Think Forward blog

Do agriculture offsets make good climate policy?

Posted November 5, 2009

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich) introduced an amendment to the Kerry-Boxer climate bill yesterday. In it, Stabenow, along with six co-sponsors (heavy on the farm states), outlined an agriculture and forestry offset program for the cap-and-trade legislation (the Kerry-Boxer bill contained only placeholder language on ag offsets).

Stabenow’s bill, dubbed the Clean Energy Partnerships Act (CEPA), offers few surprises. As in the Waxman-Markey climate bill that passed the House last June, CEPA sets up a system in which farmers and ranchers would be eligible to earn carbon credits for certain climate-beneficial practices like no-till, methane capture, and cover crops. Capped industries (like steel plants, coal-powered energy plants, etc.) could then buy these credits, thereby reducing (at least on paper) their greenhouse gas emissions.

So is this good policy? In a word—no. As we’ve written before, offsets themselves are notoriously problematic. They’re hard to measure and hard to verify, and in many cases, it’s tough to say whether the carbon reducing activity would’ve happened regardless of the offset. Example: a cattle farmer who practices good grazing. Should we reward her? Absolutely—let’s make sure she has the support to keep doing it. Should it mean a coal plant can get out of some real emission reductions? I don’t think so.

Agriculture and the climate would be much better served by comprehensive farm policies that recognize that farming can do more than just sequester carbon—it can also benefit the soil, water, and of course, eaters. It’s a point we keep making, but one I think bears repeating. I will credit both Waxman-Markey and Stabenow’s bill for including non-offset programs to incentive climate-friendly ag practices. We need to talk more about policies like those, and less about offsets. Learn more about climate and agriculture here and here.

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Farm to school programs growing despite challenges

Posted November 5, 2009

IATP's JoAnne Berkenkamp and USDA Deputy Secretary Merrigan When USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan toured the St. Paul School Commissary earlier this week, the first thing she talked about was how complicated the logistics are when trying to provide healthier school lunches—particularly for larger urban districts. Heads in the meeting room immediately nodded. (see photo: IATP's JoAnne Berkenkamp and USDA Deputy Secretary Merrigan)

Yet, despite these challenges, the urgency of improving school lunch programs is rising. The Centers for Disease Control reported last month that most kids aren't getting enough fruits and vegetables. And the Institute for Medicine also published a paper last month citing school lunch and breakfast programs as critical to ensuring the health of our children.

Healthy school lunch items! Farm to school programs are seen as one tool toward providing healthier food to kids—and communities around the country are recognizing this. There are now over 2,000 farm to school programs around the country.

In Minnesota, we have been working with the Minnesota School Food Service Association to expand farm to school programs. “It’s exciting to see Farm to School participation growing all over the state—in the cities, in the suburbs and throughout greater Minnesota. This movement is growing by leaps and bounds,” IATP’s JoAnne Berkenkamp said in a press release we sent out today.

This fall and early next year, Congress will renew the Child Nutrition Act—an important opportunity to expand resources for farm to school programs.

As Deputy Secretary Merrigan said, "The need is great, the challenges are great, but just because they're great doesn't mean we're not ready to tackle them."

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Estrogen with that drink?

Posted November 2, 2009

CNN reported last week on at least two children, ages 10 and
13 being treated for aggressive breast cancer. It’s apparently part of a
broader trend of breast cancer striking earlier and earlier. For this
generation of women carrying the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, breast cancer is being
diagnosed six years earlier than in the previous generation. No one can say

By and large, breast cancer isn’t a genetic disease. Like
nearly all cancers and other chronic diseases, the causes are multiple, and a
mixture of environment and genes. So it’s particularly concerning that we
continue to put strong synthetic estrogens, like Bisphenol A, in our food and
drink containers.

See IATP’s Smart Guide to Hormones in the Food System and
Smart Meat and Dairy Guide for more information. The take home message: There’s nothing smart about adding
synthetic hormones to the food chain. Especially not when girls, 10 and 13, are
fighting breast cancer.

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Correction to Monsanto and Pioneer duke it out over biotech corn, farmers take the hit

Posted November 2, 2009

In an October 26 Think Forward post "Monsanto and Pioneer duke it out over biotech corn, farmers take the hit"  I incorrectly stated that Monsanto bought Garst Seed. Instead, they acquired DeKalb Genetics Inc.. I regret the error. 

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IATP 2009 Staff Garden wrap-up

Posted October 30, 2009 by Emily Barker   

IATP's Emily Barker—a flagship member of our Garden Crew—reports on the 2009 staff garden. Be sure to see our Facebook Staff Garden photo album!


The harvest this summer in the IATP staff garden was one of true beauty and bounty. Several weeks saw an abundance of tomatoes, green peppers, zucchini, basil, kale and chard, along with a good showing of cucumbers and eggplants. The carrots were a bit on the short side, but they were very tasty. The beans grew quite well, but were overtaken by the towering tomato plants, and therefore weren’t harvested before they became too woody to eat. Powdery mildew, mosaic virus and the ever present squirrels provided challenges, but reminded us of the reality of growing food in a sustainable, non-chemical-laden way. The reward was unforgettable. 

The season came to an end in early October, when freezing temperatures hit much of Minnesota. We were able to do a pre-frost dash to salvage many good sized, but not quite ripe tomatoes, and had a wonderful feast of fried green tomatoes. The snow a few days later forced us to finally admit that it was time to prepare the garden for a long winter sleep, although the kale, chard and ever hardy sage are still standing. Soon even these will be put to rest and all that will remain will be our memories (see our pictures on Facebook) and dreams of seasons to come.

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Connecting the dots: Chemicals, food ingredients and learning disorders

Posted October 29, 2009

Much of the U.S. regulatory system covering toxins is based
on assessing individual chemicals and their effects on human health, rather
than what happens in the real world—where we are exposed to multiple chemicals
that interact with each other in a variety of ways. In a new article published
in the peer-reviewed Behavioral and Brain Functions Journal, led by former FDA
researcher Renee Default and co-authored by IATP's David Wallinga, M.D., among
others, researchers look at the links between child learning and behavior
disorders, low-level mercury exposure, mineral deficiencies and food additives.

The article suggests an important new model for assessing
how these disparate factors in the food system may be interacting to create a
much bigger overall problem than typically is appreciated by looking at these
diet factors individually. For example, overall mercury exposure, including
many sources aside from food, has been linked to an increased in rates of
special education services and autism. The study’s authors looked at data going
back to the mid-1980s provided by the State of California and found that cases
of diagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder in California peaked at the same time as
peak consumption years for high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the United

“Because many expensive behavior and learning disorders in
kids appear to be on the rise,” says Dr. Wallinga in our press release, “it’s
imperative that we take steps at many levels to eliminate unnecessary exposures
to mercury and other known brain toxins we still expose our children to. In the
real-world food and chemical environments we have created, children are exposed
to many different toxic chemicals through multiple avenues. The latest science
examines how these exposures and health effects interact. In these times of
escalating health costs, it’s critical that public policy steps track this new
systems thinking in updating our regulatory system for chemicals and food.”

In a peer-reviewed article published earlier this year in
Environmental Health, scientists found detectable mercury in commercial HFCS
samples collected by the FDA in 2005. Mercury cell chlor-alkali chemicals have
historically been used to manufacture a number of food ingredients including
color additives such as FD&C Yellow 5, FD&C Yellow 6 and HFCS. You can
read the full article in Behavioral and Brain Functions Journal here.

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Monsanto and Pioneer duke it out over biotech corn, farmers take the hit

Posted October 28, 2009

There is an old African saying “Whether elephants make love or war, the grass suffers.” The two elephants in the agricultural seed business are now making real war, although they have been wary of each other for years. Monsanto, a relatively recent entry into the business, has become the “dominant male” in the battle after moving to acquire a large number of formerly independent seed companies. Pioneer, content for years to be the premiere corn breeder in the world, has found itself suddenly defending its turf and trying to find ways to move into the new biotech ball game. The Des Moines Register recently covered this ongoing saga.

Monsanto has long been targeted as a corporate villain. From dioxin-laced Agent Orange for Vietnam to the industrial chemical, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), Monsanto was known as producer of persistent, deadly chemicals.  Lassotm, the alachlor-based pre-emergent grass herbicide with a long list of toxicity issues, was their first foray into agricultural chemicals.

Monsanto’s bottom line was being hurt by lawsuits and clean-up costs associated with dioxin and PCB pollution. Enter Roundup™ (glyphosate), launched in 1976. This is the chemical that made Monsanto the powerhouse it is today. Glyphosate is a broad spectrum nonspecific herbicide that has low acute toxicity and does not persist in the environment. It should be noted however that many questions remain regarding the long-term toxicity of glyphosate.

By 1982 they had the first genetically modified plant cells. Depending on definitions, humans have been genetically modifying crops for thousands of years. More correctly, these are termed transgenic crops, which involves inserting a gene that is not acquired by pollination. I have used genetically modified (GM) because it has become the standard term. Now plant life is patented, permitting GM companies to control technology, and prohibit use of seed from the GM crop.

In 1926, Henry A. Wallace and others founded the Hi-Bred Corn Company in Des Moines to develop and market the expanding hybrid seed corn business. Pioneer was added to the name in 1936. They moved into soybean seed operation in 1973, and soon became the leading corn and soybean seed producers. Pioneer gained the number the one corn seed sales spot in 1982 from its longtime rival, Garst. Pioneer, when I first came to the Leopold Center in 1988, was a family company: friendly, environmentally aware and benevolent. Its advances were based on classic plant genetics, not biotechnology. It was not to last.

Monsanto bought its way into the seed business by acquiring established companies including the number two seed corn producer, Garst. This predatory approach (Monsanto often paid more than market value for the seed companies) combined with its big breakthrough—developing genetically modified corn and soybeans resistant to glyphosate—gave them a huge market advantage. This initiated the trend to GM crops that is now dominant in the seed industry.

The predator habits of Monsanto long made Pioneer nervous. Patented Roundup Ready soybeans were first introduced by Monsanto in 1996. One year later, Pioneer had biotech corn and soybeans on the market, buying the technology from Monsanto. Pioneer Hi-Bred was purchased by DuPont (20 percent in 1997 and the remainder in 1999). Lawsuits began soon after.

By 2000, corn borer protection had been added by Monsanto (called YieldGardtm) and Pioneer had to enter into agreements to use the Monsanto technology in its corn. Pioneer paid big bucks to use the Roundup Ready and YieldGard traits. Now Monsanto is suing Pioneer over infringement of these patent rights and Pioneer is moving ahead with a new set of seed traits called Optimum GAT. Monsanto saw red, and has countersued. Monsanto also became very unhappy when Pioneer recently co-sponsored an anti-Monsanto seminar in St. Louis, the home of Monsanto. The issues are complex, and involve “stacking” of seed traits. This means that genetic characteristics for two or more traits are included in a single seed. Often these stacked seeds have not had full evaluation regarding their safety and efficacy. In the meantime, Pioneer slipped to No. 2 in seed sales.

Monsanto now licenses these traits to about 200 seed companies. Their powerful monopoly has blocked competition. They will not even allow experimenters to evaluate the seed corn for efficacy in other environments.

During this time, the price of seed corn and Rounduptm escalated rapidly. But now Monsanto is starting to lose money on its Roundup herbicide, mainly because it is off patent and others are now undercutting Monsanto on price. Furthermore, the pent up demand for glyphosate in South America had raised prices earlier, but this market now is being met.

So what does all this mean? I first encountered Monsanto in the early 1970s when at a regional research meeting in St Louis they invited the committee to tour their operations. At that time they were just getting into biotech and no one really saw its potential to make money.Then, about the time I was getting the Leopold Center programs underway, Roundup Ready soy field trials were under way on a site east of Ames. I had a tough decision to make on funding for field work that might involve GM materials, and decided we would not fund such work, but it soon became hard to delineate the lines between GM and non-GM. When Pioneer went over to Roundup Ready, and then both companies began stacking genes, I knew the game was lost. 

Genetically modified corn and soybeans dominate, especially in countries with high input agriculture. Claims that GM crops will “Feed the World” abound, especially around the time of the World Food Price presentations earlier this month. Other claims include the lowering of pesticide use and lessening of soil erosion. 

Monsanto now bills itself as a Sustainable Agriculture company! 

These are issues deserving of future blogs. I worry about how the world’s farmers are being shortchanged in the quest for improved and adapted seed varieties at reasonable costs. Now they cannot save seed for fear of the Monsanto cops taking them to court and ruining their lives. The seed industry is no longer competitive because about 90 percent of it is in the hands of two companies and the cost of seed is out of reach of small farmers. I worry about how the food system is now dependent on genetically engineered corn, soybean, cottonseed, canola and sugar beets (recently taken back off of the market). GM wheat, rice and other staple crops could follow as pressure continues to adopt these crops. The industry essentially says "We build it, you will use it."

We need to be smarter about these crops, question each claim and insist the government enforce antitrust laws. We should  resist the claims that they will solve the food shortage in countries where their use will do more harm than good. Specifically, this means the next food frontier, Africa, must not become a new “Green Revolution” based on the failed western world high technology model, rooted in GM crops.

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Boo! A scary surprise in Halloween face paints

Posted October 27, 2009

PrettyScary_covernsJust in time for the horrors of Halloween, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics released a new report on the presence of heavy metals in face paints (Pretty Scary: Could Halloween Face Paint Cause Lifelong Health Problems?) today.

Researchers found that of the 10 face paints tested, all contained detectable levels of lead (from .05 to .65 parts per million [ppm]) and six of 10 contained nickel, chromium and/or cobalt (in the range of 1.6 to 120 ppm), which can be potent allergens.

The Centers for Disease Control, and that thing called “common sense,” recommends that children not use cosmetics that could be contaminated with lead. And as for the other heavy metals found in these face paints? Well, they can trigger allergenic reactions like skin rashes. In fact, according to the report, even industry-funded studies have recommended that the levels of nickel, chromium and cobalt should be minimized to the lowest possible levels in cosmetics.

What’s worse is that some face paints are mislabeled and draw in parents with claims of being “hypo-allergenic” and “non-toxic.” That’s the case for Snazaroo Face Paint, whose product was found to contain .56 ppm of lead and levels of 5.5 ppm for nickel and cobalt.

As you must already suspect, this puts parents in a tricky position when they pick out costumes for their children at Halloween. Reading product labels doesn’t provide information on which heavy metals are in different face paints due to loopholes in labeling requirements and which do not require companies to disclose contaminants.

Given the non-disclosure, and since all of the face paints tested contained lead, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics recommends that parents avoid using face paints on children until safety standards are put in place. Parents can consider choosing costumes that do not use face paint or masks (which can also contain toxic chemicals and impair vision and breathing) or they can try making their own face-paint with food-grade ingredients. The Campaign’s Web site includes a whole host of recipes for do-it-yourself face paints (and other products).

What can you do?

1. When you can, buy safer products. Hundreds of cosmetics companies have pledged to make safer products and has tips and resources to help you get started.

2. Help pass smarter, health-protective laws. Sign the petition to Congress at

Healthy Legacy is a Minnesota-based public health coalition that was co-founded by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and is working to phase toxic chemicals out of everyday products.

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Asian farmers' short video about climate change

Posted October 23, 2009

Two weeks ago, I took part in a meeting convened by the Asian Farmers Association (AFA) in Bangkok for its member organizations about climate change and agriculture.

As a result of the meeting, the AFA has developed a "call for gender-sensitive and capacity building for women on climate change."

More striking, they have developed a short and targeted video:

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The Power of Food Reserves: Volume 4

Posted October 23, 2009

One of the political challenges in talking about food reserves, at both the national and international level, is that they are too often dismissed as a tool that has failed. Of course, food reserves have seen success and failure. And because many reserves have been mismanaged, agriculture economist Dr. Daryll Ray reminds us, "We need to delineate between the concept of the reserve and the way it's administered."

Roger Johnson, President of the National Farmers Union, addressed this political obstacle at a meeting we organized with ActionAid on food reserves last week. "At this point in history, we've entered an era that government is looked upon as the problem, not the solution. And that the private sector should be in charge of everything, including food aid."

"There is this sentiment that reserves are an old idea," said Johnson. "Nobody wants to talk about an old idea. The other side will say, 'we tried that, it didn’t work.'" But he believes that there is a new political opportunity to gain wider support for reserves, and that could involve emphasizing the benefits for consumers and the disadvantaged of the world.  

"Reserves accomplish a lot of the same things whether you are a farmer or consumer," said Johnson. "The predictability in pricing is a good thing for both. It is essential for lesser developed countries. If they are going to become more developed, the most common way to grow is through agriculture."

Larry Mitchell, former CEO of the American Corn Growers Association, emphasized the national security implications of not having a food reserve. "Our current reserve is in the hands of multinational corporations," said Mitchell. "We are one short crop away from being at the mercy of their benevolence. We need a public option for food."

"This is pretty scary to me," said Mitchell. "When we went to war in March 2003, we had less than a day’s worth of corn and soybeans. The impacts of a reserve are well-past hunger. It is also an issue of national security. I know why we are at war in the middle east. I don’t know who we’ll be going to war with when we need food."

Mitchell compared the deregulatory effects of the 1996 Farm Bill on agriculture to the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 on the banking industry. He emphasized the need to return to sound food management through a food reserve. A new reserve system could include more than just traditional grain and would benefit both the livestock industry and the emerging bioeconomy.

"Most farmers I know are willing to give up $7 corn if they can get a consistent and guaranteed $4, and a proper food reserve can help us accomplish that," said Mitchell.

Victor Suarez, IATP board member and director of the National Association of Rural Commercialization Enterprises in Mexico, highlighted the urgent need for government intervention in agricultural markets, not only to address the food crisis, but also as a counterweight to big agribusiness companies.

"When we start talking about strategic food reserves what we’re really talking about is state intervention into the market," said Suarez. "Markets are not self-regulating, particularly with regards to food. There’s always been a need for organized societies to prevent risks. In Mexico, when food prices rise, the free market logic is that people simply stop eating. One thing we have learned is that organized small farmers cannot confront alone organized monopolies. It is in no way a free market."

Instead, Suarez stressed the need for people and governments to work together to address the breakdown in the global food system—because we all are affected.

You can find video interviews, powerpoint presentations and more blog postings from our meeting on global food reserves at our web site.

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