Posted August 9, 2013 by Anna Claussen   

AgricultureFood AssistanceFarm Bill

Representative Tim Walz addresses the crowd at the 32nd annual Farmfest.

Farmfest is the largest farm show in Minnesota, bringing farmers together to talk about and see the latest in tractors, seeds, and other farm-related equipment. But Farmfest also brings out the politicians to talk about what is happening with agricultural policies and markets. With no farm bill in place,  the question understandably on everyone’s minds at this year’s policy panel was “What’s next?” While the policymakers in attendance did a pretty good job of explaining how we got  where we are today, the future of farm policy was left unclear.

Representatives Colin Peterson and Tim Walz, both of whom are on the House Agricultural Committee and participated in the policy discussion, gave their perspectives on why Congress still hasn’t passed a Farm Bill. Peterson and Walz pointed to the relatively speedy and nonpartisan work of the House and Senate agricultural committees, as well as the ongoing support of both parties’ leadership; they made clear that the fault didn’t lie there. Instead, the blame was leveled squarely at Eric Cantor and his fellow right-wing Republicans, who broke with their party’s leadership and scuttled the deal that the agricultural committee had developed. Both representatives were quite pessimistic of the possibility of passing a Farm Bill in the remaining months of 2013; Representative Peterson suggested that a 2-year extension was the most likely outcome, followed by many questions about whether we would actually have a Farm Bill (as we know it today) ever again.

While Peterson and Walz reminded the audience that agricultural policy has mostly been able to avoid such partisan battles until now, the ongoing stalemate over the Farm Bill and nutrition programs makes clear that even this sector is no longer exempt. The threat of removing the nutrition programs from the Farm Bill was identified by politicians and farmers to be a death sentence for any future Farm Bill legislation. Others recognized the split as potentially contributing to the growing perspective that agriculture is a special interest. Dale Moore with the American Farm Bureau reminded Farmfest attendees that the nutrition program is an integral part of the Farm Bill and should remain—not solely for political leverage with our urban legislators, or because it is our moral obligation to put food on the table for those less fortunate, but because 23 cents of each dollar go back to farmers.

Despite the grave circumstances of what many panelists agreed to be one of the strangest Farm Bill processes ever seen, Representative Walz did speak with optimism and conviction that we can come up with policy that is "viscerally smart, that keeps to our moral values and that creates prosperity for our community by coming together." While most of the discussion was about the details and missteps in the policy work, Walz did volunteer what he saw as the more basic cause of the failure of this policy and many others. He suggested that the real source of the disfunction in Congress was redistricting. Led by state legislatures, there has been a widespread redrawing of House districts in recent years that has resulted in many overly partisan and “secure” districts. Such politically homogeneous electorates—whether on the right or on the left—do not, from Representative Walz’s perspective, provide the right environment from which politicians can emerge who understand and respect the role of compromise in politics and policy. As a result, we have politicians who authentically represent their districts in their overt unwillingness to negotiate or understand alternative positions to their own. Representative Waltz urged the crowd to crank up the heat on legislators who are unwilling to understand that “compromise is not a capitulation of your values, it’s the glue that holds the democracy together." Quoting Ronald Reagan, Walz continued, “if they can’t see that light, at least make them feel the heat,” and urged Farmfest attendees to put pressure on legislators to pass a Farm Bill to give the American people the certainty they deserve.

Bob Worth, Vice President of the Soybean Growers Association, said that it is really the next generation of farmers who have the most to lose with no Farm Bill in place. Our beginner farmers don’t have the equity—they need the safety nets, the certainty and the support programs. Too many in Congress, according to Dale Moore, fail to understand that we don’t write Farm Bills for the good times, Farm Bills are for the bad times. In the midst of'good times for agriculture—at this 32nd annual Farmfest, boasting a record 600-plus exhibitors—Moore's point hopefully served as a subtle and timely reminder. While we get rightly frustrated with the long-delayed and politically divisive Farm Bill process, it is important to recognize the important role this piece of legislation plays. At its best, farm policy could help create a diverse agricultural economy that generates public goods and services through integrated programs for conservation and production, build resiliency in agriculture and strenghen the safety net we need for a reliable, safe and accessible food system.

Posted August 8, 2013 by Andrew Ranallo   

Ask anyone who's been working on policy-change or advocacy efforts in any arena long enough and they’ll tell you: Change takes time. Except in very rare cases, big, noticeable shifts take years—often decades—of work by countless people, working on all levels and in different ways to achieve change. On one hand, this glacial pace makes sense. After all, it took years to get where we are—a climate on the fritz, food for some while others go hungry, a financial system that is more akin to an online casino—why should getting somewhere else be any quicker? On the other hand, if we aren’t able to think big about the changes we want, and get caught up in little victories, we risk losing sight of our real goals.

It is in this spirit that Oxfam held an online discussion last year calling on experts from across the food and development policy world to write a series of essays focused on four “big picture” questions:

  • What if all farmers had adequate risk management systems to deal with climate trends and shocks, as well as with price volatility in input and product markets?
  • What if fossil fuels were no longer required in any form of input to global agricultural production?
  • What if all farmers, male and female, had full and equal control over the necessary resources for farming, and over the outputs of their labor?
  • What if the ideas and innovations of resource-poor farmers leading to improvements of their natural resource base were supported by adequate access to public and private sector investments?

IATP’s Sophia Murphy was invited to submit one of 23 essays that formed the basis of the spirited, online debate about what was possible. Murphy's essay, “Risky Business”, focuses on opportunities for risk-management that could change the face of agriculture and the food system. 

"Farmers need strong risk insurance programs to have the confidence to invest in what they do," she writes. "Without investment, agriculture stagnates, and so does food production. With investment agriculture can grow the food the world needs, rural economies thrive, and rural–urban migration slows." She goes on to discuss what farmers, the government and the private sector each can contribute, underlining the importance of procuring and holding public stocks to counter food price volatility.

Now, Oxfam has released a synthesized version of the entire online debate, as well as all 23 essays, available on their website. For more background, check out their blog.

View The Future of Agriculture: Synthesis of an online debate.

Posted August 7, 2013 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

TradeTTIPFree trade agreements

Used under creative commons license from G20Voice.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman.

The launch of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations presents a new challenge to commodity and financial market reform. Those reforms, codified in the U.S. in rules authorized by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010, are intended to prevent a reoccurrence of the big bank bankruptcies  that were avoided only by the nearly $30 trillion bailout of mostly U.S. and European financial institutions from 2007 to 2010. The U.S. Department of Treasury has announced its opposition to the inclusion of financial services in the TTIP. However, according to Inside U.S. Trade (subscription required), the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) said that it was evaluating the benefits of including financial services, and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said that financial services would be included.

IATP has been working with organizations on both sides of the Atlantic on the contentious negotiations to apply rules authorized by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010 to the foreign affiliates of U.S. financial institutions. A July 11 communique by the European Commission and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission outlined a “Path Forward” to transatlantic financial regulatory harmonization and cooperation. No mention was made there of the TTIP, but EC Commissioner Michel Barnier has insisted that the TTIP must include a financial services chapter and that “discriminatory” financial and commodity market regulations must be part of the negotiation.

One of the objections to the inclusion of financial services is that under a proposed “investor-state” dispute settlement chapter in the TTIP, disputes about the implementation and enforcement of non-discriminatory rules could be launched by private investors against the U.S. and the 28 European Union member states. The Corporate Europe Observatory has called the “investor state” provisions (a feature of NAFTA and other trade and investment agreements that empowers investors to sue governments for actions that undermine their expected profits), “a transatlantic corporate bill of rights.” A U.N. Conference on Trade and Development Conference (UNCTAD) briefing note in May reports that investors prevailed in 70 percent of 42 investor-state lawsuits in 2012. Occidental Petroleum won the highest award, about $1.77 billion against the government of Ecuador. The political and financial pressures created by the inclusion of financial regulation in a TTIP investor-state provision could lead to a lethal synergy that severely undermines the ongoing reforms.

Econometric projections of total annual benefits attributed to TTIP after 2025 are estimated to be about $95 billion annually for the U.S. economy. However, the General Accountability Office (GAO) has estimated the cost to the U.S. economy of the 2008-09 financial services default cascade to be about $13 trillion. The gross notional value of financial and commodity derivative contracts reported to the Office of the Comptroller of Currency for the first quarter of 2013 was $231 trillion. Using TTIP’s negotiating trade-offs among all economic sectors to advance new forms of financial regulatory exemptions and deregulation, under threat of investor state lawsuits, could make both U.S. and European economies vulnerable to the same opaque and dangerous investment instruments that created the 2009 financial meltdown.

For more on derivatives reforms, see A long and winding road to global derivatives market reform

Posted August 1, 2013 by Dale Wiehoff   

TradeFree trade agreementsGMO

Used under creative commons license from biocat.

A meeting of the Council for Biotechnology Information (BIO) in Europe in March 2013.

Earlier this week, Andrew Pollack reported in the New York Times that biotech companies like Monsanto, Dupont and Dow Chemical announced through an industry association that they would be more transparent with the public about the chemicals and genetically modified seeds they sell. According to Cathleen Enright, executive vice president at the Council for Biotechnology Information (BIO), “We have not done a very good job communicating about GMOs. We want to get into the conversation.”

To move that conversation along, they’ve opened a new web site, GMOAnswers.com. Any move toward greater transparency from companies who have spent decades suing farmers, spending millions to prevent the labeling of food containing GMOs, hiring private security firms to break into their critics offices and steal information—not to mention generally bullying anybody who questions the safety and value of their products—should be good news. But like with most news from chemical and seed companies, it is another reason to worry that the public will be misled and the issues will be futher obfuscated.

At the same time big biotech shows its sensitive side by answering difficult questions, they are moving in lockstep to ensure that the EU-U.S. free trade agreement, the TTIP, will protect their ability to sell their biotech products without regard to local or national labeling and safety standards. In comments on TTIP submitted by BIO to the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), the focus is on getting trade negotiators to harmonize the standards between the EU and U.S. on the very issues of transparency and protecting markets. Harmonization is a trade term of art that often indicates that strong regulations and protections are going to be taken down to the lowest common denominator.

IATP recently released portions of the EU’s initial goals on regulatory harmonization. In her introduction, IATP’s Karen Hansen Kuhn says, “Consistent multilateral rules on difficult issues make sense, but let’s make sure trade is put in its place. Rules that provide for a safe workplace, protect public health and the environment, and promote energy and food security have been lost in trade agreements of the past.”

The very fact that the TTIP is being negotiated in secret should be warning enough that something shady is about to take place. Many groups (including IATP) have submitted comments, but so far it’s been a one-way conversation. The only people who really know what’s being negotiated are the trade officials and the security cleared trade advisors (including BIO, which sits on the intellectual property rights committee). When we read through the BIO comments on the trade treaty, there are numerous references recommending that the negotiators look to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to bring the EU and U.S. biotech standard in line. It isn’t surprising: Chris Parker, in his expose of Monsanto in the Village Voice, reminds us that  Michael Taylor (former vice president of public policy at Monsanto) was named by President Obama as deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the Food and Drug Administration.

If BIO and the trade officials want to be part of the “conversation” on GMOs, they need to be upfront about what’s really on the table in TTIP (as well as the massive Trans Pacific Partnership). Farmers and consumers need to be part of a real debate about how these proprietary technologies affect the environment, economy, health and culture.   

Posted July 19, 2013 by Colleen Borgendale   

Food and Community Fellows

Valerie Segrest talking about huckleberry while teaching the group about making tea. 

In late June, alumni from the past eight classes of the IATP Food and Community Fellows program met for the last time against the backdrop of the Snoqualmie Falls outside of Seattle. Almost every class was represented at the event heldand its alumni and to discuss the future of the network within the context of the larger food movement.

Launched in 2001 as the Food and Society Policy Fellows, the program was originally envisioned as a “public policy education team” that would work in support of the vision and goals of this new program at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and hosted by IATP. The Fellows were innovative changemakers who advocated for food and farming systems that would be just and healthy for all people. The program nurtured the development of 86 alumni, many leaders in their fields, and helped make major contributions to the growing food movement. In late 2012, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation announced that it would no longer be funding the Fellows’ program.

A reception featuring local fruits and beverages and a dinner highlighting Washington cuisine kicked off the event allowing Fellows to share stories, meet alumni from other classes, reconnect and discuss the latest news and ideas in their fields. Discussions included the challenges of modern fishing, mushroom foraging and the finer details of what was served for dinner that evening.

On the second day, the group visited the Muckleshoot Tribe reservation, located between Seattle and Tacoma, to share a traditional lunch and take part in activities with some of the tribal members. Valerie Segrest, a Fellow from the eighth class and a member of the tribe, spoke about traditional methods of making tea and medicine using plants foraged from tribal land, including huckleberry and fireweed. A demonstration of the large open grill and a traditional pit oven illustrated how the local salmon and potatoes were prepared for lunch. A cedar-bark weaving demonstration rounded out the visit.

Many of the Fellows enthusiastically discussed how life-changing the IATP Food and Community Fellows program was for them and their gratefulness for being a part of it. Conversations about the future of the network started right away and continued throughout the entire event. Fellows shared their visions for an alumni network and the challenges and opportunities ahead for such a network. They’re hoping to see the alumni network evolve to help further each individual’s work and the food movement as a whole.

The IATP Food and Community Fellows program may have ended but the energy and work of the individuals involved will continue to further the food movement. This celebratory and planning event captured all that the Fellows have accomplished and helped kick off exciting future plans.

Posted July 17, 2013 by Dale Wiehoff   

Free trade agreementsNAFTA: North American Free Trade Agreement

Miguel Angel Treviño Morales

In the early morning hours Monday, on a remote road near the Texas-Mexico border, Mexican marines picked a deadly and rotten piece of fruit when it captured Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, the sadistic boss of Los Zetas criminal cartel. Los Zetas appeared on the scene in 1999, an elite unit of the Mexican military that went rogue, working at first for the Gulf drug cartel and eventually breaking off to form their own criminal organization known for employing extremely brutal methods of torture, terror and mass murder. Los Zetas quickly became a major force in Mexican drug trafficking.

Drug cartels existed long before the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, but not drug cartels as we know them today. As we approach the 20th anniversary of NAFTA, we can no longer ignore its contribution to building a powerful and violent criminal enterprise that has brought Mexico close to being labeled a failed state and made the Mexican-U.S. border into a war zone.

Most often when we analyze trade agreements, the focus is on trade volumes, jobs and manufacturing statistics, poverty levels and immigration—all extremely important ways to understand the impact of neoliberal policies bequeathed to us from Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. But to fully appreciate how devastating free trade has been, we need to look more closely at the aftermath of free trade on the bonds that hold communities together. It starts out small, a single thread that eventually leads to unraveling the whole cloth.

Take the dumping of below-cost-of-production corn from the U.S. into Mexico, which happened in full force following the passage of NAFTA. After a few years of not making any money on their small farms, Mexican peasants started moving off the land, leaving whole villages empty except for those too old to leave.  This massive expansion of economic migrants was fueled by the lure of jobs in the new maquiladoras, light manufacturing businesses on the border, operating in “free trade zones.” The supply of workers far outweighed the available jobs. These unemployed and displaced young Mexicans were vulnerable to the drug cartels who recognized early on the opportunities created by NAFTA for the unregulated movement of goods across the border—including drugs and illicit cash.

Life in this environment became very cheap. Piles of bodies started to appear in border towns. Hundreds of young woman started to disappear in towns like Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, and only occasionally showing up as bleached bones in the desert. Corruption and violence invades all aspects of life. The police, judiciary, financial institutions, media, businesses and elected representatives of the government are all at risk and threatened.  

Now, nearly twenty years after NAFTA was passed, we read the story of the arrest of a crime boss driving his pickup on a country road carrying two million in walking around money as he goes to visit his family. If we are willing to follow the story back we will meet thousands of Mexican peasants forced off their farms, and just as many young women sitting at sewing machines making running suits and baseball caps, all just a drop of a thread away from becoming foot soldiers in the drug trade. Their farm communities are still empty, devastated, and as often as not, under the control of the cartels. As we contemplate new and bigger free trade deals, with innocuous names like the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership we should think carefully about the fruit that NAFTA created and what free trade has done to destroy the bonds the hold communities together around the world.

Posted July 17, 2013 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

FinanceMarketsMarket speculation

Used under creative commons license from World Trade Organization.

Gary Gensler (CFTC) and Michel Barnier (European Commission)

In September 2009, the Group of 20 Leaders, including President Barack Obama, announced their commitment to regulate the over-the-counter (OTC) commodity and financial derivatives market. Since then, however, ferocious industry resistance, abetted by sympathetic lawmakers, has frustrated realization of this commitment.  Substantive differences in law and market infrastructure, combined with this resistance, have made the reform process a long and winding road without a comprehensive agreement on how to prevent another OTC-triggered global financial crisis.

It would be hard to overstate the impacts of the 2008 financial meltdown. Losses among major players in the global OTC market threatened to bankrupt the global financial system. Taxpayer-funded bailouts of the world’s largest banks and nearly $30 trillion of U.S. Federal Reserve Bank emergency ultra-low interest rate loans saved the banks from losses for which they had woefully inadequate reserves to pay up. The General Accountability Office (GAO) has estimated the financial damage to the U.S. economy from the OTC market meltdown at about $13 trillion, to say nothing of untold costs of human suffering.

Agriculture derivatives prices and price volatility have been inflated by unregulated and hence unreported OTC trades. Food import–dependent and food-insecure developing countries are particularly vulnerable to agricultural price volatility in “hard currencies” whose value is determined by OTC foreign exchange derivatives. Notwithstanding the optimistic outlook of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that projected economic growth will reduce the FAO-estimated 868 million food insecure, IATP was among a group of scholars and organizations who criticized FAO’s assumptions about food insecurity and food prices.

On July 11, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the European Commission announced that they had reached a “Path Forward” to regulate transatlantic OTC markets. U.S. and European OTC trades account for perhaps 85 percent of the global OTC derivatives market. Therefore, the transatlantic communiqué is a step on the long and winding road towards regulation of markets that are about eight times as large as currently regulated markets. According to a July 12 article in Risk (subscription required), the financial services lobby is agitated by what it interprets in the “Path Forward” announcement as a “stricter rule applies” intention in the event of differences between the U.S. and European regulatory regimes.  Based on the “Path Forward,” the G-20 finance ministers, meeting July 18–19 in Moscow, likely will claim progress on regulating OTC markets to their G-20 Leaders, who will meet in September in St. Petersburg.

The day after the transatlantic announcement, the CFTC commissioners voted 3 to 1 to extend the deadline to December 21 for compliance with CFTC regulation of the foreign affiliate trades of U.S. OTC dealers. The commissioners also voted to finalize draft CFTC guidance on the cross-border application of the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010. The commissioners furthermore set a December 21 deadline for the CFTC to determine whether the OTC derivatives regulatory regimes of Australia, Canada, the European Union, Hong Kong, Japan and Switzerland provided the “comparable, comprehensive oversight” required by Dodd Frank. Without the deadline extension, foreign OTC dealers would have had to begin to comply on July 13 with the CFTC requirements on OTC dealer broker registration, trade data reporting and clearing (an orderly payment system that prevents systemic wide defaults) or be excluded from the lucrative U.S. markets.  

That deadline extension also allows the Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council of financial and economic ministers (ECOFIN) time to come to agreement on revising the Market in Financial Instruments Directive (MiFID) and the Markets Abuse Directive (MAD). MiFID covers such regulatory instruments as position limits on the market share of specific commodity contracts and high-frequency trading instruments for millions of millisecond-long transactions. (In April, European NGOs published an analysis of MiFID loopholes.)  MAD concerns the sanctions regime for violators of MiFID and other market rules in the 28 European Union member states.

European and other Group of 20 states had lobbied the CFTC not only for the deadline extension but for a continuation of the mutual recognition of regulatory regimes that prevailed prior to 2008. They strongly opposed the CFTC draft guidance proposal to allow regulators to verify cross-border compliance, by reviewing OTC trade data in foreign jurisdictions, as a violation of national sovereignty and the privacy of OTC investors and dealers.

On April 18, EC Commissioner Michel Barnier and eight G-20 finance ministers wrote to Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew, the U.S. representative to the G-20 finance ministers, to request his intervention to have the CFTC extend its July 12 compliance deadline and allow national regulators to oversee the foreign affiliate trades of U.S. OTC dealer brokers. Defaults on unregulated OTC trades by the London offices of JP Morgan, the American Insurance Group, Goldman Sachs and MF Global, etc. resulted in the public bailouts of these globally trading, but U.S. headquartered, entities. 

Nevertheless, the April 18 signatories maintained that “as a principle, local regulations should not be extended beyond national borders.” The derivatives market is essentially cross-border and cybernetic; still, these G-20 ministers maintain that global entities with thousands of foreign affiliates  (see page 71) can be regulated effectively using the voluntary principles of the International Organization of Securities Commission (IOSCO) for petitioning foreign regulators for access to foreign affiliate trade data that affects the solvency of home country jurisdictions, such as that of the CFTC.

The IOSCO principles put a heavy burden on the petitioning regulator to demonstrate the “necessity” for regulator access to foreign affiliate OTC trade data. This appears to require that the foreign regulator demonstrate which rule was violated and how by an OTC dealer broker in order to access the data required to make that demonstration. During the access petition period, the data could be moved, by a regulator zealous to protect the competitive advantage of a “national” bank, to another jurisdiction or be recoded to frustrate computer enabled data surveillance. No doubt, the April 18 signatories will continue to lobby Secretary Lew for a steep burden of proof for regulator access to OTC trade data. They may also ratchet up their rhetoric about data privacy laws protecting OTC dealer brokers, as if global OTC dealers were private individuals, in light of the revelations about U.S. spying in multilateral negotiations.

The “Path Forward” states, “With respect to central counterparties (CCPs), CFTC rules and EMIR [European Markets Infrastructure Regulation] are based on international minimal standards.” CCPs are to do for the OTC market what regulated exchanges do for the futures and options market, i.e., to act as a buyer for every seller and a seller for every buyer, preventing the default of one counterparty in a trade from resulting in the default cascades of 2008 and 2009. Even though the clearing of “standardized” OTC derivatives on CCPs is the chief derivatives regulatory commitment of the G-20 leaders, it is worth noting that nearly four years after that commitment was made, the struggle to regulate OTC dealer brokers relies on “international minimal standards,” in the view of the CFTC and the EC. 

Did the CFTC get anything tangible in exchange for the July 11“Path Forward” communique and the July 12 CFTC vote to extend “transitional relief” to foreign jurisdictions in the final guidance on the cross-border implementation of OTC trade rules? The finalized cross border guidance, all 296 pages of it, was published on July 15. IATP commented on the draft guidance, but it will take a while to determine whether the final guidance provides an adequate basis for regulating the foreign affiliate trades of U.S. OTC dealer brokers. A comprehensive answer to that question will lie not just in the content of the final guidance but in the ability of the Obama administration to implement the guidance and the ability of the European Commission to finalize and implement OTC derivatives legislation.

The financial industry lobby is upset that the CFTC has chosen guidance as the legal form of cross-border implementation, rather than the more prolonged formal rule-making process. OTC broker dealers on both sides of the Atlantic may decide to challenge the cross-border guidance implementation in court, to further delay and weaken OTC reform; doing so will only make the G-20 Leaders look weak and ineffectual on realizing their one agreed commitment on regulating OTC derivatives. This will be a long, hot summer for market regulators as they try to put the “Path Forward” into effect.

Posted July 9, 2013 by    

Food and HealthHealthy LegacyHealthObesity

Used under creative commons license from beana_cheese.

BPA, used in metal can linings, can have obesogenic effects—especially on developing children.

We are all hearing a lot about obesity these days and more people are obese than ever; one-third of American children and two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese. The American Medical Association has declared that obesity is a disease.

While some disagree with the designation of obesity as a disease, there is strong evidence that obesity is linked with diseases—specifically Type II diabetes and heart disease. There is also general agreement that obesity is a major public health problem. Preventing obesity would contribute to a healthier, happier population and save an estimated $190 billion per year in direct health care costs.

But how do we prevent obesity? We all know that we should eat healthier and exercise more to maintain a healthy weight, but few people are aware that avoiding exposure to certain chemicals could reduce their risk of obesity, especially during prenatal life and in childhood. An emerging body of science links chemicals that disrupt hormones to increased risk for obesity.

Fetuses and children are the most vulnerable to adverse health effects from hormone-disrupting chemicals. Like hormones themselves, these chemicals exert health impacts even at minute levels of exposure and exposures in the womb can have lifelong impacts.

As detailed in a new IATP fact sheet titled Chemicals and Obesity, an array of chemical obesogens may be contributing to the obesity epidemic. Obesogens are chemical agents that promote fat accumulation and alter feeding behaviors. They activate cell receptors to predispose them to fat accumulation. Obesogenic chemicals can affect the size and number of fat cells or the hormones that regulate appetite and metabolism. They can also cause changes in gene expression, or epigenetic changes, which can have intergenerational impacts.

It is now evident that a variety of environmental chemicals can act on cellular pathways to promote fat accumulation and obesity. We are all exposed to these chemicals every day through foods and food packaging and from an array of consumer products and building materials. Chemicals for which there is evidence of obesogenic activity include:

  • Bisphenol A, a chemical used in food packaging and plastic.
  • Phthalates, chemicals found in plastics and fragranced personal care products.
  • Brominated flame retardants used in electronics and foam products.
  • Perfluroalkyls, “Teflon chemicals” used in food packaging and nonstick cookware.

     

Evidence of obesity risk from chemical exposure is growing every day. A recent study found that girls aged between 9 and 12 with higher levels of BPA in their urine had a twofold increased risk for obesity.

In light of a growing obesity epidemic in the U.S., a comprehensive public health response is needed. In addition to initiatives to encourage healthy eating and exercise, we also need actions to prevent exposures to obesogenic chemicals, including:

  1. Better regulation of toxic chemicals through reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA should be strengthened to require the phase out persistent, toxic bio-accumulative chemicals that build up in the food system and in the human body and to require basic safety testing on all new chemicals introduced into commerce.
  2. Better state regulation of chemicals in children’s products through the Toxic Free Kids Act. www.healthylegacy.org/ Three of the above listed chemicals are on the Minnesota Priority Chemicals List.
  3. Voluntary efforts by downstream businesses and retailers to require the phase out the worst chemicals, including those linked with obesity. www.mindthestore.org

Read IATP’s latest fact sheet, Chemicals and Obesity, for more.

Posted July 3, 2013 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

TradeFree trade agreements

Transparency and trade negotiations don’t seem to go together these days. Recent revelations in Spiegel disclosed that the U.S. government had been spying on its EU “partners” connected to negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP, probably better stated as the Trans Atlantic Free Trade agreement, or TAFTA, which very much rhymes with NAFTA). The French and German governments are outraged, with some parliamentarians calling for a suspension of the talks, slated to start next week in Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately, the only way civil society groups find out about the negotiations are through basically one-way conversations, where we express our concerns to trade officials, or through leaked negotiating documents. One such text came our way over the weekend, a set of position papers summarizing some of the EU’s initial goals on regulatory harmonization, which would be sent to the U.S. ahead of the talks. It includes initial proposals on regulatory issues involving the automotive sector, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, Sanitary and Phytosanitary issues (SPS), competition policy, a proposal for a chapter on trade and sustainable development, trade in raw materials and energy, and an ambitious proposal for cross-cutting disciplines on regulatory issues. It starts out by asserting that, “the TTIP offers a unique chance to give new momentum to the development and implementation of international regulations and standards (multilateral or otherwise plurilateral). This should reduce the risk of countries resorting to unilateral and purely national solutions, leading to regulatory segmentation that could have an adverse effect on international trade and investment.”

Consistent multilateral rules on difficult issues make sense, but let’s make sure trade is put in its place. Rules that provide for a safe workplace, protect public health and the environment, and promote energy and food security have been lost in trade agreements of the past. And the fact is that many advances in standards start at the local level and work their way to the national and, ideally, international levels. The recent votes for GMO labeling in Connecticut and Maine are a good example of this. To be fair, the proposal highlights the “importance of regulatory action to achieve public policy objectives” and states that it should not be used to lower standards in either country. But many regulations on difficult issues such as GMOs, questionable food additives like ractopamine, and emerging technologies such as engineered nano materials in food, need extensive public debate with a bias towards raising standards. The paper proposes steps to increase cooperation among regulatory authorities on both sides of the Atlantic, but makes no mention of public participation in that process. Sadly, the precautionary principle, which is the basis of EU law on many of these issues and is enshrined in the Treaty of Lisbon, is entirely absent from the document.

The document also includes a first informal discussion draft, a “non paper,” on public procurement. The EU has expressed its intention in other fora to include procurement commitments at all levels, i.e., including state and municipal governments. That goal is repeated here, along with the aspiration to include procurement commitments in all goods and all sectors. This could mean that programs that support local and sustainable foods, like local farm to school programs, could be on the table in the trade talks. The U.S. has excluded procurement commitments on food from other trade agreements, but it seems that this, along with possible commitments on living wage laws and Buy America programs, could be up for grabs.

Taken together, this agreement and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) would regulate a vast share of global trade. They would undoubtedly set the standards for rules in other bilateral or regional agreements too, and could eventually circle back to set the rules at the WTO. And they matter because, especially in the case of TAFTA, they are not so much about trade in goods and services per se, but about “regulatory cooperation.” That term means a lot of things in different sectors. In our food system, it has the potential to set public health and environmental standards at the lowest possible level in order to resolve pesky “trade irritants” like food safety laws and regulations on new food technologies and questionable food additives.

The new GMO labeling laws, public preference programs for local foods and countless local environmental rules were developed in the light of day and through a vigorous public debate. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has so far shown little inclination to take the trade talks out of the shadows, either during the talks or when the resulting deals go to Congress. Despite leading secret negotiations, it is expected to push for Fast Track negotiating authority this summer, which would limit Congress to an up or down vote on any trade deal (with no amendments) and put strict limits on debate.

In the wake of the spying scandal, EU trade officials are calling for greater transparency in the trade talks, especially on just what information the US obtained. Officials on both sides of the Atlantic should commit to open the talks, and listen to proposals on fair trade and better food systems. Some 34 civil society groups from the U.S. and EU issued this letter last week, calling on trade negotiators to negotiate higher standards or abandon the talks. Other calls for transparency and against unfair provisions on investment, intellectual property rights and energy exports are on the way. That is what really should be on the agenda next week in D.C.

Posted June 24, 2013 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

FinanceMarket speculation

Used under creative commons license from United States Government Work.

Jacob Lew, U.S. Secretary of Treasury and chairman of the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC).

A recent announcement by the European Commission has consequences for anyone affected by an interest rate, the price of oil or the price of wheat [read: everyone]. 

On June 15, Reuters reported that the European Commission had decided to extend the deadline for U.S. financial firms to comply with European Securities Market Authority (ESMA) regulatory deadlines. However, the compliance concession is deceptive since ESMA has yet to finish issuing rules that would apply to EU and non-EU financial firms. Rules to implement the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act require that most trades be “cleared” on a central platform, to protect other market participants from the consequences of default by one or more counterparties to a trade.

Indeed, the U.S. and EU are among the Group of 20 members that committed to centralize clearing in 2009. ESMA is still trying to decide which commodity and financial contracts will have to be cleared. Other European market reform legislation has yet to be passed, much less implemented. In addition to extending its own deadline, the European Commission is hoping to use the “concession” as a bargaining chip to push the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) into extending its July 12 compliance deadline for European financial firms on rules it has finalized. This proposed exchange for a European deadline extension to comply with rules it has yet to finalize, is disingenuous. Perfect synchronicity and harmonization in transatlantic rulemaking is not achievable. The CFTC should not, yet again, extend its compliance deadline beyond July 12 in response to the Commission’s gambit.

The EU deadline extension, from June 15 to September 1, is an advance guard of a broader diplomatic offensive on the eve of Commissioner Michel Barnier’s lobbying visit to U.S. financial and commodity regulatory agencies. An earlier salvo, an April 18 letter from Commissioner Barnier and eight Group of 20 ministers of finance to their counterpart U.S. Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew, sought to enlist Lew to postpone the CFTC’s proposed guidance for cross-border implementation of Dodd-Frank.

Secretary Lew has given no indication about whether he would defend the cross-border guidance proposed by the CFTC, an agency with authority over about 85 percent of the $300 trillion U.S. derivatives market. While Secretary Lew does not have statutory authority over the derivatives market, as the Chairman of the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) he yields considerable power to prevent trading practices and transactions that would destabilize the U.S. economy. A new wave of poorly regulated derivatives trades run through High Frequency Trading (HFT) algorithms, for example, could lead to FSOC intervention under the leadership of a chairman willing to regulate his former Wall Street employers and colleagues. While U.S. agencies have no statutory authority to regulate High Frequency Trading, draft European legislation does provide for the beginning of HFT regulation. Secretary Lew could use his FSOC authority to propose that the U.S. Congress provide legislative authority for HFT regulation via the CFTC.

Unregulated HFT poses huge challenges to data surveillance. Lack of data surveillance, or indeed any regulation of over-the-counter (OTC) trades by the foreign affiliates of U.S. banks, was a main cause of the bank crisis that is estimated to have cost the U.S economy $13 trillion, along with bringing about untold human suffering.

The G-20 financial ministers’ June 7 press release gave no hint about when the leaders, including President Obama, would comply with their end-of-2012 commitment to clear the dark market OTC trades that devastated the world economy in 2007–2009. The exemptions, exclusions and waivers that the publicly rescued banks have sought threaten to continue the reign of dark markets over global finance. Furthermore, the bank lobbyists are awaiting the departure of three CFTC commissioners, including Chairman Gary Gensler, whom President Obama has declined to re-nominate, rather than face a protracted and possibly losing Senate confirmation vote. Absent a change in the political dynamic that is putting Wall Street, foreign banks, regulators and their Congressional allies in charge of dismantling Dodd-Frank, it seems likely, as noted in a recent Bank for International Settlements article, that publicly recapitalized banks will continue to trade high-risk products that have potential for systemic destabilization. 




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