Last week more than 200,000 Colombians converged on Bogota for a nationwide strike to protest free trade, privatization and poverty. According to Common Dreams, the strike began as a protest by campesinos and spread to encompass teachers, miners and other sectors of society.
I have to admit I was surprised to see that farmers had been hit so hard, since prices for grains have been pretty high over the last few years. Back in the early 2000s, when the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA)—and the U.S.-Central America FTA, U.S.-Peru FTA, and others—was negotiated, the concern was that U.S.-grown commodities would be dumped by agribusiness at artificially low prices onto foreign markets. This was certainly Mexico’s experience under NAFTA. U.S. corn exports to Mexico quadrupled after NAFTA went into effect, and many small-scale farmers were unable to compete. More than two million Mexicans were driven from their lands.
But that was before the 2008 food price spike, when soaring grain prices sparked food riots around the world and, to some degree, a rethinking of agricultural development policies. Concerns over dumping were replaced by attention to extreme food price volatility and the prospect that prices would continue to increase for the foreseeable future.
Golden Rice’s recent re-emergence in the news reminded me of how long the biotech industry has been touting this “wonder” crop in order to gain approval for genetic modification more broadly. It appears we’re now seeing a similar tactic with the proposed introduction of genetically modified (GMO) American chestnut trees. Once stretching across the eastern part of the United States and memorialized in countless stories, songs and poems, few trees evoke more nostalgia for America’s past than the Chestnut. However, the American chestnut now mostly lingers in our memory, as the more than 4 billion trees—equaling around a quarter of all hardwoods in the Eastern seaboard—were almost completely wiped out when a disease swept through the country in the early 1900s.
Such emotional connections help to explain the fervor behind efforts to reintroduce this American icon, but also the latent danger in such work. One effort has utilized traditional breeding practices to create and introduce a new chestnut hybrid that is resistant to the blight. Until the last few years, the American Chestnut Foundation supported this effort before shifting to support a competing initiative, led by the College of Environmental Science and Forestry of the State University of New York in Syracuse, which takes the more controversial approach of genetic modification. The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Center, through transfer of genes native to wheat into the chestnut, has created a blight-resistant version of the American Chestnut, and is intending—with appropriate regulatory support—to introduce this version into the wild.
This piece is a guest feature from Rod Leonard, former IATP board member and special assistant to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman.
One of the last acts of the Republican majority of the House of Representatives before the August recess of Congress was to propose to cut funding for the food stamp program by $40 billion in the fiscal 2014 budget. These cuts were proposed even after the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the inflation adjusted value of food stamps had declined seven percent between 2009 and 2011.
Whether the cruel and harshly punitive action offended the gods possessing larger powers of compassion and morality is not clear, but no one questions that nearly simultaneously the bottom fell out of commodity market prices for corn, soybeans and wheat. The question is whether the two developments in the agricultural economy are related, and whether the stability of the American farm economy may have been fractured, possibly permanently.
These facts are clear:
Before House Republicans decided to shear by half the program that keeps hunger from the door of nearly 48 million people in America, the cash price of corn was hovering near $7.50 a bushel, and briefly climbed above $8.00 a bushel in future markets. Ever since the Republicans sacrificed help for the hungry to appease the austerity gods, the cash price of corn has fallen to nearly $4.60 a bushel and remains below $5 a bushel. Assuming the cash price remains below $5 a bushel through the rest of 2013, the drop in the cash price represents a potential loss in future income for American corn growers of possibly more than $32 billion in 2013 and 2014 income.
As a new policy on the Think Forward blog, we are going to set aside an occasional post to welcome and introduce new staffers to our readers—welcoming them to the organization and highlighting the work they’re taking on in helping further our mission for fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems.
Over the late spring and summer, IATP has welcomed a group of new staffers in various roles and we’re excited to have them on board as start breaking ground on new work. Their help has already proved invaluable.
Kristen Frank, our new administrative assistant, is the new face of IATP, the voice on the phone, the person at the front desk, a greeter at events, and the one who keeps everyone and everything on the first floor organized.
Yohannes Ghebru is our new finance assistant, in charge of accounts payable and receivable, payroll, and benefits management. In his first few months he has been acquainting himself with IATP’s new accounting software and learning all the ins and outs of the benefits package.
Rachel Grewell is a program assistant working with the Healthy Legacy coalition on Minnesota chemical policy reform and on IATP’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, both supporting the production and use of everyday products without toxic chemicals.
Catherine Reagan has joined as a program assistant involved in many and varied pieces of IATP’s current work—one day sorting out Working Landscapes data, the next delivering Minnesota Grown directories to childcare providers throughout the Metro area, the next diving into research about locally grown and processed grains and pulses.
Farmers and the insurance industry have one thing in common: they are both on the front lines of climate change. So far, the U.S. insurance industry has been slow to respond to climate induced risk and is well behind its European counterparts who are outspoken leaders for climate action.
In a small sign of progress last month, Minnesota announced that it will join four other states in requiring its insurance companies to report on climate risk. The companies will have to respond to a survey put together by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners that asks how the industry is reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions, altering its investment strategies, or encouraging policyholders to adapt to new climactic conditions (thus decrease reporting company losses).
Minnesota Insurance Commissioner Mike Rothman should be applauded. When IATP met with the insurance commissioner’s staff last year, we encouraged the state to require climate-related reporting of insurers. We were surprised when they told us we were the first to ask them to do such reporting, or indeed, to ask about the climate risk of Minnesota companies. Maybe insurance commissioners in the other 45 states also just need to be asked in order to act.
Proceeding from the commonsense notion (and economic principle) that in a free market, buyers should have access to sufficient information to make educated choices, the law required retailers to tell customers the country of origin of a variety of foods, including meat, fruits, vegetables and nuts. I might not know where all the pieces of my cell phone were made—and there are serious issues with that—but I don't plan to eat my phone. Why shouldn’t I be able to know where my food comes from?
The big meat companies have objected the loudest to COOL. Canadian and Mexican meat groups took the U.S. to court at the World Trade Organization (WTO) when the USDA first announced its regulations for implementing COOL, charging that the rules would discriminate against them, and they won. To the Obama Administration’s credit, they issued a revised rule that actually strengthened COOL, requiring more detail about where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered. The current suit is intended to block the revised regulations that were issued this spring in response to the WTO ruling.
As two of the largest free trade agreements (TTIP and TPP) in history are being negotiated, free trade agreements like these will become more entrenched in our lives than ever before. Unfortunately, the tangle of rules and regulations—mostly design to keep intact and strengthen corporate interests—can create serious roadblocks for real, earnest work to improve sustainability on the national, state and even local levels. Yes, as local governments work to build policy that includes sustainability standards, they may be on the wrong side of international trade law.
A new IATP report, Sustainability Criteria, Biofuel Policy and Trade Rules makes very clear that if we hope to change policy in any arena—pushing for lower GHG emissions, reducing pollution, producing cleaner energy, or enabling local sourcing—understanding international trade law is an absolutely required first step.
Report author and trade lawyer Eric Gillman uses the state of biofuels policy as a backdrop—including real examples of current biofuel sustainability efforts—to set the stage for examining the larger implications of WTO trade law on all sorts of policy development:
If we are to construct the type of policies needed to address the multiple environmental, social and economic crises that we face, understanding how these policies interact with international trade rules is absolutely required. This paper is a ﬁrst attempt—within the context of biofuel policy—to raise some of these questions and address necessary changes.
Farmfest is the largest farm show in Minnesota, bringing farmers together to talk about and see the latest in tractors, seeds, and other farm-related equipment. But Farmfest also brings out the politicians to talk about what is happening with agricultural policies and markets. With no farm bill in place, the question understandably on everyone’s minds at this year’s policy panel was “What’s next?” While the policymakers in attendance did a pretty good job of explaining how we got where we are today, the future of farm policy was left unclear.
Representatives Colin Peterson and Tim Walz, both of whom are on the House Agricultural Committee and participated in the policy discussion, gave their perspectives on why Congress still hasn’t passed a Farm Bill. Peterson and Walz pointed to the relatively speedy and nonpartisan work of the House and Senate agricultural committees, as well as the ongoing support of both parties’ leadership; they made clear that the fault didn’t lie there. Instead, the blame was leveled squarely at Eric Cantor and his fellow right-wing Republicans, who broke with their party’s leadership and scuttled the deal that the agricultural committee had developed. Both representatives were quite pessimistic of the possibility of passing a Farm Bill in the remaining months of 2013; Representative Peterson suggested that a 2-year extension was the most likely outcome, followed by many questions about whether we would actually have a Farm Bill (as we know it today) ever again.
Ask anyone who's been working on policy-change or advocacy efforts in any arena long enough and they’ll tell you: Change takes time. Except in very rare cases, big, noticeable shifts take years—often decades—of work by countless people, working on all levels and in different ways to achieve change. On one hand, this glacial pace makes sense. After all, it took years to get where we are—a climate on the fritz, food for some while others go hungry, a financial system that is more akin to an online casino—why should getting somewhere else be any quicker? On the other hand, if we aren’t able to think big about the changes we want, and get caught up in little victories, we risk losing sight of our real goals.
It is in this spirit that Oxfam held an online discussion last year calling on experts from across the food and development policy world to write a series of essays focused on four “big picture” questions:
The launch of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations presents a new challenge to commodity and financial market reform. Those reforms, codified in the U.S. in rules authorized by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010, are intended to prevent a reoccurrence of the big bank bankruptcies that were avoided only by the nearly $30 trillion bailout of mostly U.S. and European financial institutions from 2007 to 2010. The U.S. Department of Treasury has announced its opposition to the inclusion of financial services in the TTIP. However, according to Inside U.S. Trade (subscription required), the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) said that it was evaluating the benefits of including financial services, and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said that financial services would be included.