On Friday, President Obama announced new commitments to support the solar industry and create green jobs. Too bad the President’s trade agenda didn’t get the memo.
In practice, the Obama Administration’s relentless free trade agenda is colliding with its climate and renewable energy goals, leaving four U.S. state programs, designed to spur green jobs and renewable energy, vulnerable to trade challenges, while directly limiting renewable energy growth in one of the world’s fastest emerging economies.
In April, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) took the first steps toward challenging India’s program to expand solar energy production by supporting local companies and green jobs, charging that it violates World Trade Organization (WTO) rules by limiting U.S. companies’ access to the program.
Now, India has responded (subscription required, alternative link) by raising questions about solar energy programs in four states—Minnesota, Delaware, Connecticut and Massachusetts—that also provide benefits for companies that use renewable energy equipment manufactured in that state.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program released their Third National Climate Assessment on May 6; compiled by over 300 experts and peer reviewed by members of the public, climate change experts, federal agencies, and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, the report details the impacts of climate change on the United States, including impacts on water, energy, transportation, agriculture, and human health, among other sectors.
One chapter of the report focuses on rural communities, which are at-risk to be disproportionately affected by the direct impacts of climate change because of their high dependence on natural resources. At the same time, rural communities have a limited capacity to invest in public infrastructure, decreasing their preparedness for climate impacts. The National Climate Assessment says it best: “Responding to additional challenges from climate change impacts will require significant adaptation within rural transportation and infrastructure systems, as well as health and emergency response systems. Governments in rural communities have limited institutional capacity to respond to, plan for, and anticipate climate change impacts.”
The National Climate Assessment released yesterday states what most of us already know: Climate change is occurring and having real and costly impacts, but we aren’t ready. This is especially true for our food and farming systems and rural communities, as Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack pointed out in a USDA statement this week on the assessment. While it remains imperative that we slow and eventually halt avoidable manmade causes to climate change, we as a society have to acknowledge that it is already occurring and work to adapt our lives, economies, and food and farming systems.
Fortunately, in the face of federal inaction, many U.S. states have already begun this process of climate adaptation planning. A new IATP report by Zack Robbins reviews these state climate adaptation plans, with a specific attention to their consideration of agriculture and food production. The resulting “State of the States on Climate Adaptation” report provides both a summary and analysis of the level of planning around food and agriculture that has already occurred, examples of which approaches are most broadly supported, and ideas for further steps to support more resilient food production and farming.
When my kids were young, one of our favorite nighttime books was Fungus the Bogeyman, a story about a subterranean bogeyman who spends his waking hours scaring humans. The kids and I loved all the disgusting bogeyman slang like pus and muck. As life would have it, the notion of fungus that frightens people has become only too real and instead if putting children to sleep, it has become the kind of story that really does keep us awake at night.
Recent news of the fungus wiping out shade-grown coffee in Central America was preceded earlier this month with reports of a wheat fungus in Africa that could wipe out this essential food crop. Major varieties of bananas in Asia and Africa are already being decimated by the deadly fungal Panama disease. Many important commodities are being plagued by fungal diseases and this increase in fungal diseases is not limited to plants. Just this week spores of a soil fungus that causes valley fever, or coccidioides, were discovered in Washington state. This fungus is normally found in regions with dry, arid climates.
Last week, Republicans in the Senate blocked a vote on whether to enact a modest raise of the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, and the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 an hour to 70 percent of the minimum wage. Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid has vowed to bring it up for a vote again. He should. And it should pass.
At the forefront of lobbying efforts to block a vote on the minimum wage was the powerful National Restaurant Association. The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC-United) and Food Chain Workers Alliance published a scathing report recently uncovering the “Other NRA’s” longstanding efforts to undermine wages and women’s rights, oppose limits on junk food marketing, and restrict health care coverage, wielding enormous power in Washington. The NRA spent more than $2 million in lobbying alone last year, reports Open Secrets.
Whether it is in the processing plant or in the supermarket or in the restaurant, food service workers are some of the lowest paid in the country and most impacted by minimum wage laws. Meanwhile, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project, corporations like Wal-Mart, Yum Brands! (Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway) and McDonald’s are among those who benefit the most from low wages.
When U.S. and EU officials talk about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), they say it will bring the two economies together as leaders in the global economy. Just this week, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that, “TTIP should become the economic pillar of the EU and US alliance. It should be our joint attempt to shape a fast changing world and to set the standards of the future. It should act as a platform to project shared EU-U.S. values worldwide with regard to open markets and rule of law.”
But what do they mean, and how would that work? Negotiating a series of bilateral or regional trade deals seems like a direct challenge to multilateralism, and something likely to further weaken the already anemic World Trade Organization. TTIP and the 15 bilateral or regional trade deals being negotiated by the EU create a cobweb of interlocking agreements that in many ways serve to lock in global norms on issues like investment, intellectual property, food safety and other issues that go well beyond what WTO members have agreed to even consider at the multilateral level.
Earlier this month, IATP was part of a six-event speakers’ tour organized by the progressive German farmers’ organization, ABL and sponsored by over 20 German organizations on the proposed U.S.-EU free trade agreement. The tour, spanning north, south east and west, drew an amazing response over the last two weeks as we literally moved around Germany. Crowds of anywhere between 200 people on a Wednesday evening (in Dresden) to 70 to 100 people on other weeknights in rural communities came to learn and engage on the implications of TTIP on food and agriculture on both sides of the Atlantic. They were interested in hearing the “U.S. perspective,” but I was joined by prominent leaders of the food and farming movement in Germany and Europe at the various events, like the president of the European Milk Board and head of its German association BDM (Bundesverband Deutscher Milchviehhalter), Romuald Schaber and the Board Chair of ABL, Georg Janssen, as well as other local and regional farm leaders of ABL.
The Obama Administration’s feverish cheerleading for genetically modified crops is being put to the test with growing evidence that the technology is unpopular with consumers, causing problems in the field and facing increasing rejection in the marketplace.
The state of Vermont is set to become the first in the country to require mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. Maine and Connecticut have also passed mandatory labeling bills, but they require neighboring states to also pass such bills before they come into law. More than 25 states have GMO labeling laws working their way through state legislatures and ballot initiatives. Hawaii, a major testing ground for new GMO crops, has become another battleground as several counties now require greater disclosure and tougher regulations for GMO plantings.
This is a big deal and the biotech seed industry knows it. The industry has already spent millions to defeat ballot initiatives and state-based bills. Its next line of defense against the states is litigation, where it will likely sue states’ requiring labeling for violating the interstate commerce clause (restricting trade between states).
The Board of the Federal Reserve asked this question, in essence, and 25 questions related to it in an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. IATP responded, because while banks generally do not own and trade agricultural commodities, the energy commodities they trade, including fertilizer (occasionally), oil, gas and electricity are agricultural inputs and, hence, affect agricultural prices. (The Fed has posted all comments here.) (On April 22, Barclay’s, which traded agricultural commodities, announced that it would be selling most of its commodity trading division. Greater regulatory scrutiny and declining profits were cited as reasons for the sale.)
We’ve all made recipes and forgot that one key ingredient, only to forgive ourselves because, after all, food is more than just its physical ingredients: Too salty or not, we made that soup and we’ll be damned if we’re not proud of ourselves.
So what about the food we buy? Other than the items listed on the nutrition facts, food companies know we want to feel good: “The Breakfast of Champions” or something that’s “Mmm Mmm Good.” These famous slogans say nothing of ingredients, and everything about emotional appeal. Of course, advertising doesn’t include the whole story: The U.S. food system, controlled by a handful of corporations, is missing some key ingredients. We know there’s plenty of salt, sugar and fat, replacing the ingredients we might use at home, the freshness or family recipes we might cherish, and greater nutrition and variety provided by whole and home-cooked foods. In the same way, fair wages and prices for workers and farmers in the food system have been replaced with huge volumes of cheap food (and accompanying waste), low prices and inadequate wages.
From the soil and water that feeds our crops, to the waiters and waitresses that serve us our lunch, to the seeming myriad choices we have at the grocery store about what we eat, justice and health for ourselves, our farmers, workers and the environment is in drastically short supply.