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

Food and HealthFood JusticeFoodFood securityJustice

Used under creative commons license from cafemama.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Posted December 31, 2013 by Dale Wiehoff   

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

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

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

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

Posted December 19, 2013 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

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.




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