Posted October 2, 2015 by     Matilde Perez U., La Jornada (Mexico)

TradeTPPFree trade agreements

Used under creative commons license from mapper-montag.

English translation of original post by La Jornada

The Union of Dairy Producers of the Mexican Republic and the Mexican Dairy Federation asked the government to refrain from presenting offers in the negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which are being carried out in Atlanta, Georgia, United States, that have not been agreed to by the national sector.

The National Front of Dairy Producers and Consumers demanded that the product be removed from the negotiations. Alvaro Gonzalez Muñoz, the group’s president, explained that the risks are very high, since the nations that make up the commercial bloc will offer very low prices for dairy products, which will lead to the bankruptcy of the majority of the 250,000 producers.

Vicente Gomez Cobo, president of the Mexican Dairy Federation, indicated that the national negotiators “should not use milk producers as a bargaining chip. We are not like textiles or patented medicines.”

Salvador Alvarez Moran, president of the Union of Dairy Producers of the Mexican Republic, explained that the sector is going through a profound crisis, created by the oversupply of milk on world markets, which has led to a 70 percent drop in prices in the last year and a half. “The situation could get worse if we include dairy in the TPP, since New Zealand is the main exporter of milk and cheeses in the world. Its competitive advantages allow it to produce milk at half of what it costs in Mexico.”

He referred to the Mexican dairy supply chain, which is made up of 250,000 farms, of which 96 percent have fewer than 100 heads of cattle, and which generate 635,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Both reported that the 240,000 dairy producers continue to confront a complicated situation due to the low prices they receive, which are below the costs of production. “Hundreds of small and medium producers are at risk of disappearing,” they indicated in separate interviews.

Gomez Cobo said that production costs have risen 30 percent due to the effects of the devaluation of the peso against the dollar, since 85 percent of inputs are priced in that currency.

Posted October 1, 2015 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

AgricultureTradeTPPFree trade agreements

Used under creative commons license from cafnr.

Trade ministers and negotiators are meeting this week in Atlanta in what might be the final round of negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Leaving aside the fact that they first announced a “final” round nearly two years ago, it does seem that they are down to a few sticking points. As in so many trade agreements, whether and how to include agriculture is one of those points of controversy. This time, much of the debate focuses on just how much the member countries must open their dairy markets to imports, and whether Canada will be compelled to weaken its dairy supply management program.

These demands come at a time when dairy producers in many countries are reeling from falling prices. After increases in global prices over the last few years, farmers in many countries increased production. Then conditions changed dramatically. Russia banned dairy imports from the U.S, EU and Australia. China substantially increased its own production. According to USDA reports, the price of non-fat dry milk (the main reference price) fell from $1.77 per pound in 2014 to about $0.89 as of September 2015.

Wild swings in supply and demand have pushed many dairy farmers over the edge. According to an article in Bloomberg Business, the U.S. has lost more than 76 percent of its dairy farms in the last 25 years. In the article, Andrew Novakovic, an economics professor at Cornell, said, “This is a problem of globalization. You are exposing yourself to a lot of risk without a lot of control.”

Sound familiar? One of the big lessons since the 2008–2009 food price crisis has been that volatile prices are bad for both farmers and consumers. And that too much dependence on fickle world markets is dangerous for food security. But the official answer to the dairy crisis that resulted from too much of a focus on global markets seems to be to open those markets wider and more permanently.

Canada’s dairy supply management program has helped to insulate it from these wild swings, but that sensible policy is under threat in TPP. In what sounds like a kind of shell game, several governments are demanding market opening under TPP, each with the idea of strengthening its access to the others’ markets. For several years now, New Zealand has made clear that one of its top priorities in TPP is to open U.S. and Japanese markets to imports of milk protein concentrate on behalf of Fonterra, which controls the vast majority of its production. The U.S. has said that it won’t increase access to its dairy market unless Canada opens its dairy markets to U.S. exports.

Canadian dairy farmers are pushing back, staging protests all over the country, including bringing cows and tractors to block traffic at the Parliament to protest the proposed TPP deal. They have made it a major issue in the electoral campaign, with current Prime Minister Stephen Harper claiming that he will safeguard the current system. Still, agriculture ministers for Ontario and Quebec, the two biggest dairy producing regions, decided to join the talks over concerns that the federal government would give up too much. Quebec Agriculture Minister Pierre Paradis said, "We want the minister, who left the federal campaign to go down there, to feel that this is a big deal."

The Dairy Division of the International Union of Food, Agriculture, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers Associations (IUF) issued a statement saying that, “we believe that sovereign democratic nations have the right to protect jobs and livelihoods in the interests of their peoples. For example, the supply management system in Canada provides price stability for producers and income stability for workers and has widespread democratic support within Canada. Its retention or otherwise should solely be for the people of Canada to decide, free from any intimidation or blackmail by corporate interests or by other nations.”

If dairy markets are opened under TPP, the end result won’t be just more milk being shipped across borders. It will undoubtedly lead to further bankruptcies of family farmers who are unable to cope with falling prices and rising costs, and greater control by a few big businesses. The driving force for these proposals is not farmers, consumers or even governments. It is agribusiness groups including the U.S. Dairy Export Council and Fonterra, the world’s largest dairy producer, for whom a “balanced” approach means opening up markets as much as possible.

The lessons of the past are clear. Trade agreements have been used as weapons against supply management programs, going back to NAFTA and the 1996 U.S. Farm Bill. Opening agriculture to “market” forces dominated by a few big producers results in greater corporate concentration, reduced bargaining power for smaller producers, and new challenges for fair and sustainable local economies. TPP is supposed to be a 21st Century trade agreement, but it looks like more of the same failed policies. It’s time to learn the lessons of history instead of just repeating them. 

Posted September 30, 2015 by Ben Lilliston   


Used under creative commons license from Andrew Barclay.

One year after it was launched at the UN Climate Summit in New York, the controversial Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture (GACSA) is at the center of an emerging international debate. Last week, more than 350 civil society organizations from around the world urged global decision-makers to oppose GACSA, charging that the initiative opens the door for agribusiness greenwashing while undermining agroecological solutions to climate change.

GACSA, housed at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is made up of 21 national governments, agribusiness interests (particularly the fertilizer industry) and some civil society groups. GACSA was formed to lobby international institutions, like the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to support agricultural production systems and projects deemed “climate smart.”

But with a murky governance structure, no solid criteria or definitions for what climate smart agriculture (CSA) is or isn’t, and heavy corporate influence, GACSA appears to be more of a marketing campaign than a positive way forward for agriculture in the age of climate change. In their open letter, civil society groups criticized “climate smart” agriculture’s lack of social or environmental safeguards and failure to prioritize farmers’ voices, knowledge and rights.  Without clear definitions, corporations such as Monsanto, Walmart, Syngenta and the world’s largest fertilizer company, Yara, have filled the void, branding themselves as “climate smart.”

Instead, the groups opposed to GACSA called for greater recognition of “agroecology within a food and seed sovereignty framework” to help the world adapt to a changing climate while contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, we “need a radical transformation of our food systems away from an industrial model and its false solutions, and toward food sovereignty, local food systems, and integral agrarian reform in order to achieve the full realization of the human right to adequate food and nutrition,” the groups wrote.

GACSA is part of a larger debate happening at international institutions (like the UNFCCC, the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization) and within national governments about how to integrate our understanding of climate change into agriculture and food policy. Last year, a letter signed by 70 scholars openly opposed the “climate smart” agriculture model, promoting instead the scientific and social legitimacy of agroecology. Agroecology, with a strong emphasis on community ownership, farmer knowledge and food sovereignty, poses a direct challenge to the corporate-led, chemically-intensive industrial model of food production.

The issue is also being debated at the Green Climate Fund (GFC, a funding mechanism to support developing country programs, established at the 2010 Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC in Cancun), which hopes to announce initial funding for projects prior to the December climate talks. The GCF should be a good match for supporting agroecology in developing countries. GCF projects need to provide broad environmental and social benefits–including a gender-sensitive approach. At least 50 percent of the GCF’s projects must focus on climate adaptation–what is most needed by developing countries. IATP contributed to a report earlier this year on exactly how the GCF could support agroecology.

U.S. government agencies are also considering how to integrate “climate smart” agriculture into their programs. The U.S. Agency for International Assistance (USAID)’s Feed the Future program sought comment earlier this month on integrating “climate smart” agriculture into their programs (See IATP’s comment to USAID, calling for a stronger emphasis on agroecology). The USDA is currently seeking comment on a new interagency report titled: Climate Change, Global Food Security, and the U.S. Food System In the U.S., we can expect the debate over what is and isn’t “climate smart” to escalate as we head into the writing of the next U.S. Farm Bill in 2018.

Right now, the focus of the climate smart debate is at the FAO, which hosts both GACSA and a series of international symposiums on agroecology. Later this year, global decision-makers at the UNFCCC meeting in Paris will consider whether to support a GACSA-driven agenda or farmer and community-led agroecology. GACSA has the backing of some enormously powerful political and economic interests that can lean heavily on international institutions. But those same interests are not immune from the impacts of climate change–including economic and political instability. When it comes to the future of agriculture, we can’t afford to choose GACSA-led marketing over agroecology’s proven track record. 

Posted September 28, 2015 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell   

Part of the meeting included area farm tours.

IATP’s long-time ally in Mexico, ANEC (the National Association of Producers' Enterprises) held a three-day conference recently (Aug. 31 – Sept. 2) celebrating its 20th anniversary, and more significantly, discussing what should be the next steps in creating an international agenda for agroecology in Latin America. Momentum in favor of agroecology is growing in response to a number of documents and events including our own report on Scaling Up Agroecology, several open letters by prominent scientists, International Seminars in Rome and Brasilia organized by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Nyéléni Declaration of the International Forum on Agroecology, and upcoming meetings in Senegal and Thailand, to name a few examples.  Building on that momentum, the meeting’s theme was “Peasant Economies and Agroecology: Social Movements, Knowledge Exchange, and Public Policies.”

The meeting included more than 300 participants from 16 countries and 15 Mexican states. Following the opening remarks of Olga Alcaraz (Secretary of ANEC’s Governing Board) and Victor Suárez (Executive Director of ANEC and former IATP board member), I gave my own welcoming comments (IATP assisted as co-coordinators of the conference). Looking out into the crowd before I began my formal talk, I asked how many campesinos[i] were in the audience; I figured there was a good number due to the many Stetson hats in the crowd. Around a third of the attendees—100 people or so—raised their hands. This, I noted, was an excellent sign, and one of the most exciting and significant elements of this anniversary and conference: there are very few conferences I have attended as a professor or as a staff member at a nonprofit that had so many farmer attendees. Having a critical mass of the people living the challenges we’re confronting is so important, and alongside the numerous extensionists and academics, the ANEC meeting showed the power of bringing scientists and farmers together directly to talk and exchange experiences. What’s more, the scientists in attendance included some of the most prominent agroecologists in Mexico and in the Americas more generally. The full program is available on ANEC’s website, but several highlights include Dr. Victor Toledo of the National University of Mexico, whose nearly 300 articles and presentations have again and again lent scientific support to the vibrancy and importance of campesino agriculture and innovation, and Dr. Clara Nicholls, the current president of the Latin American Scientific Society for Agroecology.

Those two prominent scientists barely scratch the surface of the numerous dedicated, knowledgeable, and deeply passionate researchers in attendance. And in addition to farmers, researchers, activists, university administrators, financial authorities, and representatives of charitable foundations who support agroecology, the new national Secretary of Agriculture of Mexico, José Eduardo Calzada Rovirosa, and the Mexican representative to the FAO, Dr. Fernando Agustín Soto Baquero gave remarks and support.

After presentations by many of these figures, the conference broke into working groups on Day Two. The groups covered five separate topics of fundamental importance to realizing and supporting peasant agroecology:

  • Peasant and social movements in agroecology
  • Technological alternatives and the dialogue of knowledges
  • Gender equality and inter-generational turnover
  • Biodiversity and climate change
  • Nutrition and food sovereignty

What’s interesting is that these five themes are relevant not just in Latin America, but in the U.S., and throughout the world. We’re seeing this in forum after forum, not just at the FAO Regional Meetings nor simply from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology in the UK, or even in recent discussion and debate with the European Parliament.  These themes appear in scholarly papers and demands by social movement members themselves. We’re seeing these their relevance in the continued study and implementation of “dialogues between ways of knowing” and alternative practices, in the focus on supporting women and youth and their leadership and also supporting men to assume a wider diversity of new and shared roles. And we continue to learn ever more about the potential for agroecology to support biodiversity, address climate change and resilience, and to enhance nutrition and food sovereignty.

The meeting in Mexico ended with a powerful joint statement, agreed to by acclamation from the conference floor, acknowledging that “Because the model of peasant agroecology is an alternative paradigm, not only for agriculture, food, and climate change, but for of all life against the collapse of civilization in which we live, we consider it a duty of solidarity and an unavoidable political commitment to share it, to divulge it, to advance it for all of our America.” The final statement also agreed to a number of commitments from the attendees, including:

  • To initiate a process in which we involve all to follow up on the agreements of this meeting; to build a space of convergence, of research and investigation in common.
  • To launch the permanent process of building a movement of peasant agroecology.
  • To generate networks between producers and consumers;
  • To push for gender equality at all levels: familial, organizational, societal and institutional, and to demand [corresponding] public policy and programs in all the countries.
  • To fight for and demand opportunities to celebrate and promote the role of young boys and girls in rural areas through educational reforms that recognize multiculturalism and multiple identities, and that provide jobs and other opportunities to facilitate intergenerational relief in the countryside.
  • To promote through all media the continuous interchange of both scientific and peasant knowledge and experiences as an actual alternative of agroecology.
  • To work with peasants, consumers, academics, and civil society organizations to articulate a proposal toward the transition, recognizing legally the collective rights of the indigenous peoples and peasants, promoting the conservation of the richness of biocultural patrimony and pushing for the development of agroecological lands, resilient and adaptable in the face of climate change.

[Some points have been summarized here for brevity; read the full declaration in Spanish or an English translation of the declaration.

With the FAO Regional Meetings on Agroecology in Africa and Asia to come this November, commitments from the ANEC meeting attendees to participate in worldwide days of action against free trade agreements (October 10–17, 2015), the upcoming United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris, possible regional meetings on agroecology in Europe and more still, we are seeing the beginning—and maybe beginning to see the middle—of the transition towards a truly just, sustainable, sovereign and agroecological system happening right before our eyes. That said, we cannot wait for it to happen. It will happen because we work together to keep this momentum, collectively and around the world, and keep pushing the agendas of agroecology forward.

Photos from the event and farm tour.

[i] “Campesino” translates more or less as “peasant”, but in Spanish it carries more of its original connotations of “a person of the land” and is not considered insulting as it is customarily in English. It refers to small and medium-scale farmers, who in many cases are experiencing the same struggles around the world—including in the US and Europe. For the purposes of this piece, I use campesino, peasant, and farmer interchangeably.

Posted September 16, 2015 by     Laurel Curran

TradeTPPFree trade agendaFree trade agreements

photo sourced from

At the end of July, trade negotiators and ministers representing 12 Pacific Rim countries failed to reach agreements on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), leaving the negotiations hanging. Ensconced behind closed doors at the Westin Resort and Spa in Ka’anapali Maui for over a week, representatives were apparently less unified than the hundreds of protestors representing human rights, environmental interests and Native Hawaiians who gathered outside on the Ka’anapali beach. Those activists collectively broke the Guinness World Record for the number of participants in a simultaneous conch shell blowing, a massive kahea (call) to “Stop the TPP by Land & by Sea.”

Protestors fear that continued prioritizing of corporate interests in global trade treaties will derail the ability of Hawaiians to determine the health of their communities and environment.

In a press release issued at the start of the talks, Kaleikoa Ka‘eo, professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii stated, “The TPP is a threat to our sovereignty as Native Hawaiians, and as human beings. This secret trade agreement would allow corporations to control decisions about how we live without any accountability to us, the people of this land.”

Lack of corporate accountability for public health and the environment is not a new topic in Hawaii, a state that is recognized as ground zero for some of the most controversial agribusiness behavior. Since the collapse of the Hawaiian sugar cane industry in the 1990s, the world’s leading biotech companies—Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, Dow and BASF—have descended on the state. Drawn to Hawaii for the year-round growing season, agribusiness has designated the islands as the premier location for the development of GMO and pharmaceutical crops. The Hawai’i GMO Justice Coalition estimates that GMO companies own or lease 40,000 – 60,000 acres in Hawaii for the development and testing of GE seed breeds – an industry that is worth $243 million. Of the 90 million acres of GMO corn grown last year on the U.S. mainland, almost all of it has Hawaiian ancestry.1

Counties in red indicate GMO test & development sites
Source: Pesticides In Paradise, EarthJustice

“Today, Hawai’i has more experimental field trials of genetically engineered crops than any other state in the nation, with operations on Kaui’I, O’ahu, Maui and Molka’i. Where sugar cane, taro, breadfruit and papaya once reigned, mile-long fields of genetically engineered corn now grow.” (Pesticides In Paradise, EarthJustice)

Public health concerns, fear of environmental consequences, and a lack of satisfactory regulation have prompted Hawaiians to create local laws that regulate the activities of biotech giants on the island. At the end of 2013, both Kauai County and Hawaii County passed local ordinances that attempted to mitigate the impact of the development of GM crops on local health and the environment.  Hawaii County Ordinance 13-121 banned biotech companies from expanding their operations to the Big Island, and prohibited cultivation of GM crops beyond papaya. Kauai’s Ordinance 960 required that Dow, Syngenta, BASF and DuPont Pioneer—who test and develop seed varieties on about 15,000 acres in Kauai County2—disclose their use of pesticides and GE crops, and establish pesticide-free buffer zones between fields and public areas, schools, hospitals and waterways. In 2014 a Maui County initiative created a temporary ban on GM crop production until the county could conduct its own environmental impact study.

These county laws sparked massive debates across the state about community rights to public health, and although the actions had public support, they were relatively short-lived. Within months DuPont, Pioneer and Syngenta filed a complaint in federal court challenging Ordinance 960, saying that their pesticide usage (which is ten times greater the national average for restricted-use pesticides),3 and development of GM plant breeds “present no unreasonable risks to the environment or public health,” and furthermore that any disclosure requirements of the use of pesticides and GM crops was “burdensome” and would “compromise Plantiff’s confidential commercial information and unnecessarily expose Plantiffs to risk of corporate espionage, vandalism and environmental terrorism.”4 Hawaii County’s ordinance was similarly challenged by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, as well as a number of grower associations in the county.5 Finally, the Maui County GM ban was challenged by Dow and Monsanto, which according to Honolulu Civil Beat, collectively raised nearly $8 million to challenge the initiative, while advocates of the ban have spent less than $83,000.

Eventually all three county actions were overturned by the U.S. District Court of Honolulu, which ruled that the ordinances are preempted by state and federal law. These disputes raise important questions about local democracy and community self-determination, and also illustrate the reasons for concern over the trade agreements that could broaden corporate control over local food systems. With increased ability to rely on “burdensome regulation” and the harmonization of standards across the Atlantic, multinationals will be able to advance a deregulatory agenda. State legislative measures designed to strengthen local economies will be at risk across the country.

Local policy innovators are fighting to create landmark state programs that promote a new vision for Hawaiian agriculture, or rather an old one, by investing in local agriculture to build sustainable and resilient systems of food production. In 2005 Hawaii enacted a measure that initiated the development of a modern sustainability plan for the island. The successor of the Hawai’i State Plan, Hawai’i 2050 is a state sustainability initiative that outlines goals and achievement indicators for the future of the island. The plan prioritizes “kanaka maoli,” Native Hawaiian tradition, while protecting the environment, natural resources, and promoting local food systems. The development of a stronger sustainability ethic, combined with grassroots efforts to promote local food and awareness of GMOs has prompted an upswing in sustainability-oriented policy, including:

(Abstracts sourced from official bill text summaries)

Act No. 097 Increases renewable portfolio standards to 30 percent by December 31, 2020, 70 percent by December 31, 2040, and 100 percent by December 31, 2045. Requires the Public Utilities Commission to include the impact of renewable portfolio standards, if any, on the energy prices offered by renewable energy developers and the cost of fossil fuel volatility in its renewable portfolio standards study and report to the Legislature.

Act No. 2013-55 Amends the Hawaii State Planning Act objectives and policies for the economy to support the purchase and consumption of locally grown food and food products, by residents, businesses and governmental bodies; provides for an effective promotion, marketing and distribution system.

HI S 875 2015 (Pending) Establishes, beginning January 1, 2016, labeling requirements for any food or raw agricultural commodity sold in the State that contains a genetically engineered material or was produced with a genetically engineered material; establishes exceptions; establishes violations; requires director of health to adopt rules.

At least 10 other bills are pending that work to regulate the growth and sale of GMO crops in the State.

HI S 1040 2015 (Pending) Requires Hawaii fresh produce or items made with Hawaii grown produce sold at farmers’ markets to be displayed with a label or sign containing an identity statement declaring the Hawaii produce’s county of geographic origin. Requires out of state produce sold at farmers’ markets to be displayed with a label or sign containing an identity statement declaring the produce “imported.”

HI S 1270 2015 (Pending) Requires all sweetened beverages to contain a warning label.

Laws of this kind, that have created renewable energy standards and local food procurement programs, as well as others under consideration to limit or label the use of GMOs in food, create nutrition disclosure standards, and regulate state-grown labeling, could be jeopardized by TPP rules that deem them to be “unnecessary” barriers to trade. Hawaii’s internal struggle with biotech multinationals is rooted in the same concern of the protestors on Kaanapali beach who fear the prioritization of global commitments over the local interests. The bottom line is that these trade agreements, which promise transparency and regulatory protections, in fact have the potential to devastate local economies’ and rural communities’ democratic efforts to promote and protect safe and sustainable food initiatives.

IATP will be publishing a series of fact sheets that outline different high-risk areas of state legislation that may be undermined by TPP and TTIP.







Posted August 26, 2015 by Dale Wiehoff   

Industrialized MeatLivestock

If predictions are correct that another round of avian flu will hit this fall, we need to quickly step back and take a hard look at how last spring’s avian influenza disaster played out.  A question that is getting little attention is what happened to the almost 50 million dead birds and the risks associated with their disposal?

The first reports in December of 2014 didn’t hint at the tsunami of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) that was about to come crashing down on the U.S. poultry industry. Backyard flocks in Oregon and Washington set off the alarm bells. On December 19 it was confirmed that a backyard flock in Douglas County, Oregon was infected with HPAI H5N8, a strain of avian flu that was raging through Europe, infecting poultry from Italy to Holland.

The Douglas County flock was incinerated on December 21, 2014. By July 31 of 2015, the USDA reported that close to 48.1 million birds in the US died from the H5N2 strain. Most of the confirmed infections occurred in April and May with Minnesota and Iowa the hardest hit states. After “depopulating” (killing) the infected flocks, there remained the issue of how to dispose of at least 100,000 tons of dead birds without spreading the virus through the air, dust or water.

The USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has just launched a review of carcass disposal as it prepares recommendations for the next round of Avian Influenza expected this fall. In July, when Dr. John Clifford of APHIS testified before Congress on the response plans to halt the spread of infection, he said, “Our experience in the Midwest showed that the biggest roadblock to efficient depopulation (which is key to reducing the spread of the virus) is the lack of ready sites to receive and process dead birds.” The startling takeaway message from APHIS is that the poultry industry needs to build into their business model the disposal of millions of birds.

In the past, Avian Influenza outbreaks occurred periodically and affected particular regions of the world, but more recently it has gone global.  According to Food and Chemical News, at the June 2015 conference of the Global Alliance for Research on Avian Disease (GARAD), Professor Ian Brown, director of the EU/FAO/OIE Reference Library for Avian Influenza, stated that avian flu will remain a threat to global food security for many years to come, “Strains of H5 highly pathogenic avian flu have become ‘truly panzootic,’ affecting poultry and wild birds globally," Brown told delegates.


Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza outbreaks 2005 - 2013
Source: World Organization for Animal Health


Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza outbreaks 2013 - 2015
Source: World Organization for Animal Health

At the first signs of infections, a white feathered curtain descended around the industrial poultry operations. Strict bio-security measures and response plans were put in place. The protocols are designed to stop the spread of the disease, but they did little to protect the more than nine million birds that were lost in Minnesota or birds in 21 other states. In just a few months, three percent of the U.S. annual turkey production and ten percent of its egg-laying population was wiped out.

The USDA and state agencies responsible for protecting livestock health blame migrating wild birds. In Minnesota, an investigation of this theory by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) failed to find strong evidence to support it. The next culprit accused of spreading the flu was the wind. It is still unclear how the virus entered so many bio-secure facilities, but every effort possible was made to keep the public from seeing the massive carnage that was taking place.

Few images were made public and little to no information on the actual location of the infected flocks was given out. Even today, with some barns already restocking, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health is not allowed to provide information on where the H5N2 outbreaks in Minnesota occurred because “the information is private/non-public pursuant to Minn. Stat. 13.643.subd. 6.” The USDA provided a list of counties across the country with the dates of confirmed infections, depopulation and restocking, but the public is prevented from knowing exactly where these facilities are and where the carcasses were disposed. This effort to keep agricultural information from the public is part of a larger effort to establish “ag gag” laws across the country designed to protect agribusiness against charges of animal cruelty.

The preferred depopulation method by the USDA for on-floor flocks is a water-based foam used by fire departments, which smothers the birds. Minnesota state veterinarian Bill Harmann is looking into the Canadian use of carbon dioxide gas to asphyxiate poultry.  APHIS has proposed another method: shutting off the ventilation system and letting the birds die from their own heat. This is controversial because of the pain it would cause the birds, but Dr. Clifford defends it:

“You can only take out about 100,000-plus birds a day out of one house and carbon dioxide those,” he said, when there are farms with millions of birds that have to be euthanized. “We need to allow all tools to be used in the toolbox.  Any delay in putting birds down puts more virus into the environment.”

After the birds are dead, they’re disposed of by incineration, burial in landfills or composting. While the protocols and response plans are all very specific and detailed, actual experience in the U.S. with HPAI disposal of millions of birds with highly infectious diseases is still relatively new. Both burial in landfills and incineration have the drawback of needing to transport the carcasses off site, with the risk of spreading disease. Landfills, in addition to transportation risks, have the added disadvantage of the possibility of disease and waste leaching into the soil and water. Despite the risks, in this most recent outbreak of H5N2, incineration or burial in landfills were used almost exclusively with egg laying chickens and backyard flocks. Egg laying barns are full of cages and water and waste handling equipment that would have made in barn composting difficult.

Early experiments with composting as a disposal method for AI infected poultry go back as far as 1984, but composting didn’t come into its own until 2002, with broilers in the Del Marva Peninsula. In 2007, a little more than a million pounds of turkey carcasses infected with Low Pathogenic Avian Influenza (LPAI) H5N2 were composted. Composting works best in barns where the birds are kept on the floor and where the dead can be moved with a front end loader into piles and layered with wood chips, creating large rounded windrows where the birds decompose and the heat generated destroys the virus. It is safest to build the compost piles inside the barn to minimize the risk of spreading the disease while moving carcasses out of doors.

After a set period of time with the compost piles heating up, being turned and tested, the final step is to spread the finished compost on fields as fertilizer rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (N-P-K.)

The task of removing thousands of tons of dead birds is left to the operators of the poultry barns. The federal government has spent $191 million to help with the disposal of poultry carcasses in what is described as indemnification. In mid-April, Dr. Clifford reported that the USDA had already spent $15 million in Minnesota alone. How much of this money goes to poultry barn operators is not clear. In an industry dominated by four major chicken processors (Tyson, Pilgrims, Sanderson and Perdue) the farmers who contract with them are at a distinct disadvantage (note: strong language). Hormel is the turkey processor that owned most of the turkeys that died in Minnesota.

As we face the prospect of millions more birds dying from HPAI we need to ask what is the best way to get rid of all the dead birds. Is spreading thousands of tons of composted diseased birds on open fields safe for animals and humans? What if all the virus isn’t destroyed in the compost piles? What will happen when the disease strikes again? Who is looking out for the health and welfare of the farm operators who have to clean up after the disease? What happens if the virus mutates and crosses the species barrier and infects humans? And the biggest question of all, why are we continuing to raise poultry in a way that creates all this waste, suffering and risk to human health? 

Posted August 17, 2015 by Ben Lilliston   

AgricultureAgroecologyClimateClimate Change

Used under creative commons license from Ashish Kothari.

Farmers of Deccan Development Society, Andhra in a biodiverse field.

When it comes to climate change, money can’t solve everything, but it can help. The Green Climate Fund (GCF) is one of the most promising new vehicles to finance climate initiatives in developing countries already particularly hard hit by extreme weather. The GCF is gearing up to announce its initial round of approved projects prior to the global climate talks in Paris this December. But the GCF’s success, and whether it can break from past failures of other multilateral banks, will depend not only on the amount of money it’s able to raise from donor countries but also on the type of projects it supports.

A new report by the Institute for Policy Studies and Friends of the Earth U.S. provides a roadmap for future GCF funding. The report, with contributions from many organizations including IATP, highlights 22 energy and agricultural projects from developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

IATP helped to feature agroecology projects in Mexico, India, Malawi and Tanzania. The Deccan Development Society in India works in 75 villages with 5,000 women members on building greater autonomy in food production, successfully converting over 10,000 acres of degraded agricultural land into active cultivation. The Soil, Food and Health Communities project in Malawi focuses on agroecology and farmer-led research to improve food security, soil fertility and child nutrition. The National Association of Rural Commercialization Enterprises (ANEC) works with 10 regional networks of small and medium-sized farmers of basic grains to build a new model that is climate-resilient, profitable, grounded in gender and generational equity, and is peasant-driven. And the Chololo EcoVillage in Tanzania works with communities on climate adaptation innovations in agriculture, livestock, water, energy and forestry.

What makes the report a must-read for the GCF is not only the projects featured but the common characteristics that contributed to these initiatives’ success:

  • Deep, local roots with active, inclusive participation of affected communities, with special attention paid to the most vulnerable;
  • Recognition and respect for peoples’ rights;
  • Recognition of the important role of women;
  • Multiple benefits, including social and environmental, that extend well beyond climate change;
  • Emphasis on partnerships and decision-making structures that include multiple stakeholders (civil society organizations, government, public and private sector) at each stage;
  • Policy actions at the national level that support the projects at the local level;
  • Capacity building and technical assistance that ensure success; and
  • Grants, either fully or partially funding projects, allow for flexibility, experimentation and innovation.

These characteristics are consistent with many of the pillars and principles of agroecology outlined in the landmark Nyeleni Declaration earlier this year. The profile of agroecology is rising. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) hosted an international symposium on agroecology last year and is holding a series of three regional meetings (including one last month in Brazil) this year. A growing number of scientists have come out in support of agroecology’s ability to “produce food in ecologically sustainable and socially just ways.”

The Green Climate Fund appears on the surface to be a good match for supporting agroecology in developing countries. The Fund is meant to be innovative, and to support country-driven responses that result in a paradigm shift toward low-emission, highly adaptive systems. GCF projects should also provide broad environmental and social benefits–including a gender-sensitive approach. At least 50 percent of the GCF’s projects must focus on climate adaptation–what is most needed by developing countries.

Yet, there are concerns about the GCF. Last month, the GCF approved Deutsche Bank as an accredited entity to channel GCF funds into programs and projects in developing countries. Friends of the Earth’s Karen Orenstein and Action Aid’s Brandon Wu point out that Deutsche Bank has a dark history as a top coal financier and recent legal issues around money laundering and tax evasion. It’s still an open question whether the GCF will repeat the mistakes of the World Bank and other multilateral banks by catering to the needs of wealthy countries and corporate interests.

Thus far, more than $10 billion has been pledged to the GCF by 36 countries. More than 120 project ideas have been submitted and the GCF hopes to approve an initial round of projects worth $500 million before the Paris meeting in December.

The Obama Administration has committed $3 billion to the GCF, including a first installment of $500 million in its 2016 budget proposal making its way through Congress. The House of Representatives has attempted to block  the proposed GCF funding. The Senate has shown more support. The future of the Obama Administration’s proposed GCF funding will be tied to much bigger, long-term funding battles in Congress which could extend into the holidays.

In the coming months, we’ll learn a lot more about the future of the GCF and whether it will support a paradigm shift toward agroecology that is so badly needed to address our climate challenge. 

Posted August 13, 2015 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

Free trade agreements

Analyzing agriculture in trade negotiations as they occur is a little like playing blind man’s bluff. However, in a negotiations “game” with myriad consequences for the domestic regulations that protect public and environmental health and worker safety, among other public interests, the public is blind-folded throughout the negotiations.  The other players are industry lobby groups and governments jockeying to achieve commercial advantage, often by removing regulatory “irritants” to trade through their privileged access to the negotiations process.

And the U.S. mainstream media are happy to play along with the game, as long as they get an occasional sneak peek at negotiations texts that the Obama administration denies to the public. For example, of the latest Transpacific Partnership (TPP) negotiating sessions, the New York Times writes, “A copy of the still incomplete intellectual property chapter, viewed by the New York Times, shows just how isolated the United States’ position is."

A  Times editorial in June noted complacently, “[b]ecause trade agreements are understandably secret while they are being negotiated, it is hard to determine who is right,” the TPP proponents or critics. This editorial support for the Obama administration policy of denying public access to draft negotiations texts allows the Times to both have privileged access to the negotiations text and yet not be obliged to determine which claims about the TPP are right.

Recent leaks of the TPP intellectual property chapter uncover perhaps the most contentious chapter for the non-U.S. TPP negotiator–patent enforced pricing that blocks access to essential medicines. However, completion of the TPP negotiations is also blocked by serious disputes over agricultural market access opportunity offers. Some of the traditional forces of opposition to the demands of agribusiness exporters, such as the Japanese farmer cooperatives, reportedly have lost political and economic influence to defend their rice and beef markets. At this point, the agriculture market access fight is focusing on U.S. sugar and Canadian dairy import quotas. Import quotas are crucial features of U.S. de facto and Canadian de jure supply management.

Trading off agricultural access opportunity offers

Traditionally, trade negotiations consist of trade-offs, usually within the same economic sector. In the TPP negotiations, Australia says that it will offer market access for U.S. beef exports, if the U.S. increases market access for Australian sugar (“Angling for Sugar Access, Australia Allows Imports of Some U.S. Beef,” Inside U.S. Trade, July 16, 2015, subscription required). The U.S. sugar industry lobbies the U.S. Trade Representative to not allow increased market access and USTR Michael Froman has promised the TPP negotiations “won’t undermine the sugar program” (Cited in “USTR Stands Strong with U.S. Sugar Producers,” American Sugar Alliance, July 2015,

The U.S. quotas for sugar imports perform a supply management function without the mandatory production restrictions that would be part of a statutory supply management program. The American Sugar Alliance, which represents farmers, explains on their website that “unneeded sugar from a TPP agreement could swamp the domestic market and trigger a taxpayer cost to U.S. sugar policy, which is projected to run at no cost over the life of the 2014 Farm Bill.” The National Confectioners’ Association (candy companies and other sweetener users) is lobbying hard to have the TPP remove U.S. sugar import quotas, which will trigger Farm Bill payments to sugar cane and sugar beet farmers, as the price of sugar collapses.

The USTR defense of the de facto sugar supply management program does not preclude it from attacking Canada’s dairy supply management program. Canadian import barriers are one part of a supply management program that has kept Canadian dairy prices, high, stable and above the cost of production.  The National Farmers Union of Canada testified to its Senate in June that grain and cattle farmers and ranchers without supply management had suffered under Canadian trade agreements. Included in that testimony, however, were more positive comments: “ Canada’s supply management system is a success story for farmers, consumers, processors and governments. Canadian dairy producers obtain their income from the marketplace, not from government subsidies as occurs in most other countries. Canadian consumers have a reliable supply of wholesome milk, chicken, eggs and turkey. Processors have the predictability that allows them to operate at near full-capacity and avoid the cost of idled plant space that is common in other jurisdictions.”The debate over supply management is likely to figure prominently in the that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called for in October.

In July, on the eve of what had been billed as the concluding round of the TPP, the Democratic and Republican heads of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee wrote to the U.S. Ambassador to Canada with an ultimatum: "In fact, our support for a final TPP agreement that includes Canada is contingent on Canada's ability to meet the TPP's high standards" (“Hatch, Wyden Pressure Canada for ‘Significant’ Ag Market Access in TPP,” Inside U.S. Trade, July 24, 2015).

The “high standards” in question, write Senators Orrin Hatch and Ron Wyden, concern dismantling Canada’s dairy supplement management program to enable more U.S. dairy exports. Indeed, dismantling Canadian dairy supply would be a U.S. prerequisite for allowing dairy imports from any TPP member, above all from New Zealand, which exports milk protein concentrate (MPC), a dry powder containing 40-90 percent of the protein of milk. U.S. dairy importers use MPC, as it is cheaper than using U.S. milk or milk powder, for “cheese products.” New Zealand has dismissed the U.S. dairy import offer as not serious. (“Lawmakers, Dairy Groups Say TPP Export Gains Needed If U.S. To Open Its Market,” Inside U.S. Trade, April 6, 2015, subscription required.) New Zealand and the U.S. have dismissed the latest Canadian market access offer as insufficient (“Canada Offers Several TPP-wide TRQs [tariff rates quotas] On Dairy Products, Poultry,” Inside U.S. Trade, August 6, 2015. Subscription required).

The U.S. Dairy Export Council, the National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association have sent a joint letter with New Zealand and Australian dairy export associations to their trade officials demanding an “ambitious” TPP. The result of the ambition would be to import cheap MPC and export more expensive “cheese” and other dairy products to TPP members.

Ben Burkett, a Mississippi farmer and president of the U.S. National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) summarized the threat that MPC imports represent to U.S. dairy farmers: “With just under 50,000 dairy farmers left in the U.S., they deserve to have sensible policies enacted on a domestic level, not to be crushed by unfair trade deals that threaten their ability to recover their costs of production. It makes no sense for our nation's dairy farmers to compete against dairy farmers in New Zealand and Australia, the lowest-cost producers in the world,” said Burkett. “We are also anxious about the expanded imports of milk substitutes, such as Milk Protein Concentrate, which could be substituted in many products without being labeled clearly for customers.” The NFFC lobbied for a dairy supply management program in the 2014 Farm Bill.

Some costs of export agriculture without supply management

The lack of U.S. dairy supply management results in chaotic dairy production and plunging prices. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2015, dairies in Michigan and the Northeastern U.S. dumped 30 million gallons of milk into waste disposal systems, because they didn’t have the capacity to process the milk.  A 30 percent fall in liquid milk prices in 2015 has been offset partly by lower cattle feed costs. But an anticipated further drop in milk prices next year, due in part to imports, will return U.S. dairy farmers to a too familiar situation—selling milk to U.S. dairy processors at below the cost of production.

The United States dismantled the last vestiges of its supply management programs, with the notable exception of the sugar program, in the 1996 Farm Bill. Not surprisingly, prices for dairy and other commodities collapsed well below the cost of production , triggering billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to save export driven agriculture from another market failure. Currently, farmers in Minnesota planting GM corn are projected to lose an average of $244 per acre, due to low prices on the futures markets and record high costs of production. It is not unusual for a Minnesota corn and soybean farm to be 1,000 acres or larger, meaning a $250,000 per farm operator loss in 2015.

In the absence of programs to sensibly manage supply, U.S. taxpayer funded revenue insurance and other forms of what the World Trade Organization calls Aggregate Measures of Support (AMS) will rise to about $12.4 billion in 2015, partially offsetting a projected U.S. farmer income loss in row crop and livestock sales of about $25.8 billion. The United States has demanded that AMS payment definitions and levels not be negotiated in the Doha Round (D. Ravi Kanth, “Azevedo pursuing his controversial ideas to help the U.S., other ICs [Industrialized Countries],” South North Development Monitor (SUNS email edition), #8074, August 3, 2015. Subscription required). AMS payments are not discussed in the TPP.

Whether or not the U.S. AMS payments, calculated with reference to out of date 1986-88 prices, comply with its WTO commitments, U.S. agribusiness will be exporting grains and oilseeds, and meat and dairy products fed with those grains and oilseeds, at below the cost of production, transportation and insurance. In other words, U.S. agribusiness will resume the export dumping that IATP documented for row crops from 1996 to 2005. The United States is zealous in pursuing anti-dumping cases in other industrial sectors, e.g. China’s solar energy industry. But dump corn or soy into Japan, Malaysia, Peru, Mexico or other prospective TPP members? No problem with the WTO or if the TPP is concluded.


In light of the success of the sole U.S. supply management program for sugar in preventing taxpayer subsidies, why do the Senators wish to export U.S. dairy products at prices that will again trigger more taxpayer-funded subsidies to farmers deprived of supply management by law? Why do the Senators wish to allow a flood of MPC imports from New Zealand’s dairy monopoly, Fonterra, further depressing liquid milk prices? A simple answer is that dismantling Canadian dairy supply management benefits the U.S. dairy processing industry that is advocating for the end to Canadian dairy import quotas as the pre-condition for its support of TPP. Furthermore, the demands of the sugar processing industry to dismantle the sugar program are threatening to win in the TPP what the processing lobby could not win in the Farm Bill.

The more complicated answer concerns two U.S. tacit trade objectives: 1) to continue to export agricultural commodities at below the cost of production (export dumping) while degrading the capacity of other TPP members to do so; 2) to eliminate state intervention in agriculture and other industrial sectors while maintaining massive taxpayer subsidies, direct and indirect to U.S. headquartered transnational corporations.

The broader issue of what subsidies are for, as well as the role of State Owned Enterprises (such as agricultural marketing boards that use supply management), deserves a fuller debate. But in the TPP, the subordination of all agricultural policy to increasing market access is very unlikely to produce trade-offs that will benefit farmers, ranchers or rural communities.

Posted August 12, 2015 by Tara Ritter   


Last week, President Obama announced the Clean Power Plan, the United States’ strongest climate policy to date. The plan aims to reduce coal-fired power plant emissions by allowing states to devise their own plans to reach federally-mandated emissions reduction targets. This choose-your-own-adventure policy could send states down very different paths, some worse for the environment and community resilience than others.

A bragging point for the Clean Power Plan is its flexibility; all currently identified low-carbon energy sources can play a role in state plans, including natural gas, nuclear, hydropower and other renewables. But despite the low-carbon nature these energy technologies share, they differ greatly in overall community and environmental benefit. Natural gas is abundantly available today due to controversial fracking technology (most of which occurs near rural communities); hydropower requires dam construction (sometimes on massive scales); and nuclear power comes with the risk of disastrous accidents, issues around extraction and long-term storage problems.

The final Clean Power Plan rule does emphasize renewable energy and energy efficiency over natural gas; a “Clean Energy Incentive Program” provides credits that can be traded later as part of emissions trading systems to states that expand wind, solar and energy efficiency efforts in the two years before state implementation plans take effect. However, shifting from coal to natural gas is one of the three building blocks EPA used in calculating state goals, so states are still permitted to emphasize natural gas in their implementation plans, even if it’s not incentivized. Shifting from one fossil fuel to another is not a sustainable energy future for any state, even if it slightly reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

The autonomy that the Clean Power Plan gives to the states can and will be used in different ways. While some states may choose to make up for coal reductions by shifting to natural gas, others may embrace the opportunity to develop and grow localized renewable energy policies based on wind and solar. The benefits of such localized policies are numerous: in addition to being carbon-free, renewables such as wind and solar have fewer negative environmental impacts, create jobs and boost local economies.

The Made in Minnesota Solar Incentive Program is a success story of one such localized renewable energy policy. The program started in 2013 to incentivize customers to install photovoltaic and solar thermal systems using products certified as manufactured in Minnesota. Customers are paid based on the production of their renewable energy system. Each year, customers receive a check based on the amount of kilowatt hours of energy their system produced. This year, over 500 businesses, homeowners and nonprofits entered a lottery for Made in Minnesota funding, far exceeding the program’s resources. If the program had the capacity to fund all the applications, Minnesota would have doubled its solar capacity in one year.

The program’s budget is $15 million over 10 years, and is funded in large part by public electric utilities’ Conservation Improvement Program (CIP) budgets. CIP budgets, mandated by the state of Minnesota, require public electric utilities to invest 1.5% of their state revenues in energy efficiency or renewable energy projects. Made in Minnesota customers are hooked up to the grid, so the incentive program helps the public electric utilities reach their current state-mandated goal of producing 1.5% of their electricity using solar by 2020. This percentage may increase once Minnesota crafts its implementation plan for the Clean Power Plan.

“I guarantee that most clients would never have installed a solar system without a little help from the government,” said John Kramer, CEO of Sundial Solar, a Minnesota-based company that consults on and performs solar panel installations. “The purpose of these programs is to demonstrate that solar is worth it. This is a technology that can be beneficial for everybody.”

So what’s stopping states from doubling down on localized renewable energy programs in their Clean Power Plan state implementation plans? Kramer thinks it’s partially ideological. “Some people think [solar incentives] milk taxpayers,” he said, “but they don’t realize all the subsidies that big gas and oil get.”

This is a valid point - a 2015 International Monetary Fund analysis estimated that oil and gas subsidies will amount to $5.3 trillion worldwide in 2015. That’s greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments. And some critics think that figure is underestimated because it doesn’t account for the costs that climate change will incur as a direct result of burning fossil fuel. On the other hand, subsidies for renewable energy are estimated at $120 billion for 2015. That means that renewable energy subsidies will amount to just over 2% of the money spent on fossil fuel subsidies this year.

It’s not only fossil fuel subsidies that cause other energy technologies to win out over renewables such as solar. Fracking has led to an abundance of natural gas and the technology has gotten cheaper in recent years. But even though natural gas is cheap and burns cleaner than coal, fracking has a long list of negative impacts. Rural communities are disproportionately hit by these negative impacts, which include water contamination, earthquakes, land grabbing and methane pollution.

Even certain renewables pose large risks to the environment, human health and community well-being, despite clean energy generation and cost effectiveness. Hydropower is widely used, cost effective and will play a large part in many state implementation plans. Hydropower accounted for 68.75% of Washington’s total electricity generation in 2013, and many northern states, including Minnesota, have the opportunity to import large amounts of hydropower from Canada. However, dam construction can pose considerable threats to biodiversity and habitat, and can increase some vector-borne diseases that threaten human health. Perhaps more importantly, the dams that fuel hydropower imports from Canada are already displacing tribes and altering their native lands, and will continue to do so if renewable energy standards in the United States permit for more imported hydropower.

Nuclear power is another contender for inclusion in state implementation plans. The United States generates over 30% of the world’s nuclear generation of electricity and new reactors are still being built. Nuclear plants have a comparatively long life (60 years versus the 30 years for a natural gas plant) and they do not emit carbon dioxide. But nuclear power’s problems start at the source and continue throughout the energy production process. Uranium mining, most of which has occurred on tribal lands in the southwestern United States, produces toxic mining waste that contaminates water and increases radiation levels. To make things worse, mining often occurs without the tribes’ consent. In addition, nuclear plants are not immune to human error and natural disasters, and a nuclear accident can release radiation that lingers in the environment for years. It’s clear that states must consider more than cost and emissions reductions when designing their implementation plans over the next one to three years.

Successful localized renewable energy programs, like Made in Minnesota, demonstrate the feasibility of expanding technologies like wind and solar that do more than lower greenhouse gas emissions. Now is the time for states to look at the whole picture and move down a path of sustainability that includes economics and carbon accounting, but values environmental quality, human health and community resilience as well.

Posted August 5, 2015 by Ben Lilliston   

Farmers are no different from any buyer – they want to know what they’re buying, how much it costs and its expected performance. But in the brave new world of agricultural seeds, where multiple traits and technology are stacked like Microsoft’s operating system, it’s becoming more and more difficult for farmers to separate out what is really needed and discover how much each piece is costing them. In the case of neonicotinoid (neonic) seed coatings used as a pesticide, both the effectiveness and costs are somewhat of a mystery, according to a new paper published by IATP today.

As farm income is expected to drop more than 30 percent from last year, farmers are carefully examining all input costs to see where they can save. With their financial cost and actual effectiveness unclear, neonic seed coatings may be one of those places to cut costs. But the real cost of neonics likely goes well beyond the input price. A growing body of science directly implicates neonicotinoid (neonic) pesticides as a contributor to the significant decline of bees and other pollinators. Neonics are applied in multiple ways in agriculture and horticulture but are most prevalent as a seed coating material for commodity crops like corn and soybeans. Based on convincing and mounting evidence, beekeepers, scientists and other individuals concerned about pollinators are working together to spur regulatory action and shifts in the marketplace to reduce the use of neonics.

In May 2015, the White House issued an interagency National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and other Pollinators.  The strategy focuses on efforts to restore honey bee loss, increase monarch butterfly populations and restore pollinator habitats. But the White House plan virtually ignores the on-the-ground farm economics that directly contribute to rising neonic use in seed coatings – specifically the role of a few large companies that have a stranglehold on the seed market. This concentrated market power in the seed industry has allowed a few multi-billion dollar companies like Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto to significantly limit U.S. farmers’ choices around seed coating.

In most cases the seed is coated with neonics whether wanted or not and our paper found that this lack of choice has made it difficult for farmers and their advisors to assess the actual value of these pesticides in crop production, or to understand their true financial and environmental costs. Most farmers understand the value of pollinators to plant growth and the food system and would not intentionally harm them.  However, without credible information on the risks or the freedom to choose their seed coating, farmers are left with little choice but to accept what their seed company delivers.   

The good news is that there are independent seed companies and dealers able today to provide farmers with information and choice around seed coatings. Representing a small segment of a highly consolidated industry, independent seed producers and dealers are able and willing to respond to market changes and farmer preferences associated with not only neonics, but also other areas of market interest, such as non-genetically modified organisms (GMOs), certified organic, cover and specialty crops. But a farmer’s ability to choose what kind of seed coatings they want as part of their crop management system should be the rule, not the exception, in the seed market. 

One of the most basic and necessary aspects of a free market is available and accurate information about products and their efficacy, cost and benefits. It should go without saying, then, that in a competitive marketplace, farmers should receive accurate, up-to-date information from researchers and other farmers at field days about the costs and benefits of neonics and other seed coatings related to both crop production and the environment, including pollinators. Yet, this isn’t happening with neonics or other seed coating ingredients today. We need credible, farmer-led field trials that compare different seed coatings and traits, and that information should be shared with other farmers. And those findings should be compared with the effectiveness and costs of other pest control approaches, such as integrated pest management (IPM), that have proven benefits and economic returns. Only with complete information and choice – about neonics and other crop management tools – can farmers make smart choices that allow them to produce crops and take care of pollinators and the environment.

You can read the full paper: Unknown Benefits, Hidden Costs: Neonicotinoid seed coatings, crop yields and pollinators.

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