Think Forward blog

Why Agriculture and the Climate Bill don't Mix

Posted September 25, 2009

It seems everyone is in a tizzy over agriculture and the climate change bill. Environmentalists are mad about concessions given to farm-state legislators to get the bill—known as "Waxman-Markey," after its two principal sponsors—through the House last July. The industrial farm lobby is mad about the climate bill generally, worried it will raise energy costs. And farmers are unsure how, if at all, they will benefit from the offset credits they could receive, and what they would need to do to get them.

It is high time we took steps as a nation to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Tackling climate change is perhaps one of the most important and difficult challenges we have faced as a society; but including agriculture in the Waxman-Markey bill is bad for farmers, eaters and the planet.

For the bulk of human history, we’ve grown food, fiber and energy without reconfiguring the atmosphere, but the industrial revolution made the bulk of agriculture highly dependent on fossil fuels. Today in the U.S., agriculture accounts for about 13 percent of our nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and it also contributes heavily to soil erosion, water contamination and the loss of biodiversity—but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Waxman-Markey has recognized agriculture’s enormous potential to not only mitigate the ills it has caused, but to also act as a carbon sink. This is the basis for the bill’s carbon offsets program for agriculture, where farmers would receive government credits for doing things like tilling their soil less and planting trees on cropland. Polluting industries and investors could buy these credits, in theory helping fund these on-farm carbon-sequestering activities.

This program is troubling for several reasons. Technically, carbon offset projects are notoriously difficult to measure and verify—making the incentive for change subject to the whims of a speculative market dominated by Wall Street banks. And making it awfully difficult to ensure that offsets will be a long-term, reliable solution to climate change. Falling carbon offset prices would be poor incentives for farmers to switch to climate-friendly agriculture practices. It is hard to envision this having much of a positive impact—for farmers or the planet.

Agriculture is among our greatest achievements and one of our most precious resources. It gives us season after season of food and fiber. Done right, it builds healthy soils, helps purify our drinking water, provides wildlife habitat, and yes, even helps mitigate climate change. With support, agriculture creates livelihoods for farmers, helps preserve the culture and knowledge of food production, and promotes an ethic of land stewardship and preservation. And let’s be clear, good farming has been the basis for a sustainable planet for centuries. Agriculture should in no way be given a free pass when it comes to climate change mitigation, but it is not the source of the climate change problem.

Making Waxman-Markey a primary vehicle for debating agricultural sustainability schemes distracts from making real progress toward more climate-friendly, sustainable agriculture, and takes away much needed resources.

We should not aim to define agriculture’s role in our society through a climate bill. Instead, we should begin a separate, equally urgent process to decide how best to promote agricultural systems that provide us with the kind of farms, rivers, livelihoods, and climate we value as a society. The USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays farmers for sustainable practices on working, productive lands, provides one good place to start such conversations. Expanding such programs should be a clear priority for policymakers and the public, but ultimately, agriculture policy will have to reach much further, to a vision and scale that match the historic challenges we face.

Let’s push forward with strong climate policies, but let’s not use agriculture to circumvent the source of the problem. Our food system is too precious. We already know that agriculture can benefit us all; let’s find a way to make certain that it does.

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G-20 must boost social investment

Posted September 24, 2009

At the top of the agenda for the upcoming G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh on the global economic crisis should be a commitment toward greater investment in social programs, according to Social Watch—a global network of civil society organizations.

Every year, Social Watch publishes a report evaluating the progress of over 60 countries in areas of poverty, inequality and human rights. IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch co-authored the U.S. chapter of the 2009 Social Watch report. The U.S. chapter looked at the crisis in housing, job losses, escalating domestic hunger and international engagement. It concluded that in the U.S., “blind loyalty to the `free’ market as the best arbiter of social, environmental and economic matters has created a `perfect storm’ of failing institutions, weak democratic infrastructure, and a safety net woefully inadequate to the scope of human suffering and displacement.”
  
The country reports found that developing countries are experiencing the brunt of the effects of the financial crisis, which further threatens their fragile economies and cuts off vital sources of foreign aid. The exclusion of these countries from forums such as the G-20 creates a further obstacle to implementing socially just policies. 

“The U.S. needs to lead not only in committing to global aid, but also in reforming how that aid is given," said Spieldoch in a press release on the report. "Aid must empower countries to produce their own food and better deal with the global economic crisis themselves. U.S. support for international human rights and the participation of all countries in developing a coordinated response to the economic crisis is essential.”
 
You can read the full report at socialwatch.org.

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New database exposes the pervasiveness of toxins in our daily lives

Posted September 22, 2009

It seems like everyday when I turn on the news there’s a story about another product recall or unsafe chemical in consumer products. When I hear these stories, I can’t help but wonder how widespread the problem of toxic chemicals really is.

Last week, I got a partial answer to that question as Healthy Legacy, a public health coalition in Minnesota of which IATP is a founding member, co-released a new consumer product database, HealthyStuff.org, with a Michigan-based group, the Ecology Center.

The new database contains testing results for over 5,000 products from many different categories, including: pet products, women’s handbags, back-to-school supplies, children’s toys and the latest on cars and children’s car seats. We use so many different products in our day-to-day lives and the testing results from HealthyStuff.org show just how pervasive toxic chemicals are in those products. Healthy Legacy’s Co-Director, Kathleen Schuler, was on KSTC (channel 45 in Minneapolis) to discuss the testing results. Take a look!

Alarming numbers:

Cars:
Nearly 700 new and used vehicles were tested—the database shows the best and worst picks in every vehicle class. The average American spends more than 1.5 hours in their car every day, so it is disconcerting to know that the levels of some chemicals found in vehicles are 5–10 times higher than in the home or office.

Pet products:
Pets are also members of our families and so the researchers at HealthyStuff.org decided to test the products meant for them as well. They tested over 400 products like beds, toys, collars and leashes and found that 45 percent of the pet products contained at least one (or more) chemical of concern. Nearly half of the pet collars tested contained detectable levels of lead, and 27 percent contained levels so high they exceeded the limit set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission for children’s products (300 parts per million).

Back-to-school supplies:
Over two-thirds of the 60 common school supplies that were tested contained one or more chemical of concern, including 56 percent being made from PVC, the poison plastic.

Handbags:
Researchers tested more than 100 plastic women's handbags and found lead in 75 percent of the bags analyzed. Sixty-four percent of the bags contained levels of lead over 300 ppm, and over half contained more than 1,000 ppm of lead.

What’s the solution?

Healthy Legacy is pushing for comprehensive chemical policy reform and is part of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign. The campaign is working to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), our country's outdated legislation meant to regulate chemicals.

The reform platform would place the burden on chemical manufacturers (not product manufacturers or retailers) to test chemicals for their effects and develop hazard information. The platform would phase out chemicals we know are toxic and it would promote the development and use of safer alternatives.

The HealthyStuff.org database will help us find safer alternatives to the chemical-laden products that populate our lives, but most of us aren’t able to do an exhaustive research project before heading out to the store. That’s why we need a comprehensive reform of laws that regulate chemicals in this country. We should all do what we can to make our lives safer on a daily basis, but we should also expect our government to use its resources to prevent harm before it happens!

To find out more about the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign, go visit http://www.saferchemicals.org/.

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Why Danish farmers stopped feeding antibiotics to their animals

Posted September 21, 2009

A war of words has erupted between the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and some leading advocates for reducing unnecessary antibiotics in animal feed, like Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Production.

The best public estimates currently say that 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to healthy animals, to help them grow faster on less animal feed, and to compensate for the fact that animals  are typically raised under stressful, closely confined conditions that tend to increase their likelihood of getting sick. 

So it's particularly timely to read a new report from the chief government veterinarians in Denmark, where more than 10 years ago—and at the behest of that country's meat producers—they stopped feeding human antibiotics to animals to make them grow faster.

Why is Denmark so important when it comes to antibiotics and animals? Well, it's a leading meat producer and the largest exporter of pork in the world.

So, what happened? More than a decade ago, Danish meat producers looked hard at their own use of antibiotics and realized that not only could it undermine public health, but that their markets for exporting meat products were at risk as well. Specifically, Danish veterinary experts had been warning that continuing the use of these antibiotics could compromise their future effectiveness for treating serious infections in both humans and animals, since they seemed to be helping to create more antibiotic resistant bacteria.

From 1998 to 1999, Danish producers stopped using antibiotics to promote animal growth, first in chickens, then in hogs. Eventually, their entire agricultural use of antibiotics dropped by over half. Among several different kinds of bacteria found in farm animals and on food, drug resistance declined in a major way. This represents a huge improvement to public health.

Other benefits outlined by the report:

  • No worsening in the health of animals. Sick animals get treated with antibiotics, same as always. Healthy animals just don’t get antibiotics in their feed.
  • Productivity of Danish agriculture continues to improve—just with a lot fewer antibiotics.
  • No change in the price of meat for consumers.

Getting rid of routine antibiotics added to animal feed in the U.S. would seem to be the kind of public health win-win that everyone could get behind. Not the AVMA, for some reason. Could it be that the largest producers of animal antibiotics, like Bayer and Pfizer, are major supporters?

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Spuds anyone?

Posted September 17, 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.

In the last posting on Late Blight in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast this season, I failed to mention its potential effects on this year's potato crop. In monitoring our potato fields we found that Late Blight had arrived on our potatoes. In late July I decided to mow all of our potatoes in order to kill any living tissue matter that the late blight fungus could attack and cause a potential crop failure. Since then we've started digging our potatoes. The results have been mixed with more success in the last few diggings than the earlier attempts.

In the spirit of fall and the tremendous varieties of potatoes I beg to ask: Do you recall the original Mr. Potato Head?

My grandfather tells me that back when it was introduced in 1952, the head wasn’t plastic. The toy consisted of plastic features that children stuck into a real potato which their parents provided. Different potato sizes and shapes increased the fun!

No other crop produces more energy per acre. Hardy and adaptable, potatoes grow from sea level to 14,000 ft in the chilly Andes, and produce food in a wider range of soil and climatic conditions than any other staple crop. The average American eats 120 pounds of potatoes a year. That is almost 365 potatoes per person—a spud a day! There are only 100 calories in an 8-ounce baked potato. Potatoes are only 20 percent solids and 80 percent water! Potatoes are fat free, contain vitamin C, are rich in potassium and are an excellent source of fiber. Potatoes shouldn’t be stored in a refrigerator, but kept dark and dry with good ventilation: ideally between 45 and 50 degrees.

Although last year was the United Nations International Year of the Potato it isn’t too late to go out and celebrate—vodka anyone?

Fact for the future: China and India harvest one third of all potatoes in the world, and developing countries are climbing in potato production while developed countries are on the decline. See the World Potato Production Chart for more information.  

For the time being I think we’ll just worry about our single acre of production. Even after a battle with the infamous Colorado Potato Beetle and the newly arrived Late Blight fungus, we are finding an above average potato year. And with 650 pounds of seed potatoes in the ground we hope to get over 5,000 pounds in return!

To the potato!

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Close Encounters of the Mashed Potato Kind

Posted September 15, 2009

In one of two new videos released last week, a boy named Dreyfus builds a mash potato mountain at the school lunch table. This spoof of Close Encounters of the Third Kind has Dreyfus telling his classmates, "What we eat. It means something." Suddenly, his mountain of unappetizing mashed potatoes transforms into healthy food and the kids celebrate.

8-logo_onetray The second video is a Mastercard spoof focusing on the "priceless" value of healthy school lunches. The videos, by IATP Food and Society Fellows Shalini Kantayya, Nicole Betancourt and Debra Eschmeyer, are helping to launch the One Tray, One Nation campaign, pushing for a new school food system that supports healthy children, local farms and smart schools.

The Child Nutrition Act, which expires on September 30, determines what more than 30 million children eat at school. The One Tray, One Nation campaign is advocating for  $250 million over 5 years, with $50 million mandatory, to support local foods, farm to school and school garden grants to schools; the establishment of a farm to institution initiative within the Secretary of Agriculture’s Office; and increased funding for improving and evaluating school food procurement. The Farm to School Network gives you the details.

Check out the great videos, and take action with One Tray, One Nation to support healthier school lunches for all.

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Food, water and filmmaking: this month's Radio Sustain

Posted September 14, 2009

In the newest IATP Radio Sustain podcast, we sit down with Brother David Andrews to discuss the fundamental human right to food and water and how this right is being established internationally. Next, we talk with Wayne Rogers of the Toronto Food Policy Council about what a food policy council is, and why every city could use one. Lastly, Filmmaker Ana Joanes discusses her new documentary FRESH and the optimism she found after exploring the farms, businesses and people that are changing—and improving— the American food system.

Listen to the entire episode here (mp3).

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Climate equity: Ensuring a just response to climate change

Posted September 11, 2009

Ceciliashalini The facts shared at last night's IATP event, "Climate Equity: Ensuring a Just Response to Climate Change," were at many points staggering—at others, supremely encouraging. Dr. Cecilia Martinez and Fellow-in-Residence Shalini Gupta, from IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy (CEED) hosted an event to discuss the inequity that exists within our highly inefficient energy infrastructure. As Dr. Matinez pointed out, our current energy system is often built on the backs of whole sets of populations, while those consuming the energy, and creating energy policy, see little consequence.

Both internationally and within the U.S., the inequity between those that produce carbon and those that pay for its impacts, is real and widening. Dr. Cecilia Martinez credits this gap, among other things, to a highly inefficient infrastructure built on outdated, short-sighted and sometimes discriminatory ideals. She cited Robert Moses, the twentieth century urban planning giant responsible for much of New York City's current suburb-oriented design. Moses's tendency to favor highways over public transit did more than influence urban planners around the country—it separated communities from the inner city (often low-income) from those who could afford cars and to live in the suburbs. This energy-intensive transportation system still exists today and as Dr. Martinez pointed out: if modern policies are to succeed and ensure justice, they will need both physical goals (reducing carbon emissions, etc.) as well as social and political goals (improving a broken community infrastructure and ensuing equal access to energy).

Shalini Gupta addressed the international issues surrounding climate change, including past and present proposals for cutting emissions. Who has rights to the atmosphere? Currently, in the U.S., we produce about 20 tons per capita annually of carbon emissions. India, on the other hand, a mere 2 tons per capita, annually. Gupta said, if the world was truly to be equal, carbon emissions would need to reduce to 3.3 tons per capita globally—quite a far off goal when you consider the currently proposed goals; the most aggressive of which comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which proposes reducing carbon emissions by 40 percent from the 1990 levels. Such a reduction would still only put the U.S. at around (conservatively) 11 tons of carbon emissions per capital annually.

Among the daunting figures and historical injustices discussed at last night's event, a thread of "Where do we go from here?" connected the problems with solutions. Efforts like Sustainable Energy Utilities (detailed in this article coauthored by Dr. Martinez) and the determination to push for diversified, small-scale energy solutions, can and will serve to not only reduce our dependence on a commodified, highly inefficient energy infrastructure, but will provide equity for those who have long been denied equal access to energy and energy independence. As Dr. Martinez put it last night, energy must be viewed not as a commodity, but as a commons.

Learn more about SEUs on CEED's SEU Web page. The concept for an SEU was developed by the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy (CEEP).

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Industry standards vs. public welfare in produce food safety policy

Posted September 10, 2009

A new report, issued today by IATP and Food & Water Watch titled “Bridging the GAPs: Strategies to Improve Produce Safety, Preserve Farm Diversity and Strengthen Local Food Systems,” explains why the current (non) food safety system for produce growers needs to change, and offers several ideas on how to improve safety and balance the playing field for small, diversified and organic farms.

Currently, a patchwork of public and private protocols are being used ostensibly to ensure food safety on produce farms, including the federal Good Agriculture Practices (GAPs), the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), private industry “super metrics,” and international food safety protocols. In the absence of federal regulations governing on-farm food safety, private industry third party auditors are quickly becoming the standard—not only for companies, but also for larger institutional buyers like hospitals or schools.

But these private industry protocols are geared almost exclusively towards large-scale, single crop operations. For small and diversified farms, the industry requirements effectively close them out of the market. Audit requirements differ greatly among buyers, most require extensive documentation, testing and other added costs; and many requirements conflict with those of environmental programs supported by state and federal agencies.

“Most produce-related food-borne illnesses have been traced to processors, not to the farm,” said IATP's Marie Kulick in today's press release. “For farmers, it’s important to have transparent, inclusive standards that reflect the diversity of U.S. farm operations. A nationally supported produce safety program can benefit everyone—more farms participating, safer food for consumers.”

View the full report here and get more information at IATP.org and foodandwaterwatch.org.

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Family farm, ag groups push to restrict overuse of antibiotics for animals

Posted September 9, 2009

Numerous agriculure and family farm organizations have issued a letter to President Barack Obama and Senate leaders urging support for the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) S. 619, in an effort to reduce the widespread overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture.

More than 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are added to animal feed to promote growth and manage stresses of animals in confinement housing. While PAMTA would still allow farmers to treat sick animals with antibiotics, it would withdraw the approval of seven specific classes of medically important antibiotics for nontherapeutic feed additive use. Under the bill, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would review each antibiotic to determine if there is a reasonable certainty of no harm to public health.

According to the letter: "In supporting a restriction on nontherapeutic use of antibiotics, the FDA is joining a broad consensus of physicians, scientists and other governments that have taken the same position. The American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science have all called for restrictions on the use of antibiotics for nontherapeutic purposes in food animals. And in 2006, on recommendation from the WHO, the European Union banned nontherapeutic antibiotic use in food animals."

IATP President Jim Harkness said in our press release, "The FDA believes we should act. We have thousands of farmers around the country who are already raising livestock without antibiotics. Now, it’s time for Congress to act.”

For more on how the overuse of antibiotics in raising food animals effects public health, check out the Keep Antibiotics Working Web site.

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