Posted January 29, 2014 by Tara Ritter   

The second Rural Climate Network newsletter was released last week, featuring updates on how rural America is responding to the climate challenge. Since the first newsletter, the network has welcomed five new member organizations that represent the diversity of climate work across the country and display how climate change impacts sectors ranging from fisheries to forestry to meat production. The member spotlight this month is Organic Valley, and a featured interview with Sustainability Program Manager Jonathan Reinbold outlines the organization’s views on climate change. Policy that incentivizes this kind of on-the-ground work is critical in supporting the growing rural movement to adapt to and mitigate climate change.

This edition of the newsletter also features a brief interview with Renata Brillinger of the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN) to better understand how California farmers and ranchers are handling the drought that is currently underway in California. According to Brillinger, “mandated cutbacks in water distributions, along with depletions in available surface water and groundwater, are forcing farmers to dig deeper into their pockets while making tough decisions about crop planting and livestock management.” Some farmers have resorted to pumping groundwater to compensate for the lack of water elsewhere, but that is not a sustainable strategy in the long term should the drought persist and other ideas are needed.

Certain agricultural practices work to increase soil resiliency and keep the raindrop where it falls more effectively than others. For instance, crop rotation and crop diversification encourage increased water-holding capacity in soils and reduce the amount of runoff that occurs from monocropped soils. Particular crops are also less water-intensive than others, and farmers would benefit from increasing the amount of hardy crops grown on their land.

However, Brillinger is right on point when she says, “while there are actions individual growers can take to cope with drought and other climate change impacts, this is not just a farmer’s problem.” In order to encourage an agricultural system that remains resilient in the face of extreme weather events, farmers need technical and financial assistance to build soil health and water efficiency. With today’s stalled farm policy, it is more important than ever to advocate for policies that will incentivize sustainable, robust farm operations.

Sign up for future editions of the Rural Climate Network newsletter and learn more about what member organizations are doing regarding climate change in their communities at If you are involved with an organization that would be a good fit for the network or would like to add your voice to this growing movement in another way, please email

Posted January 28, 2014 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   Ben Lilliston   

TradeFood safetyFree trade agreementsNAFTA: North American Free Trade Agreement

Used under creative commons license from Caelie_Frampton.

Congress is quietly considering legislation that would speed the passage of two mega trade agreements, and seeks to specifically eliminate government programs that favor “localization.” The bill would give the Obama Administration what is known as “fast track” authority—meaning Congress would surrender its constitutional authority to shape trade agreements negotiated by the president and instead can only vote up or down on the deal.

Why should those working for a fair, sustainable food system care? Perhaps no area of policy has undermined local food systems around the world more than the slew of trade agreements passed over the last several decades. These trade rules cover everything from tariffs, food safety and intellectual property to enshrining corporate rights. They place restrictions on what is allowed in national policies, like the Farm Bill, as well as the state and local level. These deals have heavily tilted the playing field from farmers and consumers toward global agribusiness and food giants like Cargill, Monsanto and Wal-Mart.

Because these trade deals, like NAFTA and CAFTA, have been so blatantly negotiated on behalf of multinational corporations and have contributed to growing income inequality, they’ve been extremely unpopular. This is why the Obama Administration has decided to negotiate these two new trade agreements in secret. That’s right, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (including more than a dozen countries) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (with our biggest trading partner, the EU) is being negotiated entirely behind closed doors. The negotiating text has not been made public, and, amazingly, even many members of Congress are in the dark about what’s happening.

Aside from putting these secret trade deals on a fast track, the bill introduced by Senators Max Baucus and Orrin Hatch and Representative Dave Camp includes a new negotiating priority objective to eliminate what it calls “localization barriers.” Local content requirements have been a stated target of the U.S. Trade Representative in other countries like India. But of course, any agreement to undermine local content rules in another country would also apply to U.S. programs that give preference to locally sourced food or energy.

Here are 5 issues on the negotiating table in these trade agreements that local food activists should be worried about:

  1. Procurement policies and local foods: A variety of policies at the municipal, state and federal level give purchasing preferences to local farmers, including U.S. Farm to School programs. Other procurement requirements like “Buy American” or preferences to small or mid-sized companies could also be affected.
  2. Labeling (genetically engineered foods and country-of-origin): Both the U.S. and EU are using trade rules to strike back against consumers right to know about their food. The USTR recently pressured Peru over their mandatory labeling of GE foods, and has consistently attacked EU regulations of GE crops through the World Trade Organization. The EU supported a WTO ruling striking down country-of-origin labeling (COOL) in the U.S. Fortunately, the USDA has since revised the rule, and that version will face another challenge at the WTO. Rules on labeling established in these trade agreements will affect both national and state-level efforts for more consumer information about their food.
  3. Food safety: Food safety standards have been the subject of trade disputes between the U.S. and EU for years. The U.S. has targeted strong EU restrictions on GE crops, growth hormones, such as ractopamine and chlorinated rinses of poultry carcasses. The EU, for its part, is seeking to overturn U.S. limits on EU beef related to controls to prevent Mad Cow Disease. The EU also is concerned about elements of the recently passed U.S. Food Modernization Act. Food safety rules established under these trade agreements will again limit what additional steps can be taken at the national and state level to protect consumers.
  4. Chemical policy reforms: Trade rules on the use of potentially toxic chemicals, which often find their way into the food supply, could undermine the EU’s Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), a process firmly grounded in the Precautionary Principle. USTR has been pushing back against REACH since its inception. But, like food safety, a trade agreement could also block efforts at the state and national level in the U.S. to strengthen regulation of toxic chemicals.
  5. Investor-state dispute resolutions: Finally, proposals in TPP and TTIP create a private “dispute resolution mechanism” that would allow corporations to challenge any public “measure”—including food safety laws and court rulings—that threaten their future bottom line by bringing national governments to court. A government that lost before a tribunal of three trade lawyers would either have to change the offending “measure” or pay the plaintiff corporation lost anticipated revenues. Yes, it’s as incredible as it seems. Phillip Morris has used this provision to challenging cigarette health warnings. Cargill has used it to challenge trading regulations on high fructose corn syrup. Chevron to gain access to oil deposits. These corporate rights provisions, known as investor-state dispute resolution (ISDR), are a hallmark of U.S. trade agreements.

There is too much at stake for Congress to pass fast track and open the door for the speedy passage of mega trade deals that threaten to undermine much of the important work being done to build more sustainable, healthy and fair food systems. The good news is that we can prevent this from happening. There is growing opposition to Fast Track in Congress. More than 150 House members have expressed their opposition to the bill. Now is the time for the local and sustainable food community needs to tell their member of Congress to oppose fast track. IATP is a member of the Citizens Trade Campaign, go to their action center and let your member of Congress know your concerns.

Posted January 28, 2014 by Shefali Sharma   

Industrialized Meat

Over 13 years ago, IATP documented the transformation of U.S. hog production in The Price We Pay for Corporate Hogs. In a period of 30 years (1950–1980), the number of U.S. hog farms declined by nearly 80 percent, while the average farm size increased six-fold. Whereas in 1950, 2.1 million independent farmers raised pigs outdoors or indoors with bedded straw or hay (raising 31 pigs a year); at the end of the 90s, a total of 105 farms accounted for 40 percent of U.S. production (50,000 pigs each). By 1999, 50 percent or more of the farmers were under some sort of contractual arrangement and four companies (including Smithfield) controlled 20 percent of the production. In the last decade, this process has only intensified. By 2007, four companies controlled 66 percent of the production, all at great cost to U.S. farmers, consumers, the environment and public health.

What do the United States and China have in common when it comes to pigs today? The answer is not just Smithfield, now part of the world’s largest pork producing corporation owned by Shuanghui—China’s largest pork processor. The process that neared its end in the 80s in the United States began in China during that same period. Literally, millions of small-scale farmers raising a small number of pigs, chickens and cows have disappeared in the last 30 years. Those who continue to survive and further scale-up have become “specialized farmers”—part of a brutal cost-cutting supply chain dictated by intense competition between meat companies who increasingly double up as feed companies and vice versa. In the midst of these changes, China is grappling with environmental pollution, public health risks, and recurrent and rampant food safety concerns—again, very similar to the concerns that have arisen in the United States.  

In February, IATP will launch four reports on China’s feed, pork, dairy and poultry supply chains. It is an endeavor to understand and share how China’s transformation toward a U.S. model is both a common story of industrial meat production anywhere (be it the United States or Germany) and also specific to China. It is also an attempt to show how China’s story, like the U.S.’s, is a global one, with global links and global impacts. Understanding how Chinese companies are “going out” to develop their supply chains, and how major U.S. and other international livestock and dairy companies are “going in” to China, better prepares us to address the global nature of this industrial complex and its impacts both domestically and globally. It can help us to get beyond big headlines in the paper about China’s growing meat consumption and dig deeper into how and why it is taking place and imagine a different pathway toward fairness, nutrition, public health, and environmental protection in food production—lessons that are readily available from the U.S. experience. 

The global trend points to ever greater consolidation of fewer and more powerful corporations controlling ever scarcer water and land resources to feed millions of animals in confined spaces to produce more cheap meat. How citizens and governments deal with the externalities of this sector and its endemic global ramifications merit careful thought. China—as the largest producer of pork, the second largest producer of poultry, the largest feed importer in the world and the fourth largest dairy producer—is a critical piece of this global puzzle.

Financiers such as Morgan Stanley, Rabobank, Goldman Sachs have a great stake in China’s increased and unquestioned meat consumption growth. Meanwhile, Chinese consumers are increasingly concerned about growing food safety problems in their meat and food supply. Food safety concerns have the potential to be game changers in China’s consumption trends. Currently, these threats are used to further industrialize the meat and dairy sectors, but if lessons are learned from the U.S. experience, this needn’t be a fait accompli.  

IATP’s forthcoming reports help understand these production and consumption trends and map some of these critical issues in order to gain more insight into China’s role in the Global Industrial Meat Complex and the global industry’s role in China. 

Sign up now to be the first to recieve IATP's forthcoming reports on industrialized meat in China. Learn more at

Posted January 24, 2014 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

TradeFood securityFree trade agreements

On a slightly chilly morning last Saturday in Berlin, more than 30,000 people marched through the city to raise their voices against industrial agriculture and for good food and good farming. This was the fourth year for the Wir Haben Agrarindustrie Satt (We’re Fed Up with Agribusiness) march, and the biggest so far. The day started off with a breakfast led by family farmers from around Germany and the region. They led the march with a caravan of tractors, followed by slow food, animal rights, environmental, trade, development and other activists in a joyous celebration of food justice and local democracy.

The march was the culmination of a series of events during Green Week. We started with a public forum on agriculture and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (“TTIP: No We Can’t!”) organized by Martin Haüsling, a Green Party Member of the European Parliament. The German government held its annual Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, which included informative sessions organized by NGOs, academics and corporations on the future of the food system. All great events, but hard to beat the Snippledisco (Disco Soup), where hundreds of people chopped vegetables deemed not quite good enough for the supermarket to pounding music, at once protesting food waste, preparing soup for the demo the next day and just having a great time.

Our colleagues at ARC2020, a broad coalition pushing for reforms in EU agricultural policies, were among the leaders of the week’s events. ARC (and IATP board member) Hannes Lorenzen guided me through the march explaining the groups organized against GMOs (a hot topic, since the European Commission is considering approval of a new variety of GMO corn), factory farming, and TTIP. We stopped for a while to join Benny Haerlin, also from ARC2020 (and the Future of Farming Foundation) to raise our voices for local seeds, leading hundreds of marchers chanting “Freiheit fur die Vielfalt!” (Freedom for Diversity!).

And at the end of the march, I had the honor of following Slow Foods movement leader Carlo Petrini in a short speech to the crowd. We in the U.S. haven’t yet made the enormous strides of the EU in fixing our broken food system, but we haven’t been sitting still either. I told them of the state level campaigns all across the U.S. to label GMOs and get toxics out of our food and environments, and the Farm to School and other local foods initiatives that bring farmers and consumers together in ways that are fair, healthy and sustainable. And of the waves of activism all across the country to oppose fast track, TTIP and other trade deals that put those fragile gains at risk.

It was an inspiring event, all about rebuilding the food system from the ground up and changing the rules that result in corporate concentration, unfair prices for farmers, and unhealthy diets. A tough act to follow, but wouldn’t it be great to try?


See more videos from the demonstrations and events in Berlin.


Posted January 10, 2014 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

TradeFree trade agendaDevelopment

Used under creative commons license from glynlowe.

The U.S. trade debate shifted into high gear yesterday with the introduction of Congressional bills to fast track trade deals. If approved, this would give the administration the authority to negotiate trade deals behind closed doors and then submit the resulting agreements to Congress for an up or down vote, with very limited debate and no possibility of amendments. Unions, environmental organizations and many other civil society groups immediately denounced the bill as undemocratic and out of date. Some 151 Democrats issued a letter last week expressing opposition to the bill, so its passage is far from assured.

Even beyond the undemocratic nature of the fast-track mechanism, the bill includes negotiating objectives that should raise alarms for advocates of food sovereignty and international development. It would direct the office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to eliminate “localization barriers to trade.” Rather than celebrating the emergence of strong local economies, that provision would direct USTR to "eliminate and prevent measures that require United States producers and service providers to locate facilities, intellectual property, or other assets in a country as a market access or investment condition, including indigenous innovation measures." That kind of measure, if enacted in a trade agreement, could easily boomerang back to the U.S. to undermine local content requirements for job creation or even perhaps local foods programs.

The legislation also calls on USTR to make food safety and other Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures “fully enforceable” in trade deals. That could mean that corporate complaints over restrictions on GMOs or dubious food additives become subject to the loathsome Investor-State Dispute Resolution mechanism, which gives corporations the right to sue governments over public laws or regulations that undermine their expected profits. Using that mechanism, Phillip Morris has brought suits against the governments of Uruguay and Australia over new rules on cigarette labels. Could GMO or country-of-origin labels be next?

These issues are all subject to heated debate in negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Those talks, like the debate on fast track itself, need to emerge from the shadows. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says, “Rather than focusing on empowering multinational corporations, we should be working to support domestic manufacturing jobs, fix our crumbling infrastructure, and rebuild a strong middle class. This fast track bill will do the opposite.”

Take action to call on Congress to reject fast track at

Posted January 9, 2014 by Shefali Sharma   

Food and HealthIndustrialized Meat

Author Shefali Sharma stands inside an industrial pig operation near Muenster, Germany.

One of Berlin’s big newspapers, the Berlin Zeitung, flashed images of little piglets today and of mass produced turkeys. This is part of a bigger build up towards a major demonstration on January 18 in which over 20,000 citizens are expected in Berlin to protest against industrial farming in the country—mass meat production being the vivid centerpiece for why it is so bad for people and the environment.

I have been in Germany for the last few weeks and am struck by how hot this topic is becoming—capturing media attention and putting the Green Party into elected positions in different states where animal factory farms have become a major problem. A slow movement is building, garnering ever increasing consumer support towards direct farmer-to-consumer marketing of organic, small-scale, locally produced, humane agriculture products.  

The campaign that is organizing events and the demonstration during Germany’s “Green Week” is called "Meine Landwirtschaft" or “My Agriculture,” building a message to put back agriculture into the hands of better stewards who can respect soil, water and integrate human and animal health into good food for the people and the planet. This year’s theme for the campaign demonstration is "Wir Haben Agrarindustrie Satt!" or "We’re fed up with industrial agriculture!" The poster child: a big pig face.

Speaking of pigs, just after the New Year I visited a sow-raising industrial pig farm near Muenster (about a 4-hour train ride Southwest of Berlin)—the farmer had started out with 400 sows and is now in the business of feeding and impregnating over 1,200 of them. He has them delivered by a company when they have just come of age and hands them off to another contract farmer just as they are about to give birth. The delivery of piglets is more risky.

Many of the people actively working on problems with industrial meat production were surprised that I managed to get access to such a farm—and it’s true, without connections of a friend of a friend, I would not have been able to see such an operation. It is also nearly impossible to visit such operations in the U.S. I got lucky, I guess.

The visit shocked my senses; The extreme smell of ammonia and methane saturated my pores and clothes and the extremely cruel conditions these poor animals are in made me anxious to get out within minutes of entering. We were made to wear boots and these astronaut-like suits/coveralls that would keep our clothes from smelling and would hopefully prevent infection (both human to pig and pig to human). 

The producer spoke at length about his operations—his mechanized feeding process, the breeds, the way that each sow is inseminated. The details he failed to mention are just as important, like the excessive use of hormones in the industry so that sows are fertile and give birth to piglets at the same time. This is efficient for producers so that no gestation crate is empty at any given time during the year. The faster the turnover, the more uniform the sows and piglets, the greater the number of piglets born, the more profitable the business.

These crates are so narrow that these poor animals can only stand and face their feeding troughs, unable even to turn around. German rules mandate that after 35 days of being pregnant, these sows must be able to have more space for some hours during the day until they give birth. I saw these more “spacious” stalls where about 5–6 sows sit, indoors with cement floors and gaps that allow for urine and manure to pass through (which generate all the smell and pollution).

Incidentally, the headlines in today’s paper are also about hormone use in sows and how the danger to human health. BUND, Friends of the Earth Germany, released a high-profile report yesterday on the excessive use of hormones with sows in the German pork industry. This is likely no different than sow rearing in the U.S.

I spoke at length last evening with Reinhild Benning, BUND’s agriculture expert, and she told me that Germany’s data on hormone use in the animal industry is ten years old. The evidence they have gathered based on this old data indicates that these hormones contaminate groundwater and end up in drinking water sources. Excessive hormones, such as steroids that are used in industrial pork production, can be carcinogenic, leading to higher rates of prostate and breast cancer, infertility and even early puberty in youth. She told me that she did 12 radio interviews yesterday on the subject. Their press conference was also well-attended followed by interviews by several newspapers. Several other colleagues across Berlin were interviewed on their take of the issue.

This is perhaps the most exciting aspect of these developments: German media and its readers are interested in knowing about these issues and are beginning to demand change.  I would love to see such an interest in the U.S. For instance, wouldn’t it be great to imagine 20,000 Americans demonstrating against this industrial production model after news broke out in October that antibiotic-resistant salmonella was found in several Foster Farm poultry products, sickening over 16,000 people.

The Henrich Boell Foundation in Berlin is launching its second annual “Meat Atlas: Facts and Figures about the animals we eat” with another press conference. IATP is one of the 26 contributors to this atlas. Stay tuned for more blogs on these issues and on IATP’s own upcoming publications on industrial meat production in China. Sign up to receive IATP's latest work in this area, including the forthcoming reports, at

Posted January 8, 2014 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell   

Food and HealthFood JusticeFoodFood securityJustice

Used under creative commons license from cafemama.

The illusion of choice takes away from our ability to get to a just, sustainable food system, meaning we’ll have to “Vote with our Vote.” We can’t afford to just “Vote with our Fork.”

We’ve been told that we in the U.S. have the best, safest food system in the world. Without getting bogged down in endless debate, let’s get some context: the U.S. has 6 percent of households with very low food security and almost 9 percent more who are not sure they’ll have enough money or resources for food (at the same time, our average food availability is equal to 3,800 calories per person per day, much more than the recommended 1900 to 2500 calories/person/day); we throw away and waste 30 to 50 percent of our food; our food system is rated as fourth in food safety; we’re first (among industrialized countries) in overweight and obesity and tied with Greece for second in terms of the number of people who can’t reliably afford adequate food. That’s right: despite having some of the world’s cheapest food, we have one of the highest levels among wealthy countries of people not being able to reliably afford it.

The Economist Magazine does rank the U.S. #1 in its Global Food Security Index, but given the above, all I’m saying is that being #1 leaves a lot to be desired. So let’s not get too comfortable, whatever our ranking.

So, how is one of the most politically and economically powerful countries on earth also the second worst among its peers in terms of food security? There are many ways to answer that question, but one way I’d answer it is to say that we’ve been focusing too much on “voting with our fork,” when what we should be doing is “voting with our vote.” That is to say, the U.S. food system has become incredibly concentrated, with most of the control in the hands of very few firms

  • 83.5% of beef packing in the U.S. is controlled by four firms
  • 48% of U.S. food retailing is controlled by five firms
  • 71% of soybeans in the world go through three soybean crushing firms
  • 66% of all pork is packed by four firms
  • ~90% of the global trade in grains is controlled by three firms
  • 60% of U.S. corn seed market is controlled by two firms

(Figures are from Food Rebellions! by Holt-Gimémenz and Patel, and sources therein, particularly researchers Mary Hendrickson and William Heffernan.)

And on and on it goes. Things aren’t much better in the organic food industry. Why does it matter? Well, if we were voting with our forks, it means we’re doing so with three tines behind our back—it’d be like a U.S. Senate where the top three senators got a total of 70 votes, and 97 other senators would have share the other 30 between them. (And you thought things in the legislature were bad now!)

We’re in a system like the old saw by Henry Ford, “You can have any color car, as long as that color is black.” When I was in the bodywash business, the saying went “we want to sell consumers as much water [as part of the bodywash] as possible”—because water is cheap. Well, salt, fat, and sugar are cheap too, and even better than water, they’re hard to resist! All of these firms want to sell us more, more, more of everything, and the fact that some people can’t afford enough doesn’t matter as long as others can afford too much! “By concentrating fat, salt and sugar in products formulated for maximum ‘bliss,’ Big Food has spent almost a century distorting the American diet in favor of calorie-dense products,” Scott Mowbray summarized in his New York Times review of the book Salt Sugar Fat. What’s more, it’s more profitable for companies to sell us heavily processed foods rather than the whole and healthy ones we know we should eat. To make matters even worse yet, processed foods may have more calories than the whole foods they came from, meaning we might get less full while getting more calories from processed forms of the same foods.

It is just not as profitable or to the advantage of major food companies to sell us food that is healthier and less processed (indeed, processing is part of “adding value” in industry-speak). Most supermarket food is designed to trigger our pleasure centers to want even more, while it bypasses the triggers in our bodies making us feel “full.” The big food companies spend millions on advertising to make sure their food is “what we crave” (and like it or not, advertising works—why else would they pay for it?). They do this knowing that if we change our minds, our choices are the nearly identical products from their one or two major competitors. Echoing Henry Ford: we can have any kind of food we want in the U.S., for some of the lowest prices in the world, as long as we don’t mind choosing from only a couple companies, don’t mind it being unhealthy, and don’t mind the profits going to food processors and retailers, not farmers.

This is the way it goes when we vote only with our fork. 60,000—that’s the number of products supposedly found in the U.S.’s largest supermarkets. But when these 60,000 come from a handful of companies, how much choice do we really have? 57 kinds of processed, sugary breakfast cereals are still all processed, sugary breakfast cereals.

One of the things I’ll be doing here at IATP as the new director for agroecology and agriculture policy is continuing our long-standing work to build a new narrative of the food system. That is, the story we tell ourselves around our food system, what it does and what’s possible. This piece is the first of many that my colleagues and I will be writing around this theme over the next year. Tune in to IATP’s Think Forward blog and in the coming weeks and months to see!

Posted December 31, 2013 by Dale Wiehoff   

The New Year came in on the heels of an explosion in the small prairie town of Casselton, North Dakota, when two BNSF Railway trains collided, one carrying crude oil. The residents of Casselton were told to evacuate as the thick clouds of black smoke filled the sky. The only comfort in this latest of crude oil transportation disasters was that no people lost their lives. That wasn’t the case in Lac-Megantic, Quebec where 47 people lost their lives when a Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd train carrying tar sand oil derailed and exploded. Small rural communities and First Nations lands have suffered the most from this steady flow of oil spills.  When it isn’t train tankers careening off the tracks, it is crude oil pipeline leaks flowing out on to wheat fields and into rivers. When it isn’t crude oil, it is natural gas explosions such as the one in West, Texas last April, when a fertilizer plant blew up, killing 15 innocent people. Repeatedly, the oil and gas industry has shown criminal disregard for the lives and property of people and communities.

So, what can citizens do? We could and we must say that the nation’s infrastructure for oil and gas development is not up to the threat posed by the headlong drive to squeeze every last drop of petroleum out of the earth. We could and we must say that federal, state and local governments have failed to protect us, and have fallen far short of establishing and enforcing effective regulatory standards for the oil and gas industry. These measures are critical and it is up to us to hold our governments accountable.

But monitoring, regulating and preparing for disasters is not enough. All the spills, train derailments, explosions, and pollution, as horrific as they are, pale next to the disaster of climate chaos, caused in large part by the overuse of petroleum.

It is past time to stand up to this reckless and dangerous form of energy production. Citizens and communities must act to protect themselves. In Minnesota, the Public Utility Commission has agreed to hearings on the proposed expansion of the Alberta Clipper pipeline. It is time to join together and tell the PUC that we don’t need and we don’t want 800,000 barrels per day of tar sand oil traveling across northern Minnesota and approaching Lake Superior. In fact, we don’t want it to come out of the ground. Stopping the Alberta Clipper in 2014 is our New Year’s resolution.

Posted December 19, 2013 by Dr. Steve Suppan   


A chart documenting high-frequency trading volume.

Is it possible or necessary to regulate Automated Trading Systems (ATSs) on commodity futures markets that transact business electronically without direct human intervention at the speed of light (high-frequency Trading (HFT))? The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) sought answers to that question in a September 2013 Concept Release with 132, often multi-part, questions. As CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler remarked in an appendix to the release, ATSs account for 91 percent of all trading, and farmers and ranchers are affected by ATS-generated price volatility. IATP responded to a few of the 132 questions in a comment filed last week with the CFTC.

The failings of ATSs, characterized popularly as “computer glitches,” came to the public’s attention on May 6, 2010, when U.S. stock markets lost 5–6 percent of their total value in a matter of minutes, before recovering later in the day, due to human intervention. The CFTC and the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) issued an analysis of the “flash crash” in September 2010. The CFTC’s Technology Advisory Committee (TAC) held hearings over more than a two year period to exchange information about financial industry HFT practices and to recommend rules and definitions that were featured in the Concept Release.

Most TAC members represented HFT traders, HFT technology providers and exchanges that benefit from the huge fees generated by HFT orders placed, even if those orders do not result in completed trades. Indeed, according to one article, “order stuffing” is built into the design of some HFT algorithms (mathematical expressions of trading instructions and strategies), which “harvest” rebates from trading exchanges based on the sheer volume of HFT orders placed.

IATP recommended that the CFTC apply a fee to each cancelled order to make “order stuffing” and “rebate harvesting” economically unviable. One exchange reported to the TAC that it levied such a fee already, though it did not report how much nor with what results. Standardizing a cancellation fee across all trading venues by rulemaking would prevent trade migration to venues that did not levy the fee.

We noted that several of the Concept Release questions, concerning both normative and technological issues, implied that the CFTC would delegate to exchanges and market participants its authority to regulate ATSs and HFT. There were many more questions about the costs to industry of contemplated regulatory measures than about the benefits of those measures to market integrity and transparent price formation, as required by the Commodity Exchange Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Financial Protection Act.

Even in the face of relentless attacks on Dodd-Frank and the CFTC’s budget, allowing self-regulatory organizations, such as the International Swaps and Derivatives Organization, to dominate HFT regulation is a bad idea. As long as trading venues are for-profit entities, and not public utilities, they have no financial reason to reduce the speed and volume of trading, until and unless flash crashes pose a reputational risk that momentarily reduces trading fees and volume. Short-term savings might result for the CFTC through delegation of its authority, but at the long-term cost of having to patch together a techno-fix for each future flash crash. Furthermore, a weak CFTC HFT rule might be in conflict with the HFT articles in the European Union’s revision of its Market in Financial Instruments Direct (MiFID2), currently under debate.

According to a study referenced in the Concept Release, “at least 60 to 70 percent of commodity price changes” are not the result of trader response to new information about market supply/demand information, regulatory news, logistical news or commodity finance news. Rather they are the result of ATS algorithms responding to other algorithms. IATP concluded its comment to the CFTC by noting that grain and oilseed prices are expected to decline over the next four years, while the cost of production is expected to remain its current record high. Farmers caught in this price-cost squeeze might be tempted to try to hedge the price of their future production, unaware that their commodity derivatives contracts are likely dominated by HFT algorithms. We urged the CFTC to initiate an HFT rulemaking to regulate an unregulated market practice before mini-flash crashes become accepted as the new market normal. 

Posted December 12, 2013 by Dale Wiehoff   


Used under creative commons license from OldOnliner.

It’s common to make biblical references when we want to underscore how ancient something is, but in the case of apples, we know they’ve been around for a very long time. Originating in Central Asia, hybrid varieties propagated through grafting were well established over 6,000 years ago. Today there are over 7,500 cultivars world-wide. Despite the range, diversity and quantity of apples produced in the world, however, Malus domestica apparently isn’t measuring up to the modern consumer’s expectations. At least that’s what Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits thinks. He has developed genetically engineered Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples that won’t turn brown when the flesh is exposed to air. Carter isn’t alone in searching for technological improvements to the apple. Nanotech coatings to keep fruits like apples, pears and mangos firm are already in use.

On December 16, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) will close the final public comment period on the application for Neal Carter’s apples. In November, APHIS released a report saying his “Arctic” apples don’t pose any risks. Given the Obama Administration’s love of all things genetically engineered, it would be surprising if the USDA doesn’t approve genetically engineered apples. The USDA has decided that the issue of genetically engineered food is a matter to be determined by the “market.” Forget that every poll taken finds that consumers don’t want to eat genetically engineered apples, that the major apple producer associations say they don’t want them, and that the fast food industry which Neal Carter claims is the market for his apples say they won’t use them. It’s not too late to comment. Let APHIS know what you think about genetically modified apples.

Something isn’t adding up about the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but evil does seem to have its eye on our forests. The Arctic apple debate is rightly focused on the fruit of the apple tree, but looked at from a slightly broader perspective, this is part of a corporate campaign to introduce and expand the genetically engineered trees into our forests.

One of the more absurd examples of the drive for GMO trees is The American Chestnut Foundation’s (TACF) partnership with the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) in Syracuse to develop a genetically engineered (GE) blight-resistant American chestnut. With the financial backing of major biotech and chemical companies, SUNY’s GE chestnut project is supplanting TACF’s 30-year, citizen science–driven plant breeding project that has made significant advances in bringing back the American chestnut through hybrid crosses. The return of an icon of American forestry that was decimated by a virus in the early 1900s has been reduced to a foot in the door for the genetically engineered forest industries.

TACF invites us to “[i]magine a future in which the native range of the American chestnut is reforested with the 4 billion trees that once stood in our eastern forests.” This image would, by any conservation standard, be an amazing achievement, except for the fact that these would be genetically engineered trees.

Genetically engineered American chestnuts might not by themselves be the greatest threat to biological diversity in our forests, but given the chestnut’s historical stature and the significance of bringing it back into our forests, it is not unreasonable to imagine that the biotech companies and their academic retainers view the approval of the genetically engineered chestnut for release into the wild as an important step in gaining public acceptance of GMO trees. Apples and chestnuts are Trojan horses for the biotech, energy and paper companies that want to introduce a wide range of GMO trees to meet their industrial needs.

Plant diversity begins in the forest, not in the garden and not in the farmer’s fields. The introduction of four billion genetically engineered chestnuts, bruise-free apples, invasive eucalyptus, highly flammable pines and other varieties of genetically engineered trees might provide companies like Okanagan Specialty Fruits, ArborGen and Monsanto with trees for industrial uses, but in return we will be making a serious error that will inevitably lead to the loss of plant biodiversity. We need only look at what happened when this same technology was set loose in our farmer’s fields. In 1995 Monsanto received permission to market GMO corn and soy beans. According to the USDA, today 90 percent of corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. What happened to all the varieties of corn that we grew before 1995?

Before genetically engineered apples become the real forbidden fruit and our native forests and heritage trees are lost to make money for investors, we need to tell the USDA we don’t want or need genetically engineered apples.

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