Posted August 28, 2012 by Mark Muller
One of the most exciting things about the upcoming Food + Justice = Democracy conference will be the incorporation of a Peoples Movement Assembly. These are designed to help gatherings develop collective political agreements and positions, and this particular assembly will have the conferees coalesce around the barriers to the creation of a just and healthy food system and the opportunity to address those barriers.
Over the next several weeks we are going to feature statements from some of the food justice leaders that will be attending the conference. So many of the conferees provide an awe-inspiring level of wisdom and experience to the food justice movement, and the movement will be all the stronger the more it is democratically built on that wisdom and experience.
Justice requires a conscious, vigilant and active populace. Building towards food justice requires that we conduct public education campaigns to make communities aware of the impact of the current food system on our planet, our health and the economies of our communities. It requires that we provide local food–related models of what sustainability and justice might look like. These models must provide real ways that people can participate in growing, processing, distributing and selling healthy foods and realizing economic benefit from their efforts. They must provide communities with the opportunity to shape their food system and the policies driving it.
Join us at the conference September 24–26 and collaborate with leaders like Malik to create a truly just and healthy food system!
We've added some more registration options, so take a look and see which one works best for you. Don't let finances keep you from joining the conversation!
Posted August 24, 2012 by Mark Muller
We are in the midst of the worst U.S. drought since the 1950s, and some regions are to the point of the Dust Bowl-era 1930s. As expected, prices of corn, soybeans and wheat have increased significantly, causing a rise in food prices and putting a difficult squeeze on many livestock farmers.
Fortunately the Obama administration and Congress have stepped up and decided to ... purchase meat from livestock farmers to donate through food assistance programs? Open up sensitive environmental lands for haying and grazing? And if Congress gets its act together, possibly pass a livestock disaster aid bill?
Addressing the economic challenges of the drought will of course be welcomed by farmers throughout the Midwest. Yet, comparing the policy actions of today to other times of agricultural crisis, these initiatives appear woefully unimaginative and small. Policymakers are clearly missing the forest for the trees, and prefer to make a lot of noise about small policies rather than address structural issues.
It would be one thing if the food and agricultural economy tended to hum along fine and economic calamities were rare, but that is clearly not the case. If it isn't a drought, it's been a flood, or exploding energy costs, or food safety concerns, or Wall Street speculators, or skyrocketing land values. Our food system—the most important of production systems—is disturbingly vulnerable to events well beyond the control of farmers. And perhaps the most chronic of problems occurs when farmers produce an abundance of crops, when everything goes well, and commodity prices are driven down below the farmers' cost of production.
What is missing in current policy discussions is the recognition of the inherent volatility in the agricultural economy. Merging the biological system of farming into our economic system comes with challenges, and we top those challenges off with the fact that we have little room for error—we all need to eat, usually multiple times a day. A short supply of television sets causes disgruntlement; a short supply of food causes starvation and riots.
Many decades ago, events came together to remind the nation of the vulnerability of our food supply. The Great Depression caused the price of agricultural commodities to tank, and that was coupled with the hardships of the Dust Bowl. Policymakers recognized that this was not simply a blip in the economic charts. The oversized influence that the banking system had on farmers was unacceptable, the price levels of commodities were devastating and tillage practices were contributing to the loss of soil. The long-term viability of U.S. agriculture was on the line.
Today's policymakers probably would have responded to the events of the 1930s with a "Cash for Clunkers"-type of program for farmers, but the Roosevelt administration and many in Congress knew that these issues couldn't be solved with Band-Aid policy solutions. They used banking regulation and grain reserves to return economic power back to farmers, supported good tillage practices, and in turn created a platform for decades of productive and profitable agriculture.
Over the past 40 years we have slowly abandoned the supply-management systems that provided farmers with a fair price for their commodities. We now have an arcane system that spends billions of dollars on farmer support when commodity prices are below the cost of production, and spends billions of additional dollars on food support when food prices are too high. This works fine for grain traders and other agribusiness entities that can buy low and sell high, but is a lousy deal for taxpayers and historically hasn't addressed the core challenges for farmers either.
It's past time for policymakers to get back to addressing some of the root causes of these food and agriculture crises. Congress could very well come back in September and pass a livestock disaster aid bill and be very proud of itself, but that will do nothing to address the long-term market distortions that are causing excessively high prices right now, as well as the excessively low prices less than a decade ago.
Seventy-five years ago the Farm Bill focused on creating an economic platform that supported a safe and abundant food supply. Now the Farm Bill is little more than a money grab between interest groups—much of the funding going to noble causes such as anti-hunger, family farmers, conservation and food safety—but nonetheless a money grab. These taxpayer-funded Band-Aids are getting expensive and do nothing to address the structural challenges in food and agriculture. A functional market allows farmers to get a fair price for their commodities and allows consumers to pay a fair price for their food. We need to demand that policymakers provide the tools for markets to function well, and let them know that the continual practice of seeking cover behind emergency payments is unacceptable.
This post originally appeared August 20, 2012 on The Huffington Post.
Posted August 23, 2012 by Eleonore Wesserle
Food + Justice = Democracy is less than a month away! IATP is bringing together food justice leaders from across the country, from the grassroots to the grasstops, to raise up the food system narratives of communities of color and tribal nations. Come join us September 24–26 and add your voice to the co-creation of a national food justice platform.
In the coming weeks, we will be introducing our presenters, facilitators and some of the issues we’ll be addressing at Food + Justice = Democracy. Today, we would like to introduce our keynote speaker: Mr. Douglas Blackmon.
Douglas A. Blackmon is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, and co-executive producer of the acclaimed PBS documentary based of the same name. Mr. Blackmon's keynote address and film will be a centerpiece of Food + Justice = Democracy.
From the Slavery by Another Name website:
Slavery by Another Name details the continued exploitation of African American's labor in the United States, and dispels the notion that this exploitation is something of the long ago past. Based on a vast record of original documents and personal narratives, Slavery by Another Name unearths the lost stories of slaves and their descendants who journeyed into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation and then back into the shadow of involuntary servitude in coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations.
The film's unmasking of specific laws and policies enacted by states and by the U.S. will help frame the conference's discussion on what kind of policies and practices are necessary to address the continuing legacy of racism in the food system and, in its place, craft a food system that is fair, just and healthy for all.
Learn more and register at www.iatp.org/food-justice.
Posted August 20, 2012 by Mark Muller
Farmers throughout the country are experiencing one of the worst droughts in 50 years. It’s times like these that federal farm policy is most appreciated. After all, regardless of crop yields we all still need to eat, and having a thriving agricultural economy that sustains our natural resources and provides farmers with an adequate income is the best way to protect our food supply now and into the future.
Two of the primary titles of the Farm Bill, the commodity and crop insurance titles, are specifically intended to support a profitable and stable farming economy. The political process, however, tends to create policies that often deviate from the stated intentions. Crop insurance and many commodity programs have been designed to support large-scale commodity production, and thereby have created disincentives for smaller-scale and diversified cropping systems, as well as ineffective support systems for organic and direct-marketing farmers. The end result is that the crops grown in the U.S. have little correlation to the foods needed for a healthy diet.
U.S. agriculture is continuing a longstanding trend toward bigger, more industrial farms with less crop diversity, and federal farm policy often contributes to this trajectory. While this trajectory’s footprint on the agricultural landscape is clear, the impact on the U.S. diet is not well studied. After all, health advocates have plenty of other policies in USDA’s purview to keep an eye on, from food stamps to school lunch to food safety. Why should public health advocates spend time advocating for particular farm commodity programs when the path from farm (to grain buyer to food processor to retail store) to consumer is so convoluted?
Despite the difficulty in drawing parallels between farm policies and public health, these policies impact our eating habits in ways that are rarely considered. The food industry often counters that changes in the price of corn have a rather small impact on the overall cost of a box of cereal or a pound of hamburger, and thereby have minimal impact on buying decisions. This perspective, however, fails to consider the multiple points at which corporations are making decisions that impact what we eat. Changes in the relative costs of different commodities encourage food processors to reformulate a processed food product, restaurants to tweak their menu, and perhaps most importantly, marketers to promote food products that are most profitable. It’s no accident that grocery stores dedicate valuable shelving to a mindboggling array of soda pop, cereal and snack foods—these foods use low-cost commodities like corn and wheat and provide enormous profit margins. While we consumers generally have the final say in what we put into our bodies, economic and policy drivers throughout the food chain have more impact on our decisions than what we realize.
In this series, we’ll be taking a look at the different plans for commodity programs and crop insurance that are on the table for the current Farm Bill. We’ll attempt to assess the impacts that changes in these programs may have on how we eat. Although the cause-and-effect relationships are poorly documented, we’ll do our best to draw from existing studies—along with a healthy dose of common sense.
Stay tuned over the next several weeks as we look at emerging farm policy.
Posted August 16, 2012 by Amelia Harris
This year, Bike and Bite also celebrates the United Nation’s International Year of the Cooperative. Many of us love the notion of the cooperative. You may imagine a few people, probably college students, living together, sharing their food and responsibilities. Housing cooperatives are certainly prevalent, but cooperatives span the full spectrum of business. Most Minnesotans may not realize that our state has the highest number of cooperative businesses in the United States. According to the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Cooperatives’ research, over one thousand cooperatives from 16 different business sectors employ over 42,000 Minnesotans!
Why are there so many cooperatives in Minnesota? Scandinavian, German and Dutch immigrants brought the business model over from Northern Europe in the early 1800s where many cooperative businesses, particularly agricultural cooperatives, were thriving. Since, the popularity of cooperatives has grown immensely in part due to their high rate of success. An international study estimates that 64 percent of cooperatives around the world survive their first five years compared to only 32 percent of other business model types. Further, they estimate the survival rate of cooperative businesses is even higher in the American Midwest.
The cooperative business model is so successful because it brings people together to share mutually in the trials and achievements of the company. Cooperatives are member-owned, which means that members make all their business’ decisions democratically. The model allows otherwise small-scale producers to compete in markets dominated by larger non-cooperative businesses. For example, Land O’Lakes, known for its dairy products, is comprised of over 300,000 agricultural producers who together comprise the second largest cooperative business in the United States.
On Saturday morning at 10 a.m., we will bike around southern Minneapolis to visit cooperatives, restaurants and gardens alike. At each of our ten stops we will have more information about cooperatives, cooperative business principles and some history. Representatives from co-ops like The Wedge, Seward Co-op, Omega House, Organic Valley and others will be on hand to answer your questions about their experiences working and living in cooperatives. After the ride, we will toast cooperatives and other local food establishments with Surly beer, snacks, live music and games.
More information about Bike and Bite available at www.iatp.org/bikeandbite. Or watch the Bike and Bite 2012 video below:
Posted August 14, 2012 by Dennis Keeney
In the first blog in this series, I discussed how drought has affected me. As I walked through a Central Iowa corn field near Ames this summer, I surveyed another corn crop destroyed by the heat and dry conditions, (see photo) I wondered if this farm could survive.
I thought back to the farm I grew up on and how in the long run it did not survive. That is, it did not have “resilience” to withstand weather onslaughts, unfavorable markets and aggressive bankers.
So what the heck is resilience? An old term, but coming back into its own, at least in academic circles. And it is a good one for the times, perhaps for the rest of our rocky future.
And rocky it will be. Climate change, population pressures, decline of resources, both physical and financial, the list goes on. But first resilience.
Dr. William Reese at the University of British Columbia, in his challenging paper “Thinking Resilience” defines resilience as “the capacity of a system to withstand disturbances while still retaining its fundamental structure, function and internal feedbacks” (see also Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Walker, B., and Salt, D. Island Press, N.Y. NY. 2006.)
Fancy words, but what does it mean? Reese uses a good analogy, the brittleness of a system. Can the system spring back like the ability of a car’s shock absorbers to smooth out a pothole (those of you who to drive the streets of Minneapolis can appreciate that ability).
Our modern agriculture is full of these potholes. The universal failure of pesticides (even with genetic engineering) which, over time, drives resistance of the very pests they want to control, and causes even greater crop losses than before. Or even bigger, the failure of long-term solutions to food production in the face of further increases in population and resource demand.
The field I stood in most likely has had all of the latest technologies: fertilizer placed by GIS precision planter, $300 a bag of multi stack genetically engineered seed corn, with Bt for rootworms and corn borers, and Roundup-Ready for weed control, tiling for drainage, treatment with glyphosate herbicide and of course it would have been harvested with a GIS controlled 16 row $300,00 harvester. Counting land costs, it will cost $866 per acre to grow assuming no harvest costs; yes, you read right, $866, more than your typical fast food worker might clear in a month! (Iowa’s minimum wage is $7.25/hr.)
The perception is that government and crop insurance will cover a farmer’s loss in the case of a crop failure. This is not correct. Given the many parts of the crop insurance program, the possibility that Congress will modify the program to make it more like previous crop disaster programs. But even if crop farmers are covered, animal farmers and ethanol producers will face economic crises because of the corn costs, which could rise toward an unheard-of $9.00 per bushel. Will the federal government, in a time of belt tightening, cover the disaster? It is likely that the farming community will feel a financial loss that will take years to recover from.
Probably the big farm I visited will survive to live another day. What about the small, diversified farmer who even with several enterprises, will not have enough water for the CSA or grass for the dairy cows? Through no fault of their own, they will not be resilient enough to make it, especially if they have debts.
This is how brittle our world has become. Science, which works to make agriculture more efficient and productive, fails in the face of major disasters. Free trade will not save us, nothing to trade at world competitive prices. The variability in our natural ecosystems, which should be appreciated and managed, instead is ignored as we try to keep the system in its optimal configuration (e.g.,175-250 bushels/acre, completely mechanized, to feed into efficient hog or poultry confinements or ethanol distilleries).
Of major concern is that food production per capita is declining in spite of huge costs for inputs (and huge profits for the providers of inputs). And to make matters more complicated, our political and educational systems are showing the signs of brittleness and lack of resiliency. Congress stalemates and states are in the red. The once upon a time “land grant” universities now are operating largely to serve the profits of corporations, offering little in the way of solutions for resiliency, but more and more on ways to continue on the same broken treadmill.
Now that sustainability as a concept seems to be co-opted as a green wash term, we need to revisit the concept of resilience. This year’s drought is a good place to start. The next blog will visit the causes of climate change, and especially the role of human activity in accelerating what could be a major turning point in the world’s history.
Posted August 14, 2012 by Dr. David Wallinga
July was an important month for saving antibiotics, and a busy month for IATP’s Healthy Food Action. Here’s what’s happened.
FDA data show 90 percent of the more than 29 million pounds of antibiotics given to food animals each year are put into animal feed or water. Mostly, this is to promote growth or to compensate for the crowded, factory-style conditions in which they’re raised, inducing an unnecessary disease risk. There’s consensus that the huge farm overuse is helping create and transmit resistant infections to humans, where they lead to more illness, more death and rising health costs.
FDA’s never taken one of these approved feed antibiotics—including penicillins, tetracyclines, erythromycins and other important human drugs—off the market. Earlier this year, federal courts decided against the FDA on the first of two legal claims. In effect, the decision said that FDA was unreasonable in putting a 35-year-old decision on the backburner and continuing to allow the addition of penicillins and tetracyclines to animal feedan—an unnecessary risk to public health. FDA appealed that ruling, and asked for a stay in implementing the decision.
Just a few days ago, the court ruled again. It refused the FDA’s request for a stay, saying, in effect that despite the appeal, the FDA could delay no longer. It must begin a process to withdraw approval for use of penicillin and tetracycline in animal feed unless drug manufacturers prove in regulatory hearings that such uses are safe for people. Finally.
Seven and 13 years ago, U.S. citizens also had petitioned the FDA to withdraw feed approval five other classes of antibiotics important to humans, in addition to penicillins and tetracyclines—the FDA denied those petitions. In the second legal decision that went against the FDA, in June 2012, the court directed the FDA to reexamine its grounds for doing so. If the FDA does nothing—that is, if the agency just lets this second decision stand, without appeal—the process can move forward to restore a more sane policy of using antibiotics for animals only when necessary.
That’s the ask that IATP made in a letter sent to FDA Commissioner Hamburg, herself a physician, last month. Seven partner organizations, with more than 9 million combined members, added their voices to this call.
Outside the courtroom, the FDA has been touting a “sea-change” in its approach to the overuse of antibiotics in livestock, but as suggested in comments filed by IATP and more than 50 other groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Pediatric Infectious Disease Society, American College of Preventive Medicine, American Osteopathic Association, American Public Health Association, Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, Boston Public Health Commission, National Association of County and City Health Officials, March of Dimes and others, the FDA’s new approach could fall well short of the mark. Not least because at its core, the FDA’s approach asks pharmaceutical companies to volunteer to act against their own financial self-interest, by walking away from pharmaceutical sales in the short term.
If we’re going to convince FDA to get off the dime, it’s going to take a whole lot more people power, and health professionals are key. That’s why we asked you to weigh in, to tell FDA to do better and be more proactive to protect public health. More than 500 of you responded. You joined 270 chefs, 44 hospitals and about 219,000 citizens in asking the same.
Posted August 13, 2012 by Jim Harkness
In many arenas, agriculture and trade policy have as much to do with human rights and democracy as they do with crop yields and commodity prices. In November, Minnesotans will be faced with a choice to protect human rights and democracy by voting against two constitutional amendments on the ballot—one would ban people of the same sex from marrying and the other would prevent citizens without a government-issued ID from voting.
We are convinced all Minnesotans should oppose these amendments. Respect for human rights includes fairness for all people in marriage laws, and requiring voter ID will deprive many rural citizens, immigrants and military personnel the opportunity to vote.
Even beyond the amendments’ calls to restrict rights and limit participation in the democratic process, IATP takes issue with governing by constitutional amendment—it’s reckless and risks putting the interests of corporations over those of individuals.
Posted August 9, 2012 by Dr. David Wallinga
You’ve probably heard about the hormone-disrupting chemical, BPA, put into food can liners. Eden Foods, a maker of canned beans, tomatoes and other products, gave BPA the boot long ago.
Campbell’s Soup, among other companies, has announced it will phase BPA out of cans, but without disclosing when, or what alternative(s) will replace it.
In fact, food is a major route of exposure to all sorts of chemicals like BPA. Just not the only route. It turns out BPA also is part of that that filmy coating on ATM and other receipts. Known as thermal receipt paper, it’s widely used in cash registers, for airline tickets, even in adhesive labels on grocery deli foods.
An estrogen-coated receipt in your purse? Big yuck. Even worse, new science suggests BPA can be absorbed through the skin. As usual, we know there are alternatives. The EPA’s Design for the Environment Program just released a draft report on 19 chemical alternatives to BPA for use in developing thermal paper.
Posted August 6, 2012 by Dennis Keeney
I am a product of small farm Midwest U.S. agriculture. Weather has been a major part of my life—as is the case with any farm family. Declaring disaster areas and offering emergency loans by a benevolent government might make folks feel better but will never replace the stress that comes with widespread, insidious devastating drought. You find this stress in ancient writing, such as Egypt’s seven-year drought, and you find it today as cattle producers sell off their livelihoods because they cannot afford the hay to keep the cattle alive.
I have experienced this stress firsthand. I spent my first five years on a southern Iowa farm, where making a living even during good times was very difficult, and even worse during drought. In 1937, when I was born, Iowa was still reeling from the great drought of the mid-1930s that brought the dust bowl further west. My father used to say that my hospital and doctors costs were paid for with a promissory note on his only good field of corn. He probably did not embellish too much, but then corn was of such little value that many farmers could not afford to even harvest what little crop they had.
The family moved north to better soils. World War II provided strong demand and weather was perfect for corn and hay production. Soybeans came into the crop mix. Life was good: loans were paid off, new tractors became available when the industrial power of the nation went back to making machines of peace rather than of war. But as always happens, farmers were not able to stop overproducing and crop prices plummeted. To help out, the federal government under President Truman established the ”ever-normal granary.” They helped purchase grain bins and paid storage costs for corn that had been placed under loan. When the corn was sold, the government covered costs if at a loss, you kept the profits if corn was sold at a gain. This system today would stabilize farm income, grain prices and food prices worldwide, but the policy was abandoned for the freedom to farm or fail policy in the 90s.
I relate this history because this system of reserves helped make the 1950s and 1988 drought less stressful. Still, both were nasty. In 1950s the drought started, as is the case today, in the southwest U.S. and spread north and east. It went on for five years, decimating Texas and Kansas. During 1953–57, drought plagued the Great Plains including Iowa. It hit our farm near Des Moines especially in 1954: I recall grinding corn cobs and covering them with molasses to provide some roughage and protein to the dairy cows but production still dropped precipitously and we had to sell off the beef and some of the dairy. I managed to keep my 4-H dairy heifer. Very little hay was to be had and the corn turned white by July and we cut what was left for silage, hoping we did not get forage high in nitrate. Fortunately, Dad had planted some grain sorghum and sorghum-sudan grass which gave some grain and forage. Corn in the granary went to feed the cattle, costing the farm precious cash receipts. After that year I have always loved the rain, even when too much caused flooding, anything was better than the drought. I always scanned the skies then, hoping the next cloud brought relief.
For many Iowa farmers, including my dad and mother, that drought began a long slide toward the loss of the farm. It was not resilient enough, even with the good years. The debt load and the other shocks of 1954 were too much and it was eventually sold. This pattern was repeated though out the Midwest. Should the government have stepped in with loans and other forms of support? Would it have made a difference, or were these farms slated to be taken over by larger farms regardless?
The widespread persistent drought of 1988 rivaled the earlier droughts and moved further east. In 1988 I came back to Iowa to direct the Leopold Center. The countryside was eerily similar to my 1954 experience, but I was insulated from the effects by my secure state-funded position. Again this drought created stress and led to the loss of smaller, less resilient farms. However, the economic costs of the drought were lessened because the country had relatively large grain reserves.
Today, yet another widespread drought threatens farmers and ranchers. Again it started west of Great Plains and Midwest. This drought is now in its second year, and has already become one of the nation’s worst. How long will it last? And do we finally know enough about what causes these extreme weather events to at least predict after the fact what happened? Since we have no grain reserves, prices are at the whim of markets and speculators.
What we do know is that drought brings huge demands on the resiliency of farmers and ranchers. Several states recognize this and have responded with excellent websites and hotlines that can help. Minnesota’s page, for example, is a great resource for the state and the region.
It’s becoming clear that Midwest row-crop and animal agriculture cannot rely on a dysfunctional federal government for long-term relief during persistent droughts. Building resiliency, to be able to withstand drought, floods, market downturns and diseases and return to productivity is a must.
I will explore resilience as I move along in this drought series. I know it is a tall order, but we just have to try.