Posted December 19, 2013 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

FinanceMarkets

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   

BiodiversityGMO

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.

Posted December 12, 2013 by Anna Claussen   

Local FoodFarm to InstitutionFarm to Hospital

A growing number of hospitals are shifting the way they think about protecting and improving health, and taking a closer look at how and where the food they serve is grown. This is great news for the people who receive treatment, work at and visit the hospitals, but it’s also great news for local, sustainable farmers, and could become an important infrastructure pillar in building stronger local food systems. 

We’ve just put the finishing touches on a two-year assessment (funded by a North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant) of the current and potential health care food markets for North Central region sustainable farmers. We collaborated with three health systems (Fairview Health Services, Hudson Hospital and Clinics, and the VA Medical Center in St. Cloud, Minnesota) and an advisory committee of farmers, hospital representatives and food systems experts to gather and analyze data to provide insights into opportunities for and roadblocks to hospital sourcing of more local, sustainably produced food.

Farm to Hospital is more complicated than it might sound at first. Limited hospital resources and the complexity of food purchase contracts and agreements at many hospitals have prevented farmers from accessing this market in any significant way to date. To help hospitals and farmers navigate some of these roadblocks, we’ve just released two region-specific reports—one aimed at hospitals and one aimed at farmers—detailing our project findings. We’ve also published a collection of Farm-to-Hospital toolkits and appendices containing resources designed to help North Central region hospitals maximize purchase of produce, meat and other products from sustainable farmers and producers, especially those in nearby communities. Likewise, there are tools to help sustainable farmers and producers to sell their products to hospitals. Find all of these resources on www.iatp.org/farm-to-hospital. Further, we’ve provided each of our hospital partners with customized “road maps” to aid their efforts in procuring local, sustainable food.

We’ll also be hosting two webinars, one designed for farmers, the other for hospitals to share our results as well, on December 17 and 19.

To help build stronger local food systems that work for farmers and the community, we’re going to need institutions with significant purchasing power to step up. Hospitals and schools that already serve local communities can be an important first step of building a healthier, more sustainable and resilient local food system!

See both our Hospital- and Farmer-Focused Farm to Hospital reports, and all associated toolkits on www.iatp.org/farm-to-hospital.

Sign up for one or both of our upcoming webinars to learn more:

December 17: Farmer-focused presentation on Connecting Sustainable Farmers to Emerging Health Care Markets

December 19: Hospital-Focused presentation on Connecting Sustainable Farmers to Emerging Health Care Markets

Posted December 11, 2013 by Shiney Varghese   

Human RightsUnited NationsWater

Used under creative commons license from Loonybread.

On November 21, the U.N. General Assembly’s Third Committee (The Committee) adopted a resolution on “The human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.” All U.N. member states agreed that the rights to water and sanitation are derived from the right to an adequate standard of living. As a result, these rights are now implicitly recognized as being part of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

This means that for the very first time, all U.N. member States affirm that the rights to water and sanitation are legally binding in international law. This is indeed a moment for all of us to celebrate.

Yet this agreement is marred by the reluctance of the United States to join all other nations in a universal agreement on the definition of these rights (as defined in a resolution of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted by consensus in September 2013).

Writing about this, an Amnesty International press release says: “At the time [of the unanimous adoption of the UNHRC resolution] the United States was the only country that disassociated itself from the definition of these rights and stated that it did not agree ‘with the expansive way this right has been articulated.’ However, it has not explained what aspects of this definition it does not accept.” The press release continues: “Such rights are only ‘expansive’ if one adopts a 19th century understanding of hygiene and of government duties to ensure the provision of public services.”

At the behest of the United States, the main sponsors of the draft resolution—Germany and Spain—tried to reach a consensus by removing the following paragraph, which contained a critical affirmation of the contents of these rights, from the resolution that was unanimously passed at the General Assembly this November.

...the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation entitles everyone, without discrimination, to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use and to have physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, and acceptable and that provides privacy and ensures dignity.

Given that this was the only reference in the draft resolution to the content of the rights to water and sanitation, the final resolution adopted is stripped of essential elements related to these rights. Amnesty International is right that it is “incumbent upon the U.S. government to explain which of these aspects of the rights it cannot accept and why.” The removal of that text from the resolution would seem to indicate that some aspects of our rights to water and sanitation are not guaranteed by the Federal government. Which ones?

Quite apart from the domestic implications, such a position by the U.S. government also works against the interests of the billions of people who lack adequate access to water and sanitation.

The debate isn't over yet. Even though the references to the content of the rights to water and were removed from the November resolution, UNGA’s Third Committee endorsed the UNHRC resolution of September 2013, which elaborates the underlying essential elements of these rights. Thus, reintroducing the content of these rights in future texts on rights to water and sanitation should be quite straightforward.

The issue will likely come up again at the U.N. General Assembly (GA) next year. For the supporters of the draft resolution this offers an opportunity to reintroduce the removed language. For the United States, it will provide a chance to stand on the right side of history, rather than holding back progress.

If and when a U.N. GA resolution is adopted with these amendments, it will indeed be a big step forward in advancing rights-based approaches to development. Yet, we need to be mindful that this will only be a baby step toward ensuring adequate access to water and sanitation for world’s poor. It will require sustained work at multiple levels and spaces, including rethinking our water-intensive development trajectory, to make it a reality for all.

Posted December 10, 2013 by Dale Wiehoff   

GMO

Tell the Brazilian embassy in Washington, DC to Stop Terminator Seeds

Call: +1 (202) 238-2700

After years of global opposition and prohibitions against the production and distribution of terminator seeds, the biotech industry’s final solution (seeds that are genetically engineered to not reproduce), the Brazilian government has taken steps to legalize them before the end of the year.

According the ETC Group, an international bio- and agrotechnology watchdog organization, the Brazilian Judicial Commission will entertain a motion on Wednesday, December 11, 2013 to accept Terminator seeds, making Brazil the first country in the world to defy a 13-year-old UN moratorium on the use of the technology.

Terminator technology represents a fundamental threat to the rights of farmers and biodiversity and must be permanently banned.

We urge you to call the Brazilian embassy in your country and send the government a message that the world rejects technology that makes plants produce sterile seeds.

In the U.S., call the Brazilian embassy in Washington, DC: +1 (202) 238-2700.

Learn more from the ETC Group.

Posted December 9, 2013 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell   

Natural resourcesAgroecologyEnvironmentSustainable Agriculture

Dr. Catherine Woteki, Chief Scientist of the USDA and Under-Secretary for REE.

The comment period recently closed on the USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Action Plan Draft, which responded to informal and formal consultations with internal and external advisors and stakeholders, and “lessons learned from implementation of Farm Bill provisions.” It refines the initial REE Action Plan, which was released in February of 2012.

Why should we care? Well, the action plan is meant to identify and outline the core organizing efforts of the USDA’s science agenda, including how the USDA delivers on its the scientific discovery mission through The Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Agricultural Statistics Service. In other words, it is setting the priorities for the work of 1,200 research projects and thousands of staff within the USDA, the priorities for over $1.2 million in projects and research funds distributed to Land-Grant universities and other partners, and the priorities around what kinds of data the USDA works to collect and how it disseminates it. This document will strongly influence what kind of science is supported, what kinds of things we can find out about our own food system and what possibilities and alternatives are explored. As a former academic, I can say the USDA is a very important funder for academic work on the food system and their statistics are vital to allowing us to figure out what’s going on in our own food system.

So I was displeased to read the 45-page draft document and see no mention of agroecology. Agroecology, which most fundamentally is about dealing with agriculture as a system that is inescapably both ecological and social, would seem almost wholly congruent with the USDA REE Action Plan’s stated goals. This is why I was happy to see the Ecological Society of America address this in a letter to Dr. Catherine Woteki, Chief Scientist of the USDA and Under-Secretary for REE (I contributed to the letter as the chair of the Agroecology Section of the Society):

The Ecological Society of America is grateful for the opportunity to submit comments on the USDA’s draft revised Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Mission Area Action Plan […] We are glad to see the priorities placed on studying  natural  resources,  sustainable  agricultural  systems,  and  the  environment  more  broadly. ESA shares these priorities […] [but] the current REE Mission Area Action Plan  draft  document  includes  only  two  mentions  of  ecology  (both  in  reference  specifically  to microbial  ecology) […] Yet the field of agroecology would appear logically foundational to achieving practically all  of  the  primary  goals  and  subgoals  laid  out  in  the  Draft  document,  which  emphasizes  “a comprehensive  approach  to  agriculture  and  working  lands,”  and  in  taking  “an  assertive  and progressive  approach  to  transforming  USDA  REE  into  a  high-profile  research  organization.”

ESA goes on to propose three changes: “(1) The incorporation of ecology into the REE plan […] (2)  A dedicated budget line within USDA REE for agroecological research […] (3) An annual high-level Conference on Agroecology, under the auspices of the USDA.” The letter also highlights several examples of exciting, cutting-edge and very timely work currently being undertaken by agroecologists.

For a primer on agroecology, you can also see IATP’s recent report, Scaling Up Agroecology.

Read the letter from the Ecological Society of America to Dr. Catherine Woteki, Chief Scientist of the USDA and Under-Secretary for Research, Education and Economics.

Read the USDA Draft Action Plan (2013 revision).

See the letter’s appendix, which shows that over the past 20 years, agroecology has had the highest percentage of well-cited peer-reviewed papers (7 percent) when compared to organic agriculture (5.1 percent), agronomy (4.5 percent), and soil science (4.8 percent).

Posted December 6, 2013 by Shefali Sharma   

TradeWTOMarketsClimate ChangeFood securityWorld Trade Organization (WTO)

Used under creative commons license from World Trade Organization.

IATP's Shefali Sharma is reporting from the 9th WTO Ministerial in Bali, Indonesia.

2 p.m., Bali, Indonesia

It is supposed to be the final hours of the 9th WTO Ministerial here in Bali but trade negotiators are milling in the hallways, conjecturing whether the meeting will be extended until tomorrow or wrap up by 5:00 p.m., whether there will be a “take it or leave it text” or further negotiations late into the night. There have been several contentious issues, including whether to finalize yet another trade agreement on trade facilitation and a non-committal package for the Least Developed Countries (LDC). However, the issue most critical to poor countries concerns food security. The current WTO framework on agriculture is being tested on its ability to accommodate government procurement for food security programs in developing countries.

India has been in the spotlight the last three days since the meeting began because it has stood firmly against the U.S. opposition to allow such programs from violating existing WTO rules. The existing rules were unfairly crafted in the mid-80s by the U.S. and the EU, but never mind that. The U.S. is insisting that India’s Food Security Act would exceed limits set in the agriculture agreement for “trade distorting” subsidies. Never mind too that the U.S. has negotiated space at the WTO to reconfigure its own domestic agriculture and food security programs.

Last night, the Indian Trade Minister Anand Sharma was holed up for hours with the Director General (DG) of the WTO Roberto Azevedo, the Indonesian Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan and USTR Michael Froman. The minister was asked several times to compromise on language on the public food stockholdings. Each time, it is rumored, Minister Sharma came back with a firm “no” because each proposal set onerous and unfair restrictions towards a permanent solution which India seeks. The “no” came from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who has unanimous backing from his cabinet that India’s Food Security Act cannot be compromised. The last meeting between the DG and Ambassador Froman terminated at 5am this morning. The USTR has also refused to budge on this issue, essentially demanding that nothing should limit exports (hence profits) of U.S. agribusiness.

This morning has been a flurry of rumors about what will happen. Indonesia’s young trade minister is a possible presidential candidate and is eager to have a “package” at Bali; the irony is that Indonesia has abandoned its own proposal while its own Bulog program for rice procurement could in principle stand to be challenged under existing WTO rules if it was proven that Indonesia has not used “market prices” for its support. Indonesia chairs the G-33 which has tabled the proposal on exemptions from challenges to public food stockholding programs in developing countries. In Bali, Indonesia has done little to further the cause. The fact is that several developing countries around the world use food procurement programs for addressing hunger in their countries. Many, like Brazil, have simply manipulated the notifications of these programs to the WTO afraid of being challenged. Other countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia that could benefit from such programs in the future could be restricted from enacting such programs unless the WTO and the governments negotiating here wake up to the fact that trade is a small component of food security. Global trade turned out to be a highly unreliable way to ensure food security in 2007-08 when food grain prices sky-rocketed and food riots broke out in over 30 countries.  

Contrary to media reports, India has not fought this fight alone behind closed doors. Several countries including Nepal, Egypt, Kenya, Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa and Namibia (to name a few) have either expressed support or made statements in support of a permanent solution to this problem at the WTO. For instance, one African country said in a closed meeting, “Food security and agriculture linkages need to be underpinned in this agreement. The food security proposals underpin the social and economic fabric of our and other African economies.”

As the crowd thins here for lunch, it is still unclear whether negotiations will continue on into the night/ Several rumors are circulating that a compromise may have been reached: one that allows the U.S. to claim that it placed restrictions on such programs through a “Peace Clause” with certain conditionalities and a time period that would prevent any challenges to such programs; and one that sets up a negotiating track for a permanent solution to allowing such food security programs to continue without challenges at the WTO. There was an earlier rumor that the U.S. would only accept a permanent solution if “no new food security programs” could be enacted that exceed subsidy limits currently prescribed at the WTO. 

If the WTO heeds this conditionality, it will only further reinforce the viewpoint that the WTO is incapable of handling the major challenges of the 21st century—the central ones being food security in the era of climate change and high and volatile food prices.

Stay tuned.

Posted December 6, 2013 by Shefali Sharma   

TradeWTOFood securityWorld Trade Organization (WTO)

Used under creative commons license from World Trade Organization.

Indian Trade Minister Anand Sharma

Update: The ministerial text was accepted on Saturday morning with minor changes to assuage Cuba's concerns. See a video report from Shefali Sharma regarding Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia's move to block consensus on the agreement on the morning of December 7. 

IATP's Shefali Sharma is reporting from the 9th WTO Ministerial in Bali, Indonesia.

3:00 a.m., Bali, Indonesia

The WTO’s “Bali Package” was supposed to have been adopted this early morning of December 7 after trade diplomats rolled in for a final meeting at midnight. Earlier in the evening, at 8:00 p.m. on December 6, the WTO secretariat had shared a set of decisions proposed by the chair that comprise the Bali Package. The meeting was originally scheduled to close by 5:00 p.m.. However, at the time of this writing, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua have said to have blocked consensus and the meeting has been adjourned. Cuba’s major issue has been language in the Trade Facilitation decision on “freedom of transit” that fails to address the problems it faces with the U.S. embargo against Cuba. The meeting has been adjourned to reconvene sometime in the next hours.

A critical piece of the package is the decision on “Public Stockholding for Food Security Purposes.” This decision took up most of the negotiating time for two central parties: India and the United States. The final decision allows developing countries a “Peace Clause” which protects them from being sued at the WTO for implementing food security programs that violate the WTO’s rules to limit spending on “trade distorting” agricultural subsidies. The decision limits the Peace Clause to “traditional staple food crops” defined as “primary agricultural products that are predominant staples in the traditional diet of a developing country member.” It also puts in place a set of criteria for annual notification and transparency about these programs, which will be in addition to existing notification requirements at the WTO. The U.S. insisted that an additional “anti-circumvention” safeguard be put in place to ensure that subsidies that do not fall under the Peace Clause but have been notified as trade distorting are not increased as a result of this exemption. Pakistan got an assurance that such programs will not “distort trade or adversely affect the food security of other Members.”

The decision represents a hard fought victory for India. Before going to Bali, the U.S. government insisted that the food security programs in question would only be sheltered for four years under the Peace Clause. In other words, India spent its entire political capital on getting the Peace Clause for an indefinite period, “until a permanent solution is found” for how to fund public food reserves without running afoul of the WTO. In the last two days of the Ministerial, India was portrayed as the main obstacle to a successful outcome from Bali, which in turn was portrayed as essential to avoid the WTO sinking into irrelevance.

An important question is whether the decision introduces a “standstill” clause for any expansion of these public programs because the decision applies to programs “existing as of the date of this Decision.” If so, this would have an impact on developing countries who currently do not have such programs and for the expansion of India’s program. This is a major concern for India’s Right to Food Campaign which wants the inclusion of other staples such as pulses under the Food Security Act. Asked about this concern and one Indian representative responded, “That’s why this is an interim solution.”

The decision calls for a review at the 10th WTO Ministerial Conference, which will be held two years from now. The decision also lays out a work program for the adoption of a permanent solution in four years time, at the 11th Ministerial. For those of us who have long felt that WTO agriculture rules are biased towards agribusiness, too narrow and imbalanced, and inadequate to address food security and rural livelihood concerns, the work program is an entry point to reinvigorate the debate about the role that trade rules must play in ensuring food security (not impeding it) and the limitations of the existing framework measured against the achievement of that objective.

Posted December 4, 2013 by     Kathleen Schuler

Food and HealthHealthy LegacyAutismEnvironmentHealth

Used under creative commons license from buzzymelibee.

Now that autism affects one in fifty school-aged kids—up from 1 in 150 as measured in 2000—we should be asking ourselves some pretty serious questions about why so many kids have autism. Sure, we know that the health and educational systems are better at diagnosing autism, but better diagnosis explains only part of the increase. With exponential increases in rates of autism over the past two decades, there is more going on than better diagnosis.

As more kids are diagnosed with autism, most of our attention is focused on providing services. Serving kids with autism is essential, but there is also a need to examine the possible myriad of factors that might be contributing to this autism epidemic.  If we knew how to prevent autism, it would be our responsibility as a society to commit resources at our disposal to do so.

Preventing autism requires that we look at the whole picture. The bulk of research in autism has been focused on genetics, which plays a contributing role in risk for autism. Emerging from more recent research, however, is a pattern of links between risk for autism and environmental and dietary factors. While the etiology of autism is complex, with both genetic and environmental components, it is clear that the role of the immune system is key. A child’s prenatal and postnatal environments, including diet, clearly impact immune health. Autism is likely the result of multiple assaults on the immune system. One of these assaults then tips the person over a threshold into the autism state.

IATP's latest fact sheet, Autism: What Do Environment and Diet Have to Do With It? by Kathleen Schuler, MPH, explores countless studies that point to increased risk of autism and autistic behaviors from numerous environmental toxin exposures, including:

  • Pollution. Living near a pollution site, hazardous air pollutants, and residence near a freeway.
  • Pesticides. Residence near agricultural pesticide applications and prenatal exposure to the organophosphate pesticides.
  • Phthalates. Prenatal exposure to phthalates.
  • Heavy metals. Exposure to environmental neurotoxins including mercury, aluminum, lead and cadmium. 
  • Persistent organic pollutants. Prenatal exposure to high levels of PCBs and DDE (metabolite of DDT).
  • Parental occupation. Mother’s occupational exposure to exhaust and combustion products and parental work at night or in handling of solvents.

Environmental toxins like mercury and pesticides cause adverse neurodevelopmental impacts through altering gene expression and interact with dietary factors that can either protect or cause harm to health. Specific nutrients play critical roles in metabolic processes that detoxify and eliminate harmful toxins from the body. For example, deficiencies in zinc and magnesium may interact with toxic metal burdens to increase risk for autism. There is emerging evidence that faulty gene expression may play a role in autism and that environmental and dietary factors are key factors in gene expression.

What about prevention?

We have more to learnabout the factors that contribute to autism but we already know enough to apply public health approaches to prevent and treat autism. Education of women of childbearing age and expecting parents on environmental and dietary factors linked to autism could help reduce exposures that might trigger autism. Behavioral interventions for children with autism could be supplemented with dietary interventions. Numerous studies point to the benefits of nutritional supplements for patients with autism. Prenatal care should include an assessment of nutritional status and a close look at treating and preventing metabolic disorders that increase the risk of autism.

While we know that there’s no one chemical or no one exposure that causes autism, implementing policies that prevent unnecessary exposures to neurotoxins and hormone-disrupting chemicals is a smart public health prevention strategy. One of the first policy steps to reduce exposures to toxic chemicals is to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the outdated and ineffective law that allows thousands of toxic, untested chemicals to continue to be used in consumer products, including in food packaging, without basic information about effects on human health.

In addition to federal action to reduce exposures to toxic chemicals in our environment, state action to protect citizens, especially children, from toxic chemicals in everyday consumer products is also important. Implementing policies such as addressing chemicals in children’s products, as proposed by Minnesota’s Toxic Free Kids Act, will contribute to a healthy environment for the optimal growth and development of our children. To get involved visit Healthy Legacy's Facebook page or contact them at healthylegacy@cleanwater.org.

Read IATP's Autism: What Do Environment and Diet Have to Do With It? by Kathleen Schuler, MPH.

Posted December 2, 2013 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

FinanceMarketsMarket speculation

Financial Stablity Board (FSB) press conference, November 8.

This blog was originally published November 26, 2013 in an alternate version by the Post Globalization Initiative.

Following the global financial industry default cascade of 2008-09, the Group of 20 (G-20) industrialized countries established the Financial Stability Board (FSB) in 2009, to coordinate policies among FSB members to prevent another global financial crisis. The most recent FSB Plenary took place on November 7–8 in Moscow.

Because the economic consequences of the financial collapse, following more than a decade of deregulation and non-regulation of the industry, have been so severe and widespread, the expectations of the FSB to reform the broken global financial system are high. Frustration with the slow and halting pace of reform extends even to the head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, who commented in a November 7 speech that some of the world’s Too Big To Fail banks appear to lack respect for regulation and even the rule of law. 

(The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) is member of a consortium of NGOs and academics that recently released a report on international financial institution performance, which included a review of the FSB. IATP contributed a short evaluation of the realization of G-20 commitments to regulate over-the-counter derivatives, the financial instruments at the center of the 2008-09 debacle. The value of these financial instruments are derived from the price of an underlying asset, e.g., wheat, oil or an interest rate. I discussed the FSB report to the G-20 on OTC derivatives regulatory reform in one presentation to the Post-Globalization Initiative’s G-20 Counter Summit, September 5-6 in St. Petersburg.)

FSB members include G-20 financial regulatory agencies, international institutions, such as the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), international standards setting bodies, such as the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) and financial regulators from five non G-20 industrialized countries. FSB also encompasses six regional consultative group of financial regulators from developing countries and the Commonwealth of Independent States, including Russia. Given the differences of financial industry structure and regulation between G-20 and developing country jurisdictions, according to a recent Harvard International Law Journal article, some analysts question whether the FSB is an appropriate forum in which to discuss non-G-20 country finance.  In September, the FSB published a monitoring report on the effect of G-20 financial reforms on emergency markets and developing countries.

Russia, as this year’s G-20 president, hosted the FSB press conference that customarily follows plenaries. According to the FSB press release, the plenary heard reports from the six regional consultative groups. While but the substance of the reports was not revealed.  However, press releases outlining discussions of past regional consultative group meetings, including two meetings of financial regulators from the Commonwealth of Independent States, are posted at FSB Watch.

FSB decisions are made by consensus and are not binding on members. However, FSB can decide to “name and shame” in reports written by the 28 member FSB secretariat, which is housed in the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland. The FSB is legally independent both from the BIS and the G-20, so the secretariat has some degree of autonomy. FSB staff notes alert FSB members to potentially system destabilizing financial instruments, such as commodity index funds. FSB publishes peer reviews of financial reform in its member jurisdictions. The FSB staff does not refrain from saying that FSB members are not providing data and information for its reports, e.g., in its just-released report on the (at least) $71 trillion and largely unregulated "shadow banking" industry of hedge funds, payday loans and other non-bank, non-insurance company financial institutions. (Oddly, pension funds, globally amounting to trillions of dollars and sometimes invested in OTC derivatives, are not FSB classified as part of shadow banking.) Often what is not said speaks more loudly than what is said.

At the November 8 press conference, the FSB Secretary General outlined four topics of plenary work: enhancing banking resilience in the event of losses; preventing public bailouts of Too Big To Fail banks by agreeing on procedures for orderly bankruptcy if needed; preventing huge debt build-up in the shadow banking sector; and regulation of the $668 trillion global Over the Counter derivatives market.  The remainder of this blog is dedicated to the OTC derivatives reform that G-20 leaders committed to conclude by end-2012.

Three major reforms were demanded in September 2009:

  1. OTC trades would be reported to trade data repositories, so they could be reviewed by regulators and have pricing and other information be available to the public;
  2. The credit and payment arrangements (clearing) for “standardized” OTC contracts would be administered on centralized platforms to prevent trader defaults from affecting the whole financial system; and
  3. OTC contracts that are so “customized” to corporate client needs (e.g., contracts to disguise debt as an asset) as to not qualify for clearing would require OTC dealer brokers to set aside higher capital reserves to cover possible losses and be purchased with higher down payments (margin).

There was not a lot the FSB Secretary General could add to the FSB’s September report to the G-20 about OTC derivatives reform without violating diplomatic decorum. Reform advocates have struggled to persuade banks to give up individual profit maximization in return for financial system transparency and stability that will benefit all financial institutions and their users, as demonstrated in a recent BIS study.

This struggle is writ large in the OTC report on “Substantial Progress”: e.g., “By the start of 2014, three-quarters of FSB member jurisdictions intend to have legislation and regulation adopted to require transactions to be reported to trade repositories.” The most potent word in this sentence is “intend.” More than four years after the G-20 leaders committed to making the vast and dark OTC market transparent to regulators and the public by putting trade data in repositories for regulatory review, regulators are still fighting with banks in order to realize that commitment. “Intend,” for the moment at least, is the most “substantial progress” the FSB secretariat can indicate for a majority of its member governments.




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