Think Forward blog

Will the global climate talks address the challenges for agriculture?

Posted December 8, 2014

The 20th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP), a body under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), started on Monday, at the General Army Headquarters in Lima, Peru. With almost 30 tents set up across the premises, and thousands of representatives from governments and observer organizations running between plenaries, contact groups, and side events, the climate change negotiations are in full throttle.

The climate change negotiations in Peru are critical, because they will establish the foundation of a proposed new climate agreement expected to be finalized in Paris at the end of 2015. The convention’s primary objective has historically been on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While vitally important, this approach has largely ignored the impact climate change has already taken on vulnerable regions around the world, particularly agricultural communities, that urgently need resources to adapt to an altered climate. Such communities also need funds to deal with loss and damage caused by severe weather events that have destroyed crops, increased salinization of soils, and diminished agricultural production.

For the final agreement in Paris, negotiators will consider issues like reducing emissions (mitigation), adaptation, finance, transparency of actions and support, capacity-building and transfer of technology.

But where will agriculture and land-use more broadly stand in these two weeks of negotiations? These issues fall within different tracks of the global climate talks, and are addressed in a variety of ways.

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Rain in California, a time to ask hard questions

Posted December 4, 2014 by Dale Wiehoff   

 Laguna Lake, San Luis Obispo, California

The Story of Drought has opened a new chapter in California this week, with a welcomed pouring rain storm: the most rain to fall in Los Angeles in two years. As California enters its fourth year of a drought, the immediate concern of the state’s water managers is that the rains will send the wrong signal to the population. But as crucial as water conservation is, the signal we need today is one that would begin to address the social, economic and political drivers that cause climate change.

Droughts are very slow weather disasters that can go unnoticed even as rain falls and ground water supplies are drying up. We keep saying that California and other western states are entering into the fourth year of a drought, but the real truth is, California and many areas of the west have been living for too long on borrowed water from aquifers and mountain snowpack that will not be renewed. The modern history of water in California going back to the destruction of the Paiute irrigation system and the Owen’s Valley water diversion are part of a pattern of mismanagement and abuse that is still reverberating today.

Like droughts, many of the underlying causes of climate change are not perceived as threats when first encountered. Three interconnected drivers that are major contributors to climate change are global trade, industrial agriculture and the petroleum production and consumption.

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Wall Street manipulates Main Street, again

Posted November 26, 2014 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

Used under creative commons license from 24354425@N03.

Library of Congress illustration from humor magazine Puck, published in 1901.

During the fight to pass and implement the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010, a favorite Wall Street lobbyist tactic was to organize small and large non-financial business owners to talk with members of Congress about the “unintended consequences” for Main Street of regulating Wall Street. Wall Street didn’t want to be seen as directly lobbying for continuing the regulatory exemptions that lead to the big bank bankruptcies and multi-billion dollar bailouts of 2007–2009. 

Instead the Chamber of Commerce, International Swaps and Derivatives Association and other lobby groups’ strategy used “Main Street” clients to promote the idea that global banks such as Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan should operate under many of the same rules as small businesses under Dodd-Frank. In sum, they argued, it is in the interest of Main Street business to not reform Wall Street “too much.”

For example, Dodd-Frank exempts municipal electricity and gas companies from having to put money down (margin collateral) to trade to manage their price risks in the commodity derivatives market. (Derivatives are financial contracts that manage the price risk of an underlying asset, such as wheat, oil or a mortgage interest rate.) Municipal companies must provide service to all, and the cost of posting margin collateral for each trade puts them in a competitive disadvantage with electricity and gas companies that can deny service to the poor. Through their lobbying associations, Wall Street banks argued that they are essential buyers and sellers of such derivatives contracts, and sought to benefit from this margin collateral and other Dodd-Frank exemptions for derivatives trading by commercial users of commodities.

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“Conversations” on technological utopias vs. tackling structural injustice in the global food system

Posted November 20, 2014

Used under creative commons license from theworldfoodprize.

This year’s World Food Prize and Borlaug Dialogue, held from October 17–19, 2014 in Des Moines, Iowa once again brought together the big gun stakeholders in industrial agriculture, and provided many insights to the current framing on the global food security challenge.

Given the parallel celebration of the Borlaug Centennial marking 100 years since the birth of Norman Borlaug, it should come as no surprise that Sanjaya Rajaram was named this year’s World Food Prize Laureate. As Borlaug’s protege in terms of sustaining his legacy of wheat breeding, this award for Rajaram appears to reinforce the importance of remembering what Borlaug was said to have achieved, while also ensuring that current research efforts at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, where Rajaram is based, continue to be perceived to play an important role in meeting global agricultural research needs. It is also noteworthy to acknowledge that Rajaram was born in India but has become a naturalized Mexican citizen given that Borlaug pioneered many Green Revolution ideas and technologies in Mexico in the mid 20th century before subsequently institutionalizing them in India’s post-independence agricultural sector. Indian agriculture continues to be geared towards a commitment to use “modern” and “improved” crop varieties and inputs even as many small farmers face a variety of severe social, environmental and economic challenges that fundamentally threaten production levels and livelihood security of a significant proportion of its population.     

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What you need to know about the India-US agreement at the WTO

Posted November 20, 2014 by Sophia Murphy   

Used under creative commons license from glennharper.

Update 11/24/14: A draft of the U.S.-India deal on public stockholding for food security has been made available.

Just ahead of the G-20 Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane, Australia (November 15-16, 2014), India and the United States announced a breakthrough in their trade negotiations impasse over agriculture. That fight had brought trade negotiations to a crashing standstill in July after the few months of tentative optimism among negotiators that followed the eleventh-hour agreement in at the Bali Ministerial Conference in December 2013. Confidence in the multilateral rules-based trading system had reached an all-time low, and while the response was muted (an agreement between two WTO members is not the same as an agreement among all), the media coverage made it clear the news of the U.S.-India agreement was very welcome in trade circles.

Should the rest of the world share this excitement? The discussion underlying the fight between India and the United States has important implications for countries’ ability to set policy to promote food security and control their food systems—and the role the WTO and the multilateral system should play in that effort.

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Don't let Big Meat eat our bumper crop

Posted November 17, 2014 by Jim Kleinschmit   

Used under creative commons license from usdagov.

The last few years have not been good for the factory farm industry.  High prices for corn and other crops (in part driven by the growth of ethanol) made feed costs incredibly high, while at the same time, environmental and animal welfare advocates have been winning ballot and marketplace battles to shift more meat production out of intensive confinement and industrial systems.  Hog and cattle producers have been hit by disease, drought and weather related disasters, resulting in losses in both sectors. 

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Trade vs. local economies: Procurement on the table

Posted November 13, 2014 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

Communities across the United States and Europe are working to transform local economic systems so that they are more sustainable and equitable. Many states and communities are utilizing public procurement programs to support those efforts, especially bidding preferences for healthy, locally grown foods, energy or transportation programs that create local jobs and fair markets. Especially in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Buy American programs have helped ensure that taxpayer-funded programs create local jobs and serve social goals. Farm to School programs that incentivize purchases from local farmers have grown in all 50 U.S. states and many European countries. Innovative efforts are also underway to expand this approach to other institutions such as hospitals, universities and early childcare programs like Head Start.

In a move that could undermine those important initiatives, the European Union has made the opening of U.S. procurement programs to bids by European firms one of its priority goals for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). IATP published a new report today, Local Economies on the Table, which takes a look at what those proposals could mean.

The EU has been insistent on the inclusion of procurement commitments at all levels of government, for all goods, and in all sectors. At a speech in San Francisco, French trade minister Nicole Bricq declared, “Let’s dream a little with respect to public procurement. Why not replace ‘Buy American’ which penalizes our companies with ‘Buy Transatlantic’ which reflects the depth of our mutual commitment?”

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Big Meat flexes its muscles

Posted November 6, 2014 by Ben Lilliston   

Used under creative commons license from Mark Roy.

It wasn’t the subject of a barrage of campaign ads this past month, nor has it been widely reported in the media or even debated much in the halls of Congress but new rules are being written right now as part of an arcane, secret process that will expand global agribusiness’ choke-hold over our food system, and you are not invited. A new report, Big Meat Swallows the Trans-Pacific Partnership, released today from IATP takes an in-depth look at what’s at stake for global agribusiness—and particularly the big meat corporations—in potentially the largest regional free trade agreement ever negotiated, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

This weekend, President Obama will meet with leaders of 11 other Pacific Rim countries at the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit about TPP. The negotiations and the proposed treaty text itself are secret, behind-closed-doors affairs—and the corporations that will benefit like it that way.

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Canadian farmers don't own Wheat Board they built, grew and loved says top court

Posted October 21, 2014 by Steven Shrybman   

Used under creative commons license from TJMartins.

With some help from my friends (lawyers Anders Bruun and Ben Piper) I argued a case before the Federal Court of Appeal yesterday. The Court ruled from the bench; the result was mixed but more of a defeat than a victory.

Among other things, the case was about money.  An awful lot of it -- over $17 billion.  That is actually a realistic estimate of the value of the Canadian Wheat Board that has been destroyed by the Harper's government's decision to get rid of the Board's marketing monopoly for wheat and barley and to fire all of the directors elected by the farmers to sit on the Board.

With the benefit of the market power the monopoly afforded, a smart farmer-controlled Board had built an international brand for Canadian wheat that allowed it to claim a very nice premium in the market -- somewhere between $600-800 million a year. It also allowed the Board the leverage to negotiate favorable supply chain arrangements with the rail companies and international grain conglomerates so that grain could be moved efficiently to markets.

While the Wheat Board still exists, it has been run by Harper appointees since Dec. 2011 and has no marketing power. Last summer, the failure of supply chain logistics to move a bumper wheat crop to market cost farmers an estimated $4 billion.

The court was dealing with motions to strike a proposed class action brought on behalf of grain producers seeking compensation for the value of the Wheat Board the Government had taken and will now either sell or wind down.

At the center of the case was this question -- can the Government simply take the assets, which include the enormously valuable goodwill the Board built, from the farmers who paid for and built those assets, and do so without paying the farmers for them?  The Court said yes. Why? Because according to the Court the farmers weren't "shareholders" and had no proprietary interest in those assets.

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Farmers, Ranchers and Consumers Lose on WTO COOL Ruling

Posted October 20, 2014 by Ben Lilliston   

Used under creative commons license from ed_needs_a_bicycle.

A U.S. law requiring the simple labeling of meat and poultry products for the country of origin (COOL) was determined to violate trade rules by a dispute panel at the World Trade Organization (WTO) today.

The ruling demonstrates again how trade rules have been rigged to benefit multinational corporations and run counter to the interests of consumers who want more information about the food they purchase and farmer and ranchers who target local markets.

Knowing where your food comes from is an important right for consumers all over the world. This ruling is also a loss for farmers and ranchers who are selling to domestic, local markets and who want to build stronger connections with consumers. Trade rules should never get in the way of greater transparency in the marketplace. The USDA should not give in to the WTO on COOL in the short term, and should appeal the ruling. In the long term, we need to reform or throw out trade rules that undermine consumers and farmers.

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