Think Forward blog

A Remarkable Shift in Food System Debates

Posted May 22, 2009

This article first appeared in Civil Eats.

Three recent actions by big agribusiness companies to manipulate public opinion have me almost giddy with excitement. After years dictating the direction of the food system, agribusiness is taking a reactionary stance.

The first sign of this change comes from the world’s largest snack food company, Frito-Lay, which initiated a “Lay’s Local” campaign that features 80 “local” farmers from 27 states. Frito-Lay’s Web site has a Chip Tracker that allows interested consumers to enter their zip code and product code to find out where the potatoes came from. Although Frito-Lay can’t claim that the potatoes are locally grown, the advertising campaign hides the corporation behind the aura of U.S. farmers.

The second is the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s announcement of a newly formed Center for Food and Animal Issues. The Center attempts to paint feedlot operators as just another group of people who support animals, just like pet owners, hunters, supporters of zoos and local animal welfare organizations. “Ultimately, our goal is to assure that people who rely on animals, either physically, emotionally or economically, have the right to do so,” said Ohio Farm Bureau Federation executive vice president Jack Fisher. The impetus for the Center came after pork, poultry and veal housing legislation was introduced in state legislatures around the country, and last year’s passing of California’s Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act.

And finally, the biotech and pesticide company CropLife.com is protesting an organic garden on the White House lawn. CropLife congratulates First Lady Michelle Obama for her effort to raise food and celebrate agriculture, but takes issue with the garden being organic. Their Web site asks, “What message does that send to the non-farming public about an important and integral part of growing safe and abundant crops to feed and clothe the world—crop protection products?”

So why do I get giddy about these calculated attempts to manipulate public opinion? Because I think about the debate just ten years ago regarding our food system, and how dramatically the conversation has shifted to a positive direction. A decade ago, the hot issue in the agriculture world was genetically modified crops. And despite many legitimate concerns that were raised about health and environmental unknowns, as well as the alarming consolidation of the seed industry, genetically modified crops swept across the Midwest largely unimpeded. Opponents were portrayed as petty reactionaries oblivious to the challenge of “feeding the world.”

This was also a time of incredible devastation in rural America. Crop prices were reaching Depression-era levels, and the promises of the 1996 “Freedom to Farm” bill were nowhere to be seen. I sat through countless forums where agribusiness professionals told farmers to relax—soon the incredible buying power of China will make low crop prices a thing of the past. Unfortunately, we spent years with most commodity prices well below the cost of production, and neither China nor other parts of the world corrected the situation.

I never dreamed we could have made as much progress toward community-based food systems as we have in the past decade. “Locally grown” is the hottest food trend for 2009, so hot that a leader in the snack food industry wants to get in on the act. Ten years ago, consumers concerned about the humane treatment of animals had to work hard to find acceptable meat and poultry; now the confined livestock industry is on its heels because of California’s proposition 2, concerns about the overuse of antibiotics and continued problems with manure pollution.

Most remarkable has been the explosion in gardening and backyard livestock. CropLife’s rather lame objection to an organic garden on the White House lawn reveals the difficult position of the industry. Who can be against local organic production that is efficient, nutritious and cost-effective, while at the same time provides exercise and builds community?

By no means do I mean to diminish the challenges ahead of us. As the Frito-Lay campaign demonstrates, we need to remain vigilant to make sure that words like "organic" and "locally grown" mean what the public thinks they mean. Far too many people around the world and in the U.S. continue to suffer from hunger and diet-related diseases.

But people are no longer willing to let a component of their lives as critical as the food system rest in the control of agribusiness corporations. Today, many people are empowered to make decisions about their family’s food, and a lot of hands are getting dirty in the fresh spring soil. Instead of creating space in the corporate food system for alternative food and farming practices, agribusiness is trying to create space for itself in thriving community-based food systems. This is a welcome transition.

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Seeing the forest through the corn

Posted May 21, 2009

Forest land home to rare bird species isn't the usual image that comes to mind when we think of Iowa. But the Yellow River Forest area in northeast Iowa totals 135,000 acres of unfragmented forest. The area is part of the Driftless area, which includes northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin.

Rh woodpecker It is also home to an unusually large number of threatened and endangered plant and animal species. Mississippi River tributaries like the Yellow River provide vital migration corridors for more than half of North America's bird species. Northeast Iowa is home to a number of rapidly declining bird species including the rare cerulean warbler, red-shouldered hawk and red-headed woodpecker.

Much of this important forest area is privately owned, so forest management by private landowners is critical to protecting these species. IATP's Forestry program announced today the first Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified land in Iowa: 77 acres in the Yellow River region owned by Jack Knight. FSC is an independent standards-based certification system that ensures forestry is practiced in an environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable way. In this case, FSC certification verifies that Knight's forest management protects this important bird habitat, including the ecology, soils and native vegetation.

"Forestry is often focused just on trees to produce lumber, but it is much more than that," said IATP Forestry Director Don Arnosti. "Jack's forest management is a model for what Iowa's landowners can do to protect wildlife and native plants while still growing trees for lumber."

Iowa resident and IATP Senior Fellow Dennis Keeney often reminds us that Iowa has the the most altered natural environment in the country. Jack Knight's FSC certification reminds us of what is possible.

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Responsibility for the Global Food Crisis

Posted May 19, 2009

Bad agriculture and trade policy in the U.S. and the European Union, pushed aggressively through global institutions, has been a major driver in global hunger, finds a new paper IATP co-published today along with CIDSE, an international alliance of Catholic development agencies.

Global Food Responsibility, by IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch and Anne Laure Constantin, identified policy failures by the U.S. and EU, including: neglected agriculture programs, ill-advised economic adjustment policies, poorly regulated commodity markets and unjust trade rules. The overlapping effects of poor U.S. and EU public policy has led to a vulnerable global food system.

"The EU and the U.S. need to contribute to, rather than block, the establishment of an entirely new global model for food and agriculture," said Spieldoch in a press release on the report. The paper shows how the EU and U.S. could play a constructive role in addressing the global food crisis through a series of recommendations, including:

  • An inclusive and binding global partnership for agriculture and food security that strengthens UN agencies, involves non-state actors and has a strong mandate;
  • A substantial increase in aid for agriculture, delivered in line with the right to food;
  • Respect for the multifunctionality of agriculture including ecological and social sustainability, access to land and water for small scale producers and greater use of local seed varieties;
  • Measures to address price volatility, including food reserves and tight regulation on speculation;
  • A shift in trade policies away from the quest for market access for European and U.S. agribusiness firms.

Nearly 1 billion people are currently suffering from hunger around the world and increasing in number. What further evidence do we need that the current system is broken and systemic change is needed?

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Getting mercury out of high fructose corn syrup

Posted May 15, 2009

In January, we released a report that found the presence of mercury in one-third of the 55 food products we tested that had high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as the first or second ingredient. The paper coincided with a peer-reviewed article in Environmental Health, which found mercury in half of the HFCS tested.

Earlier this week, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee held a hearing on the Mercury Pollution Reduction Act. The bill, introduced by Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), would amend the Toxic Substances Control Act to phase out the use of mercury in the production of caustic soda and chlorine. 

The primary focus of the bill is on eliminating an unnecessary release of mercury into the environment. But the issue is not just environmental pollution; numerous food grade chemicals are produced in these industrial plants, including HFCS. The use of mercury cell technology to produce caustic soda can contaminate the caustic soda, and ultimately, HFCS.

The hearing heard from Lynn Goldman, M.D., former EPA assistant administrator and now at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, on the public health risks from mercury. Catherine O'Neill, of the Seattle University School of Law, cited our study (among others) in pointing to the extensive costs of mercury use to public health and the environment.

As Dr. Goldman pointed out, only a handful of facilities still use mercury cell technology, totalling only 5 percent of U.S. chlorine and caustic soda production. Most facilities have already transitioned to cleaner technology. Japan has banned the use of mercury cell technology. And the EU is phasing its use by 2020. But there is no need to wait that long. We can eliminate this exposure to workers, the environment and our food system in the two years outlined in the bill.

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Land grabs

Posted May 14, 2009

Landgrab During the past year, mainstream media coverage of major global crises—food, water, climate and economic—has focused primarily on the latter. But recently, more and more news organizations are shedding light on an issue intimately linked with all four crises: land grabbing. This largely exploitative practice wherein rich countries and corporations purchase farmland from poor countries (often without the landowners’ consent) has sparked international outrage over what is being called “new colonialism.”

IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch recently discussed land grabs at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars' event Land Grab: The Race for the World's Farmland. Visit our Trade Observatory to watch her presentation and to find out more about this alarming trend.

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A New Framework for Food and Agriculture?

Posted May 13, 2009

IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch blogs from the 17th Session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) meeting in New York.

The start of the second week of the CSD is focused on policy recommendations for agriculture, rural development, land, drought and desertification, and Africa. Governments are wrangling over the language of the text, most of which is still bracketed. Much of the contentious language in the final meeting document relates to trade and investment. As governments comb over the text, civil society organizations have come from around the world to weigh in.

IATP and the Global Policy Forum organized a side event, "Global Policy Reform of Food and Agriculture: Strengthening Norms, Rules, Political Consensus and Action," based on two conclusions:

First, the climate, financial and food crisis are interrelated, revealing woeful inadequacies in our current multilateral policy framework and the urgent need for reform. Countries desperately need tools to ensure that macroeconomic and trade policy will no longer undermine local and national food systems.

Second, we are no longer operating in a "business as usual" framework for understanding agriculture. Based on current crises, political will and new models for governance must emerge from the CSD and all other relevant international meetings taking place in 2009 (including the High-Level Meeting on the Financial Crisis in June, the UN Summit on the World Food Crisis in November, and the global climate talks from now through December).

At our event, we were honored to receive the Chair of the CSD-17, Gerda Verburg, Minister of Agriculture for the Netherlands. Ms. Verburg spoke about how agriculture is often seen as part of the problem and not enough as part of the solution to feed the world, to support regional and local initiatives, and to ensure that producers are in control of the investment taking place. She made these basic points:

  • Food and water should be the top of any policy agenda related to sustainable agriculture;
  • Governments must create an enabling environment for the CSD-17 recommendations to be implemented;
  • Efforts to promote sustainability must be balanced so as to equally support people, the planet and profits;
  • Safety nets are essential so as to address those who are marginalized; and 
  • Recommendations from the CSD-17 must shape proposals on agriculture and climate that will be developed this year.

These comments were largely welcome. However, some participants were skeptical because economic liberalization in the agricultural sector is still being put forth by so many governments at the CSD-17, which undermines the potential for a positive conclusion to these negotiations.

In today’s discussion, lead authors from the IAASTD (International Assessment on Agriculture, Science, Technology and Development), signed by 60 governments, outlined key policy options for new rules in agriculture in support of equity, women, small-holder producers, sustainability, biodiversity and food security. 

Participants also reviewed the potential for a rights-based approach to policy reform. This approach would prioritize the empowerment and participation of small-holder producers and other vulnerable groups. It would recognize the inter-divisibility of rights, including those related to food, water, land, women and health. It would hold governments accountable for national obligations, but also for regulating the impacts of their trade and investment policies abroad. 

To be clear on what is and what isn’t being discussed officially, there is no mention of the IAASTD in the negotiated text of the CSD-17. Some governments are not even aware that it exists. There is also no agreement on the inclusion of human rights in the text. There are few official spaces for civil society to engage with the governments. Few small-scale farmers are present to participate and to represent their views. There is so much to do. We can and must do better.

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A New Chemical Age

Posted May 12, 2009

Last week, Minnesota became the first state in the country to ban the toxic chemical bisphenol A (BPA) from baby bottles and "sippy" cups. Perhaps just as importantly, the state passed the Toxic Free Kids Act, which takes the first step toward creating a broader system to assess toxic chemicals in children's products. Healthy Legacy, a broad-based public health coalition co-chaired by IATP, led the campaign to pass both of these bills. The effort is part of a national push to get the federal government to catch up with the science on toxic chemicals and start protecting children's health. 

BPA is a hormone disruptor that is found in many common household products. Unfortunately, BPA leaches out of plastic bottles, cups and food liners, particularly when heated, and contaminates food, beverages and ultimately, the human body. More than 200 studies have found that low-dose exposures to BPA are linked to heart disease, cancer, neurological impairments and reproductive problems. You can watch IATP's Kathleen Schuler on the public TV show "Almanac" discuss the Minnesota BPA victory.

There are other BPA ban bills pending in California, Connecticut, Michigan and New York. Many retailers and manufacturers are already eliminating BPA from their products, including Wal-Mart, Toys "R" Us and Sears. In addition, the nation's six largest baby bottle manufacturers announced this spring that they have eliminated or will phase out BPA from their product lines. And in Congress, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) have introduced bills that would ban BPA.

Earlier this year, we interviewed Dr. Peter Myers, co-author of Our Stolen Future, about toxic chemicals and public health. According to Dr. Myers, "The science has galloped forward in our understanding between environment health, while the policy world has lagged far behind...Our health standards are in the scientific Jurassic. They are so out of date, we know we cannot count on them to protect public health."

In January, a General Accountability Office report backed up Dr. Myers' assessment, finding that the Environmental Protection Agency lacks basic information to assess chemicals. Last week's victories in Minnesota are a first step toward bringing regulation of toxic chemicals into the modern age.

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The Plow

Posted May 8, 2009

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

May 5, 2009

Hands The plow is perhaps the greatest attempt to imitate the hand. The harrow drags its fingers through the soil, loosening and breaking clods. Although harrows were once nothing but a rack of sharpened sticks drawn behind an ox, they are the same in principle today, despite a change to sharper and more durable metal materials. Plows, little changed over 4,000 years of existence, have increasingly sought to hold the curve of the human hand and to imitate its trick of both pulling up and laying down.

The 18th century New York inventor Jethro Wood made arguably the finest plow. Wood was obsessed with finding the curve that would lift and turn the soil with the least resistance, making the plow easiest to draw.

He was not alone in this quest. His sometime correspondent, President Thomas Jefferson, was also in pursuit of “the mould-board of least resistance” and indeed thought that he had found it. But Jefferson designed on paper, using a grid. Jethro Wood designed on potatoes.

Pototo People who saw him walking the lanes of his hometown of Scipio, carving away on a spud, soon came to know him as “the whittling Yankee.” His plow was not a product of the Cartesian grid, but rather, was formed directly on a product of the soil.

In a letter to the Patent Office of 1819, Wood repeatedly tries to describe his mouldboard, without success. “The figure of the mouldboard… is a sort of irregular pentagon, or five-sided plane, though curved and inclined in a peculiar manner,” he said. “The peculiar curve has been compared to that of the screw auger; and it has been likened to the prow of a ship,” he added, but neither description was accurate. Finally, he gave up trying to describe it in detail: “The mouldboard, which is the result of profound reflection and of numberless experiments, is a sort of plano-curvilinear surface.”

Mouldboard He then went on to provide a web of measurements so obscure that the document functioned only weakly as a patent, meaning that although his design was almost universally adopted, he saw little revenue as a result.

During the course of ten days, we have put all of our potatoes in the ground. Six hundred pounds of potatoes and 11 varieties in all. I used Wood’s (not Jefferson's) mouldboard shape to test its usefulness in turning over a beautiful cover crop of hairy vetch. Aside, we have been busy with planting and the season of continuous cultivation has begun. Now until September... .  

Mouldboard in action

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Food and faith

Posted May 6, 2009

The push for greater access to healthy, locally produced food in the United States continues to get stronger. Today, we released a new report highlighting the role of 11 faith communities around the country that are expanding access to healthy, local foods. Faith communities have the resources and volunteer power to make things happen, and it shows throughout these examples of farmers markets, food pantries, healthy eating programs, community gardens and cooking classes.

“Faith communities are important supporters of healthy eating because of their strong presence in neighborhoods and their commitment to the well-being of community members,” said JoAnne Berkenkamp, director of IATP’s Local Foods program, in our press release. “It is our hope that faith members across the country will be inspired by these stories and take action in their own places of worship.”

The short rundown of the case studies:

• St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Bolivar, Mo., manages three gardens and three orchards from which they harvest and provide both fresh and preserved fruits and vegetables for anyone who wants them.
• Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Oakdale, Minn., manages a volunteer-based community garden that provides fruits and vegetables for local food shelves.
• Taqwa Eco-Food, a food cooperative in Chicago, Ill., works to meet the needs of people wanting to purchase local meats raised and processed within the principles of Islam.
• Central Baptist Church and Bethlehem Baptist Church of Columbia, S.C., runs the “Dash of Faith” cooking program to help church cooks prepare healthier foods.
• Sixteen Interfaith Communities in Eugene, Ore., connect urban residents with local farmers and community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms in which residents purchase shares and receive deliveries of harvested fruits and vegetables.
• St. Paul Jewish Community Center in St. Paul, Minn., arranges for members to purchase shares in a local CSA farm that uses farming practices based on Jewish beliefs.
• Plymouth Congregational Church and Stevens Square Community Organization of Minneapolis, Minn., operate a community garden, food shelf and farmers market at the church.
• Central Presbyterian Church in downtown St. Paul, Minn., provides a weekly healthy community lunch program for members and the surrounding community.
• Upper Sand Mountain Parish of northeastern Alabama operates a food pantry, community and church gardens, cannery and healthy eating education program.
• Body and Soul healthy eating program throughout the U.S. helps African-American congregations improve members' eating habits.
• The Hindu Temple of Minnesota in Maple Grove, Minn., organizes a weekend healthy lunch program for both members and non-members.

Find more details in our full report. We've only scratched the surface of what is happening in faith communities with regard to expanding access to healthy food. We've set up a place on our Web site where others can add what is happening in their faith community.

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First 100 Days

Posted May 4, 2009

Last week, President Obama completed his first 100 days. The folks at the Institute for Policy Studies have published a new report, Thirsting for Change: Obama's First 100 Days, that provides a quick analysis of the first 100 days, assessing progress on climate change, health care and education, as well as many other domestic and international areas.

IATP President Jim Harkness and I assess the Obama administration's first steps in agriculture. With some positive signs mixed with red flags (particularly on biotechnology), we gave him a 7 (on a scale of 1-10). Read the full report to find out more.

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