Congress is quietly considering legislation that would speed the passage of two mega trade agreements, and seeks to specifically eliminate government programs that favor “localization.” The bill would give the Obama Administration what is known as “fast track” authority—meaning Congress would surrender its constitutional authority to shape trade agreements negotiated by the president and instead can only vote up or down on the deal.
Why should those working for a fair, sustainable food system care? Perhaps no area of policy has undermined local food systems around the world more than the slew of trade agreements passed over the last several decades. These trade rules cover everything from tariffs, food safety and intellectual property to enshrining corporate rights. They place restrictions on what is allowed in national policies, like the Farm Bill, as well as the state and local level. These deals have heavily tilted the playing field from farmers and consumers toward global agribusiness and food giants like Cargill, Monsanto and Wal-Mart.
Because these trade deals, like NAFTA and CAFTA, have been so blatantly negotiated on behalf of multinational corporations and have contributed to growing income inequality, they’ve been extremely unpopular. This is why the Obama Administration has decided to negotiate these two new trade agreements in secret. That’s right, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (including more than a dozen countries) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (with our biggest trading partner, the EU) is being negotiated entirely behind closed doors. The negotiating text has not been made public, and, amazingly, even many members of Congress are in the dark about what’s happening.
Over 13 years ago, IATP documented the transformation of U.S. hog production in The Price We Pay for Corporate Hogs. In a period of 30 years (1950–1980), the number of U.S. hog farms declined by nearly 80 percent, while the average farm size increased six-fold. Whereas in 1950, 2.1 million independent farmers raised pigs outdoors or indoors with bedded straw or hay (raising 31 pigs a year); at the end of the 90s, a total of 105 farms accounted for 40 percent of U.S. production (50,000 pigs each). By 1999, 50 percent or more of the farmers were under some sort of contractual arrangement and four companies (including Smithfield) controlled 20 percent of the production. In the last decade, this process has only intensified. By 2007, four companies controlled 66 percent of the production, all at great cost to U.S. farmers, consumers, the environment and public health.
On a slightly chilly morning last Saturday in Berlin, more than 30,000 people marched through the city to raise their voices against industrial agriculture and for good food and good farming. This was the fourth year for the Wir Haben Agrarindustrie Satt (We’re Fed Up with Agribusiness) march, and the biggest so far. The day started off with a breakfast led by family farmers from around Germany and the region. They led the march with a caravan of tractors, followed by slow food, animal rights, environmental, trade, development and other activists in a joyous celebration of food justice and local democracy.
The march was the culmination of a series of events during Green Week. We started with a public forum on agriculture and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (“TTIP: No We Can’t!”) organized by Martin Haüsling, a Green Party Member of the European Parliament. The German government held its annual Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, which included informative sessions organized by NGOs, academics and corporations on the future of the food system. All great events, but hard to beat the Snippledisco (Disco Soup), where hundreds of people chopped vegetables deemed not quite good enough for the supermarket to pounding music, at once protesting food waste, preparing soup for the demo the next day and just having a great time.
The U.S. trade debate shifted into high gear yesterday with the introduction of Congressional bills to fast track trade deals. If approved, this would give the administration the authority to negotiate trade deals behind closed doors and then submit the resulting agreements to Congress for an up or down vote, with very limited debate and no possibility of amendments. Unions, environmental organizations and many other civil society groups immediately denounced the bill as undemocratic and out of date. Some 151 Democrats issued a letter last week expressing opposition to the bill, so its passage is far from assured.
Even beyond the undemocratic nature of the fast-track mechanism, the bill includes negotiating objectives that should raise alarms for advocates of food sovereignty and international development. It would direct the office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to eliminate “localization barriers to trade.” Rather than celebrating the emergence of strong local economies, that provision would direct USTR to "eliminate and prevent measures that require United States producers and service providers to locate facilities, intellectual property, or other assets in a country as a market access or investment condition, including indigenous innovation measures." That kind of measure, if enacted in a trade agreement, could easily boomerang back to the U.S. to undermine local content requirements for job creation or even perhaps local foods programs.
One of Berlin’s big newspapers, the Berlin Zeitung, flashed images of little piglets today and of mass produced turkeys. This is part of a bigger build up towards a major demonstration on January 18 in which over 20,000 citizens are expected in Berlin to protest against industrial farming in the country—mass meat production being the vivid centerpiece for why it is so bad for people and the environment.
I have been in Germany for the last few weeks and am struck by how hot this topic is becoming—capturing media attention and putting the Green Party into elected positions in different states where animal factory farms have become a major problem. A slow movement is building, garnering ever increasing consumer support towards direct farmer-to-consumer marketing of organic, small-scale, locally produced, humane agriculture products.
The campaign that is organizing events and the demonstration during Germany’s “Green Week” is called "Meine Landwirtschaft" or “My Agriculture,” building a message to put back agriculture into the hands of better stewards who can respect soil, water and integrate human and animal health into good food for the people and the planet. This year’s theme for the campaign demonstration is "Wir Haben Agrarindustrie Satt!" or "We’re fed up with industrial agriculture!" The poster child: a big pig face.
The illusion of choice takes away from our ability to get to a just, sustainable food system, meaning we’ll have to “Vote with our Vote.” We can’t afford to just “Vote with our Fork.”
We’ve been told that we in the U.S. have the best, safest food system in the world. Without getting bogged down in endless debate, let’s get some context: the U.S. has 6 percent of households with very low food security and almost 9 percent more who are not sure they’ll have enough money or resources for food (at the same time, our average food availability is equal to 3,800 calories per person per day, much more than the recommended 1900 to 2500 calories/person/day); we throw away and waste 30 to 50 percent of our food; our food system is rated as fourth in food safety; we’re first (among industrialized countries) in overweight and obesity and tied with Greece for second in terms of the number of people who can’t reliably afford adequate food. That’s right: despite having some of the world’s cheapest food, we have one of the highest levels among wealthy countries of people not being able to reliably afford it.
The New Year came in on the heels of an explosion in the small prairie town of Casselton, North Dakota, when two BNSF Railway trains collided, one carrying crude oil. The residents of Casselton were told to evacuate as the thick clouds of black smoke filled the sky. The only comfort in this latest of crude oil transportation disasters was that no people lost their lives. That wasn’t the case in Lac-Megantic, Quebec where 47 people lost their lives when a Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd train carrying tar sand oil derailed and exploded. Small rural communities and First Nations lands have suffered the most from this steady flow of oil spills. When it isn’t train tankers careening off the tracks, it is crude oil pipeline leaks flowing out on to wheat fields and into rivers. When it isn’t crude oil, it is natural gas explosions such as the one in West, Texas last April, when a fertilizer plant blew up, killing 15 innocent people. Repeatedly, the oil and gas industry has shown criminal disregard for the lives and property of people and communities.
So, what can citizens do? We could and we must say that the nation’s infrastructure for oil and gas development is not up to the threat posed by the headlong drive to squeeze every last drop of petroleum out of the earth. We could and we must say that federal, state and local governments have failed to protect us, and have fallen far short of establishing and enforcing effective regulatory standards for the oil and gas industry. These measures are critical and it is up to us to hold our governments accountable.
Is it possible or necessary to regulate Automated Trading Systems (ATSs) on commodity futures markets that transact business electronically without direct human intervention at the speed of light (high-frequency Trading (HFT))? The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) sought answers to that question in a September 2013 Concept Release with 132, often multi-part, questions. As CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler remarked in an appendix to the release, ATSs account for 91 percent of all trading, and farmers and ranchers are affected by ATS-generated price volatility. IATP responded to a few of the 132 questions in a comment filed last week with the CFTC.
The failings of ATSs, characterized popularly as “computer glitches,” came to the public’s attention on May 6, 2010, when U.S. stock markets lost 5–6 percent of their total value in a matter of minutes, before recovering later in the day, due to human intervention. The CFTC and the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) issued an analysis of the “flash crash” in September 2010. The CFTC’s Technology Advisory Committee (TAC) held hearings over more than a two year period to exchange information about financial industry HFT practices and to recommend rules and definitions that were featured in the Concept Release.
It’s common to make biblical references when we want to underscore how ancient something is, but in the case of apples, we know they’ve been around for a very long time. Originating in Central Asia, hybrid varieties propagated through grafting were well established over 6,000 years ago. Today there are over 7,500 cultivars world-wide. Despite the range, diversity and quantity of apples produced in the world, however, Malus domestica apparently isn’t measuring up to the modern consumer’s expectations. At least that’s what Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits thinks. He has developed genetically engineered Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples that won’t turn brown when the flesh is exposed to air. Carter isn’t alone in searching for technological improvements to the apple. Nanotech coatings to keep fruits like apples, pears and mangos firm are already in use.
A growing number of hospitals are shifting the way they think about protecting and improving health, and taking a closer look at how and where the food they serve is grown. This is great news for the people who receive treatment, work at and visit the hospitals, but it’s also great news for local, sustainable farmers, and could become an important infrastructure pillar in building stronger local food systems.
We’ve just put the finishing touches on a two-year assessment (funded by a North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant) of the current and potential health care food markets for North Central region sustainable farmers. We collaborated with three health systems (Fairview Health Services, Hudson Hospital and Clinics, and the VA Medical Center in St. Cloud, Minnesota) and an advisory committee of farmers, hospital representatives and food systems experts to gather and analyze data to provide insights into opportunities for and roadblocks to hospital sourcing of more local, sustainably produced food.