Posted November 13, 2014 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn
Communities across the United States and Europe are working to transform local economic systems so that they are more sustainable and equitable. Many states and communities are utilizing public procurement programs to support those efforts, especially bidding preferences for healthy, locally grown foods, energy or transportation programs that create local jobs and fair markets. Especially in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Buy American programs have helped ensure that taxpayer-funded programs create local jobs and serve social goals. Farm to School programs that incentivize purchases from local farmers have grown in all 50 U.S. states and many European countries. Innovative efforts are also underway to expand this approach to other institutions such as hospitals, universities and early childcare programs like Head Start.
In a move that could undermine those important initiatives, the European Union has made the opening of U.S. procurement programs to bids by European firms one of its priority goals for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). IATP published a new report today, Local Economies on the Table, which takes a look at what those proposals could mean.
The EU has been insistent on the inclusion of procurement commitments at all levels of government, for all goods, and in all sectors. At a speech in San Francisco, French trade minister Nicole Bricq declared, “Let’s dream a little with respect to public procurement. Why not replace ‘Buy American’ which penalizes our companies with ‘Buy Transatlantic’ which reflects the depth of our mutual commitment?”
It’s easy to see why this appeals to EU officials. It is an enormous market. It’s a lot harder to understand why local governments in the U.S. would want to give up their authority to shape procurement contracts to serve local economies and job creation. And because the negotiations have taken place in secret, it’s a mystery who decides whether these local governments would be bound by the rules in the trade deal.
At the start of the TTIP talks, local foods and Farm to School activists raised questions about whether farm-to-institution programs could be at risk in TTIP. Advocates for fair and sustainable food systems urged the negotiators to commit to keep these important programs off the table in the trade talks, raising the issue in a January 2014 letter from sustainable foods groups, a February 2014 letter from the Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission, as well as at various presentations at official stakeholder events held at negotiating sessions. Of course, these and many organizations on both sides of the Atlantic have also raised broader concerns about the lack of transparency in the trade talks, the dangers of investment rules that allow foreign investors to sue governments over public interest laws, and proposals to “harmonize” regulations in ways that could undermine progress towards more sustainable food systems.
The negotiations are still happening behind closed doors. However, some meeting reports and negotiating proposals have been leaked, providing new insights into how TTIP might affect local foods and rural communities. While a new leak on procurement indicates that the EU may refrain from requesting commitments on school lunch programs, there is little question that procurement preferences to strengthen local economies continue to be a target of EU negotiators.
The demand to open up public procurement programs to foreign investors is not unique to TTIP; it has been a significant issue in the talks for a Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) as well. But the EU is being asked to give up so much in TTIP in terms its food safety, energy and other standards, even its reliance on the Precautionary Principle. In exchange, the EU is seeking unfettered access for its companies to what seem to be elusive state and local procurement markets. It’s a bad deal for both sides. These proposals in TTIP could very well undermine local decision-making and innovative efforts to rebuild local economies in ways that are sustainable, healthy and fair.
We need a different approach, starting with transparency. Both the U.S. and EU governments should publish negotiating text indicating which sectors and federal, state and local agencies are contemplating procurement commitments and who would make those commitments. In the meantime, we in the U.S. should call on Congress to reject Fast Track Authority, which would give the administration the power to negotiate trade deals in secret and present the resulting agreement to Congress for an up or down vote, no amendments allowed. This is an outdated and inadequate process to negotiate agreements with such far reaching consequences.
Read IATP’s new report, Local Economies on the Table, for more.
Posted November 6, 2014 by Ben Lilliston
It wasn’t the subject of a barrage of campaign ads this past month, nor has it been widely reported in the media or even debated much in the halls of Congress but new rules are being written right now as part of an arcane, secret process that will expand global agribusiness’ choke-hold over our food system, and you are not invited. A new report, Big Meat Swallows the Trans-Pacific Partnership, released today from IATP takes an in-depth look at what’s at stake for global agribusiness—and particularly the big meat corporations—in potentially the largest regional free trade agreement ever negotiated, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
This weekend, President Obama will meet with leaders of 11 other Pacific Rim countries at the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit about TPP. The negotiations and the proposed treaty text itself are secret, behind-closed-doors affairs—and the corporations that will benefit like it that way.
For global agribusiness, most with operations and connections in multiple TPP countries, the goal is simple: lower tariffs and weaken regulations that support farmers, consumers and rural communities in order to increase exports and imports. For the big meat companies, the stakes are high. Meat consumption in the U.S. has flattened, and in some cases like beef and pork, has slightly declined. While domestic consumption has been stagnant, meat exports from the U.S. have soared since 1990, and the percentage of U.S. meat production for export is rapidly rising.
The handful of big meat and poultry companies driving factory-style production in the U.S. do not consider themselves U.S. companies. They are global corporations, some with foreign parent companies, operating in multiple TPP countries. An alarmingly few companies control the U.S. protein market (as the industry refers to it). They are all global players operating in multiple sectors and multiple countries, including: JBS USA (beef, pork and poultry), Cargill (beef, feed), Tyson Foods (poultry, beef), Shuanghui/Smithfield (pork).
If the meat companies get their way in TPP, rising exports from the U.S. could shift into overdrive. This means there will be more CAFOs in U.S. rural communities, more land needed for animal feed (yes, more corn and soybeans), more antibiotics used to raise these animals, and more water and air pollution from their giant manure lagoons. The agreement would also both expand and lock in a system of contract farming, where pork and poultry farmers take the risk, and the companies take the profits.
The agreement targets what negotiators call “barriers to trade;” this means tariffs, food safety standards that protect consumers, and other regulations and policies that might give preference to local economies, businesses or communities over multinationals.
Of the TPP countries, the meat industry is particularly targeting Japan, who not only is one of their biggest markets, but also retains a variety of tariffs and safeguards on chicken, pork and beef to protect their own farmers and food system from a flood of imports. The meat companies also want to get rid of Canada’s various supply management programs for their dairy, poultry and egg industries, which protect Canada’s producers. They want to set one system of low food safety protections for all TPP countries that is “least-trade-restrictive,” limiting countries’ and states’ ability to set their own tougher standards. They also want to further establish corporate legal rights, an obscure trade provision called investor-state dispute resolution, which grants corporations broad rights to challenge policies that affect expected future profits including food safety rules.
The pattern here is hard to miss. The industry views TPP as an opportunity to expand their global reach by attacking policies that protect farmers, consumers and democratic local control of the food system. In fact, the industry’s relentless assault on these policies in the U.S. is how we’ve become such a low-cost meat producer. Several decades of agribusiness lobbying culminated in the 1996 Farm Bill wiping out the last vestiges of U.S. farm programs that used to put a floor on grain prices making CAFO feed costs less economical. The industry has fought to weaken and under-fund U.S. regulatory agencies like Grains Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration designed to ensure competitive markets and fair contracts for farmers and ranchers. They’ve driven efforts to weaken U.S. food safety regulations by shifting from government inspection to private inspection. Through a steady attack on unions – and the use of a largely immigrant workforce, they have weakened workers’ rights. Their relentless legal and lobbying assault on Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), a simple label to tell consumers where their meat animal was born, raised and slaughtered, continues as does its ALEC-inspired Right to Farm laws at the state-level, designed to limit local regulations of CAFOs.
Remarkably, TPP continues to be negotiated in secret as if it were a private commercial agreement, with no effective means for the public to intervene in negotiations. The Obama Administration and many in Congress are pushing for fast track, which would allow the Administration to complete the secret negotiations and then present the final deal to Congress for an up or down vote, no changes, no amendments. There is talk that Congress will try to slip fast track through during the post-election lame duck session, but if not, it will very likely come up for a vote in 2015. This undemocratic, secretive approach to trade policy is exactly what the global meat industry is banking on.
To make sure that our trade agenda reflects democratic values and the interests of farmers, rural communities and consumers, we need to stop the secrecy. The people living in TPP countries have a right to know what is being negotiated in their name. To create policies that are accountable to people, not just big corporations, Fast Track must be rejected.
From the beginning the TPP has been designed to further the power of private corporate interests. It doesn’t have to be that way. Last year, the U.S.-based National Farmers Union and the Japanese-based cooperative farmer group JA Zenchu put out a joint statement to TPP negotiators. They wrote: “Agricultural terms in any trade agreement must be aimed toward improving quality of life for farmers, protecting consumer interests, and ensuring food and energy security for all.” Unfortunately, these terms differ greatly from agribusiness’ interests.
Read the full report Big Meat Swallows the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Posted October 21, 2014 by Steven Shrybman
With some help from my friends (lawyers Anders Bruun and Ben Piper) I argued a case before the Federal Court of Appeal yesterday. The Court ruled from the bench; the result was mixed but more of a defeat than a victory.
Among other things, the case was about money. An awful lot of it -- over $17 billion. That is actually a realistic estimate of the value of the Canadian Wheat Board that has been destroyed by the Harper's government's decision to get rid of the Board's marketing monopoly for wheat and barley and to fire all of the directors elected by the farmers to sit on the Board.
With the benefit of the market power the monopoly afforded, a smart farmer-controlled Board had built an international brand for Canadian wheat that allowed it to claim a very nice premium in the market -- somewhere between $600-800 million a year. It also allowed the Board the leverage to negotiate favorable supply chain arrangements with the rail companies and international grain conglomerates so that grain could be moved efficiently to markets.
While the Wheat Board still exists, it has been run by Harper appointees since Dec. 2011 and has no marketing power. Last summer, the failure of supply chain logistics to move a bumper wheat crop to market cost farmers an estimated $4 billion.
The court was dealing with motions to strike a proposed class action brought on behalf of grain producers seeking compensation for the value of the Wheat Board the Government had taken and will now either sell or wind down.
At the center of the case was this question -- can the Government simply take the assets, which include the enormously valuable goodwill the Board built, from the farmers who paid for and built those assets, and do so without paying the farmers for them? The Court said yes. Why? Because according to the Court the farmers weren't "shareholders" and had no proprietary interest in those assets.
The reasoning is this: Unless grain farmers can prevent others from taking advantage of an institution they built, or can sell that interest to others, they cannot claim a property interest in the institution and assets they built and paid for. As the court found, the law simply won't protect co-operative forms of ownership or the generous impulse of those who invest and create to benefit the community.
There is much that is egregiously unjust about Harper's decision to destroy the Board, including his failure to hold a vote among grain producers before the fundamentally changing the Board's mandate as the Wheat Board Act required. Two years ago, the Federal Court of Appeal found that parliamentary sovereignty trumped that statutory requirement. Now the court has found that farmers have no right to be compensated for the assets the Government has taken from them.
There is much to the history of the Canadian Wheat Board, and the agrarian socialist movement from which it sprung, that should be better known and celebrated. From those same roots sprouted the CCF, and many of the fundamental social reforms that define this country. Many of these are still with us today, but the Canadian Wheat Board will soon not be among them.
I began by saying the result in court yesterday was mixed. That is because one aspect of the proposed class action has survived -- a claim for damages based on the mismanagement of funds by the Government-appointed Board. While it will do nothing to revive the Board, the case should impose some small measure of accountability on the Government and its appointees. That prospect provides some, albeit small, comfort.
Posted October 20, 2014 by Ben Lilliston
A U.S. law requiring the simple labeling of meat and poultry products for the country of origin (COOL) was determined to violate trade rules by a dispute panel at the World Trade Organization (WTO) today.
The ruling demonstrates again how trade rules have been rigged to benefit multinational corporations and run counter to the interests of consumers who want more information about the food they purchase and farmer and ranchers who target local markets.
Knowing where your food comes from is an important right for consumers all over the world. This ruling is also a loss for farmers and ranchers who are selling to domestic, local markets and who want to build stronger connections with consumers. Trade rules should never get in the way of greater transparency in the marketplace. The USDA should not give in to the WTO on COOL in the short term, and should appeal the ruling. In the long term, we need to reform or throw out trade rules that undermine consumers and farmers.
The WTO ruled that COOL favored U.S. producers over those from other countries, arguing that the costs of the recordkeeping and segregation required was too high to justify the informational benefit to consumers. The WTO ruled "the detrimental impact caused by the amended COOL measure's labelling and recordkeeping rules could not be explained by the need to convey to consumers information regarding the countries where livestock were born, raised, and slaughtered." The WTO encouraged the U.S. to begin negotiations with Canada and Mexico (the countries bringing the challenge) to explore other options for food consumer labeling.
The Obama Administration should appeal this unjust WTO ruling, and no legislative changes should be made to COOL until all legal avenues have been completed at the WTO. The Administration has 60 days to appeal. An appellate body would issue a final WTO ruling, which would likely take an additional six months. Without an appeal, Canada and Mexico could start levying sanctions against U.S. goods until the law is changed. The U.S. should explore all avenues at their disposal to actively defend consumers’ right to know.
Despite nearly 90 percent of consumers supporting COOL, it has long been targeted by big meat companies like Cargill, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA since the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills required such labeling. While COOLs for other foods like fruits and vegetables are firmly in place, the multinational meat companies aggressively fought the rule. The big meat companies often move cattle and pigs across borders during different stages of the finishing process. Some meat plants are processing animals from multiple countries. Meeting the COOL standard often resulted in a confusing label indicating that the meat came from multiple countries.
The meat and poultry industry in Canada and Mexico challenged the U.S. COOL law at the WTO in 2008, alleging that the law discriminated against producers in those countries. The WTO ruled in favor of Canada and Mexico in 2011, concluding that the law created economic incentives for the meat companies to only use animals born, raised and slaughtered in the same country – in order to avoid a mixed-origin label. In 2013, the USDA attempted to address the WTO ruling by consulting with the US Trade Representative and listening to more than 35,000 consumer comments which called for a stronger COOL label. The USDA strengthened the COOL label to include separate, clear information on where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered – which eliminated mixed-origin labels. The WTO ruling concluded that the USDA’s new COOL requirements still discriminated against Mexican and Canadian meat producers.
The ruling also further complicates the Obama administration’s beleaguered effort to obtain Fast Track trade authority for two major agreements, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), both of which would expose the United States to more such trade challenges against U.S. consumer, environmental and other policies.
It’s hard to make an argument for expanding the rights of corporations in future trade agreements when the trade rules we already have are striking down common-sense laws like COOL.
Posted October 10, 2014 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn Robert Pederson, ARC 2020
Thousands of farmers, environmentalists and fair trade activists will gather on October 11 in over 300 events across Europe to protest the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and promote positive alternatives to the current rhetoric of free trade agreements.
Europeans have the right, enshrined in the Treaty of Lisbon, to demand action by the European Commission if they gather at least a million signatures. This spring citizens launched a European Citizens Initiative (ECI) calling on the Commission to repeal the negotiating mandate for TTIP and to abandon the talks for the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). Following the European Commission’s rejection of the ECI on TTIP earlier this month, activists launched a self- organized European Citizens initiative. In less than 3 days over 350.000 European citizens have signed up in their support of the initiative.
Yesterday, the European Council published the negotiating mandate for TTIP. This is an important first step towards transparency that goes further than any action taken so far by the U.S. government, although it’s worth noting that the document had been leaked more than a year ago. The Council’s decision illustrates just how important public pressure is in ensuring a democratic and transparent process, but much more must be done to increase the transparency and accountability of negotiations.
Hundreds of citizens groups in the EU and U.S. are united in their call to publish the negotiating texts and to oppose Investor-State Dispute Settlement (which gives corporations the right to sue governments over public interest laws) and plans for regulatory coherence that could lower health, environmental and food safety standards. Much has been said, about public opposition to chlorine chickens and hormone beef, but what is really at stake is moving towards even more intensive, industrial modes of production that ultimately lead to unhealthy and unsustainable diets and greater corporate control over our food systems. TTIP seeks to harmonize standards (i.e., reduce to their lowest common denominator) in a number of areas such as food safety and labeling, and could undermine much of the progress made to raise the bar on these issues, as well as efforts to rebuild food systems so they work for consumers and farmers, in Europe and the United States.
The debate on TTIP is often framed around a U.S. versus EU agenda, but in fact citizens are getting involved and coordinating strategies across the Atlantic. While European citizens are mobilizing and questioning what benefits TTIP and CETA will bring for society, U.S. groups are gearing up for a week of action on trade in November. Those actions will focus on plans to rush through Fast Track authority during the Lame Duck session between the congressional elections and the entry of the new Congress. Fast track would give the U.S. administration authority to negotiate trade deals in secret and present the final agreement to Congress for an up or down vote—no amendments allowed). On both sides of the Atlantic, people are raising their voices on transparency, democracy and local decision-making.
Here’s what you can do:
Posted October 9, 2014 by Dr. Steve Suppan
If the World Trade Organization trade dispute, U.S. Upland Cotton Subsidies (WT/DS267), were a war, the October 1 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to settle the dispute contains Brazil’s unconditional surrender to U.S. demands.
The signing ceremony in Washington was timed to ensure minimal Brazilian press coverage, as Brazil focused on the October 5 presidential and sub-federal elections. Brazil won the cotton dispute in 2004. However, the United States tried various tactics to avoid complying with the WTO rule of law, including claiming that a dispute under the existing WTO rules could only be resolved under the terms of new rules in the yet to be concluded Doha Round of WTO negotiations. Following an unsuccessful U.S. appeal, Brazil was authorized by the WTO in November 2009 to levy up to $800 million in annual retaliation, including retaliation outside the agricultural sector.
It useful to memorialize the MoU’s terms of surrender and the shock and awe precedent it sets for any WTO member who is contemplating litigation against the 2014 Farm Bill. Then we can speculate about why Brazil agreed to a settle for a relatively paltry sum and to abandon its rights as a WTO member to dispute the cotton subsidy terms of the 2014 Farm Bill.
First, the United States agreed to pay the Brazilian Cotton Institute (IBA is the acronym in Portuguese) $300 million. (Subscription required.) This one time and final payment includes the $12.25 million monthly payments that the U.S. had agreed in 2010 to pay IBA, but that the U.S. Trade Representative said it had no Congressional authority to disburse as of October 2013. (Subscription required). By reneging on its 2010 agreement, the U.S. apparently created leverage to win this even more favorable end to Brazil’s WTO authorized right to retaliate.
In sum, the U.S. is paying IBA $147 million that it already owed from the unpaid October 2013 to September 2014 retaliation, plus another $153 million. The 2010 retaliation agreement required the United States to pay IBA $147 million annually until the Congress changed the cotton subsidy payments and export/import loan guarantees conditions that were the subject of the trade dispute that Brazil launched in 2002. In February 2014, Brazil requested the formation of a WTO compliance panel to ensure that the provisions affecting cotton in the 2014 Farm Bill would conform to the WTO ruling against U.S. Upland Cotton Subsidies. The request also portended a possible broader battle against the Farm Bill’s crop subsidy program (subscription required), in which taxpayers, not agribusiness, compensate farmers when prices fall below a legislated per crop reference price.
Under the terms of the MoU, Brazil must not only withdraw its current WTO compliance panel request, but also agree to a four-year “Peace Clause” during which it will not litigate the cotton subsidy and loan guarantee program terms of the 2014 Farm Bill until its expiration in September 2018. The United States exported more than an average of 80 percent of all U.S. grown cotton from 2009-2011, even while paying retaliation to Brazil during the last two years of that period. Now it can export an even higher percentage with no worries about further Brazilian cotton litigation. Brazil’s Minister of Agriculture said, however, that Brazil maintains the right to dispute subsidy programs for other crops in the Farm Bill.
Of course, having negotiated this “Peace Clause,” there is no reason to believe that the United States could not negotiate another similar “Peace Clause” against WTO litigation regarding the 2023 Farm Bill and so on. In effect, the United States would achieve a trade policy version of perpetual “peace,” while remaining itself free to launch litigation against the agricultural subsidy programs of other WTO members.
The MoU allows Brazil to spend the $300 million only on a detailed list of permitted activities and Brazil is required to report semi-annually to the United States how it has spent the money that it is receiving in lieu of WTO authorized retaliation. The permitted activities do not include the financing of cotton planting, as IBA producers had demanded. (“U.S. Brazil Poised to Unveil Cotton Deal; Includes $300 Million Payment,” Inside U.S. Trade, subscription required)
Among the permitted activities is cotton research “conducted in collaboration” with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with U.S. universities and possibly in “partnership with third country institutions.” This latter permitted activity is the only aspect of the MoU that refers, however obliquely, to the WTO’s program to aid four African countries dependent on cotton for export revenues (the so-called C4 countries), but who are in competition with heavily subsidized cotton growers and exporters.
In 2006, IATP analyzed the “WTO Cotton Crisis” in the C-4 countries in the context of the WTO failure to prevent agricultural export dumping and the price dominance of polyester textiles derived from oil, whose massive subsidies and price distortions are not subject to WTO rules. The cotton price and export revenue crisis continues. Cotton prices on the Intercontinental Exchange fell about 27 percent between June and mid-August 2014, and more than any other commodity in 2014 on the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index.
U.S. cotton growers can live with and even prosper under low prices, even at prices below the cost of production, thanks to the 2014 Farm Bill’s Stacked Income Protection Plan and other taxpayer funded subsidies. However, C-4 cotton farmers cannot prosper, or even survive, in such a price environment. IATP has contended for more than a decade that U.S. agricultural export dumping, i.e. trading at below the cost of production, is permitted under WTO rules. Instead of resolving that unfair trading practice, the WTO Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) limits the annual domestic subsidies (Aggregate Measures of Support or AMS) of its members, the statistical basis for Brazil’s dispute with U.S. Upland Cotton Subsidies.
Clearly, the United States has a number of diplomatic weapons that may have influenced Brazil’s decision to capitulate in U.S. Upland Cotton Subsidies. Well calculated threats to counter-retaliate via tariff and non-tariff measures without WTO authorization in both agricultural and non-agricultural sectors; the possibility of attacking the value of Brazilian currency through dark market foreign exchange trading exempted from Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation; intelligence gathered through surveillance of Brazilian officials, including the President of Brazil, as revealed by Edward Snowden: these are among the weapons that could have been used to persuade Brazil that it was in its best interests to take pennies on the dollar of WTO authorized retaliation and give up its rights to litigate U.S. Farm Bill subsidy measures.
More prosaically, however, Brazil’s business interests in the United States, including its globally dominant JBS meatpacking firm, are more lucrative than cotton even when processed as a textile. Surrendering on U.S. Cotton Subsidies may be a price Brazil is willing to pay for unspecified market access opportunities and U.S. regulatory favors for Brazilian industry and finance in the United States.
But that truce among the two trading giants disregards the disastrous impacts of dumping on the African farmers and cotton exporters who continue to confront unfair trade rules negotiated without their participation or consent. The U.S. technical assistance plan for the C-4 African cotton export revenue dependent countries budgeted for $16 million in 2012, i.e. $4 million each or less than a third of the retaliation payments that the U.S. sent to Brazil each month for more than two years. The C-4 countries were third party plaintiffs in Upland Cotton Subsidies, but never saw a dollar of the vastly reduced WTO authorized retaliation.
As the science and practice of agroecology provides a way forward to address food insecurity, rural poverty, climate change, drought and water scarcity it is encountering an intentionally misleading campaign called "Climate Smart Agriculture," being promoted by the World Bank, FAO, and newly launched corporate-dominated Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture. Do not be fooled by the title. Climate Smart Agriculture incentivizes destructive industrial agricultural practices by tying it to carbon market offsets based on unreliable and non-permanent emissions reduction protocols.
While Climate Smart Agriculture is designed to expand carbon markets and serve the interests of agribusiness and the financial industry, the practice of agroecology boasts a scientifically valid response to climate change and is designed for the purpose of rebuilding decentralized, just, and sustainable agricultural systems. This differentiation is extremely important as we anticipate further erroneous claims that Climate Smart Agriculture and agroecology are interchangeable concepts. They are not.
Below are a few significant new developments and emerging opportunities:
Because it is embraced by multiple movements, groups and actors—scientists, NGOs, social movements, consumers, and scholars—agroecology is the epitome of “simultaneously bottom-up and top-down” solutions. Scientists, farmers and activists agree that agroecology is the way to go.
IATP is working hard in an expanding network of people and organizations to actively promote agroecology and expose the myths of the Climate Smart Agriculture model.
Posted October 1, 2014 by Ben Lilliston
Trade rules have always been one of the biggest hammers the biotech industry has had to push genetically modified crops on the world. Nearly a decade ago, the industry, through its surrogates at the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), targeted the European Union’s precautionary approach to regulating GMO crops at the World Trade Organization and won. Later, Wikileaks revealed numerous cables from U.S. embassies in Europe calling for plans to retaliate against countries that didn’t support GMO crops.
While working on behalf of the biotech industry internationally, the U.S. government has largely ignored the growing opposition to unlabeled GMOs in the U.S. After the Obama Administration disregarded more than a million comments to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) calling for mandatory GMO labeling, advocacy has moved to the state level, where more than 20 US states are considering GMO labeling.
Earlier this year, Vermont was the first state to require GMO labeling without restrictions. The Grocery Manufacturers Association immediately filed a legal challenge to the law. Maine and Connecticut passed GMO labeling laws last year contingent on neighboring states also passing GMO labeling laws. In a few weeks, Colorado and Oregon will vote on ballot initiatives to label GMOs—initiatives Monsanto has poured literally millions into defeating.
But just in case they don’t win at the state level, the industry has a back-up plan: Agribusiness companies have been candid that they want the new U.S.-EU trade deal, currently being negotiated, to dismantle GMO labeling policies. Such rules would affect labeling in European countries and U.S. states.
This week, 70 U.S. NGOs from around the country wrote the USTR to demand it not restrict efforts to label GMOs in the ongoing secret U.S.-EU trade talks. The groups also warned against including the very controversial corporate rights provisions (known as investor-state dispute settlement), which grant corporations the right to legally challenge, through secret tribunals, regulations like GMO labeling that could affect future profits.
The secrecy of the US-EU trade negotiations, combined with the insider power of agribusiness and biotech companies, is a potentially toxic combination. IATP will present the letter to negotiators today at a USTR stakeholder meeting and convey the letter’s closing sentiment: “We will strenuously oppose any U.S.-EU deal that undermines U.S. consumers’ right to know what is in the food they purchase and feed their families.”
Posted September 29, 2014 by Dr. Steve Suppan
Since the National Nanotechnology Initiative began in 2000, it has coordinated research financed by more than $20 billion, divided among 26 U.S. federal agencies, to develop products that incorporate atomic to molecular-sized materials, such as silver, titanium dioxide and starch. Back then and even now, nanotechnology has been hyped as a new economic sector and the technological platform of the 21st Century Industrial Revolution.
Like so many bold claims about new technologies, widespread commercialization of the latest big thing has been much more difficult than forecast. At an National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) workshop on September 11 and 12 in Washington, D.C. about the manufacture and commercialization of nano-sensors, an investment banker told federal officials, nanotechnology product developers and a couple of NGOs, including IATP, that nanotechnology is not the exciting economic sector where investors are underwriting research for every product prefaced by “nano.” (Sensors are devices that detect and analyze a broad array of phenomena, including air contaminants, toxins, pathogenic bacteria and nutrients.) Furthermore, he said, it was hard to find patient and knowledgeable investors to finance sensor research and development, and “very hard” to finance the development of nano-sensors. The NNI workshop could have been subtitled “Nanotechnology without the Hype.”
We were disappointed that NNI had refused our proposal to its draft Strategic Plan to make the development of a world class research program in the environmental, public health and worker safety (EHS) effects of nanomaterials a major NNI goal. In June, the NNI published a report summarizing the 2011-2014 EHS research of federal agencies. NNI coordinated research by the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the EHS effects of ingesting nanomaterials in food remains slight, although greater than in 2011.
Notwithstanding IATP’s call for raising the status of EHS research in NNI’s strategy, we recognize that nano-sensors resulting from the NNI’s Signature Initiative could also be applied as regulatory tools to achieve EHS protections. Indeed, the workshop subtitle was “Improving and Protecting Health, Safety and the Environment.” However, it is one thing to develop the prototype of a nano-sensor and quite another to persuade investors to manufacture and commercialize it.
There are two kinds of nanotechnology enabled sensors, first, one capable of reliably and consistently detecting, analyzing and reporting on non-nanoscale phenomena such as a pathogenic bacterium (2,500 nanometers, more or less), e.g., on a cut of meat. Type II nano-sensors detect, analyze and report on nanoscale materials, such a strand of DNA (2.5. nanometers more or less) in a DNA based barcode that could be used to trace food, drug and cosmetic products from manufacturer to warehouse, to retailer to consumer and back again.
Since the development of the first nano-sensor in 1994, dozens of techniques have been used to nano-enable sensors. It is difficult to simplify this array of techniques, or any one of them, accurately. Some nano-sensors convert biological, chemical and physical phenomena probed electro-chemically, optically or magnetically by a ‘lab on a [computer] chip’ into electronic information that is computer programmable. The nano-sizing of organic or inorganic materials on the chip results in more rapid DNA sequencing and analytic sensitivity, e.g. to identify a pathogen in meat, than is possible for conventional sensors. A nano-sensor’s electronic signal should be "tunable" to a specific radio frequency that would distinguish it from surrounding frequencies and make the signal usable for nano-informatics.
There are a large number of technical challenges to overcome in order to ensure, that consistent and reliable information can be transmitted from the nano-sensor, and to persuade the customer that a nanosensor’s benefits outweigh the costs. The medium in which a nano-sensor would operate, such as blood, tissue, food or soil, poses challenges to the accuracy, reliability and consistency of nano-sensor produced information.
These kinds of challenges were discussed by Ernest Streicher, a John Deere Company agricultural engineer, concerning the company’s five year process for adapting a nano-sensor, e.g., to determine soil nutrients. At the outset and throughout the adaptation process, the “value proposition” discussed by Deere’s agricultural engineers, marketing department and customers includes both economic and technical factors.
Among the economic factors were predicting the value of the sensor’s data to the farmer and the cost of obtaining the data. Technical factors include whether the sensor was robust enough to operate in the dust, machine vibration and temperature extremes of large scale row crop farming. Furthermore, farmers ask John Deere whether the data gathered, e.g. on soil nutrients, machine oil quality, or agricultural chemical use, was sufficiently representative and accurate to justify paying for the sensor and paying for the decisions resulting from sensor gathered data.
As the prices received by U.S. farmers for their crops continue to be considerably less than the crops’ cost of production, the “value proposition” to customers of even a cost-effective and technically robust sensor becomes yet more difficult to make. In response to slumping prices in 2014 and anticipation of slumping prices at least for a few more years, John Deere has laid off more than a thousand employees. The economic viability of “precision farming” enabled by Deere machines will depend, at least in the near term, on taxpayer supplied “revenue assurance” in the 2014 Farm Bill to compensate, once again, for market failure.
Streicher showed videos made by Deere customers whose tractors, combines, planters and balers for “precision farming” can cost up to $500,000 apiece. They farm wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton and sugar cane on large expanses of flat land. Streicher said that data analytics factors in the topology of the land to account for hilly or uneven land to ensure the accuracy and representativeness of the electronic field maps that result from data sensing. I asked him about how the climate change related requirements of changing cropping patterns and greater crop diversification would affect the use of the sensors and interpretation of data. He replied that all of the data that is factored into contributing to crop yields is currently computer modeled over a 15-year period. That period would shrink as a result of climate change because of the increasing unpredictability of crop yields.
His answer reminded me that a workshop dedicated to the manufacture and commercialization of a technology is not likely to consider whether a given technology is appropriate, in this case for the dominant scale of agriculture in a country, such as India, where very few, if any, of millions of farmers have “revenue assurance.” Insofar as the NNI is a technology investor and promoter, it is probably not able to dedicate a much needed workshop to discuss when and where nanotechnology use is inappropriate or inadequate, whether economically or technically, to protect the environment, public health and worker safety.
Posted September 26, 2014 by Dale Wiehoff
From France, which gave us the Rights of Man, we hear the call for the Rights of Citizens from French farmers who yesterday staged a sit-in at Cargill’s headquarters in Paris protesting proposed new free trade agreements. The second largest farmers’ union in France, Confédération Paysanne, unfurled a banner that read, “Holland, Juncker, Obama: Don’t offer farmers and citizens to multinationals, stop TTIP and CETA.” They occupied the Cargill trading floor all day, until they received an appointment with the Secretary of State for French Foreign Trade, Mr. Matthias Fekl.
The two new trade agreements being negotiated between the European Union and the United States (TTIP) and Canada (CETA) are the latest in a long running battle between citizens and global corporations. With each new treaty, the corporations attempt to changes the rules of economic and social life to give themselves control of the world’s natural resources and how decisions are made for their use. More an more, trade policy is becoming a central influence on everyday life.
IATP met Confédération Paysanne and other French farmers at the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. They brought with them from their cooperatives in the Larzac region great wheels of Roquefort cheese that sustained many of us throughout several days of tear gas barrages. The Battle for Seattle has become the battle for the rights of citizens against the corporations. The French farmers have called us to the ramparts. The message that greets you when enter the Larzac region says, “Le monde n’est pas une marchandise.” We agree.