Think Forward blog

It’s not just the price of food, stupid

Posted November 26, 2013 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell   

Participants play a "Food System Plinko" game at the Minnesota State Fair. Photo credit: K.V. Cadieux

Eric Holt-Giménez, director of the amazing food policy think tank FoodFirst, recently wrote in the Huffington Post that if healthy, organic food is unaffordable, this is a problem of wages and rights, not inherently a problem with healthy, organic foods. Meanwhile, Doug Rauch, the former president of the grocery chain Trader Joe’s is set to open a market “to repurpose the perfectly edible produce slightly past its sell-by date that ends up in the trash . . .  [the market] will prepare and repackage the food at deeply discounted prices.” One could take Rauch’s apparently noble kludge to reinforce the old saw that people only care about price when it comes to food.

This, of course, is nonsense.

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NAFTA and US farmers—20 years later

Posted November 22, 2013 by Karen Hansen-Kuhn   

Cover of the TLCAN issue of La Jornada in which this story originally appeared. TLCAN (Tratado de Libre Comercio de América del Norte) is the Spanish translation of NAFTA.

A Spanish version of this commentary originally appeared in La Jornada.

One of the clearest stories from the NAFTA experience has been the devastation wreaked on the Mexican countryside by dramatic increases in imports of cheap U.S. corn. But while Mexican farmers, especially small-scale farmers, undoubtedly lost from the deal, that doesn’t mean that U.S. farmers have won. Prices for agricultural goods have been on a roller coaster of extreme price volatility caused by unfair agriculture policies, recklessly unregulated speculation on commodity markets, and increasing droughts and other climate chaos. Each time prices took their terrifying ride back down, more small- and medium-scale farmers were forced into bankruptcy while concentration of land ownership, and agricultural production, grew.

It’s hard to separate the impacts of NAFTA from another big change in U.S. farm policy: the 1996 Farm Bill, which set in place a shift from supply management and regulated markets to an accelerated policy of “get big or get out.” Farmers were encouraged to increase production with the promise of expanded export markets—including to Mexico. But almost immediately, the failure of this policy was evident as commodity prices dropped like a stone, and Congress turned to “emergency” payments, later codified as direct payment farm subsidies, to clean up the mess and keep rural economies afloat.

Then, as new demand for biofuels increased the demand for corn, and investors turned from failing mortgage markets to speculate on grains, energy and other commodities, prices soared. It wasn’t only the prices of farm goods that rose, however, but also prices of land, fuel, fertilizers and other petrochemical based agrochemicals. Net farm incomes were much more erratic.

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Who’s afraid of COOL?

Posted November 15, 2013 by Ben Lilliston   

Used under creative commons license from USDAgov.

To truly see the power of agribusiness, and its growing disconnect from regular people and farmers, look no further than the current dust-up over Country of Origin Labeling (COOL). Polls say more than 90 percent of consumers want simple labeling indicating what country the meat they are buying comes from. Farm groups like the National Farmers Union and the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association support it because of the marketing advantage it gives to U.S. produced meat and livestock producers. Yet, agribusiness has repeatedly flexed its lobbying muscles to block COOL and now they are at it again as Congress negotiates a new Farm Bill. Why do companies like Cargill, JBS and Tyson care so much about COOL? Remarkably, these enormously profitable global corporations are frightened that if consumers better understood their business model—which pays no attention to what country animals come from—they might have to make some changes.

On October 29, big meat (Cargill, Smithfield, Tyson, JBS, among others) sent a letter (subscription required) to the House and Senate Agriculture Chairs demanding that the Farm Bill “reform” COOL. Soon thereafter, House Agriculture Chair Frank Lucus (R-OK) parroted big meat’s arguments in announcing he wants to repeal COOL to avoid retaliation from trade partners. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow has admitted that COOL is on the agenda for the Farm Bill conference committee. 

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Climate change hits home

Posted November 15, 2013

Used under creative commons license from Nove foto da Firenze.

Some of Typhoon Haiyan's wreckage Tacloban, Philippines.

In the past week, we have had a terrible reminder of what’s at stake in our work with the horrific typhoon hitting the Philippines. IATP Board Member and Director General of the Asian Farmers Association (AFA), Esther Penunia, has let us know that she’s alright, after several anxious days. Some of our earliest work with AFA was working together to build knowledge and capacity on climate change before the Copenhagen talks in 2009, and they continue to be close partners to promote agroecology as a resilient, low-carbon solution to feeding a climate-challenged world.

Esther lives in Manila and was there when super typhoon Haiyan struck last Friday. Esther and her immediate family got through fine, but her sister’s family lives in Tacloban, the hardest hit city. Esther had no news from them for several days. But Tuesday, she reported that her sister and family are safe—despite being in Tacloban at the height of the storm. As Esther told us, “You know how strong you are when being strong is the only choice left for you."

At least 10,000 others were not so lucky.

Haiyan was the strongest tropical storm to make landfall in history. It was almost certainly made stronger by the warming of shallow Southeast Asian seas due to man-made climate change, and its effects were exacerbated by the unusually high degree of sea level rise the region has already experienced in recent decades. The Philippines delegate to the international climate talks in Warsaw issued a strong plea for action, and has gone on a hunger strike to try to spur strong action.

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Dodd-Frank position limits on commodity contracts: Round 2

Posted November 14, 2013 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

Used under creative commons license from CFTC.

Left to right: Former CFTC Commissioner Jill Sommers, CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler.

During the more than three years since Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Financial Protection Act, financial regulators have struggled to draft, approve and implement the rules authorized by Dodd-Frank. No agency has met greater Congressional, Wall Street and corporate resistance to Dodd-Frank rulemaking than the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which has authority over more than 90 percent of the $300 trillion U.S. derivatives market. Derivatives are financial contracts, whose value is derived from the value of an underlying asset, such as wheat, oil or a mortgage interest rate. No single CFTC proposed rule has generated more comments—more than 23,000 and counting—than a rule that would limit financial firm market share of agricultural, energy and metals derivatives.

On November 5, the CFTC approved a nearly 400-page revised position limits rule and consequently withdrew an appeal to defend its original rule at the Washington D.C. Court of Appeals. (For an explanation of the October 2012 district court ruling that gave rise to the appeal, see IATP’s blog.) Position limits attempt to prevent excessive speculation and market manipulation by regulating the market share percentage that any one trader and its affiliates can control of a designated commodity contract. The CFTC also approved a rule on the data aggregation of positions across borders, to prevent regulatory evasion by trading through foreign affiliates. And so begins Round 2 of the position limits fight.

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The local food “safety” burden

Posted November 14, 2013 by Pete Huff   

Used under creative commons license from LizMarie_AK.

Submit a comment by Friday, November 15 to tell the FDA why their proposed food safety rules don't work for small- and medium-scale food producers. 

Access to safe food is something that many of us take for granted.  It is assumed that the jam we pick up from the farmers market or the chicken purchased from the grocery store will have been grown and processed in a way that will nourish, not harm, our health or the health of our family. Behind these and all food purchases is a long line of farmers and processors with the responsibility to ensure that we can be afforded this assumption of safety.

The rise of the industrialized food system has deteriorated this trust through increasingly common breaches. Just In the past two months, outbreaks of Salmonella in industrialized chicken production and E. coli in the prepared food products of national retailers have, once again, made consumers suspicious of the food on their shelves. Too often, these outbreaks are the result of the scale and cost-cutting priorities of the industrial food system, making public health the collateral damage of an unsustainable food systems.

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A rural response to climate change: Introducing the Rural Climate Network

Posted November 12, 2013 by Tara Ritter   

Visit ruralclimatenetwork.org for more information.

The annual global climate talks are underway this week in Warsaw, Poland. The agenda for the 19th session of the Conference of Parties (COP 19) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), as the climate talks are formally called, includes discussions on “issues relating to agriculture” with climate change adaptation identified, appropriately, as a primary focus. As anyone who is engaged in farming or in other natural resource related fields or who lives in a rural landscape knows, there are big changes already occurring that are impacting their livelihoods, communities and local economies.  

Despite this focus, it is unlikely that there will be many rural voices at the negotiating table in Warsaw.  That is unfortunate, because in order to succeed, we believe it is essential to involve rural stakeholders in identifying possible policy and on-the-ground solutions. Sadly, the discussions at COP 19 are more likely to revolve around the promotion of carbon markets rather than the real strategies and investments needed to help rural communities, farmers and others to be more resilient and to help slow the pace of climate change.

To focus and strengthen the U.S. rural perspective on both the problems and solutions associated with climate change, IATP and its partners are excited to announce the launch of the Rural Climate Network (RCN). Formed out of the 2011 National Rural Assembly, the Rural Climate Network was born in response to this identified lack of rural engagement in climate policy development, but also out of a recognition for a greater need of collaboration among rural organizations and leaders regarding relevant climate change adaptation and mitigation resources, information and strategies. 

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Scaling up agroecology: A tool for policy

Posted November 6, 2013 by Shiney Varghese   

Sustainable Rice Intensification (SRI) is an example of agroecology: plants are carefully planted well-spaced from their neighbors, and minimal water is used.

For those who see agroecological approaches as necessary for achieving the food, health, and environmental targets of post 2015 agenda, agroecology is not only central to maintaining ecosystem integrity, but also to realizing food sovereignty of those involved in food production and consumption.

IATP's new report, Scaling up Agroecology: Toward the Realization of the Right to Food, begins from five principles of agroecology, presents examples of practices that could be used to implement that approach. We also developed a set of ecological as well as socioeconomic indicators of success, and mutually supportive national and international policies that would be needed for that approach to flourish.

In this report, we explore how sustainable intensification (which relies on GMOs and intensive use of technology and agrochemicals) is fundamentally different from an agroecological approach because of the latter’s roots in the political economical critique of modern agricultural systems and a holistic ecosystem analysis.

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The struggle for transparency in the U.S.-EU trade deal

Posted November 5, 2013 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

Daniel Mullaney, lead U.S. negotiator for TTIP. Photo used with permission from TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue.

IATP is a member of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD), a U.S.-European network of about 80 nongovernmental organizations, founded in 1999 on the premise that public policy will be improved by a frank discussion of policy documents disclosed to NGOs, just as they are to corporate lobbyists. TACD meets with U.S. and European Union officials yearly, alternating between Washington, D.C. and Brussels, Belgium, to discuss TACD resolutions. This year’s annual meeting focused on regulatory issues in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations between the U.S. and the European Union, formally launched in June.

U.S. and EU TTIP negotiators were to have met last week in Brussels, but the meeting was postponed due to Edward Snowden’s revelations of U.S. electronic surveillance of European officials, including European Heads of State. The U.S. government usually sends just a couple of officials to TACD meetings in Brussels, but this year, faced with the possible derailment of TTIP negotiations due to U.S. spying, they sent a full contingent to repair the public image damage, though not to apologize. TACD was an indirect beneficiary of Snowden’s act of transparency, i.e., making the secret public.

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Remarks to the World Food Prize Panel on “Stakeholders & synergies: Socio-economic dimensions of sustainable ag”

Posted November 4, 2013 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell   

Dr. M. Jahi Chappell speaks at the World Food Prize, October 18, 2013.

These are the remarks of M. Jahi Chappell, Ph.D., IATP's director of agroecology and agriculture policy to the World Food Prize on October 18, 2013. Videos of Dr. Chappell’s speech can be found at the IATP YouTube channel, in both English and Portuguese.

There has been, with this World Food Prize, a celebration of science. In the lead up to the Prize; in the ceremony last night; and more broadly within the career of the late Norman Borlaug, science is rightly praised as a powerful and important set of tools.

Unfortunately, the power of these tools has been blunted. It has been blunted because science—which at its most basic is the careful and systematic study of the world around us, and the consistent testing of our ideas against reality—this wonderful and powerful process has been narrowed too often in discussions of food to mean technology. Technology is but one way to use science; it is only the tip of one particular tool that can be found in the powerful toolbox that is science.

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