The announcement last week of a bid by China’s Shuanghui International to acquire Smithfield Foods Incorporated came midway through my research trip to Beijing for IATP’s initiative on the globalization of industrial meat production. The responses to the news from back home have been all over the map, albeit fairly predictable. But what are they saying in China? Below I share some initial views from the press, blogosphere, academia and government. I’ll have more later this week.
The government seems positive about the deal. The first thing I noticed was the use of the word “merger” in the official Xinhua News Service’s initial piece on the acquisition. (The U.S. press prefers “sale” or “takeover.”) Xinhua’s second article actually uses “Win-Win” in the title, and describes how the merger will relieve the U.S. of the burden of our excess pork while easing trade deficits and improving Shuanghui’s food safety standards. “We can learn a lot from the industry leader,” Shuanghui CEO Wan Long is quoted as saying. Clearly he has never Googled “Smithfield recall.”
On Saturday, May 25, IATP participated in the March Against Monsanto (MAM) in St. Paul, Minnesota. The MAM took place in 436 cities in 52 countries, with an estimated two million participants. Monsanto was the focus not only because of the scale and reach of its products, but because of its undue influence on the global food system. A recent Food and Water Watch report, summarizing 936 Wikileaks documents, gives an idea of what the U.S. State Department has done to change laws and enable sales of Monsanto products around the world. Indeed, multiple U.S. federal agencies have advanced the company’s commercial interests, in the face of the rejection of Monsanto products by many farmers, consumers, academics and governments. Nevertheless, in the name of free trade and food security, the U.S. promotes GMOs to “feed the world.”
The spring campaign season against frac sand mining has started to take off. It’s not that we’ve been sitting quietly all winter biding our time. As many town boards and county supervisors can tell you, opposition to frac sand mining in the Driftless region of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa has been churning away for months, but something happened when the ice finally melted and the first Spring Beauties bloomed in the woods. In Minnesota, Representative Matt Schmit from Redwing introduced legislation to limit sand mining near trout streams. On April 29th, 35 Catholic Workers were arrested in Winona protesting with over 100 supporters and friends at two frac sand operations. On May 15th, IATP, Wisconsin Farmers Union and the Wisconsin Towns Association released a report raising concerns about the economic impact of frac sand mining in West Central Wisconsin. And coming up on June 1 in Black River Falls, a regional conference called Standing Against the Sand Storm will bring together community leaders and activists from across region to address the growing threat from industrial sand mining and find ways that we can work together.
In all of the discussions and proposals associated with the current Farm Bill debate, climate change has gotten little official recognition (although we have pointed out that from IATP’s perspective, the singular focus on crop insurance is clear evidence that climate change is the primary concern of farmers and agriculture state politicians). As the Farm Bill debate goes to the Senate floor, we apploaud two amendments that are trying to bring greater recognition of climate change to the farm policy discussion.
The first, Senator Whitehouse’s Sense of the Senate Resolution #1029, is a largely symbolic, yet ultimately very important resolution about the authenticity of climate change science and determined causes. This resolution expresses that it is the sense of the Senate that climate change research is in fact based on sound practices, that a scientific consensus exists that humans are contributing to climate change, and that climate change poses a risk to agriculture and related industries. While “Sense of the Senate” resolutions do not result in any direct legislative actions or laws, passage of this resolution would be an important, if quite belated indicator that the U.S. Congress is finally getting serious about climate change and its impacts, especially as they relate to agriculture and our food system.
The Minnesota Green Chemistry Forum hosted a happy hour event on May 15, entitled The Business Case for Chemical Policy Reform. The group of fifty, over half from the business community, heard presentations about how sound chemical policies can benefit businesses and why business voices are needed in chemical policy debates.
We heard from David Levine, co-founder & CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), a growing coalition of over 165,000 businesses and social enterprises and more than 300,000 entrepreneurs, owners, executive, investors and business professionals. David cited the results of an ASBC polling showing that 87 percent of small businesses think there should be government regulations to ensure that chemicals used in growing food are safe and 73 percent support government regulation to assure that consumer products are free of toxins. Nine out of 10 small businesses surveyed believe that chemical manufacturers should be held responsible for ensuring that chemicals they use are safe and 94 percent support disclosure of chemicals of concern in products.
If you want to reduce crime, you have to make sure there are enough cops on the beat. Something similar can be said for market regulation. We can’t expect markets to work if we don’t invest resources into making sure government agencies have the right regulatory tools at their disposal and have adequate resources to effectively implement and enforce the rules. A Better Markets study estimates the quantifiable cost of the financial services industry triggered Great Recession at $12.8 trillion. Now the publicly bailed out industry and its Congressional allies want to take cops off the market beat. Tomorrow, the House Committee on Agriculture is holding a public hearing entitled The Future of the CFTC: Market Perspectives, featuring a panel of CEOs who have opposed most attempts to regulate the unregulated parts of the markets and supported CFTC budgets that are inadequate for enforcing the rules.
The U.S. Congress last authorized the work of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) as part of the 2008 Farm Bill. Senators Debbie Stabenow and Thad Cochrane, Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, requested comment for the 2013 reauthorization of the CFTC. We responded in a May 1 letter, outlining seven ways in which the CFTC should be reauthorized to improve regulation of the $300 trillion of derivatives contracts over which the CFTC has authority.
Over 5000 children’s products contain toxic chemicals linked to cancer, hormone disruption and reproductive problems, including the toxic metals, cadmium, mercury and antimony, as well as phthalates and solvents. A new report by the Washington Toxics Coalition and Safer States reveals the results of manufacturer reporting to the Washington State Department of Ecology.
Makers of kids’ products reported using 41 of the 66 chemicals identified by WA Ecology as a concern for children’s health. Major manufacturers who reported using the chemicals in their products include Walmart, Gap, Gymboree, Hallmark, H & M and others. They use these chemicals in an array of kids’ products, including clothing, footwear, toys, games, jewelry, accessories, baby products, furniture, bedding, arts and crafts supplies and personal care products. Besides exposing kids in the products themselves, some of these chemicals, for example toxic flame retardants, build up in the environment and in the food we eat.
Examples of product categories reported to contain toxic chemicals include:
The chemical reports are required under Washington State’s Children’s Safe Products Act of 2008. A searchable database of chemical use reports filed with the Washington State Department of Ecology is available at http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/swfa/cspa/search.html.
Earlier this spring, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) was in the news because of a threat that the agency’s 8000+ inspectors would be furloughed as part of the sequester. Since, by law, all meat packing processing facilities in the U.S. must have a USDA inspector on site in order to operate, this would have brought the U.S. beef, pork and poultry industries to a screeching halt.
Of course, as soon as one of the most powerful, Inside-the-Beltway industries objects to any part of the sequester, Congress decides that although the legislation was designed precisely to inflict painful cuts in order to force action, they’ll make an exception in this one little case. (All of which shows that the real purpose of Budget Hysteria is to cut the parts of government that help the politically powerless: poor people, workers, sick people and children.) So when President Obama signed the continuing resolution, which keeps the government operating for the next six months, it included an amendment allowing the USDA to make cuts elsewhere in order to keep the inspectors on the job.
Sixty-eight percent. That’s the percent of corporate food and agriculture industry executives who said that weather extremes/volatility will be the “single biggest factor affecting North American food and agribusiness in 2013,” according to a poll by the Dutch bank, Rabobank in late 2012. Rabobank went on to say that business leaders’ concerns about weather extremes “far outweighed the next two closest factors—consumer demand (13%) and policy/regulation (10%).” “Geopolitical events” and “trade/tariffs/exchange rates” received votes in the single digits.
This striking data is another sign that the increasing volatility of our weather is not only real but is impacting even the largest food and agriculture businesses.
To dig more deeply into perceptions in the food industry about changing climate patterns, I recently conducted a series of conversations with produce distributors around the United States. These are folks who buy and sell vast quantities of fruit and vegetables from suppliers in the U.S. and all over the world, every day.
Although they are largely hidden from view, distributors are a key link in the chain of relationships that make it possible for most of our food (except that which is “direct marketed” via farmers markets and the like) to make its way from farms to grocery stores, restaurants and so on. Many I spoke with are multi-generation, family-owned businesses that sell a local and global supply of produce to institutions in their region of the country.
Commercialization of all kinds of nanotech is happening fast. As of March 2011, the nongovernmental Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) had registered more than 1,300 products whose manufacturers claim to include ENMs, and estimates that the number could grow to 3,400 by 2020—all without a broad-based body of science to support claims that it’s safe for public health or the environment.
With the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) pushing for “sustainable intensification” to counteract a growing population and increasing resource scarcity, it seems our soil is in the nanotech crosshairs—whether we know the long-term impacts or not.
In a new IATP report, Nanomaterials in Soil: Our Future Food Chain?, Dr. Steve Suppan digs in to the science behind why companies are pushing ahead with nanotech, why governments are so far behind, and why real (read: non-industry) science and conversation is sorely needed before our soil and the microfauna that keep it functioning become nothing but dirt.
Until that research is available, IATP is pushing for an immediate moratorium on fertilizing with biosolids (also known as sewage sludge) from sewage treatment plants near nanotech fabrication facilities.
As Dr. Suppan writes, “…if we are what we eat, surely what we eat is only as healthy and sustainable as the soil it comes from.”