Posted May 24, 2015 by Shefali Sharma   

Industrialized MeatFree trade agreementsLabelingWorld Trade Organization (WTO)

Used under creative commons license from **RCB**.

On May 8th, President Obama told a crowd in Oregon: No trade agreement is going to force us to change our laws. Twelve days later, the House Agriculture Committee voted 38-6 to repeal in its entirety country-of-origin-labeling (COOL) for beef, pork and poultry. The House vote came in response to a May 18 ruling by the World Trade Organization (WTO) that the U.S. had violated global trade rules by requiring supermarket labels on beef and pork to indicate where livestock was born, raised and slaughtered. The meat industry is elated.

In 2008, Canada and Mexico challenged the U.S. on COOL at the WTO, asserting that it unfairly discriminated against Canadian and Mexican meat. In reality, it was the global meat industry threatened by the idea that if consumers knew how often animals are transported across national borders as they are mass produced, fattened in feedlots and slaughtered, consumers might choose “born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.A." In 2008 alone, the U.S. meat industry spent over $6 million in political lobbying. It spent over $5 million per year from 2009-2012, the period in which the U.S. was revising COOL to make it compliant to the WTO since the U.S. had lost its first appeal at the WTO. In fact, the meat industry has been fighting hard against COOL for more than a decade since it was first passed in the 2002 Farm Bill. In spite of the big bucks spent by Big Meat, Congress has not repealed it because of overwhelming public support for COOL—90% of Americans support such a measure, according to Consumer Reports. Needless to say, civil society including farm, ranch, consumer, labor and other groups, won’t sit quietly. But the fact is that the U.S. has to change COOL or face trade sanctions (though how significant is unclear). The USTR has already indicated it will encourage Congress to revise COOL.

The COOL ruling signifies a much more serious attack on the future of our food system. In the last two years, 70 bills have been introduced across thirty U.S. states to enact mandatory labeling of genetically engineered (GE) food . Americans also overwhelmingly support GE labeling. Not surprisingly, agribusiness has also ramped up spending on lobbying on this issue. And as with COOL, when companies know that domestic lobbying won’t be enough—they use binding international trade rules such as those being negotiated in the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (between the US and the EU) to shape food safety and environmental regulations.

The TPP and TTIP are a new breed of trade treaties that specifically seek to harmonize domestic laws and regulations to enable greater corporate profit. So, the WTO ruling has implications for TTIP as well. The European Union also has COOL. In fact, since 2002, the EU’s labeling scheme for beef requires “precise information about where the animal was born and reared as well as the place of fattening, slaughtering and cutting.” Moreover, the EU has expanded COOL. Since April 2015, EU requires origin labeling of fresh, chilled and frozen pork, sheep, goat and poultry meat. In addition, the European Parliament also mandated the European Commission to examine the possibility of extending mandatory labeling for meat used as an ingredient in processed food. So far, the EU’s labeling regime has remained unchallenged at the WTO. But now that the U.S. has seen its COOL struck down, it’s hard to see why it would accept COOL in other WTO member countries without a trade challenge. Moreover, given that agribusiness on both sides of the Atlantic are on the offense to weaken food safety rules in TTIP, COOL could also become a key issue for “regulatory harmonization” in that trade deal, signifying a possible end to the EU’s COOL regime as well.

In the U.S., food and farm groups are becoming vocal about trade policy undermining food policy through the fight on Fast Track to decide whether Congress gets to intervene in trade negotiations and influence them or simply vote yes or no after they have been completed. COOL is a clear reminder, that in fact, Mr. President, trade treaties can and do force us to change our laws. That is why stopping Fast Track in the coming months is also a win for democratizing food policy.

Posted May 21, 2015 by Ben Lilliston    Gary Ruskin, U.S. Right to Know

AgribusinessFree trade agreementsGMO


The longstanding principal goal of U.S. trade policy is to advance U.S. economic interests.

So, why is the Obama administration fighting so hard to help Monsanto -- a company that is openly trying to slash its taxes by moving its headquarters from St. Louis to Switzerland?

Earlier this month, Monsanto made an initial offer to purchase the Swiss-based Syngenta. The deal, if completed, would allow Monsanto to move its headquarters from outside St. Louis to Switzerland, thereby reducing U.S. corporate tax payments. According to financial analysts at Piper Jaffray, Monsanto would gain – and U.S. taxpayers would lose – about $500 million per year in tax revenues.

It would also create the largest seed and crop chemical company in the world. 

At this moment, the Obama administration is undertaking a high profile effort to knock down global resistance to genetically engineered food and crops.  It is advancing trade treaties both for Europe (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP) and Asia (Trans Pacific Partnership, TPP) to accomplish this goal.

Monsanto is the world’s largest producer of seeds, many of which are genetically engineered.  It would be a major beneficiary of these treaties.

Monsanto, in fact, can attribute much of its growth over the last decade to past trade deals. Most other countries around the world, including key markets in the European Union, have taken a more precautionary approach to genetically engineered crops than in the U.S. – both in approvals for agricultural production, and in requiring clear labeling for consumers. In collaboration with the U.S. Trade Representative, Monsanto and the agrichemical industry have aggressively used trade rules in bilateral agreements as well as at the World Trade Organization (successfully challenging Europe’s biotech regulatory regime) to try to strike down higher-standard public health and environmental requirements for GE foods in other countries.

U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), in a letter this month to Monsanto urging the company to stay in the U.S., pointed out that the company’s growth is “in large part due to U.S. taxpayer-funded programs and services.” Durbin explained how the company has benefited from government research, the U.S. patent and regulatory system.  In its peculiar way of saying thanks, Monsanto wants to take the money and run.

There seems to be no limit to the lengths to which the Obama administration will go to support Monsanto and the biotech industry.  Earlier this month, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack accused the European Union of undermining efforts to address global hunger, because of a new EU proposal to allow its member countries greater power in regulating GE crops. Vilsack threatened that the EU’s decision raises “serious issues” about the future of TTIP, and officials in Washington have threatened another WTO challenge. The EU’s regulatory approach is troubling to Vilsack and Monsanto because their collective goal is to eliminate what they call sub-federal regulations. In the case of Europe, it is country-level regulations. In the U.S., it is state-level mandatory GMO labeling laws.

Both TPP and TTIP include intellectual property rules that protect Monsanto’s patented GE crops. They also include special corporate rights provisions, known as investor-state rules. These provisions would grant corporations legal rights to potentially challenge new laws, like state-level labeling of genetically engineered foods, that inhibit investors’ expectations. 

Why is the Obama administration doing such huge favors on trade for a company that is trying to cheat U.S. taxpayers by moving its tax headquarters to Switzerland?

Monsanto, in seeking a tax inversion, shows that it has no loyalty to the United States.  So, why is the U.S. government showing so much loyalty to it?

Why are we going to the mat for Monsanto when it is trying to move to Switzerland?

It’s time for the Obama administration to re-think its efforts on behalf of Monsanto.

Posted May 15, 2015 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

Fast TrackFree trade agreements

There were some decidedly Kafkaesque aspects of the Congressional debate this week on Fast Track legislation, designed to speed through the passage of secret trade deals that could have a serious impact on our food system. At first, the Senate refused to approve a bill to limit debate on Fast Track. Then, when the Senate did approve that bill, it turned out the real debate over Fast Track wouldn’t be happening in the Senate at all, but rather in the House (but not yet).

What?? Essentially, the Senate votes this week were over a procedural mechanism (cloture) to bring Fast Track to a vote (but not yet over Fast Track itself). The actual Fast Track vote will likely come in the Senate in the next few weeks. As we’ve discussed before, Fast Track would limit Congressional debate on trade agreements to an up or down vote, no amendments allowed. It would include the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP, with 11 other Pacific Rim countries) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP, with Europe) and any other trade agreements negotiated over the next six years, including those completed by the next President. The votes this week were notable mainly because the Senate action had been expected to pave the way for a much more contentious vote in the House of Representatives. And it didn’t work out that way at all.

So much of the debate on free trade agreements is about unmasking the corporate agenda in what appear to be obscure legal texts. “Free trade” agreements are for the most part not about trade at all. Writing about Investor-State Dispute Settlement (included in both TPP and TTIP) in The Guardian this week, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz commented, “Rules and regulations determine the kind of economy and society in which people live. They affect relative bargaining power, with important implications for inequality, a growing problem around the world. The question is whether we should allow rich corporations to use provisions hidden in so-called trade agreements to dictate how we will live in the 21st century.”

These rules matter for our food system as well. Whether it’s the GMO labeling law in Vermont, limits on eggs produced in battery cages in California, or ambitious efforts to connect farmers, eaters and decision-makers in food policy councils across the country, people are taking action to create new rules to rebuild our broken food system. On those issues, the bottom line is that trade deals create new obstacles to change.

While the lack of transparency makes it difficult to know the details, free trade agreements are not designed to make our food system safer. They are designed to increase trade by multinational corporations. And, by design, they create an obstacle course for new rules on food safety.

First, we have rules on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards that require that any food safety rules be based on sound science and be the least trade restrictive possible. In practice, these requirements mean that rather than proving that food additives or pesticides are safe before they enter our food system, they have to be proven unsafe before they’re taken out. And regulators are forced to look at what’s most trade-friendly rather than what’s best for public health. 

Second, there are rules on Regulatory Coherence. We know more about what’s in TTIP, but even leaked TPP text from a few years ago shows that each country would set in place a process to vet new regulations and conduct cost-benefit analyses that won’t account for the true benefits for public health and environmental protection.

Third, there is Investor-State Dispute Settlement, which gives foreign companies the right to sue governments over laws that affect their expected profits. Even if a new rule makes it through those first two obstacles, it could run squarely into a lawsuit from investors. This could be used to challenge any laws, state or federal.

How would this play out? Say we have a new rule on food safety or an emerging technology like nanotechnology in food. First, regulators would have to prove that the science is definitive, and the least trade restrictive possible. Then they have to pass through the hurdles of Regulatory Coherence, collect comments and prove it’s the most cost-effective option. Then, if it does pass, any company alleging damages could use the data on costs gathered in the impact assessment as evidence for an investor-state lawsuit. It will become harder and harder to make any new rules that protect public health and the environment.

These rules matter. We also need to know more about what’s in our food, both in terms of its nutritional value and how it is produced. In its 2015 report on trade barriers, USTR lists new food labeling laws in Mexico, Chile, Peru and Japan as unfair barriers to trade. And the negotiating objectives in Fast Track specifically call for action against “unjustified trade restrictions or commercial requirements, such as labeling, that affect new technologies, including biotechnology,” something Rep. Peter DeFazio condemned as the “Monsanto Provision,” since it could be used to knock down GMO labeling in this country and abroad.

We need to rebuild our broken food system. We need new laws to regulate harmful pesticides and food additives. We need better food labels. We need new programs to produce healthier foods at prices that are fair to consumers and farmers. A lot of this is starting to happen at the local level all across the country. We must protect these fragile gains, and find ways for them to flourish, not create new obstacles to change. These trade deals are another way to place our nation’s food safety in the hands of a few food corporations, to diminish the public’s role in ensuring safe food and to weaken the rights of consumers to know what’s in their food.

Members of Congress will continue to be under enormous pressure to approve fast track over the next few weeks. It’s important to reach out directly to your Representatives and Senators, even if you have done so before, to urge them to reject Fast Track. These decisions matter.

Posted May 14, 2015 by Shiney Varghese   

Food securityWater

While it might seem obvious that the rights to water and food are inextricably linked, all too often policies around their use and governance are developed for one without regard to the other. To address this problem, the UN Committee on World Food Security formed a High Level Panel of Experts and charged it with weaving these two policy strands together. The resulting report provides a list of recommendations on the critical issue of Water for Food Security and Nutrition.

Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is the foremost international and intergovernmental platform trying to address global food security and nutrition challenges. Following the food crises of 2008, it initiated a reform process, increasing stakeholder participation, especially participation by those engaged in small scale food production systems. It also created a High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) mechanism to gain deeper understanding and ‘independent scientific knowledge based analysis and advice on issues related to food security and nutrition. Since its establishment HLPE has brought out nine reports. I was fortunate to serve on the most recent project team, which just completed its report on Water for Food Security and Nutrition (FSN). The launch of the report is this week.

The CFS mandated the HLPE to prepare the report in October 2013. In addition to myself, the project team included Oscar Cordeiro-Netto (University of Brasilia, Brazil), Claudia Ringler with the  International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Theib Oweis International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas and the team leader Lyla Mehta, of  Institute of Development Studies in the United Kingdom.

This is a landmark report in many ways. To begin with, it is the first comprehensive effort to bring water, food and nutrition security issues together. Many analyses conflate food security with agricultural production, and deal primarily with agricultural water use concerns, and more specifically with water withdrawals. Often they even forget the important role that domestic water uses and drinking water and sanitation have for food security and nutrition, as well as their various interlinkages and interdependencies, let alone water and food governance-related concerns.  While smallholder farmers or even consumers seldom distinguish between consumption and production uses, the two uses are clearly considered separately when it comes to policy formulation. To trace out these interdependencies, the report looks at four dimensions of water (availability, quality, stability of water resources, and access to water), as each of them relates to food security and nutrition.

Thus, one of our first tasks was to identify the multiple linkages between water and FSN, in both policy and practice. In doing this we also considered aspects such as water and sanitation for human survival and well-being, and water for maintaining various ecosystem functions. The report is comprehensive also in terms of addressing a range of technical, institutional, socio-economic, cultural and political aspects. Finally, with an explicit focus on vulnerable communities, this report is distinctly different from earlier reports on the issue.

Second, the report looks not only at existing water challenges, but also at emerging challenges in the context of increasing uncertainty. In considering future uncertainties (for example, from climate change), it critically examines several drivers of change (such as increased meat consumption and related demand for feed, and new trends in energy production such as hydro fracking) that can conflict with food security and nutrition objectives. The report emphasizes that much agricultural production is increasingly concerned with non-food crops—corn and soybeans for animal feed, corn and sugarcane for biofuels, cotton, tobacco, etc.--with water often being diverted for export markets. We conclude that water for FSN, especially for small scale food production systems, should be prioritized over export markets.

Third, the report points to two complementary options to increase water, land and agricultural productivity in a range of agroecological food production systems: the first focused on water management (for example, rainwater harvesting, supplementary irrigation etc.) and the second focused on agricultural management (agroecological practices, for example). In doing so, the report takes an integrated ecosystem approach towards managing land, water and biodiversity, an approach that IATP called for in 2009. While recognizing the role of irrigation, the HLPE report specifically calls attention to the need for making rain-fed agriculture a more resilient and reliable option, since it has the largest potential to help address FSN in the 21st century.

Fourth, the report makes some important recommendations concerning the different processes affecting water governance, allocation, access and use. The report emphasizes that inclusive water governance is crucial for ensuring sustainable, equitable and gender-just decision-making and water allocation for FSN. Moreover, the choice of allocation mechanisms and the way these are implemented can impact water for FSN. For example, market-based allocation mechanisms tend to divert water to the most economically efficient sector, not necessarily to those most important for FSN.

Fifth, the report also recognizes that both water sector reform processes and large scale land acquisitions can affect the customary access rights of poor and marginalized women and men, and thus impact their FSN. The role of trade in goods as a virtual water transfer is recognized as crucial to help address FSN needs of water scarce countries. Such approaches to FSN should not be at the cost of sustaining small scale food production systems either in food producing areas or in importing regions. Moreover, attention must be paid to ensure local ecosystem sustenance and better work environments in the food exporting economies.

The report also discusses competing governance systems—including informal systems such as policies, institutions, tools, etc. –and identifies the need to improve policy coherence at every level, from local to global, in order to prioritize water for FSN. Special attention must be given to the needs of vulnerable communities and women engaged in ensuring FSN. Given the complexity of the governance challenges (e.g., the impact of big investments on water governance systems, or that of trade on local water, food and nutrition security), the report calls for prioritizing water for FSN especially in the context of investments, and for policy coherence at national and local levels on this issue. It notes that even major global initiatives around water, land and food governance (for instance, the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT) and the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Alleviation (VG SSF)) have not adequately integrated water for FSN.

Finally, as a scientific report dealing with water for FSN, the report makes an original contribution by going well beyond technical issues to call attention to the inextricable relationship between the right to water and the right to food. In doing so, it draws on two comments from the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: General Comment 15 (on right to water) and General Comment 12 (on right of food), both of which recognize the interdependence of the right to water and right to adequate food. Most peri-urban and rural communities in developing countries employ multiple water use practices. Yet, the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation concerns itself only with access to water for drinking water, food preparation and sanitation, and does not concern itself with other home-based activities (kitchen gardening, animal care, etc.) that help communities become food and water secure. This report suggests further exploration of the inter-linkages and consequences of these two rights by relevant Special Rapporteurs, so as to enable a human rights approach to water governance that ensures water for FSN for all.  

This report will inform the Committee on World Food Security debate on water for meets in October 12-15 in Rome. Reading this report in full will certainly be informative and hopefully enjoyable —it certainly has been a pleasure for me to work on this report with my colleagues in the Project Team. Our intention was to provide as comprehensive and informed an account of the situation as possible. We think we have done that, and hope it will serve its intended purpose: to provide evidence-based analysis and expert advice on this issue of critical importance: Water for Food and Nutrition Security.

Posted May 13, 2015 by Juliette Majot   

Fast TrackFree trade agreements

As the Senate lurches toward consideration of Fast Track, it's important to remember that the debate is more than a political game.   Fast Track Authority is an abdication of Congressional responsibility and accountability. Adding insult to injury, the trade agreements that such authority would, in effect, guarantee are the product of non-democratic and secretive processes heavily engineered by corporations. Chiseling away at what is left of our democracy isn’t popular among the majority of the people who vote for Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians. That is why there is unity among the opposition to Fast Track, and that is why President Obama has a political problem on his hands that will not be solved by offering rides in Air Force One, or by promising to offset the inevitable (and proven) destruction of jobs that will follow right on the heels of ratifying two new trade agreements should Fast Track be approved.  Ultimately, representatives of the people in Washington DC have to get elected.  And anyone who steps up to vote YES on Fast Track authority will have a hard time explaining, quite soon, exactly why they dodged their responsibility  to ensure that trade agreements serve the interests of the people. Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians. Voters.

Posted May 13, 2015 by Shefali Sharma   

Food and HealthIndustrialized Meat

Used under creative commons license from E.Briel.

This past Friday, over 29,000 comments, including IATP’s review of the Guidelines, were submitted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines. The Guidelines, revised every five years, set policy guidance on the American diet and nutrition. They inform the design and implementation of federally funded nutrition programs such as the School Nutrition Program and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. Policy makers, educators and nutrition and health professionals use them.

According to Politico (subscription required), the last Scientific Report on the Dietary Guidelines (in 2010) elicited only 2,000 comments by comparison. This year’s report raised a firestorm—mainly due to the meat industry—because the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) peer-reviewed report recommended that “Sustainability” should be an integral criteria for an optimal diet. They defined a sustainable diet as a pattern of eating that promotes health and well-being and provides food security for the present population while sustaining human and natural resources for future generations and concluded the following:

A diet higher in plant-based foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds)and lower in animal-based foods is both healthier and more sustainable than the current American diet.

The North American Meat Institute and other meat industry players have heavily lobbied the agencies to ensure that these recommendations are not accepted and have asserted that sustainability concerns should be excluded from guidance on nutrition. To counter this, a large number of civil society groups have coalesced under the banner My Plate, My Planet to urge the HHS and USDA to accept DGAC’s recommendations and include sustainability. In fact, because of this campaign, a large number of the comments submitted this past Friday favored including environmental impacts in the guidelines. Groups also collected over 200,000 signatures for a petition that demanded sustainability be in the guidelines.  The HHS and USDA hope to stick to their schedule and issue the guidelines by the end of this year. To support the DGAC recommendations, you can sign up for updates on My Plate, My Planet.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines are an opportunity for the HHS and the USDA to play a leadership role and integrate this critical aspect of sustainability—and the future of our food system—into federal policy on nutrition and food security. 

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. 

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