Posted May 7, 2015 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell   

Agricultural TechnologyAgroecologyAgrodemocracyIntellectual Property Rights (IPRs)GMO

Coming up May 8, HBO will air another episode of Vice, the Emmy-winning documentary series coming out of the Vice Media group. Already this season, Vice has addressed topics from the challenges facing us due to growing antibiotic resistance, to how much of the $10 billion in reconstruction and relief aid sent to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake has actually reached and helped Haitian communities.

The May 8 episode will focus on the future of our food system, in particular, the role of GMOs in helping us achieve a sustainable and food-secure future. Vice interviewed IATP's Director of Agroecology and Agriculture Policy, Dr. Jahi Chappell, to respond to the claims they heard directly from Monsanto about how useful, necessary, and safe GMO crops are. Dr. Chappell's arguments follow:

Genetically modified food is the wrong answer to the wrong question

Although recent pieces in the popular media and press have dismissed critics of GMOs as being anti-science or ideological, many credentialed scientists, myself included, argue that the “GMO = Science” line is incorrect. I would point to three reasons why:

  1. GMOs are different: Genetic modification is not, as the National Academy of Science review argued, simply the same as all other breeding techniques used by humankind for 10,000 years of agriculture. It is not that there is a clear and established danger from them—it is rather the fact that we do not have a good science-based process in place to regularly determine the safety of most crops and foods, and genetic modification does introduce new techniques and new risks that could produce unforeseen harm to people and the environment without much more careful scrutiny across our food system. This includes GMOs, but—as often is called for by GMO advocates—it would also include looking much more carefully at all of our food, because while GMOs do present new risks and challenges, it is true that there are many risks that we simply do little or nothing to gauge throughout the “traditional” parts of our system.

  2. GMOs don't help small farmers or the environment: That said, the potential unintended or unknown health risks are not the most pertinent or important part of the conversation about GMOs. As Vice's documentary will discuss, Monsanto and its fellow companies often discuss how beneficial their products are for farmers and the environment. At best, the results are actually quite mixed The question of why and when farmers will use GM crops is relatively complicated, and it's pretty definite that it hasn't always brought advantages to farmers, particularly small farmers. For example, anthropologist Glenn Stone points out that even though the horrific trend of farmer suicides in India cannot be laid at the feet of GM crops, it is also true that "Bt seed also appears to be exacerbating a key problem underlying the suicides: technology treadmills." In short: GM crops do not necessarily help small farmers, and in many ways contribute to existing trends that hurt them by tying them to a “modern” system that drives up debts, pushes farmers to ever expand their territory no matter the cost to the environment, often hurts already-poor farmers and the landless, and exacts huge costs on the environment and human health—such as the recent classification of Glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen” and its implication in contributing to antibiotic resistance. Given that the vast majority of GMOs in the world either incorporate a pesticide (Bt) directly into crops, or only work alongside continued heavy application of a pesticide (RoundupReady crops – Roundup is the brand name for glyphosate), the idea that GMOs decrease environmental impact or pesticide use is questionable, at best: insecticide use has decreased throughout the world, “but more profoundly in France (also Germany and Switzerland) that do not use GM plants and only modestly in the U.S. Total insecticide use is not decreased in the U.S. when insecticidal plants are included in total insecticide use.” At the same time, herbicide use (like glyphosate) has unsurprisingly increased over recent years—and increased more than insecticide use has decreased.

  3. We don’t need GMOs! But perhaps the most important point of all is the fact that, in order to have a future that nourishes everyone in the world and doesn’t harm the environment, GMOs are not only not the best tool, they're not even a necessary or important one. As a team of agronomists wrote in the scientific journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development:

    "Existing biodiversity in combination with plant breeding has much more to offer the many [sic] world’s farmers and consumers, while GMOs have more to offer the agro-industry and some large-scale farms, and this explains why they have received so much attention and research funding. GMO research should be seen as basic research, very much worth pursuing as such and with potential applications over the long term, but it cannot be seen as good strategic research directed at increasing world food production within the coming decades.  Rather, emphasis on (1.) improved agricultural practices in hunger-prone developing countries, (2.) development of agrobiodiversity resources through plant breeding, and (3.) more sustainable consumption as production of foodstuffs, could be the basis for a much better strategy if the goal is to feed the world’s population in the coming decades."

    What's more, it is very, very clear that the most important ways to improve food security lie in improving gender equality, women’s access to education, and increasing dietary diversity—something I’ve written about before and that was re-confirmed in a recent peer-reviewed study by established food system researchers Lisa Smith and Lawrence Haddad.

So given that GMOs are, in fact, different than the breeding we have traditionally done, that they do not necessarily help farmers or the environment and that we actually don’t need them to nourish the world, what should we do?

Agroecology For the Win

Besides the very important point to be made about the importance of gender—increasing women’s education and political equality will help decrease population growth while improving food security and nutrition, not to mention improving women's livelihoods directly—the other thing we can do, and indeed many people are already doing, is agroecology. As seen in recent pieces in the popular press awareness of agroecology and its benefits are starting to be talked about beyond the academics, agronomists and farmers who study and practice it.

By focusing on support and collaboration with the world's farmers, and using existing natural processes and innovative ecologically-based practices, agroecology offers the most sustainable way to go about providing for the people of the planet without irreparably damaging our environment through climate change, pollution, toxic chemicals and loss of biodiversity. Consider this: 43% of the reduction in malnutrition over the past 40 years has been tied to increases in equality for women and girls, and increases in dietary diversity. (This is more than twice the contribution by increases in productivity/food availability.) Agroecology, when done right, includes acknowledging and addressing issues of social equity and developing systems supporting autonomy and dignity for farmers across lines of class, creed, caste, and gender. It also leads to more diverse diets, as a key element of agroecology is supporting biodiversity on- and off-farm—including diversity in what you grow, and therefore, can eat.

Bad Trade Deals: Making the Bad Worse

The upcoming TPP and TTIP trade deals in the U.S.—and the “Fast Track” legislation that would allow President Obama to basically continue to write the deals in secret, with help from corporate observers—are poised to exacerbate the flaws of the GMO model. As IATP Vice President Ben Lilliston wrote last year: “The secrecy of the U.S.-EU trade negotiations, combined with the insider power of agribusiness and biotech companies, is a potentially toxic combination.” The threats posed by this secrecy continue unabated, including the potential to pre-emptively shut down domestic attempts to label GMOs, not to mention the retaliation the U.S. government has considered against EU countries who don’t accept GM foods, as previously revealed by Wikileaks. The U.S. government wants to push back on the EU’s rational approach to GM foods based on the “precautionary principle” (i.e., “the burden of proof on the safety of an unnecessary product or technology is on the people who want to use it, not on the people who want to avoid it”). This is just one of many anti-democratic ideas lurking in these two trade deals—and GMOs are just one place where the deals could lock in corporate interests and ignore the interests and needs of farmers, everyday citizens and our democratic processes.

“No thank you” to a currently unnecessary new technology

Agricultural biotechnology is still a young area, and GMOs are a new-to-the-world technology. This means we cannot be fully sure of their effects—science can work only so fast and evidence can be slow to accumulate, especially when the effects are subtle or take years to appear. Further, the general public and independent (non-corporate) researchers have not been part of the decisions on risks and rewards, consolidated corporate interests have been.

The benefits of GMOs have not been clear, but some of their negative effects—particularly creating “superweeds”, encouraging increased pesticide use overall and putting farmers on treadmills of debt and technology where they have to take out loans to keep buying the newest thing in order to just keep pace—have become clear.

And we know that alternatives—such as the science, practice and social movements of agroecology—can do just as much or more to address the fundamental levers of food security: enhanced equality for women, dietary diversity and yes, agricultural yields. Let's hope that Friday's episode of Vice will help get across the evidence-based message that we don't need GMOs, many people don't want GMOs and in fact, with proper support for farmers and agroecology, we can do even better without them.

Dr. Chappell holds a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan, and has experience as a postdoctoral researcher in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University and as a professor of Environmental Science and Justice at Washington State University.

Further Reading

See talks from a wide variety of perspectives at the National Academy of Sciences study site: “A science-based look at Genetically Engineered crops”, recordings on the Past Events page:

“Stick to Physics”, on how Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comments misunderstand the nature GMOs, by evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace:

“Can 'agroecology' bring food security to Latin America?”

“The New Scientism”, touching on similar points, by developmental biologist Kamil Ahsan, at Jacobin magazine:

“Agroecology: Agroecosystem diversification” (subscription required)

“The Time Has Come for Agroecology”

“Agroecology can feed Africa – Not agribusiness”

“Complementary effects of species and genetic diversity on productivity and stability of sown grasslands” (subscription required)

“GMOs: Capitalism’s distortions of biological processes”, by genomicist Michael Friedman, at Monthly Review:

“Safety of genetically engineered foods: Approaches to assessing unintended health effects”, by National Academies Press/Institute of Medicine and National Research Council:

“No scientific consensus on GMO safety”, by Angelika Hilbeck et al., Environmental Sciences Europe:

“Key FDA Documents Revealing Hazards Of Genetically Engineered Foods—And Flaws With How The Agency Made Its Policy“ :

“Can GM maize benefit smallholders and increase food security? Lessons from the field in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa”, by Mary Hendrickson et al.,

“Interrogating the technocratic (neoliberal) agenda for agricultural development and hunger alleviation in Africa”, Moseley et al.,

“Plant Breeding vs. GMOs: Conventional Methods Lead the Way in Responding to Climate Change”, by Doug Gurian-Sherman,

“Getting Past Scientized Scrutiny”, by Montenegro de Wit and Iles,

Posted May 4, 2015 by Ben Lilliston   

Industrialized MeatLivestock

Requiring country-of-origin labeling (COOL) of our meat at the grocery story is one of the most common sense food policies we have. Consumers want to know where their meat comes from, and COOL supports local farmers and ranchers. Yet, the big meat companies have been fighting against COOL for more than a decade. Despite losing repeatedly in Congress and the courts they’ve found a backdoor way to kill COOL: global trade rules.

It's hard to believe, but last year a World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute panel ruled that COOL was an illegal trade barrier under international trade rules. The good news is that the Obama Administration appealed the ruling – and new evidence has shown that COOL has not restricted trade. In the coming months a WTO’s Dispute Panel will issue a final ruling. The meat industry is putting enormous pressure on the White House to repeal COOL now – even before the WTO’s final ruling.

We need the President to stand up for consumers, farmers and ranchers and support COOL. Today, IATP and allies like Farm Aid and the National Farmers Union are supporting a National Call-in Day to Protect COOL.

We are asking people to take five minutes and call the White House to support COOL. You can call President Obama at: 888-793-4597. Ask him to stand up for COOL to preserve our right to know where our food comes from! Your voice matters. The White House records every call they receive. We know they’re hearing from the meat industry. Now, they need to hear from us.  

Posted April 28, 2015 by Juliette Majot   

Fast TrackFree trade agreements

Used under creative commons license from

(An editorial from IATP president, Juliette Majot in response to an April 25, 2015 editorial in the Minneapolis StarTribune endorsing Fast Track legislation currently before Congress.)

Fast-track Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), supported by the Star Tribune in an April 25 editorial (“Congress should pass ‘fast track’ on trade”), requires Congress to all but abandon its oversight role in trade negotiations, reducing that role to a yes-or-no vote on negotiating texts of enormous importance to nearly every part of our economy and governmental operations.

The Star Tribune writes that critics of U.S. trade policy “mischaracterize” this trade negotiations system as “somehow secretive.” In fact, the U.S. trade representative has chosen to negotiate trade agreements under Executive Order 13526, which classifies negotiations as national security information. The public cannot read what is being negotiated ostensibly on its behalf until the agreement is completed, signed by the president and presented to Congress. Under “fast track,” no amendments are allowed. Indeed, members of Congress can currently only read the negotiating texts under armed guard and without being able to take notes. Only advisers cleared by the trade representative, overwhelmingly corporate lobbyists, have substantive input to the content of the negotiating texts. This process is the very definition of “secretive.”

The TPA requirement to make the final text public 60 days before the president signs it is a disingenuous feint toward democracy. Finally, making a text public that has been negotiated for years by the U.S. trade representative and corporate advisers and that cannot be changed by Congress, even to determine whether the trade representative has complied with congressional negotiating objectives, is democracy in name only.

The editorialists point to “stringent conditions on labor standards, human trafficking, currency manipulation and other key issues” in the TPA bills as reasons for support. But no trade agreement has ever enforced labor standards. For example, labor standards in the United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, passed in 2006, did not trigger any trade sanctions following an increase in the assassination of trade union officials by paramilitary groups affiliated with the Colombian government.

“Fast track” is an outdated approach to trade — a relic of when negotiations were focused on cutting tariffs and quotas. The two major trade agreements being negotiated by the Obama administration — the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 Pacific Rim countries and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with Europe — are much more about regulations and government policy. These trade deals will set binding policy at the national, state and local level on things like food and environmental safety, financial regulation, labor rights and government procurement, among other issues. And they will expand special rights for foreign corporations to challenge U.S. regulations they believe impede on their future profits. Trade deals such as these that will have such a broad impact on all Americans require more, not less, public scrutiny and congressional oversight.

There is precedent for greater disclosure of trade agreements, as they are negotiated, as well as a more proactive role of Congress before the agreements are completed. Last fall, more than 600 organizations signed a letter to Congress and the president calling for a fast track in which Congress sets negotiating objectives before negotiations begin; certifies that those objectives have been met before completion and approves the deal before the president signs it. There are other — and better — ways to conduct trade policy in a democracy than “fast track.”

Before the Star Tribune Editorial Board blesses trade agreements it has not read (which it could not do, even if it wanted to), it should at least understand how trade agreements are negotiated, by whom and for whom.

Posted April 28, 2015 by Ben Lilliston   

Money and PoliticsFast Track

Used under creative commons license from Backbone Campaign.

The corporate lobbying frenzy is heating up as Fast Track trade authority starts to make its way through Congress. The bill’s passage, with only one hearing and a tight timeline, is being greased by corporate cash and lobbying power—while a wide coalition of pretty much everyone else, workers, environmentalists, social justice and food and agriculture groups work to defeat it.

Why is Fast Track near the top of the multinational corporate agenda? Fast Track would allow the President to negotiate two mega-trade deals in secret, and present a final version to Congress for a simple up or down vote. The two mega trade deals in question, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) would include 11 Pacific Rim countries and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe, would not only set rules for trade, but also expand corporate rights to challenge national and local regulations. TPP and TTIP are at the top of the corporate and financial industry wish list—but first they need “Fast Track” to finish the deals.

We can tell a lot about who cares about Fast Track by looking at who lobbied on last year’s Fast Track bill—a who’s who of inside-the-beltway corporate power: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, US Business and Industry Council, American Natural Gas Alliance, Bayer, Caterpillar, Coca-Cola, GlaxoSmithKline, Koch Industries, Pfizer, Dow Chemical, JP Morgan, and Kraft Foods among others. Many of these companies and many, many more are part of the Trade Benefits America Coalition, who is coordinating the corporate fight for Fast Track. (Not all businesses support Fast Track, in fact many sustainable businesses are joining the fight in opposition.)

Fast track was first introduced through the Senate Finance Committee and was passed there last week. The committee members’ political campaigns have been  well-funded by corporate cash, including from the financial industry, agribusiness, and energy companies.  Committee Chair and author of Fast Track Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has been particularly skilled at raising corporate money, with the securities and pharmaceutical industries being his biggest donors. His personal OrrinPac brought in $1.4 million from Nike, Ernst and Young, and Koch Industries in the 2014 cycle. 

The story is similar on the House side, where Fast Track passed through the Ways and Means Committee chaired by Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI). The big banks, oil and pharmaceutical industries again are among the top political donors to that committee.  The biggest donors for Ryan’s Prosperity Action PAC include: Koch Industries, Abbot Labs and defense contractor Northrop Grumman. 

The good news is that opposition to Fast Track is considerable and growing. Polling data shows Americans of all parties are highly dubious of the benefits of proposed free trade agreements, with more than two-thirds opposing Fast Track. This week, more than 2,000 groups from across the political spectrum sent a letter to Congress opposing Fast Track.  

Will corporate cash and influence overwhelm our democracy? The fight over Fast Track is a pivotal test—and the next few weeks are critical. Now is the time to let your Member of Congress know you oppose the corporate-driven Fast Track. The fact that Fast Track is even being considered is a testament to the growing influence of corporate money in politics and the need to make major reforms in how our democracy works. Let’s make that the next fight after we beat Fast Track. 

Posted April 21, 2015 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell   Tara Ritter   

Used under creative commons license from Suzie's Farm.

The devastating drought in California, home to much of the country’s fruit and vegetable production, is spurring discussions about the future of food production in a new age of climate change. When broaching the topic of solving the future food dilemma – feeding a growing population while using the same amount of land and facing more volatile weather events – the arguments typically fall into one of two camps: 1.) produce more food on less land through the use of technology, chemicals, and genetically modified seeds, or 2.) turn to decentralized and diversified farming practices that naturally boost soil health and farm resilience, such as diverse crop rotations, cover crops, reducing tillage where it makes sense, and building local food systems.

Feedstuffs, a weekly newspaper for agribusiness, recently ran an article on the topic of solving the future food dilemma that included results from an Oklahoma State University study called FooDS (Food Demand Survey). FooDS is a national online survey which includes at least 1,000 individuals each month, measuring consumers’ priorities, expectations, and awareness and concern about various food and agriculture issues, among other topics.

When such studies appear in an agribusiness publication, one might expect them to highlight the benefits of technological fixes to farming problems. However, the FooDS results found that “more than three-quarters of the consumers polled said adopting a more ‘natural’ agricultural production system – that includes additional local, organic and unprocessed foods – would be most effective at addressing the future food challenges rather than adopting a more ‘technological’ agricultural system.”

The three out of every four consumers advocating for a natural—as opposed to a technological—food system to solve the impending food crisis are in line with the science: farming grounded in agroecology is shown to not only boost and support robust crop yields in the long term, but help farms better withstand extreme weather events, and put the control of food systems in the hand of local communities.

Unfortunately, changing the minds of people who disagree with the efficacy of agroecology and promote increasingly technological farming systems is not as easy as presenting evidence. For example, work done at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication shows that people accept or reject beliefs based on their worldviews and who they trust. In other words, people are more likely to listen to trusted community members who share their worldview than to messengers they’ve never met and who view the world in a different way. Indeed, previous stories in Feedstuffs have reported that consumers trust farmers far more than scientists, and that scientists are viewed as “competent, but not entirely trustworthy,” arguably because scientists are not seen as warm or empathetic.

This makes the case that the way to build agricultural systems grounded in agroecology – the type of agricultural systems that three out of four consumers say that they want – is to work directly with farmers and consumers themselves. There’s a great need to develop more mutual understanding and trust between farmers and consumers. Closing the gaps between rural and urban communities will not only fulfill the stated desires of so many eaters and the desire of so many farmers for their work and livelihoods to be better understood, but it is also essential to building an agroecological, food sovereign world. Creating spaces and opportunities for real conversations and exchange will help us change from this system that “as individuals none of us would choose,” and bring us to a future where farmers do well and are well-supported, and everyone has access to healthy, sustainable, fairly produced and served food. We think this is a future we can all agree on.  

Posted April 10, 2015 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

TTIPFree trade agreements

One of the most surprising parts of my visits to Europe around trade issues has been the misconceptions people have about the U.S. And I’m not talking about generalizations about problems in our food system, but the idea that all Americans support free trade agreements. At a recent meeting in Brussels, people from many European countries complained of being branded as anti-American because of the concerns they are raising about TTIP’s impacts on European environment and food systems.

But in fact, campaigns in the U.S. and around the world on TTIP, TPP and other free trade agreements are for the most part not based on nationalism but instead on issues of democracy. Who decides if a community can ban a toxic waste dump, the government or the investor? Under NAFTA’s Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism, the investor won millions of dollars in compensation over a Mexican community’s refusal to reopen a toxic waste dump. Who decides on Country of Origin Labeling for beef? Under a WTO dispute brought by Mexico and Canada – with a strong push from U.S. industry -- the U.S. is being pressed to abolish this sensible program. Perhaps the most basic problem with NAFTA, CAFTA, TTIP, TPP and other free trade agreements is that they give new powers to corporations to set those kinds of rules. As trade campaigners know, the issue is not whether the U.S. or Europe wins, but which corporations stand to benefit.

We have an important opportunity to make that point on April 18, the Global Day of Action on Free Trade Agreements. Our friends at AbL, a German family farm network that is part of the global La Via Campesina network, contacted us about their plans, a series of signs planted in farmers’ fields on TTIP. People will take pictures of the signs across the country, hold press events, and post photos of their actions across Germany. They asked if U.S. groups might be interested in similar actions to show the breadth of concerns across the Atlantic.

There will be dozens of actions focused on fast track and the TPP taking place across the U.S. (see Citizens Trade Campaign for more information). We’d also like to raise the profile of efforts on TTIP. IATP has produced electronic versions of those posters in English that we hope people across the U.S. might use in similar actions. We have three versions of the sign, using the same image of a field as our German friends, with three slogans (TTIP and GMOs: Stay Off Our Farms!; TTIP is Bad for Local Foods!; and TTIP – another job destroying corporate trade agreement). If you take a picture of yourself, your family or your community event with the sign, we’ll post it to an online map of actions taking place all around the world.

We hope you’ll join us to raise the profile of our common efforts across the Atlantic, and in fact around the world, to challenge corporate-led free trade deals and instead insist that another world is possible.

Posted April 7, 2015 by Ben Lilliston   

TradeFree trade agreementsNAFTA: North American Free Trade Agreement

Used under creative commons license from urbanmkr.

We have entered a new era of corporate rights—where, in their quest to access natural resources around the world, multinational firms now routinely ride roughshod over governments and communities. Two trade tribunal rulings issued last month explain how.

Digby Neck, on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, is a popular whale-watching area. After hearing community concerns about the environmental impact of a proposal to expand a basalt quarry, a Canadian government review panel denied approval of the project. The Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador requires oil companies drilling offshore to invest a portion of their profits into local research and development projects. Last month, separate trade tribunals ruled both of these Canadian policies illegal and awarded damages to multinational corporations to compensate them for the loss of anticipated profits under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  

These corporate rights cases, known as Investor State Dispute Settlements (ISDS), are rapidly on the rise, says Public Citizen. And based on leaked text from the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) posted last month – they could become even more common in the years to come.

In the Digby Neck case, the U.S. company Bilcon challenged the findings of a Joint Review Panel (JRP) by Canada’s federal and provincial governments as part of an environmental review of the quarry expansion, first proposed in 2002. The JRP recommended in 2007 that the project not be approved – and pointed out that the project ran counter to “community core values.”

Bilcon disputed the whole concept of “community core values” and objected that the JRP never proposed options to address the issues raised by the community. The company also claimed that Nova Scotia had long made a show of being “open for investment” and that Bilcon had previously had political support for the project – so had a reasonable expectation that its investment would go forward.

It’s worth noting that the case did not involve a new environmental law or regulation – but rather existing rules that had been interpreted differently than how Bilcon preferred. Instead of challenging the law’s implementation in Canadian courts—the company decided to pursue a NAFTA case before a private panel of trade lawyers.

A sharply worded dissent by one member of the three-person panel called the Bilcon case a “remarkable step backwards” for environmental protection, arguing that the decision will inhibit future environmental review processes. Bilcon is seeking $300 million in damages.

In the other NAFTA case from last month, an international tribunal awarded $17.3 million in damages to Exxon Mobil Corp., and Murphy Oil Corp. Going back to the 1980s in Newfoundland and Labrador, oil companies have been required to spend some percentage of their revenues from their offshore oil drilling rights on research and development in the local economy. The oil giants successfully claimed that this type of “performance requirements” is prohibited under NAFTA.

These kinds of cases have been receiving a lot more public scrutiny lately as part of the debate on fast track. In response to concerns raised by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the White House asserted that ISDS in TPP would be different. Trust us, they seem to say. But when WikiLeaks posted the secret TPP investment chapter last week it confirmed what public interest groups have long been warning.  The investment chapter grants foreign corporations and investors in the dozen TPP countries the same rights established under NAFTA in order to guarantee profits anticipated by investors. The chapter defines investments to cover permits, intellectual property rights, derivatives and other financial instruments, and contracts, according to a Friends of the Earth analysis.

The leaked TPP chapter grants greater rights for foreign companies than those for U.S. companies or citizens, by allowing foreign companies to challenge U.S. laws, regulations and regulatory implementation measures. In fact, the TPP would essentially place transnational corporations on the same jurisdictional level as nation-states, but without the public interest obligations of nation-states. FOE writes, “Foreign investors would be able to bypass domestic courts and bring suit before special international tribunals designed to encourage international investment. The authority of domestic judicial institutions is undermined.”

According to Public Citizen, trade tribunals have awarded $3.6 billion to foreign investors through these type of investor state provisions. The group estimates that there are about 9,000 foreign-owned firms in the U.S. who would be empowered under TPP to launch cases against the U.S. government.

U.S. negotiators are still pushing to expand the scope of ISDS enforcement within TPP to include government procurement contracts, which could cover contract disputes about natural resources on federal lands, infrastructure projects, and the operation of utilities, among other things.

While proponents of TPP often claim that the U.S. has never lost an investor state case, that seems unlikely to continue. Under NAFTA, 20 such cases have been filed against the U.S., according to the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives. Each of these cases costs money to defend—and, as a threatened case alone, can inhibit regulations that protect environmental, public and worker health and safety.

For example, Obama administration officials have already acknowledged that a threatened NAFTA challenge by TransCanada figures into their decision on whether to block the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

We shouldn’t have to rely on WikiLeaks to discover the details of trade agreements . The secrecy of these trade deals is legitimated by presidential Executive Order 12356, signed by President Reagan, who designated trade negotiations as “national security information.” This secrecy limits public understanding of, and therefore ability to oppose, the terms of trade agreements negotiated with public funds and ostensibly for the benefit of the public. In the next few weeks, Congress is expected to debate fast track trade authority. Fast track would allow the President to continue to negotiate TPP in secret, and present a final version to Congress for a simple up or down vote—depriving Congress of its right to amend the finalized agreement.

The leaking of the TPP investment chapter and the two NAFTA rulings in favor of multinational corporations this past month together reveal the real agenda of these trade agreements—to overturn or preempt any public law or regulation that impedes private profiteering. Defeating fast track is a crucial first step toward a larger showdown about how and by whom trade-related policy is set, and whose rights will be protected.  

Posted April 7, 2015 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

MarketsMarket speculation

Used under creative commons license from srboisvert.

The CFTC filed a lawsuit against the Kraft Foods Group and its spin-off, Mondelez Global alleging they engaged in numerous “non-competitive trade practices” in the CBOT wheat contract.

For more than four years, IATP has been submitting comments on proposed U.S. regulations to limit the share of positions controlled by financial speculators in commodity derivatives markets. A position is a financial interest in one or more contracts of a commodity, e.g. Chicago Board of Trade No. 2 Yellow Corn. Commercial hedgers who can show that they have a bona fide commercial need to use the commodity and to manage price risk in a given contract—rather than accumulating contracts without bona fide need, in order to manipulate the commodity’s price—are exempt from position limits placed on financial speculators.

If financial speculators chronically exceed position limits, excessive speculation distorts prices for commercial hedgers, often to a degree where they fail to manage their price risks. For example, food processors will take positions to try to prevent price increases in their raw materials costs. Price risk management failure, if prolonged, can be devastating at every point of a commodity supply chain from producer to consumer.    

IATP has submitted what well may be its last comment, for the foreseeable future, on a Commodity Futures Trading Commission rule to establish speculation position limits in 28 of the most frequently traded commodity derivatives contracts, 19 of them agricultural. The “Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010” authorized the CFTC to set position limits by 2011 to prevent market manipulation, excessive speculation by financial entities and price distortion.

A successful Wall Street lawsuit against the rule and thousands of comments have delayed the rule’s implementation and enforcement. The CFTC hopes to finalize this, the third proposed rule, by this summer. But the Commissioners may not vote to finalize the rule. IATP does not believe the terms of the rule, as proposed, will be adequate to achieve Dodd-Frank objectives. If the rule is finalized and adequate, the Republican majority in Congress very likely will continue its assault on Dodd Frank by voting again for a budget and terms of CFTC reauthorization inadequate to implement the law.

It was seven years ago that IATP began to research why high price levels and price volatility in agricultural derivatives contracts did not reflect supply, demand and other market fundamentals. We published a compendium of such research in 2011. As we emphasized in our March 30th comment to the CFTC, high and volatile derivatives prices resulted in high and volatile agricultural and energy import prices in 2008 and 2009, which caused food price riots in at least 30 countries, destabilizing governments and contributing to the fall of a few of them, e.g. in Tunisia. The current low price outlook for agriculture and energy commodities could change very quickly, due to climate change and the geo-politics of oil. Excessive speculation usually comes with such changes.

In our comment, we urged the CFTC to take five steps to finalize the rule:

  1. Set the position limit low enough to enable a return to commercial hedger (commodity producers, processors and/or shippers) dominance of the share of the contracts. Currently financial speculators control an estimated 70 percent of commodity trades. The CFTC proposed 25 percent limit per trader would allow, in theory, just four traders to control a contract.
  2. Review position limits every six months, rather than every two years as the CFTC proposes. Position limits for physically deliverable contracts are based on commodity exchange estimated deliverable supply. These estimates can and are subject to error and volatility. In January, IATP responded to CFTC questions about how agricultural estimated deliverable supply should be verified by the CFTC. In our view, exchanges have far too much discretion to decide which and when supplies would be counted as “deliverable.”
  3. Define each Commodity Index Fund (CIF), e.g. the energy dominant Goldman Sachs-Standard and Poors CIF, as a contract subject to position limits and require each Commodity Index Trader to report their positions. CIFs are massively destabilizing for commercial hedgers because they are almost always traded "long,” i.e. betting that prices will increase. When CIF contracts are sold and new ones bought, the multi-billion dollar CIF investments create price levels and volatility that makes it exceedingly difficult for even the best informed commercial hedgers to manage their price risks. As a recent Growmark Research report dryly noted, “Periodically these Wall Street players change the composition of their investment portfolios to include commodities. When they do, they buy commodities across the board, which explains why most commodity prices move in tandem over time even though they have different fundamentals.”
  4. Require parity in position limits for physically deliverable contracts and cash-settled only contracts. Parity in the position limit formula will discourage migration of trades to cash-settled only contracts. Migration will occur if the CFTC finalizes the current proposal to allow a position limit to be five times higher for cash-settled only contracts than for physically deliverable contracts. Parity will help put commercial hedgers of physically deliverable contracts on a more level playing field with financial speculators in cash-settled only contracts.
  5. Do not delegate CFTC authority to manage position limits to the exchanges in which the 28 position limited contracts are traded. Exchange managed “position accountability” failed to prevent excessive speculation in the decade prior to Dodd Frank. Exchanges are for-profit entities with a fiduciary duty to maximize returns for shareholders by maximizing trading volume and fees. It would be a violation of this duty for them to limit positions, and thereby limit trading volume, fees and other trade related revenues.

There is no end to irony in commodity market regulation. Just as the Designated Contract Markets for the position limits rule—including the Chicago Board of Trade and the Intercontinental Exchange—were ramping up their campaign for “position accountability,”  (supported by the big banks, who likewise want no effective position limits) on April 1 the CFTC announced its lawsuit against the Kraft Foods Group  and its spin-off, Mondelez Global. The CFTC complaint alleges in great and specific detail that Kraft and Mondelez had been engaged in numerous “non-competitive trade practices” in the CBOT wheat contract “beginning in at least 2009 and continuing through January 2014” (p. 1).

For example, in December 2011, Kraft and Mondelez abused their commercial hedger exemptions from reporting position limits to the CFTC by accumulating 87 percent of all CBOT wheat contracts that had not been physically delivered or cash-settled. This exceeds by more than three times the already too high proposed spot month limit, i.e. the period during which physically delivery on a contract is taken. The CBOT was supposed to have alerted the CFTC to this egregious position limit violation and other alleged violations of the Commodity Exchange Act.

(The Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group, the CBOT parent company, explained how it monitored positions at a December 9, 2014 meeting of the CFTC’s Agricultural Markets Advisory Committee. The CME Group elsewhere explained that the failure of the CBOT wheat contract to provide a reliable price benchmark for the forward contracting of wheat by farmers and grain elevators was due to an error in calculating the contract's “variable storage rate.” (Krissa Welshans, “Non-convergence in grain markets solved,” Feedstuffs, January 12, 2015, (subscription required))

Kraft said that its spin-off company Mondelez would be responsible for most of the legal costs and fines. Because CFTC fines are far too small to dissuade companies from future law breaking, Kraft and Mondelez were correct to say that the penalties will not have a “material effect” on the companies. (Proposals to fine companies on a per violation basis, rather a per company basis, have floundered in the U.S. Congress, ever zealous to protect even law-breaking traders.) However, the policy effect on the Wall Street/ LaSalle Street (home of the CBOT) campaign to persuade the CFTC to let the exchanges manage commodity positions may well be to terminate the campaign.

In our March 30th comment, we also evaluated the CFTC consequences of the European Securities and Markets Authority recommendations (pp. 533-536) for implementing a European Union wide position limit rule. The recommendations, made to the European Commission, contain “flexibilities” for position limits that will make the contracts to which they are applied incompatible with the CFTC position limits rule.  Agreement on cross border implementation of financial and commodity market rules in G20 jurisdictions continue to elude regulators, as IATP noted in a February 23 comment on a proposed International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) consultation paper for a regulators’ ‘tool kit’ to enable effective cross-border regulation.

Finally, we commented on the CFTC’s proposed rule for standardizing and aggregating the trade data reporting of positions to the CFTC. IATP noted that the failure of traders to report their Over the Counter commodity positions to the CFTC two years after being required to do so would prevent the CFTC from aggregating data to determine whether traders were complying with proposed position limits. OTC traders claim that standardizing the purportedly customized data elements of their trades to enable CFTC computer enabled surveillance is a costly and technically challenging burden.

Exchanges must report to the CFTC trades in futures and options contracts within 15 minutes of their conclusion, i.e. agreement on a settled price. OTC traders take advantage of public, exchange provided information while supplying no information of their own, save for rumors, which jumpstart trader herd behaviors and unwarranted price volatility. We concluded that as long as OTC trade data remained unstandardized and disaggregated, OTC traders would pose the same risk to market integrity as they did during the 2008 near bankruptcies that triggered the Great Recession, in which we still live.

Implementation of the Dodd Frank Act had has varying degrees of success. Despite industry and Republican Party opposition, the reform of retail consumer finance, such as mortgages, student loans, credit cards and predatory payday lending, is arguably well-established in the form of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Progress in regulating institutional finance, such as “Too Big To Fail Banks” and the derivatives market has been more successfully opposed. As Financial Stability Board Chairman Mark Carney wrote in February, despite the political commitments of G20 leaders to reform derivatives markets, there has been “slow and uneven implementation of agreed reforms.” If the big banks and their major corporate clients succeed in imposing a weak CFTC position limit rule, Chairman Carney will have to write of a retreat from reform.  

Posted April 7, 2015 by Pete Huff   

AgricultureFarm to InstitutionFarm to SchoolFoodSustainable Agriculture

High tunnels—also known as hoop houses or passive solar greenhouses—are an increasingly common feature on farms through the Upper Midwest, where their use provides valuable extension to the region’s short growing season.  Local food markets—including farm to school—stand to benefit from the increased availability of fruits and vegetables throughout the year produced by the increased use of high tunnels. IATP’s new report, Extending the Growing Season:  High Tunnels Use and Farm to School in the Upper Midwest, explores this relationship further. By looking at best practices in high tunnel use and Farm to School activities, the report identifies innovative approaches with the potential for linking the two practices more effectively. Such innovative ideas drive recommendations for more comprehensive support for increased on-farm implementation of high tunnels and for farm to school activities throughout the Upper Midwest.

The release of this report is timely, as critical federal funding and resources for the expansion of high tunnel use in the Upper Midwest and the nation are at risk. President Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2016, which is currently being considered by the House and Senate Budget Committees in their budget resolution processes, carries a request to cut $373 million from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This program, among other things, helps fund the popular Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative, which provides financial and technical support for farmers interested in implementing or expanding the use of high tunnels on their farm. High tunnels are low-cost and flexible tools that, when integrated and managed successfully, provide farmers with greater control over growing conditions and create an opportunity to increase the length of the growing season for specialty crops. 

The Obama Administration’s proposed cut could result in a slowdown on the expansion of high tunnel use on Upper Midwestern farms, which would reduce the amount of early and late season fruits and vegetables available to supply burgeoning local food markets, including farm to school. The growing season of the Upper Midwest is naturally limited – typically lasting from mid-May to early October – and, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes, increasingly volatile due to climate change, potentially offsetting any gains attributed to anthropogenic warming. Such climatic realities pose challenges for farm to school activities throughout the region. While such activities are increasingly popular options for successfully enhancing student, farmer and community well-being, building alignment between the growing season and the school year is a perennial challenge that is exacerbated by the new climate reality for farmers in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. The increased use of high tunnels by fruit and vegetable farms offers an opportunity to create better alignment between local farmers and their neighboring schools.

Often, stringent budgetary limitations for K-12 food services can put fruits and vegetables produced in high tunnels out of reach of the cafeteria tray. Such early and late season production is typically geared toward higher margin direct sale markets, such as farmers’ markets and restaurants, which will maximize the return for the farmer and the return on investment for the high tunnel.  While there are instances where seasonal produce is purchased from local farmers by K-12 schools, the primary benefit of high tunnel use is more indirect. Research on the productivity gains provided by high tunnels and the price premium season-extended produce commands in high-margin direct markets indicates that increased high tunnel use can increase farmer incomes and will, in turn, encourage increased participation in farm to school markets as farms seek to diversify their secondary markets or uphold their commitment to social values that farm to school activities yield. 

Snug Haven Farm in Wisconsin is an excellent example of this in action. While not subsidized by EQIP’s high tunnel program, the farm’s CSA for premium winter spinach allows subscribing members to pay a little extra in order to help subsidize the farm’s supply of the same spinach to Farm to School Snack programs.  The success of the farm also allows it to continuously support farm to school activities in other ways, upholding the broader values of the farm. The work of Snug Haven Farm demonstrates how balancing high-margin markets with lower-margin markets can result in healthy, locally-produced food showing up in classrooms while ensuring the financial success of the farmers.

Since the inception of the EQIP Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative, the number of -funded high tunnels in the Upper Midwest has increased dramatically, with Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa averaging a higher number of newly constructed tunnels than the national 2010-2013 average. USDA data shows that of the 10,273 high tunnels funded nationally in 2010-2013, just over 12 percent were in these states. Despite this success, the high tunnel funding “eggs” remain primarily in the federal budget “basket.” This puts the future of high tunnel support at risk due to cuts such as those proposed by the Obama administration. It is critical that EQIP funding for dedicated high tunnels be reinstated in the federal budget.

At the same time, we need to encourage diverse options for farmers to gain access to resources to offset the startup costs of constructing high tunnels on the state and local level.  The Hoop Houses for Health program run by the Michigan Farmers’ Market Association (MIFMA) provides an excellent example for encouraging high tunnel use amongst farmers while also encouraging participation in farmers’ markets and farm to school markets. Participating farmers are able to repay their high tunnel construction loans by providing free produce to qualifying low-income individuals via farmers’ markets and farm to school programs. In doing so, the program promotes these markets in low-income communities while simultaneously increasing access to fresh food and reducing the financial burden of high tunnel uptake for farmers. It is a model that should be replicated throughout the country – particularly in states with limited growing seasons, such as those in the Upper Midwest.

Read Extending the Growing Season: High Tunnels Use and Farm to School in the Upper Midwest.

Posted April 2, 2015 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

AgricultureAgricultural TechnologyNanotechnology

Used under creative commons license from pnnl.

Silver Nanoparticle Assembly

Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

We finally know what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will and will not do about regulating the use of nanomaterials in pesticides. It has taken seven years and a lawsuit to force the EPA to act. And unfortunately, its action leaves much to be desired: there are still no requirements to protect nano-pesticide manufacturer workers, farmer workers and those living downwind from nano-pesticide drift.  (A 2014 General Accountability Office report stated that the EPA’s oversight of pesticide residue testing laboratories was inadequate. Nano-pesticide residue testing standards have yet to be developed.)

Atomic to molecular sized particles of silver (nano-silver) are a biocide, which is incorporated into pesticide products to increase toxicity while reducing the volume of pesticide applied. The exponentially greater surface to mass ratio of nano-silver (and nanomaterials in general) enables the toxins to attack more effectively the nanoscale pores of plant pests. The EPA relies on the toxicity and biosafety data supplied by the commercialization applicant in deciding whether to approve a pesticide for commercial use.

A little history: in May 2008, IATP joined a petition filed by the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA) to demand that the EPA regulate nano-silver under the law governing pesticide products. According to the Administrative Procedures Act, U.S. federal agencies have a maximum of 180 days to respond to such petitions, following a comment period. The EPA received more than 1500 comments in response to the petition by March 2009. In December 2014, IATP joined an ICTA et al lawsuit to force the EPA to respond to the petition. On March 19, the EPA finally responded to the petition.

EPA agreed with petitioners that it has the authority to regulate nano-silver under the Federal Fungicide, Insecticides and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetics Act (FFDCA). They disagreed with our request to declare all uses of nano-silver under FIFRA and FFDCA to be pesticidal. Granting that request would have required EPA to set a Maximum Residue Level (MRL) or tolerance for nano-silver, and forced the withdrawal from commerce of any and all products found to have MRLs above the established limit. Instead, EPA said it would apply its authority on a case by case basis to each application for “registration,” the regulatory term that is equivalent to commercialization approval.

EPA also denied the petitioners’ request to have the EPA compel publication of data and information, currently classified as Confidential Business Information, about all nano-silver used in products under EPA authority. Without such information, it is very difficult to do independent pre-market safety studies and post-market studies of these products.

In a Center for Food Safety press release on March 24 commenting on the EPA’s decision, I stated, “It is unfortunate that the EPA has chosen not to exercise its enforcement authority categorically by requiring withdrawal from the market of pesticide products incorporating nano-silver whose developers have chosen not to submit data and other information required for an EPA risk assessment. By deciding to use its enforcement authority only on a case by case basis, the EPA risks possible failure to execute its statutory obligations due to inadequate resources to pursue a case by case enforcement strategy. In this event, a prudent ‘no data, no market’ regulatory approach would be undermined by the EPA’s de facto allowance of commercialization for a product whose developers had failed to submit nano-specific data to the agency.”  

Prior to the lawsuit, the EPA had released a draft decision in September 2013 to approve the commercialization of the nano-pesticide, NanoSilva. The EPA’s proposed approval would be “conditional,” meaning that the approval would be for a limited time, and would be only for a specific purpose, in this case for application as a textile preservative.  EPA approved its first conditional registration of a nano-silver product in December 2013.

EPA has blocked the sale of products with nano-silver that have not applied to EPA for registration to enter into commerce. (Robert Iafolla, “EPA ‘Open for Business on Nanosilver, Administrative, Enforcement Actions Indicate,” Bloomberg BNA, September 2, 2014. Subscription required.) For example, on March 30, EPA announced that it was taking two nano-silver based products off the market, due to the manufacturer’s unsubstantiated claims about the products’ efficacy in protecting hospitals and athletic facilities from harmful bacteria and viruses. George Kimbrell, the lead attorney in the aforementioned lawsuit, welcomed EPA’s announcement and described it as a consequence of the lawsuit.

According to a Center for Food Safety inventory, there are more than 400 products whose manufacturers claim to contain nano-silver. Since manufacturers are not required to label their products as containing nano-silver—in a broad array of personal care products, cleaning products, clothing, cosmetics, blankets, paints, dietary supplements, beverages, air purifiers, food storage containers etc.— it is likely that the number of nano-silver infused or coated products is far higher than 400. The widespread and largely unregulated use of nano-silver is such that there is concern that anti-microbial resistance could develop to continuous exposure to the biocide. A few, but not most of these products do fall under EPA’s authority.

In response to a 2006 ICTA et al petition to the Food and Drug Administration, which IATP joined, to regulate nanomaterials in products under FDA authority, the FDA released in 2014 four voluntary guidance to industry documents (drafts, about which IATP commented, were released in 2012), including one concerning “food substances” and food packaging materials, and another on nanomaterials in animal feed. Guidance to industry documents are better than nothing, but like the March 19 EPA response to the ICTA et al petition to regulate nano-silver, guidance documents are a long way from developing mandatory regulations for the use of nanotechnology and nanomaterials in commercial products and industrial inputs.  

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