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.

Posted November 12, 2015 by     Simon McKeagney

TTIPFree trade agendaFree trade agreements

This is a republished blog post from The Greens / European Free Alliance TTIP page

When State Senator Virginia Lyons thought it would be wise to develop legislation to reduce harmful electronics waste in her state of Vermont, the last complaint she expected to receive was from the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese it seemed, had issue with how new E-Waste reduction measures for Vermont would impact their sales of electronics to the USA.

“I was taken aback” said Senator Lyons at a meeting of the Vermont Commission on International Trade and State Sovereignty. “Why was an issue like better recycling causing such a fuss? They pushed hard on us to change our minds. In the end we implemented the changes, and I’m pretty sure the Chinese are still selling electronics.” 

This small anecdote might sound innocuous to some, but it raises compelling questions about the intrusion of other countries into legislators work at state-level. On health and environmental issues, Vermont is known for setting the bar high, and is well versed in the pushback that comes from the powers that be. They were the first state to ban Fracking in 2012, and have worked hard to protect waterway systems and develop coherent environmental and consumer protection policies. This year the state is being sued by a consortium of agri-industry giants lead by the Grocery Manufacturers of America, for introducing labeling requirements for genetically engineered (GE) foodstuffs.

Many of the same companies involved in the legal action are also advocating for a strong “comprehensive” trade agreement between the EU and US, a discussion on which brought together the Vermont Commission on International Trade and State Sovereignty, the Vermont Council on World Affairs, the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators (NCEL) and members of the European Parliament to Burlington VT, on November 6.

While TTIP has been overshadowed in the US by its sister agreement, the recently concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an all out war of words is raging across the Atlantic, as European citizens grapple with scope and manner by which the negotiations have been orchestrated. In October, a petition advocating against TTIP reached 3.2 million signatures, and polling shows a majority against it in countries like Austria, Luxembourg and Germany.

“The main issue driving the anti-TTIP sentiment in Europe is the power of corporations,” explained Reinhard Bütikofer, Member of the European Parliament from Germany. “When some of the most powerful business lobbyists have been involved in co-writing the deal to suit themselves, it doesn’t bode well for ordinary people or the environment, whether in Europe or the US.”

Freedom of information requests revealed in 2013 that 93% of the preliminary meetings the EU Commission had on TTIP were held with corporate lobby groups, while in the US, the trade advisory system is dominated by industry pressure groups, accounting for 85% of seats.  

Interfering with democracy

With the big players in driving-seat, social and environmental considerations have been viewed more as “burdensome” trade irritants that should be stymied, rather than important societal choices. Nowhere is this more apparent in the “regulatory cooperation” chapter proposed in TTIP.

“This is a completely new thing, and state legislators need to watch out.” explained Sharon Treat, former state-legislator from Maine and member of the Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission. “It’s not even in the TPP, and could have a real effect on how US states make decisions.”

In effect, Treat explains, the deal sees the creation of a new oversight body, that would act as an early-warning system for both sides when states or countries plan to introduce new laws or regulations. This body will assess the proposals for their trade impact, through a limited perspective that would demand the “least trade restrictive” measures are finally adopted, regardless of the intention of the proposal.

Effectively, instead of getting a call from the Chinese, TTIP will require US states to call ahead to Europe to check they can proceed with any new laws. That means more time, and more avenues for big business to frustrate and derail progressive public policy:

“When you’re crafting a new law on an important issue, such reducing toxics in food packaging as an example, you don’t go first to those forces you know will organize to oppose it, like a chemical company and say ‘hey look- this is what we’re working on.' That’s just common sense. So why would we allow that in a trade deal?”

Regulatory Chill

“TTIP might be negotiated in Washington, but all states will be party to the agreement,” says Treat. “The regulatory cooperation chapter could apply to most if not all of US state laws and regulations, even if they’re not directly related to trade. The potential for companies to slow down or stop progressive policy making in the US is huge.”

Treat also explained the interests involved behind the scenes. Industry associations like the US Council on International Business (USCIB) and the American Chamber of Commerce to the US (Amcham) want regulatory cooperation as a means of preventing regulations by US states. And the pressure is two-sided. In Europe, EU politicians are already feeling it:

“TTIP is a huge prize for big corporations, and they know it.” Bart Staes, Belgium MEP said “We in the European Parliament have seen first hand the pressure TTIP has created to change our laws, especially when it comes to GMOs. The US side are working extremely hard to press us to allow greater access of GM crops, based on requests by agri-industry and despite many EU countries being dead set against them.”

Change ‘Buy America’ to ‘Buy Transatlantic’?

The EU also wants greater state-level access for procurement in the US, which could mean substantially altering US state’s procurement criteria. Whether supporting small companies, or sourcing workers and produce locally and sustainably, EU companies have an interest in undermining those rules for great access to state markets, from wholes cities, to hospitals and universities.

“Local purchasing programs, such as farm to school programs, source healthy locally sourced food for 23.5 million students in the US.” Karen Hansen-Kuhn, Director of Trade at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy explained. “Bodies like the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, and 200 other similar bodies across the US, are setting the bar high when it comes to good food purchasing programs. We don’t want these initiatives undermined by the new criteria set in trade negotiations like TTIP.”

Hansen-Kuhn noted the comments of former French minister for Foreign Trade Nicole Briqc, who said in 2013, “Why not replace “Buy American” which penalizes our companies with “Buy transatlantic” which reflects the depth of our mutual commitment?”

But is it a given that US states would be willing to compromise their local commitments to suit the Europeans?

“Buy America might have some problems, but in my mind, if you’re using public money, it should be for the public good, like local employment” says Karen Hansen-Kuhn. “Fewer and fewer states are willing to sign on to binding procurement provisions that appear in trade deals. It’s not by coincidence. Who would decide if a state university or public hospital is bound under the procurement criteria in TTIP?”

Transatlantic dialogue

New Hampshire State Representative Bob Backus said he was grateful for the attendance of representatives from the European Parliament, and “shocked” by implications to some of the proposals under the EU-US trade deal.

MEPs Bart Staes and Reinhard Butikofer noted that legislators from US states and EU member countries shared many concerns, and needed to work closer together to expose the threats of TTIP and the corporate interests pushing these agreements. 

More information:

  • Vermont Commission on International Trade and State Sovereignty website.
  • National Caucus of Environmental Legislators website
  • Vermont Council on World Affairs website
  • The Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy website 
  • Center for International Environmental Law: 'How TTIP will limit US state's Public Health and Environmental Protections' here.

Posted November 12, 2015 by Ben Lilliston   

TradeTPPClimate ChangeFree trade agreements

This article is part of New Economy Week, a collaboration between YES! Magazine and the New Economy Coalition that brings you the ideas and people helping build an inclusive economy—in their own words.

President Obama announced his decision last week to reject approval for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have brought fuel from the Canadian tar sands through the heartland of the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico. Because this oil emits more greenhouse gases than other forms of fuel, the decision had everything to do with climate change and came just a month prior to the United Nations climate talks in Paris.

“America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” Obama stated. “And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.”

While environmental groups hailed the Keystone announcement, they have criticized the Administration’s push for a massive new trade agreement called the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a big step backward on climate. In fact, the proposed agreement, finally made public last week, is literally in climate denial: nowhere in its 5,000-plus pages do the words “climate change” appear.

In many ways, the TPP is a broad attack on locally based economies that protect the climate and support renewable energy. Instead, the agreement tilts the playing field in favor of multinational corporations and financial institutions. Fortunately, it’s far from a done deal.

The TPP is considered the largest free trade agreement ever negotiated, with the countries involved contributing 40 percent of global GDP. It includes the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim countries: Mexico, Canada, Peru, Chile, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei.

The TPP expands trade by lowering tariffs, which are taxes on imported products like food, shoes, or fuel. But it goes much further than that. It sets a common system of regulations and rules for corporations operating in TPP countries—all designed to accelerate trade. With 30 chapters, the TPP sets rules for things like patents for medicines (and plants), how governments can purchase goods and services, and how the financial sector and food safety can be regulated. It also establishes an independent legal structure to enforce these rules.

While the TPP doesn’t mention climate change explicitly, many of its provisions would have important implications for the climate, aside from the simple fact that expanded trade increases greenhouse gas emissions related to transportation.

Here are a few of the big concerns with the TPP:

1. It expands the rights of corporations to challenge regulations.

The TPP establishes special legal rights of foreign corporations to challenge new regulations that it views could impact future profits. These corporate rights, first established under NAFTA in 1994, would be granted to corporations in all TPP countries. As an example, TransCanada is currently considering whether to bring a NAFTA challenge over President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone pipeline. Other corporate rights cases challenging fracking bans and the rights of oil companies to drill offshore point to how regulations that mitigate climate change could be challenged under the TPP.

2. It drives natural gas exports and production.

The TPP mandates the automatic approval of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) export permits to TPP countries, a policy the Sierra Club says is likely to lead to an increase in fracking. Japan is already the world’s largest importer of natural gas, and anticipates importing much more if the TPP is approved. Fracking has not only been linked to air and water pollution; the process is a high emitter of greenhouse gases, and it further locks in a fossil-fuel based system of energy over renewable options.

3. Limiting support for local, renewable energy systems.

The U.S. Trade Representative is the government agency that represents the United States in trade negotiations. One of its priorities in the TPP has been to eliminate what it calls “localization barriers to trade,” which means striking down government programs that give preference to local or national businesses. But this is not just for other countries—the same rules would apply here in the United States. A recent trade tribunal at the World Trade Organization gives an example of what this looks like in practice: The tribunal ruled against an Ontario policy designed to create local green jobs through locally sourced renewable energy.

Fortunately, the TPP is far from a done deal. While President Obama has signaled his intention to sign it, Congress still has to approve it. A Congressional vote likely won’t come until early spring, though political maneuvering could delay the vote, perhaps until after the 2016 elections.

And congressional approval is not inevitable. Congress barely passed fast track earlier this year—which set the timeline and process for congressional approval of TPP. Many congressional leaders and presidential candidates from both parties have expressed deep concerns about TPP.

The TPP also opens the door for an important debate about the values we want our economy to reflect. The deal reinforces and reflects an old economic system tied to fossil fuels and dominated by multinational corporations. That older model runs head-on into growing new economy initiatives and businesses building more localized systems for food, energy, and other services, grounded in racial and economic equity.

A truly new vision for trade would reflect the values of this new economy, not undermine them. Such a vision would start by rejecting the current secretive process, accessible only to corporate advisors, for negotiating future trade deals. The TPP fight is an important political opportunity to reject an outdated economic model, while building power for the new economy many are already creating.

Originally published by Yes! Magazine on November 12, 2015.

Posted October 28, 2015 by Shiney Varghese   

FoodFood securityUnited NationsWater

Used under creative commons license from CIFPOR.

In its 42nd session, the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) two weeks ago made landmark recommendations linking water with food security and nutrition. It is a matter of pride for the negotiators that these recommendations are rooted in a human rights framework. Launched barely two weeks earlier in New York, the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda (SDA), with 17 sustainable development goals and 169 corresponding social development targets, also has human rights at its heart. These are important milestones.

However, for the global Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicator framework is to be truly human rights-based, and to have an integrated, ecosystem-based approach to development, there is a need to monitor the progress for all, including the most marginalized and vulnerable. Only then will we ensure that no one is left behind” and extreme inequalities are addressed. Thus the CFS recommendations on water for food security and nutrition come at an opportune time, as the UN develops these indicators.

A little history: the birth of CFS in 1974 was triggered by the world food crisis of 1972-74, brought about by widespread droughts and famine. Another food crisis, that of 2007-2008, caused by multiple crises in environment and exacerbated by the financial crisis, led to structural reforms of the institution. CFS came out of those reforms as the most inclusive international and intergovernmental platform working on food security and nutrition. Housed at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, its membership is comprised not only of states, but UN agencies, NGOs, civil society participants and research bodies as well. CFS defines world food security as existing “when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

The emergence of CFS as the preeminent multilateral body on food security and nutrition is particularly relevant when we consider the first two goals of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): ending poverty and ending hunger. The CFS recommendations on the food and nutrition security of smallholder producers—which include women, with a special focus on food insecure communities and vulnerable individuals—will be extremely helpful in developing indicators for assessing the SDGs.

Earlier this year, the CFS High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) issued a major report on Water for Food Security and Nutrition.  I served as a member of the project team that brought out the report. This is the first ever comprehensive effort by the HLPE to bring together the links between water for food security and nutrition. It went far beyond the usual focus on water for agriculture and crop production to instead combine an ecosystem-based approach with a human rights framework.

The three page summary of recommendations made available to multilateral negotiators at the CFS, called the “box,” was based on recommendations from the HLPE report. Since the CFS deliberations are intended to guide countries in setting policy, the recommendations should inform other processes as well. As countries move forward on developing indicators to measure the SDGs, the recommendations are especially relevant not only with reference to goals on poverty and food security, but also on water (goal six), health (goal 3), decent work (goal 8), inequality (goal 10), production and consumption (goal 12) and ecosystems (goal 15), to list a few.

CFS recommendations to improve water for food security and nutrition recall that water is the lifeblood of ecosystems on which the food security and nutrition of present and future generations depend. They acknowledge increasing degradation of water resources and ecosystems and allocation mechanisms that do not recognize and protect the interests and rights of all users, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized. They encourage States and other actors to join forces within their mandate, competencies and responsibilities to address the challenges related to water’s contribution to FSN through both an ecosystem approach and a people-centered approach.  Most importantly the CFS recommendations encourage states and other key actors to make smallholder producers and workers engaged in food production/processing central to efforts to ensure food security and nutrition, and to do so without compromising ecosystem integrity.

In her presentation to the CFS on behalf of the HLPE, the project team leader Lyla Mehta called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to explore the intrinsic links between human rights to water, sanitation and food so that these rights can be meaningfully integrated in their future work. Appreciating the report, the Civil Society Mechanism (the representative civil society coordination team that participates in CFS processes) in its intervention called attention to the specific point raised in the report on the necessity of recognizing extraterritorial human rights obligations of states in the context of the transboundary nature of water. It was gratifying to watch country after country express appreciation for the report for providing a comprehensive, timely and technically sound, relevant and rights-based approach to water for food security and nutrition. Overwhelming endorsement of the decision box was marred only by the statement by the United States. Despite being appreciative of the report and party to the negotiations, in their final intervention the U.S. distanced itself from any obligations that are underscored by the economic, cultural and social  rights referenced in the final decision box.

The agreement at the Committee for Food Security to take this set of recommendations forward is an important first step. Policy makers at international, national and subnational levels will hear the very clear message that water, food security and nutrition are inextricably linked and must be addressed in an integrated manner. Only when policymaking at all levels is well integrated can the global community hope to achieve the SDGs by 2030. It is now also up to all actors involved in the negotiations, including civil society, to build on the intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder legitimacy of the CFS agreement, backed up with a solid and credible evidence-based report. We need to build the road between Rome and local communities.

Posted October 20, 2015 by     Brent Patterson, Council of Canadians

More than a year ago the Council of Canadians set twin objectives for this federal election: to get out the vote and to defeat the Harper government. Both were accomplished last night. More than 17.5 million people, about 68 per cent of all eligible voters, cast a ballot in this election. That's a dramatic increase of almost 3 million voters from the 14.8 million people, or 61.4 per cent of eligible voters, who voted in May 2011. And last night not only was Stephen Harper defeated as prime minister, he resigned as leader of the Conservative Party. We celebrate both of these accomplishments.

We had felt though that the best likely outcome of this election would be a minority government. And if we had a system of proportional representation that would have been the outcome last night. Under that system, the Liberals would have won a minority government of about 133 seats (rather than a majority with 184 seats), the NDP 67 seats and the Greens 12 seats. We could have had a stable minority government through a multi-party coalition or accord. Instead, the Liberals won 54 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons with just 39.5 per cent of the vote. We believe this is wrong.

While we welcome Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau's election night speech that focused on hope, inclusion and the end of the politics of division and fear evident under the Harper government, we are deeply concerned by his party's support for 'free trade' agreements like the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). And with about 40 days until the critical United Nations COP 21 climate talks begin in Paris, the Liberals have only pledged "real climate change solutions" rather than more concretely an end to export pipelines and no new approvals for the tar sands.

We are also disappointed that the Liberal commitment is only to ensure "that fracking is consistently meeting the most stringent environmental assessments and reviews", rather than to ban or implement a moratorium on this harmful practice. Nor did we see the Liberals promise the $4.7 billion needed to ensure that Indigenous peoples enjoy the right to water and sanitation through upgraded infrastructure in their communities. And we are very concerned that the new prime minister appears to see the private sector or public-private partnerships (P3) as a 'solution' to the water crisis for First Nations.

We also will have to see what the Liberal pledge to "negotiate a new Health Accord with provinces and territories, including a long-term agreement on funding" truly means. If the new prime minister continues to support 'free trade' agreements that include longer patents for pharmaceutical corporations, as is the case with CETA and TPP, and doesn't explicitly commit to public solutions and oppose privatization, then we will have a real challenge ahead of us.

That all said, there could be some opportunities to move forward on these issues, much more so than would have been the case under another five years of Stephen Harper.

The prime minister-elect has promised to "negotiate a new Health Accord with provinces and territories, including a long-term agreement on funding." We will mobilize in the lead-up to that conference to demand a 10-year accord annual 6 per cent increase in health care transfer payments to the provinces, at least 25 per cent federal funding of provincial health care costs, a prohibition on user fees and privatization, and a commitment to public solutions. We also believe that his promised "credible environmental assessments" that "respect the rights of those most affected, such as Indigenous communities" should mean that the National Energy Board process for the Trans Mountain and Energy East pipelines should begin from the start again.

We also look forward to participating in the "proper review and oversight" and "stringent environmental assessments" of fracking. We will be there to advocate for the full restoration of the protections to the Navigable Waters Protection Act as promised by the Liberals in their platform. The new prime minister has also promised "a full and open public debate" on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and to "defend Canadian interests during the TPP’s ratification process – which includes defending supply management, our auto sector, and Canadian manufacturers across the country." We hope to be a leading voice in that fight.

There is also a long check-list of Liberal promises made during this election, including:
- to "immediately launch a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada"

  •  to enact all the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations
  •  to fully restore the Interim Federal Health Program that provides health care to refugees
  •  to ban oil tanker traffic off the British Columbia coast which would effectively kill the Northern Gateway pipeline project
  •  to protect the Great Lakes
  •  to "repeal the anti-democratic elements in Stephen Harper’s Fair Elections Act"
  •  to "restore the voter identification card as an acceptable form of identification"
  •  to "give Elections Canada the resources it needs to investigate voter fraud and vote suppression"
  •  to "encourage more Canadians to vote, by removing restrictions on the ways in which the Chief Electoral Officer and Elections Canada can communicate with voters"
  •  to "restore the independence of the Commissioner of Canada Elections, so that they are accountable to Parliament and not the government of the day"
  •  to fund the federal portion of the construction of 'Freedom Road' for the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation
  •  to resettle no fewer than 25,000 Syrians by January 1, 2016
  •  to scrap Harper's plan to increase the eligibility age for Old Age Security to 67 by 2023 from the current 65
  •  to repeal Harper's Employment Insurance reforms
  •  to ensure that foreign workers have a realistic prospect of citizenship
  •  to end the practice of omnibus bills
  •  to end the Canadian Revenue Agency's harassment of charitable organizations
  •  to stop Harper's plan to end door-to-door mail delivery
  •  to repeal the problematic elements of C-51
  •  to re-open the Kitsilano Coast Guard base
  •  to end the combat mission in Iraq
  •  to repeal the anti-union legislation C-377 and C-525

We will have to work hard to ensure that these measures are fully implemented in a meaningful way and that they were not just empty promises.

And given the current electoral system gave the prime minister a majority government with seats disproportionate to the popular vote, we will be on the watch for the electoral reform legislation - that must focus on changing our system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation - that the prime minister has promised by April 2017.

We should rightly celebrate the defeat of Stephen Harper, a significantly increased voter turnout, and an election apparently relatively free of the voter suppression evident in the last federal election, but we will have to campaign even harder now to ensure that the 70 per cent of Canadians who said "it was the time for change" in Ottawa this election, get the change they deserve.

Posted October 15, 2015 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

AgricultureAgricultural TechnologyEnergy

Used under creative commons license from agrilife.

 An algae raceway at Texas A&M AgriLife.

Can genetically modified algae feed and fuel the world, as scientific entrepreneur J. Craig Venter predicted in 2011? For entrepreneurs of manufacturing with algae biomass, the future is now. That was the message of the Algae Biomass Organization (ABO) Summit held September 30th to October 2nd in Washington, DC. Yet, to the product developers who rely on synthetically modified microbes to genetically “edit” and customize algae for industrial and agricultural purposes, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hearing on “new microbes” modified by “Advanced Genetic Engineering” posed a lot of questions.  For some of those questions, there are not yet answers; at least parts of the algal future are not now.

IATP participated in both events, which covered the scientific, engineering, regulatory and financial challenges of an industry poised for take-off with the robust help of government investment and policy. Our agricultural take-away from the meetings was this: farmers looking for a cheap source of fertilizer or protein for animal feed from the biomass by-product of algae derived bioproducts may get more than they bargain for. As we told the EPA, the modification of algae by “Advanced Genetic Engineering” does not yet include successful techniques to keep the genes of the modified algae from outcrossing and ­ acting as an invasive species or a weed among agricultural plants. Given the at least 60 million acres of “super-weeds” infesting U.S. farmlands, farmers can ill-afford the further expense of controlling another generation of super-weeds.

ABO members, whether start-ups or huge prospective algal biofuels users, such as Boeing, had good cause to celebrate.  The EPA’s recently announced Clean Power Rule includes a provision for production of algal products using carbon dioxide emissions to qualify as a method for power plants and other major greenhouse gas emitters to meet their emissions reduction targets. The EPA ruling not only cleared a pathway for making large scale algal biofuel more economically viable, but also made the commercial future of co-products, such as algal livestock feed and fertilizer, more attractive to investors.

As someone whose previous knowledge of algae was limited to seaweed wrapped around sushi, spirulina in green smoothies and the slime that covers many Minnesota lakes in August, my visit to the Summit exhibitors’ technology provided a quick algal education. Some of the topics discussed included the open pond raceway design to reduce energy use by a factor of ten, technology to increase the efficiency of the capture and use of CO2 by a factor of fifteen and algae harvesting and dewatering technology to increase primary harvesting by a factor of eight over conventional algae technology. All of these advances were advertised by just one firm, Global Algae Innovations, which was looking for partnerships to produce high value products such as cosmetics, pigments and “nutraceuticals” such as dietary supplements.

Apart from the cost-control challenges of deciding which equipment to buy to grow and dry various strains of algae were the scientific challenges in selecting and modifying the algal seed from which the rest of the biomass is grown. Advances in sequencing and transcribing genetics have aided the process of selecting useful strains of algae. Some production methods use “new microbes,” whose regulatory review is carried out by the EPA under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976.

To put this in context, one must understand that Congress is undertaking a controversial process of TSCA “modernization” that will continue to allow the chemical industry to add to the 22,000 chemicals already registered by the EPA for commercial use since 1976 without a formal risk assessment about the safety of those chemicals. The bill proposed by Senators David Vitter and Tom Udall would end the ability of state governments to require more extensive information from manufacturers than the EPA does about chemicals introduced into commerce. The bill does not provide new authority for the vastly underfunded and understaffed EPA to regulate the “new microbes” used for some algal production methods. On October 2nd, Senator Udall’s office announced a TSCA bill compromise to secure a filibuster proof majority.

The EPA is revising its 1997 “Points to Consider in the Preparation of TSCA Biotechnology Submissions for Micro-organisms.” Because the 1997 document did not envision the genetic modification of algae, the EPA is also developing a ”Considerations for GM/Synbio Algae” document that will outline the kinds of information industry applicants will need to submit in order to receive an EPA “registration” or commercial approval for their product. The EPA held a public hearing to gather input for the document and is inviting written comment on it by October 30th. 

Each commenter had three minutes to respond to one of four categories of “Charge Questions” put forward by the EPA. I responded to the questions concerning “Advanced Genetic Engineering.”

The first question concerned the synthetic biology “kill switches” that are supposed to keep the genes in synthetically modified microbes from crossing over into other plant species, i.e. Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT). There is a concern among algae biosafety researchers that modified algae could escape into natural environments and outcompete wild and agricultural plants. Avenues of escape could include GM algae biomass used as fertilizer, GM algae carried from open ponds by birds or animals and microalgae carried by the wind.

According to a 2015 Scientific Opinion by three European Commission scientific committees, “no single technology solves all biosafety risks and many new approaches will be needed.” However, multiple devices to prevent HGT could overload the host microbes and result in failure to contain.

A second question asked which of the various synthetic biology techniques offered the most likely success of containing the synthetically engineered genes. Commercial applicant answers to the EPA about that question may not be public for specific products. Commercial applicants often claim to the EPA and other regulators that product data and information is Confidential Business Information (CBI), even if it pertains to public or environmental health and even if protected by patents. If the EPA continues to routinely grant CBI status to such data and information, the public engagement that the EPA says it wants about synthetic biology cannot be scientifically substantive. CBI prevents independent scientific peer review of the applicant’s data and information, and reduces communication to a dialogue between a handful of regulatory and product developer scientists.

The EPA responded to my comment by stating that the revision of the 1992 “Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Agricultural Biotechnology,” ordered by the White House in a July 2 memo, would elicit comment about which parts of commercialization applications for genetically and synthetically modified biotechnology products should be granted CBI status and why. (Pat Rizzuto, “EPA Lists Extensive Data Needs for Bioengineered Algae,” Bureau of National Affairs, September 30, 2015. Subscription required.)

It is not clear when the EPA will produce new guidance to industry documents on information to be submitted for synthetically engineered microbes. Nor is it clear as to which of the algal biomass products will be affected by the guidance. What is clear is that algal biomass product developers and equipment manufacturers believe that they are crucial participants in “Creating a New Carbon Economy” and in “Sustainable Health and Nutrition” to partly quote plenary session titles.

Some of the algal entrepreneurs are developing products that respond to imminent environmental threats with major economic consequences. Professor Charles Yarish showed how to breed and grow seaweed strains that greatly reduced the excessive nitrate levels from agricultural fertilizers that were polluting the waters of the Long Island Sound. Professor Pallab Sarker of Dartmouth College argued that only algal-based fish food could stem the collapse of marine feeding chains that result when sardines, anchovies and other small fish are fed to salmon and other farm-raised fish. No doubt I missed many excellent presentations. There were three to four concurrent sessions during the Algae Biomass Summit and about 200 hundred posters that described scientific, engineering and commercialization initiatives.

Some of the technological objectives of algal entrepreneurs and scientists have been achieved at the level of pilot plant production levels, e.g. producing algal-based fuel that meets the requirement of the Secretary of the Navy.  Scaling up production to a commercial level, to the point of competing economically with traditional energy and agricultural commodities, may require not only the support of the EPA and Departments of Defense and Energy; it may require solving biosafety problems of HGT that currently appear to be intractable, especially given the strictures of CBI claims on independent scientific review.

Posted October 15, 2015 by Pete Huff   

Used under creative commons license from Donna Cleveland.

In the current media environment, there’s a lot of seemingly contradictory information about the “right” way to grow and eat food. Setting out to address these tensions in a public forum, the Food Dialogues® came to Minneapolis this summer. The event–entitled “Farm to Consumer: Bridging the Gap Between Consumer Concerns and Food Production and Sourcing Decisions”–was presented as an open panel discussion on the way the nation grows and eats food, now and into the future.

At first glance, the dialogue between actors such as Minneapolis Public Schools, a national leader in providing healthy, regionally sourced foods, and General Mills, a major financial backer for groups that fight improved school nutrition standards, appeared promising. Equally promising was the presence of the farm voice, specifically Riverbend farm, a small, community supported organic farm, side-by-side with Cargill, the nation’s largest privately held corporation. However, looking behind the curtain of this and other Food Dialogues® events around the country reveals the less objective agenda of those setting the stage–an agenda that had little interest in a real dialogue about the future of farming and food systems.

Supported and advised by a long list of “industry partners” including Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, John Deere and other perennial favorites, the Food Dialogues® are more a promotional product than a real dialogue. Investing in public events like the Food Dialogues® is common practice for some of the largest corporations driving our current farming and food system. The industrial agriculture and food sector spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to influence what ends up on our forks. In its new report Spinning Food, Friends of the Earth highlights the fact that industry trade associations and front groups for industrial agriculture and food spent over $740 million privately to influence public policy, media and consumer behavior toward their products between 2009 and 2013. That’s nearly $150 million spent annually by agribusiness to ensure that the status quo dinner table remains set.

The Food Dialogues® are hosted in cities around the country by commodity producer associations and funded with public and private dollars to further the interests of industrial agriculture, thus indirectly favoring corporate consolidation over producers and local control. For the Food Dialogues®, the driving force is the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), who sponsored the Minnesota event in conjunction with the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (a branch of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association) and the Nebraska Soybean Board. These three organizations collectively raised approximately $38 million in revenue in 2012 (the most recent tax information that is consistently available). While the latter two are less public about the composition of their funding, the USFRA website claims that nearly a third of its funding comes from “industry partners,” corporations with a clear interest when it comes to the “right” way to grow and process food. As for the rest of the bill, that’s where those who work the land pick up the tab. Remarkably, farmers and ranchers are legally compelled to fund these promotional associations and events, regardless of whether they agree with their message or whether the message helps or hurts their farms.  While a lack of financial transparency obscures the breakdown of income for many commodity groups, USFRA notes that the remaining two-thirds of its funding comes from what they call “farmer-and-rancher-led affiliates.” This compelled support is better known as checkoff program money.

Taxing farmers and ranchers to promote agribusiness

For those unfamiliar with the concept, the “checkoff program,” is supposed to act as a “promotion and research program.” Checkoff programs are established by federal law and are crafted to promote the consumption of particular agricultural products (pork, eggs, corn, soy, etc.) that typically enter the market in less processed forms and, therefore, make it difficult for producers to distinguish their products via advertising. For example, instead of two farms marketing their eggs separately, it is more cost-effective to work together to encourage consumers to buy eggs over another protein source. In short, a rising egg tide lifts all producer boats. Hence the 1974 Egg Research and Consumer Information Act was passed to establish a framework for the egg checkoff.

Under the Commodity Promotion, Research and Information Act of 1996,the overarching and coordinating federal law for “commodity promotion laws,” check-off programs function as a mandatory tax,  typically around one percent, that farmers of a particular commodity must pay per unit of that particular commodity sold at market or to processors. These taxes are collected by the USDA and are redistributed by the agency to approved checkoff organizations for the purpose of promoting the commodity crop in a generic sense (i.e. not promoting a particular brand or company). According to the National Agricultural Law Center, “checkoff programs attempt to improve the market position of the covered commodity by expanding markets, increasing demand, and developing new uses and markets.” For example, according to the Pork Checkoff website, “U.S. pork producers and importers pay $0.40 per $100 of value when pigs are sold and when pigs or pork products are brought into the United States.” While this seems like a small amount to pay, the money adds up quickly for checkoff programs-the National Pork Board alone cleared $81 million in revenue in 2011.

According to Alan Guebert, agriculture journalist and author, there are currently 22 federal check off programs that include both familiar and unfamiliar commodities from beef to mangos and raise approximately $750 million per year from U.S. farmers and ranchers. The results are some of the more iconic advertising campaigns of the 20th century: “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner,” brought to you by the National Livestock and Meat Board; “The Incredible Edible Egg,” by the American Egg Board; “Pork: the Other White Meat;” “Got Milk?;” and other advertising campaigns of the  same variety. While the organizations that fund these advertisements will claim market development success, there is little independent economic analysis evidence to validate these claims, and more important, the money is not being spent to promote small-scale organic or sustainably produced products, or food raised or grown for local markets.

Legally, checkoff programs have long been contentious in their purpose and practice. Federal law requires that checkoff programs hold a vote for participants to determine the continuation, suspension or termination of the program and requires that programs authorize and fund an independent evaluation every five years. Along with late fees and interest payments, penalties for violating program requirements can cost a producer upwards of $10,000. Given the mandatory nature of the programs, it’s not surprising that not all producers agree that the touted benefits of checkoff programs are worthwhile. In 2000, a majority of pork producers voted to end the pork checkoff–but the USDA, on behalf of the National Pork Producers Council, overturned the vote.  

Over the past two decades, several key legal battles have highlighted two of the major participant complaints: that checkoff programs are inequitable because producers required to pay for them don’t receive equal benefit, and, perhaps more concerning, that the programs violate the First Amendment rights of their participants. While efforts have been made to ensure the equal delivery of benefit through various exemptions and credit programs, particularly for small, organic and specialty producers that claim their size and/or products don’t benefit from generic advertisement, the programs remain contentious. It should be noted that with the exponential growth of the market for organics and subsequent rise of large-scale corporate organic producers, there is currently a controversial effort underway to establish a checkoff program for the organic sector.

Regarding the constitutionality, USDA programs have regularly been considered by various courts to determine if checkoffs violate free speech. Complaints center around the fact that qualifying producers are legally compelled to contribute to shared advertising which they may not agree with and are thus forced into associated with businesses they otherwise avoid, including those who import competitive foreign products into domestic markets. However, a 2005 Supreme Court decision ruled that checkoff participants have no legal claim to First Amendment violations.

Beyond the functionality of the checkoff programs as they exist legally, the various organizations they support have long been subject to scrutiny regarding the ethics and accountability of their practices. The authorizing legislation for checkoff programs limits the activities of funded entities to advertising, promotion, consumer education and research—explicitly forbidding lobbying efforts. However, two current examples provide a window into how industry is increasingly involved in the political process.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is revisiting a lawsuit against the USDA by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI) regarding the relationship between the National Pork Board (NPB), a checkoff approved organization, and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), a lobbying group. The case is specifically looking at the legality of the USDA’s approval for the NPB to license “Pork, The Other White Meat” to the NPPC for $3 million per year for 20 years.

In another current example, evidence has emerged this month that potentially links the American Egg Board (AEB), an authorized checkoff organization, to a coordinated multi-year attack on Hampton Creek, the San Francisco-based, plant-based protein food company that made waves with its open letters about changing the food system that were recently published in the New York Times. Perhaps more concerning than the apparent malice of the AEB, is the fact that USDA staff are clearly implicated in the electronic paper trail. These current transgressions are not the only examples of the use of checkoff funds being questionable–explorations of the practices of checkoff programs typically reveal that oversight is limited at the best and non-existent at the worst.

It’s clear that checkoff organizations aren’t neutral ground for an unbiased conversation.

The private and public funding behind groups like the USFRA and events like the Food Dialogues® and other related events should be clearly identified to their participants and the general public–and given a more accurate description: paid advertising. The discussion that the Food Dialogues® takes on is a needed one, but, given the power and questionable behavior of checkoff organizations, that discussion needs to be more balanced, transparent and inclusive.  An equitable and effective dialogue about farming and food should bridge the gap between producers and consumers and lead to solutions that benefit both, not simply agribusiness.  

Posted October 13, 2015 by     Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of Food First

An OFRANEH youth brigade member waters sweet chili pepper in a family garden. Photos by Steve Pavey.

This is part of a blog series around the 2015 U.S. Food Sovereignty Prize, which will be presented in Des Moines on October 14, 2015. The Food Sovereignty Prize is awarded by the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, which IATP is a member organization. The US Food Sovereignty Alliance works to end poverty, rebuild local food economies, and assert democratic control over the food system. We believe all people have the right to healthy, culturally appropriate food, produced in an ecologically sound manner. As a US-based alliance of food justice, anti-hunger, labor, environmental, faith-based and food producer groups, we uphold the right to food as a basic human necessity and public good and work to connect our local and national struggles to the international movement for food sovereignty.

What’s in a prize? The politics of distribution versus growth.

On October 14th in Des Moines, Iowa, the Food Sovereignty Prize will be awarded to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, run by African-American farmers of the southern United States and to OFRANEH—the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña).

The next day, hundreds of distinguished international guests will also gather in Des Moines, Iowa as Sir Fazle Hasan Abed accepts the World Food Prize in the name of BRAC—the world’s largest non-governmental rural development agency.

Both prizes are awarded in recognition of the fight against hunger. That’s where the similarity ends and the lesson begins.

Founded in 1986 by the “father of the Green Revolution” Norman Borlaug, the World Food Prize typically celebrates technological innovations that increase agricultural yields. This is because the award committee assumes that there is not enough food in the world to feed everyone. Actually, over the last four decades we have consistently produced 1 ½ times enough food for every man, woman and child on the planet. Yet, over a billion people are still hungry and malnourished because they are too poor to buy food. Awarding the Word Food Prize to BRAC should be a reminder that poverty, not scarcity, is the main cause of world hunger.  

Sir Fazle’s knighthood and 20 international awards all attest to the positive impact of BRAC’s anti-poverty work. Their selection was a safe move for the World Food Prize, which has been roundly criticized for giving the award to yet another Green Revolution scientist last year and to a triad of biotechnology scientists from the private sector the year before. BRAC will undoubtedly help restore some of the Prize’s lost luster in a world were genetic engineering has lost much of its credibility.

Does this award reflect a shift in the World Food Prize’s paradigm? Is the emblematic lightship of the Green Revolution ready to admit that hunger will not be ended by dint of a continuous flow of industrial crop varieties and chemical inputs? Not likely. A review of nearly thirty years of Food Prize laureates reveals a smattering of recipients who do not fit the dominant Green Revolution paradigm (Hans Herren, Muhammad Yunus, George McGovern and Robert Dole, among others). While the Prize entertains intermittent forays into areas of food aid, economic development and even agroecology, it always returns, lemming-like, to its foundational discourse: to end hunger we must double food production. The corollary to this theorem is that only chemically-based, industrial agriculture is up to the task.

That the planet has been overproducing food for nearly half a century is irrelevant to Green Revolution champions. That agroecological methods of production are cheaper, more accessible and consistently more productive and climate resilient than anything the Green Revolution has on offer, is also quietly swept under the rug in the yearly World Food Prize celebrations.

The destitute farmers producing over half the world’s food—primarily peasant women—make up most of the world’s hungry. They need more land, more water and a larger share of the food dollar. But the World Food Prize does not understand hunger or poverty as a problem of resource distribution. Rather, the World Food Prize believes that hunger and food insecurity are the result of scarcity. Whatever the problems underlying poverty and world hunger—in the Global South and the Global North—the solution for hunger is always the same: growth. Growth in productivity, growth in commercial inputs, growth in credit, growth of global markets…

But global food supply has been growing at 12% per capita a year for several decades. At the height of the global food crises of 2008 and 2011, the world saw record-breaking grain harvests. The problem of hunger is poverty. Resource-poor farmers—who make up 70% of the world’s hungry—are forced to sell their harvest cheaply (because they are poor). Later, when their own supplies run out and prices rise, they go hungry because they can’t afford the food in the markets. The steady spread of high-external input, plantation agriculture—largely soy for livestock, cane and maize for biofuels and oil palm—pushes smallholders and pastoralists off the land, destroying their livelihoods, increasing poverty and hunger even as more food is produced.

Why does the World Food Prize insist that the answer to hunger is growth?

Because a focus on growth allows us to ignore the problems of inequity, exploitation and the growing disparity of wealth in the world. It allows us to ignore the issue of resource distribution—and its corollary: re-distribution. Eighty-four individuals now own as much wealth as half of the world’s population. The growing wealth gap is causing hunger. It is easy to talk about baking an ever bigger pie. It’s much harder to talk about who get the biggest piece, or who gets to cut the pie.

This political convenience becomes evident when we look at the Food Sovereignty Prize, in many ways the antithesis of the World Food Prize. This prize has a shorter history (and an infinitely smaller budget) than the World Food Prize. This year’s laureates, the U.S.-based Federation of Southern Cooperatives and OFRANEH were chosen for their steadfast commitment to human rights and their historical resistance of oppression.

What do human rights and oppression have to do with hunger? Everything.

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, founded in 1967 came out of the civil rights movement when according to its founders, as a black person in the rural south,

You took your life in your hands when you went anywhere. Particularly if you were going somewhere where they were talking about freedom and independence and cooperative farming.”  

For four decades across 16 southern states, the Federation has promoted Black and family owned farms, coops, training in sustainable agriculture, forestry, management and marketing, and has advocated in the courts and state and national legislatures for the rights of Black farmers. They have stood up against the steady trend in Black land loss that has gone from a peak of 14% to less than 1% of agricultural land in the United States. Ben Burkett, southern farmer and Director of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives (and president of the National Family Farm Coalition) states,

“Our view is local production for local consumption. It’s just supporting mankind as family farmers. Everything we’re about is food sovereignty, the right of every individual on earth to wholesome food, clean water, clean air, clean land, and the self-determination of a local community to grow and do what they want. We just recognize the natural flow of life. It’s what we’ve always done.”

Co-prize winner OFRANEH from Honduras came together in 1978 to protect the territories and the human rights of the Garifuna people of Honduras’ Atlantic coast. These descendants of African-Carib ancestry are a historically oppressed minority in Honduras. Their traditional lands are being grabbed by oil palm plantations and tourism developments. Because displacement and deforestation have made the Garifuna extremely vulnerable to the extreme weather events associated with climate change, OFRANEH works with local populations to build climate resilience. Says OFRANEH Coordinator Miriam Miranda,

“Our liberation starts because we can plant what we eat. This is food sovereignty. We need to produce to bring autonomy and the sovereignty of our peoples. If we continue to consume [only], it doesn’t matter how much we shout and protest. We need to become producers. It’s about touching the pocketbook, the surest way to overcome our enemies. It’s also about recovering and reaffirming our connections to the soil, to our communities, to our land.”

The difference between the World Food Prize and the Food Sovereignty Prize is the difference between entrepreneurial “empowerment” and real political power. While the former implies an increase in personal agency within the existing system—by becoming economically successful—the latter is about how the resources of that food system are allocated.  

When compared to BRAC’s impressive economic successes, the impacts of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and OFRANEH seem circumscribed, their positions romantic; small, grassroots Davids standing up to the Goliath of institutionalized racism and unstoppable global economic forces.

The World Food Prize provides us with an optimistic story of successful grassroots capitalism, while the Food Sovereignty Prize is a resistance story about hope against all odds. But these narratives actually distort our understanding of hunger and its causes. The fact is that for the vast majority of the world’s peasant farmers, BRAC’s successes are the exception rather than the rule. The default is land grabs, racism, hunger, institutionalized violence and climate disasters—the daily reality of the farmer and fisher families of OFRANEH and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.

If the entrepreneurialism promoted by BRAC is so good for rural people then why, after four decades and widespread international recognition, haven’t these alternatives become standard policy everywhere?

Clearly, farmers with BRAC are better off and their success stories should be celebrated and replicated. But giving prizes for optimistic alternatives should not blind us to the harsh realities of an economic system that prevents most farmers from accessing the coops, micro credit, training and services promoted by BRAC. Indeed, unless “empowerment” enables rural communities to protect themselves from the waves of dispossession and climate chaos resulting from global capitalism and the spread of industrial agriculture in the name of ending hunger, even these gains may be short-lived.

Economic development is necessary for the oppressed, discriminated and exploited communities of our food system. It is also insufficient. Not all growth benefits the poor. Indeed, much of it hurts them.  Economic growth without redistribution of power and wealth ultimately reinforces the existing systems of exploitation. Without political control over land, water, markets and food producing resources—without food sovereignty—rural people will be a tourist development or an oil palm plantation away from poverty and hunger.

What’s in a prize? A tale of two paradigms and the difference between optimism and hope, between food security and food sovereignty—between the status quo and the end of hunger.

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