting soils and waterways, and increasing wildlife habitat.

Part of the reason that perennials are not already more widespread on the landscape is that seed suppliers have a vested interest in annual crops. Annuals require farmers to purchase seeds every year, thereby boosting profits for the seed suppliers. These suppliers include large stakeholders such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta, all of which have the resources to wield powerful influence over farmer decision making. However, increasing ground cover throughout the year is imperative to ensure continued production in the face of climate variability, especially in a state like Minnesota where nearly half of the land is in agricultural production.

An exciting prospect for increasing perennial land cover is the Forever Green Initiative out of the University of Minnesota. The project has a two-pronged focus to improve plant genetics while creating new economic opportunities for winter annual and perennial crops. The emphasis on economics in addition to ecology makes this project particularly smart, because proving monetary benefits motivates change more easily than proving other benefits. Research will focus on perennials such as sunflowers, flax, wheat, forages, and some native species, and winter annuals such as pennycress, winter barley, hairy vetch, winter rye, camelina, and winter pea. Markets for these materials include biomass production and high value commodities like oils. More research is needed to commercialize and develop these markets, which is precisely what the Forever Green Initiative is poised to do well.

Minnesota’s House Agriculture Policy Committee approved nearly $1.4 million in state funding for the Forever Green Initiative at the end of March 2014 and referred the bill to the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee. Appropriating such funding could boost agricultural resilience in Minnesota by increasing the profitability of cover crops and increased land cover, which could motivate more farmers to incorporate such practices on their operations.

The University of Minnesota is concurrently working on other projects to pair perennial biomass with economic advantages. The Seven Mile Creek Fuelshed Planning Project recently wrapped up a series of nine workshops to plan biomass production areas for a potential biomass processing facility in Nicollet County. IATP, along with representatives from other organizations and interested stakeholders, reviewed opportunities and tradeoffs between production of food, biomass, and conservation in the study area. Using mapping tools, participants evaluated a suite of biomass options, including annuals like corn stover and cover crops as well as perennial grasses. The proposed market for this biomass is an AFEX (ammonia fiber expansion) processing facility, which pelletizes biomass into a commodity product that can be fed to ruminant animals. The goal of the workshops was not necessarily a production plan; instead, the workshops aimed to evaluate the feasibility of increasing biomass production in Nicollet County. Evaluative processes that engage a wide range of stakeholders, like this one, could increase the feasibility and public support of maximizing perennial land cover.

Another Minnesota initiative to encourage perennial landscape cover is the Reinvest in Minnesota Clean Energy Program (RIM-CE). Passed by the Minnesota legislature in 2007, this program supports native perennial biofuel production by acting as a working lands conservation easement program. A tiered payment system ensures that payments are in line with public benefits, so payments increase when more perennials are planted and when plantings address specific problems, such as planting on flood-prone land. Funding for this program is currently minimal, and it should be expanded to elevate the amount of year-round land cover.

With so much current policy focusing on damage control, it’s encouraging to see the work happening in Minnesota to create a true agricultural risk management system that promotes resilient operations that are both economically and environmentally sustainable.

Posted March 28, 2014 by Andrew Ranallo   

Learn more about the Food Chain Workers Alliance at foodchainworkers.org.

Healthy, sustainable food cannot come from an unhealthy system that exploits its workers. Right now, part of that exploitation is an unacceptably low minimum wage in all sectors of the food system, from production to distribution, retail, restaurants and food service. In response, the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) is coordinating a day of action in support of a higher minimum wage this coming Monday, March 31—César Chávez Day. Representatives will deliver a petition with over 101,000 signatures to House Speaker John Boehner in support of the Fair Minimum Wage Act (H.R. 1010 / S.460), which would increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour and the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to 70 percent of that ($7.07 when minimum wage is $10.10).

It’s still not too late to sign the petition, so add your name before March 31 and keep your eyes on the FCWA Facebook and Twitter pages for more action opportunities this weekend and into Monday.

From the FCWA press release:

The actions come on the heels of drastic $8.6 million cuts to the Farm Bill. These cuts mean deeper poverty and more hunger to the country’s poorest residents instead of livable wages, public policies, and social programs that help people eat, work and get access to vital services designed to flow with the economic fluctuations of the U.S. economy. Additionally, a raise in the minimum wage would help the food workers who use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, at 1.5 times the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce because of their low wages. Food workers also face food insecurity, or the inability to afford to eat as defined by the USDA, at 1.2 times the rate of all other workers.

As the country’s largest private sector workforce, the nation’s 20 million food system workers make up the backbone of the economy, comprising one-sixths of all jobs in the U.S. Over one-third of the workers along the food chain would benefit passage of the Fair Minimum Wage Act.

Sign the petition now.

Posted March 26, 2014 by Andrew Ranallo   

Food securityUnited NationsWater

Food, farming, livelihoods—no matter what you’re looking at, water is there, and when it’s not, things start to fall apart. California is facing currently its worst drought on record. Australia, too, with Queensland currently home to the state’s largest drought-declared area on record. With agriculture accounting for close to 70 percent of water withdrawals, the connection to our food supply is basic and utterly obvious.

In late February, the U.N. Committee on Food Security’s High Level Panel of Experts (CFS-HLPE) announced the composition of the expert team that will carry out its study on water and food security. We are pleased to announce that IATP’s Shiney Varghese has been selected as one of the team members. Shiney will bring to the collaborative effort her extensive experience with the water activist community, knowledge of agricultural water management, along with her grasp of water and food rights and the connections to climate change.

The Committee on World Food Security (CFS), established in 1974, is the foremost international and intergovernmental forum trying to address global food security and nutrition. Following the food crisis of the 2007-08, it was reformed to be a more inclusive body, with a Private Sector Mechanism (PSM, representing the interests of agri-businesses and food profiteers) and Civil Society Mechanism (CSM, representing the interests of small-scale producers, workers and those advocating their rights) participating alongside governments and donor agencies. They also created a High level panel of Experts (HLPE) to help them in identifying the problems and to bring expert knowledge to the attention of the CFS.

The HLPE report on water and food security is expected to put together information on how countries and regions currently manage their water; analyze water use and management practices from a food security lens; and provide recommendations so as to improve water and food security policies, with a long-term perspective. As part of its report elaboration process, the HLPE conducted an e-consultation to seek feedback and comments, on the proposed scope and building blocks of the report. Over the next year, the six-member HLPE project team will build on this to produce a draft report that will be available for comments early next year. The final report will be presented to CFS 42 in October 2015.  

Posted March 19, 2014 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

Agricultural TechnologyNanotechnology

The 2014 National Nanotechnology Initiative Strategic Plan was released on February 28, a Friday afternoon. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but when the U.S. government doesn’t want to draw attention to a report, often that report will be released on a Friday afternoon.

There was no need to downplay the Strategic Plan, which, like the previous plan, continued to emphasize public funding for product development. However, a new “signature initiative” to develop nanotechnology enabled sensors, while not targeting public and environmental impacts of nanotechnology, can be used to protect public and environmental health.

(Nanotechnology involves the manufacture, visualization and manipulation of atomic to molecular sized materials. The NNI’s Nanotechnology 101 offers a concise introduction to the subject.)

The National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office (NNCO) wrote the Strategic Plan for a Congress that is generally optimistic and enthusiastic about nanotechnology, particularly its potential for job creation and economic growth. A February study (subscription required) co-funded by the NNCO claims to have identified a $1 trillion global market for nanotechnology enabled products in 2013. It is one of many ironies of federal nanotechnology investment that publicly funded research, such as this nanotechnology market evaluation, is privatized and available to the public only for at a steep price.

The Strategic Plan outlines common goals and five interagency initiatives carried out by 15 federal agencies and departments that will spend about $1.7 billion, mostly for research and development of products, during 2014. It is not likely that Congress will significantly reduce the NNI Supplement to President Barack Obama’s budget for nanotechnology.

IATP participated in a June 2013 NNI workshop on the draft Strategic Plan and submitted one of 13 comments on the draft during a short 30 day comment period. The comment length was limited to 4000 characters 20 percent less than the length of this blog), so concision and acronyms were the order of the day. Read a slightly expanded version of that comment, footnoted and with acronyms explained.

IATP participated in two NNI workshop breakout sessions on the Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) consequences of manufacturing with nanomaterials. Our comments on the draft strategy likewise focused on EHS concerns. First, IATP wrote that the NNI strategy should commit to make public all safety data related to NNI finance research. No world class EHS impact research program will develop without a commitment to sharing EHS data with the public.

Second, IATP noted that despite the National Research Council’s criticism of the previous NNI Strategic Plan for not emphasizing research on the effects of Engineered Nano-scale Materials (ENMs) on the gastro-intestinal system, NNI sponsored projects have yet to produce EHS relevant data on the consequences for human health of ingesting ENMs. IATP urges NNI to prioritize such research, particularly in light of the number of manufacturers who claimed to include ENMs in commercialized food and food-related products.

Third, although the NNI has funded laboratory research into the effect of ENMs on earthworms and beneficial soil microbes, the draft strategic plan lacked a frank admission that ENMs are entering into natural ecosystems. IATP wrote about the likelihood that ENMs were being applied to agricultural land in the form of “biosolids,” i.e., treated wastewater residues used as a cheap form of fertilizer on millions of acres of U.S. agricultural land. (For more information, see IATP’s recent fact sheet “Nanomaterial Risk To Soil Health”.) The final strategic plan added a drawing of the environmental fate of ENMs to indicate that they are not only going to landfills, largely in the form of ENM coated electronics equipment, and into incinerators, but also into natural ecosystems.

Fourth, the NNI budget provides about $37 million for research into the Ethical Society and Legal Implications (ESLI) of nanotechnology, almost entirely distributed by the National Science Foundation in the form of grants to universities. Since there are ESLI aspects in the research and product development of most federal agencies and departments, IATP urged the NNI to finance ESLI research at federal agencies as well. 

And last but not least, there is no interagency mechanism to enable negotiation of possible conflicts among agency research projects or commercial uses of nanotechnology. For example, as IATP discussed in the NNI workshop, the use of nanosilver, a bactericide, in consumer products such as wash machines and socks, could result in anti-microbial resistance for the effectiveness of nanosilver suffused wound dressings for third-degree burn victims. IATP recommended that the National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel undertake development of such an interagency technology assessment mechanism.

In its Strategic Plan, the NNI appeared to acknowledge some of these concerns, and what was already being documented in some NNI funded projects,– that ENMs are entering natural ecosystems.

The Strategic Plan is a federal research and development document and so makes no recommendations regarding the regulation of ENMs and nanotechnology, which IATP and many others have advocated with no great success over several years. However, informing Congress that ENMs are entering natural ecosystems and that we don’t know what happens to ENMs in the human gut, well, that might cause a few Members of Congress to raise a few questions before they approve the next NNI budget. 

Posted March 17, 2014 by Harriet Barlow   

 Juliette Majot, IATP's new president

Dear Friends,

The Board of Directors of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is very pleased to announce the selection of Juliette Majot as our new president. We are inspired and impressed by Juliette’s experience, knowledge and commitment to building a fair, just and sustainable world. She comes to IATP with a keen appreciation and understanding of the global challenges we face, and brings with her the optimism and energy that is needed to make the important changes that IATP has been working on for the last 28 years.

The search process that brought us to Juliette was extensive and rewarding. Along the way we were humbled by the amazing, smart and dedicated people who engaged with us during the process. So many of you helped identify candidates to whom we reached out. Many of those applied or had thoughtful conversations with us as they considered applying. While we can only have one president, the search reminded us that we have many wonderful friends who share IATP’s vision of making justice a reality. The board wants to sincerely thank everybody who participated in the process.

Juliette is an activist dedicated to movement building for social change. Her activism began in her teens as part of a successful grassroots effort to halt construction of a nuclear reactor along the shore of Lake Michigan near her home town. After earning a degree in management from Purdue University, she joined the staff of Friends of the Earth U.S. under David Brower, where she eventually served as deputy director. After five years with FoE U.S. she turned her attention to Friends of the Earth UK.

In 1989 she joined the staff of the fledgling San Francisco-based organization, International Rivers Network (now “International Rivers”). At IRN she worked with local, national and regional organizations worldwide to expose and bring an end to the poor economic performance, harm to society and environmental destructiveness of large-scale river projects, particularly large dams in the global south. In 1994, she co-founded “Fifty Years Is Enough,” an international campaign designed to shine a spotlight on the destructive policies and practices of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. She served as executive director of IRN from 2000 to 2005.

Since leaving IRN, Juliette has been an independent consultant to NGOs and foundations, designing and undertaking strategy, outcome, and developmental evaluations, and promoting the importance of international advocacy campaigning. Her clients included the Ford Foundation, Oxfam Novib, Friends of the Earth International, Pesticide Action Network, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and Oxfam America.

A native of Michigan City, Indiana, Juliette will be moving back to the Midwest, where she will dive into the world of food and agriculture policy and rural development issues, and tackle the persistent trade and global governance issues that define our era. We look forward to introducing you to her personally in the coming weeks and months. Upon accepting the position, Juliette left immediately for Brussels, where she joined IATP staff at a strategy meeting about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

We are confident that we, and you, will find Juliette’s leadership inspiring. Here is an excerpt from her response to an application question about advancing IATP’s agenda:

We are, and always will be, faced with a constellation of problems solved only by eliminating poverty and hunger, ending inequality and inequity, protecting human rights, and living with the planet in ways that nurture and sustain it. I use the term constellation intentionally—as the causes of human suffering and environmental degradation, do, indeed, form a complex system. Among IATP’s greatest strengths is its systems approach, internationalist in perspective, yet grounded in the real experience of U.S. farmers…

IATP must continue to be both tenacious and nimble, to spot opportunities, to provide excellent research and analysis, grounding itself in the real experience of farmers in the U.S. and abroad, leveraging and expanding movement capacity through true solidarity with those with whom we share our most treasured values. IATP’s work is, after all, not ultimately about grain reserves, or investor-state mechanisms, or renewable fuel standards. It is about the rights and duties of individuals and communities to shape the informed opinion necessary to water, feed, fuel and strengthen our societies in perpetuity.

We hope you will have the opportunity to meet and talk with Juliette as she starts her tenure at IATP. We are sure you will agree with us that she is the right woman to lead us in this crucial era. In the meantime, here is a very short video of Juliette talking about coming to IATP.

For the IATP Board of Directors,

Harriet Barlow
Board Chair

Posted March 11, 2014 by IATP   

Food and HealthAntibiotics HealthLivestock

A minimum of 23,000 people die in the United States due to antibiotic resistance, according to the Center for Disease Control. Yet, antibiotic resistance—the rise of so-called “super bugs”—is on the rise because of overuse and abuse of antibiotics in our food system. Eighty percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. go toward food animal production—mostly for the corporate meat industry that uses it for growth promotion and to keep a large number of animals alive in confined spaces. While doctors, nurse practitioners and pharmacists are required to write prescriptions for antibiotics to treat sick people, anyone can buy them over the counter in animal feed stores. This lack of regulation is creating a public health crisis that is entirely possible to avert.

After years of delay, FDA is finally attempting to address this major gap by requiring animal drug makers to have veterinary supervision of antibiotics in feed. Veterinary supervision is critical to slow the overuse of these drugs and the related spread of antibiotic resistance. However, the FDA (in order avoid resistance from drug companies) is watering down what “veterinary supervison” means, and therefore, undermining the ability of government agencies to effectively track how drugs in animal feed are used.

The existing rule (called the Veterinary Feed Directive, or VFD), which is stronger, only applies to two drugs. But the FDA is weakening this rule in order to apply it to many more antibiotic drugs. While regulating a broad range of antibiotics under the VFD is absolutely critical for public health, the FDA should create a strong and comprehensive rule that requires the drug industry to change its practices.

To read the proposed FDA rule, click here.

We are asking you to help make our food system healthy and safe. Take action right now by submitting comments to the FDA before March 12—the deadline for public comments.

Send a personal message and demand that FDA address the following concerns: 

  • Require antibiotic drugs used in feed to be under veterinary supervision and NOT DEPEND ON VOLUNTARY ACTION for the change.
  • Ask FDA to maintain the existing federal requirement that VFD drugs only be used when the veterinarian has seen the animals to be treated (described as a Veterinarian-Patient-Client-Relationship in the current rule). Doctors or veterinarians must not be able to prescribe drugs to patients outside their care.
  • The revised rule MUST require veterinarians and feed companies to send copies of orders for VFD feeds to the FDA. Keeping track of how antibiotic drugs are used on farm is important for FDA to control the spread of resistance
  • The rule should keep the current requirement that veterinarians keep records for 2 years instead of shortening it to one year.
  • Finally, refills on the feed directives should be time-constrained, keeping veterinarians in the loop on future use of antibiotics.

Write FDA Commissioner Hamburg today by submitting comments directly to the FDA, here. Here is a sample letter:

Commissioner Hamburg:

I am concerned about the spread of antibiotic resistance and its potential devastating effects on the health of my family. Given that the bulk of antibiotics used in the United States are given to animals in feed without any veterinarian supervision, I am encouraged to learn that FDA is trying to at least require that a veterinarian be involved. This is the right thing to do, but I believe that the FDA is going about it in the wrong way. I ask you to strengthen the current FDA rule on VFDs in feed in the following way:

  • Require that all medically important antibiotics in feeds only be used under veterinary supervision and not wait for voluntary action by drug companies to make the change.
  • Keep the current federal requirement that a valid relationship (VCPR) is maintained between the veterinarian and his / her animal clients. In other words, veterinarians writing a feed directive should have recently laid eyes upon the animals to be treated, or at least visited the farm where they are kept.
  • Require veterinarians and feed companies to submit VFD orders to the FDA, so that the Agency can track how these drugs are being used.
  • Maintain the current two year record keeping requirement.
  • Don’t allow illegitimate re-ordering of feed antibiotics: Ensure that the VFD expires no later than the actual end of life of the animals it was intended to benefit -- or six months after it is written, or the label directions—whichever is shortest.
Without these improvements, the VFD will not fully ensure that antibiotics which are important to humans—such as penicillins, tetracyclines, erythromycins and steptogramins—remain effective for treating future generations of both sick people and sick animals.

Because of the critical importance to public health, I further urge you to take two important steps that go beyond the purview of the VFD:

  1. On FDA’s books, there are many approvals for livestock antibiotics delivered in feed or water that do not address a specific illness and have no limits on the duration of their use. FDA must discontinue them. So long as these approvals remain, there is little to prevent medically important antibiotics from continuing to be used routinely for non-sick animals.
  2. The public, including public health researchers, must have data granular enough to track whether the Agency’s new rules designed to end routine antibiotic use in food animals are in fact working. Given the nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics used in food animals today and the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, stewardship of these drugs is vital.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Submit your comment now!




       Sign up for our free newsletter!