Posted September 20, 2012 by Dr. David Wallinga
Mammals fed a diet of genetically engineered (GE) Roundup Ready corn for two years died earlier and developed more tumors and liver and kidney damage, according to a new study published this week in the peer-reviewed journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology.
The findings reinforce recent calls by the American Medical Association that GE crops be safety tested for possible health impacts before they enter the marketplace. No such premarket testing is currently required in the United States.
Corn genetically engineered to be pesticide-tolerant or insect-resistant makes up 88 percent of the U.S. corn crop. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready varieties make up the vast majority—an estimated 70 percent of the U.S. corn crop; it is widely planted in Brazil as well.
This GE corn, which allows farmers to spray the herbicide, Roundup, on fields without damaging the corn, largely ends up in ethanol plants, animal feed and processed human foods. But just last fall, Monsanto introduced for the first time a Roundup Ready sweetcorn, bringing GE technology directly to consumers’ mouths.
U.S. regulations also do not require the labeling of GE foods—despite consistent polls showing over 90 percent of consumers favor labeling. More than a decade ago the American Public Health Association, the world’s largest, called for GE foods to be so labeled. (The AMA falls short of supporting labeling, although the recent science may cause it to reexamine the position). The absence of GE labeling means that not only consumers are left in the dark, but so are their healthcare providers.
If physicians or researchers wanted to track whether a patient with breast cancer or liver damage had been consuming a diet high in GE corn, it would be nearly impossible to do so.
In the study published today, researchers fed laboratory rats a diet of GE roundup-ready corn (NK603) for two years. Half the males and 70 percent of the females fed the GE corn, the researchers found, died prematurely. Only 30 percent and 20 percent of males and females in the control group did so. Animals on the GE diet suffered mammary (breast) tumors, and severe damage to the kidney and liver.
A significant aspect of this study is its length. Most previous rat feeding studies for GE crops have been limited to 90 days—which in human terms would equate only to early adulthood. Because today’s study went for two years, it captures the possible impacts of eating such a diet over the entire course of the animal’s (or presumably a person’s) life.
Why so few long-term studies on the health effects of GE crops to date? Partly because scientists must seek permission from the patent holder, in this case Monsanto, before the research can take place. We agree with the editors at Scientific American that this ridiculous barrier to independent research needs to end.
The French government has asked its National Agency for Health Safety to investigate the study’s findings and consider protective steps to protect public health. This precautionary approach makes sense.
This study is yet another reminder of how little research on the long-term effects of the near ubiquitous consumption of GE foods has taken place.
When it comes to GE crops we’ve, for too long, taken a “ready, shoot, aim” approach to regulation. The public deserves better.
Posted September 19, 2012 by Mark Muller
It has always been an amusing pastime for agricultural policy wonks to envision what would happen if a Farm Bill was allowed to expire. Nobody actually thought that it could come to fruition; after all, the uncertainty that it would impose on farmers and agricultural markets would be too great for Congress not to act on passing a new Farm Bill. Yet, remarkably, it now looks like that scenario is inevitable.
The current Farm Bill, passed in 2008, will expire on September 30. The Senate passed a bill over the summer, and the House has yet to have a floor vote on the bill that emerged from the House Agriculture committee, and will not have a vote prior to September 30. There is a lot of guessing about the overall impacts of an expired Farm Bill, and the media is already full of stories of the stalemate and frustrating lack of Congressional action.
So for those of us not farming or trading agricultural commodities, what impact would this legislative breakdown have on our lives? It’s a complicated question, because some programs would most likely continue unchanged, some programs would disappear and some programs would revert to “permanent law” of Farm Bills past. Overall, it appears that an incorporation of policies from the 1930s and 1940s, coupled with the elimination of many of the more recent programs, would create some major problems. Here are some rough generalizations that can be made, thanks in large part to the Congressional Research Service’s review of this question back in March.
Without a new Farm bill, many of the current Farm Bill programs would revert back to 1949 permanent law as of January 1. Back then, farmers weren’t supported with direct federal subsidies, but instead with several market tools that essentially provided a price floor for many of the primary commodities.
Many farm commodities are currently trading at higher-than-usual prices and the reversion back to previous policies won’t have an impact. The current price of corn is $7.72 a bushel, for example, well above the support price of $5.70. Wheat, on the other hand, is trading high at $8.96, but it is significantly below the support price of $13.13. Permanent law would therefore require USDA to purchase U.S. wheat at $13.13, thereby keeping wheat prices at that high level.
Soybeans, on the other hand, weren’t grown much in the United States 60 years ago and were not considered a program crop. All USDA support of soybeans would disappear.
The subsequent impacts would be like a series of dominoes sprawling throughout the food system and the economy. Back in the 1940s, production management kept farmers from growing too much of certain crops; those controls don’t exist today. A 1985 USDA study on the impacts of a return to permanent law predicted an agricultural economy quickly spiraling out of control:
This combination of high support prices and a guaranteed outlet for their products would encourage program commodity producers to expend output without regard for effective market demand ... farm operators producing commodities not eligible for support would face increased competition for land and other inputs from program commodity producers.
This means that farmers would have an incentive to plant crops that receive price supports—wheat, rice, corn, sorghum, barley, oats and upland cotton, with a particularly strong incentive for wheat and rice. And three of the conditions that allowed these price support policies to be effective in decades past—supply management, grain reserves and limited international trading of agricultural commodities—no longer exist.
The Congressional Research Service found that
Under permanent law, those (milk) purchase prices would be more than three times as high as currently supported and nearly double recent market prices. Such high USDA purchase prices could result in the government outbidding commercial markets for a sizeable share of processor output.
Even though the farm programs are focused on only a few commodities that we rarely eat directly, the ripple effects would likely cause many food prices to increase, as well as encourage the food industry to find alternatives to buying from U.S. farmers. More often than not over the past three decades grain corporations have been able to purchase commodities well below the costs of production. Parity-based policies would raise commodity prices well over the costs of production. Seventy years ago—a time of far less advanced transportation systems and information technologies—grain corporations supplying the U.S. bought from the U.S. Now, if domestic prices are too high agribusiness corporations can buy commodities from all over the world.
The adoption of conservation practices on private lands has been one of the success stories of agricultural policy over the past 25 years. Soil and water quality have benefited tremendously from the Farm Bill’s incentive programs for farm conservation, particularly the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which currently protects about 31 million acres of fragile agricultural land. Without new Farm Bill legislation, USDA could no longer contract with farmers for CRP and many other programs after December 31.
SNAP (formerly called food stamps), by far the largest Farm Bill program and the largest food assistance program, would be able to continue most of its operations regardless of the state of the Farm Bill.
Where the opportunities and challenges lie are in all of the grain and milk that USDA would likely be purchasing to maintain support prices. Other than perhaps using the farm products as a feedstock for renewable energy production, the only other major option for USDA would be to donate the food, which could potentially be a boon for school lunches, food shelves and SNAP recipients.
An expired Farm Bill could have the unintended consequence of really making the gardening movement take off. People currently garden mostly for the love of gardening, not because it provides a large cost savings over purchasing food. Yet if food prices climb as expected, and food corporations respond to higher domestic commodity prices by importing more food from countries with less rigorous food safety standards, gardening may suddenly become a cost-effective option. This is, of course, would hardly be an effective solution for mitigating rising food prices for people without adequate time, space, or skills to garden at a large scale.
The random combination of policies from the 1930s and 1940s, coupled with a hodgepodge of more recent programs, creates a dysfunctional, messy food system that would likely detract from the health and pocketbooks of U.S. consumers. IATP has long argued that the Farm Bill is in need of major reform. Congressional inaction is not the way to do it.
Posted September 14, 2012 by Shefali Sharma
September 10, 2012
No, it really was not a rallying cry for sanitation—but rather the “TP..P” stands for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, and the call was made by hundreds of non-profits, labor unions and family farm groups on September 9 at the site of the closed-door trade negotiations in Leesburg, VA. How many people remember the North American Free Trade Agreement? Well, the TPP is supposed to be a bigger version of NAFTA. Just when we thought that the free trade paradigm had come to a sobering halt (what with the WTO in a coma, a global economic crisis and recent food crises forcing hard questions about our global trade, finance and agriculture policies), we need to think again!
Apparently, the US Trade Representative’s office thinks that the way to address unemployment and economic woes in this country is to further lower import and export duties and relax the rules that govern investment, services, intellectual property and much more. USTR has been negotiating the TPP for over two years with Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. The negotiations also involve chapters on environment and labor. Yet neither environmentalists nor labor unions have been allowed to see the negotiating document, even though USTR has concluded 14 rounds of talks on an agreement with 29 chapters.
On Sunday, the US TPP lead negotiator, Barbara Weisel, confirmed that though many organizations are calling for the public release of the text, the government was not prepared to do so at this stage. Organizations asked question after question for nearly two hours during the USTR organized “stakeholder meeting” in Leesburg, VA—organizations as diverse as Communication Workers of America, Doctors without Borders (Medcins Sans Frontiers), American Apparel and Footwear Association, Oxfam, Public Citizen and Health Gap.
The major questions revolved around the power such free trade treaties give to multinational corporations when it comes to public health concerns like access to affordable medicines, the right to use generic drugs, and the balance of power between corporate profits and government rules that protect the public interest. In legal jargon, this latter issue also involves “investor to state dispute settlement.” In practice, this means that corporations whose profits are affected by government regulations can sue for damages. For example, US based Renco sued the Peruvian government when Peru took action against Renco’s subsidiary, in connection with lead poisoning in the small town of La Oroya. This suit came soon after Peru signed the U.S-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement.
Though the TPP has some time to go before the negotiations are completed, IATP and its partners are extremely concerned that the government is not learning from history. It is time for a complete rethinking of US trade policy to ensure that health, human rights, the right to food and work are not traded away for corporate profits.
Posted September 14, 2012 by Dr. David Wallinga
Overusing antibiotics has spurred a crisis in antibiotic resistance.
Since their advent in the 1940s, it’s been no secret that the more you use antibiotics, the quicker bacteria get resistant to them.
What’s newer is the realization of the scale of antibiotic overuse, at least in agriculture. Since 2010, the FDA has collected data from pharmaceutical companies definitively showing that more than 80 percent of all U.S. antibiotics – some 29 million lbs per year– are sold for use in livestock or poultry. Ninety percent of these are put at low doses into livestock feed or water for flocks or herds, often to spur growth or economic gain and not to treat a diagnosed disease.
What’s also new is that bacteria generally now have the capability to become resistant to most if not all antibiotics quite quickly. More and more now, people are getting sick and dying from infections that no longer respond easily to antibiotics. Some, like MRSA, have become household names. Others are less known, though often no less deadly.
But most resistant infections still take place in hospitals. Inside those walls, the impact is huge: Patients with resistant infections get sicker, stay in the hospital longer, and die more frequently than do patients with non-resistant bugs. The economics are scary, too. Resistant hospital infections cost $18,000 to $29,000 per case to treat, causing a cumulative $20 billion price tag for the nation.
Precisely because the victims of highly resistant infections typically land in the hospitals, however, they remain largely invisible. Due to patient confidentiality, their stories are little told. heir pictures fail to make their way into newspapers. Families may know their loved ones died of a bad infection, but not appreciate the role that resistance has played. It’s uncommon for the words “antibiotic resistant” to work their way into obituaries, or for pictures of victims to be so identified in news stories. Out of sight, out of mind.
The irony is that with an estimated 900,000 cases of resistant infections per year, there must be plenty of folks out there with personal experience. Yet it is a nearly faceless epidemic. And that simple fact works against mobilizing support for changes to farm policy that could help turn this situation around by making sure antibiotics are used only when necessary. Help us turn that around.
At IATP’s Healthy Food Action, we have long worked to collect some of these stories. Farmers, farmworkers – even veterinarians – are at greater risk from antibiotic resistant infections. Some of their stories, like this one from Kim, can now be found at Keep Antibiotics Working, where, as co-founders, we’ve served on the executive committee for the past 12 years.
“I was working on a local CAFO caring for 1200 hogs, 8 hours a day. Getting them fed was a big enough undertaking let alone administering B-12 shots and antibiotics as a routine part of their care. If they weren’t eating well I would medicate them. If they had a small wound or a runny nose I would medicate them. In fact, medicating the hogs was mandatory protocol at every farm I’d ever worked. Now, I’m not a veterinarian or even close—but, unlike human medicine that requires a licensed professional to prescribe and dispense drugs, Penicillin, Tylan or Lincomax were abundantly available to those of us who cared for the hogs. Antibiotics were considered a “fix all” for everything -- starting at birth, giving newborn piglets a shot of penicillin, and continuing medication, even in their feed, throughout their short lives…..
Early in March a small bump appeared on the back of Dale’s left thigh. I noticed it, but thought nothing of it. Two days later Dale had noticed it as well since it had grown in size and color. Thinking it might be a spider bite we made a trip to the ER and sure enough, that was the diagnosis. An antibiotic was prescribed and we were sent home. The following evening the “bite” had grown to silver dollar size so we headed to the ER again. A couple hours and blood tests later it was confirmed that Dale had methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. This time we headed home with an antibiotic drip. By the next morning, Dale was rushed into surgery because it had grown another inch and half to the size of a tennis ball and they were cutting the flesh-eating disease out of his leg.
That very same day I noticed a small bump, identical to Dale’s, on my daughter’s leg. I immediately rushed her to the ER and requested she be tested for MRSA. Just as I feared, it came back positive…..
On my doctor’s recommendation, I stayed home from work a few days. With time on my hands, I obsessively set my mind on learning everything I could about MRSA….. I was shocked to learn that hog farmers who handle an abundance of antibiotics are a main carrier of MRSA. The idea that I brought this home to my family plagued me. I could not wait to return to work so I could alert everyone else to the dangers of this issue.”
Share these stories, with your friends, your colleagues, your members of Congress. Help us make them aware of the critical connection between the resistance epidemic, and the huge overuse of antibiotics in agriculture.
Help us create more stories. Contact me with your own, @Food_dr on Twitter, or at email@example.com. Or if you have had patients suffer from resistant infections connected by science to agriculture, especially including drug-resistant Salmonella, Campylobacter, resistant UTI and other E coli infections, MRSA and any resistant infection in farmers or farmworkers, think about sharing their stories as well (with their permission, of course).
Posted September 13, 2012 by Anne Maina
The current drought facing the U.S. should send down jitters among net food importers worldwide as the price of major grain crops is set to rise dramatically. The drought can be seen as a result of climate change that has led to unpredictable weather patterns the world over.
Farmers in Kenya continue to face the challenges of unpredictable weather patterns that either bring too much or insufficient rain and extreme weather conditions. The situation has been worsened by the loss of local and traditional seed varieties that are more resilient to dry weather.
Women, have since time immemorial been the custodians of seeds in Africa. They bred, selected, sorted and stored seeds for different seasons and ceremonies. They understood their environment to the extent that they could read nature signs and predict what the next season would bring. That is how communities would always be prepared for droughts and would save sufficient food to take them through hard times.
Even with women as custodians of seed, men too had their role in ensuring food security for their families. Some crops like yams were crops tended to by men. I remember going to the village as a young child and grandma would ask grandpa to dig up some yams for us to carry back to the city. One time I asked grandma why she could not dig up the yams herself and she responded that that was the work of men and a crop tended to by grandpa. This remains vivid in my memory, almost twenty years after grandma passed on from throat cancer.
Sometimes I ask myself why grandma got throat cancer yet she lived a healthy life eating grains, vegetables and fruits from her farm? The more I think about it, I remember how she was so proud when her eldest son planted coffee bushes on her farm, this was the new cash crop. But did it bring all blessings? No, I remember seeing grandpa spray the coffee bushes with chemicals; yes one was "malathion." Not much protection was used and often when it rained, the chemical flowed to the rest of the farm. Maybe, this was what led to her getting throat cancer.
Kenya’s staple crop, maize (corn) has been affected by a strange disease, suspected to be Maize Lethal Necrosis, affecting thousands of acres. This is cause of worry given that we no longer maintain sufficient grain reserves to even last the country six months. The government is scrambling to buy up new reserves now, but the situation is quite unstable.
In 2011, there were reports in the media that Kenya was exporting its maize crop to South Sudan even when the country did not have sufficient stocks in place. A consequence of this was the country was again forced to import maize from South Africa, which produces about 70 percent genetically modified (GMO) maize. This was the same case in 2010 when GMO maize was imported from the U.S. and South Africa. Civil society groups under the umbrella of the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KBioC) raised objection to the importation of GMOs when the country had not put the required regulations in place, but to date none of their concerns have been responded to. We hope this may change with the establishment of the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) in 2011. The NBA now becomes the regulatory agency responsible for the approval of testing, trials, importation, transit and labelling of GMOs in Kenya.
With all these challenges of drought in the face of climate change, maize disease, the push by the biotechnology industry for the acceptance of GMOs in Africa and the increasing grain food prices, one wonders often what will happen to the small scale Kenyan farmers trying to make ends meet. The farmers have been encouraged to abandon their local and traditional seed varieties for ‘improved seed varieties’ that include hybrids. Every season, the farmer must buy the hybrids to ensure sufficient production but is sometimes let down by unpredictable weather patterns.
The overdependence on maize as a staple and its prioritization by the government has not helped much. There are other grains and pulses that can be promoted and which actually perfume better in drier areas. These grains include millet, sorghum, finger millet and pulses like green grams, lentils that can help in ensuring food security.
Maize is a difficult crop, a slight drop in moisture, temperature, lack of inputs often leads to its failure. A recent study links maize to the spread of malaria in Ethiopia yet we keep on prioritizing it as a food security crop.
Even in the midst of all these challenges related to food, production and the rising prices of commodities, many false solutions continue being manufactured for Africa. Apart from the promotion of GMOs, farmers in Western Kenya and Nyanza are now having to deal with a new project on trade in soil carbon. The Kenya Agriculture Soil carbon project promises farmer groups monetary gains if they put in place sustainable agricultural practices like the use of manure, composting and reforestation. While the practices being promoted should increase food production, a lot of emphasis has been put in efforts to monitor soil carbon sequestration. At the end of the day, though, a lot of the money that might be generated will go to pay consultants to ensure that the soil carbon is actually sequestered.
As farmer Patrick Magana from Kombewa in Kisumu asked: "With trees you can count them and calculate the carbon using a formula, but, how do you calculate soil carbon?"
And even in this project on climate change, farmers are being told to grow more maize. We need solutions that help farmers cope with unpredictable weather, solutions that build on the traditions of saving seeds and reading nature, and consider crops that really do perform under these unpredictable conditions.
Anne Maina is the advocacy coordinator at the African Biodiversity Network, based in Nairobi.
Posted September 5, 2012 by Dr. Steve Suppan
Agricultural prices, both national and international, are affected by commodity and financial market rules. Export revenues and import costs depend on the value of the dollar, the dominant international currency for commodity trading, relative to the value of other currencies. Interest rate rules affect the interest rates for all kinds of agricultural borrowing, from loans for planting to those for shipping products. However, financial market rules that affect agriculture, and thus food security, are written for all economic sectors, not just agriculture, so agriculture is usually not mentioned explicitly in the rulemaking.
U.S. regulators writing new rules to regulate financial and commodity markets have focused on how these rules will be applied in U.S. markets. However, if the foreign branches of U.S. and European firms are allowed to continue to act with reckless abandon outside of U.S. jurisdiction, legislation to reform Wall Street will be in vain. This summer, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) proposed guidance that grapples with the tough question of how to regulate financial instruments called “swaps,” which are traded by foreign affiliates of U.S. banks. Getting this “cross-border” rulemaking right will be critical for farmers and global food security.
A swap is an exchange of the values of contracts that are used to buy and sell agricultural commodities and other assets. For example, one party holding a variable interest rate contract wishes to reduce its risk by exchanging the value of that contract for that of a fixed interest rate contract. An agricultural swap could be as simple as an exchange-traded contract for wheat traded outside official exchange hours or as complex as agricultural contracts bundled with non-agricultural contracts, such as for oil and copper, into an commodity index fund traded according to an algorithmic formula. A mixed swap is designed to offset financial risks between the values of a financial instrument, e.g. foreign exchange currency contracts, and of commodity contracts, e.g. West Texas Intermediate crude oil.
Swaps are traded “Over the Counter” (OTC), i.e. between two or more parties, not reported to regulatory authorities, and therefore are unregulated since the authorities have no data with which to regulate. In 2008, losses in OTC swaps nearly bankrupted major private financial institutions, triggering the Great Recession in which we still live. Only $29 trillion of Federal Reserve Bank emergency loans to U.S. and European banks and smaller, yet still huge, U.S. taxpayer-funded and/or guaranteed rescues saved the so-called Too Big To Fail banks from bankruptcy.
One of the major objectives of the “Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act,” signed by President Barack Obama on July 20, 2010, is to regulate the U.S. swaps market and the swaps originating with U.S. bank-owned foreign affiliates. For example, the American International Group’s London affiliate originated swaps that would have bankrupted the company and triggered the bankruptcy of others without the $1 trillion plus Fed bailout and the at least $181 billion U.S. taxpayer funded rescue of AIG. Toward regulating overseas swaps with a “direct and significant effect” on the U.S. economy, the CFTC requested comments on its proposal for the “cross-border application” of Dodd-Frank. IATP submitted comments on August 27.
Our comments focused on how the regulations can be applied to foreign affiliates of U.S. swaps dealers (SDs) and major swaps participants (MSPs) without violating the sovereignty of regulators in foreign jurisdictions. We also commented on criteria the CFTC should use to determine that foreign jurisdictions have “comparable comprehensive oversight and regulation” to that of the United States, as required by Dodd-Frank for foreign affiliate access to U.S. markets.
On the vast sea of swaps trading, commodities trading is a tiny boat, but one that is vital to the bottom line of TBTF banks. Commodity swaps are about .06 percent of the initially contracted (“gross notional”) value all U.S. swaps, according to a recent report by the Office of the Comptroller of Currency. However, commodity trading accounted for about $2.3 billion of a total $19 billion in trading revenues, i.e. about 11 percent of all trading revenues, for the largest U.S. banks (i.e. “bank holding companies”) in the first quarter of 2012. So commodities are important to the bottom line of the Too Big To Fail.
For the first quarter of 2012, the gross notional value of all U.S. originated swaps traded was about $139 billion. The OCC figures don’t break out agricultural swaps from all commodity swaps. However, Dodd-Frank requires the reporting to the CFTC of both regulated exchange-traded and as yet unregulated OTC commodity index fund data. The June 2012 report of index data shows that about $170 billion of the total $284 billion gross notional value of all reported commodity contracts derive from agricultural commodity contracts, both the regulated futures contracts and the unregulated swaps contracts. So in the yet to be disaggregated sea of financial data, agricultural swaps contracts are looming large in value and in their influence on agricultural commodity prices.
Although the five-member Commission voted unanimously to release the proposed guidance for comment, Commissioners Jill Sommers and Scott O’Malia wrote concurrences that left little doubt about the “cross-border application” they envisioned. Commissioner Sommers, the former chief lobbyist for the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, a fervent Dodd-Frank critic, characterized the CFTC guidance as “inter-galactic” and “extra-constitutional” in its scope. She stated her preference for a Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) about “high-level principles,” between the CFTC and foreign regulators. For her, CFTC “overreach” would be a negotiation about which substantive rules in foreign jurisdictions the CFTC would determine to comply with the Dodd Frank requirement of “comparable comprehensive oversight and regulation” (Section 738).
IATP disagreed with Commissioner Sommers’ accusation of CFTC jurisdictional overreach. The guidance draws a bright line as to where Dodd-Frank does not apply: swaps between non-U.S. swaps dealers and their major foreign clients that do not involve a U.S. parent company guaranteeing payment of foreign swaps losses and that therefore would not have a “direct and significant effect” on the U.S. economy. Bush administration MRAs had failed to protect the U.S. economy from the huge foreign affiliate swaps losses that triggered the AIG, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Citigroup, Bank of America etc. bailouts by U.S. public funds. “High-level principles” governing the British swaps market failed to prevent the swap dealer defaults that cascaded into U.S. markets.
Commissioner O’Malia’s dissents against CFTC rules have been cited as evidence in lawsuits against the CFTC, so it is not inconceivable that his concurrence likewise will be cited in a Wall Street lawsuit to prevent or delay the cross-border application of Dodd-Frank. His concurrence includes questions that anticipate a time when the CFTC will “de-register” swaps dealers, thus releasing them from having to fulfill Dodd-Frank related rules. IATP responded that because U.S. commodity and financial markets had been deregulated at least since the “Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000,” we anticipate that it will take at least a dozen years for a culture of regulatory compliance to replace the reigning culture of regulatory evasion.
For foreign jurisdictions with only “high-level principles,” and not rules and adequate regulatory infrastructure governing the swaps markets, developing a culture of regulatory compliance might well take longer than a dozen years. U.S. lobbyists have advised their Asian clients to avoid contracting swaps that would make them subject to Dodd-Frank requirements. Canadian investment banks have asked their government to challenge parts of Dodd-Frank as a violation of the U.S. commitments to the World Trade Organization’s General Agreement on Trade in Services and Understanding on Financial Services.
Both swaps and regulated exchange contracts are bought and sold according to the mathematical formulas of High Frequency Trading. The explosion since 2009 in the High Frequency Trading of agricultural contracts, with some of the “trades” lasting only seconds, will exacerbate price volatility and the higher agricultural prices that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Develop anticipate for at least the next ten years. Financial speculator induced price volatility will make it yet more difficult for net food import dependent developing countries to manage the price risks of their agricultural imports. Swap dealers are seeking to open up affiliate offices in food insecure India.
FAO has tried to investigate the effect of international price volatility on food security in developing countries. However, as long as swaps dealers and their foreign affiliates are able to prevent the transparent reporting of a critical mass of swaps data, thus leaving those swaps unregulated, swaps dealers and their major clients will continue to profit from price volatility in agricultural and other swaps. It is critical that the cross-border application of Dodd-Frank effectively regulate the trading of global swaps dealers and their clients. The cost to global food security of unregulated swaps, and the price volatility they induce, will be literally incalculable.
Posted September 4, 2012 by JoAnne Berkenkamp
September is Farm to School Month in Minnesota, so treat yourself to some delectable locally grown foods and thank your farmer. In 2011, Governor Dayton officially proclaimed September to be Farm to School Month and this year, more schools than ever are participating.
Farm to School initiatives—which link school age children with local foods and the farmers who produced them—are taking off around the country. That’s especially true here in Minnesota, where 145 school districts serving two-thirds of Minnesota’s K-12 students are now dishing up tasty, locally grown foods.
Students are learning where their food comes from, trying fresh foods they haven’t eaten before and learning to grow food in school gardens. Our farmers are doing their part by providing top quality, healthy foods grown nearby. And school lunch ladies are making it all come together by trying out new recipes featuring fresh, healthy choices like tomatoes, zucchini, sweet corn and peppers.
The volatile weather this growing season has been particularly tough on Minnesota’s small- and mid-size farmers, with challenges ranging from too little rain, unrelenting high temps, flooding and hail. An early freeze was devastating to apple growers across the Upper Midwest. So please remember to support your local farmers in whatever way you can: Tell your school board that you support Farm to School, or shop at your local farmers market and support nearby restaurants or retailers that support local growers.
Working together, we can help our farmers thrive and our kids grow up embracing healthy foods grown close to home. Check out IATP’s most research on Farm to School in Minnesota to find out if Farm to School is happening in a school district near you.
Posted August 30, 2012 by Erin McKee VanSlooten
In mid-June, beginning farmer and former IATP staff member Dayna Burtness was delivering her farm’s vegetables to clients in Minneapolis when she got the call: the rain that had started at mid-day had not let up for hours. Things were looking bad back at Laughing Loon Farm.
Dayna rushed back to Northfield to find a river of floodwater rushing through her fields. “It was terrible,” she remembered.
The downpour dumped more than eight inches of rain in several hours, and the water in a ditch bordering Dayna’s fields overflowed, following the path of a creek that had been diverted off of the property many years ago. A 40-foot-wide rushing river of floodwater wiped out a third of Dayna’s crops, in addition to transplant seedlings, equipment and materials.
The destructive weather didn’t stop there. Just as she was assessing which crops had escaped this first onslaught, severe storms struck again a few nights later.
“Golf ball– to Roma tomato–sized hail severely damaged the rest of the crops that hadn’t been washed away. It completely wiped out the rest of our sugar snap pea production, which was just starting to hit its stride. It snapped most of our tomato plants in half. It bashed up our fields of cucumbers, squash and winter squash, and it also snapped off many of the tops of the peppers and eggplants.” Neighbors of Laughing Loon were shocked at the devastation on Dayna’s farm, and even long-time residents can’t remember seeing such destructive flooding.
Dayna has been deeply involved in the local food and farming world since 2005, but this is her first year in business for herself. Her farm uses a range of environmentally sensitive practices to grow produce for about 25 restaurants in Northfield and Minneapolis. Laughing Loon Farm is located a mile south of Northfield on five acres of rented land next to SEEDS community incubator farm, which shares equipment and greenhouse space with Laughing Loon. The SEEDS farm was also devastated by the severe weather this summer.
All told, she estimates that Laughing Loon lost about $15,000 worth of crops, equipment and materials in the initial flood, and another $10,000–15,000 dollars in lost revenue from the hail damage. The loss is especially acute because, as a new farmer, Dayna did not have access to crop insurance to protect her farm from natural disasters like this. Finding insurance for beginning vegetable farmers is almost impossible since several years of records are usually needed to obtain crop insurance.
“I invested all of my personal savings into it, and I’ve taken out a couple of loans and a low-interest credit card. But I’ve got to make this work because I don’t want this season to be my last one.”
Dayna also worries that climate change will make this type of natural disaster the “new normal.”“Everybody keeps saying in Minnesota it will just get warmer and farmers will have a longer season, but if the weather is extreme and unpredictable it doesn’t matter if we have a longer season. It’s going to be really tough.”
Climate change has made this kind of extreme weather increasingly common. According to a new study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the incidence of much warmer and more volatile weather is quickly growing. Beginning farmers will especially suffer from these challenges, as they are not only ineligible for crop insurance, they have a harder time getting access to operating and emergency loans. Unfortunately, the proposed 2012 Farm Bill does little to help new farmers better manage weather-related risks.
Since Laughing Loon’s recovery effort began, Dayna has relied on the support of fellow farmers, her restaurant partners, family, friends and even sympathetic strangers to donate funds, equipment and volunteer time to help put things back together. Even with this outpouring of community support, she doesn’t expect the farm to make money this year. “My main goal right now is to keep farming, keep supplying my restaurant partners with what I can, keep learning and then, obviously, make sure I meet my payroll and cover my loans and ideally have a little left over at the end of the year to reinvest for next year.”
Despite her farm’s hardship and the uncertainty brought on by our swiftly changing climate, Dayna’s love of farming has only grown stronger. “I don’t know what else I would do if I couldn’t farm. I just have to make it work. There’s this great Parker Palmer quote that I like. He said, ‘Your vocation is what you can’t not do,’ and farming is what I can’t not do. Come hell or high water—and I guess high water did come—I’m going to keep doing this.”
To learn more about the 2012 Farm Bill and issues related to crop insurance and sustainable production systems, check out www.farmbill2012.org.
Posted August 29, 2012 by Mark Muller
You’ve surely heard about the worst drought in a generation that is devastating farmers throughout the Midwest and Great Plains. Many of us may have brown lawns and suffering gardens, but besides these inconveniences, how does the drought impact the rest of us who are not farming? Here’s a brief rundown.
You are not likely to go thirsty. Despite the numerous long-term challenges the U.S. faces with water use and water quality, this is a time to appreciate the infrastructural investments that we have made in water and wastewater treatment. It’s remarkable how rare it is for drought to impact our ability to draw clean water from the tap and to safely treat wastewater.
You are not suffering in dust storms. Decades of improvements in farming practices and crop genetics have mitigated the impacts on crop production. Photographs of the Great Plains in the 1930s are full of amazing dust storms that are unimaginable for most of us today. The widespread recognition of that time, that farmers had to make major transitions in tillage practices, and that policy had to support that transition, is a tribute to the foresight of previous generations.
In many ways our food system is less resilient to shock than it used to be. Yes, our impressive food handling, trade and transportation systems have made it far easier to get food to places that need it, but in other ways our system is increasingly vulnerable. The lack of crop diversity on tens of millions of acres of Midwest corn and soybean fields leave agriculture susceptible to severe impacts from new pests and disease, and this agricultural system is highly dependent on plentiful chemical inputs and fossil fuels.
U.S. grain reserves, measured by a stocks/use ratio, are now at an alarmingly low level. The result is that this drought has more of an impact on commodity prices than it would in previous years when the stocks/use ratio was higher, and subsequently it has more of an impact on the price we pay for food.
Opportunities to buy directly from smaller, more diversified farms could take a hit. Both in markets and in agricultural policy, the U.S. has a widely recognized bias toward large farms with minimal crop diversity. The advantages of large farms become most apparent in times of crisis, times when access to capital and insurance are most needed. I worked extensively with direct marketing farmers in southeast Minnesota after the summer 2008 floods, the vast majority of whom did not have crop insurance because the federal program does not serve the needs of these farmers well. While a couple of the farmers weathered the storm well enough to expand their operation, other farmers ended up selling their farms due to financial hardship and exhaustion. The drought might be most readily apparent in the price and availability of locally-produced food throughout the Midwest and Great Plains.
Food prices will increase. USDA is forecasting moderate food price increases over the next couple of years. While any price increases aren’t pleasant, the impacts are muted here in the U.S. While corn prices have jumped about 50 percent since last year, the expected impact on food prices is only 2 to 5 percent. On the other hand, in countries like Mexico where much of the population directly purchases commodities like corn, those consumers will experience a much larger jump in food prices.
The impact on federal taxpayers is unclear. We can expect the outlays for federally subsidized crop insurance to increase this year, and there has been movement in Congress to provide disaster assistance to livestock farmers. Yet while these programs will incur more taxpayer costs, the high commodity prices reduce other USDA farm payments such as counter-cyclical payments. Despite the wide variability in floods, droughts, high prices and low prices over the past 15 years, one thing is constant: The USDA has spent at least $10 billion a year on farmer support programs.
How all of this impacts healthy eating is unknown. Will high livestock feed costs increase the price of meat and dairy products and encourage consumers to eat more fruits and vegetables? Or perhaps the feed costs will narrow the price difference between grain-fed livestock and grass-fed livestock and encourage more people to eat Omega-3 rich grass-fed products. Or will consumers resort to more simple carbohydrates that are low cost and calorie rich?
Posted August 28, 2012 by Mark Muller
One of the most exciting things about the upcoming Food + Justice = Democracy conference will be the incorporation of a Peoples Movement Assembly. These are designed to help gatherings develop collective political agreements and positions, and this particular assembly will have the conferees coalesce around the barriers to the creation of a just and healthy food system and the opportunity to address those barriers.
Over the next several weeks we are going to feature statements from some of the food justice leaders that will be attending the conference. So many of the conferees provide an awe-inspiring level of wisdom and experience to the food justice movement, and the movement will be all the stronger the more it is democratically built on that wisdom and experience.
Justice requires a conscious, vigilant and active populace. Building towards food justice requires that we conduct public education campaigns to make communities aware of the impact of the current food system on our planet, our health and the economies of our communities. It requires that we provide local food–related models of what sustainability and justice might look like. These models must provide real ways that people can participate in growing, processing, distributing and selling healthy foods and realizing economic benefit from their efforts. They must provide communities with the opportunity to shape their food system and the policies driving it.
Join us at the conference September 24–26 and collaborate with leaders like Malik to create a truly just and healthy food system!
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