Posted May 6, 2014 by Ben Lilliston   

Used under creative commons license from wisconsinjobsnow.

Last week, Republicans in the Senate blocked a vote on whether to enact a modest raise of the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, and the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 an hour to 70 percent of the minimum wage. Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid has vowed to bring it up for a vote again. He should. And it should pass.

At the forefront of lobbying efforts to block a vote on the minimum wage was the powerful National Restaurant Association. The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC-United) and Food Chain Workers Alliance published a scathing report recently uncovering the “Other NRA’s” longstanding efforts to undermine wages and women’s rights, oppose limits on junk food marketing, and restrict health care coverage, wielding enormous power in Washington. The NRA spent more than $2 million in lobbying alone last year, reports Open Secrets.

Whether it is in the processing plant or in the supermarket or in the restaurant, food service workers are some of the lowest paid in the country and most impacted by minimum wage laws. Meanwhile, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project, corporations like Wal-Mart, Yum Brands! (Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway) and McDonald’s are among those who benefit the most from low wages.

It’s been five years since the minimum wage was raised. In those same five years, everyday costs like transportation, rent, electricity, child care and food have all risen significantly. Incredibly, the tipped minimum wage has been frozen at $2.13 an hour since 1991. Women represent nearly two-thirds of those making a minimum wage and tipped workers are overwhelmingly women, young and more likely to live in poverty than the national average.

While Congress has been slow to act, many states and cities are forging ahead. Thirty-eight states are considering minimum wage increases in 2014. Five states and the District of Columbia have enacted an increase so far and 21 states already have a minimum wage higher than the national average.

The minimum wage fight falls within a larger debate about how to address rising income inequality. The U.S. now has the second highest level of income inequality among developed economies. Further, income inequality is the highest it has been in the U.S. since 1928; the wealth gap is even higher.

U.S. policy makers of all political stripes have been schizophrenic on income inequality. Despite speechifying on the issue, the Obama Administration continues to aggressively push for free trade agreements that are linked to increasing income inequality. Republicans vehemently oppose a minimum wage increase, and decry government spending, yet raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would decrease food stamp enrollment by between 3.1 to 3.6 million people while decreasing program expenditures by $4.6 billion, according to the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

The income inequality gap that has accelerated since the economic crisis is something that affects all of us, particularly the food and agriculture system. Raising the minimum wage won’t solve income inequality but it’s a common sense first step. Let Congress know the time has come to raise the wage by joining more than 100,000 people who have signed this petition organized by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, ROC-United and Welcome Table.

Posted May 5, 2014 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

Local FoodTradeFree trade agreements

Used under creative commons license from alexmartin81.

When U.S. and EU officials talk about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), they say it will bring the two economies together as leaders in the global economy. Just this week, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that, “TTIP should become the economic pillar of the EU and US alliance. It should be our joint attempt to shape a fast changing world and to set the standards of the future. It should act as a platform to project shared EU-U.S. values worldwide with regard to open markets and rule of law.”

But what do they mean, and how would that work? Negotiating a series of bilateral or regional trade deals seems like a direct challenge to multilateralism, and something likely to further weaken the already anemic World Trade Organization. TTIP and the 15 bilateral or regional trade deals being negotiated by the EU create a cobweb of interlocking agreements that in many ways serve to lock in global norms on issues like investment, intellectual property, food safety and other issues that go well beyond what WTO members have agreed to even consider at the multilateral level.

TTIP is being negotiated in secret, so we’re forced to rely on general comments and bits of leaked text to try to figure out what’s really happening. One such paper came our way recently, a leaked document describing a proposed chapter on “Localization” in TTIP. That chapter, if enacted, would formally commit the EU and U.S. governments to work together to challenge trade barriers in countries that are not part of TTIP. It pushes back on practices in other countries, especially larger emerging economies like Brazil or India, to promote their own local economic development. This could include domestic content requirements, such as those in India’s solar energy program, which USTR is already challenging at the WTO (a move rejected by U.S. environmental groups), or other measures designed to promote national industrialization strategies. Under the TTIP proposal, the U.S. and EU would work together to use diplomatic or perhaps even economic pressure to convince other countries to play by their rules.

In a new commentary, entitled "Trading away localization in TTIP", we explore this issue, drawing on submissions from corporations on their priority targets for “localization” barriers to trade. “Free markets” do not exist anywhere in the world. Decisions are shaped by the very unequal power of corporations vs. local businesses, massive economies such as the US and EU vs. emerging economies such as Brazil and India. This is true within the U.S. and EU, as well as within developing countries, especially the emerging economies whose own transnational corporations are entering into this complex arena. The danger is that if this coordinated attack on localization were formalized in TTIP, along with the broader protections for corporations embedded in provisions on investment, intellectual property rights, and public procurement, it would further tilt the scales in favor of corporate interests. This would create one more obstacle to national or local governments’ efforts to channel economic activity towards broader social goals.

Upsetting that balance, and consciously steering economic policies in the direction of democratically determined local priorities, is at the heart of sustainable and equitable development. That process works best when it happens in a transparent process with active public participation by the broadest possible range of stakeholders. The proposal for a chapter on localization barriers appears to be at an early stage. The U.S. and EU should discard this dubious proposal. Instead, they should find ways to embrace localization, rather than embarking on this dangerous new path. 

Read IATP's new commentary, "Trading away localization in TTIP."

Posted April 28, 2014 by Shefali Sharma   

TradeFree trade agreements

 IATP's Shefali Sharma speaks to a packed room in Westerstede.

Earlier this month, IATP was part of a six-event speakers’ tour organized by the progressive German farmers’ organization, ABL and sponsored by over 20 German organizations on the proposed U.S.-EU free trade agreement. The tour, spanning north, south east and west, drew an amazing response over the last two weeks as we literally moved around Germany. Crowds of anywhere between 200 people on a Wednesday evening (in Dresden) to 70 to 100 people on other weeknights in rural communities came to learn and engage on the implications of TTIP on food and agriculture on both sides of the Atlantic. They were interested in hearing the “U.S. perspective,” but I was joined by prominent leaders of the food and farming movement in Germany and Europe at the various events, like the president of the European Milk Board and head of its German association BDM (Bundesverband Deutscher Milchviehhalter), Romuald Schaber and the Board Chair of ABL, Georg Janssen, as well as other local and regional farm leaders of ABL.

Two-hour sessions usually turned into three (often lasting till 11:00 at night) as rapt audiences took part in emotive sessions of questions and comments about the state of U.S. food and agriculture, U.S. policy tolerance for widespread use of antibiotics and growth hormones in meat production and similar trends in the EU, the lax attitude of American policymakers (and consumers) on genetically modified food compared to Europeans and what activism there was in the U.S. on TTIP. They also expressed frustration about the direction in which European agriculture is heading, on the heels of a heated political debate in Germany about Chancellor Angela Merkel’s abstention from voting to stop the approval of Dupont’s new variety of GM maize entering the European feed market. They wanted Germany to block the approval. Many voiced anger at the European Commission’s tacit support of agribusiness interests over strong citizen interests on food safety, quality and support for local, ethical and agroecological production, and acknowledged that TTIP was being pushed by a common agribusiness agenda on both sides of the Atlantic. And they voiced serious dissent against EU’s undemocratic process of trade policymaking where the European Commission holds all the cards while elected officials get scant details about the content of the negotiations.

I spoke about the upcoming fight on fast track in the United States where we too struggle with near complete opaqueness in trade policymaking with Congress not even allowed copies of draft negotiating texts. Our hope is to stop the Obama administration’s attempt to win “fast track”: the administration’s attempt to limit Congressional authority to a yes/no vote on approving FTAs like TTIP and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), rather than debate and amend the content of the treaties. The Europeans gave up that right when the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009 which limited the European Parliament’s role in trade policy to a yes/no vote for trade treaty approval. However, the European Parliamentary elections are fast approaching and as awareness builds on the agribusiness agenda behind TTIP, particularly in Germany, more and more people will be asking those seeking a European parliamentary seat whether they are willing to say no to TTIP.

The tour generated local media attention in the various locations in Germany (including a TV interview). Here are a few articles:

Posted April 24, 2014 by Ben Lilliston   

Food and HealthAgricultureGMOLabeling

Used under creative commons license from cedarcirclefarm.

Protesters in Vermont supporting the state's GMO labeling bill.

The Obama Administration’s feverish cheerleading for genetically modified crops is being put to the test with growing evidence that the technology is unpopular with consumers, causing problems in the field and facing increasing rejection in the marketplace.

The state of Vermont  is set to become the first in the country to require mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. Maine and Connecticut have also passed mandatory labeling bills, but they require neighboring states to also pass such bills before they come into law. More than 25 states have GMO labeling laws working their way through state legislatures and ballot initiatives. Hawaii, a major testing ground for new GMO crops, has become another battleground as several counties now require greater disclosure and tougher regulations for GMO plantings.

This is a big deal and the biotech seed industry knows it. The industry has already spent millions to defeat ballot initiatives and state-based bills. Its next line of defense against the states is litigation, where it will likely sue states’ requiring labeling for violating the interstate commerce clause (restricting trade between states).

As it fights back state labeling efforts, the biotech industry is pushing a national bill for voluntary GMO labeling, which is not actually about voluntary labeling at all (voluntary labeling, as the term suggests, is already allowed). Instead, the bill would firmly establish the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as the sole decision-maker on GMO regulation, not the states, thus overturning all efforts for mandatory labeling at the state level, including prohibiting, retroactively, Vermont’s legislation.

The biotech industry’s backdoor strategy is to codify weak regulations over GMOs at the international level through trade agreements. The U.S. trade office has long targeted what it deems as unnecessary regulatory oversight of GMOs in other countries. In a new trade agreement with Europe, GMOs are on the bargaining table once again. The USTR and the biotech industry want to lower Europe’s tougher standards that require labeling and incorporate the precautionary principle—meaning the weaker U.S. standards would become the new global standard for GMO regulation.

While the Obama Administration continues to carry the water for the biotech industry, there are increasing signs that the industry is in trouble. The non-GMO market is one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. food industry. China’s decision to reject U.S. GMO corn has cost U.S. companies at least $427 million and counting in lost exports. The rapidly growing pest and weed resistance associated with the use of GMO crops is creating problems for farmers around the country. Further, new study finding elevated glyphosate (also known as Roundup and linked to GMOs) levels in the breast milk of U.S. women is raising additional health questions.

New, innovative efforts to reclaim control of seeds are also gaining momentum. Last week, public and private plant breeders, through the Open Source Seed Initiative, released their first round of open source seeds, which seek to place seeds in the global commons to protect them from being patented by Monsanto and other biotech seed firms. Another report last week from the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance tracks the growing number of initiatives to save and protect traditional seeds in the U.S.

Despite increasing pressure to change course, the Obama Administration’s support for the technology blindly marches on. Earlier this month, President Obama sent a letter to the granddaughter of Norman Borlaug repeating the dubious narrative that biotechnology helps feed the world. Federal agencies are fast tracking new approvals for genetically modified crops linked to even more toxic herbicides, like 2,4-D. All told, the administration seems more devoted to serving the interests of a few biotech seed companies than the rest of us, despite clear signs that citizens around the world want nothing to do with these crops, and that’s a problem.

Posted April 24, 2014 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

AgricultureFinanceCommodities

Used under creative commons license from futureatlas.com.

The Federal Reserve

The Board of the Federal Reserve asked this question, in essence, and 25 questions related to it in an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. IATP responded, because while banks generally do not own and trade agricultural commodities, the energy commodities they trade, including fertilizer (occasionally), oil, gas and electricity are agricultural inputs and, hence, affect agricultural prices. (The Fed has posted all comments here.) (On April 22, Barclay’s, which traded agricultural commodities, announced that it would be selling most of its commodity trading division. Greater regulatory scrutiny and declining profits were cited as reasons for the sale.)

Provisions of the Bank Holding Company Act (BHCA) of 1956 and the Glass-Steagall Act prohibited banks from engaging directly in commercial activities because banks enjoy Federal Reserve policy support and loans at interest rates not available to non-bank enterprises. For example, as a result of the bank-triggered economic crisis, from 2007 to 2010, the Federal Reserve loaned $19 trillion ($19,000,000,000,000) at near zero interest rates to bail out the largest U.S. banks. The Fed loaned another $10 trillion to foreign central banks so they could bail out their banks, including the hundreds of foreign subsidiaries of U.S. banks. By comparison, the Obama administration $51 billion bailout of General Motors (a mere $10.5 billion cost to the taxpayer) was a pittance.

The Gramm-Leach Bliley Act of 1999, supported by Fed Chairman Allan Greenspan and Clinton Administration Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin (a former Citigroup CEO), repealed those BHCA and Glass-Steagall provisions. The repeal allowed banks, securities firms and insurance companies to become Financial Holding Companies (FHCs) that could engage in non-banking “complementary activities,” including the trading, storage and delivery of physical commodities. The massively advantaged FHCs have bought and sold physical commodities in direct “competition” with commercial users e.g., of jet fuel, diesel fuel and aluminum, such as airlines, agricultural cooperatives, and beverage companies respectively.

The FHCs contend that they must trade and own physical commodities in order to support their commodities derivatives trading on behalf of their clients and themselves. To judge by lawsuits charging Goldman Sachs with price and supply manipulation in the aluminum market, and JP Morgan with price fixing in the electricity market, FHC derivatives trading strategy requires that the physical markets underlying the derivatives trading be rigged.

Notwithstanding FHC legal problems related to their “complimentary commodities activities” (CCAs), The Board of the Federal Reserve is considering whether to allow about 20 U.S. FHCs and the U.S. subsidiaries of foreign FHCs, such as Barclays and Deutsche Bank, to continue their CCAs. Under the BHCA, the board must consider whether CCAs imperil the “safety and soundness” of the FHCs.

The Fed requires that the FHCs report quarterly only the “gross aggregate market value of physical commodity in their trading inventory”. This reporting is not even commodity specific, so no analysis of the relation of a FHC’s physical trading to its derivatives trading in that commodity can be done. In sum, the board has precious little data upon which to base a “complementarity determination” for any FHC.

The Fed just increased the percentage of capital that banks must reserve against possible losses from three percent to five percent of assets, but this new reserve requirement does not apply until 2018. Citigroup, bailed out with nearly $3 trillion in Fed loans from 2007 to 2010, recently failed a Fed stress test for the second time in three years, despite apparently having enough capital set aside to cover losses. At question is not only money laundering by a Mexican subsidiary of Citigroup, but whether a bank with so many “complementary activities” can be prudently managed. In our comment, we recommended that any FHC that failed a Fed stress test be barred from trading physical commodities.

It is unlikely that losses from physical commodities trading alone could tip a FHC into insolvency. However, the Fed’s request for comments wisely asked whether FHC liabilities from “environmental catastrophes”, such as the Deepwater Horizon/British Petroleum et al contamination of the Gulf of Mexico and its bordering states, threatened safety and soundness. FHCs should be required to report all liabilities, risks and losses from their CCAs, including environmental, public health, economic (e.g. lost income resulting from a CCA related catastrophe), legal, reputational risk etc. They should be required to buy insurance to cover the immediate costs and the longer-term costs of CCA related catastrophes. For example, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker accident contamination in 1989 of Prudhoe Bay in Alaska resulted in billions of dollars of public health and economic losses to the residents of the Bay long after Exxon stopped its cleanup work in 1992.

The Fed’s board should require FHCs to buy short term and long term catastrophic insurance coverage for each of its CCAs. FHCs should have to submit the insurance policies to the board to determine their adequacy relative to the CCA posed risks. If the board determined the FHC’s insurance policies to be inadequate or if the FHCs could not obtain insurance for certain of its CCAs, the board could vote to terminate orders that allow the FHCs to continue their CCAs.

Although FHCs are required to report their climate change risk liabilities to the Securities and Exchange Commission, compliance with the requirement has been both vague and weak. The board should review FHC climate change risk exposure filings to the SEC, and if it finds them inadequate to protect the FHC’s “safety and soundness”, the board should develop its own climate change reporting criteria. The board should require FHC compliance with climate change risk reporting as part of the board’s obligation to evaluate all risks and liabilities that pose a threat to the “safety and soundness” of the reporting FHC and to the financial system in general.

The board staff will evaluate the 176 comments received on the ANPR, and review the laws and the rule that governs FHC CCAs before the staff make a recommendation to the board. Possible courses of action include not modifying the rule but allowing current orders to permit FHC CCAs to expire; modifying the rule to require higher insurance premiums, higher capital reserves, more disclosure of physical trading data, etc.; or repealing the rule with a phase-in time to allow the FHCs to sell or terminate leases on their physical trading infra-structure, and to sell their stocks of physical commodities.

The most radical, if unlikely, board action would be to terminate current orders allowing CCAs and ban future CCAs altogether.  No matter which course of action the board takes, it will affect the price and supply of physical commodities and commodity derivatives contracts, and no matter, the board’s decisions on CCAs will be controversial.  

Posted April 22, 2014 by Andrew Ranallo   

We’ve all made recipes and forgot that one key ingredient, only to forgive ourselves because, after all, food is more than just its physical ingredients: Too salty or not, we made that soup and we’ll be damned if we’re not proud of ourselves.

So what about the food we buy? Other than the items listed on the nutrition facts, food companies know we want to feel good: “The Breakfast of Champions” or something that’s “Mmm Mmm Good.” These famous slogans say nothing of ingredients, and everything about emotional appeal. Of course, advertising doesn’t include the whole story: The U.S. food system, controlled by a handful of corporations, is missing some key ingredients. We know there’s plenty of salt, sugar and fat, replacing the ingredients we might use at home, the freshness or family recipes we might cherish, and greater nutrition and variety provided by whole and home-cooked foods. In the same way, fair wages and prices for workers and farmers in the food system have been replaced with huge volumes of cheap food (and accompanying waste), low prices and inadequate wages.

From the soil and water that feeds our crops, to the waiters and waitresses that serve us our lunch, to the seeming myriad choices we have at the grocery store about what we eat, justice and health for ourselves, our farmers, workers and the environment is in drastically short supply.

With this in mind, IATP is excited to announce Justice and Health: Missing Ingredients in the U.S. Food System, an interactive tour of the U.S. food system. Check it out and join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook: What #missingingredients are most important to you? Environmental justice? Farmworker’s rights? Access to healthy food? Democratic decision-making? They’re all important, and they all need major work if, like our homemade soup, we want a food system we can be proud of.

Head over to www.iatp.org/missing-ingredients for more.

Posted April 16, 2014 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell   

AgroecologyAgribusinessJusticeSustainable Agriculture

Tomorrow, Thursday, April 17, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) will release over 29 seed varieties into the global commons and humanity's “moral economy.” This new initiative hopes to provide a counterweight to private patenting of seeds, which has undermined farmers’ rights around the world.

OSSI is composed of faculty, breeders, students and supporters from Washington State University, Oregon State University, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Lupine Knoll Farm, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wild Garden Seeds, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, among other members and allies. The group has sought a way to support the innovative efforts, traditions, and rights of those who breed seeds, by pioneering a system whereby plant varieties could be released into a “protected commons”: a commons populated by those who agree to share but effectively inaccessible to those who do not—a necessary tool in light of private corporate interests' persistent and too-often successful attempts to lock away elements of humanity's common agricultural heritage behind patents and other forms of kleptocratic intellectual property.

Seeds and plant varieties represent the work of millions of years of evolution, and in many cases, thousands of years of work by farmers, communities and cultures to develop useful, pleasing, nourishing and diverse sources of food and fodder. Gene Giants (e.g., Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont) have too often come in to expropriate and restrict the ability of anyone else to use and build on whatever supposed innovations these companies have made. While many dedicated and talented breeders work for these and other private concerns, making new varieties that may generate profit for such outsized and largely amoral corporations, their work ends up locking up elements of communities and humanity's common heritage, removing germplasm from the commons and charging the rest of humanity for the privilege. Further, public breeding programs in the United States have become increasingly marginalized and poorly supported, with funding increasingly abandoning the kinds of programs that build the commons and the common good, in order that a handful of companies can fence off the commons and charge us for that “benefit.” This is all the more richly ironic given that patent regimes have not increased innovation towards diversity in plant breeding, according to the most thorough survey to date. In fact, while 11 of 42 common crops saw dramatic increases in diversity, the diversity of the other 31 crops decreased by 60 percent between 1903 and 2004!

Many cultures traditionally saved and shared seeds and germplasm, allowing people to constantly innovate on each other's discoveries, while also maintaining a diversity of varieties that could be adapted to regional or cultural needs, and to current needs such as resistance to drought and climate variations due to global climate change. Corporate agricultural interests profit from conformity, scale and claiming ownership in the commons, increasing the risks of devastating pest and crop disease outbreaks as genetically uniform commercial crops all exhibit the same vulnerabilities (echoing the Irish Potato Famine precipitated by potato blight), rather than the resistance found in diverse populations.

In honor of the International Day of Farmers' Struggles in Defense of Peasants' and Farmers' Seeds (see La Via Campesina’s information page), OSSI is releasing 29 varieties of germplasm under the Open Source Seed Pledge:

This Open Source Seed Pledge is intended to ensure your freedom to use the seed contained herein in any way you choose, and to make sure those freedoms are enjoyed by all subsequent users. By opening this packet, you pledge that you will not restrict others' use of these seeds and their derivatives by patents, licenses, or any other means. You pledge that if you transfer these seeds or their derivatives YOU WILL ACKNOWLEDGE THE SOURCE OF THESE SEEDS AND ACCOMPANY YOUR TRANSFER WITH THIS PLEDGE.

These first varieties have been produced by professional plant breeders from independent businesses and university extension, with the intent of releasing and keeping these varieties into the commons for all people to use in perpetuity. Current legal protections (e.g., Patent law) is targeted at protecting only private rights to exclude people from using certain things; there are no legal provisions for protecting the inclusionof all people as potential users of our common heritage of seed varieties and knowledge. Despite this lacking legal structure, OSSI seeks to promote a moral economy in solidarity with peasants, farmers, gardeners and eaters all over the world, where farmers and breeders may share or sell seeds they have developed, but the biological essence (the underlying genetic material and potential, and seeds reproduced from the original seeds) may be used in perpetuity by all, for their own planting or for further breeding, refinement or alteration as serves the needs of any given individual, community or peoples.

OSSI seeks to support and stand in solidarity with farmers and farmer-breeders everywhere, as well as other citizens—eaters all—by protecting our common heritage from those who would lock it away. Agroecology recognizes diversity and sovereignty as key elements of a sustainable agricultural system. Diversity is the very building block of evolution and adaptation, and keeping germplasm in the commons allows all communities the maximum ability to respond the climate change; variability over time, over regions, and even over localities; and to varying tastes, preferences and needs.

We have yet to see if large corporations will seek to challenge or appropriate the materials placed under this moral commitment of OSSI and its allies to open source seeds, but if they do, we hope we can count on you to side with family farmers, independent seed companies, and the protection of a common biological heritage that should belong to all rather than generate a profit for a very few, and to stand up to those who view sharing this heritage as theft, rather than viewing their enclosure of that heritage as the real and more heinous act of thievery.

IATP particularly thanks Jack Kloppenburg, Irwin Goldman and Claire Luby for their dedication and efforts toward this first release. Our thanks and congratulations also go to OSSI comrades releasing varieties under the Open Source Pledge this April 17: Kevin Murphy and Stephen Jones (Washington State University), Irwin Goldman (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Tom Stearns (High Mowing Organic Seeds), Pat Hayes (Oregon State University), Jonathan Spero (Lupine Knoll Farm) and Frank Morton (Wild Garden Seed). You can find a list of the varieties being released, information on the launch event and more at opensourceseedinitiative.org. Like Open Source Seed Initiative on Facebook to keep up to date with the latest developments. Go there, learn more, and contact OSSI to talk about releasing your own variety under the OSSI pledge! 

Posted April 15, 2014 by Tara Ritter   

Beyond the Farm BillClimateClimate ChangeFarm Bill

This blog was originally published on RuralClimateNetwork.org.

The U.S. federal budget proposal for fiscal year 2015 was released on March 4 with climate change playing a more substantial role than it has in the past. Much of the funding for climate resilience comes from a new Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative that allocates $56 billion dollars overall, including $1 billion for a Climate Resilience Fund that will support research to understand the impacts of climate change and help communities plan for those impacts. While $1 billion is only a fraction of the total money in the budget, the acknowledgment of climate change as a real entity with tangible consequences is a definite step forward.

The specific dollars for climate resilience are peppered throughout the budget and spread across many federal departments. Some examples include funding to the Department of Agriculture for regional climate hubs, researching resilient crop production techniques and investing in renewable energy; funding to the Department of Commerce for improving coastal resilience to severe weather events; funding to the Department of Energy for developing clean energy and analyzing infrastructure vulnerabilities; funding to the Department of the Interior for expanding the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor, research, and analyze climate resilience; and funding to the Environmental Protection Agency for supporting the President’s Climate Action Plan to reduce carbon pollution. Although this list is not exhaustive, it displays the pervasiveness of climate change throughout the entire budget.

While the money in the 2015 budget indicates progress towards climate change adaptation and mitigation, funds in the federal budget are discretionary and can easily change from year to year. The Farm Bill, on the other hand, provides mandatory funding that is recurrent each year and is more difficult to change. Although the Farm Bill does not mention climate change directly, it contains numerous initiatives that focus on reparations and risk management as a result of the erratic weather indicative of climate change. The Livestock Forage Disaster Program, which became a permanent program in the newest Farm Bill, insures producers against climate-caused damages by compensating livestock producers who experience grazing losses due to drought or fire, both of which are increasing in frequency. There are also more climate related practices included in the conservation programs. However, the most notable and far away the most expensive programmatic response to climate change in agriculture is the crop insurance program.

The USDA crop insurance programs provide risk mitigation to farmers for crop losses and for times when they are unable to plant due to weather and climate issues. The USDA provide generous subsidies for farmers to pay private company crop insurance premiums (up to 60 percent), and these policies are backed up by the U.S. government. IATP, like many other groups, have real concerns about how the crop insurance program as implemented to date encourages production on less productive and often more environmentally sensitive land.

Recognition of a problem is the first step towards solving that problem, but in the case of agriculture and climate change, not taking immediate action is extremely costly from economic and environmental perspectives. Even though current Farm Bill initiatives recognize the impacts of climate change, they have failed to encourage adaptation as a less costly and longer term safety net. Even with the changes that have been introduced to the crop insurance program—including conservation compliance requirements and broadening of the program to include more organic and other non-commodity crops—it is still more reactive than proactive policy. Relying on programs that compensate for losses without requiring the adoption of more stringent conservation practices to prevent the same disaster happening again costs billions of dollars each year.

These programs aren’t helping farmers in the long run, either. Crop insurance compensates at market prices, so in times of high commodity prices, farmers receive high insurance payments when crops don’t grow. However, as commodity prices drop, crop insurance will not pay enough for farmers to live on. Instead, it will give them enough income to try again next year. The problem is that trying again the next year with the same practices will only yield the same results—decreased production due to a cocktail of droughts, floods, pests, and extreme temperature. Crop insurance without mandatory conservation requirements perpetuates a cycle of low income for farmers, unproductive land, and high costs for taxpayers. The only entities benefitting are the insurance agencies and the agribusinesses that produce the seeds and chemicals that today’s predominant farming system are so reliant upon.

Many of these problems are a result of the Farm Bill’s genesis as a damage control tool. The Farm Bill was never intended to fix the root causes of crop damage; it was intended to patch up problems as they occurred. If we are not willing to adapt the entire philosophy behind the Farm Bill to one that recognizes more than monetary risk, we will continue to waste taxpayer dollars and support a farming system that lacks resilience and security for farmers. We need to swiftly move towards a system that not only acknowledges climate change, but encourages on-farm practices that build soil health and water holding capacity so that farms can survive—or even thrive—in the face of extreme weather events.

There are some pieces of a more holistic approach in the Farm Bill, but they are not nearly robust enough. For example, the conservation compliance provisions in the Farm Bill “require farmers to meet a minimum standard of environmental protection on environmentally sensitive land as a condition of eligibility for many Federal farm program benefits, including commodity and conservation program benefits or a Farm Service Agency loan,” according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. These provisions are the bare minimum we need to stop the increased erosion and destruction of native grasslands and wetlands, but not nearly enough to deal with the impacts of a changing climate. Reducing climate-related risk could also be achieved by expanding the working-lands conservation programs already in the Farm Bill, namely CSP and EQIP. Instead, the newest Farm Bill cut CSP to limit enrollment to 10 million new acres per year—a cut of 22 percent. CSP and EQIP are both currently voluntary programs, but if participation in these programs or adoption of farming systems that address more whole farm conservation were mandatory requirements for farmers to receive insurance payments, there would likely be less reliance on insurance payments overall.

Thankfully, we’ve moved past the question of whether climate change is happening. However, we are now using the federal budget and the Farm Bill to pay for billions of dollars of damage control that could be avoided if we instead focused on farm resilience and adaptation. As we look to our future farm policy and what we know we are facing from climate change, we need to go Beyond the Farm Bill to holistic policies that can help us become more resilient and prepared.

Posted April 7, 2014 by Tara Ritter   

Used under creative commons license from Dawn Endico.

Of Minnesota’s 55.6 million acres, 27 million acres are taken up by farmland. Currently, crop production is dominated by summer annuals like corn and soybeans, which need to be replanted each year and grow only in the summer. The consequence of this type of cropping is that for most of the year, no active roots exist in the soil to filter water, reduce runoff, or prevent erosion. Covering the ground with crops for a larger portion of the year by adding winter annuals and perennials to the landscape provides multiple benefits, including diversifying agricultural operations, protecting soils and waterways, and increasing wildlife habitat.

Part of the reason that perennials are not already more widespread on the landscape is that seed suppliers have a vested interest in annual crops. Annuals require farmers to purchase seeds every year, thereby boosting profits for the seed suppliers. These suppliers include large stakeholders such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta, all of which have the resources to wield powerful influence over farmer decision making. However, increasing ground cover throughout the year is imperative to ensure continued production in the face of climate variability, especially in a state like Minnesota where nearly half of the land is in agricultural production.

An exciting prospect for increasing perennial land cover is the Forever Green Initiative out of the University of Minnesota. The project has a two-pronged focus to improve plant genetics while creating new economic opportunities for winter annual and perennial crops. The emphasis on economics in addition to ecology makes this project particularly smart, because proving monetary benefits motivates change more easily than proving other benefits. Research will focus on perennials such as sunflowers, flax, wheat, forages, and some native species, and winter annuals such as pennycress, winter barley, hairy vetch, winter rye, camelina, and winter pea. Markets for these materials include biomass production and high value commodities like oils. More research is needed to commercialize and develop these markets, which is precisely what the Forever Green Initiative is poised to do well.

Minnesota’s House Agriculture Policy Committee approved nearly $1.4 million in state funding for the Forever Green Initiative at the end of March 2014 and referred the bill to the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee. Appropriating such funding could boost agricultural resilience in Minnesota by increasing the profitability of cover crops and increased land cover, which could motivate more farmers to incorporate such practices on their operations.

The University of Minnesota is concurrently working on other projects to pair perennial biomass with economic advantages. The Seven Mile Creek Fuelshed Planning Project recently wrapped up a series of nine workshops to plan biomass production areas for a potential biomass processing facility in Nicollet County. IATP, along with representatives from other organizations and interested stakeholders, reviewed opportunities and tradeoffs between production of food, biomass, and conservation in the study area. Using mapping tools, participants evaluated a suite of biomass options, including annuals like corn stover and cover crops as well as perennial grasses. The proposed market for this biomass is an AFEX (ammonia fiber expansion) processing facility, which pelletizes biomass into a commodity product that can be fed to ruminant animals. The goal of the workshops was not necessarily a production plan; instead, the workshops aimed to evaluate the feasibility of increasing biomass production in Nicollet County. Evaluative processes that engage a wide range of stakeholders, like this one, could increase the feasibility and public support of maximizing perennial land cover.

Another Minnesota initiative to encourage perennial landscape cover is the Reinvest in Minnesota Clean Energy Program (RIM-CE). Passed by the Minnesota legislature in 2007, this program supports native perennial biofuel production by acting as a working lands conservation easement program. A tiered payment system ensures that payments are in line with public benefits, so payments increase when more perennials are planted and when plantings address specific problems, such as planting on flood-prone land. Funding for this program is currently minimal, and it should be expanded to elevate the amount of year-round land cover.

With so much current policy focusing on damage control, it’s encouraging to see the work happening in Minnesota to create a true agricultural risk management system that promotes resilient operations that are both economically and environmentally sustainable.

Posted March 28, 2014 by Andrew Ranallo   

Learn more about the Food Chain Workers Alliance at foodchainworkers.org.

Healthy, sustainable food cannot come from an unhealthy system that exploits its workers. Right now, part of that exploitation is an unacceptably low minimum wage in all sectors of the food system, from production to distribution, retail, restaurants and food service. In response, the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) is coordinating a day of action in support of a higher minimum wage this coming Monday, March 31—César Chávez Day. Representatives will deliver a petition with over 101,000 signatures to House Speaker John Boehner in support of the Fair Minimum Wage Act (H.R. 1010 / S.460), which would increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour and the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to 70 percent of that ($7.07 when minimum wage is $10.10).

It’s still not too late to sign the petition, so add your name before March 31 and keep your eyes on the FCWA Facebook and Twitter pages for more action opportunities this weekend and into Monday.

From the FCWA press release:

The actions come on the heels of drastic $8.6 million cuts to the Farm Bill. These cuts mean deeper poverty and more hunger to the country’s poorest residents instead of livable wages, public policies, and social programs that help people eat, work and get access to vital services designed to flow with the economic fluctuations of the U.S. economy. Additionally, a raise in the minimum wage would help the food workers who use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, at 1.5 times the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce because of their low wages. Food workers also face food insecurity, or the inability to afford to eat as defined by the USDA, at 1.2 times the rate of all other workers.

As the country’s largest private sector workforce, the nation’s 20 million food system workers make up the backbone of the economy, comprising one-sixths of all jobs in the U.S. Over one-third of the workers along the food chain would benefit passage of the Fair Minimum Wage Act.

Sign the petition now.




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