Posted February 12, 2016 by Tara Ritter   

Used under creative commons license from mizzmurray.

On Tuesday, a Supreme Court decision temporarily halted implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. The decision was prompted by a lawsuit from 29 states and state agencies challenging the EPA’s authority to impose the Clean Power Plan under the Clean Air Act. Implementation of the Clean Power Plan will remain suspended until June 2, 2016 at least, when a federal appeals court will consider the states’ challenge.

The Clean Power Plan is the first regulation to limit carbon emissions from existing power plants in the U.S. and it does so ambitiously, aiming to reduce electricity sector emissions to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Each state was assigned an emissions reduction target based on past emissions and capacity for future emissions reductions. Originally, states had until 2018 to create State Implementation Plans outlining how they would meet the targets, but this timeline could be altered depending on how the legal challenges play out.  

When the Clean Power Plan was announced six months ago, states and industry groups that depend economically on coal were quick to attack the law, characterizing it as federal overreach. Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling is a temporary win for the fossil fuel industry, but supporters believe the Clean Power Plan will ultimately be upheld by the federal appeals court. California, Colorado, Virginia and Washington have reported that they will continue implementing the Clean Power Plan despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, and 14 states have vocalized continuing support for the Clean Power Plan.

The Supreme Court’s ruling, though temporarily favorable for the fossil fuel industry, is a long-term loss for rural communities. Rural communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change, and as such, will suffer the most as decisive action on climate change is delayed. Rural communities are more likely to have natural resource-based economies than urban communities, and those industries will become less stable as climate change worsens. In addition, poverty rates are higher and housing stock is older, on average, in rural communities, which means that many rural residents spend a larger percentage of their income on energy costs. This will be exacerbated as heating and cooling needs increase in the face of more extreme temperatures and weather events.

The Clean Power Plan would not only address the causes of climate change; it would also provide opportunities to transition away from the current extraction-based energy system that has historically hurt rural communities. Extractive industries like coal and natural gas impact the landscape and natural resource base, but they also drive a boom-and-bust cycle that leaves rural communities with little once the extraction is complete. A study by Headwaters Economics found that though fossil fuel extraction creates enormous wealth, most of that wealth leaves the region where the extraction occurs. In contrast, renewable energies like wind and solar do not deplete the natural resource base and are more often locally owned and controlled. Much of the country’s renewable energy production will happen in rural communities, providing an opportunity to move away from the historical patterns of resource and profit extraction. Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision perpetuates the harmful status quo and slows the opportunity for rural communities to build an energy system that retains benefits locally.

It’s often assumed that rural communities are opposed to action on climate change, but that narrative oversimplifies the diverse range of perspectives held in rural America. Many rural communities are already focused on building local resilience by addressing climate change, including the cities of Morris and Grand Rapids in Minnesota. In addition, a group of rural leaders and organizations released a policy document last year outlining priorities for addressing climate change in rural communities. The document emphasizes clean energy and community-based energy projects, as well as energy efficiency initiatives and assistance for rural communities to transition away from extraction-based economies. The Clean Power Plan is an opportunity to fulfill these recommendations, and the Supreme Court’s decision stands in the way of what many rural residents want.

On a global level, what the United States does to address climate change matters. Stalling the Clean Power Plan could weaken the collective commitments made at the Paris climate talks to lower greenhouse gas emissions around the world. The Clean Power Plan would take a step towards slowing climate change and set a global signal that the United States is ready to act. It would also create jobs, stabilize energy prices, and offer a way for rural communities to build resilience. Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision went beyond just delaying action on climate change; it dealt a blow to rural communities and the ability to build sustainable economies that are resilient in the face of increasing extreme weather events. 

Posted February 2, 2016 by Ben Lilliston   

AgricultureIndustrialized MeatClimate Change

Used under creative commons license from chesbayprogram.

This blog first appeared as a contribution to #Livestockdebate hosted by the European coalition ARC2020 (Agriculture and Rural Convention 2020). You can read contributions to the #Livestockdebate from other experts at the ARC2020 website.


Last month, workers entered ten massive, confined turkey and chicken operations in Indiana and sprayed foam designed to suffocate the birds. When the cold temperatures froze the hoses, local prisoners were brought in to help kill the birds manually. Other operations shut down the ventilation systems killing the birds as heat temperatures rose. More than 400,000 birds have been euthanized so far in an effort to contain a new strain of avian flu in the U.S. Last year, approximately 45 million birds were killed to contain the spread of a different avian flu strain in the U.S. These epidemics are not limited to poultry: two years ago, a massive piglet virus outbreak killed millions of pigs (an estimated 10 percent of the U.S. hog population).

The rapid spread of new disease strains, made worse by a changing climate, is one very visible reason why the expansion of factory-style animal production is viewed as unsustainable. As Olivier De Schutter, Hans Herren and Emile Frison point out in commenting on livestock’s ecological footprint, this industrial model of meat production “yields too many negative outcomes on too many fronts to be justifiable.”

Although this industrial model of animal production originated in the U.S., it is now truly global. Global meat industry giants include: Brazil-based JBS, considered the largest meat corporation in the world; China-based Shuanghui, the world’s largest hog producer; and U.S.-based Tyson Foods, the world’s largest poultry producer.

While this model of production is now global, the U.S. experience exposes many of its unintended and often unspoken consequences. The Pew Commission on Animal Agriculture identified a host of negative impacts from industrial animal production in the U.S. on rural communities, public health, the environment and animal welfare. In North Carolina, groups have called for the government to launch a civil rights investigation into how the concentration of hog farms and associated manure lagoons in largely minority communities have caused environmental and health problems. The dangerous work and poor treatment of U.S. meat and poultry workers have given rise to allegations of international human rights violations.

Of course, this is more than a U.S. problem. In December, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy hosted a webinar in which animal industry experts outlined eerily similar systems in the U.S., Brazil and India, which force contract poultry growers to take on enormous financial risk without having the power to negotiate fair prices. China’s embrace of industrial animal production is accelerating the model’s growth both inside and outside of China. 

This factory-based model of animal production is gaining increased scrutiny at least partially because of its large climate footprint. Much of agriculture’s estimated percent of global greenhouse gas emissions can be linked to the rise of animal agriculture—whether from methane emissions or through the use of synthetic fertilizer to produce the massive amounts of corn and soy needed for animal feed.

The U.S. example is again instructive. Manure-related methane emissions from confined animal operations now account for roughly 30 percent of California’s total methane emissions. The increased use of liquid waste lagoon systems in U.S. dairies led to a 115 percent increase in emissions from 1990 to 2012. Corn and soy-fed ruminants raised in confined systems produce more methane than grazing livestock. A U.S. government report concluded that enteric emissions decrease when shifting the feed of dairy cows from silage and grain toward more grass.

The multiple benefits of a more diversified farming approach, which includes animal production as part of an agroecological system, are becoming increasingly evident. The multi-year International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, which included 900 experts in 110 countries and international agencies including the World Bank and UN Food and Agriculture Organization, concluded that agroecological systems are good for farmers, food security and building climate resilience. Yet public policies—whether through trade agreements or national farm policies—continue to support the meat industry’s exploitive system of production.

As the meat industry scrambles to inoculate massive confinement facilities from diseases like avian flu or the piglet virus, there seems to be little consideration that the model itself is badly broken.

Posted February 2, 2016 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

TradeTPPFree trade agreements

One reason the TPP is in such trouble, especially in the United States, is that we’ve heard this story before. Passing NAFTA, CAFTA or other free trade agreements was supposed to mean more and better jobs, improved farm incomes and increasing prosperity all around. But that’s not what happened. In the wake of NAFTA, manufacturing jobs have evaporated, family farms have been decimated and income inequality has increased. Projections that this time around the TPP would generate increasing prosperity are met with a healthy dose of skepticism or outright disbelief.

Another part of the story is the strong opposition across borders. A big outcome of the NAFTA debate was the formation of strong ties among citizens’ groups in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada that refocused the discussion away from one country “stealing” jobs from another to a central emphasis on the role of transnational corporations in driving standards down to the lowest common denominator. An important element of the eventual defeat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas was the creation of the Hemispheric Social Alliance, allowing national and sectoral coalitions to coordinate analysis and actions across borders.

Last week Mexican civil society groups convened organizations from the NAFTA countries plus Peru and Chile to reenergize that collaboration in the context of TPP and build an action plan moving forward. It was great to see allies from Mexico and Canada, especially the coalitions that began during the NAFTA debate. It was inspiring to meet leaders from vibrant coalitions in Chile and Peru, as well as people working on digital rights and other issues that are relatively new in the trade debate.

We also found some new allies among legislators. Mexican Senators Manuel Bartlett Diaz and Layda Sansores San Roman convened a meeting of parliamentarians and civil society groups in the Senate that raised the profile of the TPP critiques and set the stage for future collaboration. Peruvian Deputy Yonhy Lescano challenged the notion that legislators don’t know what’s in the text, running through pointed critiques of intellectual property rights provisions that will impede access to medicines. Canadian parliamentarians Tracy Ramsey and Elizabeth May sent video messages to the gathering, and Quebec parliamentarian Andres Fontecilla urged continued joint actions from the streets to the legislatures, as well as leveraging international pressure at human rights bodies.

In addition to discussion of the impacts of past trade deals, several specific topics emerged:

  • Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) as a major threat to democratic decision making and sovereignty. This issue has receive a lot of new attention in the U.S. recently as a result of Transcanada’s suit over the Keystone Pipeline decision. The U.S. is the only country represented at the meeting that hasn’t lost an ISDS case over environmental, energy and other public interest laws. Yet.
  • New threats to family farms and biodiversity posed by the requirement in TPP’s chapter on intellectual property rights that countries ratify the Union for the Protection of Plant Varieties International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants 1991), a treaty that bans seed saving and sharing by small scale farmers. These issues are already the subject of huge debate in Mexico, driven in large part by the Sin Maíz No Hay País (Without Corn No Country) campaign. This was the subject of a conference at Chapingo University held the same day as the Senate event.
  • The stark contrasts between hortatory language in the agreement on the environment, labor rights and development on one hand, and the hard law commitments on investment, expanded patent protections for biologics and other medicines, and trade liberalization, on the other.
  • The absurdity of the U.S. geopolitical argument that TPP is needed to rein in China or other emerging economies.

Both the civil society groups and legislators stressed the importance of raising these issues at numerous UN bodies, including the Food and Agriculture Organization (which has a Latin American regional meeting of agriculture ministers coming up in March in Mexico), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the Convention on Biodiversity (which will hold its Convention of Parties in December in Mexico). This is not only to highlight the basic contradictions between countries’ human rights obligations and the trade commitments, although those are certainly real. It is also intended to start to draw other countries that might be considering joining the TPP in the future into the debate about the potential impacts on the right to food, labor rights and other issues of local and national sovereignty.  

The groups will continue to share analysis of the TPP (now available as final text after a legal “scrub”), and to raise those issues broadly. The meeting culminated with a march of ten thousand Mexicans protesting privatization, corruption and free trade and shared plans to react to the TPP signing this week in New Zealand.

While it’s hard to escape the fact that the TPP agenda is driven in large part by the Obama Administration, the legislators and civil society groups issued a statement generously recognizing the “courageous conduct and decisive action of U.S. legislators who are sensitive to the voices of protest of many broad sectors and citizens organizations and therefore oppose the ratification of the TPP. We encourage joint hemispheric and international efforts to denounce the threat of the TPP and demand its definitive burial.”

The final declaration and action plan from civil society groups will be available here on February 3.

Posted January 15, 2016 by Dale Wiehoff   

Industrialized Meat

Used under creative commons license from Michael Fraley.

It didn’t take long to test USDA Secretary Vilsack’s prediction that the poultry industry is prepared for a new outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). On January 8, Vilsack gave an interview to USDA Radio News in which he said, “I think we’re in a much better position to detect it more quickly, to respond more effectively within 24 hours to depopulate flocks if we see a reemergence of this.”

Earlier today, the USDA released a statement confirming an outbreak of H7N8 virus, a different strain of HPAI than the one that killed 48 million birds in the US this spring. This latest outbreak occurred in a commercial turkey flock in Dubois County, Indiana. Plans are under way to kill the flock and dispose of the carcasses. News of the outbreak sent stocks tumbling for all the major poultry processors.

It is too early to tell if this appearance of H7N8 virus will be as devastating as the last round of HPAI, which subsided in June of last year. While the Indiana outbreak was the first reported in the U.S. in almost seven months, avian flu has continued to wipe out millions of birds in other countries. France in particular has been hard hit, with over 30 flocks destroyed to prevent the spread of the disease.

Just as bans on U.S. poultry products were being lifted around the world and vaccines developed, the poultry industry was breathing a sigh of relief. They shouldn’t have. Beyond prepositioning earth moving equipment and hazmat suits to bury the birds in the next outbreak, the USDA and the poultry industry have failed to deal with the inherently vulnerable model of poultry production. As long as the federal government is prepared to pay millions of dollars to “indemnify” the poultry industry for losses, there is little incentive to start asking the hard questions about how we raise chickens and turkeys. What is at risk is the day when H7N8 or H5N2 jumps the species barrier and infects humans. Who will indemnify those loses? 

Posted January 7, 2016 by Juliette Majot   

TradeTPPEnergyFree trade agreementsNAFTA: North American Free Trade Agreement

Used under Creative Commons license from prwatch.org.

The ability of the United States to make its own decisions regarding how, where and why to build transcontinental oil pipelines has been challenged by TransCanada Corporation, which sued the U.S. yesterday for the loss of potential future profits associated with the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline. The move represents a threat to both U.S. national sovereignty and national security, given the role of energy policy in protecting the homeland. The suit could also establish a precedent for challenging sovereign rights to address climate change through energy policy, not just in the U.S., but in any country that is party to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  

The standing of TransCanada to sue the American government is provided not in any formal U.S. legal judiciary setting, but through rules laid down in a trade regime, NAFTA. The terms of this agreement, and other similar trade agreements, are designed to protect the rights of foreign investors over the rights of the states in which they are investing.

If successful, the suit will incur more losses to U.S. citizens than those associated with sovereign rights and national security. TransCanada is asking for $15 billion dollars in lost potential future profits. Furthermore, in an additional suit filed in Houston, Texas, TransCanada is seeking to limit the power of the President of the United States in setting U.S. energy policy by claiming that the Keystone decision was unconstitutional.

So what is going on? On Wednesday, TransCanada formally announced its intent to file a trade dispute with the United States, claiming that rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline announced by President Obama in November 2015 was unfair based on the rules set in NAFTA, and that the November decision deprives them of future lost profits. In the opinion of TransCanada, the decision against Keystone was a political one designed to show U.S. leadership on climate change. In effect, what TransCanada is saying is, “our profits trump your national energy policy.”

The really bad news is that TransCanada has a strong case for saying so. Why? Because we have entered into trade agreements that DO trump our national sovereignty and we are heading straight into more of them with our eyes wide shut. TransCanada is helping open those eyes. And that is the very good news in all of this.

Thanks to TransCanada’s extraordinary actions, the lid has blown off intentionally obscure provisions of NAFTA that favor corporate interests over national sovereignty and security in a way that Americans can see and feel.  That means that new trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), will no longer be able to hide similar provisions that are, by design, intended to grant special legal rights to corporations and further erode the national sovereignty of the U.S. and each and every nation that signs them.

Posted December 23, 2015 by Sophia Murphy   

TradeWTOFree trade agreementsWorld Trade Organization (WTO)

Used under creative commons license from world_trade_organization.

The World Trade Organization’s 10th Ministerial Conference, held in Nairobi, Kenya from 15-18 December came right on the heels of the final outcome of the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The contrasts were striking, and not just because of the shift from Europe to Africa, from northern winter to equatorial rains, and from environment to trade. There was also the level of interest: everyone who could not be in Paris was watching what went on there from afar, while few came to sit in the make-shift tents put up by the Kenyan Government as an NGO centre. The protest marches, organized by farmers’ organizations, gathered dozens of people rather than the several thousands who had come to WTO Ministerials past. The multinational lobbyists were few, many having turned their attention instead to plurilateral agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Despite its long-standing support for the WTO and its agenda, The Financial Times newspaper did not even send its world trade editor. It seemed that the world could hardly have cared less.

Most importantly, the governments that met in Paris were evidently chastened by their repeated past failures and were at last willing to respond to the mounting political pressure to take action on climate, pressure that was evident in the demonstrations and civic actions that took place across the planet as the governments negotiated. Leaders came to Paris intent on finding a way through the political, economic and environmental complexities of reinventing the basis of economic life on the planet. We need the same for trade. Instead, the heart of the fight in Nairobi was over what the negotiating agenda should include. Many rich countries came to Nairobi wanting to tighten intellectual property rights, open up government procurement for foreign competition, and to deregulate investment and competition laws. Most poorer countries disagree vehemently with this agenda. They want to first complete unfinished business related to trade in agricultural commodities and industrial goods.

Juggling competing interests

The debate really matters because multilateral trade rules are a practical way to considering the deep power asymmetries that mar the international community. The alternative—plurilateral talks managed on a by-invitation basis—leaves the least powerful countries with no voice at all in the discussions. But it is a debate that needs domestic political support. Yet governments treat trade as a top-secret matter, frightened to even engage with parliaments, let alone citizens, on what is at stake. Industry groups get privileged access to their ministers and diplomats, while few countries bother to meet with public interest groups.

Thus, sadly, in Nairobi, governments had their sights set far—far—lower than they had in Paris. There were a few private interests there, keen to maintain privileges (the US cotton industry, for instance). But they had little to fear, despite the havoc their programmes cause for some of the world’s poorest people; the United States, as perhaps the single most powerful WTO member, was also not there for much more than blaming others for failure, despite their starring role in that drama. Just two days before the Ministerial began, the US Trade Representative published a scathing opinion piece in The Financial Times. (A piece I responded to at the time). More broadly, very few WTO members felt any domestic pressure to get a result in Nairobi and what pressure was evident was all in the name of shutting down debate and closing ranks.

This does not mean the Ministerial was not hard work: as one diplomat said to me, failure takes a lot of work, too. The diplomats met and argued, called impromptu briefings, and negotiated not just far into the night during the week, but also apparently felt the need for what has become the customary unscheduled additional day of talks to come up with a final declaration.

And the result? The press coverage goes from elegiac: “WTO Nairobi deals good for all”, Kenya’s The Standard; to the damning: “South suffers humiliating setback at Nairobi”, SUNS news service; to the view that the WTO is fading to irrelevance because developing countries cannot ‘get with the programme’: “Trade talks lead to ‘death of Doha and birth of new WTO’” in The Financial Times; a variation on which, importantly, did not blame developing countries for the result: “Doha is dead. Hopes for fairer global trade shouldn’t die, tooThe Guardian. A sense of civil society organizations’ views can be seen in this story, also in The Standard, that covered the final NGO press conference, “Poor countries walk away empty handed, again.”

Little new trade liberalization out of Nairobi

Ultimately, the so-called defensive interests prevailed—there will be little new trade liberalization out of Nairobi. For the diehards (and I am one) it was satisfying to see developed countries commit to the immediate elimination of export subsidies in agriculture (though there are some exceptions that will take time to be phased out). Yet the push to end other distortions in international agricultural markets yet again went nowhere. The EU was practically begging to be allowed to end its export subsidies but needed the US to make concessions on its use of export credits and food aid. The US more or less refused, despite some pressure from IATP and other public interest groups that work on food aid before the Ministerial.

Meanwhile the vexed (and aging) “new issues” of investment, competition and public procurement that developed countries want to negotiate and developing countries edged their way a little closer to the negotiating table, though not much closer. There are lots of truly new issues the WTO could usefully look at—to name just a few, consider the subsidies given to oil and gas industries, the failure to manage price risk and volatility in food commodity markets, and the long-standing but unaddressed market distortions created by oligopolies in agricultural input and commodity trading sectors.

But no objective scan of the multilateral institutions today would alight upon the WTO as a place where governments get things done. The UN General Assembly has come through with an ambitious agenda of development issues that will absorb developed and developing country attention for the next 15 years with the Sustainable Development Goals, looking at poverty, inequality, vulnerability and more. The UNFCCC has—finally—turned a corner to shift the debate towards what each country will do itself, and just a little away from the obsession with what everyone else should do to curtail climate change. By contrast, the WTO membership is petulant; the governments refuse to lead by example, preferring instead to point the finger at other countries, blaming others for the lack of progress rather than looking closer to home first.

For the WTO to be able to contribute, its member states must adopt a mandate for the organization that moves away from a narrowly defined (and economically questionable) faith in open markets as a panacea for all the world’s ills. There is much open markets can do, and much they cannot. There is a rich debate under way about the future of the planet and the realization of sustainable development. The WTO—which could offer a lot to the debate and to the realization of positive change—is so far missing in action.

Posted December 22, 2015 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell   

AgricultureAgroecologyFood

Used under creative commons license from wdm.

With the recent conclusion of climate talks in Paris (see Ben Lilliston’s coverage here, here, here, and here), which included strong pushes for “Climate-Smart Agriculture” (CSA) by a variety of government, NGO and corporate actors, it’s worth returning to the recent conversations about agriculture at the FAO’s second Regional Agroecology Meeting. This meeting, which I attended in Dakar, Senegal from November 4-6 of this year, once again united scientists, civil society and members of government to discuss agroecology and its potential to improve small-scale food producers’ lives, support their extensive existing knowledge and improve environmental impacts from the agrifood system, from climate change to biodiversity.

One clear message voiced by civil society (which included groups representing pastoralists, fisherfolk and smallholder farmers from throughout the continent of Africa) was a desire to keep climate-smart agriculture distinct from agroecology. There has been interest from various actors in comparing or even combining agroecology—proposing to take “the best of both.” As we have written at IATP, we are skeptical of such an approach, not least because its “clever ambiguity” opens the door for practically anything to be called climate-smart. During conversations and consultation in Dakar, it seemed clear that, by and large, the civil society participants did not see what value “climate-smart” was bringing to the conversation or their efforts. They saw it as unambiguously different than what many of them were practicing in terms of agroecology, a term that spoke to many of their groups and their traditions. The concepts of agroecology also align with the efforts of Africa-wide organizations such as the Alliance for Food Security in Africa, which launched a series of agroecology case studies at the meeting, and intercontinental organizations such as La Vía Campesina, the smallholder family farmers’ movement which is currently headquartered in Zimbabwe and led by General Coordinator Elizabeth Mpofu. It was interesting seeing so many stakeholders expressing the fact that agroecology, along with food sovereignty, had already been identified as the path they see to a better, more sustainable future for both food producers and the climate. The message was clear that, whatever others’ interest was in climate-smart agriculture, what most of the farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk (and no small amount of the scientists and government representatives) there wanted to focus on was support for agroecology. In fact, several participants pointed out an international convening in Nyéléni, Mali earlier this year had already brought together “small-scale food producers and consumers, including peasants, indigenous peoples, communities, hunters and gatherers, family farmers, rural workers, herders and pastoralists, fisherfolk and urban people” to affirm the importance and centrality of agroecology.

The fact that these voices from small-scale food producers in Africa already reflect the positions of many of IATP’s allies on climate-smart as a “false solution” seems all the more reason to believe that we are on the right track with our critiques of climate-smart agriculture. Indeed, one participant (and proponent of CSA) at the FAO Regional Meeting did say, “Well, perhaps climate-smart agriculture is more of a slogan, but you know, slogans are important to politicians.” I think this may in fact be the case, and the root of the discomfort many of us feel about climate-smart agriculture. Frankly, I feel this old saw encapsulates CSA pretty spot-on: “What’s good is not new, and what is new is not good.” CSA does not, that I can see, add anything of substance to the science, practices and movement of agroecology. What it does add appears to be buy-in from some governments, NGOs and corporations. But what is this supposed “buy-in” worth when there are no firm commitments to what counts as CSA and what doesn’t, and no firm commitments to provide new funds to support good, participatory research and implementation? And even if there were such funds, what reason is there that they should be classified for “climate-smart” rather than for agroecology? One of those two terms has been around for 85 years and is based on a combination of modern science and thousands of years of farmer knowledge (hint: it’s agroecology). The other is based on a catchy phrase that entered the international lexicon five years ago or so, based on political jockeying. Now, I understand as well as the next guy that compromise is a necessary part of every effort, but the politics of this situation seem to simply be that some powerful players like the term CSA, but don’t know what it means, exactly; don’t know what new ideas it brings; don’t necessarily have new funding committed for it; and don’t have a distinct reason for using it instead of agroecology (except maybe it doesn’t ‘scare’ some people like agroecology does.) This may be the stubborn scientist in me coming out, but accepting a new term that involves so many “I don’t knows,” no additional resources and makes some powerful people less nervous does not seem a reasonable way to go.

An (unfunny) thing happened on the way from the FAO Agroecology Forum

It is worth noting a couple of other significant points from the meeting in Dakar. One is the interest by many groups in the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI). OSSI (which IATP has helped develop) seeks to keep the world’s heritage embodied in seeds and other germplasm[i] open for all to use, in perpetuity, rather than keeping it locked up behind intrusive and exploitative intellectual property regimes.[ii] Many African farmers fear, with good reason, that their traditional and indigenous seeds and varieties might be used to develop patented or otherwise restricted varieties by companies like Monsanto; or, that such traditions and heritage might otherwise be lost. This would be a grave shame as not only is the world’s plant and animal genetic diversity important for its own sake, our present and our future, but also because many traditional varieties have much to offer us[iii]

A case in point comes from the representatives of the Malawian Farmer-to-Farmer Project (http://soilandfood.org/). Nutritionist Dr. Mangani Chilala Katundu, along with farmers Anita Chtiaya, Alice Gubudu and Edwin Nyati Kasamba, attended the meeting in Dakar (representing this incredible project) told me that they were worried that international corporations or government pressure might lead the loss or co-optation of a local landrace of orange maize. This landrace, they told me, actually provided as much or more Vitamin A as attempts at “biofortified” varieties. It turns out, in fact, that this was recently confirmed in a study (co-authored by Dr. Katundu) published in the peer-reviewed journal Food Chemistry. I told them about OSSI, which ended up interesting a variety of farmers in Dakar; although, so far, OSSI does not have a branch or chapter in Africa. Additionally, the main power OSSI has brought so far is the ability to name and shame any companies or people who might try to take advantage of OSSI-pledged materials by locking them away behind patents. Nevertheless, despite the fact that OSSI does not create a legal barrier to taking traditional varieties out of the realm of the common good, Monsanto scientists have already made the Orwellian argument that keeping plant materials in the realm of the public domain may be “one of the most restrictive forms of access” of all.[iv] Because as a result, no company or individual could then demand everyone who ever uses a seed to pay them—the fact that seed sharing and diversification have happened for thousands of years before patenting apparently does not count.

To many of the farmer groups who attended the Dakar meeting with me, this idea—that protecting open accessibility of their common heritage to all is in fact more restrictive than a regime where farmers have to pay for their seeds each year, even if their ancestors helped breed those seeds—would have been funny, were the perverse corporate logic not so tragic.

[i] Germplasm is “the living genetic resources such as seeds or tissue that is maintained for the purpose of animal and plant breeding, preservation, and other research uses.”

[ii] “Today, only a handful of companies account for most of the world’s commercial breeding and seed sales. Increasingly, patenting is used to enhance the power and control of these companies over the seeds and the farmers that feed the world. Patented seeds cannot be saved, replanted or shared by farmers and gardeners. And because there is no research exemption for patented material, plant breeders at universities and small seed companies cannot use patented seed to create the new crop varieties that should be the foundation of a just and sustainable agriculture. Inspired by the free and open source software movement that has provided alternatives to proprietary software, OSSI was created to free the seed—to make sure that the genes in at least some seed can never be locked away from use by intellectual property rights. Through our Pledge, OSSI asks breeders and stewards of crop varieties to pledge to make their seeds available without restrictions on use, and to ask recipients of those seeds to make the same commitment. OSSI is working to create a pool of open source varieties, to connect farmers and gardeners to suppliers of open source seed, and to inform and educate citizens about seed issues.” (From http://www.osseeds.org.)

[iii] Altieri, Miguel Angel, Laura C. Merrick, and M. K. Anderson. "Peasant Agriculture and the Conservation of Crop and Wild Plant Resources." Conservation Biology1 (1987): 49-58; Chappell, Michael Jahi, Hannah K. Wittman, Christopher M. Bacon et al. "Food Sovereignty for Poverty Reduction and Biodiversity Conservation in Latin America [V1; Ref Status: Indexed, http://F1000r.Es/23s]." F1000Research 2, no. 235 (2013); Pautasso, Marco, Guntra Aistara, Adeline Barnaud et al. "Seed Exchange Networks for Agrobiodiversity Conservation. A Review." Agronomy for Sustainable Development (2012): 1-25. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s13593-012-0089-6.

[iv] See https://www.facebook.com/opensourceseedinitiative/posts/867384963330803. The (access-restricted) article referred to is Butruille, David V., Fufa H. Birru, Marv L. Boerboom et al. "Maize Breeding in the United States: Views from within Monsanto." In Plant Breeding Reviews: Volume 39, edited by Jules Janick, 199-282: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015.

Posted December 21, 2015 by Ben Lilliston   

Image used under creative commons license from Twitter user weatherchannel.

When the text of a new global climate agreement reached by 195 governments was released this weekend, one word was conspicuously absent: agriculture. That doesn’t mean issues around how farmers produce food were entirely ignored; in fact, you can see agriculture’s shadow in nearly all parts of the Paris agreement—from national-level climate plans to climate finance to new initiatives on soil. But a clear path forward on how to limit agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and support more climate resilient agricultural systems is still too politically hot for governments to take on.

The decision to sidestep agriculture, at least temporarily, within the climate agreement was not surprising. Finding common ground on agriculture and food security is notoriously difficult in international settings (see long-stalled World Trade Organization negotiations). Much of the intransigence around agriculture lies in the enormous political and economic power held by an increasing small number of global agribusiness corporations, who have little interest in new rules that don’t fit with their current business model. There is strong resistance to new regulations for agribusiness sectors that are high greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters (particularly the big fertilizer and meat companies). After the Paris agreement was reached, the meat industry immediately put out a call to start aggressively lobbying governments to protect their interests.

This is an obstacle that will ultimately have to be overcome, as the global agriculture research consortium CGIAR estimates that one-third of global emissions are associated with the global food system. A report put out by Global Justice Now last week found that three agribusiness companies—Tyson Foods, Cargill and Yara—have a larger climate footprint than many countries.

Despite governments’ reluctance to take on agriculture issues directly, many elements of the agreement do have important implications for agriculture. In addition, the agreement sets up a framework where agriculture issues will be debated in the future. Here are a few key elements of the agreement particularly relevant to agriculture:

A stronger benchmark to reign in climate chaos: Countries agreed to not allow global temperatures to rise more than 1.5 C over pre-industrial levels—a stronger benchmark than previously discussed 2 C. Whether countries can reach this goal is questionable. National-level GHG reduction commitments outlined as part of the Paris agreement have the world on target for an estimated 2.7 -3.5 degree rise in the most optimistic scenarios. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will use the 1.5 C reference point in its future scientific and policy assessments, and it will be used as a barometer of progress in national level GHG climate assessments.  For agriculture, which is already experiencing the effects of climate change, setting a stronger benchmark should benefit farmers trying to adapt to extreme weather events. This more ambitious goal will also require greater reductions in agricultural-related emissions in the very near future.

Ratcheting up non-binding national climate commitments: At the heart of the climate agreement are national level commitments to reduce GHG emissions by 2025 or 2030, known as Intended Nationally Determined Commitments (INDCs). These commitments submitted by 186 countries explain how much GHG emissions will be reduced by sector, and they identify policies to reach those goals. According to CGIAR, some 80 percent of INDCs include agriculture or food, policies that cover both agricultural related emissions, as well as adapting to climate change.

Current INDCs commitments don’t get us close to the 1.5 C goal and, perhaps more discouraging, they are voluntary, not binding. The deal does set up a framework to ratchet up INDC commitments over time. In 2018, there will be an assessment of progress incorporating the latest climate science. In 2020, countries can ratchet up their commitments for the next five year period, and continually ratchet up climate goals every five years going forward. The agreement sets a long-term goal of reaching zero net emissions sometime in the second half of the century. Zero net emissions doesn’t mean no emissions; instead, it means that emissions can be offset by land-based efforts to sequester carbon, either through forestry or agriculture. The net zero approach has been sharply criticized by civil society groups like ActionAid and the Stockholm Environment Institute as a way for polluting industries to avoid making real emission reductions, while relying on land-based offsets that are both unreliable and could result in a host of bad outcomes for farmers and communities tied to agriculture or forests, such as land displacement.

Falling short on climate finance: Another pillar of the agreement is finance, more specifically how developed countries, particularly those most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, will financially support developing countries who are dealing most urgently with the effects of climate change. Approximately 48 developing countries have cited the need for additional climate finance to implement their INDCs. In 2009, developed countries agreed to contribute $100 billion a year to developing countries in climate related finance by 2020. In Paris, they reaffirmed the $100 billion target (but again, no binding commitments for specific countries) and agreed to revise that goal (with the $100 billion as a floor) by 2025. Climate finance commitments continue to be criticized for both not being enough, currently only about $2 billion annually to dedicated climate funds like the Adaptation Fund and the Green Climate Fund, and for double-counting previously committed development aid. According to the Overseas Development Institute, public finance currently committed to by developed countries for climate change will reach only $18.8 billion a year by 2020. Climate finance efforts continue to be hindered by the absence of clear standards for how funds will be counted and where they will be delivered.

Poorly performing carbon markets still favored: The agreement continues to support the creation and expansion of carbon markets as the primary climate policy lever by creating two ways for countries to meet their GHG reduction pledges. First, by 2020 it will build upon protocols for creating carbon credits previously established within the Kyoto Protocol to create a new centralized market mechanism (a global carbon market). Any country could participate in that global carbon market, though there are continue to be big questions about demand for such a market.  Second, it supports a decentralized cooperative approach, where countries can link together their national-level carbon markets. Bloomberg News reported that 17 countries, including the U.S., Japan and Germany, announced in Paris that they will work together to set common protocols for national and regional carbon markets in order to connect them in the future. China will launch what is expected to be the world’s largest carbon market in 2017—further entrenching carbon markets as the go-to climate policy.

Poorly designed carbon markets have largely failed to produce an adequate price on carbon to drive down GHG emissions. According to a recent study, up to three quarters of carbon credits established by an existing UN program may not have resulted in any emission reductions. In the case of agriculture, mostly viewed strictly as an offset for polluters, IATP has reported on five reasons why carbon markets won’t work for agriculture, and how such offset projects are not appropriate for small scale farmers and serve project developers more than participating farmers.

Voluntary soil initiative launched: Agriculture was included in several voluntary initiatives launched around the talks, known as the Lima-Paris Action Agenda. One of these voluntary initiatives was a much publicized French 4 pour 1000 initiative focused on sequestering carbon in the soil through agroecological and agroeforestry practices. We wrote about this largely research focused initiative when it was announced earlier this month. A number of countries, research institutes and NGOs have already signed up. But big questions remain about what the initiative will look like on-the-ground, the level of participation from farmer and civil society organizations and how it will be funded. French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll said he hopes to have these pieces in place for the next UN climate meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco in November 2016.

Where next for agriculture and climate?: As many climate justice organizations have pointed out, the deal fails on many important fronts. It doesn’t bind countries to strong enough emission reductions, it doesn’t provide enough public money to countries that most need it, and it continues to promote a carbon market policy approach that has largely failed.

For agriculture, the global climate deal avoids the tough questions about how to reduce agriculture-related GHG emissions from industrial systems dependent on synthetic fertilizer use and large open pit manure lagoons linked to confined animal production, while transitioning toward more climate-resilient systems, including identifying what agricultural systems are most climate-resilient. As is the case with oil and coal companies in the energy sector, powerful agribusiness corporations will be at the table to protect their interests in future climate policy. At the same time, there is growing international support for the more farmer-centered approach of agroecology from both scientists and social movements like Via Campesina—an approach IATP has strongly advocated for.

The global climate deal in Paris has set the stage for an escalating debate about the way forward on agriculture in a climate chaotic world. We can expect this debate to happen at the national level as countries implement and strengthen their INDCs, and at the international level in discussions around climate-finance and food security. A climate-resilient focus for agriculture will ultimately have to be integrated within national farm programs like the U.S. Farm Bill, and regional and global trade rules which often limit climate policy. To meet the challenge climate change poses for farmers and agriculture, governments will have to become a lot bolder than they were in Paris.

Posted December 14, 2015 by     Timothy A. Wise

AgricultureWorld Trade Organization (WTO)

Used under creative commons license from Justin Kernogahn.

On the eve of their Nairobi ministerial, WTO members should remember it is not food procurement policies in developing countries like India but unfair US agricultural subsidies which threaten free trade and farmer livelihoods across the world

On December 15, the world’s trade ministers will gather in Nairobi, Kenya, for the tenth attempt to craft a new set of trade rules under the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The so-called Doha Development Round (DDR), launched in Doha, Qatar, in 2001, promised to right the imbalance in previous trade negotiations that had favoured the United States, European countries, and other developed nations. Reforming unfair agricultural practices were at the centre of the Doha agenda.

On the eve of the Nairobi ministerial, that agenda itself is under threat. The US, EU, and Japan have proposed jettisoning the Doha agenda and the progress made before negotiations broke down in 2008. They have dismissed commitments made two years ago in Bali, Indonesia, to resolve objections to India’s ambitious National Food Security Act as an unfair subsidy to farmers. Agriculture, it seems, is barely on the Nairobi agenda.

Going along with the West would be a costly mistake for developing countries. They may well be facing a new era of low crop prices in which highly subsidised crop production in the US and other rich countries creates overproduction and dumping of cheap goods on global markets. If ever there were a need for new agricultural trade rules, now would be the time.

Changing economic landscape

US negotiators claim that economic growth in China, Brazil, India and other emerging economies changes the basis for the Doha framework, but what has really changed since the progress in Bali is the fall in global crop and commodity prices. This puts farmers back in the same economic squeeze they experienced between 1997 and 2005, when costs regularly exceeded returns from sales, and rich-country governments stepped in with subsidy payments to make up the difference.

The other change since Bali is the passage of the 2014 US Farm Bill, which proposes to do just that. The bill expands support through subsidised crop insurance by adding a variety of additional insurance schemes designed to compensate farmers if prices or revenues fall below particular targets.

According to projections from University of Missouri researchers, these programmes are almost certain to exceed commitments on the table in the Doha negotiations and probably will put the US in breach of its current WTO subsidy limits as well. Payments are expected to exceed $12 billion in the current crop year, well above levels in recent years.

A history of dumping 

This low-price-high-cost scenario could well lead to a new era of agricultural dumping. The WTO commits nations not to export at prices below domestic prices or below prices in other export markets. Beyond this kind of discriminatory pricing, though, the WTO agreements also define dumping as exporting at below the costs of production.

This was common practice for the US before the recent rise in commodity prices. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) in the US estimated that from 1997-2005 the US exported soybeans, corn, wheat, rice, and cotton at between 12% and 47% below farmers’ costs of production. A study of US dumping in Mexico estimated the costs to Mexican producers from the resulting depressed crop prices at nearly $13 billion over that nine-year period.

Unfair competition cost developing countries dearly, undermining local farm economies in favour of cheap imports. Since 2001, the world’s least developed countries (LDCs) have seen their agricultural trade deficits skyrocket from $4.6 billion to $22.3 billion in 2011 after crop prices shot up.

The WTO’s current Agreement on Agriculture proved particularly weak in preventing dumping. One successful case was brought by Brazil against the US for price suppression in cotton. Brazil won the right to take countervailing measures against US products, but the government never did so, in large part because US policies were deemed to be locked in by the previous Farm Bill. Brazil and the US formally settled the dispute last year based on changes to the cotton provisions in the new farm legislation.

A return to dumping?

New research suggests the US is already exporting corn at below the costs of production. Farmgate prices this year have been $19/ton below production costs, with US exports priced at $165/ton. With Farm Bill support prices at $179/ton, US corn farmers stand to receive some $6 billion in government payments this year.

New economic modelling by University of California researchers paints a particularly bleak picture for global cotton farmers. They find that the reforms in the 2014 Farm Bill to US cotton subsidies will not eliminate price suppression. They project that during the five-year life of the legislation, subsidies will average $1.5 billion per year, keeping 20% more land in cotton, increasing exports 29%, and lowering global prices 7%.

The estimated cost to other cotton producers is $3.3 billion per year due to lowered prices and lost markets. Indian producers would lose an estimated $800 million per year. The so-called Cotton 4 countries of Africa – Burkina Faso, Mali, Benin, and Chad – would collectively see $80 million per year in lost revenues, a heavy blow to small-scale farmers in small economies. These cotton-dependent countries have been promised relief in the WTO for more than 10 years.

WTO Nairobi needs to deliver on agriculture

Instead of sidelining agricultural negotiations, the Nairobi ministerial should be deepening discussions of fair trade in agricultural products. India’s food security programme should be declared a legitimate use of public procurement, not derided as an unfair subsidy. Developing countries need the kinds of protections proposed in the Doha Round – Special Safeguard Mechanisms to protect farmers from import surges, and Special Product designations for crops critical to food security and rural development.

But developing countries need much more as we enter a new era of low crop prices. They need meaningful protections against agricultural dumping by rich countries which can afford to subsidise their farmers.

Timothy A. Wise is Policy Research Director at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute and a Senior Research Fellow at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. 

Posted December 11, 2015 by Ben Lilliston   

Image used under creative commons license from Twitter user GisellaLomax

Earlier this week, a leaked internal European Union document on climate negotiation priorities (posted by Corporate Observatory Europe) made clear that any global climate deal would not mention trade. Also this week, a group of concerned business associations (including the biotech industry) hurriedly wrote (subscription required) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warning him not to agree to anything that could impact trade rules established to protect intellectual property rights. Both documents show why powerful interests want to keep trade and climate agreements separate despite the numerous ways trade rules have not only facilitated climate change but limit our ability to set strong climate policy in the future.  

The trade-climate disconnect exists not only within the global climate treaty being negotiated here in Paris. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) does not include anywhere in its 5,000 plus pages the words “climate change.” The latest version of a U.S. Customs bill (subscription required) coming out of the House of Representatives forbids the President from considering climate impacts in future trade agreements.

The trade elephant in the climate room was something civil society groups, including IATP, raised at an official side event at the Climate Generations area yesterday here in Paris. Ilana Solomon from the Sierra Club outlined the history of the international trade regime as it has evolved at the World Trade Organization and now with the proposed TPP and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)—in particular how these trade deals impact energy policy. Pascoe Sabido of Corporate Observatory Europe outlined multiple instances of corporate influence within the UNFCCC negotiations, and how special rights established in TTIP and the EU-Canada trade deal would grant polluting corporations special rights that undermine efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Ronnie Hall of the Critical Information Collective talked about how trade rules are affecting forests, particularly driving woody biomass production that is damaging to the climate.

I talked about how trade rules:

  1. Drive an export-focused system of agricultural production that is high in greenhouse gas emissions from the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and tied to large-scale confined animal operations;
  2. Promote agricultural dumping, which has forced farmers off the land (farmers who will be essential for knowledge-based agroecology); and
  3. Push intellectual property regimes that reinforce the power of multinational seed corporations instead of supporting farmers’ rights and the protection of genetic resources needed to adapt to climate change.

A big area of contention here in Paris is how much of the deal will be binding. Mostly at the request of the U.S., but also of other heavy polluting countries like China and India, there is a desire to make much of the agreement aspirational and non-binding—soft law as it is known internationally. But make no mistake, trade agreements are binding hard law, with their own legal enforcement mechanisms. If we are going to save the planet, we’re going to have to come to terms with the many ways the binding hard law of trade agreements conflicts with the soft law of climate policy.




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