Posted December 8, 2015 by Dale Wiehoff   

 Mennonite boy in  Chihuahua, Mexico.

News coming out of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua is most often about narco-traffickers but, in recent weeks, attention has shifted to farmers protesting increased cost of production and shutting down the importation lane at the El Paso and Ciudad Juarez crossing. And a little further south, severe drought is driving Mennonite farmers off the land. A closer look at the history of Mennonite migration reveals a pattern connected to drought and dry land farming for the last 150 years.

Near the tiny village of Santa Rita, 50 miles from Ciudad Juarez, Mennonite farmers are packing up their belongings and heading for Argentina. Mennonites have a history of migration brought on by persecution for their uncompromising pacifist religious beliefs, but this latest relocation is the result of a drought that has ravaged the region since 2012.

With predictions that water will run out in the next 20 years from overuse, all kinds of farmers will be moving out of Chihuahua and looking for land and water to grow the corn, beans, pecans, apples, dairy and other agricultural products that have been the mainstay of this arid part of northern Mexico.

Mennonites were originally a Dutch Anabaptist religious community, established in the Netherlands in the 1500s.  They moved east across Europe to escape religious harassment into the lush Vistula Delta of Prussia and then south into Russia, the Ukraine and the Crimea and eventually as far as Siberia and Turkestan before reversing course and going west to America.

A major Mennonite migration to the U.S. from Russia took place in the 1870s, in the midst of a worldwide period of intense drought, parallel to what is happening in Chihuahua today.

Over the decades, the Mennonites perfected dry land farming practices that helped turn Russia from a grain importing country into a grain exporter. But the exemption from military service provided by Czars as far back as Catherine the Great began to weaken and restrictive laws governing land ownership in Russia prevented Mennonites in the Ukraine from establishing new farms. The lack of access to land sent some Mennonites further east to Siberia and south to Turkey.

All these events were taking place in the midst of an El Niño driven drought and famine that, by some estimates, killed 60 million people world-wide between the 1870 and 1890.

Fortunately for the Russian Mennonites, the opening of the American west, along with the arrival of trains, led to a reversal of their easterly migration and a jump across the Atlantic to the Great Plains states. They brought with them their knowledge of dryland farming and grain production. And this was not just any grain but Turkey Red, or, as we call it today, hard red winter wheat. Their arrival and introduction of more resilient crops and practices came at a crucial moment.  The world-wide drought conditions hit the American west just as the Mennonites were getting off the train. In addition to no rains, the droughts unleashed hordes of grasshoppers in search of any and all plant life in a broad swath of land from Minnesota to Texas.

The combination of drought and locusts transformed the landscape to leafless trees and barren fields. Corn, the leading grain crop across Kansas and Nebraska, was wiped out in many places, creating demand for Turkey Red wheat that was planted in the fall and harvested in the early summer. By 1910, wheat had replaced corn as the leading crop in Kansas and remains so today.

The conversion of the great western prairies from grassland and grazing to farmland growing wheat was a massive ecological, economic and social development that contributed to the U.S. becoming a major world power. The expanded wheat harvest from the Great Plains came in time to meet the increased demands for grain brought on by World War I. The price collapse that followed the war led to the rise of the populist movement, and its insistence on fair prices for farmers set the stage for New Deal farm programs that followed.

The next period of drought in the Great Plains created the Dust Bowl of the 1920s and 30s. Thousands of farm families fled the devastation brought on by economic collapse and drought. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Great Plains states.

At the same time, starting in the 1920s, thousands of Mennonite farmers who had settled in Canada as part of the 1870 migration out of Russia and Turkey, started moving to Mexico over disagreements with the Canadian government. The new colonies used their knowledge of dryland farming to build successful farms that have become known for a local cheese. Today there are 60,000 Mennonites in Chihuahua, where they have turned to drilling deep wells for irrigation, causing problems with neighbors and local authorities.

For Mennonites it is an old story that combines religious beliefs, farming practices and weather; all three seem to conspire to keep them wandering in search of a place to farm. But all farming practices that produce more and more without regard for the costs, including the cost of water, will only shorten the cycle between growing abundant crops and farmers going out of business.

For more on drought and the drivers of climate change, visit IATP’s


Posted December 7, 2015 by Ben Lilliston   


Used under creative commons license from Takver.

 Marche Mondial pour le Climat

Paris - After four years of negotiations, countries from around the world aim to complete a new global climate deal in the next week. A new 48-page draft text was circulated this weekend and there will be a lot of horse-trading and late nights in the coming week. Here are a few of the key issues we’ll be tracking:

Can national climate commitments become stronger?

The essence of a proposed Paris climate deal are national commitments, known as INDCs, made by governments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Those commitments were submitted prior to Paris and include how much each country will reduce emissions beginning in 2020 and continuing through 2030. They also describe national policies that will help achieve those reductions. Many of these include polices around energy, forests, agriculture and food security.

A clear weakness of these commitments is that they are voluntary, with no real accountability mechanisms in place—aside from public shaming. There is no roadmap for reviewing them and potentially ratcheting them up as the science and conditions change. Many countries and civil society groups are pushing for a five-year review process starting in 2020, known as a ratcheting mechanism.  Such a review would assess progress on current commitments and determine whether stronger commitments are necessary. The U.S. is pushing for a legally binding commitment to monitor, verify and report emissions to an international body, but there is some reluctance by developing countries who may not have the capacity to report emissions. IATP and other civil society groups want greater accountability and transparency in the reporting on those commitments—and a continuing ratcheting up of those commitments better aligned with historical contributions to climate change.

How strong of a commitment to food security?

While the draft text does not include the word “agriculture,” it does include the terms “food security” and “food productivity.” While “food security” is present in the Preamble and other parts of the text, the term “food production” is in the operative parts of the text (the specifics of what countries agree to). This is an example of how a few words can mean a lot within international negotiations. Calling to protect food production within the text is not the same as food security. We already produce enough food to feed the world, but many other factors, particularly extreme poverty, cause food insecurity. Food security is an established Sustainable Development Goal, agreed to in September, where countries agreed to eradicate hunger by 2030. The internationally agreed upon definition of food security comes from the UN World Food Summit in 1996: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” The emphasis on “food production” is coming from Argentina, a major agricultural exporter, but likely also from agribusiness traders. Food production and distribution is more closely linked to agricultural business and trade, which is discussed at the World Trade Organization and multilateral trade partnerships. The food production framing serves global agribusiness companies, many of whom are major greenhouse gas emitters, according to a new report released earlier today by Global Justice.

How strong is the commitment to human rights?

Many countries and civil society groups feel it is essential that the agreement include strong references to the protection of human rights. Climate change related disruptions are already impacting human rights—the refugee crisis emerging from Syria is but one example. The UN human rights framework is a valuable realm of international law for assessing the impacts of climate change and an important tool for developing policy and actionable responses. Both Norway and the U.S. have been reluctant to include human rights as an overarching principle in the text. IATP signed a letter from U.S. groups calling on Secretary of State John Kerry to ensure that references to human rights remain strong in the climate text. The letter called on the U.S. to: “Explicitly recognize that human rights obligations apply when taking actions to address the impacts of climate change as well as actions to mitigate those impacts, thus ensuring the protection and promotion of human rights, including the rights of indigenous peoples, gender equality, inter-generational equity, just transition, food security, and ecosystem integrity.”

Who’s contributing money, how much, and where’s it going?

Essential to any global climate deal is money. Climate change is already causing enormous economic costs for the countries of the world. This is only expected to worsen. Additionally, countries need to begin to transition to cleaner energy and transportation systems, more resilient agricultural production and practices to protect forests and other natural landscapes. Discussions about finance quickly get into responsibility—who is responsible for historical emissions, who has benefitted from polluting economies and who should contribute the most to climate finance? In Copenhagen in 2009, countries agreed to a proposal by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to supply $100 billion annually in public and private climate related finance by 2020. Many developed countries, including the U.S., cite a recent OECD analysis of climate finance that found that countries had already risen to  $62 billion by 2014,  on track to get to that $100 billion. Britain, France, Germany and Japan among others have made additional contributions this week. But the OECD analysis is contentious—largely because, as the OECD admits, there is no internationally agreed upon definition of what climate finance is. The dispute is partially over whether this is really new aid, or is it just re-packaging of existing development aid for education, agriculture and health that countries had already committed to. Civil society groups and the government of India (which issued a scathing critique of the OECD report last week) have criticized some of what counts as finance, things like market-rate loans and export credits. A report by Adaptation Watch earlier this year reached similar conclusions.

Going forward, civil society groups want a Paris agreement to set up a system to define and account for climate finance that is open and transparent. As Timmons Roberts and Romain Weikmans : “developed countries report whatever they want, since no system exists to discern what counts and what doesn’t. Likewise we have no agreement about what types of private finance should be counted, and how much.”

Additionally, there is no clear plan to look beyond 2020 in terms of finance commitments. Developing countries and civil society groups, including IATP, would like to see climate finance emphasize climate adaptation within funds like the Green Climate Fund, the Adaptation Fund and the Least Developed Country Fund—all of which have a broad public mandate. Other important opportunities to generate climate-related finance that are not part of the agreement but supported by civil society groups include a financial transaction tax, and the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies; these efforts will continue at the national level after the Paris meeting.

There is guarded optimism here in Paris that a deal will be struck, though also a recognition that it will not be strong enough to meet the challenge of climate change. In such a wide-ranging agreement, the details will matter. Strong language that supports food security and human rights are essential to a meaningful agreement. As is a structure to continually ratchet up INDC commitments, as well as openly report on progress of those commitments. Finally, developed countries need to step up to the plate in terms of contributing more public money toward climate adaptation to better reflect their historic responsibility in causing the climate crisis. Participants seem hopeful that a Paris deal will be a first step of many on collective climate action and much-needed international cooperation. How big of a first step remains to be seen.

Posted December 7, 2015 by Juliette Majot    Hannes Lorenzen

Used under creative commons license from Josh Zakary.

On our way back home from the European Rural Parliament, where people from all over the Continent agreed to a Common Manifesto on the future of rural Europe, we were confronted with a very real human experience. Having left Schärding in Austria, where the citizens’ Parliament was held, we shared the crowded train from Passau to Munich with many refugees. We experienced the grace of heartfelt and practical kindnesses - the common humanity - offered to them by fellow European passengers and train personnel on the crowded journey.

Most refugees were totally lost - without European languages, without tickets, and sometimes even without a clear destination. Conductors patiently ascertained what languages they spoke, then helped by finding volunteer translators speaking Arabic and the many other languages needed. Cell phones were passed back and forth between refugees and other passengers, as refugees contacted friends and family. And always, between and among refugees and those reaching out to them, eye contact, smiles, the touch of a hand, the offering of comfort to people suffering months of flight and insecurity.

Schärding lies at the border between Austria and Germany. These days volunteers, rural communities and local authorities do their utmost to take care of the nearly 2000 refugees arriving every single day. Delegates from 40 European countries at the European Rural Parliament had already felt compelled to focus on the European refugee crisis, to considering what small towns and villages around rural Europe need, to help provide new homes and work for our newcomers.

The reality on the Austrian ground and on the train back to Munich underscored the urgency of this work.

And then the bombings in Paris, in Tunis, in Beirut, and the retaliatory bombings on Raqqa and other parts of war torn Syria. These hasty counter-attacks by global military powers with conflicting interests against Daesh is without any common plan for peacemaking in the region. The intensification of internal security and intelligence measures in our own societies comes without a plan for improved integration of marginalized people and disadvantaged communities, while also discarding basic civil liberties. Meanwhile we witness with the rise of the far right, a growing fear and rejection of millions of refugees fleeing from civil war in their home countries.

Misery compounding misery, all the while compelling the desperate migration we saw on the train.

If we imagine safety in mistrusting and locking others out, we will destroy not only our own unity and common values, but our humanity as well. We must reject, outright, nationalism, barely veiled racism and religious discrimination. We must reject the growing selection of supposed best choice refugees from among the masses as is currently done by the UK, Poland, the U.S. among others. Refugees seek refuge from dire situations. That is the common bottom line.

Peace in Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East cannot be preserved  through violence, or without ending the abuse of religious, economic and military power that continues to feed disparities and exclusion. It must emerge from many myriad civil initiatives giving all citizens a chance for a decent life.

The terrorism of 13 November in Paris is one of a long string of violent acts involving the loss of many invaluable lives. The Paris tragedy reminds Europeans that our open societies are vulnerable to global terrorism and to internal disparities and conflicts; it reminds us that we are part of a long history of violent relations with and within the Middle East; and it reaffirms our knowledge that peace in our own countries cannot be preserved without making peace within and beyond our own borders.

The reflex of many in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere is to lock the door, close the borders, retaliate, declare more war, but on whom? For the millions of refugees fleeing war, closing borders means denying them shelter from civil war and terror. Is this not further destabilizing other neighbor countries and regions as well as our own societies?

As rural actors, we are very concerned about this turmoil. We are starting to realize that the refugee tragedy has roots in the natural resources and climate crisis. Spurred on and intensified by climate change, we’ve seen drought, crop failures, shortage and scarcity of water and land driving people into conflict. This fuels destructive relations between communities and countries in the Middle-East – and us.

How historically tragic that the area now controlled by Daesh in Iraq-Syria is also Upper Mesopotamia, cradle of civilisation itself and birthplace of agriculture 10,000 years ago. This was the Fertile Crescent.

And with what compelling circularity is it that world leaders are meeting in, of all cities, Paris, to try to address the climate crisis?

60 years ago European nations pacified their relations by pooling their natural resources beyond national borders – their coal, steel and farm products - through common policies. And now, after so many walls have come down, we see reappearing new fences and borders.

As European governments close their borders to desperate refugees, Europe - not just the EU – is losing common ground. Nationalism overruns democracy and solidarity. In the U.S. a growing number of state governors and presidential candidates are building their own barricades, calling for the rejection of all those who are themselves victims of a violent spiral that includes American military intervention across the Middle East. President Obama may plead for welcoming refugees, but he cuts a lonely, lame duck figure in a highly politicized and polarized debate.

What can we do as ordinary people about all this? Well, quite a lot. Above all, we should not withdraw in fear and despair. We must have the courage to speak out, to confront our own fears and biases. To overcome the frustrations and despair of people who feel excluded in our societies. To be ready, willing and able to meet and support refugees – to show practical solidarity, as so many are already doing. As we saw on that train from Passau to Munich.

Then, together, we can leave the spiral of violence. Let’s leave the last word to a famous European refugee, who himself grew up in Munich and was welcomed into the U.S. in 1932:

Peace cannot be kept by force; It can only be achieved by understanding. 
(Jewish Refugee Albert Einstein)

Hannes Lorenzen  Agricultural and Rural Convention Europe
Juliette Majot, Executive Director, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, US

Posted December 4, 2015 by Ben Lilliston   


Paris – The term “climate smart agriculture” (CSA) is popping up frequently in the official events of the global climate talks here in Paris. But what climate smart agriculture actually means seems to depend on who’s talking. In fact, the term has entered into an Orwellian space of meaning both everything and nothing simultaneously. This vacuum has created room for agribusiness and some governments to use “climate smart agriculture” as a convenient marketing slogan to describe business as usual practices that do little to address the unfolding climate crisis that is already deeply affecting the global food system.

The term “climate smart agriculture” is the product of clever political jockeying of previous climate conferences –first emerging in 2010 after the failed climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009. At that time, it was part of an effort pushed by the World Bank and a handful of countries such as the Netherlands and New Zealand to push developing countries to accept agriculture into global carbon markets. Since then, the poor performance of carbon markets (particularly in Europe) as well as the shift in global climate talks toward voluntary pledges to reduce emissions has at least temporarily taken the wind out of the sails for a global carbon market. But that hasn’t slowed the momentum of “climate smart agriculture,” whatever it means.

At a series of side events and announcements this week, CSA was variously described as including: climate-resilient genetically engineered seeds, more precise use of synthetic fertilizers and agroecological practices and organic agriculture. It was described as simply a framework for ideas and information sharing in one context and a bottom-up implementation program in another. The slippery definition of CSA, as well as the formation of the corporate-heavy Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture (GACSA) last year, has been strongly criticized by civil society groups. In an open letter to GACSA earlier this year, civil society groups criticized the Alliance’s lack of social or environmental safeguards and failure to prioritize farmers’ voices, knowledge and rights.

Without clear definitions, global corporations such as Walmart; Syngenta; and the fertilizer company, Yara, have filled the void, branding themselves as “climate smart.”The World Business Council announced earlier this week a host of agribusiness initiatives branded as “climate smart.” Monsanto, also touting its climate smart agriculture approach, announced this week its new “carbon neutral program.”

The various sessions on climate smart agriculture here in Paris also provided insight into how different countries and regions are using the term. At a GACSA session hosted by the U.S. delegation, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack touted both the agency’s soil health program and innovations in new drought and heat tolerant seeds (genetically engineered), greater efficiency in livestock production (referring to confined animal feeding operations) and precision agriculture (a term used to describe the more efficient use of inputs like fertilizers and pesticides in commodity crop production) as climate smart agriculture.

The Costa Rican Agriculture Minister, Luis Felipe Arauz Cavallini, had a different view. He emphasized the word “smart” in CSA—pointing out that this means it is a “knowledge-based” approach to agriculture. He highlighted efforts on agroecology, agroforestry and working within the local ecosystem to help farmers remain profitable while building climate resilience.

There were also sharp differences on how trade intersects with climate smart agriculture. Vilsack made the case, reinforced in a paper released by the agency this week, that increased trade from countries like the U.S. could help countries adapt to disruptions in agricultural production caused by climate change. (A new study by an MIT economist, also released this week, reached the opposite conclusion.) The Costa Rican Agriculture Minister, having been pressured earlier this year by the U.S. Trade Representative to drop his country’s ban on the cultivation of GMOs, stressed that advancing climate smart agriculture will require a re-thinking of trade rules—particularly the sharing of genetic resources. Many countries and the FAO have called for policies that integrate the sharing of genetic resources as an essential part of national climate plans. The Costa Rican minister urged the audience to read the 2013 UN Conference on Trade and Development report, Wake Up Before It’s Too Late, which called for a rethinking of trade rules as they relate to responding to climate change. (IATP contributed a chapter on trade liberalization, volatility and corporate concentration in agricultural markets.)

The absence of a clear definition and growing criticism by civil society of GACSA is starting to have an impact. At an event held about the African Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance, participants stressed that the initiative had nothing to do with GACSA. They described that effort as a bottom-up, implementation effort led by Africans. At the packed announcement of the French-led soil initiative we reported on earlier in the week, participants went to lengths to explain that this was not part of GACSA.

The larger concern with GACSA and “climate smart agriculture” is how it might be inserted within various climate policy mechanisms at the UNFCCC, the associated Green Climate Fund, the FAO and the World Bank—and various national and regional carbon markets. The U.S. Agency for International Development is already integrating “climate smart agriculture” within its programs.

Part of the push on “climate smart agriculture” seems to be an effort to drown out the rising support for agroecology coming from both scientists and social movements. Agroecology, with an established scientific grounding and general consensus of practice, also includes social elements and emphasizes the importance of farmers’ knowledge (particularly women) and community level empowerment. How agroecology and CSA might differ came up in multiple panels here in Paris. As a participant in the African discussion explained, “Agroecology is part of CSA, but not all of CSA is part of agroecology.”

One of the strengths of agroecology is that it has many other benefits besides climate resilience, including an emphasis on food sovereignty, food security and nutrition, and improving livelihoods of smaller scale farmers. Participants at an agroecology panel noted the inherent challenges of fitting the multidimensional aspects agroecology within the rigid, siloed UNFCCC framework of mitigation and adaptation. Climate smart agriculture doesn’t share that challenge. Without definition, it seems to fit anywhere. And that is the CSA's biggest asset for agribusiness—its branding opens the door for greenwashing while distracting from the more transformational changes that are needed to cope with climate change. 

Posted December 3, 2015 by Tara Ritter   


Global leaders are convening in Paris for the U.N. climate change conference. This two-week event is intended to result in a global climate agreement, with commitments from most of the world’s countries on how they will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Closer to home, many rural communities in the U.S. are grappling with the same question of how to deal with climate change impacts. Rural America will be disproportionately impacted by climate change. On average, rural residents are more food and energy insecure and earn less than their urban counterparts, and rural communities are more likely to have natural resource-based economies than urban communities. However, rural America is home to a small enough percentage of the population that it’s often overlooked by policymakers.

In response to this problem, a group of rural organizations, leaders and experts in the U.S. outlined the challenges climate change poses to rural communities and a set of policy priorities. The document, entitled “Rural Climate Policy Priorities: Solutions from the Ground,” is endorsed by 23 organizations and outlines transformative and long-term policy approaches to climate change that encourage resilience, equity, democracy and local ownership and control.

The Rural Climate Policy Priorities outline climate solutions for multiple areas of rural communities and economies, including agriculture, conservation, education, energy, fisheries, forestry, health, infrastructure, recreation and tourism.

Although climate change impacts will challenge rural communities, rural America also holds the key to many of the climate solutions the world will depend upon. While only 18 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, 84 percent of the country’s geography is rural. This means rural communities have the resources for renewable energy production; forests, farms and rangelands that can capture carbon when managed appropriately; and the people and ingenuity required for successfully transitioning to a low carbon economy.

Rural America has the potential to greatly benefit from climate change action if climate policy is inclusive of rural concerns. The Rural Climate Policy Priorities outline these concerns and put forth suggestions for climate policy that is inclusive of all communities.

The Rural Policy Priorities are available at: and

Posted December 2, 2015 by Ben Lilliston   

Paris – Yesterday at the global climate talks, France and about 30 other country leaders, research institutions and a handful of NGOs launched a much anticipated new initiative focused on researching and advancing efforts to sequester carbon in soil. The voluntary initiative, called 4 pour 1000, is not part of the official climate negotiations, which has largely ignored agriculture. And while the launch answered some questions about priorities – it left other important issues, like how the initiative will be financed and by whom, as well as the all-important questions of governance (particularly the role of farmers and civil society), for another time. 

France has been talking up the 4 pour 1000 initiative for much of 2015, meeting with NGOs (including IATP) and country representatives, and holding sessions at the Committee on World Food Security in and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. The initiative has attracted growing interest because of the well-recognized need to focus on soil health in order to cope with climate-related impacts on agriculture. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) just completed a year’s worth of events around the International Year of Soils.

France has been playing a leadership role in a number of global agricultural issues – demonstrating support for a series of global symposiums on agroecology being held by the FAO, while also playing a leadership role within the much criticized, corporate-heavy Global Alliance on Climate Smart Agriculture (GACSA).

The heart of the 4 pour 1000 initiative is a research agenda focused on assessing carbon stocks and studying more deeply metrics and measurement of carbon sequestration. Initial funding is coming from the French Ministry of Research. French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll said the next step would be around governance of the initiative, which should include farm groups, civil society, scientists and policy-makers. He hoped to establish a system of governance to oversee the initiative by the next UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP 22) in Marrakesh, Morocco in 2016. Le Foll also emphasized that the initiative could support countries in their climate pledges, (known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs), which are at the heart of a potential global climate deal. Around 80 percent of INDCs include references to agriculture – and Le Foll sees the 4 pour 1000 initiative as supporting agriculture-related projects and policies at the country-level.

Additional details of the 4 pour 1000 initiative were outlined by Francois Houllier, of INRA, the French scientific institute on agricultural research. Houllier emphasized the importance of tying soil health to food security. He stressed the need to integrate livestock production, agroforestry and water management. Improved soil quality could increase fertility and improve resilience against extreme weather. The 4 per 1000 name is derived from an estimate that some emissions from cars and land use could be offset through stopping climate damaging activities related to land use (i.e., deforestation), and increase our ability to sequester carbon in soils and forests. Houllier admitted that there is scientific uncertainty about what can be done with regards to both soil and forest sequestration – hence the need for more research through the initiative.

Frank Rijsberman of CGIAR – the global agricultural research consortium - expressed hope that this initiative could help put agriculture back on the map within the UNFCCC context, though he also acknowledged the considerable scientific challenges of measuring how carbon is stocked in agricultural soils and how long it will stay there. He announced that CGIAR will work with the international community over the next six months to develop research questions to better understand carbon in the soils.

One of the major questions about the initiative continues to be financing. At the initiative launch, the head of the Global Environment Fund, Dr. Naoko Ishii, said that GEF investments will support this initiative in the future. The GEF is the first financial mechanism of the UNFCCC, followed now by the Green Climate Fund. How this support from the GEF will be operationalized is unclear.

Other speakers at the initiative launch highlighted the need for better collaboration between researchers and farmers – but that has yet to happen. Instead, the initiative appears to have been developed largely from a scientific-research perspective – which typically reduces agriculture to narrow technical issues, rather than recognizing the realities for farmers and social and political issues around land use. Tim Groser, the Minister of Climate Change for New Zealand, typified this reductionist view. “We’ve seen agricultural scientists focus on increasing productivity,” commented Groser. “It’s only been over the last 10 years or so that we’ve asked them to integrate climate change into their work.”

Groser and Girish Sohani of BAIF Development Research Foundation did stress the need to integrate farmers into the initiative at the beginning of the process. But Sohani also emphasized that agricultural climate solutions will need to be appropriate for different locations – and deeply integrate traditional farmer knowledge from that location.   

Salah Lamouchi, of APAD in Tunisia, spoke of the challenges African farmers are facing from desertification and the need for a soil health investments that increase biomass and integrate livestock. The Agriculture Minister from Uruguay, Tabare Aguerre, gave a detailed presentation on how practices like managed grazing and rebuilding grasslands have restored degraded land, reduced emissions and sequestered carbon. He emphasized that more research was needed to better understand how to build soil health and sequester carbon.

One of the major questions about the French initiative has been whether it will fully support agroecology. Agroecology has seen growing support internationally by both scientists and social movements like Via Campesina – and includes not only agricultural practices but also social and political dimensions. Catherine Geslain-Laneelle, who is with the French Ministry of Agriculture, stressed yesterday that “agroecology is at the heart of this initiative.” Rijsberman of CGIAR also emphasized the important role of agroecology. But there was no mention of the social and political dimensions of agroecology at the 4 pour 1000 announcement.

Other country representatives attending the announcement and supporting the initiative included Germany, Australia, Poland, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Japan, Estonia, and Slovenia. Other supporting institutions and NGOs at the event included the World Bank and the French research institute CIRAD, and International Federation of Organic Movements (IFOAM), the World Resources Institute, and the Center for Food Safety.

It’s worth noting several notable absences at the initiative announcement. The United States was not listed as a supporter of the initiative. While important soil health initiatives exist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they are woefully underfunded. It’s not clear why the U.S. has not supported the initiative, but it may have something to do with references to agroecology - a term the U.S. government appears to have concerns with.

Also notable was the absence of corporations, particularly agribusiness, which has played such a prominent role in developing the Global Alliance on Climate Smart Agriculture – and which has a notable presence here in in Paris.

The future success of the 4 pour 1000 initiative will likely hinge on how it sets up its governance structure (what real role will farmers and NGOs play?), and ultimately its relationship to carbon markets. Sequestering carbon dioxide in the soil through practices like no-till farming, cover crops and managed grazing have long been discussed within climate policy – but primarily within the context of carbon markets. As Carbon Market Watch outlined in a new report released this week, the inclusion of soil carbon offsets within carbon markets has a number of fundamental problems including: it’s difficult to measure precisely; it needs to be additional to what farmers were already doing; and the levels of carbon sequestered needs to be known long-term, and left permanently in the ground. IATP has reported in the past on 5 reasons why carbon markets won’t work for agriculture, and how such offset projects are not appropriate for small scale farmers and serve project developers more than participating farmers.

The policy intersection between agriculture and climate change is one we have to get right. Agriculture is already profoundly affected by climate change. It is also a major greenhouse gas emitter, and through agroecological practices, can help to sequester carbon. The 4 pour 1000 initiative is right to focus on the critical role of soil health in responding to climate change. But future success of the initiative will depend largely on who will lead it. Will it be primarily scientist-led, or will it have a shared leadership that recognizes farmer knowledge and civil society concerns around land rights? Ultimately, the initiative must embrace all the dimensions of agroecology, including its emphasis on farm and community power and control.

Posted December 2, 2015 by Sophia Murphy   


Used under creative commons license from World Trade Organization.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) turned 20 this year—it is young in the world of multilateral agencies (by way of comparison, the UN turned 70) but it is no longer new. There is now a sizeable group of people working on trade who do not remember a time before the WTO. It has become the default trade institution—the organization everyone thinks of when they think about global trade.

Yet the young organization, birthed with such hyperbole, has lost its way. It is spurned by many of those who initially worked so hard to bring it into being, including the U.S. government, which seems to have lost interest in the organization. The hopes and the fears expressed at the WTO’s inception were premised on what looked like real power in the multilateral system, including a dispute settlement system that can enforce penalties on governments that break the rules.

On the eve of the WTO’s tenth Ministerial Conference, to be held in Nairobi December 15-18, the conviction that the WTO would be an effective new design for multilateral governance looks misplaced. The WTO has not negotiated a single tariff reduction in its 20 years of existence. The members adopted a negotiating agenda in Doha in December 2001 and have failed to bring it to conclusion. A vocal number of WTO members from among the richest countries, led by the United States, have openly declared that the Doha Agenda should no longer be even mentioned once Nairobi is done.

There are some small elements of negotiation ahead of the Nairobi Ministerial, on export credits and Least Developed Country exemptions, for example. Even, surprisingly, on the Special Safeguard Mechanism, which would allow developing countries to raise tariffs to block import surges. But the real issue facing the WTO member states is the fate of the Doha Agenda. On the one hand, what is the point of an agenda that some of the largest and most powerful members have no interest in negotiating? On the other, how to proceed if the large majority of countries are determined to hold on to the Doha Agenda?

If Doha is abandoned, developing countries fear that their interests will be abandoned with it—richer countries show less and less interest in negotiating the issues that developing countries have made their priority (such as reducing the trade-distorting effects of developed country agricultural subsidies and export supports). They are instead focused on services and investment, where the advantages are largely with exporters based in developed countries. 

For most of civil society, the Doha Agenda is beside the point. It was never a good agenda and it has not improved with time. It was supposed to address the inherent inequalities written into the Uruguay Round Agreements but by and large did not. Nor did it address what has emerged as the WTO’s single largest failing—its inability to serve as an adept and flexible manager of a complex and evolving system of globalizing markets. The WTO rules rely on baseline reference prices that are now 25 years out of date. The rules create exceptions for rich countries that persist because nothing new has come in their place—rules that allow the EU to go back to its damaging export subsidies if it chooses to, for instance, or for the U.S. to continue to monetize its food aid and to rely on export credits to support its commodity traders. The rules also punish developing countries for the success of agricultural sectors, a success that was ostensibly one of the objectives of the Uruguay Round in the first place. A number of developing countries have experienced much higher levels of inflation than have industrialized countries because they are growing more rapidly. The WTO benchmarks that assess permissible levels of domestic support to agriculture have no way to account for these differing levels of inflation.

What might a different basis for the conversation look like? Three elements need serious attention, whether in Nairobi or afterwards:

1. The Mandate: The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was about tariff reduction, relatively pure and simple. The GATT signatories agreed on this purpose and the negotiations met with some success. The WTO’s purpose is more complex. The fundamental commitment to tariff reduction has not gone away, and for some governments it is still the most important function. At the same time, the neoliberal development economics of the last 30 years has focused heavily on trade liberalization as an instrument for development. A number of member states consider the WTO should be a development forum, focused on developing countries’ economic needs. (Note, that is what the first multilateral organization dedicated to trade—the UN Conference on Trade and Development—was all about). Yet those governments that insist trade liberalization is the best course for development then fail to liberalize important aspects of their own economies, undermining trust that they are negotiating in good faith. They say trade liberalization is good for all countries but they do not act as if they believe it. In addition, the Uruguay Round Agreements take WTO rules deep into aspects of domestic policy space, whether in agriculture, manufacturing, services, government procurement or intellectual property rights. Most governments that allow a domestic debate on trade policy have met significant resistance to WTO rules. This mandate needs clarification and stricter limits on where it might override domestic policy in member states.

2. Special and Differential Treatment: The GATT enshrined a principle of different levels of commitments for developed and developing countries. As a number of developing countries industrialize, that binary division is less and less apparent. Moreover, it is not clear that size of economy has much to do with the importance of trade in that economy; trade matters more to smaller countries (for fairly obvious reasons—smaller countries have less diverse economies in general, and more reason to trade) but that is as true for Switzerland as for Jamaica. Yet there are persistent important North/South divides, one of the starkest of which are the exemptions and exceptions that richer countries enjoy because they can pay for opt-outs (such as compensation for sectors that are hurt by new rules) and have historic exemptions from previous trade negotiating rounds. The place to start on unpacking SDT would be to confront some of the built-in privileges of richer countries and their corporations before making demands on emerging economies to assume more responsibilities than poorer developing countries. Long periods of intellectual property rights protection would be one; another would be to prohibit the dumping of agricultural commodities at less than cost of production prices in international markets.

3. The Agenda:The world has changed a lot since 2001. Some say it is time to shift from a 20th century to a 21st century trade agenda. In this view, the so-called “mega-regionals” (such as the Trans Pacific Partnership or TPP) are categorized as 21st century and the Doha issues are judged to be “last century”. In truth, the mega-regionals differ from Doha only in as much as they more starkly reflect some interests within richer developed countries, where agriculture and manufacturing face competitive challengers but which house large corporate interests invested in finance and services, as well as a number of firms determined to avoid competition by protecting and extending their intellectual property rights.

In truth agriculture and industry are still deeply relevant to national economies, and not just in the South. Confronted with the challenges of climate change, deteriorating soil health, biological diversity loss, and freshwater scarcity the old trade issues are not going to go away. Technologies may be transforming aspects of economic production and distribution but they are not yet proposing to substitute for water, soil, ambient temperature and photosynthesis as the building blocks of our food supply.

After the collapse of trade talks in July 2008, international civil society interest in trade waned significantly. The emergence of mega-regional trade negotiations has regained their attention but many find themselves uncertain what to make of the new context. Most were critical of the Doha Agenda although some accepted that it was an agenda developing country governments had sought and they worked to support developing country governments on that basis. Yet few have any desire to defend the Doha Agenda now—it was never their interest and its appeal has not increased. The multilateral trade system emerges in a new light from recent debates. Civil society rejected a strong WTO committed to liberalization on a narrow agenda. Yet a weak WTO that is unable to come to any agreement among member states and that is openly disparaged by some of the richest members in favour of deals, such as the TPP or TTIP, which only invite a few countries to participate is even worse. It is time to reclaim a multilateral space for the negotiation of international trade rules that starts by rebuilding trust in the process, that includes all affected parties (not just the richest economies) and that does not prejudge outcomes to favour a particular economic model.

In this essential debate on how to govern multilateral trade, some principles are clear.

1. Any 21st century trade agenda must be democratically owned and discussed by all affected parties. The TPP negotiations were held in absolute secrecy from citizens and parliamentarians alike, among a group of like-minded governments and corporate advisors whose decisions would have effect far beyond the borders that defined the extent of their democratic mandate.

2. The WTO cannot act in isolation from other parts of the global governance architecture. Trade is intimately linked to other policy areas and to non-governmental concerns. The organization officially operates with a one-member one-vote system rather than with votes weighted by the size of the trade economy; this is important and should be protected. But the member states refuse to allow civil society organizations any official standing. Nor are other multilateral agencies allowed to observe WTO proceedings. The result is out of step with best practice in multilateral organizations. Trade affects not just commerce, but wider economic relationships, as well as social and ecological interests. Trade is a legitimate concern for policies to address climate change, health, food security and natural resource management. The WTO as an organization cannot possibly handle all these issues alone, nor can other agencies refer all trade matters to the WTO in isolation. It is time for a more coherent and integrated approach.

3. Multilateralism as aspirational. Governments tend to first use international processes to protect their domestic interests. Once engaged in multilateral negotiation, they instinctively seek allies to help protect those interests, looking for strength in numbers. But ultimately governments find they learn from the multilateral level, and sometimes they make agreements that advance a wider public interest even at the expense of the initial definition of their national interest. New horizons emerge from the exchange with other countries, and with other actors at the multilateral level. The WTO has offered only a repressed and distorted forum so far, too curtailed by its legalistic origins and its strong negotiating mandate. The space is ready made and the issues are waiting. Now a culture of open debate and a willingness to hear contrarian views on the role of trade in the economy is urgently needed. It is from that place that a truly 21st century trade agenda could hope to emerge.

Download a PDF of this piece.

Posted November 20, 2015 by     Sharon Treat

TradeTPPFree trade agreements

Used under creative commons license from rusty_clark.

So much of trade policy involves searching through legal texts and leaked documents for clues about what’s coming next. Careful examination of the recently released text for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is already revealing new risks for our food system. Those findings also tell us what to watch out for in the other big pending trade deal—the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union. Unlike earlier trade agreements focused primarily on reducing tariffs to open up markets, these agreements are likely to include extensive provisions intended to reduce or eliminate state and federal regulations viewed as “trade irritants.” The focus on state and local rules and programs is one of the “innovations” in recent trade deals.

First, the good news. Sort of. Farm to School programs funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that provide bidding preferences for healthy, locally grown foods have been kept out of federal procurement commitments in TPP. And, for the time being at least, state and local procurement is off the table. The bad news is that the text directs that “No later than three years after the date of entry into force of this Agreement, the Parties shall commence negotiations with a view to achieving expanded coverage, including sub-central coverage.” No word on how that would be decided or who would be consulted, but it indicates the clear intention to include programs by states, counties and perhaps even public universities or hospitals, at some point in the future. In that case, our clue comes from the TTIP negotiations, where leaked meeting reports indicate that the EU is seeking such commitments from the U.S. for all goods and all sectors.

Much of the progress in reforming our food system is happening at the local level. Nearly 300 food labeling bills were introduced in state legislatures in 2014 and 2015, including nutrition disclosures, sugary drinks warnings, identification of local products such as olive oil and seafood and disclosure of GMO ingredients. Those programs could be at risk under both TPP and TTIP. States’ Leadership on Healthy Food and Farm Systems at Risk under Proposed Trade Deals explains how provisions in both trade deals could undo decades of work by local activists and legislators. Some highlights from that report:

  • State food labeling laws are vulnerable to challenge as “technical barriers to trade.” Both the TPP and the TTIP will have a chapter on “technical barriers to trade” (TBT). TBT provisions are already in effect under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules and have been successfully invoked to overturn federal food labeling standards, including Country of Origin Labeling for meat. Regional trade deals like TPP and TTIP are required to be “WTO plus,” meaning their rules must be at least as stringent as those in the WTO, likely posing even greater threats to domestic food policy. A draft TBT chapter for TTIP seeks to harmonize technical requirements so that goods could be marketed across the country on “the basis of a single authorisation, approval or certificate of conformity.” Labeling rules are specifically targeted. The TBT chapter would also impose a “necessity test” such that labeling requirements “should be limited as far as possible to what is essential and to what is the least trade restrictive to achieve the legitimate objective pursued.”

    The TPP includes a first-time TBT chapter annex on “Proprietary Formulas for Prepackaged Foods and Food Additives” that imposes that same “necessity test” and additional confidentiality protections on government regulators seeking information to regulate food ingredients. These provisions could hinder the timely development of stronger federal standards relating to junk food warnings, GMO labeling and detailed information about “proprietary” food additive formulas.

    State food labeling laws are clearly vulnerable under these provisions. State standards that differ from federal rules could be challenged, even if U.S. law allows for those differences. Would Vermont’s GMO labels, for example, meet the “necessity test,” when U.S. federal regulatory agencies have established no disclosure requirements? Legal scholars suggest that U.S. states should be concerned about how such a necessity test would operate.

    Health warnings are also at risk. In 2015, bills were introduced in three states—California, New York and Vermont—to require safety warnings on sugary drinks. The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has opposed such laws in other countries, objecting to Chilean nutrition warning labels because they might discourage consumption of imported processed foods. Business groups have openly stated their interest in using these trade agreements to thwart state regulations. The U.S. Council for International Business testified that “[s]ubsidiary political units, such as EU Member States or U.S. States should be prohibited from seeking to impose separate requirements for approval or local restrictions on sale or use,” and the U.S. National Confectioners Association has stated that “U.S. industry also would like to see the US-EU FTA achieve progress in removing mandatory GMO labeling and traceability requirements.”

  • Rules on regulatory cooperation create new obstacles to state action. Nothing illustrates the scope of these international agreements better than the EU’s proposal for a Regulatory Cooperation chapter in TTIP. This far-reaching proposal seeks to “reduce unnecessarily burdensome, duplicative or divergent regulatory requirements affecting trade or investment.” A U.S. federal agency would be charged with collecting information about proposed and pending federal and state legislation and regulations on virtually any subject, including advance notice of bills and impact assessments intended to determine whether the policies are more “trade restrictive” than necessary. Foreign governments’ concerns would be injected into domestic policies, and procedures intended to “harmonize” standards could result in setting federal and international minimum standards as the regulatory ceiling.

    The TPP also includes regulatory cooperation requirements applicable to U.S. states. Tucked into the TBT chapter is a provision requiring the federal government to provide advance notice of state-level proposals for “new technical regulations and conformity assessment procedures” where those proposals “may have a significant impact on trade.”  The federal government must engage in “technical discussions” upon request by another TPP country. The intended outcome of these discussions is to align state regulations with international standards, and move towards mutual recognition of standards of TPP countries as equivalent.

    These provisions don’t specify how—or if—state policymakers would be consulted in these harmonization initiatives. In general, regulatory cooperation would impose new burdens on budget-strapped state agencies and legislatures, shifting resources from the implementation of consumer protections to collating documents and monitoring and participating in international meetings. The consequences could extend well beyond increased red tape. Attempts to harmonize U.S. and EU regulatory standards will necessitate reining in outlier state standards that impose additional or different requirements on businesses, such as enacted and proposed state-level food labeling standards.

  • Investment provisions give corporations a preferential forum in which to challenge state laws. The Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) procedures in trade agreements allow foreign investors to sue governments directly in private investment tribunals, bypassing the courts or allowing a “second bite” if the investors do not like the results of domestic court decisions. Although the investor-state tribunal has no power to directly nullify U.S. laws, in practice, when a country loses to an investor, it will change the offending law, pay damages or both. Under ISDS, transnational corporations could sue for claimed lost profits due to food labeling requirements or GMO disclosure rules that companies claim will lower sales of their products.

    ISDS clauses in other trade agreements have been used repeatedly to attack environmental and public health measures. Even unsuccessful challenges take years to resolve, cost millions to defend and have a chilling effect on the development of new legislation. U.S. state and Canadian provincial policies, including laws banning toxic gasoline additives and a moratorium on fracking permits, have already been targeted in challenges under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). TPP and TTIP would exponentially increase the number of corporations that could take advantage of these special rights to challenge consumer standards. Additionally, government-prepared impact assessments analyzing state regulations proposed in the regulatory cooperation provisions of these agreements could provide support for these legal attacks.

The evidence shows that TPP could drastically limit states’ authority, and what we’ve seen so far from TTIP could take that several steps further. State government officials and other local foods advocates should take steps to get as informed as possible, as quickly as possible, and then communicate their views to the USTR and to Congress, which will soon be reviewing the final agreements under an abbreviated “fast track” process. If not, important state health and consumer protections, including food labeling, could be undermined and likely rendered moot by these international agreements masquerading as trade facilitation.

Read the full report.

Read the two-page summary.

Posted November 17, 2015 by IATP   

Oscar looking over his coffee field and his brother's coffee field.  

Oscar Omar Alonzo Aguilar farms coffee on a plot of land alongside his brother in Honduras. Oscar’s field is on the left; his brother’s field is on the right. Why is Oscar’s coffee thriving while his brother’s crop struggles?

The brothers are growing coffee in a region highly affected by climate change—one result of this climate change is the dramatic increase in a destructive parasitic fungus called Hemileia vastatrix, also known as coffee leaf rust.

Oscar has applied efficient micro-organisms that strengthen his plant’s defenses and the results are extraordinary. This is part of a method of farming called agroecology—a practice that's about finding solutions to nature’s problems by utilizing nature herself.

Agroecology is an approach to agriculture that values people and the planet over the profits of global agribusiness. By combining the best in science with farmer knowledge, we can authentically assist farmers and inform global policymaking to create a just, fair and sustainable food system.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and our fair-trade coffee company Peace Coffee are working together to learn more about farmers’ own agroecology innovations while sharing and creating cutting-edge research from top agroecology researchers. We need your help! In our latest edition of our podcast Radio Sustain, we sat down with Peace Coffee CEO and Queen Bean, Lee Wallace, and IATP's Senior Staff Scientist and agroecology expert, Dr. M. Jahi Chappell, to discuss this project in depth.

In 2016, IATP is partnering with Peace Coffee to increase our collective impact—we're going to roll out expanded work on agroecology to take advantage of new opportunities in global policy.

Peace Coffee was born out of late night conversations that started as a strategy session between coffee farmers in Mexico and IATP policy analysts on what to do about harmful trade negotiations underway and ended with the sale of a box car full of coffee beans. IATP works locally and globally at the intersection of policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems. Peace Coffee has carried these values as they’ve grown.

With Peace Coffee, IATP has the chance to put theory into practice. Peace Coffee is proud to be working with farmers like Oscar – and we are helping him to thrive in an ever-changing climate. We need your help now to make sure farmers have access to the support and information they need to give them an edge&mash;bringing researchers and farmers together to create solutions that are community driven and ensure sustainability in the face of climate change.

Your tax-deductible gift will support IATP’s participation in this critical work to:

  • Bring agroecologists and Peace Coffee’s growers’ cooperatives together to address the epidemic of coffee rust in their regions.
  • Advocate for agroecology to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and with allies around the world to provide recommendations to the FAO as they undertake regional meetings on agroecology.
  • Work behind the scenes with an emerging pro-agroecology affinity group of countries promoting agroecological policies and practices at the global level.
  • Fight for agroecology at the United Nation’s climate negotiations. While agribusiness continues to push for funding climate “smart” approaches to agriculture that are profitable for them, IATP is leading the charge to fund agroecology projects that are scientifically valid, respect farmers’ own expertise and experiences, and provide benefits to farmers AND the environment. IATP is partnering with groups of the Global North and South to rally support for alternatives to the agribusiness agenda.

Listen to the Radio Sustain podcast Peace Coffee and Agroecology to learn more about this project and make a donation at

Posted November 16, 2015 by Ben Lilliston   


Used under creative commons license from Environmental Illness Network.

After six years of secret negotiations, the dozen countries that make up the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) have finally made the text public. The full implications of the broad-reaching, 30 chapter, 5000-plus page deal will be analyzed intensely in the coming months leading up to a U.S. Congressional up or down vote. Big concerns about the deal’s impact on public health, workers, the environment and the legal rights of corporations are already being raised. A close look at the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) chapter shows how just a few lines in TPP can turn into a big win for an industry—in this case, the biotech seed industry.

The IPR chapter, a draft version was posted by Wikileaks last month, has already received considerable criticism because of its lengthy patent protection for drugs, which could lead to high costs of essential medicines. But the chapter also requires patent protection important to another sector—the seed biotech industry. Companies like Monsanto and Syngenta depend on strong patenting regimes to control the market for genetically engineered crops. The IPR chapter largely reflects the wish list that BIO, the biotech industry’s powerful trade group, outlined when TPP negotiations began in 2009.

The IP chapter requires all 12 TPP countries to join a number of global intellectual property treaties. One of those treaties is the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants 1991 (UPOV 91). That agreement updated the 1978 treaty in several important ways that emphasize the rights of seed companies over farmers’ rights, according to an analysis by Public Citizen and Third World Network (TWN). UPOV91 requires IP protection to be provided for all plant varieties; it requires protection for 20 to 25 years; and it stops farmers and breeders from exchanging protected seeds, a common practice of farmers in many countries around the world.

Of the TPP countries, Brunei, Malaysia, Mexico and New Zealand are not yet members of the UPOV 91. Chile is also not yet a member, though it is already required to become a member under a previous Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. Under the TPP, these countries could face major changes to laws and rules that protect farmers’ rights when it comes to plant breeding and seed saving. The TPP IPR chapter also requires any additional countries that join the TPP to become members of UPOV 91. Countries currently considering joining the TPP include South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan—none of which are members of UPOV 91.

In order to join the UPOV91, countries have to apply to the UPOV91 Office of the Union, which then reviews the country’s laws on plant variety protection and declares which laws need to be changed, or added, in order to come into compliance and join the convention. Malaysia has already gone through this process, and in order to join the treaty, they will have to change their laws in order to: lengthen the patent time protection for seed companies, prohibit farmers from exchanging seed they have saved and remove anti-biopiracy provisions which protect plants from patents.

Changes in plant patent laws could become very controversial in Mexico. Farm groups in Mexico, considered the birthplace of corn, are leading a campaign called “Sin Maíz, No Hay Paíz” (Without corn, there is no country) that advocates for a ban on GMO corn. They have been successful, and the ban is current facing a legal challenge. Farm organizations argue that the country’s biodiversity and genetic resources are at risk from contamination of GMO corn. Monsanto hopes to double its sales in Mexico over the next five years if the ban is struck down.  

Strong opposition may also arise in New Zealand, which currently has not approved any GMO crops for commercialization, requires any imported GMO foods to be labeled, and uses its GMO-free status as an export marketing tool. Brunei is just developing its regulatory framework for GMO crops.

The TPP also requires countries and any future country participants to join the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) and the Budapest Treaty on the International Recognition of the Deposit of Microorganisms for the Purposes of Patent Procedure, which would make it easier to apply for a patent, according to the Public Citizen/Third World Network analysis. Malaysia, New Zealand and Vietnam have not joined the Budapest Treaty.

The argument for patent protection is that it spurs innovation, but that assertion is questionable in the case of plants. A 2011 study looking at vegetable varieties over the last century found a “clear demonstration that massive amounts of innovation occur without the stimulus of patent or PVP law.”  In the U.S., where strong plant patent protection exists and GMOs for commodity crops are widely used,   research published this year by Kansas State University found that U.S. cropping systems are becoming markedly less diverse and the “homogenization of agricultural production systems” could have “far-reaching consequences” for the food system.

Maintaining genetic diversity in crop and animal production is seen as a critical tool for adapting to climate change, according to a report published earlier this year by the FAO. The report concluded:

It is likely that climate change will necessitate more international exchanges of genetic resources as countries seek to obtain well-adapted crops, livestock, trees and aquatic organisms. The prospect of greater interdependence in the use of genetic resources in the future underscores the importance of international cooperation in their management today and of ensuring that mechanisms are in place to allow fair and equitable—and ecologically appropriate—transfer of these resources internationally.

The international battle over the patenting of plants by biotech companies versus the rights of farmers is not a new one. The biotech industry has won a favorable patent regime through free trade agreements, and through the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement. Farmers have fought to protect their rights on seeds through the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, which grants farmers the right to save and share seed. The conflict between these international regimes continues.

This past summer, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) strongly opposed an effort by some African governments to comply with UPOV 91 through stronger patent protection. According to AFSA, the initiative’s “underlying imperatives are to increase corporate seed imports, reduce breeding activity at the national level, and facilitate the monopoly by foreign companies of local seed systems and the disruption of traditional farming systems.“ AFSA’s concerns were consistent with a recent paper by Australian researchers looking at the impact of intellectual property law on food security in Least Developed Countries. The paper concluded that the one-size-fits-all approach to plant patents found in trade rules like TRIPS do not work in countries reliant on traditional agriculture.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has been particularly critical of trade agreements that require the implementation of UPOV 91, urging instead that countries undertake a Human Rights Assessment (including the Right to Food) prior to signing any trade agreements. In 2012, the FAO’s Committee on Food Security’s High Level Panel of Experts called for countries to adopt the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and urgently implement provisions on farmers’ rights to conserve and curate genetic resources in order to adapt to climate change.

The U.S. government’s requirement that countries join UPOV 91 as part of free trade agreements is starting to see resistance. Last year, Guatemala repealed plant variety legislation, known as the Monsanto law. That law had been passed in order for Guatemala to join UPOV 91 as required under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The law had sparked massive protests from farmers and indigenous movements.

The TPP IPR chapter represents yet another in a long list of actions by the U.S. government to advocate on behalf of biotech seed companies—including a WTO challenge to European GMO regulations and using State Department attachés to pressure governments to accept GMOs. The industry’s influence within the office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is considerable. USTR’s Assistant Agriculture Specialist is a former VP at BIO, the industry’s lobbying group. BIO also sits on the USTR’s Advisory Committee on Intellectual Property and has had access to the TPP negotiations and text over the last six years.

The TPP’s IPR chapter provides a glimpse into what this new mega free trade deal is all about. The chapter’s requirement that countries grant patent protection for multinational biotech seed companies has little to do with trade and nothing to do with respecting farmers’ innovations, their livelihoods or countries’ food security. It is about asserting, in a very raw way, corporate power over sovereign nations and the farmers who live there.

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